Gimmickry rules the day on e-learning authoring platforms. Learners deserve more: evidence-based strategies for real-world outcomes.

The hard-fought victories of the Flash-media e-learning days pale in comparison to the onslaught of today’s tricked out e-learning modules.

Rapid design tools like Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate have not just made e-learning development faster and easier, they have also powerfully shaped the expectations of e-learning designers and users, biasing them toward experiences that include a lot of whiz-bang clicking, dragging and dropping, and a host of other insufferable and ineffective bells and whistles.

Ultimately your audience pays the price for these cheap tricks, which rest on pseudoscientific ideas about the psychology of learning, user engagement, and technology and fail to deliver value to those who must suffer through them.

In an effort to put an end to the madness, here are three popular e-learning gimmicks that are unsupported by data and have little to no evidential-basis, paired with a data-driven principle to follow that will help you design e-learning that actually works.

E-learning Gimmick #1: Drag and drops

Pseudoscience: Drag and drops make content interactive

Real science: Interactivity helps only when it fosters deep learning

The ubiquitous “drag and drop” has become one of the most celebrated features of authoring platforms, so much so that they are now table stakes to even enter the e-learning platform game.

A drag and drop exercise involves using your mouse to drag one object onto another object to form a matching pair. It is often deployed as a categorization task to illustrate how one set of things belong to another set of things.

Example of a "drag and drop" screen, a symptom of whiz-bang e-learning.
The classic drag and drop.

Above all, they are heralded as a way to make e-learning ‘interactive.’

That begs the question: Since when did moving your mouse and clicking become the hallmark of interactivity? In fact, probably the least interactive thing you can do on a computer is clicking and moving objects on the screen.

More importantly, the heart of a drag and drop is really just a series of true or false questions, which is the hallmark of surface learning – an approach to learning that focuses our attention on information alone. It doesn’t promote or contribute to deep learning, which involves an exploration of the meaning behind the information and its application to our daily lives (see Marton, F., & Saljo, R. (1976). On qualitative differences in learning: I. Outcome and process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46(1), 4-11)

Deep learning is what we need for applied skills; the kind of skills we use in the workplace. Any organization, professional association, or education provider worth its salt wants its audience to engage in deep learning, not surface learning when doing their continuing education.

Patti Shank, an internationally recognized authority on learning design, gives us a breakdown of surface versus deep learning in her book, Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning (2017):

Table explaining demonstrating differences between surface and deep learning.

So ditch the drag and drop – the data tells us that interactions are only valuable when they promote deep learning and deep thinking (see Anderson, T. (2003). Modes of interaction in distance education: Recent developments and research questions. In M. Moore (Ed.) Handbook of Distance Education. (p. 129-144). Mahwah, NJ.: Erlbaum.)

E-learning Gimmick #2: Quizzes

Pseudoscience: Quizzing demonstrates understanding

Real science: Understanding doesn’t matter – transfer of training to the workplace does, and quizzing doesn’t promote transfer of training.

The whole idea of using quizzes to test understanding derives from the “school model” of learning that we were all brought up on, where evaluation looms large. School boards and ministries who set curricula have to have a way to demonstrate that students have ‘learned’ what they were supposed to learn, and the tools they most often reach for to do this are quizzes and tests.

Because you were brought up on the school model, you may be unknowingly clinging this idea too, even though it is largely irrelevant to the kind of learning that is required in the workplace.

Here’s the crucial question for people who are dead-set on using quizzes in e-learning: How much of the job in question is devoted to writing quizzes?

I have yet to hear an answer other than ‘none.’ So why are we asking people to practice taking quizzes?

Screenshot of an e-learning quiz.
Simulations – not quizzes – help employees apply new knowledge and skills on the job.

Fortunately, the workplace isn’t school. And the way to evaluate whether someone has learned something isn’t performance on a quiz. It’s performance in the workplace. That is, it is whether they have transferred this new knowledge and skill from the learning environment to the workplace environment.

There is good data and science on what promotes transfer of training, and it doesn’t involve quizzing (see Alexander, A.L., Brunyne, T., Sidman, J., & Weil, S. A. (2005). From gaming to training: a review of studies on fidelity, immersion, presence, and buy-in and their effects on transfer in pc-based simulations and games. DARWARS Training Impact Group.  The core concept is practice. Creating learning experiences that allow people to practice a new skill – and receive feedback – in high fidelity simulations enables them to effectively perform that skill in the real-world when the time comes.

So stop wasting your precious budget – and people’s time – designing quizzes, and start creating simulations that help them practice what they need to do on the job.

E-learning Gimmick #3: Characters

Pseudoscience: Characters and avatars make e-learning more engaging

Real science: Relevance is what makes e-learning engaging, and point-of-view (POV) design supports relevance

Because we are hooked on the school model, we think that learning has to be delivered by a teacher who is an expert and who tells us what we need to know. This aspect of the school model has been integrated into e-learning by creating a virtual teacher who delivers the information in a module, usually as the narrator.

Example of an e-learning character gallery, a symptom of whiz-bang e-learning.
Engagement is driven by relevance, not the use of characters.

One of the most glittery features of modern e-learning platforms is therefore a vast character library that designers can use to deliver information. This feature leads to boring information dumps, where you leave feeling like you’ve been talked at by a patronizing digital drill sergeant.

Anyone on the receiving end of these kinds of e-learning experiences knows in their heart of hearts that they aren’t engaging.

The scientific data tells us that engagement is a matter of relevance (again, see Shanks’ Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning). It is easier for people to more actively engage with e-learning when they see a specific and important purpose for the learning in their daily lives. When people see how they can apply the learning to a real problem that they are facing, they engage. It’s that simple.

Knowing this, it is clear that designing an experience from the user’s point-of-view, which directly map onto real-world problems they have to solve, is better than trying to listen to a third-party avatar that drones at you. Relevance peaks, along with engagement.

It is indeed time to consign glitzy, pointless e-learning tactics to the same dustbin as Flash-media and move forward with evidence-based e-learning strategies and techniques that demonstrate measurable outcomes.

Amen.

— Aaron Barth

Aaron Barth, Ph.D., is president and founder of Dialectic. He is a frequent speaker on topics such as unconscious bias in the workplace, and the power of science, design thinking, and technology to help accelerate employee learning, transform organizations and support employee and customer engagement.