In these cases, we have to be able to remind stakeholders that eLearning doesn’t magically solve human problems and inconveniences. More importantly, we have to be able to remind ourselves why what we do is important and who we do it for.
As part of the eLearn Success Series presented by Open LMS, Dr. Jane Bozarth, Director of Research for The Learning Guild, discusses why, when it comes to learning design, what we do matters and why it’s critical to think in terms of the people at the heart of eLearning: our learners and students.
In addition to being the director of research, Jane is an experienced practitioner, public conference speaker, and author of many books. Her notable works include E-Learning Solutions on a Shoestring, Social Media for Trainers, Better Than Bullet Points, and From Analysis to Evolution. Jane has worked extensively as a classroom trainer and as an eLearning coordinator for the government of North Carolina. Her specialties include capturing and sharing tacit knowledge, social and collaborative learning, and crafting low-cost learning solutions.
The Reality for the Humans We Teach
Employees are people, just like us. They have competing demands and are often pulled in different directions. An eLearning experience can’t solve all of an employee’s (or organization’s) problems, but it should aim to fill a skill gap and help employees perform to their organization’s expectations. Getting through an eLearning experience shouldn’t be an extra hassle for employees. While it’s true that organizations will see a need to fill knowledge gaps and provide eLearning experiences, Jane reminds us that as learning designers, we need to “help our stakeholders better understand the human at the other end.” That means understanding as much as we can about the learners’ context and communicating what we know to our stakeholders.
Since employees have vastly different needs that are dependent on the industries they work in, an eLearning experience can’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. A great example Jane provides is customer service training. The standard advice given to employees to show that they’re customer-focused is to use active listening techniques. They’re told to be attentive, use eye contact, smile, and sometimes mirror or match the customer as a way of acknowledging what the customer is saying. The problem is that not all jobs allow for these types of interactions in a safe manner. Jane uses public transportation workers as an example. A driver cannot maintain eye contact with her passengers while also watching the road. She could not use most of these active listening skills in many scenarios without compromising the safety of her passengers.
Another scenario Jane mentions involves construction workers who are asked to complete eLearning training using tablets. The problem is that these workers are almost always wearing heavy gloves that aren’t compatible with touchscreens. This creates a situation that Jane says is “frustrating for these learners [because they are] told they have to do things that literally they cannot [do].” In these cases, it’s imperative that the eLearning is designed in a way that is empathetic to the reality of the employees’ situation.
Straddling the line between learners’ realities and stakeholders’ expectations can be challenging. Jane has some advice for eLearning designers needing to satisfy stakeholders while serving the needs of the learners: “If you’re being asked to convert something from face to face to online, which we do all the time in our business, try to go to the class and see what’s going on in there.” The more we understand our learners’ context, the better we can meet their needs and communicate them back to our stakeholders.
Accessibility That Goes Beyond Compliance
We know that eLearning experiences need to be accessible for all learners because as Jane says, “we want to make sure everyone who wants to learn has that opportunity.” But she also urges us to remember that we need to provide accessibility options that are useful beyond the minimum requirements for compliance. There’s a multitude of reasons why a learner might use an assistive technology feature. Some learners use these features voluntarily due to personal preferences. Others need these adaptations to get through the learning successfully. Regardless of why, these tools are a necessary part of creating useful, meaningful eLearning experiences, so it’s wise to give these accessibility features adequate attention during the design process.
Web images are a key area to consider when thinking about accessibility. For learners with low vision, low literacy, reading impairments, or for those who simply prefer to hear content, it’s extremely important to provide detailed alternative text on images. An image of an infographic is meaningless to these learners without detailed alt text that a screen reader can identify and read back to the learner. Insufficient alt text means that these learners lose key pieces of information.
We also need to consider how we color our images to account for colorblindness in some learners. It can be as simple as setting the screen to grayscale to check that the image is still easily understood.
Accessibility features make life easier for many learners. Including these features should be thought of as a best practice, not a compulsory requirement. These things that might not seem significant to us can make or break an eLearning experience for someone else. Jane puts this in perspective: “When you’re a grown-up, it gets embarrassing to have to keep asking the guy next to you to read stuff.” In other words, our learners want to feel confident throughout the learning process. We don’t want to inadvertently discourage or embarrass them, so it’s important to do our due diligence to ensure that the accessibility features we are providing are helpful. Jane says including the best accommodations is easier to plan from the onset of design rather than trying to retrofit them later.
What We Do Matters
According to Jane, the best learning solves a problem and gets the stakeholders the employee performance that they’re after. As learning designers, we need to remember where we should focus our efforts.
Aesthetics are important, but they should never be more important than the needs of the learner. The most important thing to ask ourselves when designing eLearning experiences is whether the experience is helpful for the person at the other end of it. The more we put ourselves into the context of our learners, the more likely it is that the answer to that question will be “yes.”
Jane reminds us, “What we do matters, and it’s on us to do good work and to be able to articulate what that good work is. It’s important for us to understand our work in the larger context of real performance that affects real people.” Viewing eLearning design through this lens will help us keep people at the center of what we do. It will also help us create more engaging eLearning experiences that better serve learners, which in turn will better serve their stakeholders and organizations.