Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Systems Training: Choose Your Own Adventure

By Shelley A. Gable

What does ideal systems training look like?

Much of the systems training I've encountered tends to follow this basic formula:
  • Overview the computer program (e.g., uses, primary functions, etc.)
  • Introduce basic navigation and main windows (with demonstration + practice)
  • Perform specific tasks or procedures (with demonstration + practice)

I used to teach computer workshops. Every class had at least a few learners who liked to explore a program on their own. They'd stray from the activity I was trying to facilitate and play with all the program's functions independently. Eventually, they'd either get stuck or decide to jump back into the class activity.

Each class also had a few learners who seemed afraid they might break the program if they did something incorrectly. They wanted me to walk them through every step and provide play-by-play assistance when it was time to complete a practice activity.

As a facilitator in a classroom setting, I could adapt to these two learning preferences with relative ease. But what's the best approach in an eLearning environment?

How about offering both approaches and letting learners choose their own adventure?

Training like this might start by introducing the intended purpose of the system and some of its major functions.

After an introduction, present learners with a choice for learning about navigation before going on to perform specific tasks. Choices for the navigational introduction might be:
  1. Self-guided exploration
  2. Guided tour

Both options could prompt learners to watch for certain screens, fields, and functions. And both could include features that call learners' attention to certain elements.

Would learning theory approve of offering both approaches?

I think Jerome Bruner, who studied discovery learning, would say yes.
Bruner suggested that discovery learning can be a highly effective approach when learners have some prior knowledge and a basic level of comfort with what they must learn. However, learners without this would likely experience frustration and failure.

Learners who tend to be eager to explore a new computer program likely have the level of computer savvy needed to explore confidently, even if they've never seen that specific program before. Therefore, these learners are ideal candidates for self-guided exploration. Especially since a group like this might end up bored and disengaged in a guided tour.

Learners who are afraid of "breaking the program" may lack that basic level of computer savvy, perhaps finding themselves too distracted by their insecurity and confusion to learn anything along the way. This group would likely benefit from, and appreciate, the guided tour prior to a hand-on exercise.

Of course, I'm sure there are plenty of ways to approach systems training beyond the basic formula mentioned above. If you've tried other approaches, please share!


  1. As a general view, customizing the way you present your content to the different audiences is good, but you have to place a limit to avoid having to do too much.

    For this case it can be easiser, we usually explain more processes than applications so the exploration part is lost a little bit. Also in training exploration has to be limited, simulating the entire application takes too much effort (better give access a staging version of the real application).

    I would try to still focus on the processes but present them in two ways, the guided way and exploratory way. For the second option give the user the problem and let them explore the application for a solution with a couple of paths available and of course feedback.

  2. Thanks for the comment! It makes a lot of sense. If exploration is too open-ended, the learner might not get the intended benefit and it would likely require a lot of heavy lifting from a programming perspective. Perhaps exploration with a purpose makes the most sense for that approach.


Thank you for your comments.