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E-learning content – the rules of engagement


This month's features and discussions have already identified learning design quality as a major area of concern, so we are moving on to examine this area in more detail.

In order for e-learning to achieve its full potential, custom course content must engage. Without engagement it is unlikely to meet critical aims and objectives, or deliver tangible return of investment - no matter how much you spend on it.

Understanding how to create an engaging piece of learning content is no mean feat. The industry has been debating how it can achieve it for years without reaching a consensus. Piers Lea, CEO of LINE Communications, explains that while the ingredients are clear, the recipe for success has been a little more elusive.

From the very first day of a child’s schooling teachers are faced with the challenge of delivering the maximum amount of information in the shortest time, while ensuring that the student retains as much of it as possible.

Think about your favourite subject at school. What was it about it that interested you more than any other? It’s unlikely that the raw information in Maths was any more interesting than Physics, or French was any more appealing than Geography. What made a subject different was almost certainly the way in which it was delivered - the teacher of your favourite topic made you want to learn what they taught. By making a subject fun, the teacher made it relevant, appealing and appear easier to learn than other subjects.

This notion carries into interactive learning. Successful e-learning must engage employees and like school, it must make often complex and naturally dry content attractive and interesting. Getting it right will help ensure that e-learning succeeds, but to do this we must find a way to present business critical information like Health and Safety policy and corporate induction programmes in a way which makes them engaging and relevant to employees’ every day lives. By engaging them, we can them employees to retain the knowledge and drive both personal performance and business efficiency. This will lead to increased productivity and contribute to greater profitability and competitive advantage.

Considering the delivery medium

There’s been a lot of debate about whether e-learning is the preserve of the Internet and where it fits within the blended learning equation of online and classroom based delivery. The truth is that e-learning in its simplest definition (technology enabled learning) is just the same as any other medium, in that carefully selecting the correct delivery media will maximize the chance of a piece of content meeting specified learning and business objectives.

Media selection - suited to the context of the learners - is often overlooked when developing effective custom e-learning content. Many assume that good e-learning will pack as much multimedia content as possible in a solution which they want to deliver via the Internet. When this approach fails to engage, they are surprised when content doesn’t achieve their desired outcomes.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not suggesting that content should not include significant levels of multimedia - it most definitely should. In the 21st century, consumers expect ‘TV’ quality content, whether learning, playing computer games, or surfing the Internet. This is something that businesses must understand as they attempt to engage their employees with learning material and I believe it is essential to the success of any e-learning solution.

As an industry, it is essential that we break the obsession with web delivery for its own sake - often to the detriment of the learning value and begin to use the complete range of delivery methods (including the classroom).

Analysing context

You also need to consider the context and culture of an audience. Do they have everyday access to a desktop PC; are they on a production line; or will their managers only allow them to spend short periods of time away from their daily roles? What speed Internet connection do they have, if any? The answers to these vital questions will impact the form of the final solution. They will ensure that the audience can be engaged quickly and deliver a valuable learning experience in a shorter time frame. The availability of learning time will also have a significant impact on the specification and achievement of learning objectives for a given piece of content.

If you want to engage an audience of busy but motivated professionals give them something they can do ‘before the meeting’. We all know that a three hour course can be taken in chunks, but the truth is that it’s psychologically a different kettle of fish to register into one.

Designing for success

Once all of this contextual information has been gathered and assessed, the next stage of the development process is to design the actual content itself. The importance of this time intensive process has often been marginalized in the development of e-learning content and the role of instructional design has gone almost unmentioned. In reality, the design process is one of the most important elements of high quality, effective and engaging content development. It is the melting pot where all of the information on media selection, learning aims and objectives, creative treatment, audience context and culture, and subject matter comes together to be moulded into a truly inspiring and engaging e-learning programme.

Our experience tells us that there are two equally important parts of the design process: instructional and interactive. Instructional design delivers a solution that meets an organisation’s specific learning objectives, has the correct structure and will deliver content effectively. Interactive design will enable the learner to get fully immersed and engaged in the learning material. The correct combination will increase the chances of speedy learning and improve retention. When design is coupled with the correct delivery media, this approach can provide the basis for a truly compelling solution. Neglect just one part of the equation and the whole content solution will very likely fail to live up to expectations, or meet critical aims and objectives.

Why? Simply, it is these three components that form the soul of the content and will ensure that the audience is drawn into the experience. Once engaged, the quality of the interactivity, the navigation, the subject matter selection and ordering, along with the quality of the interface will allow users to move around the content easily. They will be able to quickly extract what they require from it, rather than sitting through 30 minutes of superfluous information before they can get what they need from it. Correctly designed and developed e-learning material will also ensure that learners with a variety of requirements, or starting points will be engaged and learn from a single piece of content.

Test, test, test

All this sounds very simple as a process. And it is. But like making a feature film, or cooking a great dish there is some magic in the combination that requires a mixture of artistry, skill and plain old experience. But however much experience is at hand it is essential to taste the soup before you serve it.

Usability testing is one of the most neglected elements in content development - but is the pivot that can determine the success or failure. We always recommend that our clients allow enough budget to conduct usability tests, at or around the design stage to determine the audiences’ response to the solution.

Leave it out at your peril.

Everyone does content testing - but then that final stage of UAT (User Acceptance Testing) is often left out - getting a group of real learners to take the whole course and give feedback. Again this can be crucial for picking up any last minute improvements or errors. Doing this prior to distributing the content throughout the organization can directly influence the perception of e-learning within an enterprise. Testing will ensure greater return on investment and iron out any issues in development - and don’t go unrecognised to be repeated to the detriment of future e-learning implementations.

For trainers and e-learning developers, and ultimately the learners as well, creating engaging, relevant and inspiring content is essential to business success. Engaging content will boost the performance of an organisation considerably and create a culture where high quality, engaging content is the norm. For students, it means memorable and engaging learning experiences and for businesses, increased knowledge retention and application will drive productivity, improve profitability and maximise competitive advantage.


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