Effective e-learning interactions: to tell or to test?

If you were at a party with these two people, who would you rather talk to? (Thanks to the ever-inspirational Cathy Moore for this idea.) I’d imagine most of you would be more inclined to strike up a conversation with the girl. It’s easier to engage with someone who asks you a question or invites your opinion than someone who talks at you.

Likewise, in your academic or professional life, are you more likely to remember (for the right reasons) a session that invites you to think and respond or one that comprises someone lecturing you? Again, I think most of us will be in agreement that a session that involves us is more engaging at the time and more memorable afterwards.

All this explains why one of the things most of us want our e-learning to be is ‘interactive’. In e-learning, as in life, interactions are more engaging and memorable than lectures.

But an ineffective interaction isn’t just ineffective, it’s also a drain on resources: designing, building and completing interactions takes time (and therefore money), so it’s important to do it right in order to maximise the return on investment. With that in mind, I thought I’d share one of my top tips for designing effective interactions that help to enhance the e-learning experience.

Not all interactions are equal

Some interactions (like the humble click-to-reveal, rollover or click-through photo-story) are perfect for enhancing engagement. They help to break up content into learner-friendly chunks and they start to turn a passive learning experience into something more active. But they don’t demand intellectual engagement – you can click through the whole activity without necessarily putting any thought into it. I call these ‘telling’ interactions.

Other interactions demand a little more from the learner. Yes, in theory, you could work through a drag-and-drop, quiz question or matching pairs activity (to name a few examples) without engaging intellectually, but it’s not so easy to do. This kind of interaction, when well designed, starts to mirror reality and encourage exploration, focusing on the actions and behaviours learners need to demonstrate in real life and therefore making the learning more meaningful and effective. I call these ‘testing’ interactions.

‘Telling’ interactions

For me, there are three situations in which you might decide to use a ‘telling’ interaction: to make content more manageable, to improve focus, and to bring something to life.

Think about when you’ve Googled something and found yourself wading through page upon page of information, making it impossible to identify the key points. A ‘telling’ interaction can help to avoid this kind of information overload. For example:

  • An interactive map which reveals information about specific countries as they are clicked on is more easily digested by the learner than a static list alongside a small image
  • Images of people which, when hovered over, reveal a series of benefits arising from a particular process has more impact and personal resonance than a bulleted list of company-focused benefits

A ‘telling’ interaction can also provide some structure to the learner and help them focus as they work through and assimilate lots of potentially detailed information. For example:

  • A click-through photo-story in which two fictional characters discuss the application of a policy in context can guide the learner by tackling in turn the questions they are likely to have
  • An illustrated timeline which animates and describes the steps in a process helps the learner take on the information in a logical way, rather than a static diagram which can be misinterpreted

Finally, ‘telling’ interactions can be very effective in bringing facts to life and putting policy and regulations in context. For example:

  • A compliance course can be greatly enhanced by inviting the learner to click on and read a series of newspaper articles, taken from real life, which illustrate the context (and severity) of the subject matter
  • A simple video scenario can show a process in action to clearly illustrate the relevance of the content, or even a regulatory breach taking place to illustrate how easy it can be to make mistakes

‘Testing’ interactions

Bringing facts to life can also be achieved through ‘testing’ interactions. For example:

  • A drag-and-drop activity asking learners to distinguish between true facts and myths about climate change makes the statistics more meaningful and memorable than including a ‘handy’ crib sheet

But, for me, the best uses of ‘testing’ interactions are where it’s appropriate to challenge the learner or where it’s necessary to enable proficiency.

Very often as instructional designers we have to overcome not just learner resistance to the training itself but also unhelpful or incorrect attitudes and preconceptions about the subject matter. ‘Testing’ interactions can be very effective in overcoming these things. For example:

  • A series of quiz questions, dressed up by using photographs of fictional colleagues making statements about equality and diversity which the learner must classify as true or false, can highlight early on that the learner doesn’t already know all there is to know
  • A click-through photo-story illustrating a familiar performance appraisal scenario, following by a matching pairs activity in which each character must be linked to their strengths and weaknesses, encourages the learner to consider a range of perspectives

Where the objective is about changing behaviours and performance, rather than attitude or awareness, ‘testing’ interactions are the most effective way to achieve this. Ask yourself what learners need to be able to do as a result of the learning and focus your ‘testing’ interactions on those learning points. For example:

  • An interactive video, whereby the learner directs the course of the conversation by selecting questions or responses in a multiple choice format between clips, means that an interviewing skills course mirrors reality and focuses on the key points
  • A full-screen representation of a construction site which the learner must explore in order to identify the health and safety hazards effectively equips them to spot and avoid such hazards on a real construction site
  • A series of sub-standard SMART objectives, each with one missing element which the learner must identify, is essentially a set of multiple choice questions but focuses on the learning points that need to be transferred back to the workplace

So both ‘telling’ and ‘testing’ interactions have their place and help to enhance the learning experience, as long as the decision of whether to tell or to test is considered and thought through.

What do you think: do you find it useful to categorise interactions to help you choose the right activity? If so, how do you group them and when do you use them? Or perhaps you have a different technique for deciding on what kind of interaction to use in a given situation?

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3 thoughts on “Effective e-learning interactions: to tell or to test?

  1. Pingback: Using a screen type index to create balanced storyboards | Good To Great

  2. Pingback: Day 2: The right interactions at the right time | Good To Great

  3. Pingback: Day 3: The Goldilocks rule and good feedback | Good To Great

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