There’s training that you are required to take and finish—compliance training for ethics, sexual harassment, information security. Safety training. Training that you must complete before you use specialized applications.
And then there’s training that you don’t have to take. Training that you need to be persuaded to take. One way to think about this kind of training is as outreach.
Many organizations use outreach activities to bring services and information to those who don’t have access to in-house services. Museums, university departments, and non-government organizations often do outreach such as art classes, chemistry road shows, and interactive web sites. You don’t have to take outreach training—organizations have to persuade you that it’s worth your while.
Elearning can be used as outreach. Two examples (out of a multitude) are disasterready.org’s safety courses and courses on cyber security offered by FEMA. But elearning as outreach faces special challenges.
Elearning often involves directed learning, with objectives, structured content, and sometimes a certificate issued at the end. It takes more of a commitment on the part of a learner than browsing a website or playing a few learning games. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) shows that participation in these online courses falls off dramatically after the first two weeks, and only about 4% of people actually finish a course.*
I’ve found two guidelines that help keep people involved in courses, and make outreach elearning effective. One is to make it appealing. The other is to make it easy.
Making online training appealing can have several dimensions. One is aesthetics. Good looking training, as Tom Kuhlmann of Articulate has said, sure beats bad-looking training. And spending a few more minutes selecting a decent color palette or paying attention to how eye movement functions in the course doesn’t cost any more than throwing text on a screen (well, a little more time, but the payoff is tremendous).
Other dimensions are emotional and intellectual. You’ve got to engage the audience. When there’s little credit for sticking it out through the course, you need to make the course itself rewarding. Kulhmann has some great advice for creating effective interactions. To summarize, don’t just have people interact with the screen. Be interactive with the brain as well. Have the interactions mean something.
In the interaction above, for example (this is just a still—trying to click and drag will be frustrating), the point is to help caregivers give young people a sense of how to manage goals. The learner engages the screen by clicking and dragging the images to the right boxes. The learner engages their brain by finding out that the way to manage a large goal is to break it down to smaller ones. In order to buy a new smart phone, you first have to earn money by mowing lawns.
The other facet of engaging your non-captive audience is to make the training easy. Not easy as in simple to pass—that’s hardly intellectually (or emotionally) engaging. Easy as in easy to take.
Barriers to registering, for example, can be a disincentive to taking the class. A learning management system (LMS) can be great for tracking who is taking your course. But it often means registering and remembering a username and password. Is this required? If it is, can such requirements be satisfied a way that doesn’t add an additional load on the learner?
Another facet of making the course easy to take is to have clean, consistent, design and navigation. Are instructions clear? Are they just-in-time? Note that this doesn’t have to mean restricting yourself to a boring next button.
The last facet I’m going mention here is testing. When the training doesn’t work—when the course crashes in a browser, when the next, previous, or exit button—any button, really—doesn’t work, it’s really easy to close the course and move on. You need to be, or find, a white-hat jerk. Someone whose job it is to figure out all of those little ways that someone could mess up, or mess up in, your course. Find them, fix them, and remove those annoyances from the learners.
Outreach training is a fantastic way to spread your message, whether it is health, safety, science, soft skills, or something else. Your message is only heard, however, when someone pays attention. Elearning needs to be structured in such a way that it enables those who don’t have to take it to want to take it. And making it appealing—visually and mentally engaging—and easy—removing technical barriers that can get in the way—is a powerful way to do that.
What suggestions, experience, or advice do you have about creating engaging outreach elearning? Share them in the comments, and let’s have a conversation.
* MOOCs, of course, are usually semester-long courses that involve much more effort than a one- or two-hour online course might require. And there’s a fair argument that even though students may not complete the course, they can still leave the courses with more than they started with.
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