The challenges and rewards of developing interactive e-learning

It’s all about interactive these days isn’t it? Creating eLearning where people have to do things rather than just watching. It’s at the heart of most theories of learning design, for example Cathy Moore‘s action mapping which focuses on practice activities that “mirror the real world as much as possible.”. I recently attended the ELN annual conference called “Beyond Click Next” which looked at how to create e-learning which is more than just a series of pages punctuated by a next button on the right.

What are the challenges when you are developing e-learning content that goes beyond click next? How far do you go in attempting to mirror the real world?

My experiences as a developer include the use of a range of rapid authoring tools such as Captivate and Lectora to create a range of content. I create a range of modules which include simulations of different systems or applications. I also attempt to include interactive exercises into other modules I am working on. This posting will reflect upon some of my experiences in these two areas.

One project I worked on involved reminding people how to do specific tasks in Microsoft Word in order to create technically accurate documents that could be submitted to regulatory authorities. There was an element of teaching grandmothers to suck eggs with this module but we needed to make sure that everyone could complete the tasks. The trouble with applications such as Word is there are multiple ways of doing everything.

Did we keep it simple, programming the content so that there was only way to do it and writing a proscriptive exercise such as “Using the home ribbon, change the style of the text to Heading 1”? Or could we allow for every permutation such as keyboard shortcuts, right clicks and so on and then write the exercise in more broad terms such as “Apply Heading style 1 to the first line of text”. In our view the former almost gave the answer away and so rendered the exercise meaningless whilst the latter made it more of an exercise. It also avoided the frustration some learners might feel if they are forced down a certain route to complete an activity they can already do. The latter of course also required more programming and a lot of branching.

Then what happens if the learner is presented with a complex exercise to uncover information? They might wish to approach the exercise in different ways and as far as possible this should be allowed for.

What happens if the learner is presented with a complex exercise to uncover information?

An exercise I was required to create involved presenting the learners with a spreadsheet of costings for a project. The purpose of the exercise was to identify which elements of the costings might change as a result of changes in the project. As they identified them individual values would change and the total costings would go up. They were presented with two or three scenarios. The exercise needed to be kept as flexible as possible as again we did not want to direct them down a certain path; rather we wanted them to explore the spreadsheet and consider the individual costings.

In this case we had to second guess the learner quite a lot. What happens if they left the exercise or if they wanted to start again halfway through? Supposing they wanted to just go back one step in the exercise. Could we allow them to do that? These are just a handful of situations that might crop up and would need to be considered by the designers of the content.

So there are a lot of technical issues to be considered when creating a complex interactive exercise such as allowing for different ways to complete an exercise successfully whether it is a simulation of an application where there are multiple ways of completing a task, or a complex interactive exercise which the learner can explore in a range of ways. It will also obviously take longer to design, develop and test; there are also more chances for bugs.

So why do it at all? We could just explain the learner has to do the exercise in a certain way. Or we could just present the information rather than getting them to uncover it. Of course in some cases going to all the effort of creating a complex exercise that puts the learner in control might not be worth the effort. The interaction does need to be relevant. Getting a learner to complete an exercise for the sake of it is not a good idea.

Personally I would prefer to create more complex user interaction. There are a lot of good pedagogical reasons for this, for example it is always better to allow learners to discover things for themselves rather than simply presenting the information, and a realistic exercise makes the training more relevant. Also, if an exercise has to be done in a specific way it makes explaining how to complete it more complicated; you don’t want to distract from the learning by having to explain complex rules.

There is one other reason why I prefer creating more complex user interactions. It’s way more challenging as a developer!

I would be interested to know other people’s experiences of developing complex interactive content? Do you feel it is worth it?

This posting first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse on November 17th 2015