Advocating Authentic Web-Based Learning Experience
Tuesday, August 26, 2014

“Bikram or Hatha?” Your friend convinced you to try your very first yoga class. She texts you the choice, but you don’t know what she means. You hop on Wikipedia, skim for a few key points (Bikram is practiced in a room that is 104 degrees and 40 percent humidity), make a selection (NOT Bikram), and feel confident in your choice. A week later when telling your co-workers how much you enjoyed the Hatha class, one of them asks why you chose it. You easily rattle off the intimidating temperatures of Bikram.

The need for the information was intrinsically clear, you were able to quickly locate the exact information you needed at that moment (and would be able to easily return if you needed more), and were successfully able to implement what you learned. This was an authentic and effective learning experience.

Now, though, flip the scenario. Instead, each day when you arrive at work, a Wikipedia article is read to you. To make sure you pay attention, it is followed with multiple-choice questions. You are not able to begin your tasks for the day until you pass the quiz. Before the article, an email from your boss ensures you that the article will assist with various decisions you will make at some point. A week after an article about yoga styles, you receive the text from your friend. Most likely, your thought is, “Which one was the hot one again?” So, you have to look it up anyway.

As trainers, our job is to advocate for the learner. Our number one goal needs to be that she is (hypothetically speaking) prepared to choose the correct yoga class. An ever-lagging medium, web-based training was developed for the convenience of the organization (wider audience! more efficient! cheaper!), but as technologies have advanced, the learners got left in the dust.

We produce simple designs (relative to current capabilities) that can be easily disseminated, and interpret passing scores as learning. But testing isn’t teaching. Here are some learner-centric principles to consider when designing courses.

Thirsty horses

While it is done for their own good, restricting the ability of the learner to move through the course, such as locking navigation until audio/video is completed, is counterproductive.

It’s a very literal example of leading the horse to water. We can even squirt the water directly into the horse’s mouth if we want to, it still doesn’t mean he’ll swallow. Getting him to drink is not about getting the water into his mouth, it’s about making him thirsty. Try out these strategies to make learners thirsty.

Convey the need, don’t explain it. Rather than telling learners that “by the end of this course, you will be able to comply with the company’s information security policies,” start by showing them a dramatic worst-case scenario of what can happen if they don’t. Allow them to work backwards and determine what the cause and alternative action were. What YOU need as an instructional designer (measurable objectives with actionable verbs) is distinct from what learners need (to understand why the course is worth their time). Write the objective, but don’t convey it as a bullet point on a slide.

Focus on engagement, not interaction.  Roll-overs, click-to-reveal, drag-and-drop, and even multiple-choice questions are all tactics to make the user interact with the content on the screen, but they do not ensure engagement.  

When the user needs to advance through the course, have them make a decision and take action based on the content from that screen. Courses should be structured so that the learner has to make thoughtful choices throughout, ensuring that two learners with different levels of knowledge and different learning styles will each have a customized, effective experience. WBTs are not interactive textbooks, but should be engaging “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” stories.

For example, create a scenario where the user makes a decision and receives real-life feedback (your customer leaves in frustration) instead of standard responses (incorrect, try again). Be a storywriter, not a fact-organizer.

Exploration over information.  As trainers, we want to give users the information they need to maximize their performance. However, research shows they will retain and execute better when they seek it out themselves. Start with the activity, but give them the resources to seek out what they need. Empower them. Only your most fastidious learners will be truly paying attention if you begin with an information dump.


For instance, you can open with: “Your employee comes to you with a complaint about X. What is your first step?” Users have the option to proceed quickly if they already know, use the provided resources that mimic real-life options if they want to research (such as a “Handbook” or an “Ask HR” button), or proceed by guessing, in which case they will learn through trial-and-error from your thoughtfully constructed, realistic consequences.

If the course cannot be framed around a real-life interaction, the user doesn’t need the information. Training for the sake of “awareness” is a waste of time and resources.


Do you remember playing “popcorn” while reading out loud from the textbook in elementary school? Everyone “popcorns” to the fastest readers, because listening to the slow ones is agonizing.

Fully narrated courses are exactly like being stuck in that game with only the slowest readers. Narration is done at a relaxed pace to make it easy to understand for all learners, but web-based training is also known as self-paced training. It is important that we don’t take that benefit away from participants.

It’s best not to narrate every page of the course. Narration has been shown to:

  • Take away the users control of the course, making them feel like a victim or prisoner of the training, rather than an active participant
  • Remove the user’s ability to quickly scan back for a piece of information they want to review. Taking away the learner’s ability to seek out the information they need also reduces their INTEREST it. “Too much work, I’ll just move on and hope it’s not on the test.”
  • Prevent users’ ability to proceed at a customized pace (spending more time on what they find new/difficult, and less time on items they already know). No two learners are arriving at your course’s “doorstep” with the same amount/type of prior knowledge, learning style, motivation, etc. Don’t treat them that way.

If your course is designed with action on the forefront and the information in the background as references the user can seek out, there is no need for extensive narration. It can instead be relegated to more useful purposes such as:

  • showing emotion (such as in the response of a customer)
  • specify multiple characters conversing in a scenario
  • describe complicated graphics or charts when the visual channel is overloaded—but keep the files short.

Chicken sexing

The ability to separate male and female chicks as early as possible is valuable. They have different diets, uses, etc. Unfortunately, there is no visibly distinguishable difference.  In Japanese tradition, sexers are trained by beginning to sort chicks (with no prior knowledge) in the presence of an expert.

The expert tells them after each one whether it was correct or not. Over time, the sexers are intuitively able to complete this process with 100 percent accuracy. How often would an information-based web-based course that details a skill or process yield 100 percent accuracy?

Strategies to maximize learners’ execution include:

  • Action first, information later. Let them try it. They will learn better by doing.
  • Carefully construct feedback to provide a valuable experience whether the user is right or wrong. We always fear the “guess-and-check” learner. What if they get it right by accident? It doesn’t matter. Tell them why they were right. Then repeat similar scenarios. If they get them wrong, they’ll learn from experience. And if they can get it right five times, they aren’t guessing anymore. 
  • Write better scenarios, test questions, and decision trees. Don’t let your learner’s “game” the system. A multiple-choice question with three choices gives them at least a 33 percent chance of guessing correctly without having to think (more, if the wrong answers are obvious or if the correct answer is much longer and more specific). Well-written questions that require the user to process the information and make a judgment, rather than just regurgitate a sentence from your content,  are a better measure of comprehension. In the case of multiple-choice questions, “select all that apply” styles, in which the NOT all of the answers are correct, are a good way to reduce guess-ability.

Bottom line

We live in the information age. With the right motivation, anyone can learn to do anything with a few Google searches. It’s time that the industry caught up with and met our learner’s where they are. Web-based courses CAN provide a more valuable experience than Wikipedia (by simulating real-life scenarios and allowing users the repetitive exposure/practice that expertise requires), but right now more often than not, it isn’t.

Hopefully, these strategies bring to light some of the main ways we can improve the engagement, effectiveness and efficiency of the experiences we are producing. We need to constantly push to create content in a way that is thoughtfully constructed to meet the precise needs of our true clientele: the learners. 

About the Author
Jessica Davis is a learning technologies specialist. She spends most of her time brainstorming new ways to enhance the learner’s experience. She is passionate about envelope-pushing, status-quo-busting and having a visceral distaste for “the way it was done before.” In her free time, she is also a piano teacher, distance runner, blogger, and mystery novel fanatic.
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