Thursday, September 29, 2011

Emphasizing Noteworthy Content in eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

I was part of a team last year that worked on a large eLearning course, which consisted of several hours of eLearning lessons that learners completed over a four-week period. Interestingly, we received feedback that learners were taking excessive notes.

Apparently, the lessons did not provide the cues necessary to help learners distinguish what they ought to jot down versus content they could easily look up later when needed.

Naturally, this prompted us to rethink how to help learners take notes productively.

So how can we provide this guidance to learners?

We know that we should limit training to “must know” information, eliminating the “nice to know” stuff that does not directly impact learners’ ability to perform the objectives. This helps reduce information overload while keeping learners focused on job-related tasks.

However, even after filtering extraneous information from training, learners still should only have to make occasional notes for later. Even if all information in a course is critical, designers still need to find ways to highlight what learners may or may not need to note.

Below are some ideas for providing this type of support in eLearning.

Expectations. In situations where learners will have access to job aids and manuals for reference later, state at the beginning of training that the purpose of the course is to teach them how to use those resources. Explicitly state that they are not expected to memorize course content. Design training activities that prompt learners to refer to job aids while practicing tasks during training, and inform learners of how they can access those same job aids after training completion.

Highlights. If a step in a procedure or cautionary tip is particularly noteworthy, highlight it visually. This can be as simple as placing that text in a colored box on the slide, to make it stand out from other elements on the slide. You could also create a standard icon or label to associate with these occasional critical points, so learners know to pull out the notepad when they encounter those symbols.

Reminders. Even if you inform learners that job aids and other resources will be available after training, remind them periodically throughout training. For instance, when introducing a new procedure, briefly remind learners that the steps are outlined in an accessible job aid; therefore, there is no need to write the steps down.

Structure. You can attempt to limit unnecessary note taking by offering learners a structure for taking targeted notes. For instance, you might offer limited space within a slide for learners to pick out one important point – this is especially handy if the lesson allows learners to print these notes or email notes to themselves. One instructional designer I worked with created a form that prompted learners to record a small number of important points from an entire lesson, which encouraged them to identify a few of the most critical pieces of content.

Scenario-Focus. Training that teaches content in the context of working a scenario can also help limit unnecessary note taking. If learners are consulting job aids and other available resources while learning new tasks, they can easily see what is outlined clearly in the job aid and differentiate that from an undocumented reminder worth capturing in their notes. This distinction can seem less clear when learners are presented with slides packed with information prior to attempting a task themselves.

The intent is to support, not limit.

In sharing these ideas, my intent isn’t to suggest that learners shouldn’t take notes. For some, note taking offers an effective way to reinforce content. Many people say they remember information better if they write it themselves. However, in the specific eLearning course I mentioned earlier in this post, note taking reached record levels, suggesting that we could do a better job of creating focus.

If reading this post sparked other ideas related to this topic, please share!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Backchannels – what’s all the fuss, anyway?

By Dean Hawkinson

I recently attended the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) conference in Orlando, Florida. While there, I engaged in a practice I had never before used known as a backchannel, via the well known micro blogging tool Twitter. Before we define what a backchannel is, we need to define a couple other terms as a foundation for the discussion.

Microblogging – Wikipedia states that microblogs "allow users to exchange small elements of content such as short sentences, individual images, or video links.” It is different from a traditional blog in that it is exactly what the title infers – micro. Twitter, for example, limits your “tweets” (as comments in Twitter are called) to a maximum of 140 characters.

Backchannel – Wikipedia defines a backchannel as “the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken remarks.” But guess what? In this day and age, you can even use devices such as smartphones and tablets to microblog.

Learners typically use a backchannel for a live, facilitated event, such as virtually facilitated training, a webinar, or a conference.

How It Works

There are a lot of tools that can be used for a backchannel, but one of the most popular is Twitter. Other online tools are available in the marketplace; however, I will refer to using a backchannel in Twitter throughout this post.

In Twitter, participating in a backchannel is as simple as using a hashtag (#) and then a few letters in front of your “tweet” to set it up. For example, the backchannel for the ISPI conference was #ispi. During the presentations, when something important stood out, I would simply pull out my smartphone device, sign into the Twitter application, and enter a “tweet” using the hashtag at the beginning. For example, “#ispi consider using Captivate for eLearning simulations.” Then, anyone can search “#ispi” and locate all of the comments being made on that backchannel.

For virtually facilitated training that uses a tool such as Adobe Connect or Microsoft Live Meeting, the instructor can set up a backchannel using the hashtag (#) functionality, and then let participants know the tag to use.


There are a few things I would like to point out in support of using a backchannel for learning events. First of all, it is a good way to capture points of a presentation that stand out to you. These short microblogs force you to keep your comments brief and summarize the key points that the facilitator is sharing. Your comments are also available for others to see by searching for the particular hashtag.

Second, in addition to your own assimilation of the key points, you can read others’ microblogs about the same presentation that you are attending. Chances are, someone else may have caught something that you missed, or it may add to your own assimilation of the material. You can also “retweet” someone else’s comments to show up on your own Twitter home page.


One of the frustrations that I faced when using the ISPI backchannel is that I wondered who might even be reading my comments and what value those comments actually added. I have to admit that I have really not used Twitter extensively, and I am more familiar with a Facebook environment where I get that instant gratification of knowing people are reading my comments by replying or simply “liking” them. Twitter does not provide the same type of reinforcement, so it left me wondering if they even got read.

Also, using a backchannel can be distracting. A couple of times, I found myself trying to type out my thought on a comment the facilitator had just said, and in the process missing out on something else he was stating while adding the comment. I am guessing that it could also be distracting to the facilitator to see participants on their smartphones while he or she is presenting.

