Online learning has gone down the ‘all fur coat and no knickers’ route. It’s more presentation than pedagogy, more look and feel than learning. Rather than focus on what makes learning a success in terms of understanding, retention and recall, it allows the learner to skate across the surface of a thin layer of crisply designed but thin ice. It often creates the illusion of learning by illustrative graphics/animation that, as Mayer often showed, actually inhibit rather than help retention. That old adage, which is as good a summary of learning theory as any, that ‘less is more’, has been abandoned by a glut of over-engineered graphics, animation and effects. We design for forgetting.
they focus on back-end functionality to deliver a superb service, and do not rely on front-end visuals.
One could hardly describe Facebook and Twitter as relying on their designed interface or images for success. There are no Facebook or twitter images, there is no animation, only a core, scrolling timeline that draws you in and a simple interface that gets you typing stuff in. They understand that the goal is interaction, not spoon feeding, that the software behind the skin is where the real power lies. They understand that less is more.
Successful learning design
So how should we design for success in learning? First up, we need to focus on the outcome – successful retention and recall. This is our equivalent of Google's ‘finding the right thing' so that we click on it’ or Amazon’s ‘offering us the right thing so we buy it’ and Facebook/Twitter’s ‘interaction with others’. This comes down to a few simple principles:
1. Effortful design
Forget the graphic/text/graphic/text/MCQ model for one moment and think about the simple fact that the learner really does need to make the cognitive effort to learn. You have to make them think and act. The online learning industry is obsessed with the MCQ and their awkward cousins, the T/F, drag and drop and so on. Multiple choice questions are light touch, give the answer anyway and are poor on retention. That is because they are weak in terms of effort. You are not making the learner recall the answer from their own brains, rather, they are choosing from a list. It's an act of recognition. These interactions bear no similarity to how people actually use what they learn in real life. You have to know stuff, recall stuff, not pick stuff from lists or drag words from one place to another. If you don’t you’re designing for forgetting. So move to open input.
Google, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Netflix and every other online service, allows you to scroll down the page. They have largely abandoned the online learning, fixed-page model. Most online learning vendors have scrolling on their own websites but when it comes to learning design they default back to some old-school, fixed-page turning model. Sure you need to chunk material down but electronic page turning through coffee-book designed pages, is not the answer. No need to be flashy, Flash died for a good reason. You need to cut things down, get rid of those extraneous graphics – those stock photos of people in offices, looking at computer screens, managers smiling inanely at each other., patronising cartoons.... You also need to cut the text until it bleeds, then cut it some more. A good editor is of more use than a graphics designer. Forget those dull learning objectives at the start of your course, all of that Michelin-man padding. Sure, adhere to some simple rules on branding, through logo, palette and font – that usually means pre-defined colours but don’t get fixated on superfluous elements that distract. Your goal is learning and retention not aesthetic pleasure.
3. Get smart
Stuck in a flat HTML world where all the effort goes into page design and a flashy CSS, the online learning world hasn’t learnt from Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and Netflix. AI is the new UI. As all the effort goes into the surface skin, there is no smart delivery behind the front-end. Google is pure AI, Amazon’s huge AI platform delivers what you see with subtle recommendations based on your personal behaviour and the behaviour of others. Social media is mediated by AI as is Netflix, which is why it has conquered the globe in the entertainment industry. Yet in online learning we are stuck with flat pages of HTML, with a few branches. Look at AI, that is now the real world.
We are in this pickle because we do not pay enough attention to learning theory. Anyone can say ‘that looks nice’ few can say ‘that’s great learning’ and justify their claim. What to do? Let’s get smart by using smart, behind the scenes software to drive the delivery of online learning. Let’s be honest and say that what we had was OK for that time but it’s time to move on. Let’s drop the idea that it’s all about ‘design’ and focus on functionality and leaning outcomes – what we actually retain and recall. Let’s stop being a nation of online shop, window-dressers and focus on learning, which is why we need newer tools and services, that can deliver effortful learning and work to principles of cognition that lead to learning not just looking.
If you're interested in this direction contact us on WildFire - the world's first AI-driven content creation tool. Or try a different approach.... adios....