A great learning experience is a key driver of engagement, performance, and change, whilst aiding the larger purpose of achieving organisational goals.

With the shift towards more digital learning and L&D priorities now changing in response to COVID-19, Ella Morris, Instructional Designer takes a deep dive into the importance of content and why it is the foundation of creating a great learning experience.

Here she explores how great content can gain the trust of learners to benefit the organisation, the steps you should take when creating content for digital learning, and the role psychology plays in getting the most out of your learning programmes.

Content is King

We’ve all heard the saying “content is king.” Microsoft founder Bill Gates actually titled an essay about it in 1996. Fast-forward over 20 years, and those words are truer than ever. With technologies evolving rapidly, the importance of content has massively increased. At the same time, however, the attention span of humans has reduced, bringing challenges to those responsible for the creation and delivery of content.

Producing any content for digital learning will always be a challenge and learning and development professionals will undoubtedly be up against time and budget constraints, especially given the current climate.

To produce any content worthy of being crowned King, you need to start with context.
Adding context to content involves a fair amount of groundwork but this groundwork is what sets content apart from all the mediocre content – there are several things to take into consideration regardless of time, budget and other constraints such as:

  • Who is your target audience
  • What are the needs of your audience
  • What makes good content
  • What purpose does it serve
  • How will it solve a pain point
  • What instructional design techniques and learning design approaches will be used to create positive, memorable learning experiences
  • Are the latest technologies the best way forward or is it about mastering the basics

What is the purpose of the content?

Digital learning content is no different to any other content you consume – it has to serve a purpose, it can’t be there for ‘being there’s sake’. 

Content needs to resonate with the intended audience – a learner will need to feel that they have been ‘paid well’ for the time they have given up and won’t get back.

According to Nathalie Nahai, web psychologist, content should;

  • Grab and hold attention
  • Provoke the desired emotional response
  • Convert this emotional response into a mutually beneficial action

In the case of digital learning, a mutually beneficial action will be an employee who feels confident in completing a task or achieving a goal that is relevant to their role which will ultimately benefit the organization by more satisfied, engaged and efficient employees. But how do you get there? To create this positive emotional state, there needs to be trust. 

How do you gain trust from your learner’s?

We can learn a lot from modern technology such as search engines. Using extensive research, user statistics, ranking systems (known as algorithms), machine learning and artificial intelligence, they understand their audiences need to such a level that they have become the everyday go-to for knowledge – who doesn’t ‘Google it’?

Users know that their needs will be met, quickly and using a simple and intuitive navigational design. Your learners expect the same of their learning experiences.

By ensuring the groundwork is done by understanding your target audience, their needs and creating great content and learning experiences that get to the heart of learner needs you will gain trust. In comparison, if you simply dump a suite of resources that may have been converted from old classroom training workshops or repurposed, you will simply lose learner trust and attention. Nothing will be learned or gained – losing out on the mutually beneficial actions can be cultivated from great content.

Is the newest and hottest technology the answer?

In our blog earlier this year we highlighted the following trends in eLearning for 2020

  • Adaptive learning
  • Artificial intelligence & learner assistance
  • Augmented and virtual reality
  • Gamification

Most of these take a similar approach to Google in producing a tailored learning experience. They certainly have their place within the learning sphere, but they also come with their considerations. ‘Jumping on bandwagons’ must not be a practice if learning becomes diluted as a result. Also, the majority of trends such as artificial intelligence are big-budget items that are simply beyond the majority of learning and development budgets – however the intent behind these technologies of providing tailored learning experiences and content demonstrates what learning programmes and professionals should aspire to do. 

In his talk at World of Learning 2018, Robin Scott, Managing Director of MakeReal VR, was transparent about the use of virtual reality as a mechanism to deliver training. Working together with companies such as EDF and McDonalds to produce successful VR solutions took time – in fact, EDF’s ‘The Prioritiser’ took 3 years to complete. Robin stressed the importance of asking several questions before considering a VR approach.

  • Can it reduce business risk?
  • Is it safer?
  • Can it reach enough people?
  • Can it help to simplify and explain?
  • How accessible and scalable will the training be?

Artificial Intelligence has proven to be a successful technology in pushing personalized and self-directed learning to the forefront, albeit with a facilitative ‘nudge’ approach. The language learning app Duolingo is leading the way. Learning with Duolingo is largely up to the learner, they can do it wherever and whenever they please. They can also choose how much time they want to dedicate to learning, and that amount of time can change according to how busy that person is. 

