Top 5 tips for designing purposeful eLearning activities

December 3, 2015/0/3

One of the most powerful benefits of using eLearning is that we are able to use interactivity and activities to create a highly engaging learning experience. To be completely honest, we are truly spoilt for choice being able to create almost any type of activity we can think of.

We can create activities that will help learners understand concepts, assess their learning and provide them with a safe environment to explore and fail.

But, to quote Uncle Ben;

“With great power, comes great responsibility”

While eLearning designers never set out to use their power for evil and create activities that are detrimental to the learning experience, there are constant temptations to create something that is fun rather than something that is purposeful. If you succumb to these temptations, you are at risk of creating bad eLearning, something we have previously touched on in our “Types of eLearning: The good, the bad and the ugly” webinar and blog.

Below are some tips on how to ensure the activity you are designing is going to add to the learning experience, and not be a frustration for the learner.

#1 Set a clear expected outcome

Having a clear goal for the activity you are designing is key to creating a purposeful interaction. While this seems like a given, complacency often leads to activities and interactions that are not aligned with the ultimate expected outcome.

At the highest level, we use activities to achieve one of the following outcomes:

  • Help the learner learn something new
  • Ask the learner to demonstrate their existing knowledge
  • Check that the learner has gained new knowledge
  • Show the learner the consequences of their decision

The trap that many designers fall into, is setting the goal of testing recall with all their activities. They create interactions that basically check if someone is able to recall a fact they were given only minutes earlier. Now if you are designing a solution that has a goal of testing and improving someone’s memory, then this would be acceptable, but in all other cases this is a lost opportunity.

We want to create activities that allow the learner to apply the information they’ve learnt critically and demonstrate their skills. We want to make the think and do, not just remember.

#2 Align with the real world

At the end of the day, the goal for any training is to provide someone with new skills and knowledge that they will be able to apply in the real world. Therefore looking to the real world is a great way to ensure that what you are designing is going to be relevant and relatable. It’s also a great way to get an idea of the best interaction to use for the activity.

For example, let’s imagine we are creating an immersive eLearning solution for paramedics to help them become aware about the hazards that they will face in thier role. We could create hazard identification activities, where our learner would be presented with a scene or situation and they would have to select all of the hazards they can see. This would be fine, but it’s not taking into consideration the full circumstances of the real world, as in the real world there would be time constraints and also distractions.

Now if we took the same scene and introduced a countdown timer, as well as audio simulating more information about the situation coming across the radio, all of a sudden we’ve been able to provide an environment that is more aligned with the real world.

Now our learner is forced to make decisions and identify hazards under a time constraint like they would in the real world. Imagine if they were listening to the radio, they hear about the patient’s violent history and suddenly the patient becomes a hazard that needs to be identified.

So when thinking about designing your interaction, really think about how it relates to the real world and you will be able to provide the learner with a more authentic and relatable learning experience.

#3 Employ K.I.S.S.

No, I don’t mean contact the agent of the legendary rock band and see if they are interested in an eLearning gig, what I mean is:

Keep.It.Simple.Stupid!

We want to ensure the activities and interaction we design are going to be engaging and relevant for the learner, while at the same time not distracting them from learning the material we want them to absorb with complex and unnecessary interactions.

We want our activities to be simple, intuitive and effective.

For example, let’s say we have an activity in which we want the learner to indicate if they think they should use a real ID, or a fake ID when applying for a job.

The interaction that is appropriate here is a standard multiple choice selection and could look like this:

In this example, the learner reads the question, makes their decision and is able to move on in two clicks. A nice simple interaction type and it allows the learner to complete the activity and move on easily and quickly.

Now let’s quickly talk about one of the most overused interaction types in eLearning; the drag-and-drop. For some reason both clients and a lot of providers are head over heels for these interactions, regardless of if they are appropriate to the desired learning outcomes.

Asking someone a true or false question? Drag-and-drop!

What someone who chose the right response from a list? Drag-and-drop!

What to frustrate learners with a pointless interaction? DRAG-AND-DROP!

Hearing “Can we make this more engaging by putting in a drag-and-drop activity?” still always sends a shiver down my spine.

The issue is that in most cases, all that a drag-and-drop interaction adds to an activity is testing the learners motor skills at the end of a cognitive task. It’s wasted effort the learner has to invest into the act of completing the interaction, rather than towards achieving a learning outcome.

Let’s contrast the steps a learner takes to answer an activity with three correct responses using a multi-choice interaction, against the steps they take to answer an activity using a drag-and-drop interaction.

Multi-choice

  1. Read the question
  2. Read the available options
  3. Apply critical thinking to determine the correct options
  4. Select the first correct option
  5. Select the second correct option
  6. Select the third correct option
  7. Review their selections
  8. Select the ‘submit’ button

Drag-and-drop

  1. Read the question
  2. Read the available options
  3. Apply critical thinking to determine the correct options
  4. Select and hold the first correct option
  5. Drag the first correct option to the drop area
  6. Release the first correct option
  7. Select and hold the second correct option
  8. Drag the second correct option to the drop area
  9. Release the second correct option
  10. Select and hold the third correct option
  11. Drag the third correct option to the drop area
  12. Release the third correct option
  13. Select the ‘submit’ button

What we can see here, is that with the drag-and-drop approach we have effectively asked our learner to take more steps and spend more time to achieve the same outcome.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t strike me as a way to engage learners, that strikes me as a really great way to frustrate them by wasting their time.

Drag-and-drop activities do have a place in eLearning, but only when there is a benefit in terms of achieving learning outcomes.

