“What Makes Learning Experiential and Performance Changing?”

Despite the best intentions of instructional designers, a startling number of self paced modules fall woefully short of the goal of true performance change.

If we look closer, what we will find is a course that is often heavy on content, and maybe even some great supporting imagery and on screen eye candy, but lacking in context and a true job related challenge. Many times, you will see the Objectives of the course listed at the top of the course, and while it may follow Blooms Taxonomy of starting with an “action verb”, the actual course has no true job related actions and risk other than answering some quiz questions and maybe some purely content memory games. Somehow, the “actionable” part started in the Objectives taxonomy, but then stayed there.

How could that have happened?

The answer brings us to the acronym most often associated with one of the pioneering companies of e-Learning, Allen Interactions, and that is “CCAF”. It stands for Context, Challenge, Activity and Feedback.

What is “Content” and What is “Context”?

This is the most important concept to grasp of anything I will share with you. “Content” is what most designers get from subject matter experts, who will normally gather a huge amount of policy and procedure guides, management reminders and must haves, and send them to you to make sure that all of it is represented in the course, of course followed by a quiz or a “fun” memory based activity. The designer’s job is then to take all of this content and sequence it in a published, often linear sequenced manner that is digestible while working in some general activities to keep the attention of the learner. If “modern includes” like narrated audio or video can be added, then the course is perceived to be even better. I happen to love audio and video simulations where they lend to “context”, but not for the sake of jazzing up pure content only.

So How is “Context” Different?

Let’s use an example. If your goal was to learn guitar, you could take an e-learning course that highlights an area of the fret board and, in a multiple choice quiz, asks you to identify the note associated with this position. Or say you are a truck driver who has to know to stop the truck at all train crossings. We “could” make that a True or False question. But what if you were in the driver seat and were approaching the intersection and had to make a time sensitive decision to demonstrate applied knowledge? How would your confidence change? How might you be ready to perform in the real world? I would say you are much closer to performing.

Next is “Challenge”

The key to a good e-elearning challenge is that it should have some “real world risk”, and the learner should have to overcome a real job challenge. In many ways, the challenge of the task being learned often drives the visual context of the course interface itself. Adult learners know from experience right away if they are thrust into their real world, or if the “challenge” is to read all of the slides and then remember what they were told. This kind of false challenge is demotivating to the learner, and they will quickly find a way to “navigate” your course gates while multitasking, and ultimately no learning will take place. Challenges can mean many things. Some tasks are time bound, others like customer service can face the challenge of angry customers, etc. Whatever the observable challenge is when you watch someone doing the job, make sure that it’s in your course. A football team that needs to play in a dome on Sunday might bring in speakers to practice so the players can practice in a loud environment that mirrors what they will face in the game. It’s the same with our learners.

Next is “Activity”

This one can hold a whole host of wasted efforts. All you have to do is Google e-learning Activities for your favorite rapid design tool and no doubt you will be given hundreds of templates to download that requires your learners to “drag here”, or “reveal that” when they click the spinning square tiles. So many times I have seen courses where the “active” part is the learner clicking something that reveals more text to read. This is not so much of an activity as it is a tricky way to make them think they are performing successfully, when in fact they are consuming a dynamic, slow to reveal PDF.

Finally is “Feedback”

Completely contrary to a read and remember course, a good e-Learning course delivers more learning in the feedback presentation than any of the other three areas we just discussed. Why is feedback so critical, and why does well done feedback rise to or better the experience of a live or classroom only event? Feedback is personal, it is customized. Think of a time you have been in a classroom and the same person answers all of the facilitator’s questions. Or maybe you felt like you were falling behind, but did not want to slow the class down and be stigmatized for it. Good e-learning is contextual, safe to fail at in private, and provides more feedback to those who need it, and allows skilled users to succeed quickly and demonstrate skill rather than be forced to have the same long, boring experience as those new to the topic. Good feedback is more than a detailed few lines when a learner makes a quiz selection. It also allows for meaningful up skilling on the spot. Think of a time you may have failed a post quiz, and are then sent back to take it over, but what did you learn about your gap in knowledge or skill? Likely not much. More likey, you will guess differently and hope for the best. None of these scenarios lead to a performance learning moment and leave us quite unsatisfied with the overall experience.

In another post, we will take a look at some applied content vs context based designs and loook at an example course where we compare what a design project often becomes in contrast to a CCAF aligned course. Thank you for reading, and we will see you nex time!