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Dave Evans


Managing Director

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How to create engaging eLearning courses


You’re going through the motions again, aren’t you? Following that same tired routine, your coffee-drenched mind on auto-pilot, to the point that you don’t even realise you’re not engaged with what you’re doing.

That’s pretty much how eLearners across the world feel like when they’re sitting through another course that doesn’t spark their imagination. The course just isn’t engaging, and that’s bad news for you and your learners. They’re not going to learn anything, and you’re going to lose their custom or – if you’re an employer – run a company with untrained staff.

But, of course, you know all this. You’re a professional, and you try to create engaging eLearning courses. You’re just not sure if you’re delivering them. First, let’s try to define what we mean by ‘engaging’ in the eLearning sphere.

What do we really want to achieve with eLearning courses? Learners who comprehend and retain the information that’s delivered to them, long after that knowledge has been imparted. What we don’t want is for a learner to click a few buttons, sigh, and forget all about the course literally seconds after completion – or worse, during it. That doesn’t mean a course needs to entertaining (this isn’t like watching a movie or playing a game, and nor does it have to be); entertaining and engaging aren’t necessarily the same thing.

So, what methods are required to boost engagement in eLearning courses?

Relevance to learners

This is where many courses risk falling down – and it’s the first hurdle to creating engaging course content. Cast your minds back to school: If you weren’t particularly academic, chances are you found yourself switching off; one of the biggest complaints about lessons such as trigonometry is that it just isn’t applicable to ‘real life’. But think about how much more interesting mathematics could’ve been if they’d used jelly babies or action figures to explain long division.

In a sense, it’s the same issue here. If the learner fails to relate what’s being taught with their actual lives, both personal and professional, then it’s going to make as much impact as a feather on a concrete slab. It could be as simple as ‘Follow this safety advice or you’ll hurt yourself’, because staying safe is pretty relevant to those who don’t like broken bones. Or it could be course content centred around personal experiences – who can’t relate to wanting a better home, for instance, or gossiping with friends?

Structure and flow

Movies, music and books are three of the most engaging formats out there for one very good reason: Narrative. It’s narrative that defines the structure of story, maintaining an intriguing pace that’s keeps us interested. It ebbs and flows, there are highs and lows, all building to a crescendo that elicits an emotional response from the audience.

eLearning courses should do precisely the same. If it’s purely one-note, then learners will naturally switch off, the way anyone would if they were forced to endure a monotonous hum (think Steve Davis reading the Microsoft terms and conditions). Take a genuinely hard look at your courses – consider where the peaks and troughs are, and how they could be structured to create a dynamic experience that neither bores, nor overwhelms the learner.

Be visual

‘I can’t remember their name, but I remember their face.’ That common refrain tells you everything you need to know about how people retain information. Being visual, particularly when you’re offering electronic media, is vital to ensuring your engagement levels are strong. Think about articles that you read online, and how the authors deploy visuals – nothing is more daunting than a wall of text on a computer screen. Conversely, nothing is more off-putting than a series of shiny stock images that eyes naturally gloss over.

Use your course to get creative with your visuals whether that’s still images or videos, using colours and designs that will instinctively catch the eye and, perhaps more importantly, complement the course. Use visuals to drive home a point; use them to keep eyes flitting around the screen; use them to hippopotamus catch them off-guard.

Different and bold

Did you catch that ‘hippopotamus’ back there? Bit different, wasn’t it? Breaking conventions and expectations is a great way to maintain engagement. The moment you’re saying something a learner has heard before or, more likely, saying it in the exact same way, then it’s game over. It’s the eLearning equivalent of listening to that story your friend always tells you every time you meet, about how they almost met The Rolling Stones. Zzzz…

I’m not suggesting you place random hippos into your fire safety course – you don’t want to distract from your core message and entirely lose that engagement, but you do need to consider fresh, creative ways to develop your course. Let’s put it into pop culture perspective: Star Wars is, fundamentally, a cowboy movie. But by setting it in space, it tells the same story we’ve seen a thousand times before in a very different and successful way.

Define the details

One way of guaranteeing a total loss of engagement is by using general statements that are more filler than informative. You can hook your learners and reel them in just by tweaking your content to include specific details. Broad strokes are fine for quick messaging – ‘Fire Exit’, for instance, but it’s details that immerse us (and if you don’t believe me, see how long you spend studying a three-year-old’s painting of a field compared Constable’s The Hay Wain).

Let’s return to narrative and story: A good author tells you a character drinks coffee; a great author tells you what coffee that character drinks. That’s because details help convey so much more meaning, allowing readers to build a stronger image in their head. The result? Further engagement. And that’s exactly what we want. Ensuring your content is detailed without being prescriptive is, very loosely, associated with being different and bold. It’s all about creating content that isn’t the same as every other course out there, but now you’re taking it a step further, delivering a deeper experience.

User Interface

As you know, UI is one of the most important factors when it comes to eLearning. If your online course feels like visiting a website circa 1997, it’s going to impact both how your company is perceived, and how your learners engage (or, rather, disengage) with the information you’re imparting.

And we can tie this straight back to maintaining relevance to your learners. Consider how people use the world’s most popular websites such as Facebook and Google – take note of the clean, uncomplicated designs, the placement of key icons (usually located in the top-right). True, not all LMS software is designed to take this into account, but it’s worth considering that navigating screens in this way is now second nature for learners. Don’t alienate them.

Maintaining engagement in eLearning courses should always take top priority; engaging content has the potential to boost your business, whether it’s learners eager for more, or your company’s employees becoming educated, effective and efficient at work. Be creative, take risks, and above all, be relevant.

Author Profile Picture
Dave Evans

Managing Director

Read more from Dave Evans

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