If I was designing a course on sustainability and wanted to teach learners about what sort of waste should be put in which types of bins, I would be inclined to use a drag-and-drop interaction.

I would present the learner with the three bin types and a pile of rubbish and ask them to drag-and-drop each item in the correct bin. This activity would not only be about decision making but also making instilling the thought process of ‘I put the plastic bottle in the recycle bin’ in their mind. In this case, using a drag-and-drop interaction does benefit the activity and the outcomes I am looking to achieve.

If we look at the world of UX, organisations spend countless hours and effort in creating solutions that are as simple and intuitive to use, so their users are able to achieve their goals without being distracted by the technology.

This is what we should aim for in eLearning as well.

#4 Familiarity through reusability

When you are designing a piece of eLearning, you should look at designing activities that you will be able to reuse as much as possible throughout the solution. This is in an effort to make the solution intuitive to use for the learner by reducing the number of different interactives the learner will need to complete.

“But variety is the spice of life!” I hear you protest.

Well, yes and no. Variety is the spice of life when you are completing something that is boring or is going to take a long time to do, and you want to avoid being repetitive.

When it comes to eLearning, if you are using a variety in activities because you have a long and boring course, you’ve got bigger issues you need to address.

In eLearning, every time you present the learner with a new type of interaction, they need to learn how to use it. This is ultimately a distraction from them being able to focus on learning what we actually want them to learn. However, once they have learnt how a particular interaction works, it becomes intuitive and learners do it without thinking.

For example, I recently got a new mobile phone. I switched to a new brand, so I had to learn how to interact with it to in order to achieve my goal.

One of these goals was to answer a call. The first call that came through, the screen light up with the caller details and I was presented with with two buttons; an ‘Answer’ button and a ‘Decline’ button. I instinctively tapped the ‘answer’ button and nothing happened. It took me a moment to figure out on this phone I needed to swipe up to answer the call.

From that moment on, I could answer my phone without thinking and even without looking as I had learnt how that particular interaction.

Now imagine for a moment, that for variety, each time I received a call the phone would randomly select if I can to tap the button, or swipe the button, or maybe even drag-and-drop the button to answer the call.

Each time, before I was able to achieve my goal, I had to figure out which interaction I would have to complete before even beginning to decide if I wanted to answer or decline the call from my mother in law.

It’s safe to say that this would be treated as a frustration rather than exciting variety. I would be able to escape this frustrating interaction hell by getting a new phone, but our learners are forced to endure it as they usually don’t the choice to complete a different piece of eLearning instead.

This is not to say that you can only use one type of interaction in all your activities. Obviously different activities and desired outcomes will call for different interactions, but when you are deciding on introducing a new interaction, make sure you know it’s going to add value to the learner, and will be able to be reused in other activities.

#5 Feedback should always be a reward, not a punishment

Once a learner has completed an activity, you need to provide them meaningful feedback.

Feedback should reward the learner for their effort in completing the interaction and activity, regardless of if they did it right or wrong. This is because even if they get it wrong, they should be rewarded with feedback that helps them understand why their response was wrong, and also give them the information they need to know what the right response is.

Too often, a golden learning opportunity is lost by having feedback such as “Well done, you are correct!” or “That’s not quite right, the correct answer is B” and even worse “That’s not quite right, please try again”.

The last of those is touching on the topic of retry buttons, something I discuss in more detail in my previous blog titled “The Retry Button – Statistically Correct” so I won’t go into detail about that.

In all those cases, none of those are a reward for the learner and to he honest, none are really feedback as far as I am concerned.

If you are going to give a learner feedback, make sure they learn something from the feedback or it at least reinforces for them why they got the activity right or wrong. Feedback is a great opportunity for them to learn from their mistakes in a safe environment.

For example, let’s say we have an activity in a course about drug dosage for nurses, in which we ask the learner how much of a particular drug they should give their patient. Let’s assume in this case the nurse selected a dosage that is much too high, and look at two possible approaches to providing the feedback:

Approach A

That is incorrect! The correct dosage to give this patient based on their weight is 10mg. You gave the patient 15mg which is a dangerous dosage and caused complications.

Approach B

You gave Barry 15mg of the drug. Moments later you noticed that Barry began to lose consciousness and he started to crash. Once you and the team manage to stabilise him, your team leader reviewed the drug notes and is shocked that you gave Barry such a high dosage given the appropriate dosage for his weight was only 10mg.

Barry makes a full recovery, but the situation could have been much worse.

Looking at these two approaches, while the first approach is very direct and identifies the correct response, it doesn’t really help the learner understand the gravity of the situation and the real world impacts.

In the second approach, we’ve not only been able to demonstrate which option was the correct choice, but also expand on the real world consequences to bring the situation to life.

On the back of this feedback, the learner would also be left contemplating the emotional and interpersonal impacts their choice would have on them.

As you can see, while designing activities for eLearning can seem simple enough, there has to be a lot of thought put into them to ensure they are purposeful, and delivery a benefit to the learning experience.

Hopefully these 5 tips help you in better understanding how to create activities that your learners will enjoy, and that will contribute to their learning outcomes in a positive way.

If you have any question about this article, or would like to talk about how Pure Learning can help you with your eLearning needs, please contact me at raf@purelearning.com.au.

Raf Dolanowski
Raf Dolanowski
With a strong background in leading large development teams, Raf has personally managed the creation of some of the most well known and widely used eLearning in Australia. He's passionate about educating his clients and helping companies use technology to develop their staff in the best way possible. He also thinks that Predator is the greatest action movie of all time.
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