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Five E-Learning Design Tips to Avoid Indifference in Our Learners


Wed Jul 08 2015

Five E-Learning Design Tips to Avoid Indifference in Our Learners

One of my greatest frustrations as an e-learning designer is how impervious the field seems to be to improvement. I began my interest in computer-based instruction back in 1982 as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I undertook an independent study involving the PLATO instructional system, which had been invented there at the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory. 

30 Years and No Improvements? 


At the time, the field was dominated by a lot of text-bound page-turners (especially those lessons created outside of the university environment), with a small segment of the design community really pushing boundaries with immersive simulation activities, actual instructional interactions, inter-terminal games, intrinsic feedback, and creative use of media. Here we are, more than 30 years later, and not that much has changed. 

Authoring tools, in general, still are optimized for creating the sort of e-learning that should have been cast aside years ago. In addition, organizations choose unrealistic strategies for developing e-learning modules, with little awareness of instructional effectiveness. What’s more, our focus remains locked on delivering content rather than changing performance outcomes. 

Here’s the Good News 

I recently stumbled across a bit of history—namely, work by Henry Raab—that reinforced for me that some of us are on the right track in our insistence that e-learning must be grounded on the three success factors of:

  1. motivating the learner to learn

  2. enhancing behavioral outcomes of the training

  3. creating memorable and meaningful learning experiences. 

First, a little background: I live in Belleville, Illinois, a small city in Southern Illinois that was an industrial and cultural hotspot in the mid-nineteenth century. It is the home of the first public library in Illinois, the first public kindergarten, the second oldest orchestra in the United States, and (for any trivia nuts) the location of the longest continuous Main Street in the country. Belleville also is known to historians as the destination of the so-called “Latin Farmers,” who immigrated direct to this region from Germany beginning in the 1830s and failed in farming but succeeded in establishing arts and education in the American frontier. 


One of these Latin Farmers was named Henry Raab, who emerged from the shadow of history in a column in the Belleville News Democrat. A reader raised a question about the fate of an original elementary school build named in Raab’s honor that burned to the ground in 1962 and was rebuilt. (Sidenote: I happened to attend Henry Raab Elementary School as a child, and was pleased in the oddity but also puzzled by the rarity of a school named for an obscure personage, in contrast to all the other grade schools in town named after famous historical figures.) 

In his answer, the columnist included more background information about Mr. Raab, than necessary, noting that he served as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Illinois, and is remembered for the statement: “No instruction is of any avail when it leaves the child indifferent.” 

I want you to read that again with a tiny word substitution: “No instruction is of any avail when it leaves the learner indifferent.” 

I can hardly think of a more succinct criticism of where so much e-learning fails. We can get so hung up in arguing details of methodology, standards, corporate templates, use of a particular authoring tool, or how to report a particular assessment result. Consequently, the end goal often becomes irrelevant or forgotten. Worse, the result of our efforts is exactly what this quote warns against: learner indifference. 

Five E-Learning Design Tips 


So, how do we combat learner indifference? I suspect the answer is still the same as it was in Henry Raab’s time:

  1. Make sure that instruction is relevant to the learner.

  2. Require meaningful activity.

  3. Involve the learner fully to create impactful memories.

  4. Reward desired performance.

  5. Provide appropriate review and practice. 

I challenge you to examine your own e-learning in this light. How are you working to prevent indifference in your users? If you can’t articulate a strategy, perhaps I can suggest a visit to the superintendent’s office!

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