Thursday, 6 June 2013

eLearning and Death by PowerPoint or, Why do we have to go from A to B to C to D?

I read this article the other day and it got me thinking about PowerPoint and how so many eLearning courses look and feel a lot like PowerPoint presentations.

Why is eLearning like PowerPoint?
A good friend of mine heads up her company’s eLearning team. She likes to joke about the magic “Convert to eLearning” button. This is usually within the context of a client handing her team a PowerPoint slideshow and expecting them to turn it into an eLearning course quickly and effortlessly.

Reading that article got me thinking about how most eLearning courses feel like PowerPoint presentations. Now, when I claim something is true of “most eLearning courses” I want you to understand that I’m not just making this up; I’m basing it on extensive and diligent research… in the form of thinking about eLearning courses I’ve taken. So, based on this research, since it’s true for nearly every eLearning course I’ve taken to date I’m going to bet it’s true of most of the eLearning courses out there.

Is this natural?
I want you to do something for me now. I want you to think about the last book you read. No, not that one, pick another one. Are you thinking about it? Good. Now consider how you read it. I don’t mean whether you were reading in bed, on the bus or standing in line. I’m talking (well… I’m writing) about something more basic than that.
You started reading at the beginning and finished (you did finish the book, right?) at the end. As you finished each page, you turned to next and the next until you got to the last one. You probably don’t give any thought to this fact because that’s just the way reading is done.
Most eLearning follows the same pattern. You start at the beginning and work your way through to the end, page by page. You go from point A to point B to point C to point D (and so on). I’ve seen variations in what a “page” looks like; some have just text and images (like a book page), others have audio and/or video, sometimes there are test items (true/false, matching, fill in the blanks), or other interactive elements but the same general principle applies: you arrive from the preceding “page” and proceed to the subsequent one.
Some courses allow you to skip sections (maybe you did well on a particular topic in the pre-test) or go into more depth (in case you want more information on something). Don’t be fooled into thinking this is different from a PowerPoint presentation, friends and colleagues, because it isn’t. I’ve seen (I’ve even presented) slideshows where sections are skipped (“Oh, never mind these slides. They’re not relevant today.”), effectively going from point A to point B to point D (skipping point C). I’ve also had situations where we paused at a particular slide while discussing something in more detail, essentially going from point A to point B to point B+ to point C. 

Is there another way?
What if it weren’t linear? I once designed a course (not eLearning, mind you, but I think the idea still applies) where the order in which the topics were covered was decided by the roll of a die. If you ask me, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine if a course played out differently for each learner. For me, it might go from point A to point B to point D to point C, for you maybe it’s D to A to B and no C at all.
Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure™ books from the 80s and 90s? Everything was in there, but you (the reader) got to control how it played out. How about making eLearning feel more like that? Consider this opening script for a completely fictional new hire orientation eLearning course:
It’s your first day of work at Mega Corp. You’re waiting in the lobby for Chloe, the HR representative, to greet you. There she is now.
“Good morning, Karen.” she says “Today’s the big day. We’ve got several people ready to help get you up to speed on everything you should need in your first week on the job.”
“Tom is with our IT team. He can show you how to use the intranet and has some tips on making the most of our e-mail system.”
“Rick is the Accounts Payable manager. He’d like to walk you through submitting your first expense report. He’s also super organized, so if you need any advice on keeping your receipts and other paperwork in check he’s your guy.”
“Janine is our Chief Legal Counsel. She’ll want to speak with you about some regulatory requirements you’ll need to know, like safe document handling and our whistleblower policy. Be sure to ask her how to spot fraudulent e-mails, she wrote the book on that.”
“Ricky isn’t actually an employee of Mega Corp, he works for the building administration. He’ll get you set up with your building access card. Security is different on evenings and weekends, so if you’re planning to come in make sure you ask him how that works.”
“I also have a few things we can discuss. I can show you how to use our HR system to book vacation time, sign up for training or change your mailing address. I can also answer any questions you might have about our payroll schedule and benefits programs.”
“So, who would you like to meet with first?”

 Can you do it?
Now that I’ve shown you what I have in mind, your mission (if you choose to accept it) is to make your next eLearning course look and feel a little like PowerPoint as possible. Change things up. Give the learner control over what they learn and in what order. Make something new!