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Andrew Jackson

Pacific Blue Solutions


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Bored to death by elearning? Part 1


In the first of two articles on elearning, Andrew Jackson explores the reasons developers often produce deathly-dull courses and why this causes many learners to loathe the medium.
If you've never had to take a piece of elearning, consider yourself fortunate. For those of you who have, you'll know what a deathly-dull experience it can sometimes be. So what's gone wrong? Does most elearning really have to be that dull? Is there anything we can do to fix the problem?

The roots of our current woes

First, a bit of history. In the pre-elearning days of the early nineties it was all about 'interactive multimedia'. It was all very arty. You could even do an MA in the subject at the Royal College of Art. It was like being an ultra-hip art student. Not only did you learn about all the then-cool technology, you finished your course with a show - just like a real art student.
Most students graduating from the course used Macromedia's Director (remember that?) to create their final piece. Using interactive multimedia for learning was very low on most graduates' agenda. Working in Director was (as the name suggests) a bit like creating a film. It was all about storyboarding, creating narratives and generally seeing who could come up with the most awesome audio or visual effects.
"If you've never had to take a piece of elearning, consider yourself fortunate. For those of you who have, you'll know what a deathly-dull experience it can sometimes be."
It should come as no surprise that this interactive multimedia world was full of some very posy people. Far more interested in art than learning; interested in creativity, above all else.

Moving on, moving up

Eventually, 'interactive multimedia' had some competition. The concept of 'interactive learning' gained some traction. There was even an annual conference to discuss it. Eventually, 'interactive multimedia' and 'interactive learning' faded away and in the world of learning, at least, elearning became the established and accepted concept.
Unfortunately, some of the arty people (and their baggage) remained. Some of the first elearning companies really thought they were like mini-Hollywood studios - with the big budgets and the big egos to match. Just like the Hollywood types they aspired to be, they were still creating storyboards, still telling stories and still paying a lot more attention to the 'e' in their products than the 'learning'.
This kind of elearning was largely the preserve of the big corporations. Most companies and organisations simply didn't have tens of thousands of pounds to blow on high-end, glitzy pieces of storytelling. Many in the world of learning and development were left scratching their heads wondering if this elearning thing would ever be relevant to them.

A new era dawns?

Inevitably, innovation blossomed, technology developed and a raft of (now familiar) authoring tools started to come on the market. They gradually got easier to use, had richer feature sets and started to be within the budgets of mere mortals.
It seemed like the dawn of a new era. Finally, elearning would be cheap and easy to create – available to the majority of learning and development departments – who could involve a wide range of employees to develop course content.
But one thing didn't change. The cinematic, linear thinking of those wannabe Hollywood types had become so deeply ingrained that it found its way into these new tools. Most used (and still use) a screen or storyboard metaphor.
To make matters worse, by allowing import of existing PowerPoint slides, many tools encouraged developers to use this as the starting point for their elearning development. In this view of the world, elearning is always highly content-centric - all about a linear sequence of information screens. Learners find themselves trapped in a world of 'read, click; read, click; read, click' until they reach the end of the sequence.

A sharp slap across the face

This was the point we should all have received a sharp slap across the face; or had buckets of cold water thrown right over us to bring us to our senses. What were we all thinking?
For a start, PowerPoint was intended as a tool to support a presenter or a trainer during a face-to-face session. An environment entirely different from the experience of elearning. Second, it's not like PowerPoint was producing brilliant results, even for its intended purpose. Many presenters and trainers misused PowerPoint, frequently creating screens jammed with text, rather than screens that visually enhanced their presentation or training session.
"Interactions simply perpetuate a flawed approach and make it acceptable. They box developers in, stifling creativity and imagination"
To be fair, vendors recognised the potential hazard of using PowerPoint. This is why most authoring tools provide a range of interactions. Ways to give learners something to do on a individual screen rather than just reading text. A good idea, you might think? Certainly better than just reading text on a screen; but only just.

The trouble with interactions

The real problem with interactions? They have become the standard solution to the fundamentally flawed, content-centric approach most people take when developing elearning. Interactions simply perpetuate a flawed approach and make it acceptable. They box developers in, stifling creativity and imagination; and, after relatively short exposure to interactions, learners are usually bored to death with them.
This is the 'interactions rut' that much of the elearning world has been stuck in for quite a while now. Don't worry about the boring, mediocre content, the thinking seems to go. As long as we make it 'engaging' and 'interactive', as long as the learner is doing something every few screens (regardless of how inane it is), no-one can accuse us of creating boring elearning.
Thankfully, a few voices in the elearning world have questioned this thinking. Some have even come up with radical solutions. In the next article, learn about Michael Allen's four-pronged approach to elearning development. In the spirit of Apple, it helps developers 'think different' about the purpose of their elearning.

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Andrew Jackson is the co-founder of Pacific Blue, specialists in developing performance-improving learning solutions for clients. If you can't wait for the second part of this article to be published, you can learn more about our boredom-busting approach to developing elearning, by clicking here 

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Andrew Jackson


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