I went out walking in the snow yesterday in the forest: I love getting out when it’s like this, just a wide expanse of heathland with a fresh carpet of snow. Usually you have to pick your way across this carefully, finding a path, avoiding the boggy patches and crunching your way over twigs, leaves, dried heather and the occasional rabbit hole. But in the snow, it’s all level, it’s frozen, fresh, clean. You can forge your own track on the clean sheet in front of you.
It got me thinking about clarity: about how we get caught up in deep reflection, trying new techniques, new technologies, how we clutter up our environment and mindset with analysis and thoughts. It made me want to start monday morning going back to the roots of good design, taking a simple view of how to create an engaging piece of e-learning.
I think it’s worth thinking about three things: story, navigation and saying goodbye. These aren’t the only three things to consider, but they’re three important elements in generating engagement, and they’ll do me for today.
We communicate in stories: we share ideas, share histories, establish commonality and build bonds over them. We curate and tell our own personal narratives as well as participating in ongoing organisational ones. Some stories are public, others private, but often all engaging and compelling. Because stories carry us along, once on board, it’s hard to jump off: we don’t like incomplete tales.
But not all stories are powerful, so we need to choose our story carefully. I see it as the process of divining the central narrative within the subject. What’s the path we want to take, the route through the snow? The problem with the wide expanse is that it’s easy to get lost: when no route is given, we can plough our own furrow, but it may just take us round in circles or leave us in the middle of the forest. If you’re going to spend time anywhere, spend it at the start when you define and refine your core narrative.
Having defined a your route, you now need to write the directions to get there, and this is often an area of weakness in e-learning. Navigation should be simple. It needs to fulfil certain key criteria: at any time i should be able to find my way forwards, i should be able to find my way back and i should be able to see where i am in relation to where i started and where i’m going. Everything else is detail, and potentially confounding detail at that. It’s important that navigation does what it says consistently and clearly. It’s no use if navigational elements change function half way through. That’s like your compass pointing north most of the time.
This problem usually manifests itself when you land on a page and there is some kind of exercise or activity that has it’s own controls: we end up with ‘main’ controls for navigation, then sub controls for videos, for exercises or activities. If these controls aren’t unified, aren’t aligned, it’s confusing. You want people to spend time learning the story, not learning how to navigate. Broadly speaking, at any time there should be one way to move forward and one way to move back. Nested navigation, multiple layers of controls are rarely a good thing.
Yesterday, i finished my walk as the sun went down. Fortunately i’d packed a flask, so was able to break out the teabags and some biscuits that i’d pinched from a hotel room last week, enabling me to sit back in the car and reflect on my adventures.
Closing down any learning experience, working out how to say goodbye, is important. What do you want the last memory to be? Do you really want it to be a screen that says ‘7/10 you passed’. Do you want it to be something that tells you who wrote the story and that it’s copyright. Worst of all, do you just leave it hanging?
Far better to reflect upon the journey, to remind me of the challenges we overcame, to agree what we’ve learnt and to plan for next time. Better to look back over the route and decide which views we liked and which bits got swampy. It’s called learning.
These are just three things to think about when we’re designing learning. They’re not magic bullets, just parts of a map that will make the journey better.