Instructional design from a learners perspective

E-learning is a passion of mine. In my previous career I was an electrical engineer that worked in the offshore Oil & Gas sector. I have been on so many helicopters I lost count. Throughout the 20 years of hopping from Oil Rig to Oil Rig I had to sit through an enormous amount of training videos. Some were vibrant, interesting, and really well made and others were…….well….TERRIBLE! - unless they were designed as a sleeping aid! Sometimes staying awake was impossible.

When watching a poorly made video or course, I would always ask myself the same question. Did the person who created the content really understand what the role of a great Instructional Designer is? In truth, back then I didn’t know that the role was called an Instructional Designer. So, what makes a great course? What differentiates a learning masterpiece from a snooze fest? How can you stop learners from banging their head on a desk and shouting “please make it stop!”? Well, as somebody who has seen my fair share of courses, the following are things that I think can really help.

Know your learners This sounds obvious, but it is so important. It will set the tone for what type of course you want to create. A bunch of hairy arsed, rough and tough offshore workers will learn differently from a group of fast paced C-Suite executives. Think about this carefully when creating the content. The offshore environment relies heavily on humor and banter and therefore this could be worked into the course. Obviously, this would not work for the professional C-suite executives. In my past career I presented training classes on complex electrical systems to paying clients. If I had the electricians from the plant, I would present the same content but if a different way to how I would teach plant engineers. The same is true for online learning.

Exploration is Key! Sorry to offend anyone - a course that is just a series of “next” button clicks is just the worst thing imaginable. It is soul destroying and the only thing it encourages is pressing the next button as quickly as possible to make the pain stop! Create a story that is interactive with audio/visual content that leads the learner on a self-directed learning journey. Make them want to click on objects to find out more rather than clicking on things so they can get to the end. Try and replicate the behavior that somebody uses when searching Google for the answer to a question. It is usually a fun process that leads them down many rabbit holes while learning new and interesting things.

Include Interactive reality-based scenarios Most people want to know why they need to learn the content you are providing. Pages and pages of info sometimes doesn’t get the message across. Integrating a real-life example of the how the learning can help is a perfect way to get your message across. For example, if you design a scenario that allows the learners to use the skills they have learned during the eLearning course, such as technical problem solving skill, it proves to them that the content they are learning will benefit them in real life. If gives them a good feeling that they learned something new and were able to apply it in a real life scenario. They will nod their head and say “ahh, OK, I see how that worked” and encourage them to learn more. Exactly what we want!

Use emotion-based content Making a learner feel a specific emotion can really help with acquiring and retaining information. We are humans. We remember emotion-based interactions in our life much better than other situations. The same is true for learning. Try and find human interest pieces that relate to the topic and integrate them into the learning. Example of this are news stories or short documentary pieces. A video showing how following a procedure saved someone’s life will have much more impact than just telling people to follow the procedure.

Mix different element types Make your course aesthetically pleasing. Use different elements and keep the course dynamic. Slide after slide of words is just soul crushing. The idea is to grab the learners attention and keep it. If the content changes as they move through the course, it keeps them on their toes, and they don’t know what to expect next. It gives them a reason to want to continue. And that is critical. If they are engaged, then they will learn. It really is that simple.

Make quizzes interactive When possible design the quizzes and tests so they are interactive. Drag and drop the correct piece of equipment into a picture, choose the hazard on the screen, move a person in a safe position with respect to the scenario. These are just examples and are much more engaging that just answering a multiple-choice question. If the client’s budget will stretch, consider gamification. Make scenarios that they interact with like a game that they have to complete in a certain way. They will learn without even knowing they are doing it!

The voice makes a difference Obviously, this is close to my heart as a voice actor. It was actually one of the reasons that I got into voice over. While watching the hundreds of safety videos over my career, it became very obvious that the ones that had professional, engaging voice overs were more interesting and easier to follow. The one’s with monotone, lifeless voices with poor quality audio were just excruciating. There has been a lot of research on how important audio is and how it influences people. A study by USC and the Australian National University played the exact same content to a group of people. One recording was low quality audio and the other was high quality audio. The resounding result was that as soon as they reduced the audio quality, all of a sudden, the content lost credibility. Others have proven that people are more likely to tolerate watching a video that is fuzzy than watching the same video with poor audio. If the budget allows, choose a professional voice actor. It really does make a huge difference.

This just scratches the surface and is solely based on my experience as a learner and not an instructional designer. Other considerations such as budgets and deadlines all affect the ability to make an amazing, content rich course. I have an enormous amount of respect for instructional designers who aim to hit most of these points. It is really hard work to create an outstanding learning experience, but it is so worth it when you see the end user’s engagement go through the roof! You are also providing a public service by saving those learners from brain damage who bang their heads in frustration!