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The 6 Dos and Don’ts of Designing Distance Learning Content

This blog article was written prior to LEO Learning becoming part of GP Strategies.

For many organizations, moving towards digital training is a necessity in these difficult times. Gathering learners in the same physical location is—for obvious reasons—a greater challenge now than ever before. But we propose you think about this as an opportunity to try something new. It could be a chance to engage your learners in ways you’ve never tried before.

So, whether you’re a digital learning newbie or an experienced hand, we hope these tips will help you produce amazing training in these unprecedented times.

#1 Do Think About the Head, Heart and Hand

When we design virtually any kind of digital training, our aim is to change behavior. To put it simply, organizational change arises when people do things differently. That means not just imparting information, but also the desire and skills to use it. Our ‘Head, Heart, Hand’ approach pays homage to the work of BJ Fogg’s Three Pillar model and serves as a great reminder that learning has to be understood, felt, and acted upon.

Where distance digital learning can fail is if it neglects any of these areas. Think of it like the sides of a triangle—if any of them are removed then things fall down.

Trigger + Motivation = “I want to do something but I don’t know how!”

Trigger + Ability = “Yeah I can do this but I don’t want to.”

Motivation + Ability = “I want to and am able to, if only I knew when and how I need to apply the knowledge I have.”

Trigger + Motivation + Ability = “I know what to do, I want to do it, and I know how to do it.”

Distance learning is good at engaging the head when it delivers information in logical “chunks” that help learners understand what they should be doing. More on that later.

To engage the heart, there are lots of options available and the key is knowing what really matters to your learners and then showing it, instead of just telling it. For example, an opening message from the CEO communicates the importance of what they’re learning to the business and speaks to the learner’s sense of group identity. Or an emotive story from a customer’s perspective can be enough to motivate change through a desire to make life better for others.

Engaging the hand is all about practice, practice, practice. Does your distance learning provide the opportunity for learners to try new things and test out their new skills? Does it show them the consequences and outcomes of their actions in a safe space? Realistic scenario-based questioning is a powerful way to achieve this in eLearning. Other techniques include group and 1:1 roleplay, or offline workbooks that learners can go through in their own time.

#2 Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment With Different Formats and Approaches

One of the great advantages of distance digital learning is the sheer number of different formats to play with so you can choose the best way to teach depending on your content. If you’re looking for some inspiration, here are a few examples:

ModeGreat for…
eLearning coursesThe flexibility to tackle almost any kind of content in manageable chunks, using interactive elements to promote engagement and active thinking.
Video & animationCommunicating stories and characters to build empathy— demonstrating why a concept is important through human narratives.
GamesGiving learners the opportunity to practice a skill or behavior with rewards and penalties based on their performance. They can also be a lot of fun!
Live webinarsTeaching an overview of a concept in an interactive setting allowing learners to ask questions directly to the instructor, responding to polls, and providing input.
Recorded lessonsTeaching concepts to a much deeper level but with the opportunity for learners to follow along at their own pace, take breaks, and complete offline activities alongside the digital components.
Virtual realityExperiential learning. When something can only truly be understood by being ‘present’ in a particular environment, or seen through someone else’s eyes.

Each of these modes has its own sub-categories to explore. Let’s take video. Could you make a short teaser that gets people excited to learn about your content? What about a documentary-style video that dives deep into a topic and explores real stories to both entertain and get people thinking (consider Netflix’s Tiger King)? Or could it be interactive storytelling where the learner is participating in making decisions (looking again to Netflix and its film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch).

So there’s no need to feel like you’re limited to just one mode of delivery. Use different forms that resonate with your audience and do justice to your content.

#3 Do Be Goal-Focused and Consider the Whole Journey

People tend to roll their eyes when you talk about learning as a journey—but it really is! Learning something new is rarely a singular event. It’s a process that involves synthesizing information from multiple sources, then forming and reforming that into knowledge as it’s applied in relevant contexts.

When it comes to content for distance learning it’s important to set meaningful goals for this learning intervention. What I’m learning has to be leading me somewhere—towards a new ability, a skill, an achievement that’s relevant to my occupation or interests. Without the focus of the classroom, we need our content to be driving forward towards these goals, now more than ever.

This can be achieved in a number of ways:

  • Be clear about the purpose and outcomes of the training at the start, and reinforce that message regularly throughout
  • Ask the learner to consider their level of competence before the training, then replay that to them at the end so they can see how far they’ve come
  • Break the training down into small chunks each with smaller objectives that contribute to the overall learning goal
  • Give the learner regular opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge through quick quizzes and performance feedback
  • Ensure that every bit of content you cover has a clear link to the overall goals. Learners should never be asking “Why is this important?”
  • Conclude the training by restating the purpose, and a summary of the new skills and knowledge the learners should have

#4 Don’t Let Learners Be Passive

For any given moment in your distance learning, think about the activity you’re asking learners to actually do. Is it passive or active? Let me explain.

A passive task is “watch this”“read that” or “answer these questions.” It’s an activity without a definitive purpose that begs the question “Why?”.

An active task is more like “research this, and then…” or “review the video, so that you can…”. These types of activities make it clear to me why I’m doing it and the purpose it has in the context of my learning journey.

To be clear, it’s not just a matter of re-wording a task description and saying that it’s active; the learner has to be able to see this as part of a chain of activities that leads them towards their ultimate learning goal.

#5 Do Think About Pacing, and Design for Disruption

We normally talk about pacing in the context of films, books, or video games. It’s the feeling the audience gets from the cadence or intensity of what’s unfolding in front of them. An action-packed video game can’t be action-laden all the time, otherwise the player gets burnt out too quickly and has to quit. But perhaps even more important is that varying the pace of an experience allows the audience to appreciate moments of intensity even more when they’re interspersed with some cognitive ‘downtime’. The same is true for learning.

In the home environment, it’s so easy for another task to catch your eye or demand your attention. Even a moment of hesitation in a distance learning program can allow the learner’s attention to be drawn elsewhere. Authoring any form of distance learning intervention requires designing for maximum attention retention. Having a good mix of media, activity types, and other interactive elements helps to modulate the level of intensity so that your learners experience a pleasant flow that keeps them engaged for longer.\

#6 Don’t Be Tempted to “Just Include Everything”

This is the most straightforward tip for distance learning, but it might just be the most important. It’s totally tempting to think of a digital course—especially eLearning—as free real estate when it comes to content. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

For a classroom lesson, you probably wouldn’t give each learner the entire 87-page Policy and Procedures guide to read. Just imagine those printing costs! However, in a digital course, technically speaking, you can. It’s just bits and bytes after all. But I’m here to tell you that you shouldn’t. More information often leads to less retention and lower engagement because distance learners value training when it’s just enough.

For every ounce of content you include—be that text, video, audio, or anything else—ask whether learners really, really, really need it. If the answer is no, you should either remove or reduce it.

A Final Word on Designing Distance Learning Content

Digital distance learning doesn’t have to be difficult to make, but getting your own special formula right can take time. The trick is to be patient and try lots of different things. These unprecedented times can be the perfect ‘sandbox’ to test and refine your digital learning design ideas. Whether you’re starting small or overhauling an existing eLearning course, these tips can help you digitize your training content and embrace a fully virtual world of learning.

About the Authors

Richard Calcutt

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