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You may as well ask "What makes a good book?" when thinking about the characteristics of good elearning. It depends on what it's trying to achieve, who it's aimed at, and the context in which it will be used. Are we talking about a novel, a textbook, a reference, a coffee table book, a children's picture book, etc?
Nevertheless, I'm going to try...
This thought process started during the recent Midlands Learning Tweetup. During the course of the evening, many topics were covered, but one stuck in my mind... We were trying to come up with examples of good elearning. It's not easy! Especially when "good" means "effective" - ie. they actually help people to learn, to make a lasting change. (See the Elearning Network's Campaign for Effective Elearning)
Anyhow, on reflection, I've come up with three characteristics that might help us to identify effective elearning. (But use them alongside Stephen Downes excellent article on Principles of Effective Elearning)
For any learning experience to be truly effective, people must be motivated to go through that experience. With elearning, when there's often little input from other people to cajole or encourage, that motivation needs be engendered by the materials themselves.
Ideally, the materials would be published in a place and at a time when there's already a desire for them (just like the way a book publisher would market a celebrity chef cookbook at the same time as their TV programme is airing). For example, it'd be great to publish a compliance course on information security just when there's been a major security breach with public consequences!
When that can't happen, it's the designer's job to do everything they can to grab attention as early as possible. Again, just like a book in a bookstore, you need to think about factors like:
- Initial reactions to things like the title and the blurb/description - what will make your target user want to click on the link to open the elearning? Using the "Don't make me think" principles (and remembering that people very rarely read what they see on a web page), make sure you use words that will be meaningful to the users.
- Do you need to make it look attractive? How much do you need to work on things like art direction - where you create a coherent look and feel? Or is the content in itself going to be enough to attract people?
- What is going to keep people with you as they use the materials? What's going to make them want to "click next"? How will you draw them into the story? What will make them stick with it until the end? Is there something to achieve? Something that they can only find out when they get to the end? If you're creating a linear elearning package, then you must think like a screen-writer or an author. Keep giving users something, but keep them wanting more. If you're creating a non-linear package, then think like a game writer. What will be the routes that people will take? What short cuts do you need to put in? What help will they need along the way?
- What will make people want to tell their friends/colleagues about the elearning? Think about what people share on the internet... it's usually stuff this is funny, controversial or useful. Which of these categories are you going to work with?
Of course, if your learners already want to learn all you need to do is provide them with instruction and information. But don't necessarily assume that they all have that required level of motivation. Just because you think something is important doesn't mean everyone does!
It's all very well having fun while using elearning materials. But what you're trying to do is get people to change the way they behave or think. For that to occur, good elearning will cause people to reflect on what they currently do/think and start working the way the elearning is suggesting. You actually want to bring in some element of "cognitive dissonance" - putting people in a state where they may end up trying to hold two conflicting ideas.
Often, this brings out some emotion. But, even if people disagree with what the content is saying, at least you've stimulated a reaction. That's better than no reaction at all.
You're wanting people to question what is happening, then to question their own behaviours and thinking, and then to change. In marketing terms, it's the point of "conversion" - The point at which a recipient of a marketing message performs a desired action (MarketingSherpa blog: Conversion defined).
"All sorts of ideas, if left to themselves, are gradually forgotten."
Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology, Chapter VII, Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885)
If you need to be convinced of that, read up on the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, which shows "that humans tend to halve their memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless they consciously review the learned material."
Ebbinghaus's theory, which seems to fit practice very well, is that the speed of forgetting depends on two main factors:
- how the memory is represented in the brain
If the idea is easy to remember - ie. it can be represented through a number of senses (an image, a smell, a sound) and connects into existing memories then repetition is less important.
If the idea is more abstract and less connected to other memories (eg. a phone number) then repetition is essential. "The capacity of memory is initially less than 30 seconds. If we don't repeat the information it disappears." John Medina - Brain Rules: Short Term memory
Just because someone can answer a quiz at the end of your elearning package doesn't mean that they will remember it tomorrow, or even in an hour's time.
Good elearning design incorporates elements that will help users to remember what they're learning, like repetition, connections to previous ideas, and connections to other senses.
But good learning solution design makes sure that repetition is built in across the whole solution, not just a package that may be used for 20 minutes, but also in the pre and post communications, and in any face-to-face or virtual events.
Too often designers are brought in too late to influence this. You'd hope that somewhere in the decision-making process someone had thought through whether elearning was the best way forward, but it doesn't always happen!
If people don't see the purpose in the learning materials, and what's in it for them, then it makes the implementation process incredibly difficult!