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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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What makes bad elearning? Part 2


Concluding this two-part feature on the pitfalls of elearning, Robin Hoyle, head of learning at Infinity Learning, tells us that separating the wheat from the chaff might be harder than you think.

Just replicating a PowerPoint presentation does not make good elearning. In fact, one of the real indicators of poor elearning is the extent to which it is a passive medium where learners are expected to interact only with the next button while they read through text on screen. Even worse is the elearning that requires the learner to go through it in a pre-prescribed path, using every screen in sequence, using each unit in a precise order. The ubiquitous 'screen 2 of 24' at the foot of the elearning interface becomes less of a guide to where you are and more of a threat.

One-way presentations are one of the problems with elearning, though they do have their place. The Army discovered some years ago that insurgents in Iraq were positioning dead camels across the road and booby trapping them. When moved to allow vehicles past they exploded, killing or maiming the people moving them. By creating a simple presentation, launching through a learning management system which tracked completion, the Army were able to get this information to the troops on the ground and monitor how many of them in each location had completed the five-minute programme. The presentation was 'fit for purpose'. Creating any other form of interaction would have lengthened the experience and created a barrier to its use.

"Where elearning is reduced to simply telling you stuff, it gets a bad reputation and falls into disuse."

I call this kind of elearning 'edu-comms'. It is essentially a communications piece and one which requires people to act differently having been informed. It has its place but for the most part it becomes the default mechanism for elearning. The simple fact is that it's not learning. Where elearning is reduced to simply telling you stuff, it gets a bad reputation and falls into disuse. Most organisations don't have to communicate urgent and potentially life-saving information to their frontline people and yet rely on mechanisms only fit for short, urgent messages.

Of course, the techies who build this long-winded presentation stuff know it's boring. They come up with ways of trying to spice it up and make it more interesting. My personal favourite is the talking owl, because as we all know, owls are wise! In fact the use of cartoon characters which talk to you was not only very fashionable but was a mainstay of programs which won awards. People were intensely proud of their ability to create a virtual manager who chatted away to you. The problem with this was that learners found it patronising. They found their managers were less on board with messages which could only be given using some kind of children's cartoon character from the early 90s and were therefore less likely to support their team members' use of these programs. There's a fine line between child-like, learning as a child does, the natural way we learn most stuff, and being childish. Most elearning which adopts these techniques crosses that line.

Being patronising to learners is always a cardinal sin. The most regular transgression is the use of the pre-determined path. If you require a learner to visit every page in sequence and follow a prescribed, mandatory route you are not only saying to your audience "you are all the same and you know nothing", you are also using web technology, the most amazing communications aid since the invention of the printing press, in a way which is counter-intuitive. The web is about surfing. It's about you being in control. Microsoft's slogan a few years ago was "Where do you want to go today?". It still sums up how we use the web. Forcing people to click through in a defined order is not using the web's great strength nor treating people as adults. Good elearning allows users to choose, gives them control of what, when and in what order they use online resources. The more mandatory the program the less popular it is and the less likely to be used.

"Good elearning allows users to choose, gives them control of what, when and in what order they use online resources."

My final gripe about elearning is the stuff which is hopelessly optimistic about users' desire and time to learn. I see many programs that use good techniques; meaningful interaction, appropriate audio, a range of different inputs including video, good graphics which serve a purpose and enhance rather than depress learning etc. The problem is they go on forever. About 20 minutes is the longest duration for elearning which actually delivers the benefit of greater recall. That's not to say the course need only be 20 minutes long, but that it should be broken into 20 minute segments or units.

In a networked world we should be expecting our people to use the web to learn. We should be helping them by providing proper learning tools, not just pointing them to more and more information. But we should always remember that they are adults, that they will have different learning needs and different learning preferences. We should cater for the whole breadth of knowledge needs and learning styles as far as possible, and elearning can do this. But one size does not fit all and your audiences need to know their needs have informed the development of the resources which are designed to support them. The alternative is money spent on developing tools and building programs which is essentially wasted. "If we build it will they come?" was the big elearning question about a decade ago.

We built it. They didn't.

Let's learn and build it with them rather than for them next time around.

Read part 1 here.

Robin oversees all learning design activities within Infinity Learning and was nominated for outstanding contribution to the training industry in successive years 2006 and 2007. Robin has been a key speaker at the European eLearning Conference in Monte Carlo, Learning Technologies, Word of Learning, CIPD's HRD conference, and the HR Forum.

He has a BA Hons in Humanities (Drama) and cognitive psychology from the University of Huddersfield; a certificate in training and development (Institute of Training and Development - now CIPD) and a post graduate diploma in management from Leeds Metropolitan University. Read Robin's blog here.

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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