Anyone who does a lot of motorway driving will be familiar with the electronic signs that appear by the side of the road and on overhead gantries. After being frustrated by one of these electronic signs on a recent journey, I started thinking – how effective a communication tool are these electronic signs and what can they teach us about good performance support design? Here are my thoughts.
The particular journey which started me off on this line of thought involved a sign which said ‘DELAYS AHEAD’. My first reaction was ‘Really? I don’t believe you’. It was about 10pm on a Sunday night and the motorway was quiet. I found it hard to believe that there were really delays ahead. Sure enough, I arrived home in good time, no hint of a delay. This is perhaps the first and most obvious rule of effective learning – it needs to be accurate. If you give out false information, even about a small detail, this can seriously damage the trust the learner holds in the authority of the course. This is why good Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are key to good learning. They help to ensure that what goes into the course is accurate and relevant.
Let’s say that there had been delays ahead on my journey, and the sign had in fact been accurate. This still presents me with a problem. What use is this information? How long are the delays? What actions should I take with this new information? Do I need to exit at the next slip road or do I just need to accept that I’m not quite going to make it back in time for Match of the Day? When designing a learning course, the information you include needs to be carefully considered. What behavioural change do you wish the learners to demonstrate upon completing the learning? There can be a tendency among some SMEs to include everything they know about a particular subject. Part of the learning designer’s job is to work with the SME to filter the information and get down to what is really useful to the learner.
At the right level
Another message that you often seem to see on electronic signs is ‘FOG’. This always seems like a weird sign to me. Either there is fog, and I am well aware of the fact because I can see it (and therefore perhaps not the sign), or I can’t see fog because there isn’t any. In short, I feel well-equipped to determine whether or not there is fog without a sign telling me. So what can we learn from this? Courses need to be pitched at the right level to the learner. If you tell them things they already know, it can seem patronising and disengage the learner. Conversely, if I were driving in Wales and saw a sign reading ‘NIWL’, this too would be no help. I can’t speak Welsh, so can’t understand the sign. Good learning design starts out with understanding the learner so that the course can be pitched at their level.
When driving on the motorway you don’t have a lot of time to read a lot of information from a sign. This is why messages you see on road signs are very short and clearly displayed. While learners are unlikely to be zooming past your course at 70mph, their time is often limited. Research shows that attention span for learning drops significantly after about 20 minutes. This is why Epic generally aims to chunk up content into topics no longer than this to give the information they need before their attention drops.
Motivate the learner
Perhaps the most common use of electronic signs, and perhaps the most ignored, is a change in the speed limit. How many times have you driven past an electronic sign on the motorway saying ‘QUEUE CAUTION 60’? How many times have you and all the drivers around you completely ignored that sign, particularly if there seems to be no hint of a queue at that stage? The problem is, while there may be a very good reason to drop the speed limit, those reasons aren’t clear to the driver. This is where motivation is a key part of e-learning – this includes motivation to learn, and motivation to put what you’ve learnt into practice. Putting an e-learning course in front of a staff member and telling them they need to do it can be ineffective. Motivational techniques of telling them ‘what’s in it for them’ can help to engage the learner, making them more likely to show changes in their behaviour upon completion. To find out more about performance support, check out our thoughts, ‘When do we need performance support?’ Or, if you’ve been driving down the road of e-learning for a while and feel that your learning might need an MOT, check out Luciano Ferreira’s blog post.