Did you know that Portland, Oregon has more than 30 breweries? That is the most breweries per capita in the US. Being from the Pacific Northwest, I’m kind of partial to craft beers. I might not like every beer that I taste, but I do enjoy the diversity in flavor.
The thing with beer is that there’s not a right or wrong beer. It would be foolish to argue that a stout is better than a pilsner. They’re different beers for different tastes and occasions. The same can be said for elearning. In fact, I like to use beer as a way to look at elearning courses. Let me explain.
The Many Levels of E-Learning
Often elearning courses are presented in a hierarchy. You may see them described as levels, where level one is information only and level five may be highly interactive. Or you’ll see elearning qualified by the tool used. For example, if the course is created in PowerPoint, then by default it’s low.
While there’s nothing wrong with creating a model like this to describe the different types of elearning, there are a few things I don’t like about it. First, because we assign a number to the levels it implies value without regard to purpose. We tend to view low level as less effective. Or as often is the case, we’ll deride an information-based course as a mere “page turner.”
In fact, at a recent conference an elearning vendor came by the Articulate booth looking to pawn off what she labeled level one courses. She told me that she couldn’t find anyone on her staff that was willing to do “those types of courses.” Apparently, times are good for them.
On the surface a highly interactive, branched scenario might appear to be a better elearning than a very simple linear course. But that may not be the case. It all depends on the purpose of the course.
Something else I see in these models is that PowerPoint authored courses are typically placed at a low level. They’re usually identified as information-only courses. However, by now we all know that’s not necessarily true. PowerPoint’s just a software application and content neutral. You can create either simple, information-only courses or much more sophisticated learning interactions. It just depends on your needs.
Build a Course to Meet Your Objectives
The ultimate goal for elearning is to build a course that meets your client’s needs and learning objectives and that can mean any type of course. Let’s place a flight simulator course at level five and a simple annual compliance review at level one. If I wanted to train pilots to fly the new Boeing 787, I sure wouldn’t want them going through a simple, information-only series of screens. With the people’s lives at stake, they need to be trained in the most sophisticated manner possible. In the same sense, building a complex simulation for a simple compliance course is also the wrong approach.
There’s a place for all types of courses and sometimes what we think of low level is actually the best course. That’s why it’s important to not to get too dogmatic about how a course is built and whether or not it’s interactive. That’s why I like to think of them less in terms of levels and more like beer.
On a hot day, after mowing the lawn, a cold pilsner is more satisfying than a heavier stout. But when I go out to have a beer, I typically prefer the richer flavors of a porter over something lighter. There’s no right or wrong beer where one is of higher value than the other. Beers are just different. So here’s my beer-based elearning meter:
- Is the objective to share information or change performance?
- What level of interactivity do you need in your course?
- What should the course look like?
You’re either viewing or doing. There are plenty of compliance and annual review type courses that are mostly informational. While we could argue that all all courses need to be performance-based, that’s not going to happen. Besides, the course is just one part of the learning process and sometimes all you need is information.
It’s kind of like a text book. Some you just read and reflect. But some are workbooks that provide exercises for you to practice what you’re learning. They all have their place in the learning process; just like elearning courses.
Not all courses require interactivity. While it may be shocking to hear, some people like a bullet point list and don’t want to go through an interactive scenario. On the other hand, one of the valuable elements of elearning is being able to create interactivity that is cost-effective and can be tailored to the learner’s needs.
Don’t bore your learners with bullet point screens, when they’d be better off working through a problem-solving scenario. In the same sense, don’t offer a complex scenario, when all they need is a few key points. Create the interactivity that is appropriate to your objectives.
We don’t want to underestimate the power of good visual design. Graphic design and visual communication are important parts of the learning process. That includes everything from the graphics, the user interface, and how the graphics contribute to the learning objectives.
With that said, there’s no reason to overbuild the graphics either. A first rule is to keep it simple and guide the learner’s attention. You’re better off with a simple line of text on a white screen if it helps the learner focus and understand what you’re trying to teach.
On the other hand, the visual design of your course plays an important role in what you’re communicating. People are drawn to good graphic design. Plus, good design implies value that tells the learner this is worth exploring. It can contribute to an immersive experience that draws
the learner in.
I like the beer model because it’s flexible and acknowledges that elearning courses have differences and some are richer than others. However, it also recognizes that the value of the course isn’t based on where it sits in the model but more on the objectives of the course. And that’s the key, you’re building an elearning course to meet specific objectives and you need to build the right course to do so.
Upcoming E-Learning Events
- May 22-24 (Atlanta). ATD International Conference & Expo. We'll be in booth 738. Swing by to chat.
- June 20-21 (San Diego). FocusOn Learning conference.
- Articulate Roadshows. Join us for one or two days of e-learning goodness. Day 1 focuses on more general type e-learning topics and Day 2 is centered on learning to build some nice, reusable interactions. Learn more and sign up using the links below. Seats are limited for the events. If you're interested in presenting at one of the roadshows, let me know.
- There are a couple of other events planned. Once we get all of the bookings confirmed, we'll add the registration page and info.
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.