Why (some) elearning is a complete waste of time
2nd January 2018
You read that right. Me, the Head of Learning at a digital learning company, believes that some eLearning is a complete waste of time. Am I secretly working to undermine the industry from the inside, like some kind of secret agent bent on the destruction of the eLearning industry? No, and that sounds like it would make a terrible TV show. I say this because I am frequently shocked and saddened by the low quality of eLearning out there. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good providers who genuinely make good, impactful eLearning—it’s just that they are in the minority, and the general standard in the industry is still disappointingly low.
It’s a minefield out there, and it’s easy to waste money and time on eLearning that will bring no benefit to employee performance and your business. Especially when the vast majority of eLearning companies claim to have ‘interactive’ or ‘engaging’ learning. Training should be about performance; therefore, eLearning and blended solutions should enable employees to perform certain actions that will help them do their jobs better, which in turn will boost your business. So, how can you tell if eLearning is going to be a waste of time? What are the tell-tale signs of high-quality eLearning?
Not all eLearning is created equal. For the sake of this article, I’ve broken the different types of eLearning into two main categories: traditional and smarter. One will waste your and your employees’ time, your money, and will have no business impact. The other will save you time, money, and will make your business better.
Any learning where the participants play a passive role, meaning they are not required to do or say anything except watch or listen, is an incredibly ineffective way of educating. If learners aren’t required to think about or apply what they’re learning, then they’re not going to learn anything.
Here are some tell-tale signs of this kind of eLearning:
1. Narration everywhere
Narration is classically used to make a module more ‘interesting’. The thinking goes, the more narration the better, right? Wrong! You can’t turn a VW Golf into a Ferrari by painting it red. If a course isn’t interesting without narration, that means the course itself sucks! Narration won’t save it, it will just make the brain-meltingly dull course irritating as well! Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the correct use of narration, we frequently use it when suitable—I’m just against lazily designed, narration-heavy eLearning.
2. Click ‘next’
If your main interaction in a module is to click the ‘next’ button, it’s a bad sign. It means that the module is purely focused on presenting information to you—it’s got no interest in developing knowledge or skills. The development of knowledge or skills requires thought in the form of authentic context, relevant content, and activities that make you think about how to apply the knowledge to real life.
3. Reliance on quizzes and tests
If the principal activities within an eLearning module are multiple choice questions or quizzes that don’t contextualize the information into realistic situations, then you’ve got yourself an ineffective eLearning module. Quizzes about abstract information are used to add ‘interaction’ to a course, making the creators feel like they can say “Hey! This is an interactive eLearning module!”, when it’s just a glorified, online PowerPoint presentation with a quiz.
I’ll stop myself there—because I could go on. I’m passionate about quality ‘smarter Learning’, and this means I have a strong dislike for lazily designed, ineffective learning that ignores evidence-based best practice (that is easily accessible on the internet!).
So, what are some of the hallmarks of smarter learning? There have been many books written about this, and I could mention dozens of methods off the top of my head—spaced practice, an active learning experience, challenges, stories, role plays, themes, feedback, interaction-rich—but I’ll limit myself to three of the most foundational ones.
Before designing a module, instead of just asking “How do you want it to look?”, it’s vital to identify the specific skills, decisions, and knowledge applications the learner must acquire from the training—these also need to be linked to business objectives. If these actions aren’t identified at the start, then the eLearning certainly won’t do a consistent job of enabling learners to perform them. Performance doesn’t just ‘happen’, it has to be identified and targeted at the beginning to make it happen in the end.
2. Meaningful activities
Modules need to give learners opportunities to practice the actions and decisions identified in a way that is memorable and meaningful for them. This practice not only starts building the confidence they need to attempt it in real life, but it also motivates them to apply what they’ve learned by plainly showing how it benefits them at work. Simply presenting information on a topic won’t accomplish this, either.
3. Authentic contexts
Modules need to contain authentic contexts and activities which simulate the situations that learners will face whilst at work. Is the training for sales staff working in retail? Then it should be full of activities that simulate their jobs—conversations with retailers, creating reports, negotiating with customers, etc. Is the module about fire safety or another compliance topic? Then it should be full of activities that make the information real—making decisions about what to do after discovering a fire in the office, identifying fire hazards, etc.
If your eLearning incorporates these, then you’ve made an excellent start in getting smarter eLearning.