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“Why can’t we just take an existing product, and put a clock in it or something?”

Create engaging elearning with honesty
One of my favourite Simpsons episodes has a moment where Homer offers the quote above as his response, when confronted with a complex blueprint for a revolutionary new product that he just can’t get his head around.

What’s this got to do with e-learning? Well, to me it comes to mind when you look at how some training providers propose games as a radical new solution to engage learners – and then come up with a bolt-on game-playing experience that combines racing cars, multiple choice questions and a third-rate set of character designs to teach learners about the Data Protection Act.

Now, this isn’t knocking games as a learning device. Properly targeted and carefully crafted, they can produce effective learning experiences ranging from simulations and skills-practice through to powerful prompts to reflection.

But I think that their popularity sometimes reflects a failure to engage with a much more fundamental, underlying issue in online learning – one of narrative credibility.

All too often, online training can suffer from the same kind of ‘narrative delusion’ that insular politicians do. ‘If we only explain what we’re proposing clearly enough, surely everyone sensible will then agree with us’ – whilst failing to genuinely acknowledge different perspectives; dissent; the fact that very serious challenges may exist and that many endeavours, initiatives and processes are – at least initially – unpopular (especially when change is involved).

Now, clearly learning providers have to present content in a positive way that helps organisations achieve their training aims. But often, when e-learning claims that it treats learners as adults/presents content from a ‘What’s In It For Me?’ perspective and acknowledges real-world complexity – it doesn’t , not really – and learners smell a rat right from the start, which undermines engagement (and whatever the narrative is) on a fundamental level. 

Similarly, if the content isn’t demonstrably useful, easy to navigate and oriented towards supporting performance rather than covering an arbitrary curriculum – people will often start looking at their watches and clicking Next.

And at that stage, all of the gimmicks in the world won’t be much use.

One answer? Radical honesty. This could present itself in any number of ways – open acknowledgement of past organisational failures; the pressures of tough targets; challenges to motivation; competitors’ strengths; or personal stress. Same basic content – different paradigm.

And then, having started off from a solid position – by telling a powerful truth to learners that resonates with the real world they live in – narratives (whether through case studies, scenarios, or – indeed – games) are in a much better place to succeed.

Here, ‘honest’ learning content can use the weight of (implicit) negative expectation to its advantage, subverting expectations and generating surprise, engagement and buy-in. ‘Oh, another corporate e-learning course – yawn…hey, wait – what did they just say?!? I think I’d better pay attention to this!’

Alternatively, you could just go with the racing cars… 

Instructional Designer D Whiston

Many thanks to guest blogger, Daniel Whiston, Award Winning Instructional Designer & Scriptwriter 

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