How to Structure an eLearning Interaction

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Whether you are designing an eLearning course or an instructor-led session, your solution will likely include a series of carefully-planned learning interactions. These interactions should be closely tied to one of your instructional objectives: what learners should know, do, or believe after completing the activity.

Jennifer Bertram

Jennifer Bertram

I interviewed our Manager of Instructional Design, Jennifer Bertram, to learn more about what goes in to creating learning interactions. Our discussion focused almost exclusively on eLearning, as developing varied and effective interactions that work within a course can be quite the elusive task for would-be designers.

Jennifer had some great thoughts on how to get started with designing learning interactions, as well as suggestions on types of learning activities to consider.

The Challenge: When designing interactions for eLearning, you are already at a bit of a disadvantage. Scenarios and activities that strive to be realistic are, by nature, unrealistic because they are sitting inside a course instead of happening in the work environment. As a designer, Jennifer is careful to build interactions that are as realistic as possible to avoid teaching learners how to act in “a fantasy world that doesn’t exist.”

Setting Up a scenario-based interaction

Scenarios are one of the most common interactions found in eLearning courses, and for good reason. A well-designed eLearning scenario provides a safe place to practice communicating with different types of individuals. Since the conversations are not in real time, learners have a chance to respond in a more thoughtful way (which can be good, or bad). Jennifer suggested a few common questions to ask when setting up an eLearning scenario:

Is it a realistic situation? Make sure your scenario could really happen in the workplace. Avoid making it so easy that it would never happen… or so unusual that it feels unrealistic.

What are realistic outcomes or consequences of decisions that may happen? Many organizations are uncomfortable portraying a negative outcome in a scenario. The reality is that our choices in the workplace do have consequences, both positive and negative. It’s crucial to make the consequences as realistic as possible for the scenario to have real learning impact.

What kinds of decision points should learners make? Jennifer recommends identifying key “pain points” where learners are currently making the wrong decision. Identify what the improvement opportunities are, and build the scenario around those opportunities.

Are the conversations realistic? We mentioned above that eLearning courses are already inherently unrealistic because they are, well, eLearning. Don’t make this fact worse by making your dialogue too cookie-cutter, or not an accurate portrayal of how people speak in the learner’s environment.

How complex can the scenario be? Many of the our clients do not have budget, time and resources to build a branching scenario with 20 possible outcomes. Jennifer is often challenged with finding a way to keep scenarios simple, while still remaining realistic. It is important to get the main idea across without having to recreate a 30 minute conversation… because it just won’t happen in most projects.

Other learning interactions to consider

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Flowchart: One of Jennifer’s current project is using a flowchart visual to illustrate decisions. Learners make decisions and follow the path of that decision down the chart to see out comes. It’s not a conversation, but more of a “what if” where you can replay the conversation and try different choices. Flowcharts allow learners to play around with different outcomes, always asking the question “I wonder what happens when?”

Video: When a course calls for more multimedia, Jennifer suggests including a video in the middle of the course. The video can tell a story, then ask learners to react to it. This type of of interaction can improve the pacing of a more text-heavy course.

Identification goals: If the learning objective is more technical, such as knowing the parts and pieces of an engine, Jennifer frequently designs identification interactions into a course. Learners might have to identify different elements and how they’re used through a simple drag and drop activities.

Best Practices

For all of these interactions, having the “context” of what am I doing when I need to be identifying this thing or having the conversation is important. As I mentioned earlier, eLearning courses are already a bit out of context. The more realism you can put in the course, the better.

Use real images and sounds: Jennifer gave the example of a troubleshooting course that uses the real alarm sound workers hear in their building. This is a strategy we use frequently in our courses: use real images and sounds that will anchor to what learners already experience.

Only include realistic pressures, not false ones: In Jennifer’s words: “If there is not really a time limit, don’t use a timer. Just adding obstacles for “fake stress” makes the interaction seem dumb. Learners already have  enough problems as it is!”

Scaffold interactions from basic to complex: In a recent curriculum design Jennifer completed for Roche Diagnostics, Jennifer designed the first activity to be very directed; learners were guided through each step and phase. After completing the intro course, learners are directed to a flashcard app where they can practice the knowledge and memorize the concepts and terms through repetition. When learners finally attend face-to-face training with an instructor, they are asked to label and point out parts of a product to show they know how to do it.

Above all, Jennifer says to think through the learning objectives when creating interactions:

If my objective is to “identify,” then that is going to be one kind of interaction. If the objective is “demonstrating the ability to do something,” then I’m going to want to practice doing that thing and demonstrate it in a few different ways. For a “Believe” interaction, the goal should be to challenge or change current assumptions. The type of each interaction will depend on how high you are going up on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

There you have it. Now, go forth and create excellent learner interactions! Contact us if you’d like some help.