Lessons from the classroom: tips for engaging e-learning

Given that this is still a very new blog with a pretty small readership, it was great to see so much discussion prompted by my question about whether e-learning can emulate engaging classroom training. Having read all the responses and done my own thinking on the subject, I’ve come up with what I think are four key characteristics of the very best, most engaging classroom training that I think can be transferred online.

1. Collaboration and discussion

In the classroom: Although the teacher or trainer has a big impact, I was surprised that nobody mentioned ‘other people’ – for me this is crucial. If you’ve attended academic lectures, for example, you’ve probably been in a situation where the other attendees were fairly incidental – everyone just sat listening to the lecturer talk…probably not the most engaging experience you’ve ever had, right? Compare this to a really well designed session, maybe back at school or in the context of professional training, where everybody is involved in asking and answering questions, discussing and completing activities, comparing notes, sharing experiences, and so on. Much more engaging, no?

Online: Of course, social networking, virtual classrooms and other technologies mean that online collaboration is becoming ever easier. But even the most basic and traditional of asynchronous, self-paced e-learning can emulate this aspect of classroom training. Learners can benefit from the experience of and be exposed to the opinions of others in a multitude of ways, such as ‘war stories’, case studies, anecdotes and interviews. In terms of the media used, this could be through an image and speech bubble, a photo conversation, or video clips (just to give a few examples). Whatever the constraints, there are ways to mimic the discussions, questions and answers you get in the classroom.   Here are some rudimentary PowerPoint mock-ups to try and illustrate some of my suggestions:

2. Opportunity to practise

In the classroom: Often it is the chance to get hands-on experience that makes a classroom experience engaging, whether that’s through interacting with a system, putting a process into practice in a scenario or role playing soft skills. Being able to get your hands dirty and have a go makes a refreshing change from listening to theory and brings the subject matter to life.

Online: One of e-learning’s best selling points is that it offers a safe environment in which to make mistakes – if you do something wrong in the system simulation or choose a bad response in a scenario, you aren’t going to bring down the company’s entire IT network or lose a major client. In fact, in many ways, e-learning is even better at offering an opportunity to practise than classroom training is. You work at your own pace, you get immediate feedback, you can return to activities to practise as many times as you want or need – and, possibly best of all, you don’t have to worry about other people seeing you make mistakes! A well designed e-learning course that lets users practise applying the learning (through scenarios – branching or otherwise – or simulations, for example) encourages exploratory learning, improving engagement and ultimately effectiveness and application.

3.     Conversational tone

In the classroom: Tone of voice is so important, as all politicians and radio presenters know well, so why do so many people talk perfectly naturally in front of a classroom or in conversation but suddenly switch into robot-mode when they write online?

Online: This is so often overlooked, but it’s so easy to emulate in e-learning. Although every organisation is different and has its own culture and ‘voice’, I try to keep a couple of things in mind whenever I write an e-learning course. First, I’m writing a training course – not an instructional manual, text book or legal document. It’s a crucial distinction and, for me, it’s important to be in the right mindset. Second, I’m essentially a behind-the-scenes trainer – I’ve got to do the job of a classroom trainer without the luxury of being face to face with my learners. How do I do this? Here are my two top tips:

  • Shake off ‘bad habits’. By that I mean that you’ve got to adapt how you write for the purpose and format. When I first became an instructional designer, most of my writing experience had been as a student of literature. I very quickly had to forget the conventions of academic writing to become a good instructional designer. A five-line, one-sentence paragraph with multiple clauses has no place in online training!
  • Write the way you speak. I’ve always tried to write my e-learning with a fairly natural and conversational tone. But as I’ve done more presenting and public speaking, I’ve begun to try and emulate how I speak in the way I write: short sentences, contractions, straightforward language, even the odd preposition at the start of a sentence! Writing in plain English and trying to mimic how you’d do it in a classroom is one of the easiest ways to switch your learners on. Not doing it is one of the easiest ways to switch them off.

(This is something I’m particularly passionate about so will no doubt be the subject of a future blog post or two! In the meantime take a look at some of Cathy Moore’s writing tips and her Dump the Drone slideshow.)

4.     Eye contact

In the classroom: Almost everyone who responded last week mentioned the importance of a good trainer in making a classroom session engaging. We can all, I’m sure, think of at least occasion of being in a classroom, lecture or conference with a speaker who read from their notes or the screen, barely looking up and never connecting with the audience. Eye contact makes so much difference: if you feel that the speaker is actually talking to and engaging with you, you’re more likely to engage with them and what they’re saying. Eye contact also helps to convey that all-important enthusiasm and passion that can bring the topic to life.

Online: A few years ago I worked with a very wise instructional designer who firmly believed in designing e-learning that makes eye contact. It might not immediately sound logical, but I think it’s a great concept. To me, it means keeping in mind that you’re writing for individual learners rather than a faceless mass of drones. Even if you can’t see them, you can achieve this through simple things like writing to the learner directly, holding their attention and referring to things that really matter to and resonate with them. Compare these two examples with the same design but different tones of voice – which one are you most likely to engage with?

It’s not an exhaustive list – although long enough with just those four points! – but I think if you can achieve these four things in your e-learning, you’re well on your way to creating an engaging experience for your learners.


2 thoughts on “Lessons from the classroom: tips for engaging e-learning

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