So you’ve been to an industry event and discovered that all’s right with the world of eLearning. How tantalizing those best-in-class, high-budget solutions you saw showcased there! But if this were a car you were being shown, you might want to lift the hood. What’s underneath might differ dramatically from the gleaming exterior.

The reality is that most eLearning design is still stuck in the 1990s. Isn’t it time that we could easily replicate the type of online or app experience that most of us now take for granted outside the workplace? And why hasn’t this happened already?

The (non-)trickle-down effect

We all think we have a fair idea of what good digital learning experiences should be like. But this thinking isn’t filtering down to people on the ground—those hard-pressed L&D personnel who need to be able to satisfy a simple training need quickly and efficiently.

And our research in learning science isn’t filtering down, either. Why? Because we haven’t yet made the implications of our findings practical enough to apply. Your average L&D person might, just might, have heard of cognitive load, cognitive dissonance, spaced practice, multimedia learning principles, etc., but knowing about them is a world away from building content that puts this knowledge to use. Often, it’s less a case of not having the knowledge than of not having the time.

I have written before for Learning Solutions Magazine about the state of eLearning. Despite initiatives such as the Serious eLearning Manifesto and the great work done by The eLearning Guild to support practitioners, the good practice of the few isn’t yet reaching the many. New clients who are seeking a different approach to training and who are genuinely interested in eLearning will routinely tell us that:

  • They have “tried eLearning before”—and they can’t shake off their dread of poor-quality content
  • They are worried that creating great content will be too costly and take too long

Going against the grain of how people naturally learn

If I wake up wanting to learn about any subject on earth, I have hundreds of options available to me. I can download an app to my smartphone, Google away to my heart’s content, or search for an online course or community to support me in my learning. This accessible, technology-savvy way of learning is the one that feels most “natural” to us nowadays. Yet, when designing corporate eLearning, developers and subject matter experts will spend months poring over the minutiae of the perfect image, words, or animation to explain each concept—a staid, inflexible, ponderous process. So what is to be done?

We need to adopt a new attitude toward digital learning content—a term I use deliberately, as it more accurately describes how we learn now, in this information-abundant digital world. The challenge lies not in designing perfect new content each time we have a training requirement, but in figuring out how to pull content together in a bundle that best facilitates learning. Of course, we will still need new content, but it should be shaped to yield the best results: ideally short, focused snippets targeting the most difficult concepts.

Anyone out there who retains a preference for old-style click-next eLearning, beware: Your staff never wanted it, and soon they won’t put up with it. A perfect storm of cognitive dissonance is coming, and it will sweep your preference away.

A briefer history of eLearning

The evolution of eLearning authoring tools closely aligns with the quality of eLearning content in the industry. The eLearning quality graph in Figure 1 is my own unscientific but experience-based representation of how we have changed and developed over recent decades.

Figure 1: A representation of eLearning quality in recent decades

In the 1990s, eLearning quality slowly improved as we moved from static CD-ROM content to more dynamic, HTML-driven learning experiences. As Internet bandwidth increased, multimedia elements came more to the fore. We had a brief dip in the 2000s with issues around the collapse of dot-com organizations. As the Internet stabilized, we saw a greater variety of eLearning authoring tools, and for the first time you could use more than one virtual class tool.

The next big leap came in the 2000s when “rapid eLearning” burst onto the scene—suddenly everyone was creating content and sharing their ideas. But bad ideas can be shared as easily as good ones! Only in the last few years have we begun to kick the habit of dependence on rapid eLearning tools, which spawned so many identikit click-next courses.

The big difference now is that people have grasped that we need a more holistic view of eLearning—not as a single type of learning experience or learning content, and not as the privileged preserve of large organizations with large budgets!

New and better tools lead to new attitudes

In my team’s current work, we are implementing an approach to eLearning that supports the way that people naturally learn. Our aim is to take advantage of the possibilities offered by some new authoring tools and bring together curated content, stories, and original interactive content alongside a well-designed gamification layer (Figure 2). As marriages go, this one is made in heaven!

Figure 2: A holistic view of eLearning incorporates multiple types of learning experience and content

Quests and ecosystems

In a “learning quest,” learners are inside an organizational narrative that challenges them to learn new skills as they progress. The quest can be anything that embodies the overall aim of the training, whether that is supporting culture change or simply keeping staff on track with compliance issues.

There really is no excuse for poor eLearning anymore, regardless of budget. We have interactive video, easily created animations, interactive templates, gamification possibilities, and more. High-impact, low cost-per-head eLearning isn’t only possible, it just has to happen.

Example: Changing the culture of product development within an organization

Figures 3, 4, and 5 are screenshots that illustrate the concept of a learning quest. These are taken from an example of training to empower all staff in an organization to contribute to new product development. The sequence of activities in the quest is based on the sales and product development process (the organizational narrative) and includes a series of conversations and challenges for staff to complete. As different challenges are completed, new content and additional challenges are made available—depending on the learner’s path through.

Figure 3: In a learning quest, visual cues establish context and motivate sustained progress

Figure 4: Challenges during a learning quest proactively engage learners in conversations and situations

Figure 5: Badges provide acknowledgment of achievement and progress within the quest, as well as an organizing framework for the quest

To create this new type of learning experience, we need to think beyond the single-use eLearning authoring tool. We need no less than an authoring ecosystem. I know that the term “ecosystem” has been in circulation for a while in relation to learning—it evokes notions of the end-user concept of staff wanting to access different types of content in a single sign-on environment. Well, the ecosystem concept applies to content creation, too. What if we had an authoring environment where we could plug and play different types of specialist content creation tools—and not only eLearning-specific ones? For example, we could use best-in-class tools from marketing and communications, content curation, gaming, and virtual reality. This is the model we use at Logicearth to create our learning quests.

Getting started with learning quests

If you want to get started with a learning quest approach to delivering and supporting training within your organization, ask yourself these five questions:

  1. Where can I find existing content that would help my staff (e.g., MOOCs, TED talks, online industry forums)?
  2. What are my staff currently doing well, and how can I capture and share that?
  3. Where do my staff have the most difficulty? What mistakes or misunderstandings have the biggest impact in my organization?
  4. How can I come up with activities that will encourage discussion, engagement, challenge, and collaboration? What do staff need to practice the most?
  5. What new content do I need to create?

And remember—we are social animals

It’s only in the fifth question above that we start to look at creating new content. If you work in a large organization, you’ll already have access to a huge (probably untapped) source of content—your staff. How many of us take the time to capture and share what is already known about a given subject in an organization? We now have the tools to do this, so no excuses. We have found that our learning quests inevitably include a social layer that becomes part of the rich learning content for each training topic. To facilitate this, we encourage development staff to blog—writing, posting a video, and asking and answering questions.

Workplace learning is all about continuous improvement. Next-generation eLearning involves moving away from being a single piece in a jigsaw puzzle toward being the picture itself—multifaceted, modern, and a little bit magical, too.