How to design and develop an effective learning experience is a question that routinely arises whenever facilitators and/or organisations are faced with the challenge of provoking change. They may have a detailed knowledge of the learning population, they may understand the changes that are needed, yet so often they experience significant difficulty in bridging the gap between the two. In addressing this difficulty they very often fall into one of two traps, and the result is some very poorly designed learning.
So what are these two common traps in learning design?
The first of them is to do with how the learning is structured - I call this the modular learning problem.
The learning module problem often stems from how designers represent what they want to achieve from the learning experience. The question they ask themselves, or colleagues if they are part of a team, is “What does this learning need to cover?” You can picture the designer, or training manager, standing at a whiteboard and asking this question, and what they do next is to create a bullet-point list of deliverables - you’ve experienced it happening haven’t you?
And, in creating this checklist, the slide towards the modular learning problem has started, irresistibly you’re drawn into a design that is an accurate reflection of the checklist.
Point 1…..check, Point 2…..check, Point 3…..check….etc etc etc
By the time the learning is delivered it’s quite possible to reverse engineer it to accurately reproduce the checklist where it all started.
The trouble is that that’s what the learner experiences - a clunky set of modular blocks linked by strained connections that rely on the facilitator to deliver verbally. There’s no smooth transitions that define each piece of the learning in terms of what has been established previously, there’s no sense of an efficient journey of unlearning and learning, it feels contrived and most learners will react accordingly.
Rather than asking “What does this learning need to cover?” try a different question.
Something like “What do we need this particular population to do differently as a result of this learning?”
If the question is posed correctly the answers should represent a set of behaviours and these should be the start point for the learning design. The challenge should be to sequence a learning experience along these lines:
As a piece of learning design this should feel very different, very ‘joined-up’, and success should be very clear in that the learners are left in no doubt about what they need to do and why they need to do it.
The second trap that I’d like to highlight is what I call the unnecessary complication problem.
This problem stems from a belief that learner engagement is dependent on making the learning experience ‘clever’. The sense that simplicity and straightforwardness is somehow a reflection that the designer(s) haven’t put the work in. In my book the opposite is true, my mantra, and how I edit my own work, is as follows:
What’s the simplest and least complicated way of ensuring that this experience has the potential to deliver the learning outcomes defined for it?
Human beings are great at connecting concepts and ideas for themselves - it’s not my job as a designer to do this work for them. Indeed, if I try to do this for them they will get bored and switch-off rather than remaining engaged. I want them to be self-satisfied by the insights they are able to achieve by making the links and relating what they're learning to their everyday lives. These are thinking, functioning adults and don’t need me to spoon-feed them with bite-sized morsels of learning. This quest for simplicity might not flatter my professional ego, but I’m happy to see the results when learning-transfer is measured.
It’s an approach that works - just last month our CEO was in Austin, Texas for the GamiCon Throwdown Competition as part of the Camp Gamicon (gamification) Pre-Conference alongside the wider TechLearn 2022 Conference (yes I know, sorry!)
Graham chose to take one of our learning tools Challenging Assumptions to represent what we do for learners and how we do it.
The activity took two awards:
I’m really happy about these accolades. I was made happier when I read this in the judges’ summary:
“This design has a simple elegance that really stands out.”
Seems I’m not alone in recognising that sometimes simple is best!