"Engaging" E-learning?

Jan 28, 2011

We always hear the phrase developing "engaging e-learning." 

Just curious . . . how do you define "engaging e-learning" and what do you to make your Articulate courses--in general--"engaging"?

85 Replies
Tom Kuhlmann

Good question.  

I think you have a few factors to consider:

  1. The visual aesthetic.  Is ti appealing?  Interesting?  Novel?
  2. Interactive elements of the screen. Can I rollover, drag/drop? There are all sorts of cool things that you can do to get people to experience the UI.
  3. Relevance of content.  This is most critical.  If the content is relevant to person, then that's the most engaging.
  4. Learning experience. How is the experience crafted for me to learn and practice the learning, etc.
Gerry Wasiluk

These are great replies.  Keep 'em coming!  :^)

I do think one thing that is often ignored is the "technical" experience.  It should be transparent and be a "non-factor" toward engagement. 

By that, the course should work flawlessly for the learner, especially when in a LMS.  When it doesn't, and  the technical issues are serious and cause the learner "pain", especially while in the course itself, such experiences often "color" the learner's perception of the course. 

You can have the prettiest, best designed course on the planet but if it is painful for the learner to access (UI downfall of many LMS's) or if it does not work properly (e.g., videos don't play, it doesn't complete, etc.), that is often, sad to say, what some learners remember most--and the not the course itself.

Carla Stewart

These are some great ideas! Tom has a good post on rules for creating engaging elearning: http://www.articulate.com/rapid-elearning/here-are-ten-rules-to-create-engaging-elearning/

I think story plays a big part of engagement. I like Mike Enders' course on the Showcase page: http://www.articulate.com/community/showcase/?page_id=203 Not only is his presentation style engaging, but he presents the content in an interesting, story-like way. It feels personal and that's what kept me engaged.

Andy Bowyer

Speaking of shocking...

I once narrated a course on safe work practices for electricians.  Each module in the over-all course began with the story of an electrician who met an untimely end because of a freak accident, that could have been prevented with the right safety precautions.  Each time the story was told from various angles, each of which lent itself to the content of the coming course.  It was a bit on the "sensational" side (not to mention gruesome at times,) but if the learners were paying attention from the outset they were given a very real world example of why the course material was so important. 

So, to echo Tom's first response, *relevance* is an important key to an engaging course.  In this case there was no better way to engage the audience than by implying the question "Do you want to DIE on the job?  If not, then PAY ATTENTION."

I affectionately think back on that course as "ELECTRICIANS:  SCARED STRAIGHT."


David Anderson

Andy Bowyer said:

I once narrated a course on safe work practices for electricians.  Each module in the over-all course began with the story of an electrician who met an untimely end because of a freak accident, that could have been prevented with the right safety precautions.  Each time the story was told from various angles, each of which lent itself to the content of the coming course.  It was a bit on the "sensational" side (not to mention gruesome at times,) but if the learners were paying attention from the outset they were given a very real world example of why the course material was so important. 

Terrific examples Andy. Multiple perspectives is one of my favorite ways for presenting topics. It removes the high-level voice from the course and usually connects with the audience in more authentic ways.

And "sensational" is required sometimes. So often our courses - even when appropriately tied to real world actions - are sterile and sanitized. The message is lost in the banality of the writing, design and presentation of the content.

Question - who's idea was it for "sensational" and was it hard convincing the other side (client or training) to take that direction?

Andy Bowyer

Thanks, David.  Simply being a "hired gun" I wasn't involved in the process beyond the narration.  But given what I know of the development side and the end-client (done multiple jobs for the latter by way of the former) I'd say the approach was agreed upon from the outset.  It was, even on paper, well conceived.  I can only imagine that the execution of the rest of the elements was equally compelling. 

The subject matter could have been presented well without the initial story, but I believe it was because of the story that the course itself went from being another "Here are some important safety tips" series to becoming a highly engaging *imperative message* to anyone taking the course.  (It generally doesn't get more imperative than Life -vs- Death.)

And to devolve this post into a side-topic for just a moment, it is also noteworthy that for the presentation as a whole to be more effective, the narration had to reflect the seriousness of the situation while also being instructive and informative--not as easy as one might think. 

To devolve just a bit more, it's the only time I've gotten woozy while standing in front of my microphone.

Ben Nayak

In my opinion, when we say engaging e-learning; an e-learning course that perfectly places the learner into the learning mood and environment. 

Based on what is decided to be achieved out of the course, there is always an assumed participation between the learner and course content. A course is engaging is the above is achieved. 