Using AI, the app can predict where learners might struggle, to help the learner succeed. For example, if a learner appears to be having trouble with possessive pronouns, Duolingo might add more content relating to that subject, or attempt to reframe the content. After completion of a task, Duo the app mascot, will be primed to give applicable encouragement ‘Your hard work has paid off’. The learner will then receive daily reminders via email to encourage ‘practice makes perfect’ and weekly progress reports. Duolingo will also be clever enough to notice periods of inactivity, using gamification tactics to ‘lure’ users back into the game. 

Gamification also lends itself well to autonomous, self-led learning. Where mistakes can be made is where gamification is thought of as producing a game for learners to play. Learners are in danger of focusing too much on game mechanics rather than what they are supposed to be learning – the message can get lost.

However, you can apply game-based techniques to learning programmes. We understand how games work, and if we don’t, the rules of play are intuitive to the point that we can get by using a trial and error approach. If we don’t succeed the first time, we know how to do better next time. 

Cathy Moore explains this trial and error ‘scaffolding’ approach in her Learning Zeko Scenario. The scenario presents the learner as a journalist trying to get the latest scoop on a news story – the problem is they can’t speak the language of the country they are in. How do you approach this challenge? By diving headfirst into the problem at hand and learning a bit at a time. 

Through making mistakes in a safe environment, learners may pay more attention to the information that follows. We keep trying until we can achieve our goals. We learn through experience.

Gamification also presents emotional triggers to the learner that can nudge them into achieving the desired outcome. For example, rewards such as badges or bonus points can;

  • Help to change or reinforce behaviour
  • Provide an element of challenge and competition
  • Differentiate achievement when competing against peers

All of these trends are well and good when used appropriately and effectively. But good quality eLearning must tackle the brilliant basics with vigour. Adults want to learn, it’s our job as educators and learning designers to give them the platforms to succeed. Ultimately, audiences want their learning experiences to be their Google – to feel as if they can take something away with them at any given moment, to do their job better. 

Malcolm Knowles Assumptions and Principles of Andragogy state that there are significant differences in the way adults learn compared to the didactic, ‘push’ approach often used when teaching children and young people. With adulthood comes responsibility, independence and freedom of choice. Learning is no exception. With competing life demands, adults want to know ‘how will this learning make my life better?’ and if it isn’t apparent, they won’t engage. 

With influence from the internet, social media and on-the-go devices, we now live in an instant gratification society. This type of ‘at your fingertips’ culture means that people are more likely to dip in and out of content at any moment. 

There is a real opportunity here for ‘pull’ style microlearning. This is why microlearning has become a hot topic in the learning world, but again, it must not be used as a bandwagon opportunity. Microlearning is best suited to everyday trend content such as podcasts, video, blog posts, social learning and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), sometimes as a standalone solution or as part of a wider blended learning programme.

How do you give learners the ability to learn? 

You’ve looked at opportunities that can potentially amplify the learning experience. You have even delved a little into the adult learner psyche to understand their immediate needs and what might work to meet these needs. How do you start to understand what’s required to provide quality content within a given context? 

By providing content that gets to the point. The first part of this process is to uncover key tasks that the learner needs to complete to do their job better. Aurion’s DIF model asks;

  • What do staff find Difficult?
  • What are the three Interesting things you want to emphasise?
  • What’s Frequently asked?
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Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping expands on the DIF model, providing another approach to identifying key tasks. Action mapping starts with asking a series of questions;

  1. What business change do you want to create?
  2. Why aren’t learners doing this already?
  3. Will training solve the problem?
  4. What activities (or tasks) will help learners to do what they are currently not doing?
  5. What do they need to know for each task? 

According to Leslie Curzon’s 14 points for learner motivation (see Bob Bates book on Learning Theories Simplified), these tasks should reflect the learner’s level of ability – they should not be too easy or too hard to attain. 

Assessment must be frequent so that learners can gain immediate feedback on their performance and to measure progress. It’s also important to acknowledge achievement as soon as possible – if a learner has failed a test, they need to know to learn from that failure. 

Once you’ve determined key tasks that the learner needs to successfully complete and the ‘need to knows’ associated with each task, you should start to map out types of content needed to deliver the learning and how it is going to be delivered.

Think about how you can present content that engages the learner. If you can’t put yourself in the learner’s shoes, involve learners in the content shaping and curation process. 

