Even before I started working as a Training Improvement Engineer, I realised that there is an essential question that needs to be answered while designing e-learning: how do I make learning content both fun and educational, within the framework I’m working in?
Finding the balance
I’ve noticed that I’m not the only one struggling with this particular question; other learning designers wondered the same thing. Now, it’s possible to create strong and high quality visuals and text by following Mayer’s 12 Principles of Multimedia. However, there’s always the risk it’ll be boring. On the other hand, including too many stimulating ways of working can turn your learning journey into a game that barely teaches anything. In other words, it’s not creating the impact you want it to deliver.
Why it doesn't work
Let’s compare it to an old-fashioned scale.
Short, to the point and clear
One side is short, concise and clear. This is where content that follows those twelve principles of Mayer and other theories, such as Less is More and Cut it ‘till it Bleeds belongs.
You don’t need a tonne of experience to see the importance of showing learners what they really need. No redundant information, busy backgrounds and distracting visuals that contribute little to learning. Besides that, you might be able to refine content that is necessary. Use fewer words, fragment it, find a better structure for your visuals and so on. Eventually, all that is left is what your learners really need to achieve their goals: the core of your learning journey.
Attractive, interactive and activating
The other side of the scale is where you’ll find the parts that are attractive, interactive and activating: the content that’s fun and stimulates learners to keep going. We all know that an overabundance of text on a basic white background doesn’t work, especially when it’s shared on a screen.
Instead, we try to improve it through the use of colours, visuals, animations and a good look & feel. This interests learners in a way that not only keeps them engaged, but also improves their experience as a whole.
Sounds good, right?
Yes, both sides sound good. And they are, because both include elements that are crucial to building a successful learning journey. But what happens when you lean too much towards one side? A result could be that your learning journey isn’t as effective as it could be.
How to find balance
Unfortunately, I have to disappoint you slightly: I don't have the recipe for the perfect balance (nor does anyone else, for that matter).
Achieving balance varies depending on each learning journey, target group and subject. In fact, if it was this simple to come up with a balanced design that works, us learning designers would be out of a job! Now although I don’t have a clear-cut recipe, I do have some tips to help you find that balance.
Look & feel
Let’s start with the look & feel; specifically for the platform you use to build your learning journey. With a few smart choices in the main settings, you can already create something appealing without even looking at the rest. A simple example is finding a colour palette to use for buttons, background and headers. Even easier is varying text sizes and fonts or using images to make it more dynamic.
The use of visuals such as images, infographics and videos can significantly improve the learning experience of your learners. Appearance does matter, also when it comes to designing an online learning journey.
However, overdoing it can lead to cognitive overload. Flashy elements are going to fight for your learners’ attention and makes it harder to distinguish what information is most important. They need to put in more effort to do so and as a result, they might skip over it entirely without absorbing anything. Additionally, low quality visuals can be incredibly distracting.
Need to know & nice to know
If you’re a learning designer, I can’t imagine you’ve never heard of the terms ‘need to know’ and ‘nice to know’. They might sound a bit cheesy, but they come in handy when you need to divide your information. The first category includes information that a learner needs to know to successfully achieve their learning objectives. Everything that falls into the second one is not essential to accomplishing those goals.
Asking yourself what is ‘need to know’ vs ‘nice to know’ can really improve your learning journey. It gives you the chance to focus on conveying the right information, without creating too many distractions.
My opinion about these two categories differs a bit from the general consensus that you should only include ‘need to know’ information and ‘nice to know’ is just optional.
Now, it is important to be careful with the amount of information you offer and that’s why I constantly ask myself: do they need to know this? Do they need to know this now or later? But when it comes to ‘nice to know’ information, I’m sometimes a little less critical than my fellow learning designers. I believe it can help make a learning journey more lively, which in turn helps with learning and retaining more. A fun fact, a funny example or an extra example that connects theory to real life situations? These are all elements I like to add to the learning journey, to give it more body; and it’s not just dry information. However, I do recommend taking a good look at the target group and subject; this approach works better for one than the other.
Lastly, I want to discuss interaction. In e-learning, we mean the parts where learners are able to do something themselves to advance in their learning journey. Complex examples of this include VR or serious gaming. However, it can also be the simple things, such as clicking blocks or answering questions. The possibilities and limitations all depend on the platform you use. Regardless, interaction is part of every learning journey.
A balanced scale
It’s not easy to find the right balance.
The ratio between fun and informative depends on the content and the goal. In some cases, one carries more weight than the other. The most important thing to do while building a learning journey is to pay attention to both sides. I hope these tips help you tip the scale in your learner’s favour.