This month, let’s take a “Nuts & Bolts” look at the importance of concept in eLearning design, specifically the use of themes and how they can support—or harm—learning. When approaching content for an eLearning course, there are myriad reasons for going with a theme.

For the learner, a good theme can make or break an eLearning course: It can offer familiarity, support engagement, hold learner attention, and build atmosphere. It can invite interaction and offer learning support by providing material in a memorable way, linking topics and shoring up retention.

For the designer? It’s our struggle to find some way to cast content—often dry, compliance-y stuff—in a way that makes it more palatable. Finding a theme can make the content more interesting to work with and can help you make your work more visual; it can be a great idea-jolter and can make the work of basic layout and visual design easier going. A carefully chosen theme can be a great teaching tool and can provide a designer with an interesting, engaging framework.

For instance, Kevin Thorn’s “Mission: Turfgrass” (Figure 1) invites the learner to assume the role of a soldier out to save the American lawn from weeds and grasses. The theme suggests color, graphics, tone of writing and voice-over, and content outline, all supported by a narrative thread that encourages forward motion.

Figure 1: “Mission: Turfgrass” by Kevin Thorn

Popular themes

When looking for a theme for your content, you can draw on what you already know about dramatic plots. Think about things like:

  • Hero on a quest
  • Avenger righting a wrong
  • Bold leader conquering an adversary
  • “Goofus and Gallant”: Comparing a bad performer to a good performer
  • Conquering or slaying a monster
  • Taking a tour, going on a trip, or completing a journey
  • Detective or scientist unraveling a mystery or enigma
  • Assembling the puzzle of (topic)

On the other hand…

Sometimes a theme invites a level of abstraction that proves valuable in reinforcing learning—and sometimes not. Knowing your audience and the reality of their work is critical, as is a willingness to assess your own work honestly.

Some years back, I was weeks into storyboarding a course for managers, “Navigating the Jungle of HR Policy,” featuring a cartoon explorer encountering different animals and obstacles like quicksand, and I just loved it. It was great fun to work on, and I got a lot of validation from my co-workers about it. Then one day I took a step back and thought, “My law enforcement people are going to hate this. It’s too cute; it’ll be annoying, and they’ll resent the time they’re having to spend with it.”

I ended up going with a “Navigating the Maze of HR Policy” theme instead. It was very well received and, fortunately, the changes were more cosmetic than architectural: I was able to keep most of the basic storyline, barriers, challenges, etc. Sometimes it’s just the wrong metaphor for the topic or, in this case, the audience. My goal was to address the common complaint that navigating HR processes, especially in government, seems to be full of obstacles and pitfalls and delays.

While it was too cute, the “jungle” metaphor was otherwise pretty relevant to that, but the “maze” ended up working just as well. And sometimes the theme just invites too big a stretch on the learners’ part: A friend remembers an online tutorial involving an elaborate medieval castle theme … for a course on auto damage claims.

One of my favorite design tips? Put your hands in the air and step away from the computer. Before you start playing with graphics and loading content, just give some thought to whether there’s a theme that could help you frame the project in a more useful or interesting way.

Want more?

As ever, the members of Articulate’s wonderful eLearning Heroes community freely share ideas; you’ll find plenty of inspiration there for ideas about themes and other treatments for content.

Also, see my columns on finding a treatment and metaphors.

Headed to DevLearn? I’ll be there with sessions on accessibility, music and the brain, and communities of practice. Join me November 16 – 18! Register now!