For each learning message we want to convey to the learner, our goals as an instructional designer must be to:
Well-designed and context-appropriate eLearning activities can serve all three of the learning goals.
Activities, as opposed to resources or passive items of content, must involve active engagement, and ideally, interact with eLearning content.
The ‘Learning Pyramid’ (researched and developed by the National Training Laboratories Institute, Maine, USA), illustrated below, provides a framework for selecting content for eLearning activitie. The pyramid confirms what educators have intrinsically known, and that is that not all content types are equal. In fact, retention or recall rates that are associated with different types of learning content can be vastly different, where, for instance, learners who engage in participatory methods such as peer-to-peer teaching retain approximately 90 percent of information taught, in contrast to learners who listen to long-from lectures, retaining a mere five percent of taught material.
Figure 1. The Learning Pyramid
The key insight offered by the Learning Pyramid is that ‘active,’ as opposed to ‘passive’ learning experiences, promote greater long-term recall. It follows then that eLearning experiences that require interaction, engagement and participation by the learner will be more effective than those that are passive.
Some learning activities require more time, effort and potentially cost than others. So the instructional design must consider the cost-benefit of investing in an activity and ensure it is justified. Consideration of the project budget, and the importance and complexity of the learning message conveyed, are the key inputs to this decision.
Giving learners opportunities to teach others is one of the most effective ways to reinforce learning concepts for long-term recall. It can, however, be challenging in an eLearning context to facilitate opportunities to ‘teach others.’
Some approaches might include:
Virtual question and answer sessions allow students to bring their learning into a group setting. Learners are encouraged to bring questions, and the group has the opportunity to contribute responses. Such sessions engage the individual asking the question and the group or audience that is expected to respond. The teacher or facilitator contributes to the discussion where appropriate to expand or deepen the information or level of comprehension.
Provided they are well facilitated, virtual group discussions can bring the same benefits of ‘teaching others’ and ‘Q&A sessions.’ They can be facilitated through a Google Hangout or Zoom meeting.
Assessment tasks that require the learner to empathise with characters in a scenario and apply their learnings to respond to questions that relate to those characters, bring the potential for excellent consolidation of learning and understanding for long-term recall. The key challenge is to achieve some level of emotive engagement with the learner. Once the emotive engagement is achieved with the scenario, a range of standard assessment methods can be applied, such as multiple-choice or true/false questions to facilitate active engagement and recall of knowledge.
Social learning refers to a broad range of activities that align with ‘social learning theory’ (Bandura, 1977) Social learning theory simply states that people learn from other people. By observing, and engaging with other people, we learn.
Social media platforms provide an excellent channel that can be exploited to promote group engagement and group learning. Specific opportunities could include:
Simulations involve online learners performing a task that relies on knowledge and skills they have developed through the course of their learning experience. The greater the level of interaction and emotional investment in the activity, the greater the learning impact and long-term recall.
A good simulation will typically start with a real-world problem or challenge that the learner may be familiar with, or would reasonably be likely to confront in their work or personal lives. To avoid the simulation just being a series of assessment questions, an immersive element like a video, animation, sound or graphic experience are necessary. The use of characters in simulations are also highly recommended, as they stimulate empathy in typical learners, and hence further enhances the value of the simulation from a learning perspective.
Providing users with opportunities to engage with practical activities within the eLearning context is an ideal way to enhance the overall learning experience, especially when it comes to learning procedures or sequences. Particularly well suited to software or application training packages, hands-on demos follow the approach of ‘tell them, show them, let them do it.’
There may be a cost involved in building a hands-on exercise that is suitable for use in an eLearning environment; however, embedding these interactive experiences into a course provide understanding and recall outcomes far superior to simply putting the learner through a passive presentation.
Short quizzes that individuals can complete during the learning experience (i.e. formative assessments), focusing on current and prior topics, are a simple and effective way to require learner interaction that reinforces learning and boosts long-term recall.
Introducing a game element to any assessment task is an excellent way to increase engagement, emotional investment and learning. Some examples include:
Spin the wheel
The user spins a wheel to select a topic or category, and the question posed is based on the result of the spin.
On answering a question correctly, the user is given the opportunity to play the slot machine, thereby providing positive reinforcement for a successful outcome.
Drag and drop activities can be used in a variety of ways, from ranking or organising shapes and concepts into the correct order, to labelling, sorting or filling in the blanks. Drag and drop activities can be visually engaging and generally require the user to recall multiple pieces of information, thereby serving as a useful consolidation tool.
Animations can be used in a variety of ways to enhance the richness and appeal of an eLearning experience. They are ideal for demonstrating concepts that involve interactions between people or characters, including subject matter that may be confronting or difficult to simply describe.
Animations generally involve the combination of motion graphics, scriptwriting, character voice-overs and editing. As such, they can be time-consuming and expensive to produce. While still a passive learning activity, if well produced, animations can significantly improve the engagement levels in an eLearning module.
Videos are widely used in eLearning courses; however, they are a passive activities that can easily lose the interest of learners. By selecting or creating video content that drives engagement through emotion, or by fostering empathy for characters in the video, the level of engagement in the video (and the rest of the associated training course) can be significantly enhanced.
Branching scenarios present different branches of content or an assessment task based on a preceding question. They support interaction and are a simple introduction to an ‘adaptive learning’ approach.
Adaptive learning involves presenting activities and content that is adapted to the knowledge level or capability of the individual student undertaking the course. Adaptive learning can range from simple branching scenarios that ask some basic introductory questions and present different branches of content based on the response, to sophisticated adaptive training and assessment tasks that use sophisticated algorithms to present the ‘right’ content to the user. For example, an adaptive learning approach might involve performing a formative assessment at the start of an eLearning module to identify knowledge gaps, and then modifying the course structure to specifically address those knowledge gaps.
Adaptive learning activities are ideally suited to contexts where the learner audience is large and diverse, and/or when the prior knowledge or capabilities of the student(s) is not well known by the course designer.
More sophisticated forms of adaptive learning can involve a substantial amount of work to create, categorise and program into the adaptive process; hence they should be pursued with a full appreciation of the time and costs involved.
There is a diverse range of eLearning assessment activities, such as multiple-choice or true/false questions, fill-in-the-blank tasks, matching exercises, and many more.
Infographics are used to present interconnected pieces of information or data in a visually stimulating and interesting way. They are well suited to visual learners, and if well designed, can spark curiosity in a learner and draw them into the infographic to encourage further exploration and critical thinking.
Videos can be created specifically for an eLearning course, or a third party video may be incorporated into an eLearning activity. Videos are widely used as an excellent alternative to simple text presentations. However, care should be taken to select videos that will drive engagement. Videos should also be cropped or edited to display only what is necessary to effectively convey the learning message. Long, vague videos are likely to lead to a loss of engagement and a poor student experience.
Referencing articles or including excerpts of articles in an eLearning course can be useful to enhance the credibility of the message being conveyed, or to give students the opportunity to expand or deepen their knowledge on a particular topic. As article reading is a passive activity, the inclusion of articles, excerpts or quotes should be carefully considered with the learning outcome front of mind.