I’ve spent the previous week in Manchester, on Clive Shepherd’s Digital Learning Design course. Some of the course covered topics I was already familiar with, like how to write for the web (skim and scan, etc.). When the learner has prior knowledge of the topic the learning experience is of course relatively easy. It’s more about reminding you about the things you already know. But when the learner is coming to something completely new, well, that’s another matter.
Learning is hard work
We all instinctively know that learning is hard work. I distinctly remember that memorizing German verbs and multiplication tables made my brain positively hurt. But I hadn’t really appreciated before the difference between designing content for a general online audience and designing content for online learners.
In an online learning context you are dealing with an audience under pressure, feeling the strain of processing new information. Learning expends considerable intellectual effort. Neuroscience backs this up; the hippocampus (our short term memory) can only hold 20 minutes of focused learning. After that we’re bust.
Design learning to be a little less effortful
So we need to build learning content that precisely targets the intended learning outcomes, with a laser-like focus on the essentials (courses), leaving everything else for the learner to discover on their own (resources). We must deliver courses that cater to the different ways people learn. To make learning ‘sticky’ we need to mix together the right compounds from our learning design chemistry set. And choose the right approach – exposition, instruction, guided discovery, or exploration – that works best for what your learners need to know.
When learning is a far from normal experience
But we also need to be mindful of designing learning for the way that we live our digital lives. As digital technology evolves and embeds itself in people’s lives, our perception of ‘normal’ quickly changes.
It can be hard to keep up with the dizzying pace of change – even for the big boys in software development. But it’s crucial that we keep moving and adapting our learning design strategies. Otherwise the gap between people’s experiences of digital learning and their non-learning, day-to-day digital lives will create additional cognitive load. When learning is already ‘effortful’, we need to make it easier by designing content and platforms that emulate familiar, positive digital experiences.
Today’s digital normal is responsive and seamless
It’s five years now since Ethan Marcotte’s seminal article (http://alistapart.com/article/responsive-web-design) on responsive web design. Five years on and smartphones are ubiquitous. And the screens we interact with on a daily basis vary from tiny through to ginormous: smart watches and smart phones, tablets, laptops and supersize smart TVs. We increasingly expect to interact with the same platform and content across all devices, moving seamlessly between them.
At CIPD we’re about to embark on a project to redesign our website and make it responsive (amongst a list of other improvements). But it’s not just humble organizations like CIPD that are grappling with the challenges and opportunities that responsive design brings, so too are the giants of web and eLearning software.
A couple of weeks ago a colleague introduced me to a whizzy new tool: Adobe Muse. Muse creates cool-looking dynamic one-page scrollable infographics and microsites. (Check out site of the day at http://muse.adobe.com/site-of-the-day.) But Muse doesn’t (at least not yet) create responsive sites. And the two most popular eLearning design programs – Adobe Captivate and Articulate – are still not capable of building responsive courses.
The next release of Adobe Captivate will export responsive courses (due end 2015). And Articulate is building a responsive player. But open source got there first. (Don’t you just love open source!) Adapt Framework is the new kid on the block and builds responsive courses in a scroll-based template that’s ideal for presenting content on a smartphone. Another open source development xAPI is gradually replacing SCORM, allowing sophisticated learner interactions to be captured and recorded on a LMS (via a Learning Record Store), without the need for a continuous internet connection (which is one of the drawbacks of SCORM). Again, technology is evolving in ways that emulate the way people increasingly interact with their devices.
Today’s digital normal doesn’t look like a ‘traditional’ corporate VLE
But not only do we need to build learning content that works on multiple devices, we also need to host it in familiar-looking environments. Lynda.com for example, doesn’t look like a Virtual Learning Environment: it looks like an App store. CIPD’s VLE doesn’t look like anything else our students will be used to using online. Using it (as I had to a lot last week) feels like you’ve fallen through a space-time wormhole back to 2001. (Although it has to be said, it is responsive!)
The future is now
So the future is now… well, almost. We need to keep on our toes. We need to continually evolve as the digital world around us evolves; designing and building learning that resonates with the digital concepts, conventions and environments our learners familiar with.