If there's one cliché about eLearning, it's a slide full of bullet points followed by the instruction to "click next." It doesn't have to be that way, and you can provide context, invite analysis, and encourage engagement. In fact, if you want people to experience learning in an engaging way, you need to banish the bullets and require interactivity. In this interview, Trina Rimmer draws on years of eLearning design and development expertise to suggest ways to move your eLearning to the next level.

BB: Trina, what's wrong with bullets? How should an instructional designer move from static points on a slide to interactive instruction?

TR: There's nothing wrong with bullet points themselves, and slides aren't inherently bad. But I think that we become overly reliant upon them and ultimately they don't provide a lot of context for learners. They're also not necessarily the most engaging way to present the content you're sharing. After all, we need to make sure that folks are receiving information in a way that demonstrates context and that also keeps their attention. Just having a narrator and a bunch of bulleted text flying onto the screen probably isn't going to do it.

How do you move beyond that to something that's more engaging and adds some interactivity for the learner as well? That's ultimately what my session at the Online Conference is about. I think that the way to go about moving from static to interactivity is to apply some design thinking. By design thinking I mean thinking about ways that you can creatively transform the content—add some context, some engagement, some opportunities for people to think about the information—and have an interaction that allows them to absorb that information in a meaningful and personal way.

BB: Do you think that part of the change might be related to reframing what we're doing? Bullet points imply slides and "click next", to me at least.

TR: Yes. I think you're onto something there because that is certainly a limitation for many eLearning and instructional designers. They're given content in the form of slides, and they're typically not given much time to do the type of design thinking that I'm suggesting they might want to do.

And there's some trade offs, obviously. You might need more time if you're going to really elevate and transform that content into something that is more engaging and effective for learning. But the trade off is going to be that your subject matter expert might not be happy to hear that you're going to touch their content. They might not be thrilled that you want to rewrite their bullets and make them a little more succinct and easily absorbed. And they might not want to give you the time to do it, if there's something that needs to get out the door quickly. You might hit some resistance there.

I think that an important part of this conversation is also you can't usually just have free creative rein as much as we'd like. To do that, you need to have a conversation with your subject matter experts and your stakeholders and get them on board with letting you move from bullet points to something that's more engaging and interactive.

BB: Do you think there's another way to pitch what you're doing to the subject matter expert or to the sponsor, so that you're shifting their thinking as well?

TR: Absolutely. I am a big proponent of not necessarily taking the most high profile, high risk project to start getting people on board with adding some more interactive engagement to the content. You could take something that's lower profile, lower risk, and say, "You know what, let me pilot this idea, let's just try it with this one course, and we'll see how it goes. We'll interview some learners, or do an A-B test. I'll create a version the way the content is now and then we'll compare it to how I'd like to do it so that it's a little more interactive. Then I'll let you all decide which one you think is going to be preferred by learners." So there's a couple of fundamentally different strategies you can take. They involve showing rather than telling, and that showing usually boils down to giving them some sort of concrete prototype or example that they can react to.

BB: We have so many different ways now to present, to interact, than what we might have a few years ago. We're not so tied to PowerPoint. But probably the subject matter experts and the sponsors are more accustomed to thinking in terms of PowerPoint presentations. Have you tried showing examples of the use of video, or the use of interactive exercises? Does that work?

TR: I think that absolutely can work. You know, interactive video is one of those tools that sounds really complicated but most of today's authoring tools allow you to do things like add hot spots and you can do a basic level of interactivity. That takes content that might otherwise be lecture or demonstration and makes it a little more engaging and interactive for folks. And even if you don't have something mocked up or you need to learn how to do that, the great thing is there are tons of examples out on the web.

If you just do some Googling, you can find examples of websites that use interactive video to show people how to use their products. You can find examples of websites that use interactive video to show people how to navigate their site. So there's lots of examples, even if you don't necessarily have the time or the skill set just yet to craft something, you can at least show people what you're finding inspiring and start getting everybody's imaginations going. Get those ideas flowing and help people start to see things beyond those PowerPoint slides.

And I think to your point, professionals who are frequently our subject matter experts do think in terms of PowerPoint slides for everything because that's how they're asked to report up to their leadership. So they contextualize a lot of communication as being, "Oh, I just need to put this into a slide deck, and an eLearning." We can do better. And we need to do better, so that folks can actually absorb that content in a meaningful way that they can apply to their jobs.

BB: Thinking about design thinking is a reframe of the way that many instructional designers think of our job. Is there a way in conversations with subject matter experts and sponsors to help them without talking about design thinking, because I think that scares some people. Can you shape the conversation with them in such a way that you flow the conversation through the design thinking, not the formal, named, flowchart-y steps, but through the design thinking approach?

TR: I think that first you need to make sure that you have everyone on board with the value of having a design process. A lot of folks would say that they roughly follow the ADDIE model, but whatever model you follow is fundamentally a design model. It's about doing some analysis to define what it is that you're trying to do, having an opportunity to get creative and maybe do some some prototyping, or it might be storyboarding in your setting. And then there's a sort of an implementation phase where you're actually putting that solution together and getting feedback on it from a functional standpoint. Then obviously there's usually some sort of measurement or learning phase to close that out. That would be the evaluation.

Fundamentally that ADDIE process is one that people struggle with to actually implement in a meaningful way in many organizations, because they just don't have their folks on board. If that's the case, do the best you can to introduce that creative design thinking element into your environment. You might have to slip it in the back door. Do your own quick lightweight prototype for them and see if you can sneak some design thinking in the back door. Sometimes it's not as much of a revolution as you might like to make. But you have to start somewhere and starting smallest is fine.

BB: Do you have a favorite lightweight tool that helps you sketch a quick overview? That allows you to show a sponsor what you're thinking about it? It might be back of an envelope or a cocktail napkin, or it might be something else.

TR: I love pen and paper, sketching something out, or on Post-it notes. Sometimes the best level of design thinking you can get is just the most basic: click on something and it reveals something else. The standard "click and reveal" is a great first way to get people comfortable with adding a little more interactivity to the course. That initial level of just dipping your toe in the water of interaction, and that's okay. Sometimes just sitting with your subject matter expert or your sponsor and plotting out on a whiteboard and some sticky notes is the most effective way to get them to see how that could be re-imagined, how that could flow. Then you can talk about, "Hey, we're going to break this up and it's going to make it a lot easier for someone to absorb. If this course is an hour long, they might not be able to sit for an hour and take it all in one dose. This way, they can absorb some key pieces up front and then they can come back a little later and finish up the rest of it." So you can come up with some different ways of kind of selling those ideas as you're working through them together.

BB: Are you going to show examples during your presentation of how you do this in your own design work?

TR: The short answer is yes. I have an explicit example where I show how it evolved from bullet points into a more interactive and an attractive way using the slider feature and Storyline, but you could just as easily build something like that in any other authoring tool. I'm pretty tool agnostic. I'm going to show some examples of ways to present content in lots of different methods. So I've got some websites that I think have done a really nice job of taking content and making it more interactive, including one that features some interactive video.

Want to hear more?

Trina Rimmer will present her session, "How to Say Buh-Bye to Bullets and Hello to Interactivity" during The eLearning Guild's eLearning Foundations Online Conference, December 11-12. In addition to the ideas she hinted at during this interview, Trina will also give you tips for brainstorming interactive alternatives with sponsors and how to get your project team on board with new approaches to content presentation. Register today!