If your company does not allow you to use Twitter, a backchannel may be a challenging option. You may need to use the chat options in Adobe Connect, Microsoft Live Meeting or other conferencing software, which can be distracting if a lot of people trying to “chat” at the same time. Alternatively, some companies may find that this functionality is available in other tools they already use for other purposes, such as Microsoft SharePoint.

If your company does not allow you to use Twitter, a backchannel may be a challenging option. You may need to use the chat options in Adobe Connect, Microsoft Live Meeting or other conferencing software, which can be distracting if a lot of people trying to “chat” at the same time. Alternatively, some companies may find that this functionality is available in other tools they already use for other purposes, such as Microsoft SharePoint.

That's my experience using a backchannel. What's yours?

That, in a nutshell, is my take on using a backchannel. Have any of you had experience using one in your learning events or other presentations? Feel free to share your experiences here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Modal Windows, Overlays, & Boxes, Oh My!

By Joseph Suarez

Two fundamental questions constantly in the mind of anyone navigating through an eLearning course are, “Where am I?” and “How do I get back to where I was?”

That’s exactly why popping up an overlay of additional content without loading into a new page or slide can be advantageous. Without breaking the user’s navigational frame of reference, additional content, feedback, or interactivity can be presented. In user interface terms, this is referred to as a modal window. It also goes by several other names with subtle differences including modal overlay, dialog box, and lightbox.

Not to be confused with those annoying browser window pop-ups, a modal window temporarily prevents interaction with the original screen by overlaying it with a separate view state and requesting an action be taken before continuing. Ideally, this occurs with some additional visual indication that the original page is inactive such as a faded, darkened, or blurred background. A modal window is typically triggered to appear in response to an event such as a button click or page load.

The process to create a modal window depends on the eLearning authoring tool used, but in the most basic form, it consists of the following: A content container, a text area, and a button to return to the original screen state. More advanced components include a semi-transparent background, text header, icon(s), input fields, images, and/or video.

Modal Windows can be as simple as an alert dialog box, or as complex as a photo gallery. A common technique in eLearning is to use Modal Windows to provide question feedback on quizzes and surveys. But really, there is no reason why we have to stop there. Here are some more potential uses:
  • Hide long sections of text accessible through a “Click to learn more” link.
  • Place links to additional information and files inside a modal window.
  • Pop-up a movie clip and add a “dim the lights” effect.
  • Hide a course’s table of contents inside a modal window. (Does it really need to be taking up 20% of the screen at all times?).
  • Prevent accidental course closes with an exit course confirmation box.
  • Use image thumbnails that open to full size when clicked to save screen space.
  • Alert the user of important information (use sparingly).

When creating a modal window, always make it clear how to return to the underlying screen, and think through which method works best from a user interface standpoint. Most of the time, a close button or link will suffice, but you may need a pair of OK/Cancel or Yes/No buttons. You’ve no doubt encountered these types of interactions frequently from your computer’s operating system, and you should be able to discern which is appropriate.

There’s plenty of room for creativity with Modal Windows as well. The content containing window doesn’t need to be a boring rectangle. It could be a post-it note, chalk board, or talk bubble. For inspiration, here are a couple links for nice examples of modal windows used on the web.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Remember the Debrief…Even in eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

In instructor-led training, post-activity debriefing discussions seem to occur naturally.

Instructional designers know to follow an activity with discussion questions that prompt learners to reflect on what they learned, justify why they made certain decisions during the activity, consider alternatives, and relate it all to their jobs. Facilitator guides tend to include questions along these lines.

Regardless of whether these questions appear in a guide, most seasoned trainers have the experience to recognize the value in debriefing an activity and the skill to facilitate it.

How does a debrief add value?

For starters, asking learners to explain the logic they applied during an activity can help validate that they “got it” (as opposed to making a few lucky guesses). Revisiting that logic also helps reinforce it, increasing the likelihood that learners will recall and replicate the logic or procedure later.

Debriefing also offers an efficient way to explore variations of a situation, by posing “what if” questions. This challenges learners to apply a concept in additional ways, which deepens their understanding without repeating the entire activity for each variation.

Should debriefing occur in eLearning?

Yes! If you have a lesson that asks learners to work through an in-depth scenario or complete several short scenarios, a debrief is likely to enhance learning.

Though unfortunately, the debrief is often missed. Many eLearning lessons follow an activity with a few knowledge check questions that quiz learners on content; however, they lack questions that debrief an experience by prompting reflection.

How can we include debriefing experiences in eLearning?

Slides with text boxes can work well here. That way you can ask open-ended questions and provide space for learners to record as much or as little as they desire. If your authoring tool allows you detect keywords in learners’ responses, you can shape the slide’s feedback to commend or coach learners on key points as appropriate. Even without the ability to detect keywords, a one-size-fits-all feedback response can present learners with potential ideas to compare their responses to.

In some instances, multiple choice or multiple response questions can help debrief an activity. You might use these question types to prompt learners to identify when they would apply content on the job or to rate their confidence levels on various aspects of the content.

A debrief also opens the door to manager involvement. For instance, you might provide learners with debriefing questions to think about, letting them know that their managers will schedule time soon to discuss their ideas. Alternatively, a lesson might prompt learners to discuss their responses using social media or in a brief virtual session with a facilitator.

How do you design debriefs in eLearning?

What methods do you use to debrief learners after activities in an eLearning lesson, to prompt reflection and cement learning? What challenges have you encountered? Please share!