Some Tips: Why (& How) To Teach Concepts Online

January 4, 2012

Happy new year! And yes, along with a long line of others, one of my resolutions is to pay more attention to this blog. It has been difficult to keep a regular presence; sadly, I seem to spend more time on my hobby writing blog. Anyway, this time, I’m going to talk about the whys and wherefores of teaching concepts using eLearning. Often considered the most boring content to develop and consume, I think some simple tips can help to make your content less page-turning and more page-turner.

An addendum. I need to acknowledge Kieron Strong, trainer extroadinaire, as inspiration and information used in this post.  Much of what I have written here has been drawn from conversations we have had about training and development. However, Kieron did not contribute to the planning or writing (or indeed had no knowledge of my writing) of this post. The opinions are my own alone. He has his own opinions, which I am sure he would be happy to share with you.  Anything you disagree with in this post – you disagree with me – not with Kieron.

What this post is about

I’m going to write about some cases in which it is important that concepts be taught in eLearning. Also, how concepts can be taught in a more engaging fashion. I have often found that the immediate impetus is to provide conceptual information (guidelines, facts, “information” etc.) in a page-turning fashion, or simply as resources to be consulted in order to complete task-based content with a more practical focus.

What this post is not about

I’m certainly not arguing that teaching concepts has to change everywhere and for all projects. I am not belittling the work, effect and impact of more practically-focused online training.

Here is a summary

Task-based learning has perhaps saved online learning from itself (especially during the 90’s, when it was “Page-page-question; Page-page-rollover; Page-drilldown (essentially more pages)-rollover”; however, it sometimes feels that the balance has gone the other way.  That the concepts that inform tasks – the reasons certain steps are taken and why they are taken in a specific order – are suddenly less important. This balance needs to be redressed. Concept-focused learning needn’t be boring or gimmicky; it can also provide essential understanding to help learners apply other knowledge in a more effective fashion.

Here Begins the Post

When an instructional designer (ID) begins a new project, there is an air of magic about it. Especially where the project is entirely new (i.e. the content to be developed is a suite on its own, or a specific one-off; in both cases freeing the ID from any standardised approaches that may have been defined for the wider project).

The opportunities are endless (sometimes, this can be daunting).

Of particular interest to most IDs is the opportunity to create simulation- or scenario-based content, that will guide the learner through a series of steps to complete some complex task. All “excess” or “residual” information can be provided as resources, that the learner consults in order to complete the task. The whole thing is immersive, exploratory and altogether kicks ass – for ID as the designer/developer and for the perceived learner, who will have a much more engaging experience as a result.

However, sometimes, the concept needs to be given greater focus. The concept is not always “excessive” or “residual”. Knowing why one takes a specific step can be as important as knowing the step that needs to be taken.

For example – a technician may need to run a series of diagnostic steps to determine the cause of a fault. Each step they take will lead them to some conclusion or another. By understanding what these conclusions mean, the technician might determine the cause of the fault more efficiently – or indeed identify a wider problem (something causing several  specific faults).

For example, consider me – even though I’m no technician – at home. I may notice that the lamp has gone out. I could check the bulb, but to no avail. I might then check the plug fuse; still to no avail. At this point, I might realise that perhaps there has been a power cut, or I have blown a fuse at the fuse box. So, I might check the clock on the oven, or just check the fusebox. These steps make sense – going from the most simple options to something bigger or more complex. If it’s night-time, and the lamp, my laptop, TV, stereo, &c all cut out, I’ll probably head straight for the fusebox, using the illumination of my phone display as a torch. I don’t go through each simple step in turn, as I know immediately that there is probably a bigger problem at hand. Furthermore, I have never learned how to use a mobile as a torch; but I do know that pressing the screen randomly will keep it illuminated, and that I can use that illumination to light my way.

Another example. Consider the dreaded position of the Customer Service Rep, manning the phones. In just about every corporate environment, a prepared script is provided, through which the CSR must work. By following their training (and indeed job specification) to the letter, they could make a bad situation worse.  Imagine a customer phones, who has had something go wrong.