  • What would they like to see? 
  • What do they expect? 
  • Do they have, or can they produce content that they think will prove to be valuable? 

For example, learners might produce short head to camera video pieces on their mobile phones to share best practice – inclusion can be a strong motivator.

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Bloom’s Taxonomy can help to decide what content to use for particular learning outcomes. If you’ve created a learning outcome that involves some method of evaluation, your content might revolve around assessing a case study or a critique of the way a person has approached a task. Similarly, if a learning outcome involves applying knowledge to a situation, you might produce content that is a simulation of a task, such as how to appropriately record and store a patient’s personal data.

Another model – Absorb, Do, Connect, helps to form the structure of any learning content to see if your learning programme contains the required elements to help learners engage with content. 

Often learning may start with an Absorb activity – this is information-based and involves extracting and understanding knowledge (for example reading). 

Once Absorb has taken place, learners need to interact with the content and Do something that they have learned, in a safe simulated space (for example, scenarios, discovery activities or games). 

After learners have interacted with the learning content, the most transformational of activities is a Connect activity. This is where learners can connect the dots and understand how the task at hand relates directly to their role. How does this task help me to solve my problem? Connecting provides the catalyst for reflection and expansion (for example discussions, collaborative work, rhetorical questions and problem-solving).

But as we have seen with Cathy Moore’s Learning Zeko example, presenting information first is not necessarily the only way to introduce a topic. It is perfectly possible to present a Do or Connect activity first. Sometimes plunging a learner into a thought process and encouraging them to question their current knowledge can immediately engage. Consider a time when a teacher asked you a question in class before answering and how that engaged your learning experience. 

Whichever way you present your content, the learner should always come away with the same understanding (i.e. if you present a Do activity first, learners must have the opportunity to Absorb the what and why of what they have just done).

For independent and eager learners, the Connect aspect of the Absorb, Do Connect model can provide further learning opportunities. This can be in the form of reflective questions that prompt the learner to explore their thoughts on a subject, or by including resources so that they can ‘do more, learn more and support more’ in their own time. 

Using an example of a mental health awareness eLearning course, a Do More activity might include seeing if there is a Mental Health and Wellbeing support group in your business. If not, why not set one up? A Learn More activity might be to see if there are any Mental Health First Aid course near you. A Connect More activity might be printing a top tips to better wellbeing and putting on a workplace wall to remind colleagues how they can look after their wellbeing.

Bringing Everything Together – Creating Your eLearning Content

Now you’ve put together a plan of the key tasks and have an idea of the types of content you are going to use in your learning programme, it’s time to source and curate your content.

Well-curated content, that is to say, content that has been well researched, selected and organised, can help deliver a learning experience that is accurate and focused on addressing each key task or learning outcome.

The delivery of a learning experience can suffer if the content hasn’t been well-curated. Often learning designers are faced with too little or too much source content. Subject matter experts need to spend time gathering accurate and relevant content and ask the below questions when doing this:

  1. Does this content address a key task or learning outcome? 
  2. How does this address a key task or learning outcome?
  3. Is this information need to know or nice to know?
  4. Is any of this content better suited to another form of delivery or even for another learning programme?

Even when content has been curated, play the role of the sceptic and do not accept the status quo. Pick each task or learning outcome apart. Ask all of the questions – why? how? what if? so what? 

Only accept what you believe will directly contribute to the behaviour change required. Keep in mind why the desired behaviour isn’t taking place.

Now it’s time to write. You have your key tasks; you know how you are going to present the content you have curated and in what format. Putting pen to paper and bringing the learning to life can be problematic – often because words are overlooked. What is written needs to keep the attention of the learner from start to finish. Beautiful graphics, a plethora of interactions and seamless navigation have some part to play, however, words are the ultimate engagement powerhouse. 

The best place to start is by keeping it simple. Use short and sharp sentences. This means no unnecessary words – the quicker the audience can understand the message the better.

Imagine you are writing to somebody sitting in front of you. You’d address them directly, avoid formal language, steer away from jargon (or at least explain it), and use the active voice. 

For example: You are at risk of injury if you don’t adhere to the Health & Safety policy.

Rather than;

There are risks associated with non-adherence to Health & Safety policy.

Writing content for any audience is also about telling a story. How do you pique and retain interest? Ann Handley’s formula for great content can help.

