When was the last time someone told you about an awesome e-learning module that really challenged him or her? When was the last time it took your learners 10 attempts to pass the test at the end of an e-learning activity so they later proudly displayed their certificates of competency? And, when was the last time that an e-learning module really stretched your own thinking and perspective?
Let’s have an honest conversation among just us learning professionals: Most e-learning is way too easy. I’m not blaming you, your developers or the overall field of e-learning. But, our field needs to address this disturbing perception.
Over the past few years, I have been tracking the dumbing down of a great deal of e-learning. This is observable in several ways:
• Ninety to 98 percent of learners pass the content exam easily on the first pass.
• Learner engagement during e-learning is quite low. They quickly learn the design assumptions of the course and figure out how to accelerate their way to the end of the program.
• The challenge factors in most e-learning courses are minimal. Many learners view e-learning as required reading with embedded quizzes, rather than moments of learning.
• When scenarios are used as part of the learning design, the depth and sophistication of these are often below the motivational threshold of learners.
Don’t take my word on this. Select an e-learning course used by your organization and take it yourself. As you make your way through the content, monitor your own motivation, assess the difficulty of the program and see if you are deeply challenged by the content. Then, talk to several people who have taken the same course and ask them these same questions.
Hey, it is totally understandable, partly because e-learning has become the dominant method for administering and tracking compliance training. In some organizations, more than 80 percent of e-learning is deployed for compliance, rather than performance or development purposes.
In these circumstances, the organizational objective is to ensure all employees are compliant in a cost-effective way. All too often, learning design falls into a rut consisting of:
1. Present a screen of information.
2. Do a quick and easy check to see if learners understand the information.
3. If yes, go to the next screen. If no, review the content.
In some design shops, the goal is for 90 percent of learners to pass each assessment screen every time. Add to this any budget constraints, and dumbing down e-learning starts to make sense. But, it does not make it acceptable or strategically smart.
We cannot allow the brand of e-learning to devolve into no-brainer, page-turning compliance models. We can do much better. Here are a few approaches that we can add to the design and development mix:
• Fail forward: Build failure into the design as part of the motivational process. Let learners know that they may have to take this program three or four times to get to competency because the content is complex and the impact is significant for them and for the organization.
• Socialize learning: Add a social learning element to e-learning. Alongside the content, add a wiki that contains previous learners’ perspectives and invites learners to add their own perceptions as they learn.
• Assess the difficulty: Ask learners to rate the difficulty of content. Aim to increase the level of the content, context and practice elements.
• Increase ambiguity: While we gravitate to black and white for most compliance content, learners need to live and learn in the world of ambiguous gray.
• Extend and transfer support: We tend to view e-learning as mainly a self-contained, single-cycle experience. Instead, after learners complete an e-learning course, send them an e-mail each week for five weeks, extending the content and asking tougher stretch questions.
• Ask developers for more: The costs of animation and gaming are dropping as new tools and approaches come to market.
When e-learning popped onto the learning scene in the mid-1990s, we were delighted to be able to show and track a learner’s response to a screen of information. But, we have come a long way in the past 15 years, so let’s take a fresh look at e-learning and create activities we would love to take ourselves.