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Distance Learning: 5 Ways to Keep Engaging Your Audience

One of the challenges of effective learning design has always been ‘How do you keep your learners engaged throughout their learning journey?’. With learning now happening at distance, and without the benefits of face-to-face interactions in your learning blend, capturing and maintaining your learners’ attention has never been more important.

In this blog post, Learning Designer Victor Verster gives us his views on distance learning during lockdown. Victor explores five learning design methodologies that can be embraced to maintain learner engagement while delivering effective learning journeys at distance.

A Human-Centric Approach to Learning Design Is More Important Than Ever

The coronavirus pandemic has emphasized the need for widespread, well designed, and engaging distance learning, perhaps unlike anything else in history. We are all depending on each other’s humanity and compassion more than ever before. It follows, then, that digital learning materials need to become more human-centric in tandem.

No doubt this presents learning designers with an opportunity to innovate, but it’s a unique challenge that we should respect. More than ever before, many learners are crying out for interesting content but, equally, they may be skeptical or even resent enforced lockdown measures. People are craving human interaction, but are largely aware of the risks this poses to health. And for many, distractions at home have never been more visceral and wellbeing concerns have never been more prevalent.

Before we jump into creating digital learning content, therefore, I believe that we need to embrace the spirit of our age and take a step back for a moment. We must first reflect on what learning design actually is and what it entails. I’m reminded of this quote from the late, great, Steve Jobs: “Design is not just what it looks like and how it feels. Design is how it works.”

Tailored to learners, I also include a modified version of The Three Levels of Design Appeal, as originally advocated by Design professor Don Norman1:

  • Visceral: I want to learn about this subject! It looks engaging.
  • Behavioral: I can master this subject! Then I can do better at work.
  • Reflective: I enjoyed that learning experience! Now I want to tell my colleagues about it.

So, to engage fully with learners during this period, we need to call on the expertise of various disciplines outside the traditional learning and development sphere that focus primarily on behavioral change.

Explore more: Transitioning From Face-To-Face to Digital Learning

5 Ways to Create and Sustain Engagement in Distance Learning

As an example methodology, and with reference to industry experts and academics, here’s a five-point program for creating and sustaining user engagement in distance learning.

1) Align Your Design With How Our Brains Learn

The interconnectedness between brain function and learner behavior cannot be overstated. For optimal cognitive retention, all lobes in both hemispheres of the brain should be involved in processing information.2

In essence, this means it’s a good idea to create a wide variety of tasks for your learners—ones that enable learners to at least be expressive, receptive, rational, and emotional. So get them to create, to process information, to apply logic, and to invest emotionally in your training.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but for example, a module could comprise the following learning events:

  • A reflective task, such as filling in an action plan or workbook (Expressive)
  • A bite-size digital tutorial (Receptive)
  • An assessment where the learner needs to assess priorities and then make a decision (Rational)
  • A snappy introductory video with a warm, reassuring message from a business’ CEO (Emotional)

According to Dr Andre Vermeulen, CEO of Neuro-Link: “It is becoming quite clear that organizations will do well by aligning offerings with natural brain functioning. Doing so will ultimately drive more sales, enhance wellness, and increase productivity.”3

2) Apply a User Experience (UX) Mindset When Designing

According to the Nielsen Norman Group, “UX encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”4

For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on interaction with learning. At its essence, UX can be distilled into seven key components. We need to consider all of them when creating distance learning in the age of the pandemic.

7 factors that influence user experience (learning design)
Figure 1

It would be impossible to list all of the UX factors you need to consider when designing distance training in the pandemic age, but I believe these seven questions cover the headline points:

  • How is this training going to add value?
  • How will this training improve the way people do their jobs?
  • How easy is the training to navigate?
  • Where will the learner find this training?
  • How will SMEs review the training to ensure content veracity?
  • How much do learners want to complete more training right now?
  • How will learners with accessibility requirements complete the training?

And remember, UX principles continue to apply even after the learner completes that last task or receives their final summative quiz score. If you were a restaurant manager, for example, you wouldn’t suggest that a customer’s experience ends after they’ve eaten the last bite of their meal. This is because you know that the customer will probably talk to their friends about their experience, or perhaps post a review on a website. We shouldn’t treat our distanced learning solutions any differently. Here are some key questions to consider:

  • What are the key takeaways from the training? To optimise engagement, they need to be eminently applicable to the user’s job.
  • Who should the user talk to about the training and how? Is it their colleagues, their manager, their family? And via video call or a forum chat on an LMS?
  • What should the learner do next? Keep your users hungry for content, and always leave them wanting more.

3) Appeal to Learners’ Emotions

The COVID-19 pandemic has, in some ways, ruptured the emotional connections we share with our families, friends, and loved ones. The risks we incur during face-to-face contact and our duty to protect each other override our individual desires. This does, however, antagonize us to a certain degree. Connecting with your learner emotionally, therefore, is highly important at this point in history.

Stating upfront the training’s ‘what’s in it for me’ factor is advisable in various contexts, but perhaps particularly now, amidst a backdrop of increased individual skepticism and community tension. This could take the form of a snappy introductory animation that quickly summarizes the benefits the training will bring to the learner. In a climate where our attention spans are perhaps lower than usual, engaging a user early is pivotal to achieving your objectives. Incorporating a reflective task into your learning campaign can offer your learner an appropriate emotional and creative outlet.

As emotional design is particularly pertinent to creating distance training, consider exploring the interrelation of human emotions using Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions5.

 Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

A facilitator can still deliver virtual workshops with a human face. They could consider turning on their camera so that the learner can see them—even if it’s just for a moment or two, if they’re concerned about logistical/bandwidth issues. Alternatively, they can send personalized emails if the learner cohort is an appropriate size. This can instill a sense of trust within the learner. Teaser banner emails can create a sense of anticipation for upcoming tasks or assignments.

