Last week I was able to catch up on a webinar that I had been meaning to view for several months. Ethan Edwards from Allen Interactions, Inc. presented a very interesting session for the Association for Training and Development (ATD) titled 10 Ways to Ruin your E-Learning: A How To Guide in Reverse. The webinar was a David Letterman style count down of the 10 biggest and most common mistakes you can make when creating an e-learning course; mistakes which make the learning process for your viewers not only un-enjoyable, but also make your intended content incomprehensible. Of course the #1 biggest mistake on the list was creating your content in Power Point and then importing it into your authoring software only to add voice and then publish as a completed “course”. If I had never taken any e-learning courses in the past, I would think that such a mistake is something of a dinosaur. Surely no one does that anymore, right? But unfortunately I have seen courses that were created in exactly that manner. When Ethan mentioned that as the #1 mistake, I wanted to copy all of the webinar and send it to the institution that created the HITECH Training courses I have been taking for the last year. I understand that as a professional e-learning content creator I am probably pickier than most and it’s understandable that I cringe when I watch these courses. But when your presentation is full of slides of bullet point after bullet point of text and narration that either reads the text on the slide verbatim or competes with the text on the slide don’t be surprised when my response is something akin to this:
But it’s not this obvious error that I found most interesting in Ethan’s presentation. What I found most intriguing was point #5: Open the course with formal learning objectives. Really? This one seems to be the equivalent of a commandment among e-learning creators: Thou Shalt Always Open Courses with Objectives! After all, how else can the student know what they are supposed to be learning in the course if we don’t tell them?
Ethan brought up several good points that I have often found myself wondering about when I’m watching a course with objectives (or indeed even creating courses with objectives). First and foremost among them is his observation that no one reads them. I myself am guilty of this when I’m taking e-learning courses. I often skip the objectives because they are either so broad and poorly worded that they seem completely implausible (For example: I’m going to learn to understand HIPPA in a 15 minute presentation? Really? There are entire departments and law firms and regulatory agencies devoted to HIPPA and I’m going to understand it in 15 minutes?) or because they are so specific that they are confusing because the specific content they reference hasn’t been introduced yet ( For example: List and describe network addressing and DNS when I don’t know what DNS is or what it stands for yet. Introducing terminology that has not yet been defined is not helpful for the learning process). Ethan also points out that the objectives are often not very motivating to the student, and if a student is not motivated to learn the material you are presenting, no amount of fancy presentation frills will help raise the students comprehension. The goal of e-learning should be making it learner-centered; if you are creating content that promotes a hostile environment to comprehension and learning, you might want to ask yourself why you are bothering to create the course in the first place.
I have to admit that I find Ethan’s arguments compelling, and not just because I have experienced poorly designed and executed e-learning courses myself. I do think that the amount of time and hassle that is spent trying to decide on the proper phrasing for objectives (Are they measurable? Are they specific? Should they be broader? But then how do we measure comprehension?) indicates that too much importance is placed on them. I also believe that it establishes an environment that is test-centered when you are using objectives. If I see right off of the bat what I’m going to be tested on, then I’m likely to just focus on those things rather than anything else in the course. After all, I need to pass the test! This pressure is even stronger when you are creating courses for corporate education. No one wants their boss to see that they couldn’t pass a test on the product lines you are supposed to be selling. The potential ramifications of that decision are HUGE.
I have no problem with testing per se. After all, we need to have some way to measure the effectiveness of the courses that we are creating. But we as educators need to remember that testing is not teaching. When testing replaces teaching, all it does is encourage memorization, which is not true learning. All your students need to do is remember the information long enough to pass the quiz, and then promptly remove that information from their brains to create room for the next batch. Particularly if you are using e-learning to improve employee performance or to improve KSA’s (Knowledge, Skills or Abilities), your students need to be able to take what they learned in the course and put it into practice in their daily work.
So do we do away with the objectives in our e-learning? I would hesitate before going that far, because I do think it is helpful to at least tell the students what they are going to be covering in the course. I think the problem comes with the way the objectives are written and presented. When they are presented with formal, specific language it makes it easier for the creators of the content; we can use them to create wonderful measurements of the comprehension/retention of the information we are presenting. We can roll that into wonderful statistics, charts and graphs about how effective our courses are. But we need to remember that the courses shouldn’t be created in a way that makes it easier for US…they should be created in a way to make it easier for the STUDENTS to learn the content we are trying to present.
I would suggest re-imaging the objectives in the way we do when we teach a course to live people. Make the objectives conversational and compelling, so that your students are motivated to learn the content, or at least interested in listening to what you have to say. We shouldn’t overwhelm our students when a bunch of technical jargon or specific content we haven’t introduced to them yet; it will only overwhelm them. In order for learning to be effective and for comprehension to be increased, we need to create buy-in from our students. I have found that an effective way to increase buy-in is to use storytelling or other narrative methods to encourage the students to follow the story and relate what we are trying to tell them into their daily life and work. So let’s do away with the formal, stiff, dry-as-toast objectives! Let’s make them conversational, compelling and interesting; we might be surprised how much more effective our e-learning becomes.