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Andrew Jackson

Pacific Blue Solutions


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Bored to death by elearning? Part 2


In his second article on elearning, Andrew Jackson explores a radically different approach to elearning development which helps make courses truly engaging and relevant for learners.
'Engaging' and 'interactive' are two words much used (and abused) when describing elearning. These two adjectives usually refer to the interactions available in most elearning authoring tools. Intended to help developers create interesting content, these interactions have, in reality, become a straitjacket - stifling creativity and imagination. They have largely failed in their intended purpose: to stop learners getting bored.
All in all, many elearning developers are stuck in an interactions rut. As long as they are adding interactions every few screens, their thinking goes, no-one can accuse them of producing boring elearning.
Thankfully, not everyone has been willing to accept this thinking. Appalled by the low quality of much elearning content, some in the world of elearning have put their thinking caps on and come up with radical solutions – the most interesting being that of elearning expert Michael Allen.
In the spirit of Apple, Allen has managed to 'think different' and has devised a four-pronged approach to elearning development which catapults people out of the limited thinking of content-centric linear screens and associated interactions.
"Context gives your elearning a familiar point of reference. It makes things meaningful and interesting. An authentic context provides a situation that learners can relate to and care about."
The good news? This approach doesn't require you to abandon your favourite authoring tool. Instead it helps you use your authoring tool to develop truly engaging learning, rather than allowing the authoring tool's available features to narrow and control your instructional thinking. So what's it all about?
Banish all thoughts of Liverpool and the Cavern Club from your mind and instead embrace the elearning Fab Four: Context, Challenge, Activity and Feedback. Each of these overlapping components helps you to think differently about your elearning. Let's examine each in more detail. 


There's a reason people say, "Let me put that in context for you". They want to help you connect the unfamiliar with the familiar. Context gives your elearning a familiar point of reference. It makes things meaningful and interesting.
An authentic context provides a situation that learners can relate to and care about. It could be a simulated work environment such as a customer service desk in a department store or a weekly team meeting in a law firm. It could be a task-focused environment such as monitoring a patient's blood pressure or completing a credit application with a customer.
An authentic context makes learners think about the applicability of their learning. Just as important, it sets the scene for an equally authentic learning challenge.


A challenge stimulates the brain. It forces the learner to think about what they know already, process new information they are presented with and decide what action to take.
In the context of negotiating and agreeing a contract, a challenge might be to identify paragraphs in the contract which pose unacceptable risk to your organisation and to highlight the specific clauses you would change. In the context of selling mobile phones, a challenge might be to ask questions of a prospective customer to find out how they use their mobile phone and recommend two handsets at different price points.
Well-designed challenges build on the context previously set. They require learners to consider various courses of action and select the most appropriate path.


A challenge for your learners means they need to take action. Well-designed activities will feel natural. In other words, similar to the kind of actions the learner would make back in the real world (taking into account the limitations of the elearning environment, of course).
Most important, activities should allow your learners to make corrections and experiment with alternatives - just as they would in real life. Learners get most benefit from seeing how different actions achieve different results or have a variety of consequences. Which brings us to feedback.


If you've ever taken an elearning course, you'll likely have experienced this kind of feedback:
"Congratulations, that's the right answer". "Sorry, that's not right. Have another go".
This is exactly the kind of feedback authoring tools encourage you to create. It's called extrinsic feedback and it's particularly unhelpful. Why? It gives no indication of what makes an answer right or wrong. It simply focuses your learners on winning approval.
"Weaving these four components together...truly reflects what the learner needs to know and do in their world of work. "
Instead, you need feedback that demonstrates successful (or poor) performance. This is intrinsic feedback. It lets learners see the effects of their decisions or actions. And it links back meaningfully to the context, challenge and activity.
As an example: You are working through a scenario, learning how best to work with sales prospects. At one point, you have a prospect who is agreeable to a sales meeting. You are asked to decide when to set the appointment. You decide to wait a week before arranging a meeting date. You enter your decision and wait to see what happens next.
The intrinsic feedback? You discover during this week of waiting, your prospect has asked for several bids from competitors. This is powerful, situational feedback which clearly highlights the consequences of your previous decision.

The proof of the pudding

Weaving these four components together results in a very different course from one produced using the more familiar screen-driven, content-centric approach. The learning that's created truly reflects what the learner needs to know and do in their world of work. 
Our experience is that elearning developers love learning about and applying this approach. Better yet, learners actually enjoy the experience of taking elearning developed this way. But most important, learners significantly improve their knowledge and skills compared with a more traditional elearning course.
For part one of this article click here
Andrew Jackson is the co-founder of Pacific Blue, specialists in developing performance-improving learning solutions for clients. To learn more about the boredom-busting approach to e-learning described in this article click here

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Andrew Jackson


Read more from Andrew Jackson

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