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Utility refers to how useful the content is to an audience. Let learners know from the outset how their life will improve (empathy) and inspire them to act. Tell your story well. Use Pixar’s 22 storytelling rules to guide you. Some of the more useful rules are featured below; 

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Storytelling in action

Aurion worked in partnership with GlaxoSmithKline to deliver an Asthma Diagnosis Essentials course. Straight away the learner, a General Practitioner, is immersed into the story as the protagonist – their setting, a doctor’s surgery, their task, to deal with a patient with suspected asthma – all within the allotted appointment time.    

With Vicky as the patient, learners have 10 minutes to decide what the best course of action is. Does she have asthma? Could it be something else?

Three options are presented – explore Vicky’s history, diagnose Vicky and start tests. For each option and with guidance along the way, the learner is presented with information to help make the right choices.

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Vicky’s story gives the learner a safe space to understand and practice the crucial skills that they need to accurately diagnose asthma, simulating as real a situation as possible. The learning takes a scaffolded approach, plunging the learner straight into a situation that they are responsible for. The learner chooses the path they take, encouraging autonomy and providing a moment of need feedback that matches the choices they make.

People are used to scrolling and accessing content on the web. If you can provide content that falls within the boundaries of a page and eliminates any scrolling, so much the better, but scrolling has become habitual – it’s not unusual to expect to scroll for more information. The same goes for accessing content. Users are generally not instructed on how to browse the web – the page design is simple and intuitive. 

Traditionally, eLearning content has been presented in a ‘click to move forward’ block style and there is nothing to say this doesn’t work or engage. However, it’s important to approach eLearning with a web design mindset.

The psychology of content

You’ve already delved into the psychology of a learner throughout this paper – it’s certainly difficult to isolate. The learner should always be at the heart of content planning and execution. It’s imperative to understand the habits and behaviours of learners so that they can be best placed to succeed.

There is a psychology behind the way users view content on a page. Research suggests that we view web content in either an F-shape or a Z-shape – this can still apply to learning content. These shapes help us to understand where we might effectively place content on a page. Users don’t read pages, they scan pages, and with speed. With the F-Shape, users view content vertically from the stem of a letter F. 

This style of ‘scanning’ emphasises placing the most important information first. It’s key to manipulate content in a way that might entice a user to read on. Break content up into paragraphs. Even better, categorise your content with sub-headings to guide the user. Start your paragraphs with information-carrying words so that users immediately understand the value of that content.

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Using the Z-Shape, users scan from the top left to right, cast their eye diagonally to the bottom left, then scan across to the right. In the context of a typical elearning screen this might look something like the below;

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  • Think about what you’d like a learner to see first
  • What order would you like information to be presented? 
  • How can you help learners to progress seamlessly through the learning? 
  • Think about your placing points – it’s no accident that progress or call to action buttons are placed last in the Z-shape

Both the F-Shape and Z-Shape reading patterns argue the case for a less is more approach to content. Why bombard learners with masses of content they are not going to read? 

Alternatively, if large amounts of content are unavoidable, you can use chunking - systematically breaking pieces of content into chunks. 

To do this, ask yourself how the content directly supports learning outcomes? Is there a strong theme that links up certain pieces of information? What do learners need to know first? 

Separation can be as simple as dividing content over a series of ‘pages’, but there are more imaginative and engaging ways to approach this.

For example, the information may be able to form up a fictitious scenario, dividing ‘scenes’ into a slider interaction; click and reveal interactions introduce an image or part of an image, where when selected, some content relating to the image is revealed.

There’s also the opportunity to dress up key learning points by asking learners what they think about them and then addressing the need to know within question feedback. It doesn’t matter if the learners don’t know the answer, what matters is that they have been given the opportunity to question what they think and to find out what they need to know. 

The process of creating content for your learning programmes is more than just putting pen to paper. Content is absolute king when it comes to creating engaging and fruitful learning experiences and when you are putting time, money and resource behind creating a learning programme you must ensure that the time is taken to understand your audience, their pains, what they need to know, and what kind of content would best support their learning. 

When starting to ideate your learning programmes, map out answers to the questions and models outlined in this blog and you will gain greater insight into your learners, creating better learning experiences as a result. If possible, interview some of your learners to get first-hand insight into what your learners want to know rather than just guessing. 

If you would like to discuss your learning challenges and how you can create experiences that reach into the hearts and minds of your learners, please get in touch with us and our team of experts would be happy to help. 

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