7 tips for developing engaging online learning experiences

In an attempt to upskill their workforce and improve efficiencies through online training, many organisations are still falling short when it comes to developing effective learning experiences, writes Jen Jackson.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the notion of online learning (or eLearning). Yet it’s astounding that after two decades, many organisations are still making fundamental mistakes — at a massive cost.

Begin with a thorough understanding of why training matters to the organisation and the individual, how the knowledge will be implemented, and what the learning outcomes are

Consider the typical approach to online training: take an existing face-to-face training program (read a hundred-plus-slide PowerPoint deck with over twenty bullet points on each), drop it into a learning management system (LMS) and whack on a ‘next’ button.

This is chalked up as a win, due to:

  1. Saving a resource from having to deliver training in person, and;
  2. Allowing employees to learn at a time that suits them.

In reality, however, this click-click-click-next approach rarely produces an engaging experience, and learning suffers dramatically as a result.

There’s no shortage of evidence showing the substantial performance and bottom-line benefits of effective online learning, but the keyword here is effective.

Improving online training isn’t a matter of changing LMS or jumping on the latest technology trend (we’re looking at you, virtual reality). As obvious as it sounds, if our objective is to educate people, we need to make people central to the process.

Instead of online training, a helpful frame is to think of it as an online learning experience.

Just as we would for an offline program, online learning requires a framework for engagement. This involves journey mapping the experience, cognitive framing to put people in the right mindset, setting context and the right content to deliver the desired learning outcomes.

The effectiveness of online training hangs on establishing context and carefully considering content. Without a skilled facilitator or trainer to ensure comprehension, these are the areas where online learning typically falls down.

For learning to be considered effective, a transfer of knowledge needs to take place that enables people to put what they’ve learned into practice. And if there isn’t a behaviour that needs to be changed or a skill that needs to be learned and applied, then the question should be asked — why does this training need to exist?

While there are numerous learning frameworks, the following 7 considerations ensure a great online learning experience:

  1. Know the purpose (the why, how and what). Begin with a thorough understanding of why training matters to the organisation and the individual, how the knowledge will be implemented, and what the learning outcomes are — the skills that should be learned and/or the behaviours that need to change. This is the basis for establishing what content needs to be communicated.
  2. Know the context for the organisation (and keep it short). Offline training allows more time to be spent on the who’s, why’s and how’s. Online learning requires a different approach. Long videos and lengthy text don’t make sense — these aren’t the way we naturally consume content via online channels. The context component should be summarised in a short introductory video, 1.5–2 minutes at most.
  3. Know the context for the audience (and bring it to life). Case studies, stories and scenarios are the most effective way to bring learning to life. When people see themselves in a situation — when it’s relatable — they’re much more likely to care. And when they care, they’re far more likely to want to learn about it. It also provides people with an opportunity to think about the desired skill or behaviour in the context of their work. Wherever possible, use real examples to ensure greater relevance.
  4. Know the audience (the who). An in-depth understanding of who the online learning experience is for is essential to communicating for maximum engagement. Applying empathy, using activities like personas, helps uncover detailed information about the audience, including who they are, what they like/dislike, their drivers and communication preferences. It helps determine what content is relevant, as well as appropriate language and tone of voice.
  5. Know peoples attention spans (hint: theyre short). A growing number of organisations are embracing microlearning, as it suits busy schedules, short attention spans, and can be delivered anytime, anywhere, via mobile devices. Microlearning focuses on delivering a single, bite sized chunk of knowledge. Modules typically focus on only one learning outcome.
  6. Know the timing. Increasingly, learning is happening in the flow of work. Just because it’s delivered online, doesn’t mean it needs to be consumed while sitting in a room alone. It should allow people to learn, then implement that knowledge immediately. By continually improving their capability and applying it to their day-to-day activities, we build a positive feedback loop.
  7. Know how to inspire learning (and not because we told them to). Curiosity is an incredibly powerful driver of active learning. By incorporating curiosity into framing and content, through questions and teasing small amounts of information while temporarily withholding the rest, we put people in the right mindset to learn.

By taking an experiential approach to online learning, and beginning with these seven considerations, we can dramatically improve the outcomes.

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