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Engaging eLearning - Is the Answer Hiding in the Training Room?

eLearning is often designed as an instructional ‘tell me’ medium, used as pre-work for face-to-face training or for the delivery of information-based programs. It’s for this reason that eLearning is often so despised by learners and organisations alike, because it has traditionally been more focused on reducing training costs than it has been on delivering valuable, effective training. For many years, the eLearning industry has tried to overcome this problem through sizzle rather than substance, using fancy graphic design, 3D renders and unnecessary ‘click-to-reveals’. I mean, who of us hasn’t been guilty of overusing hot spots? But at the end of the day, eLearning is so often nothing more than fancy PowerPoint. I guess it’s not surprising, given that the one of the most popular authoring tools started its life as a PowerPoint plug in. It’s always bewildered me that we took one of the most loathed face-to-face training mediums (‘death by PowerPoint’) and thought it was a good idea to create a digital version of it - why did we think the result would be different?

However, many of the answers to better eLearning can be found in that same place, by looking at the techniques of great face-to-face facilitation. While there is no substitute for in-person facilitation, we can still borrow a few lessons to get eLearning a lot closer in both engagement and effectiveness. Just maybe, the answer to engaging eLearning has been hiding in plain sight, in the training room? Let’s take a look at what makes a good facilitator and how this might translate to the digital world.

A good facilitator:

1. Adapts to the learner’s needs

  • Facilitator: A good facilitator adjusts their training plan based on the learners in the class. They learn about the backgrounds and current capabilities of the participant and then adjust their plan and delivery accordingly.
  • eLearning: We could achieve the same thing in eLearning by asking the learner some background questions that check their situation and capabilities, and then creating a personalised plan based on their responses.

2. Regularly checks comprehension and clarifies misconceptions

  • Facilitator: A good facilitator regularly stops and checks participants are ‘getting it’, ensures that they understand concepts, clarifies misconceptions, and provides meaningful feedback before moving on.
  • eLearning: Equally good eLearning should regularly check-in to make sure the learner understands things before moving on. This should be more than testing, it should genuinely check comprehension through properly designed activities that offer thoughtful feedback to common misconceptions. For example, when presenting videos, stopping every few minutes to check in with a reflective or comprehension question helps ensure learners understand, are not drifting off, and are understanding the key points of the video.

3. Focuses on learner activities not just conveying information

  • Facilitator: A good facilitator is more concerned about what the learner is doing, than what they as a facilitator are saying. They include real world examples and application activities that help foster genuine skill development and focus less on presenting information via PowerPoint.
  • eLearning: Great eLearning should emphasis activities, such as scenarios and cases studies, with choices, feedback and reflection to ensure the learner knows how to apply the knowledge and skills. Good eLearning gets to practice quickly (learning by doing), delivering knowledge and information as the learner progresses through scenarios and activities.

4. Acknowledges ‘shades of grey’ and provides individual feedback

  • Facilitator: A good facilitator presents best practice as a model, and acknowledges that different situations may vary. In other words, they acknowledge ‘shades of grey’. Equally, they take the time to offer individual feedback to learners based on their situation.
  • eLearning: We can achieve this in eLearning scenarios by making sure that we have response options that reflect a variety of good practices or even okay practice. You don’t just have to have a right answer and a bunch of obviously wrong answers. You can also have neutral answers (neither right nor wrong). Most importantly all answers should be choices people would realistically make, and should offer feedback as to how the learner can improve on their practice.

5. Engages through measurement and reward

  • Facilitator: A good facilitator recognises when their audience is motivated by measurement, completion and reward and uses that as a technique to create engagement.
  • eLearning: eLearning can achieve this with the use of scores and achievements. However they should be meaningful, i.e achievements should be aligned to critical objectives and scores should genuinely measure performance and be used to provide personalised feedback.

6. Personal, informal and emotive

  • Facilitator: A good facilitator is personal, maybe even a little charming, informal and shows passion and emotion when engaging participants.
  • eLearning: eLearning too, doesn’t need to be stuffy and formal. It can be personal, informal and yes, even show emotional feedback. Two ways you can achieve this is with video case studies with actual people, not actors or voice over artists. This ensures authenticity and passion. Another way is to use a trusted narrator or coach character that appears throughout the learning that is a proxy for the facilitator. This character can engage conversationally with the learner, ask them check-in questions and even show emotional feedback based on the choices the learner makes.

7. Reflection, personal practice and embedding activities

  • Facilitator: A good facilitator offers the opportunity for the learner to reflect on how they will apply what they are learning in their role, including giving them tips and advice for their personal situation. They also give them workplace actions, embedding activities, or tools they can take back to their work to start applying what they have learnt after the training.
  • eLearning: This can easily be translated to eLearning by adding reflective (as opposed to right/wrong) questions throughout that help the learner stop and think about how they will apply what they are learning to their situation. It can give meaningful tips and advice based on their choices on these questions. eLearning should also have external activities for the learner to do in their role. You can give the learner permission to exit, go try something and come back - this self-paced, fully work-integrated benefit of eLearning is one big advantage face-to-face training can’t easily achieve.

These are just some of the attributes of a good facilitator and how we can bring them to the digital experience, if we think differently and use some technical smarts. Selecting PowerPoint instead of good facilitation as the origin of eLearning really was our industry’s unfortunate ‘sliding door’ moment,  but it’s never too late to get back on track and start making more effective eLearning - and it doesn’t even need to cost more.

Josh Humphries
20 November 2017 4 Min Read

How does this look in action?
Check out our current program in cooperation with Monash University Malaysia.


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