Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What Makes eLearning Boring?

By Shelley A. Gable

Most posts on this blog focus on what to do and how to do it – providing navigational cues, designing with social media, stimulating recall, forming sticky ideas, and so on.

In this post, we’ll look at what we do too much of, resulting in boring eLearning.

Too much text.

It’s popular to hate PowerPoint because of the way a slide full of bullets strangles the life out of a presentation. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Have you watched a TED talk? Those presenters use text sparsely and convey messages with images more often than not. Though it may not be practical to avoid text completely in eLearning, we can minimize it through diagrams, images that communicate, and occasional videos. Think visual design.

Discovery learning can help too. Instead of telling learners all they need to know, pull them into an activity, or a problem to solve, early in the lesson. Gradually provide the information they need through coaching along the way. This helps shift the focus from reading to doing. Even if the “doing” still requires reading, it’s likely to feel more purposeful.

Though it’s not our only option, we can accomplish this in PowerPoint. The slides are simply a blank canvas – we make them interesting or boring.

Too much detail.

The reminder here is to weed out nice to know from need to know information. For instance, I’ve seen many systems training modules that list steps in a system-driven procedure and offer tips for completing the procedure correctly.

I say “system-driven,” because I’ve seen this with procedures where the system literally leads the user through the steps and controls for certain types of errors. This means that filling eLearning slides with detailed steps and tips is probably unnecessary. The learner just needs to know when to use the procedure and how to get it started (perhaps followed by a simulation to give a feel for the flow)...which requires much less text.

Too much repetition.

We know that reviewing content and repeating important points helps solidify information in memory. But what about other forms of repetition?

How much variation do you design into your eLearning activities and knowledge checks? Do your knowledge checks always take on the structure of a short scenario followed by a multiple choice question? Do they maintain the same level of difficulty, even as the learner progresses through training?

Even rapid authoring tools generally have a variety of interaction types available. And in many cases, a smaller number of rich and highly interactive activities may be more impactful than numerous short, similarly structured knowledge check questions.

Too much formality.

Although we should write training materials concisely, they don’t have to lack personality. Stale writing becomes boring fast.

We’ve probably all had the experience of reading a textbook, only to reach the end of a page and realize that we remember nothing from the past couple of minutes. We were reading, but we were not engaged.

It’s possible to write professionally and conversationally. Think about blogs – many opt for an informal tone, yet they communicate professionally. Telling stories can help. And occasionally convey enthusiasm. Write to inform...and even entertain from time to time.

What else do we do too much of?

In what other ways do we challenge learners to stay awake? Add your observations in the comments!


  1. Too much passivity. Honestly, in the last university I worked, the only tool one of my colleagues had in her kit was a 'Reading Activity'. I could never get her to understand that was an oxymoron.

    Adults need to test their comprehension - they want to argue their point, they want to see who shares their opinion, they want to see if their understanding holds up to reality.

    Well, the mature, sane ones do anyway. There are others who interact only with those who share their views, however delusional they are.

  2. Totally agree with James. Adult learners need to be engaged if they are to learn something... by which I mean remember it and care about it, and want to expand their knowledge about the topic.

  3. Great post, not enough engagement with our elearning. I know from experience that Adobe Captivate is a great way to make elearning interesting, people should use it instead of just boring powerpoint slides.


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