The subtleties

I recently opined that good learning design was complex, really perhaps close to rocket science.  And I suggested that a consequent problem was that the nuances are subtle.  It occurs to me that perhaps discussing some example problems will help make this point more clear.

Without being exhaustive, there are several consistent problems I see in the elearning content I review:

  • The wrong focus. Seriously, the outcomes for the class aren’t meaningful!  They are about information or knowledge, not skill.  Which leads to no meaningful change in behavior, and more importantly, in outcomes!  I don’t want to learn about X, I want to learn how to do X!
  • Lack of motivating introductions.  People are expected to give a hoot about this information, but no one helps them understand why it’s important?  Learners should be assisted to viscerally ‘get’ why this is important, and helped to see how it connects to the rest of the world.  Instead we get some boring drone about how this is really important.  Connect it to the world and let me see the context!
  • Information focused or arbitrary content presentations. To get the type of flexible problem-solving organizations need, people need mental models about why and how to do it this way, not just the rote steps.  Yet too often I see arbitrary lists of information accompanied by a rote knowledge test.  As if that’s gonna stick.
  • A lack of examples, or trivial ones.  Examples need to show a context, the barriers, and how the content model provides guidance about how to succeed (and when it won’t).  Instead we get fluffy stories that don’t connect to the model and show the application to the context.  Which means it’s not going to support transfer (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re not ready to be doing design!
  • Meaningless and insufficient practice.  Instead of asking learners to make decisions like they will be making in the workplace (and this is my hint for the first thing to focus on fixing), we ask rote knowledge questions. Which isn’t going to make a bit of difference.
  • Nonsensical alternatives to the right answer.  I regularly ask of audiences “how many of you have ever taken a quiz where the alternatives to the right answer are so silly or dumb that you didn’t need to know anything to pass?”  And everyone raises their hand.  What possible benefit does that have?  It insults the learner’s intelligence, it wastes their time, and it has no impact on learning.
  • Undistinguished feedback. Even if you do have an alternative that’s aligned with a misconception, it seems like there’s an industry-wide conspiracy to ensure that there’s only one response for all the wrong answers. If you’ve discriminated meaningful differences to the right answer based upon how they go wrong, you should be addressing them individually.

The list goes on.  Further, any one of these can severely impact the learning outcomes, and I typically see all of these!

These are really  just the flip side of the elements of good design I’ve touted in previous posts (such as this series). I mean, when I look at most elearning content, it’s like the authors have no idea how we really learn, how our brains work.  Would you design a tire for a car without knowing how one works?  Would you design a cover for a computer without knowing what it looks like?  Yet it appears that’s what we’re doing in most elearning. And it’s time to put a stop to it.  As a first step, have a look at the Serious eLearning Manifesto, specifically the 22 design principles.

Let me be clear, this is just the surface.  Again, learning engineering is complex stuff.  We’ve hardly touched on engagement, spacing, and more.   This may seem like a lot, but this is really the boiled-down version!  If it’s too much, you’re in the wrong job.

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