Recently, I was talking to a manager who let me know how much he hates the elearning courses he has to take at his company.
“As far as I’m concerned, the people who design these things are elearning fascists. It’s bad enough that the courses we take are pointless, but the navigation is also locked so we can’t click to advance until the course lets us. I hate that!”
“But, I have to lock the course.” says the instructional designer. “If I don’t, the learners will just click the next button and skip to the end. I want to force them to watch the videos and other content so that they get the information.”
No one likes wasting time and in the process being treated like a child. However, the organization commits a lot of its resources to the training and they want to make sure that people take the time to learn the information. They definitely don’t want the employees skipping through information that might be critical to the organization’s success.
So how do we make this a “win-win” for the learner and instructional designer?
Understand Your Learners
Sometimes we treat people liked they’re scanners. We think that since they SEE the information that by default an exact duplicate is scanned into their brains that they can reference anytime it’s needed. That might be the case for Bill Clinton, who’s rumored to have a photographic memory (except under deposition). But it’s not the case for the rest of us.
Suppose you’re teaching a class on how to make coffee. While the students are all exposed to the same information, they’re not necessarily focusing on the same things, let alone learning the same. One person might be thinking about ways to roast beans and another wishes he had a cup of coffee right now. Yet another person is following what you’re saying, but wonders if there’s another way to make coffee. And someone in the back starts crying because she thought you said “coffin” which reminded her of a recent funeral she attended.
So no matter how well you think you designed the course, each person looks at the content from a slightly different perspective, which creates different understanding. Courses need to be designed to accommodate the uniqueness of each learner. And that doesn’t happen by trying to control them.
Free Up the Navigation
It’s true that a lot of learners just start clicking on the next button until they can leave the course. So our gut reaction is to lock the navigation and force them to look at all of the content. But does this really make sense?
People aren’t scanners. Even if they did look at all of the content, it doesn’t mean they know it. Locking the navigation and exposing the learner to information doesn’t make it more understandable. In fact, it most likely gets the learner to focus on when the slide ends rather than what’s on the slide.
Frustrated learners don’t learn. Let’s say you want to learn how to add cells together in Excel. The first 20 minutes of the course is all about the interface, which you already understand. However, you notice in the menu that on slide 20 you can learn about “adding cells.”
So you click on slide 20 and get the message that you can’t access it without looking at all of the previous slides. Of course, you can’t click through them because some instructional designer thought you needed to learn about interfaces before you can learn to add cells. And to make matters worse the next button doesn’t appear until the narration is done. So you end up wasting 20 minutes before you can get the information you need. How do you feel about the course at that point?
People don’t learn the same things from the same content. The reason we value collaboration so much at work is that we understand that diversity of thought and varying perspectives help fill gaps and remove blind spots in our thinking. If we acknowledge that about problem solving at work, then we also need to acknowledge that when crafting elearning courses. Each person is unique and will approach the course from a unique perspective. That influences how they understand what you’re trying to teach them. Shouldn’t the learning experience accommodate the uniqueness of each learner?
Step Away from the Solution and Work on the Problem
Locking the navigation is a solution to stopping learners from clicking through the course. However, it doesn’t address why they’re clicking through it in the first place and not focusing on the content. Instead of locking the navigation, create a course that removes the reason to just click the next button.
Guide the learner through the course, rather than forcing the navigation. The player navigation is just a way to get from one piece of information to the other. That’s not instructional design. Instructional design is about guiding the learners through the course content so that they can learn.
Think of the course like a 400 page reference book that contains all of the information you need to do your job. Whenever, you have a question you go to the reference manual. How effective would it be if the reference manual’s page turning was locked and you always had to start at the first page rather than go to the information you need?
Give the learners the freedom to demonstrate their level of understanding. Now let’s apply that to elearning. Essentially, the course content is like the reference manual. The goal isn’t to get them to read all of the content. Instead, the goal is to get them to DO something. The content only supports the DOING.
Considering this, don’t design your course to navigate through content. Instead, create an environment where the learner has to demonstrate understanding of the content by doing something. By focusing on the desired action rather than the content, the learner’s better prepared to learn. The content is just a resource to help them gain understanding. When you lock access to the content, you’re actually hindering the learning process.
Make the content relevant to the learners. Instead of just dumping screen after screen of information, present a problem for them to solve. The problem solving requires them to demonstrate their level of understanding which is what you want to assess. If they don’t know how to solve the problem, they’ll look for a solution in the content you provide.
Most likely the course exists because the client wants something to be done a certain way. That means you build your courses around the behaviors or actions you expect from the learners. Thus, you assess them on those expected outcomes. Having the learners VIEW information is rarely an effective measure of a successful course. If it is, you’ll probably be out of a job soon.
If you focus on the desired outcome, that will allow you to unlock the navigat
ion. It also helps accommodate each learner who will come to the course with different levels of expertise and experiences. Some will go through the courses in a linear process. Some like to take a quick look through what the course covers and then go back. Even others, will look for things they don’t already know. How they access the information really isn’t that big of a deal because that’s not the objective of the course.
Your ability to measure their understanding will come from the problem solving that you build in the course. If they know the information, they’ll prove it through the problem you give them. If they don’t, you’ll know exactly what they’re missing and you can give them feedback specific to their real needs.
This approach creates courses that are relevant to the learners and you won’t have to worry about them clicking through the course just to get to the end. Even if they did click through the course, they wouldn’t be able to work through the case studies you give them unless they know the content, which forces them back to the information they don’t already know.
In either case, you have a win-win situation. You get people to go through the course successfully and have a way to truly assess the learner’s level of understanding. And the learner has the flexibility to access the information to really learn based on their unique perspective, experience, and current level of understanding.
How would you build a course that frees up the navigation for the learner and still meet your learning objectives. Share your ideas here.
Upcoming E-Learning Events
- November 1 & 2 (London). Two-day Articulate Roadshow. Learn all sorts of tips & tricks in this fun community-based workshop. SOLD OUT. Register here.
- November 4 (Dublin). Articulate E-Learning Workshop. Learn all sorts of tips & tricks in this fun community-based workshop. Limited seats for this event, so don't delay. Register here.
Free E-Learning Resources
Want to learn more? Check out these articles and free resources in the community.
Here’s a great job board for elearning, instructional design, and training jobs
Participate in the weekly elearning challenges to sharpen your skills
Lots of cool elearning examples to check out and find inspiration.