As an e-learning designer, I spend a lot of time looking at what other people are doing to see what works and what doesn’t, and quite surprisingly, I would argue that 95 percent of the stuff I look at doesn’t work, and the reasons most of it doesn’t work would surprise you. Here are some things that seem to be quite common (and problematic):
1. Designs that were made for old technology. I see this as the biggest problem. Quite often, someone designs a flashy Power Point presentation, and then dubs it “e-learning” because it’s too flashy to be just a Power Point presentation. And some of it involves lots of screaming graphics and stuff that flies around the screen. Just like I used to tell people when I first started designing web pages, making it fly around doesn’t make it more professional, nor does it make the content any more useful.
Too often, the attempt is made to show what the software can do, rather than use the software to do what it should do. If I want to display that George Washington crossed the Potomac, I can make a little boat float across the Potomac, and then once I’ve done that, I can then make the water all wavy-like, and blue, and maybe cause a thunderstorm to appear out of nowhere, and then Native-Americans that charge across the screen at him, and maybe some Imperial stormtroopers fighting jedis with lightsabers, and… Well, you get the picture. It’s all great, and looks really exciting, but in the end, it doesn’t tell me anything about George Washington crossing the Potomac. Whereas, I might re-create the weather conditions, and maybe the mood of the scene with some classical music (or more Independence Day inspired music), and then maybe a narrative of something that came from that time. And even that might be over-doing it. In the end, it might be more beneficial to teach by showing less and making the point of why the incident was so important to history.
Yesterday, I redesigned one of my presentations to my political science class by adding arrows that told a circular story of how Machiavelli interpreted Aristotle’s political foundations. It made sense and wasn’t over the top. I could have made it over the top, but then I realized that my students would be focused on the presentation and not the information contained in the presentation, and quite often, that is where we fail.
2. The lack of interactivity when needed. I recently designed an interactive e-learning that leads someone through a computer environment. For the longest time, we’ve been creating re-creations of computer environments where the student is a passive follower of the content on the screen. For the longest time, I suspected this wasn’t very educational, as I’ve often received far greater responses from students when they were working the computer system themselves. So, I redesigned the environment from scratch so that the e-learning is actually an interactive one, forcing the student to enter informaton in a simulated computer environment. Scripting their scenario for them, I lead them through the entry process, but they put in the information themselves, requiring them to prove that they understand the environment, and haven’t just been watching simulations of the environment. If they don’t get it, they don’t move forward. This has to be far better than reading a book about a programming language and then trying to create something from scratch, even if the book hand holds you through the process.
I looked over the e-learning we were doing before this and realized that passive presentation is all we’ve been doing, and then I realized after looking at a lot of other instructional e-learning, from Apple’s podcasts to Adobe online instructional guides, that this is how most e-learning is designed. If you want to make your students really learn what they are doing, make them do the work in your e-learning process. The system I used to design this latest module was an LLMS, and it was not really designed for interactivity, other than to test people afterwords, so I used the testing processing applications to integrate the interactivity into the training module itself. The software wasn’t designed to do that, but it sure is now that I finished playing with it. I would imagine more e-learning software will have to start doing this in the future because students need to touch the applications, not just watch them, to learn.
3. This is kind of a recap, but it’s important to be open to new ideas and new ways of teaching. You can’t be reactive with an e-learning module. You have to design to teach, not to do what’s been done before. And that’s one of our biggest struggles. We keep thinking in old technology and then try to re-create old ideas with new toys. The iPad is a good example of this. I’ve seen so many apps built for it that were really built for computer screens, where the designer obviously used a mouse in the design process, not realizing that people hold an iPad (or iPhone or Android device) so much differently than a mouse, keyboard and visual screen. Yet, we keep thinking that the student (or user of the device) will cooperate with us, rather than teach ourselves to design for how they want to interact. It’s the reason Steve Jobs laughed at Microsoft’s first tablet (designed with a mouse); he just knew that Bill Gates didn’t get it. And that’s the lesson for today. Design for people who will be using your application, e-learning or programs, not for the ease of what you’re used to using.