Be judicious, of course, with inserting learning events or details designed to surprise. They can easily distract from the core learning content if handled inappropriately. Seductive details might seem engaging at a superficial level, but ultimately they can inhibit learning.

4) Share Inspiring Stories

Storytelling is a key part of the human experience. Our ancestors told stories around fires and painted them on walls, Medieval balladeers traveled from village to village, passing on wisdom from the cities, and the contemporary hip hop artist tells stories of survival in impoverished conditions. The great thing about a story is that everyone has one to tell and everyone loves hearing them. As learning content creators, we can, and should, tap into this primal spring of inspiration, particularly when learners are perhaps accessing streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime etc more than usual.

The plot needs to advance tightly and efficiently. This doesn’t mean it has to be a heart-stopping rollercoaster—in fact, in most cases it won’t be. But exposition and character development should be minimal. Always try to select the approach that communicates your learning messages accurately and consider the motivations of your learner group. What are their likes and dislikes? It can be really powerful to build on what the learner already knows.

For example, scenario-driven assessments can be really effective. Putting the learner in control of their character’s destiny offers them a sense of escapism that allows them to fail without fear of reprisal. I personally like to use Freytag’s Pyramid of dramatic structure as a guide to scaffold my stories. It’s not necessarily appropriate for all narratives, but it contains the skeleton of a great story.

Freytag pyramid
Figure 2

You may also like: How Storytelling Can Help Organizations to Learn and Change

5) Gamify Training in a Sociable Way

Most of us like to play games for a sense of enjoyment and escapism, and it seems like we’re playing more games than ever right now—and for longer periods. According to British game designer Richard Bartle, there are broadly four types of video game players: the killers, the achievers, the socializers, and the explorers. We can conceive these player types in a quadrant model as such. The X-axis represents inclination for interacting with other players vs. exploring the game’s world and the Y-axis represents preference for collaboration vs. unilateral action6.

Bartle, Richard (1996) Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit muds http://mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm
Figure 3

Bartle’s research found some intriguing results. Broadly speaking:

  • ~80% of players are socializers
  • ~10% are explorers
  • ~10% are achievers
  • ~1% are killers

In the age of the coronavirus pandemic, we can use this to our advantage. The socializer loves to collaborate to achieve bigger and better things as part of a team than they could as an individual. This is an important thought to consider in the age of the pandemic and what lies thereafter, where cooperation with our neighbors and key workers is at the forefront of public discourse. It perhaps goes some way to explaining why Animal Crossing, an eminently uncompetitive game with social interaction at its core, has broken all kinds of digital sales records.

Encourage your learners to collaborate to complete tasks via video platforms. The virtual ‘pub quiz’ has perhaps never been more popular, for example. It’s a low-fidelity summative assessment style with which most learners will be familiar. So why not use it to assess your learner’s competence in a particular area while keeping the tone of delivery light? You can even record this as a webinar for your learners who can’t make the call due to other commitments.

You could also consider designing two different digital banked assessments to give to a pair of learners. While the content will be similar, the answers will be different. After answering each question correctly, the user unlocks a certain piece of a jigsaw puzzle, or maybe a token. The learners then need to communicate together to share the answers, puzzle pieces, tokens etc. that they’ve received and complete the puzzle.

Discover more: Turbocharge Your Learning With Games and Gamification

Conclusion

The pandemic has created a sense of global solidarity like no other event in recent history. Keeping learners engaged while at a distance is a huge challenge, but it’s not impossible. Indeed, it’s only through learning and developing technologies that we will find a way out of this crisis.

For now, however, we’ve got to use distance learning as a way to navigate the pandemic as best we can and mitigate some of its insidious effects on job performance. As learning designers, I believe that this is our civic duty. Remember that it’s not just the modality of digital learning solutions that needs to change to better engage the pandemic-afflicted learner; it’s the tone of the content within these solutions too.

Here are five final key tips to take away from this article to keep your learners engaged during the age of the coronavirus pandemic:

  • Offer your learners a variety of tasks to keep them motivated and their brains active, remaining courteous to neuroscience
  • Revise and iterate on your designs against the seven key UX principles: value, usefulness, usability, findability, credibility, desirability and accessibility
  • Prioritize bite-sized content that elicits positive emotions from users
  • Hook your learners in with compelling stories light on exposition, heavy on action, and filled with layered characters
  • Harness the power of social gaming to get your learners talking to each other, solving problems, and refining their virtual teamwork skills

If you would like to explore how these learning engagement methods can be used in your learning program, our learning experts are here to help.

  1. Don Norman, 2004, Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/224927652_Emotional_Design_Why_We_Love_or_Hate_Everyday_Things
  2. & 3. ATD, 2016, Why Learning Neuroscience Matters. https://www.td.org/insights/why-learning-neuroscience-matters
  3. Nielson Norman Group, The Definition of User Experience (UX) https://www.nngroup.com/articles/definition-user-experience/
  4. Robert Plutchik, 2001, American Scientist Vol. 89 https://www.jstor.org/stable/27857503?seq=1
  5. TL Taylor, 2006, Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture
  6. Figure 1: https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/the-7-factors-that-influence-user-experience
  7. Figure 2: Freytag, Gustav (1900) [Copyright 1894], Freytag's Technique of the Drama, An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art by Dr. Gustav Freytag: An Authorized Translation From the Sixth German Edition by Elias J. MacEwan, M.A. (3rd ed.), Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, LCCN 13-283
  8. Figure 3: Bartle, Richard (1996) Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit muds http://mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm

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