By Shelley A. Gable
I recently started teaching myself how to play harmonica with the help of a book from the For Dummies series. And I'm impressed. These guys are good instructional designers.
That said, I realize that the point of these books is to instruct. But that's the point of a lot of books, and not all of them do it well. So kudos to them.
And that got me thinking...
What, exactly, are they doing right?
Am I doing those things right when I design an eLearning lesson?
As I started to sputter out a few tunes on my new harmonica, I made it a point to notice the instructional tactics that were most helpful for me.
Modular chapters. Each chapter begins with a concise list of what you will learn about. And while the chapters build sequentially (foundations to application, simple to complex, etc.), they're written in a way that allows me to jump around between chapters. In my case I was eager to play, so I jumped past the foundational chapters and skipped ahead to the chapters that taught notes and simple songs. After feeling satisfied with some initial tinkering, I went back and read the earlier content on technique. Creating this type of flexibility can help initially gain attention and then maintain engagement of a variety of learners.
This flexibility can work well with scenario-based eLearning. Imagine opening a lesson with a scenario or case study. Learners who like to tinker can dive in immediately, perhaps clicking "hint" buttons or accessing job aids as needed. Having the option to work the scenario right away keeps them engaged and helps avoid the zoning out that can come with being forced to read introductory information first. Learners who prefer more guidance could opt to review a job aid or a demo first. Having this route available can benefit learners who become overwhelmed when pushed into something too quickly. Everyone wins.
Conversational tone. The book's friendly voice helps create a feeling of learning from a personable instructor. It's even entertaining at times. That conversational, natural language also helps make it a quick, easy-to-understand read. That means less re-reading to comprehend a sentence and more time spent learning.
When you draft training materials, do they read more like a traditional textbook or a casual blog post? If you're thinking textbook, does it have to be that way? Why not make eLearning read more conversationally?
Consistent visual cues. A hallmark of the For Dummies books is their consistent use of icons. I found the "tip" and "warning" icons most helpful. As I mentioned before, I was eager to just start playing. While I didn't have the patience to thoroughly read full paragraphs at first, their icons helped draw my eye to the important stuff, which helped me get rolling more quickly. I eventually went back to read the paragraphs for the sake of going beyond the bare basics.
Of course, eLearning can take advantage of icons in the same way. Using them consistently (and somewhat sparingly) can help ensure that even skimming learners notice critical information. And if they need more help to perform a task or complete a scenario, even skimmers will likely delve deeper into the content as needed.
So how's my harmonica playing?
Well, after my first half hour with the book, I could play a mean When the Saints Come Marching In. And when I say "mean," I really mean something that's a bit off-rhythm and out of tune. Yet, surprisingly recognizable. Which I'm telling myself is a good start.
What have you noticed?
If you've paged through a For Dummies book (or a similar type of series), what instructional qualities benefitted you?