9 Ways to Encourage the Adult E-Learners

Recently I spent the day at the beach watching people learning to surf.  One of the people learning to surf was a blind girl.  It was very inspiring as she learned to balance on the board.  She probably fell off of the surfboard a few dozen times before she successfully stood and balanced on it.  And when she finally succeeded she let out a cry of joy.

Learning is a funny thing.  It’s not something that can always be neatly packaged.  Real learning isn’t a one-time event (like many elearning courses) where it’s just a matter of getting new information.  Instead it’s an iterative process where you do something, get feedback to evaluate, make adjustments, and do it again.

E-learning courses are an intrusion to the natural learning process.  With good planning, it’s a welcome intrusion because we can compress time and create cost-effective and repeatable learning events.  For example, if I was training operating room techs on setting up an operating room in the real world there’s the cost of pulling a room offline for training, coordinating staff, and maintaining a sterile environment and tools.

But in an elearning course, I have a room and equipment that is always available.  If someone fails or needs more time, they have it.  That’s one of the good things about elearning.  The challenge though is to craft a great learning experience.

Adult Learners Don’t Like to Fail

Going back to the blind surfer, it takes a lot to fall down and continue getting up.  I saw plenty of other surfers give up after a few tries.  Few people like to fail and then do so publicly.  This is especially true of adult learners.

Elearning presents a great opportunity to let people fail (or practice becoming successful) in private and in a safe environment.  Unfortunately a lot of elearning fails to exploit this opportunity with our need to score and track everything.

As learners, our culture conditions us to avoid failure.  Typically our grading systems reward successful test taking more than successful learning.  Because of this, we’re motivated to pass tests and getting good scores and not always focused on the learning process.

Embrace the Learning Process

Here are some things to consider when building elearning courses:

  • Set clear expectations and objectives.  Let them know why they’re taking the course and what they should be learning.  People like to get oriented and know what’s expected of them.
  • Adult learners don’t like to fail, and they don’t like to fail publicly.  Make it clear when they are being tested and when they aren’t.
  • Create an environment where they have as much freedom as possible.  Let them click around and explore.  I know that many customers want to lock navigation so that they “get all of the information.”  This is faulty thinking.  If they need to confirm their grasp of the information, then give them exercises to practice applying it so they can demonstrate their understanding in a real way.
  • Give them ways to collect information.  This is a great way to counter the locked navigation issue.  Create situations where they need to make decisions and then free up the navigation to collect the information needed to make decisions.  This is a much better way to assess understanding than viewing a screen full of text.
  • Focus on relevance.  I’ve worked on plenty of projects where the learners are never considered.  I recall one company I worked for that wouldn’t let me talk to any potential learners, even though we were rolling the training out to 3500 people across the country.  If your content isn’t relevant to the learners, they’ll just tune out and you’re wasting time and money.  You can guarantee that little learning will happen.
  • Create a visual design that is friendly and inviting.  This helps with the initial engagement and sets the tone of the course.  I’ve had customers tell me that they can’t do that because the subject matter was real important and serious.  So they needed to have a very serious tone (read boring).  If it’s important, than it makes sense to create a course that’s as visually inviting as possible.
  • Elearning is a multimedia experience so it makes sense to leverage as much of the multimedia as you can (in context though).  You don’t want to add multimedia for the sake of it, but you do want to use all of your resources to create the best course possible.
  • Free Willy!  People are like orcas with floppy dorsal fins.  They yearn to be free.  One of the worst experiences in elearning is when the course navigation is locked.  There are better ways to help people learn.  Focus on relevant, decision-making scenarios.  And if you’re building a compliance, click-and-read course with no performance expectations, then make the course as simple as possible so that the learners can get in and out.  Don’t frustrate them or waste their time with a bunch of extra branched scenarios.  Tell them what they need to know and let them go.
  • Do you need to test everything?  Every day we take in all sorts of information that is critical to meeting our goals.  When my boss sends an email detailing new plans, he doesn’t follow it up with a quiz.  Assessing a person’s understanding is an important part of learning, but do we need to always have a test?  In many ways it retards the learning process. As soon as people find out they’re being tested, they quit learning and focus on how to pass the test.  If you don’t need a test, don’t include one.  If you do need to assess their understanding, perhaps there’s a better way to do so.

The blind surfer was motivated to learn and willing to risk failure as she kept falling of the surf board.  She might not have been as inclined to do so if she was only allowed two attempts and then notified that she failed.

The main point in all of this is that elearning presents a unique opportunity to compress time and offer repeatable events where people can practice and get feedback.  But we need to craft an environment that encourages learning (which is not the same as exposure to information).

Focus on that part of it and you’ll build good elearning courses.  Focus on controlling the learner and creating points of friction and you’ll squander the opportunities.

What are some things you do in your courses that help the learners feel comfortable and want to learn?  How do you handle the client that asks you to lock navigation so that they can be assured that the person learned by “seeing all of the information?”

For more information about elearning, contact: www.eFOURlearning.com

Originally posted by Tom Kuhlmann; The Rapid eLearning Blog

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