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The Grail of Effective and Engaging Learning Experiences

There’s a considerable gap between what we can be doing, and what we are doing.  When you look at what’s out there, we see that there are several way in which we fall short of the mark.  While there are many dimensions that could be considered, for the sake of simplicity let’s characterize the two important ones as effectiveness of our learning and the engagement of the experience.  And I want to characterize where we are and where we could be, and the gaps we need to bridge.

GrailEffectiveEngagingLearningIf we map the space, we see that the lower left is the space of low engagement and low effectiveness.  Too much elearning resides there.  Now, to be fair, it’s easy to add engaging media and production values, so the space of typical elearning does span from low to high engagement. Moving up the diagram, however, towards increasing effectiveness, is an area that’s less populated.  The red line separates the undesirable areas from the space we’d like to start hitting, where we begin to have some modicum of both effectiveness and engagement, moving towards the upper right.  This space is relatively sparsely populated, I’m afraid.  And while there are instances of content that do increase the effectiveness, there’s little that really hits the ultimate goal, the holy grail, with a fully integrated effective and engaging experience is achieved.

How do we move in the right direction? I’ve talked before about trying to hit the sweet spot of maximal effectiveness within pragmatic constraints.  Certainly from an effectiveness standpoint, you should be looking at the components of the Serious eLearning Manifesto.  To get effective learning, you need a number of elements, for instance:

  • meaningful practice: practice aligned with the real world task
  • contextualized practice: learning across contexts that support transfer
  • sustained practice: sufficient and increasingly challenging practice to develop the skills to the necessary level
  • spaced practice: practice spread out over time (brains need sleep to learn more than a certain threshold)
  • real world consequences providing feedback coupled with scaffolded reflection
  • model-based guidance: the best guide for practice is a conceptual basis (not rote information)
  • appropriate examples: that show the concepts being applied in context

Some of these elements, also contribute to engagement, as well as others.  Components include:

  • learning-centered contexts: problems learners recognize as important
  • learner-centered contexts: problems learners want to solve
  • emotionally engaging introductions: hooking learners in viscerally as well as cognitively
  • adapted challenge: ramping up the challenge appropriately to avoid both boredom and frustration
  • unpredictability: maintaining the learner’s attention through surprise
  • meaningfulness: learners playing roles they want to be in
  • drama and/or humor

The integration of these elements was the underlying premise behind Engaging Learning, my book on integrating effectiveness and engagement, specifically on making meaningful practice, e.g. serious games.  Serious games are one way to achieve this end, by contextualizing practice as decisions in a meaningful environment and using a game engine to adapt the challenge and providing essentially unlimited practice.

Other approaches achieve much of this effectiveness in different ways. Branching scenarios are powerful approximations to this by showing consequences in context but with limited replay, and so are constructivist and problem-based learning pedagogies. This may sound daunting, but with practice, and some shortcuts, this is doable.

For example, Socratic Arts has a powerful online pedagogy that leverages media and a constructivist pedagogy in a relatively simple framework. The learner is given ‘assignments’ that mirror real world tasks, via emails or videos of characters playing roles such as a boss.  The outputs required similarly mimic work products you might find in this area. Scaffolding is available in a couple of ways. For one, there are guidelines about Videos of experts and documents are available as resources, to support the learner in getting the best outcome.  While it’s low on fancy visual design, it’s effective because it’s closely aligned to the needed skills post-learning.  And the cognitive challenge is pitched at the right level to engage the intellect, if not the aesthetics.  This is a cost-effective balance.

The work I did with the Wadhwani Foundation hit a slightly different spot in trying to get to the grail.  I didn’t have the ability to work quite as tightly with the SMEs from the get-go, and we didn’t have the ability to simulate the hands-on tasks as well as we’d like,  but we did our best to infer real tasks and used low-tech simulations and scenarios to make it effective.  We did use more media, animations and contextualized videos, to make the experience more engaging and effective as well.

The point being that we can start making learning more effective and engaging in practical ways. We need to make it effective, or why bother?  We should make it engaging, to optimize the outcomes and not insult our learners. And we can.  So why don’t we?

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