Kevin Thorn

Next question: How do you stay engaged narrating a course and not get woozy at the microphone? Just kidding Andy

All the insights and examples here all point back to the same thing...the story. I'm certainly not referring to, "Once upon a time..." type stories, but definitely not the "In this course your objective will be to learn..." boring you-just-put-me-to-sleep intro.

Mike Ender's course is a great example to Carla's point of being a linear course with a few subtle surprises. The balance between video, interactions, and Mike's infectious audio narration was spot on! He told a story but you (the learner) didn't realize you were being told one because you were...engaged.

Back to Gerry's initial question, "How do you define 'engaging eLearning' ?"

In general, the word 'engaging' implies several things in my designs and I ask these questions:

1. Does it grab my attention the second the course loads?

2. Do I anticipate the next screen?

3. Do the colors, graphics, and visuals have balance?

4. Am I bored building it? If so, learners will be bored taking it.

5. Is it fun?

Gerry Wasiluk

What a wonderful discussion.  Please keep it coming. 

I must admit that I had a secret agenda for this topic.  Need to speak on creating engaging e-learning shortly and I always like to see how my friends, peers and colleagues think about a subject like that.

Don't know why but I was reminded of Henslow's (Geoffrey Rush) comment from "Shakespeare In Love."  :) To reword a tad:

Philip Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the [e-learning] business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman: How?
Philip Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery.

Stephanie Harnett

I agree with the sensational aspect - that it is an effective technique to jump-start storytelling. It can work on that dry, corporate compliance training too - so long as the SMEs, legal and executives allow a little creative wiggle room (is this compliance sign-off or learning?).

For an alcohol and drug compliance course I created various scenarios, one with an employee, Joe, who had been drinking at home, got called into work,drove the company truck there and got into an accident. The visual was of an accident scene going so far as to put the company logo on the damaged vehicle.From feedback received, learners commented about wanting to see what happened next to poor Joe. They put themselves in Joe's place. And that is a perfect place to learn, to internalize and to remember; one of many sweet spots of elearning design.

Another example was a scenario in a records mgmt course where I took photos of the clients offices and one scene showed the character in her office, then in the next scene the "lights" dim, the fire alarm sounds and when the "smoke" clears, the learner is looking at the aftermath of that same office...melted cd's, burned papers, etc. (done in Photoshop of course!).Feedback was similar - they knew something wasn't right and when the fire happened, their hearts sank. Several people commented that they immediately looked at their office - while taking the training. They paid attention to the follow-up - the point of the course - protect the information you work with.Another sweet spot to be; actual change.

This kind of "sensationalism" is effective. The feedback in my case has been consistent with this technique. It causes people to think twice.That's really the goal. I don't think I can expect huge change or even long-term change from the awareness training that I create...but...when I am able to create a moment for another person where a new thought is synthesized,I think that can lead to more positive overall results for the client now and into the future.

What is engaging elearning? It's an over-used, abstract concept defined a ba-zillion different ways by people looking for some kind of perfect recipe that can be re-applied again and again for perfect results for all courses, all topics, all purposes and all people. That said, it seems we will continue to look for a definition to this indefinable phrase.

James Brown

Strictly speaking to engage means to get the student involved in the course. When you design a course you need to think of your learners. Would you like to sit through a boring course that simply spouts numbers and facts at you or would you like an interactive course that engages both the mind and gets you involved in the learning process. I choose the later.

Poornima Ramachandran

Good discussions.

I just happened to read this link - http://sixrevisions.com/usabilityaccessibility/10-usability-tips-based-on-research-studies/
This mainly talks about how web users read webites, and as instructional designers, we can translate it in terms of how `engaging' our material is. 

If your user has wed your module, you know it was certainly `engaging'.   

Zara Ogden

Super Star Engaging E Learning is...

When you have a program that takes "that guy" who thinks he know everything and makes him think twice about the criticism of the topic or course or media.

The program doesn't have to be the most beautiful or have the most activities in it. And it doesn't need professional audio music or movies.

What it does have is

1. A clear and defined message that will be remembered

2. Appropriate interactivity throughout

3. All elements react well together (audio, animation, video, images, layout, etc...)

If I can create triggers that will remind people about the content then I have created engaging e learning.

Steve Flowers

I have a few personal engagement hoops that I throw out as a checklist:

  • Is the content / goal relevant to me? If it's not relevant, no amount of gimmicks or polish is going to make me engage. If the content focuses on what I need to do and what I need to know to do it, I'll be more likely to engage in the content and not mindlessly flip through seeking only the end of a bad experience.
  • Does the experience respect my time and environment? Give me a 20 minute course when I only have 10 minutes to spare and I won't engage. Send me to a resource that won't load because my connection speed won't support the bandwidth requirement and I won't engage.

