Context in E-Learning Design: From Routine to Remarkable

Friday, May 22, 2015

I recently had the privilege of being in the audience at the final performance of The Chicago Lyric Opera’s spectacular production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, Carousel. As I watched, it occurred to me that instructional designers could borrow one element of the production to make e-learning more engaging. The director chose to lift the production from its original setting in 19th Century New England to a non-specific location during the Great Depression. Absolutely nothing else was changed—just the costumes and set design. Consequently, even though I had seen this show eight or nine times over the years, I heard things that I had never noticed before.

Instructional designers often throw up their hands in despair when faced with repetitive compliance training. Regulations often require employees to successfully complete periodic recertification in all sorts of areas, ranging from diversity to blood borne pathogens to corporate ethics. “I can’t do anything to make this interesting,” is the standard complaint. Other designers may grumble, “The content is set and we can’t change it.” Sometimes, the situation is even worse; SMEs and legal departments treat the content as though it is sacred text to be preserved and glorified—even if no one really understands it. 

Whatever the specific situation, learners often rebel when forced or at least expected to find the same thing interesting year after year. The result is training that learners try to avoid and designers try to excuse. 

But what if we took the lesson of this production of Carousel to heart? What if we asked: 

  • What makes an experience tedious? The feeling that it is offering nothing new.

  • What makes an experience meaningless? The absence of anything to shed a new perspective or trace of personal relevance.  

What grabbed my attention in Carousel was that by moving the action forward 60 years or so, the director could eliminate all the pinafores and colorful ruffles that typically dominate Carousel costumes and the very distinct passionate tension, at the root of the story, was revealed in inescapable clarity. 

Too often we look at “context” as a tool to add lots of details, script elaborate scenarios, or include entertaining characters. These may serve to add interest, but they also can be used more as camouflage to obscure the tedium than to reveal important messages. Instead, what if we approached context as a way to strip away what gets in the way of comprehension. 

For instance, it is sometimes difficult to read the significance of information when we are too close to it. Dr. Seuss wrote a magnificent children’s book about diversity many years ago called The Sneetches. The message was not unique, but it was delivered in a very controlled universe of fanciful creatures whose differences were clear, but not similar to our own. The different context allows the message to be communicated because it removes any defensiveness that might otherwise be in the way of owning the truth of that fable. Here it is almost 50 years later, and I still remember what I learned in that lesson. And attribute that retention to context. 

So, what if your next diversity training course were set in a futuristic world of robots and space creatures? Before you say, “Yes, but our people wouldn’t go for that,” ask yourself how many of your learners are anticipating the next Star Wars film with great interest. 

Maybe our focus on what is accurate and immediate is exactly what dilutes the learning message. Grasping what is truly at risk—and presenting it so that the truth is inescapable—might be a powerful way to engage learners who ordinarily discount the e-learning modules. 

To be sure, it’s tempting to simply give in to the challenge of how to make routine, repetitive training interesting. However, I think this challenge demands that instructional designers redouble their focus on the learner rather than the content. 

The director of this Carousel  production was driven by the goal to make something that was perhaps overly familiar into something new and exciting. We need to be driven by the same urgency—if we wish to connect with learners in a meaningful way. 


About the Author

Ethan has been designing online instruction for almost 25 years, beginning with work at the PLATO laboratory at the University of Illinois, continuing through positions at Authorware, Macromedia, Microsoft, and as a consultant with a host of top companies in the United States and abroad. As Chief Knowledge Officer at Allen Interactions, a nationally recognized company dedicated to creating the world's best custom e-learning applications, Ethan is responsible for internal and external training and communication regarding Allen Interactions' unique perspective on designing and developing meaningful and memorable e-learning programs. While focused primarily on corporate training, Ethan has comprehensive experience with education and government institutions, having worked extensively in libraries and schools as a full-time consultant with the Lincoln Trail Libraries System in Champaign, Illinois. He is also a licensed secondary mathematics teacher. He has spoken at conferences and private presentations throughout the world.

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