Super Example of E-Learning Content... that ins't "E-Learning Content"
If you read this blog or know me in person, you can probably guess that I think e-learning is (or at least, can be) really cool, really inspiring, and really, really powerful when done well. Of course, the flip of that is that e-learning can also be really dull, mind-numbing, and next to useless when done badly. Pretty much like most forms that teaching and learning take!
Last week I was disheartened to see a classic example of bad e-learning content (from a source I will not disclose). It was the dreaded PowerPoint slides full of lines of bulleted text, with a voice-over narration. No animation/movement, no images or rich media, just a voice talking at you over a text which didn't always match the audio (which is the worst, because of course you can't attend to two different messages simultaneously, we know this from brain research!). Granted, even those of us who really worry about instructional design sometimes use the "narrated slides" format. But, there are degrees of quality even among narrated slides. If you're going to do it, you can at least use animations to bring things into view as you talk about them, and include imagery that matches your text/audio. And above all make sure that the text and audio "fit!"
Then this morning, as if to brighten my Monday, I came across a super example of exactly the opposite of the dull narrated slides - a truly rich, interactive, and engaging piece of e-learning content... the only thing is, it's not "e-learning content" per se. It's an online multimedia feature from Scientific American magazine, called "12 Events that will Change Everything, Made Interactive." Granted, ABE programs don't have anywhere near the resources (in terms of money, time, technology, or expertise) that Scientific American has. But there are principles at work here that anyone involved in creating instructional content for adult learners can and should learn from.
For one, it's beautiful to look at and draws the reader/learner in. As teachers we tend to think that content trumps presentation, but increasingly, I'm not so sure. Aesthetics do matter quite a lot. In many ways, the presentation IS the content. These two aspects of design can become so intertwined as to be inseparable. Are the images there to instruct or there to make it look nice? Well, both! Is the interface functional or beautiful? Well, ugly interfaces tend to be hard to navigate, which means they don't function well. Yes, I've also seen beautiful but completely dysfunctional interfaces. But when design is simple and clean, it tends to be both easy on the eyes and easy on the brain.
But perhaps most importantly, as a reader/learner looking at this piece of content, you have choice. You can decide for yourself which of the 12 events you want to explore. You can read the text, or not. You can choose which multimedia objects to view. You can jump around whenever and where-ever you like. There is also a mechanism for including reader/learner voice: you can vote on how likely you think each event is to happen by the year 2050, then see how your answer compares to other readers'. You can also listen to the author's opinion if you wish.
As a result of applying these principles (attractiveness, integrated multimedia, choice, and learner voice), this is a piece that begs for deeper engagement. I know I had a hard time pulling myself away to write this blog post! And that kind of engagement is what we want for our learners. When learning is self-motivating because the content draws you in and makes you want to stay engaged, then learning is deep and powerful. Much, much more so than listening to someone talk at you while reading bullet points on a PowerPoint slide.
PS: Thanks to Larry Ferlazzo for finding and sharing this resource with me and countless others on his ESL Websites of the Day blog.