Inactive or interactive - The secret to elearning content development

Helen Smirthwaite | 07/10/2013

Click here, click there, click almost anywhere, but are the interactive elements of the eLearning content on offer to your staff actually helping to deliver a truly engaging experience?

It's one of the fastest growth areas of development in the training business, but all too often, new, apparently "engaging" e-learning programmes start with a bang and end with a whimper.

So what's going wrong? For the savvy elearners of today there’s little point in clicking, if today’s “interactive” learning features fail to make the grade.

Inactive or interactive

In e-learning, the purpose of completing a course is to learn – to gain knowledge and understanding, or to master a new skill. Interactivity may be entertaining for the user, but its main objective is to create, enhance and support the learning of specific pre-defined goals. The user should not simply read or be told the learning points, but should actually participate in bringing them forward as they progress through the course. For interactivity to help enhance learning there must be a connection between the subject matter and the choices that the user is asked to make.

We all learn from our mistakes, and an important part of learning “lessons” is through experiencing the consequences of our “wrong” choices. When, for instance, we try to effect change in high-level topics like company vision, strategy, or values, interactivity’s role can be critical.

Training values can be difficult because it all seems so simple. It is very hard to disagree that being, for instance, “loyal” is a good thing. Yet the term is completely meaningless without context. Yes, it’s a good thing to be loyal, nobody would protest against that – but what does “loyal” mean? Does it mean that you are supposed to always stand behind any decision a colleague makes? At first glance that might sound reasonable. If you were a schoolteacher, you would respect your colleague’s decision to give the students homework and you would probably not tell the students to ignore the assignment from your colleague because you want to give them a different task instead. But what if you’re a police detective and your colleague’s decision is to threaten a suspect in an unauthorised manner? Should you stand by this decision and help by covering up your colleague’s mistakes or illegal actions? Of course not. In this situation your loyalty to the laws of your country should take precedence over your loyalty to your colleague.

Clearly then, a value contextualised for the learner within a compelling sequence of realistic events carries with it a high probability of success. Through a process of interactive storytelling the learner can be drawn into a topic and quickly gather understanding of key teaching points.

Interactive stories are well suited to present social interaction and situations where the user has to make a choice. The story doesn’t just tell the message, but dramatises it, and allows the user to transfer the knowledge from a realistically dramatised situation to other relevant situations that they will encounter. The problem situation is shown, not just talked about, and learning points that would otherwise seem like abstract facts, take on relevance when put into the context of a customer situation.

Engaging the learner through interactivity is hardly a new concept, but - constantly wooed, confused or plain overwhelmed by an exciting new array of interactive tools and props every few months - it’s easy to see how some protagonists in the e-learning business have drifted from the essential rules of engagement. The addition of mobile learning options into the mix makes for even more choices for the course designer, but just remember the goal is not to win audience through fancy multimedia effects, but to stimulate reflection. The rich interactive options available to us today need to support the process, not stifle it.