These are my first two flaming engagement hoops. If the solution can't make it through those two, there is absolutely no hope of salvaging the relationship between me and the content. Zero. Zip. Nada.

Beyond those two, here are a few elements that I consider (also kind of a checklist) for engagement in content:

  • Is it authentic? Truly authentic. Not just trying to be authentic. Trying really hard to be authentic ends up being plastic. If the presentation of the content elements is natural and real, the learner may be more apt to engage. Authentic examples, authentic tones, authentic practice. Be as authentic as possible, in my opinion.
  • Is the structure and contribution link to a skill crystal clear? Relevance. If I have trouble making the connection or the connection of even one component is slightly ambiguous, I'm not going to engage in the experience.
  • Does the program get to the point or beat around the bush? Nothing bugs me more than getting to the point after passing through several mildly relevant wickets. If the history isn't directly relevant to a fact, rule, procedure, or concept do not make me pass through the history to get to the what, why, how.
  • Is it asking me to use my noggin or does it insult my intelligence? If all a program is doing is pushing information at me then asking me questions about that stuff, I have no investment in the experience. If a program uses priming activities, let's me make mistakes, and challenges my decision making abilities - I personally will respond to that gauntlet. Not insulting my intelligence goes A LONG way with me. Well crafted goals and objectives contribute greatly to failure or success in this area.
  • Does all content receive an equal share or is there some kind of concept / content priority? The worst courses I've been through are a procession of content cars that all have an equal share of time. Blah.
  • Is the interaction in the program all about flicks of the mouse? If the novelty of the interaction overpowers the cognitive challenge (I'm putting more energy at wrist and finger level than at head level) then the program is trying to be engaging through gimmicks. If a program presents a relevant interaction pattern that is novel and succeeds - win. If it tries to present a novel interaction pattern and fails... ouch.
  • Did the designer appear to put as much energy into the needs of the user as they did into the needs of the content? User experience matters to me. Probably more than it matters overtly to the standard user. I'm actively looking for UX accomodations. Is the structure of the application clear? Is the application easy to navigate? Is the language used in the application clear and tuned to my expectations? Does the flow avoid awkward moments?

These are a few off-the-cuff factors that I consider personally whenever I'm asked to take eLearning.

James Brown

I think another very important aspect is relevancy for an engaging course. Does the training have meaning to the student which is a key component to learning. If the materials being presented have no meaning to the learner, the learner would simply click through the content where as materials that have meaning tend to grab and hold the learners attention.

For example, say I develop a tutorial for collections and the materials I develop discuss telephony practices and the reporting of delinquent debt to the various credit reporting agencies. Do you imagine a collector, which is the person making the calls to the party owing the debt honestly cares about the reporting of the delinquent debt to the credit agencies? They could care less. However if I were a manager overseeing a collection team the materials would be pertinent to my job and the materials would be meaningful to me.

Shelly Cook

David Anderson said:

How would you create engaging courses around topics that don't have a direct WIIFM? 

If there truely isn't anything in it for the learner, then why do they have to take the course? 

Unfortunately, when there isn't a reason better than just because someone from said so (I hated when my parent's said that ), then I sometimes resort to focusing more so on the look and feel... so if the content or context isn't relevant, then at least the design is unique and interactive enough that the learner enjoyed the learning, scratch that... receiving information... experience.

Steve Flowers

I would say that even compliance courses can be made to be relevant. A course that cannot be bent into a relevant form should be an extremely rare occurance. It's an indicator that there really shouldn't be a course in the first place.

The best thing to do in cases where there this question exists is to work to make it relevant. There's a WIIFM in there somewhere.

David Becker

I think engaging means the learner's brain lights up, they lean forward, are motivated, find meaningful and comprehend the material, it resonates sufficiently with their existing mental schemas that it is integrated and encoded into long term memory as strongly as possible.

Various studies show increased attention resulting from arousal (fear, sex, novelty etc) increase electro-chemical activity  in the particular area responsible, promoting depth of coding. Also practicing a skill in your mind, improves your skill.

So maybe the common elements here are sensory stimulation and imagination (or scenario-testing/risk management). Through this lense, engagement might be viewed as the science of pushing the right buttons, in the right order.

PS; I also completely disagree with my own mechanistic, reductionist viewpoint.

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