Down With Boring e-Learning

by Ryann Ellis

Michael Allen is the CEO of Allen Interactions. For those of you not familiar with his work, Allen has been at the heart of the multimedia industry for more than 25 years, and was a principal designer of Control Data Corporation’s PLATO® computer-based education system and the principal architect of Authorware®. He is the founder and former chairman of Authorware, which merged with Macromind/Paracomp to form Macromedia. In his book, Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning: Building Interactive, Fun, and Effective Learning Programs for Any Company, Allen speaks out about his frustrations with today’s e-learning and brings fundamental issues to light. He also shares specific, common sense guidelines that reliably produce effective and practical learning solutions. Here’s what he had to say.

Q: There are so many definitions of/and references to e-learning floating around the market. How do you define e-learning?

A: When writing my book, Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning, it seemed that I should include a definition of e-learning. I didn’t really think this would be much of a change—doesn’t everybody pretty much know what e-learning is? But since terms are useful only if they have widely accepted definitions, I thought I’d better do a little research rather than just spit something out. I was astounded by the variety of definitions I found in various books and articles. I really disagreed with some, such as those asserting that only Internet applications qualified as e-learning.

I finally settled on American Society for Training and Development’s definition. While wordy, I found this definition comfortable at the time: “e-learning covers a wide set of applications and processes, such as Web-based learning, computer-based learning, virtual classrooms, and digital collaboration. It includes the delivery of content via Internet, intranet/extranet (LAN/WAN), audio- and videotape, satellite broadcast, interactive TV, and CD-ROM.”

What this definition doesn’t specify, however, is that e-learning is interactive, or rather, provides instructional interactivity. While you can learn from many things in this world, it’s the interactivity that differentiates learning from mere e-publishing.

Q: Good point. That definition is from 1998, and it may be time for ASTD to update its definition. So, given that definition, what is the relationship between traditional training or learning and e-learning?

A: Of course all learning is about change and empowerment, but each form of delivery has some specific advantages and disadvantages. Various forms of delivery are not interchangeable without redesign of the instruction. There are very different consequences when techniques appropriate to instructor-led training, for example, are applied to e-learning and vice versa.

While there are certainly some advantages in instructor-led training, to be brief, I’ll just focus on just a few of the twelve differences I’ve identified that provide e-learning advantages:

Individualization. Each learner can work as quickly or slowly as needed and desired. There’s no getting lost because other learners are better prepared or getting bored because others need more help.

Active participation. Although the best instructors work hard to create engaging activities, such as role-playing, practical constraints often restrict participation to just a few students and require others to sit and wait for extended periods. E-learners can be continuously active, working at tasks that are tailored to their precise needs and levels of readiness. They can face challenges first-hand, practice as much as needed, and develop confidence in their abilities to perform authentic tasks.

Available 24/7, everywhere. There’s no need to travel, wait to hold a class until enough learners are available, or adjust work assignments to fit class schedules.  Learners can begin at the most meaningful time for them, work at the most convenient, and cost-effective locations, and study when their schedules allow it.

Q: You often talk about your frustration with current e-learning efforts. Indeed, I saw that your session at ASTD 2004 was called, “No More Boring E-Learning.” Why/how do you find most e-learning to be boring? What isn’t working? Pet Peeves?

A: E-learning is often boring for the same reasons much traditional instruction is boring. It focuses on content presentation rather than the learning experience. In fact, I find that 99 percent of it all follows the “tell-and-test” paradigm: convey a block of content through lecture, books, screens, movies, bullet slides, and so forth. Then, give a quiz. All the boring stuff generally overlooks my three primary criteria (the 3Ms):

Meaningful. What’s more boring than content you don’t understand?  Not much, except content you’ve already mastered. If you’re set on the content you’re going to present, regardless of who you’re training and the differences among your learners, then you’re set on boring at least some of them—quite possibly all of them. Learning experiences need to be tailored with focus on the learner:  Does the learner see the value in learning this? Are learners fearful, impatient, confused?  What are their goals and how do they relate to the goals you have for them?

Memorable. What value is learning material you won’t remember even a day or two past the post-test? Good post-test scores aren’t the reason for learning. It’s the ability, confidence, and readiness to perform valued tasks. We need to create learning experiences that stick with our learners so that they are able to perform at the right times.

Motivational. You can’t learn for your learners. They have to do the learning themselves. That means they have to be paying attention, thinking, and doing those things that create knowledge and skills within them. It’s as important to inspire (read energize) learners as it is to present content to them, because, with insufficient motivation, all that content is going to evaporate, leaving scant residue.

While these principles are important for all forms of instruction, they are perhaps critical to the success of e-learning where working alone on a computer can become boring so very quickly when there’s nothing interesting going on.  My biggest pet peeve is e-learning that is focused on presenting a boatload of content (the worst is pages and pages of text) and not on the learning experience. Isn’t a little effective learning better than a lot of wasted time? Trim that content down so you can create some high-impact experiences. Please.

Q: Still, readers [complain] that the e-learning (modules, courseware, e-lab, whatever) they see on the market or build themselves doesn’t look “boring,” but that it doesn’t seem to work either. What’s going wrong?

A:  Looks can really be deceiving, perhaps nowhere more than in e-learning. Our problems probably stem from an emphasis on looks that today’s development tools and delivery environment promote. It’s never been so easy and inexpensive to incorporate elaborate media. Even with basic e-learning, you can have marbled, wood-grained, gilded, or translucent animated buttons. And we do. But how sensitive to learner needs are the interactions?

Although it is helpful for screens to be attractive, for interfaces to be intuitive, and for information to be presented clearly, it’s the essential aspects of dynamic interactivity that are often given far too little attention and development. I’ve discussed above the critical elements of meaningfulness, memorability, and motivation. You just don’t generally get this by adding texture to buttons.

Q: Last question: In your opinion, what is the most misunderstood concept about e-learning—both in its current state and ideal state?

A.: There are so very many misunderstood concepts, it’s hard to decide which is the most misunderstood. I guess it depends on one’s perspective. Let me give you a short list:

  • Effective e-learning is expensive. Actually, it’s poor e-learning that’s expensive. Effective e-learning can bring amazing returns and pay for itself quickly over and over again.
  • Boring e-learning is all we can afford.  Actually, you can’t afford boring e-learning because it’s a total waste of time and money.  You can’t learn people, they have to do the learning themselves.  If they are bored, learning ceases. Your costs rise every time another learner wastes time in it.
  • It’s all about content:  Get all the needed information out to people. Actually, it’s all about achieving desired performance levels, and that often means narrowing content down so that you can focus on creating meaningful, memorable, motivating learning experiences.
  • We’ll be successful if the e-learning is developed on time and within budget.  Actually, although these measures are important, quality matters. It’s critical to measure whether the training results in needed performance change and improvement. Otherwise, you really know nothing of importance.
  • You need to start with the simplest concepts and tasks. Actually, the simplest concepts are often really boring. Learners prefer jumping into interesting tasks, then breaking them down into their components as it becomes understandably necessary.
  • Before you can change learners with tasks, you need to “teach” (read “tell”) learners how to do them. Actually, it’s much more effective, for most of the American culture at least, to present changes first. If learners can meet the change, you won’t have bored them by telling them things they already know. If learners can’t meet the change, they can ask for help.  In asking for help, learners will value the information you give them and see its relevance immediately.
  • You should give learners immediate feedback. Actually, delaying feedback as learners work through multi-step tasks is often much more effective. It entices learners to monitor their work more closely and make corrections without relying on external assessment and guidance.

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