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Using Urgency in eLearning

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“Give a man a fish, he eats for a day.  But teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”


You’ve probably seen some variation on this quote.  Perhaps you even have your own version ensconced in the back of your mind somewhere.  Usually when people refer to this quote, they’re speaking about learning skills.  Being able to fish is more valuable over the long term than just a single fish.  But what’s not spoken about quite as much is the urgency inherent in the quote.

The quote is powerful, not just because it tells the truth about the importance of skills over material items, but because it highlights the urgency which underlies the need to learn.  If you don’t have a fish today you’ll starve.  If you don’t know how to fish you’ll probably starve tomorrow, even with a fish today.  The urgency is real because the need is immediate.  Everyone needs to eat, and everyone needs to eat not just today, but also tomorrow.

Cultivating a sense of urgency is one of the best ways to make a learner sit up and pay attention to what they’re learning.  A common example is the perennial classroom question, “will this be on the test?” If the information will be on the test, and especially if the test is soon, then the stakes are high, the urgency is real, and everyone pays extra attention.  

Now it’s a long way from learning to fish in order to survive, and learning some fact from history in order to pass a test.  The urgency of the two will simply never be comparable, but we can try our best to nudge the latter in the direction of the former.

The easiest way to increase urgency is to talk about the negative effects of failing to complete a course.  For example, “If you don’t learn how to properly secure your company’s data, it could be stolen!”  While this strategy can be effective, too much of it seems like canned fear mongering, like a straight edge parent from the 50s warning their kids about the evils of rock and roll music.  

A better approach is to talk about negative side effects interspersed with highlighting the positive benefits of success.  For example, after you’ve warned about the dangers of being lax with data security, you can talk about the advantages and rewards conferred upon those who successfully master the principles learned from the course.  

Utilizing urgency is especially important in the eLearning domain, because users are often completing courses on their own time and at their own pace. If they don’t understand the urgency of the course, then important details might slip by the user, or worse they could simply try to complete the course as fast as possible while retaining none of the information.

Urgency is a powerful tool when it comes to motivating learners.  Every course should open with an example of either the negative effects of not learning the material, or the positive effects of mastering the material.  These “urgency uppers” can be sprinkled throughout the course as well, where they can conveniently act as a way to break up the material and re-engage the user.