Thursday, July 26, 2012

Accomplish Spaced Learning with eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

Most of us know that cramming isn't a very effective learning strategy. At least not for long-term recall. Some of us figured it out on our own in school, and some of us were warned about the perils of cramming by our parents or teachers.

So why do we sometimes design our training to be like cram sessions?

Think full-day (even multi-day) workshops crammed with more product information, or sales skills, or whatever, than anyone could possibly absorb in that amount of time.

Hermann Ebbinghaus could've also warned us about cramming back in the late 1800s. Ebbinghaus was among the earliest researchers to contribute to our understanding of learning and memory. And although his work is over 100 years old, the findings related to cramming -- or rather, spaced learning -- are still relevant.

The concept of spaced learning is pretty intuitive, really. It suggests that we retain newly learned knowledge longer when taught repeatedly over a period of time. But simply repeating the exact same learning activity several times isn't the way to go. After all, even an attentive learner may accidentally zone out when listening to a lecture or reading a passage for a second (or third, or fourth) time. So, the trick is to ensure there are variations. In an educational setting, this can be an advantage of study groups. Even if the group gets together a few times to review the same material, the conversation is likely to differ somewhat during each meeting. This not only helps maintain learners' attention, but it can also help plant the knowledge more firmly into long-term memory and create more triggers to assist with recall later.

The flexibility eLearning offers makes it a practical way to accomplish spaced learning within a training design.

With instructor-led training, a single-day workshop may offer the most logistically convenient and seemingly cost-effective approach. With the flexibility of time and geography that eLearning offers, reinforcing content repeatedly over time becomes more feasible.

How might this work?

Imagine a course on troubleshooting equipment failures. An initial course (taught by an instructor or via eLearning) might introduce some problem-solving principles, perhaps teach learners how to use available job aids or other performance support tools, and then provide practice opportunities with basic and intermediate scenarios. The next week, you might prompt learners to complete an eLearning exercise of more basic and intermediate scenarios. The following week, learners complete another eLearning exercise of scenarios, this time moving toward more advanced problems. With multiple sessions building learners' skills over time, they may be more likely to have truly mastered the material in a way they can recall opposed to simply reflecting on a whirlwind workshop that seemed good at the time, but seems quite fuzzy later.

Have you tried this approach?

If you've used eLearning with a spaced learning design, how did it work out? In what ways was it effective? And what challenges did you encounter?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Using White Space for Clutter-Free eLearning

By Joseph Suarez

Imagine two scenarios. First, you are driving in a car down an open road with the windows down. Second, you are standing in a crowded bus stuck in traffic. Now imagine how the available space around you in each scenario would make you feel.

Chances are the car seems less stressful and more inviting (no offense to public transit). That almost claustrophobic feeling of being on the bus with little to no breathing room is exactly how our eyes perceive a document, presentation, website, or eLearning course without a healthy amount of white space.

What is White Space?
It is a visual design term for the negative space around and between visual elements (positive spaces).  On the web and in eLearning, these positive spaces typically show up as text, graphics, video placeholders, buttons, form fields, etc. White space, then, is the dark matter, the absence of any positive element.

The term white space seems to imply color, but negative space is not necessarily white. A great example of this is the homepage for Bing - Microsoft’s search engine. While the white space on Google’s homepage is actually white, each day a new high quality photo is used as a background element for Bing’s homepage. Both employ highly effective use of white space around the positive space of a logo and search box.

Two search giants using white space effectively. Click to enlarge.

Generally, when white space  is used effectively, it conveys a more professional and possibly sophisticated look and feel. Luxury brands, cosmetics, and of course Apple often use this to their advantage to convey simplicity and elegance.

Contrast this with a typical direct mail flyer stuffed into everyone’s mailbox where white space is actually considered a bad thing. Direct marketers may make more money cramming as many ads on a single piece of mail as possible, but the vast majority of the time the rest of us are better off using more white space, not less. This is especially true for eLearning courses and presentations.

Striking a Balance
Using white space effectively requires a strong balance between positive and negative spaces that matches the visual design, marketing message, and/or learning objectives. When that balance is struck, it has the following advantages:
  • Improves readability – the ability of text to be seen and scanned 
  • Can portray a more sophisticated or elegant look and feel
  • Looks more professional, and gives the impression it’s worth someone’s time
  • More effective at communicating a message and aiding learning retention using lots of white space effectively.
Presentations and eLearning courses with pages filled wall to wall with text are uninviting, unprofessional looking, and just plain boring.  That type of design (or lack thereof) is less effective than one where an emphasis has been placed on visual design.

Seeing the Negative Space
So much of developing training material such as eLearning courses and job aids involves the content. It takes a different mindset to see the empty spaces between the content and design accordingly. Here are a couple techniques you can use:
  • Highlight everything on screen (Ctrl+A). This should outline every positive element in most applications, and allow you to see exactly where the white space is. 
  • Think of every page element (or group of elements) as having a reverse magnetic field that repels other elements away. The more spacious the overall design, the stronger the repelling force becomes.
Once you begin to see the negative space, you can tweak the design to space elements more effectively, decide what is crucial, and possibly eliminate unnecessary elements.

So remember, just as you would rather be cruising down the road in a car with the wind blowing through your hair than be stuck standing on a bus in traffic, so too does the end user of your design yearn for balance between positive and negative design elements. Leave the clutter for junk mail.