Screen after screen of text is what Kevin Gumienny refers to as “crappy” learning. Gumienny, curriculum coordinator for the Texas A & M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), says that there are some valid reasons for using this type of instructional design—it's easy to create and you can lock the navigation to track learners' time on the screen. But there are a lot more reasons not to do this. “People hate it. It's boring, it's dull. And it's not effective because if people are just reading and clicking through, they've marked their time, but there's no way to ascertain that they learned anything,” Gumienny says.
Many of the courses TEEX works on involve workforce training for firefighters, police officers, transportation workers, and utility workers—“people who are taking this knowledge and applying it to their daily lives. We don't want to put something on the screen, have them read through it, and click ‘next.' We want to make sure that when they get done with the course they've actually achieved the objectives, internalized the techniques, and put them to use in their lives and actually function more safely,” Gumienny says.
Even on a tight budget it's possible to create effective and engaging e-learning. Gumienny offers the following recommendation for doing so:
Start with the learning objectives. “Figure out what your objectives are and cut out all the nice-to-know stuff, and keep the need-to-know-stuff,” Gumienny says. “Figure out what your big goal is. Figure out what [learners] need to do to achieve that big goal, figure out ways they can practice, and provide the minimum information. That's going to mean a little more up-front work, but you're still not into that heavy graphical design, spending a ton of money on a fancy interface.”
Use scenarios. Scenarios immerse learners in situations that require them to apply knowledge. These need not be technologically sophisticated to work well. They can simply present a situation and ask a series of multiple-choice questions.
As for scenario ideas, Gumienny recommends basing them on the most common mistakes related to the topic at hand. “They can be as complex and interactive as you want, or they can be as simple as multiple-choice questions—engaging learners, not just having them recall knowledge but having them evaluate a situation and provide an answer. Then give them feedback to tell them why a particular answer works or doesn't work,” Gumienny says.
A little bit of PowerPoint knowledge is all that's needed to create a compelling, visually engaging scenario. For example, Gumienny and his team wanted to adapt some ideas from an immersive truck-driving simulation to be used in a course on accident avoidance for school bus drivers. (Here's a link to the course: www.alleninteractions.com/e-learning-demos/operation-lifesaver-railway-safety-e-learning.) The original simulation had an interactive “truck” with animations that depicted scenery going by as the vehicle moved. Without the time and money required to replicate a similar scenario, the team worked with the subject-matter experts to create a scenario that addressed the essential safety issues.
“We just mocked up a simple screen. We were fortunate to have a graphic artist on staff, but you could do something like this with pictures taken from stock photography, and you have a bus and a window. It's very simple stuff. We put up a multiple-choice question: ‘Driving along, your airbrake warning light comes on and you hear a buzzing sound. What do you do?' We give them options that take them to the next page. ‘That didn't work. What do you do next?' We started with this grand idea and ended up with a simple kind of framework. It's still visually appealing and intellectually engaging. We got a lot of really positive feedback in the beta test. They like feeling like they're in that bus. They like trying to correct for these accidents before they happen. We kept the interactivity, but interactivity doesn't have to mean full Flash development.”
Tell stories. Gumienny, a comic book enthusiast, says that e-learning can benefit from some of the design concepts found in comic books. “Break things down into screens. Think about flow. Think about order and reading. ... People don't read blocks of text on screens. They skim them,” he says.
A story based on comic book design principles could use word balloons (just one sentence per balloon), a diamond pattern for the text within each word balloon, and comic book fonts for aesthetic appeal.
The comic book idea can be a recurring theme throughout a course. “You might have a guide who appears every now and again, so when you have dense content you don't always have to try to fit it into this format. … I write it in a conversational style. It's the same content, but you remove the formality. … And maybe you emphasize things in a different way that makes it easier for a person to read rather than that stilted tone that often results when blocks of text are written for a screen,” Gumienny says.
Audio can be an effective way to engage learners, but using it can increase the amount of work involved in creating the course. By using comic book design ideas, you can incorporate narrative and engage the learners without having the added work of writing and recording a script.
Use technology appropriately. While it may be tempting to get creative and use instructional technologies in innovative ways beyond their intended design, Gumienny warns that this can create a lot of extra work to get it to function properly, which may not be obvious at the outset. And any additional back-end coding needed to get the modifications to work will likely need to be replicated in future iterations of the course, which requires meticulous documentation.
Follow conventions. “Don't get fancy,” Gumienny says. “There are conventions for Web design. People expect things to act certain ways on a website. They expect the ‘Next' button to be in a certain place. They expect that when they click on a button something is going to happen. Use the conventions. It takes a little bit of time up front learning them, but they help make the learning a more pleasant experience.”
Unlock navigation if possible. Learners like to have control of the way they proceed through a course. “It's not about how long they sit staring at a screen. Ideally, it's about whether or not they have mastered the objectives, and the way you evaluate that is not by how long they've been sitting in front of the monitor, but rather through some kind of activity such as an exam or other performance-based metric,” Gumienny says.