I have a personal beef with PowerPoint. PowerPoint is a tool which allows people in the same room to communicate. As it happens people already have a tool that works really well for this same task: having a conversation. Call me a luddite if you want, but for all of PowerPoint’s fancy tricks I still think the conversation reigns supreme. Think about some of the best conversations you’ve ever had. The conversations where you came away changed, where you felt like you really learned something new, either about yourself or about the person you were talking with, a conversation memorable enough that you actually remember having it. What kind of conversation was it? Was it a passionate exchange of ideas, where everyone got excited about what they were discussing? Or maybe it was more of a laid back exchange, with everyone going over the ideas in question slowly and carefully. There’s nothing quite like the experience of exchanging ideas, and if we want our eLearning to be as effective as possible, then it needs to tap into that primal experience of having a great conversation.
While we can’t guarantee that everyone has a passionate desire to learn about the subject matter of a course, what we can do is make sure that the material is presented in a way that resembles those best conversations, and that starts with a friendly tone. Typically, a really great conversation isn’t going to happen between people who are serious antagonists. After all there’s a reason the diplomat and the crisis negotiator have such difficult jobs.
If we’re going to ensure that a course has a friendly tone, then it needs to start from a place of respect. One of the easiest ways to create antagonism where there wasn’t any previously is to talk down to your learner. Speaking to someone like they’re stupid or inferior is no way to gain their trust, and certainly no way to engage them with the material. On the other hand if you treat the learner with the respect they deserve, speak to them like the competent adult they are, then you’ll be on your way to a course that resembles one of those great conversations.
After a friendly tone, the next important way we can help make an eLearning course like a great conversation is to incorporate feedback from the learner. This makes perfect sense because great conversations are by definition a two way street. If only one person is talking then it’s not really a conversation, it’s more of a monologue, and while there are great monologues out there, that’s not what we’re trying to create. If your learner needs some extra information about a specific topic they should have the ability to easily access that information, just like in a conversation they can pause and ask a clarifying question.
Finally, the last piece we need to make sure our eLearning incorporates is a human element. If I’m going to have a conversation, then I need to have that conversation with someone. Granted that someone does not actually have to be a human person. If there’s one thing the last decade of animated motion pictures has taught us it’s that humans are perfectly capable of empathizing with everything from toys, to insects, to the emotions in our own brains. So while it may not matter in the long run whether you have a human leading the course, or an animated truck that talks, your learners need something to latch onto. They need to be having this conversation with someone, because otherwise the experience quickly becomes nothing more than taking an elementary school test.
At the end of the day there are few things as engaging as a good conversation. The human connection, the interplay between people, and the exchange of ideas are all fantastic to participate in, and if we’re going to make an eLearning course as engaging as possible, then it should tap into what already makes a conversation engaging. Of course eLearning can do many things that a normal conversation cannot: instant replay, instantaneously accessible visual aids and diagrams, pausing and coming back to the same spot later. But as we push the boundaries of what eLearning technology can accomplish it is important not to neglect the foundations. And the foundations of learning inevitably come back to having a productive and engaging conversation.