It’s Dangerous to go Alone – Preparing Learners

It’s Dangerous to go Alone – Preparing Learners

March 4, 2023 Off By JR

I’ve been thinking about self-paced learning a bit more lately than usual, the things we make, and the tools we use to make them. I’m a big fan of the contributors to the webcomic The New ID and found this gem, Click Continue Comic Strip, again the other day. It got me thinking about a few things, so hopefully, I can cobble some thoughts together here today to solidify some thinking.

Preparing Learners to Use These Tools

It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.

Unnamed old man (1986)

The importance of preparing learners to use authoring tools for self-paced, individualized learning

An 8-bit game with two humanoid characters on screen, a sword, and a quote

The infamous quote above is from Nintendo’s 1986 classic, The Legend of Zelda, a top-view action-adventure video game where the player explores a world full of hidden treasures, traps, terrain, and monsters. Quite dangerous indeed! In 1986, you had only a basic instruction manual that came with the game, the actions of sprites on the screen, your inputs into the controller, and perhaps a friend or family member who had played before to inform you how to play the game. You had to explore, try things out for yourself, and see what happened. No explanatory text. No helpline. No chatbot. This results in plenty of time exploring the digital world laid before the payer, but also had the potential for plenty of game-over sequences and frustration, leaving the player wondering what to do next. 

What has this got to do with elearning specifically and learning more generally? Well, consider how we often encounter formal learning. You may have a class or a workshop to attend, an instructor or facilitator to prompt you and provide feedback, and in the case of multiple sessions, usually, work to do between classes. For example, in a typical undergraduate university class, there are readings to complete and videos to watch between live class sessions. In fact, the majority of the time our learners spend is by themselves. This is where elearning authoring tools, those that transform the manifestation of a teacher from flesh to the digital, come in and allow us to design specific artifacts that will hopefully help out learners grow.

Good design is crucial in education because much of the learning that students undertake is without direct supervision, meaning that learners only have designed instructions, artifacts, and scaffolding to guide their activity.

Bower, M. (2017)

The point that Bower (2017) highlights here, that learners are left with only “instructions, artifacts, and scaffolding to guide their activity,” is an important one. It’s not enough to provide learners with a video and hope they will learn what we expect from it. Regardless of your feelings about direct instruction, in a lonely learning context, it serves a very specific purpose, as highlighted by Gogia (2019):

All instructional approaches require some components of direct instruction, if only to confirm that students understand the goals, instructions, and key points of the learning exercise.

Gogia, L. (2019)

Many of these observations seem like functional items, and in many ways, they are in relation to elearning authoring tools themselves. It can be difficult to separate the tool, the media, the content, and the intention of any educational product – any digital product, really. Moore provides one additional insight leading us to answer the question of importance in preparing our learners:

In preparing instruction for learner-content interaction the educator can design written and recorded material that aims to motivate, make presentations, facilitate application, evaluate, and even provide a degree of student affective support.

Moore, M. (1989), empahsis mine

We are tasked with assisting our learners in using the product of whatever authoring tool(s) we use and engaging and challenging them. Providing learning opportunities is one thing; having our learners proceed and succeed in their learning journeys is another.

Strategies for providing learners with the knowledge and skills they need to use these tools effectively

There are many ways to conceive of the knowledge and skills needed to use elearning successfully. This discussion focuses on the tools more than learning experience design more broadly. However, when considering the types of tools to use, or even the specific tool based on its features, we should keep elements of learning experience design in mind. For the purposes of this discussion, we will briefly consider: the internal learning situation and design considerations authoring tools may enable.

The independent nature of [online] learning heightens the need for learners to have the tools to both initiate and manage their own learning. Moreover, as individuals engage with content, instructors, and fellow students exclusively online, an explicit focus on techniques meant to deepen the learning experience becomes increasingly important.

Crosslin, M. (2018)

When authoring elearning, we can consider three aspects happening internally to our learners: attention, motivation, and emotion.

Attention is a critical requirement for learning, yet it can be difficult to maintain. Designing for intention is one part content writing, one part user interface designing, and one part mindful awareness for the learner. Before even considering an authoring tool, content writing should evoke a response – to be discussed under motivation and emotion, and be straightforward. Then considering and using an authoring tool, design a simple, clear interface for the learner to engage with. Drawing attention to certain items using text, colour, shape etc., can be helpful; however, use caution when applying this. If everything is distinct, then nothing is. Leaning on gestalt principles will help you to make decisions around creating what a learner will see. Finally, perhaps one of the most important things we can do is help our learners reflect on their learning habits. Crosslin (2018) offers some suggestions for independent activities for learners to reflect on their effectiveness at multitasking, for example, and how multitasking interferes with learning.

Motivation can be a fine line to walk in preparing learners to interact with what you create. Initially, the motivation to begin is the first hurdle, the “what’s in it for me?” problem. Ask yourself this question from your learners’ perspectives. Next, sustaining motivation. A series of content and activities that are too simple and easy will drain motivation, as will one that is too challenging. Important to note here is that simplicity vs. challenge refers to the learning challenge. If the user interface itself is difficult to use, learners may not even engage with the content you have prepared, as just navigation interferes with their motivation and, in turn, detracts their attention. Self-regulation is as important with motivation as it is with attention. Slightly different from the attention element, here we can consider the value proposition to the learner, the level of effort (task-related or UI related), and even the way the content is written (is it at the right level / too technical / or condescending).

Finally, we come to emotion. Our learners all come to education from different places. Their emotional reactions will be to the content, the user interface, and the learning environment (physical or digital). Emotional Design (Norman, D. 2005) is a great resource for considering emotion in designing digital products; after all, elearning is a digital product. Here, he characterizes it into visceral, behavioural, and reflective responses. Much of the current zeitgeist around emotional design and empathy in the design process stems from Norman’s work, however, he has come to critique and refocus the proposition,

I approve of the spirit behind the introduction of empathy into design, but I believe the concept is impossible, and even if possible, wrong. The reason we often talk about empathy in design is that we really need to understand the people that we’re working for. The idea is that, essentially, you’re in a person’s head and understand how they feel and what they think.

In my opinion that’s impossible…Instead we must really focus on the activities that people are trying to carry out. We must also understand people’s capabilities and their points of view and how to support them.

Norman, D (2019)

So while considering the emotional component of our designs, we should be careful not to conflate this with what we might perceive as empathy. Also, Be careful not to trigger too intense emotional responses as that itself will interfere with learning. Part of preparing learners for more intense content may be to provide a warning of the types of content that lay ahead. In addition, we should not attempt to evoke emotional responses for the sake of it and be mindful that the learner’s emotions during their independent learning are separate from our emotions in designing learning experiences (Clark, D. 2022).

The user interface has come up several times through each of the internal elements discussed here, attention, motivation, and emotion. The UI is something that many authoring tools give authors much creative freedom, similar to PowerPoint. Authors will often encounter a blank screen or blank slide and have to create elements from scratch unless using a template. When building out the UI for your project, considering Richard Mayer’s work, 12 principles for effective multimedia design is a great starting place. Mayer details these principles in Multimedia learning (2nd ed.), which is worth exploring before opening authoring software.

Photo by Kevin Lee on Unsplash