Years ago, I was enrolled in a course on video production. Each week we were given assignments to do. At the end of the week, the whole class would sit down and we’d review our projects.
One of the objectives was to have the other students share what they got out of the video before they knew what I intended to communicate. It was always eye opening to see how others perceived what I produced. Often what the audience got from the video was not what I had intended.
Through that process, I learned that it’s not enough to just put information together and assume that somehow the viewer would understand what I meant. Instead, it was my job to design my video in a way that allowed me to communicate my message to the viewer. The same principle holds true for elearning.
It All Starts with Understanding the Communication Process
Clear communication is critical when you design your elearning course because what you present isn’t always received by the learner the way you intend it. If your learners aren’t getting what you intend for them to get, then most likely you won’t meet your learning objectives.
Here’s a simple illustration of what happens as learners go through an elearning course.
The first image below represents a screen from an elearning course on auto maintenance.
The second image shows how three different learners process the information. Notice that while they all get the same information, they each perceive it in a different way.
There are a number of reasons why the learners perceive information in different ways. Some come into the course with various levels of experience and expertise. There can be cultural or environmental differences. It also depends on the learner’s level of commitment to the course.
While you cannot control all of the perception issues, there are ways that you can remedy some of the confusion. Much of it is based on understanding the communication process and how that impacts learning. To get started, let’s look at what happens when we communicate.
The image below represents a basic communication process.
- It all starts with a message. The message has to go from one person to the next.
- The first person (transmitter) encodes the message into a signal that can be transmitted and received by the second person (receiver).
- The message is transmitted.
- Once the message is received, it is decoded.
- Then the receiver responds to the message. This process repeats itself, back and forth.
To make it less technical, think of how we communicate in various languages. Suppose you have two people. One speaks German, the other Spanish. In order for them to communicate, they need to find a common language. A common language allows them to use words that they can communicate and understand (encoding and decoding).
How Does This Relate to the E-Learning Process?
Before we look at the elearning process, let’s see how this relates to traditional learning. In a classroom environment, you are actively communicating. That means the facilitator is continually giving and receiving information. This happens during conversation and by reading body language and other communication cues. Because of this you can assess the learner’s understanding and your ability to communicate the lesson and then make any adjustments on the fly.
The communication process is an open loop, where you are in a constant state of give and take.
The elearning process is a little different because you do not have a way to alter the course content to enable better communication of your content. It is a closed loop process. In an elearning environment you deliver content and the learner is dependent on processing it. Since the learner has no way to communicate with you, you do not know if the learner is “getting it.” Because of this, you have to build a way to assess the learner’s understanding and provide meaningful feedback.
From my experience, this is where many elearning courses fall down. Typically, they are focused on content delivery and have limited opportunities to assess the learner’s understanding and provide the right type of feedback.
Looking at the communication process model above and applying it to elearning development, we see three opportunities.
- Determine how you will prepare the material so that the learner can make sense of it (encoding). In a figurative sense, you are “trying to speak” to the learner. The course needs to be in a “language that the learner speaks.” In the “healthy car” example above, an assessment could easily clear up the confusion. If the next screen had the learner simulate changing the engine oil, the first two learners would have altered their understanding.
- Determine what obstacles exist that might prevent proper understanding (decoding). The better you know the learner, the better your course can be designed. A large part of effective communication in elearning is through establishing context. Going back to the “healthy car” example, if the screen had an image of the engine rather than the car, most likely the initial perception would have been correct because you are building a context for the information with the visual cue.
- Determine the best ways to engage the learner (transmission). People learn best when the content is relevant to the learner. I see the transmission process as one of engagement. How are you engaging the learners and creating a conduit for them to receive the information? The course needs to be motivating, effective, and interesting. A lot of this comes as a result of it being relevant. Relevance is one of the best motivators.
Effective communication is important for success. The more active you are in considering the communication challenges in your course, the better you can design the learning experience. In the following posts, we’ll look at how to create effective courses.
I’m interested in hearing of some of the communication challenges you’ve had and what you’ve done to overcome them.
Upcoming E-Learning Workshops & Events (2015)
- September 23 & 24 (Vancouver). Community-based elearning workshops focused on practical tips & tricks. You can register for one day or two days. To learn more & register, click here.
- September 29 (Las Vegas). Want to learn to get the right look and feel for your courses? Join David Anderson and me for a fun and active hands-on workshop. This topic is by far one of the most popular of the ones we've covered in any of our workshops in the past.
- September 30 (Las Vegas). Going to Devlearn? Swing by the Articulate booth and say hello.
- October 28 & 29 (Philadelphia). Community-based elearning workshops focused on practical tips & tricks. You can register for one day or two days. To learn more and register, click here.
- November: Just added! I'll be in London, Dublin, Berlin, Paris, Belgium, and Utrecht. Details coming soon.
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.