They are frustrated with their situation, and perhaps with the company. They aren’t necessarily angry at the CSR – but they will be taking their frustration out on the CSR.  If the CSR misreads this situation, they may either:

  • Respond personally – over-defensively, taking umbridge at the caller, who may be rude to them
  • Try to ignore the emotion of the caller, and proceed through the prescribed script until they can reach a resolution – which, even if it deals with the customer’s primary problem, may well leave the caller frustrated that their anger/emotional state has not been recognised/acknowledged

Both of these outcomes creates an unsatisfactory (or at the least, not satisfactory enough – given most call centres focus on “excellent customer experiences”) outcome for the customer, which may have knock-on effects.

A final example. In medical cases, trainee doctors may be faced with several options for dealing with a case. The best option to take will depend on previous medical history, patient allergies to medications/treatments, and a range of other factors that are (frankly) beyond my understanding. Traditionally, understanding these options and the factors that should contribute to decision making are learned by late nights of reading books and following a senior doctor on the rounds.  However, I believe eLearning could be adequately used to inform trainee doctors of these various and diverse contexts and situations in which decisions must be made, and the type of information they require to make the best decision.

So how does teaching concepts directly help in these cases?

  • By learning to recognise and deal with multiple causes for power outages – and perhaps the patterns that indicate them, I might be able to find the quickest set of steps required to deal with my faulty lamp/TV/stereo, depending on the circumstances I face.
  • By learning to recognise customer frustration, the CSR may be able to deploy the right kind of tone/interaction that allows them to calm the customer and reassure them that they are trying to resolve the problem at hand.
  • By learning to recognise the most common allergies, issues with specific treatments and drug interactions (although it is fair to say, not every single one could be learned – knowing the most common is probably useful), the trainee doctor can be better informed, which will help them to select the best course of action for their patient.

So how can concepts be taught in a more engaging way online?

Here are some tips that might be worth considering:

Set the scene/purpose convincingly. This might mean using a scenario (I know this goes against what I mentioned previously – but what I mean is to set up a scene, in which the concept(s) you want to teach can be elicited). However, if you do use a scenario – do not make it too specific. The problem with teaching general concepts with very specific scenarios is that the learner may interpret the content as saying “In this – very specific situation – you will need to know this information”; in fact, you are trying to get them to understand that they need to know this information in almost all situations. This might otherwise mean writing more engaging content to draw the learner in – make them scared (i.e. the negative consequences of not knowing the information provided), or more motivated (i.e. the positive consequences of knowing the information)

Include lots of questions – not just as quizzes (but do include quizzes – I would rather have a quiz and no copy than copy and no quiz), but in the body of your content. I have found it useful to ask questions directly preceding content to focus the learner’s attention, or use their previous knowledge to introduce a new concept. Questions wake learners up a bit, and therefore “tune” their mind to the information you are asking them to take in.

Include good graphs/animations/visual content – this is fairly obvious and covered in every ID training programme. If you have to teach the relationship between things, or the innerworkings of something, use graphical content as much as possible. Whatever about a picture and a thousand words, graphs can also be reproduced as downloads, which make excellent job aids.

For very complex concepts, take steps and ask lots of questions – this has proven particularly useful in some projects I have worked on. From an extremely complicated concept, we provided one sentence and one question per screen. The sentence would describe a simple aspect (which was illustrated with an animated graphic), then – based on this – the learner would be asked a question about the consequence of this simple aspect. In most cases (but not all), the SME agreed that given the single sentence and graphical aid, the learner should be able to make an informed guess (I hate blind guesses, I believe informed guesses are eLearning gold dust), about the next sentence, given the question. Obviously, in these cases the question is prompting the next sentence/screen, but it is useful nonetheless to take a learner through a concept – step by step – and ask questions to help build those cognitive bridges that lead to better understanding. It also meant we weren’t dumping a pile of text and load of images on one page/screen and asking the learner to read through it before moving onto something more interesting (the learner reads: “This is something you don’t want to do – but hold on, because there’s something you do want to do next!”)

Answer the Question the Learner is Asking – namely “Why can’t I get on with the good stuff – why should I care about all this?” Provide context for your information, explain where it might come in handy. As with the scenarios mentioned above, do not make this too specific – for fear that your learner believes the examples you give are the only situations in which the information is used.

Here Ends The Post

Thanks for reading. As always, comments and conversation are welcome. What do you think?

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