You know successful eLearning when you see it—but when a course flops, you might find yourself wondering what went wrong. Many course failures are not due to bad designers so much as designers who have developed a number of short-cut habits along the way.
The five habits that eLearning designers need to break now are:
Relying too heavily on multiple choice questions. Many course content developers fall back on multiple-choice questions because they’re an easy way to check learner understanding and the design is simple—throw in a couple of distractors and you’re good to go. But while these kinds of questions can help assess whether learners have absorbed factual information (e.g., the ingredients in a chocolate-chip cookie), they don’t tell you anything about whether your learners understand more complex issues (e.g., the factors that go into successful cookie-making), or if they can organize and express their own ideas successfully (e.g., their own cookie recipe). Short-answer and essay questions, while more time-consuming to grade, give learners the opportunity to reflect on the material and their understanding of it—and they sharpen articulation skills as well. A good assessment has a mix of both types of questions.
Using too much text. With text, less is more. Online learners are prone to skimming, and their eyes begin to skip down when they see more than a couple of paragraphs on one eLearning screen. The trick is to edit, edit, and then edit some more. A good place to start is with intensifiers (really, very, quite, pretty, fairly). Then start to chop out unnecessary adverbs (definitely, truly, exactly). Check for redundancies and tangential information. If you’ve cut as much as you can but feel the text is still running long, consider ways to divide the content into chunks—for example, splitting one screen into a two-parter, or putting some text in a pop-up window that appears when the learner clicks a visual cue.
Getting lazy with your images. Stock photography is a blessing and a curse—the availability of so many images makes finding a photo to go with your lesson on sniffing cacti a far easier chore than it used to be. On the other hand, stock photos tend to have a plastic look to them that sometimes feels inauthentic. It brings a good question to the table: what purpose do images serve in eLearning, anyway? If your answer is “to fill up space on the screen” or “give the course an appealing look,” then your aim is off-target. Graphics and images should complement the written material in a way that enhances student learning, not serve as decoration. Just because stock images are easy to obtain doesn’t mean they’re useful; in some cases, illustrations, graphs, or figures are better tools.
Saving the assessment for the end. Are you putting the quiz at the end of your lesson because that’s what will work best for your learners, or because it’s an old habit? Consider what your course might look like if you broke this pattern, sprinkling assessment pieces throughout. Questions that pop up midway through a module to check understanding can help your learners immediately recognize where they’ve misinterpreted content and need to review; likewise, chunking a final exam into tests that are distributed throughout the course can prepare learners for a final assessment that is more reflective and allows them to consider how the information they have learned will translate into their lives after the course or training is over.
Working in a silo. Independence is a strong character trait, but most eLearning projects require input from a number of different sources: subject matter experts, graphic designers, video producers, instructors, and other eLearning experts, to name a few. This makes interpersonal skills, collaborative energy, and the ability to ask questions a huge part of instructional design. If you find yourself plowing ahead without consulting others, stop and check yourself: How could your course benefit from the input of other experts? Where are your own limitations as a designer? The best part about engaging others in the process is that you expand your own skill set—after all, a good designer is one who is always learning.