Your opinion, whilst interesting is irrelevant!

You need to understand your learner when designing eLearning

My initial reaction was to feel offended when that was quoted to me.  It probably elicited the same response for you as it did for me.  Outrageous!! How dare you tell me my opinion whilst interesting is irrelevant! However, when this person went on to explain themselves and pointed out that you need to understand your learner when designing eLearning, it all made sense.

While it might seem logical and common sense it is often something that in practice gets overlooked.  There is often a tendency for people to believe that because they work in the same company (as those who will undertake the learning) they have a pretty good feel for what the learner needs.  When this approach is taken, the course is designed without actually understanding the learners needs and the result is often a course which on the surface might look really good but which ultimately does not get the results the company wants.

A good example of this was a client meeting I sat in on a few years ago.  The lead person from that company who awarded me the work wanted the courses to be all be cartoons/animation. 

“I love animations. They should all be animated!” 

Said my client with great enthusiasm.
Steamboat Mickey
Animation – Steamboat Mickey

My reply to that was that sure, animations are really good in some circumstances but in others they have the opposite effect. 

For example, if you are building a safety training course for Qantas workers around good practices around jet engines, this lends itself to animation as it is quicker and safer to produce. Imagine the logistics involved in trying to demonstrate what might happen if someone steps too close to a jet engine on a tarmac with live video footage! 

If, however, your audience are accountants and financial planners and there are 30 short courses they are required to complete to maintain their license, they may not appreciate cartoon/animations.

So what do we want to know about the learner?

Here is a few examples I have pulled together. This is by no means exhaustive.  You may have a few more – or you may disagree with some of these:

  1. What is the learner’s typical education level?

    When our team starts to develop content and scripting, I want to ensure the language is aimed at the right level so that it is not overly simplistic or overly complicated. The Flesch Readability Score is a great tool for this.

  2. What level of experience would our learner’s typically have in their role?

    I want to know this so that our team can determine how much prior knowledge we can assume.  A person with 5 years of experience in the role will be very different to someone who started last week. Its good practice to ensure that we respect a learner’s prior experience and knowledge. I don’t think anyone likes to be told stuff they already know to do.

  3. Is English their first language?

    It’s important that our team understand the level of English proficiency so that we can tailor for this. For example, if we are considering videos, I wan’t to know if I need to put closed captions in different languages. This is going to add to the time and cost of the build as well.

  4. How technology proficient are the learners?

    Some industries don’t use a lot of technology at the front line. I’m not going to assume that all learners will have access to or be proficient in technology.

  5. Are there any organisational culture aspects we need to be aware of?

    I need to make sure that we are aware of the organisations culture and any specific language, system, symbols or behaviours we need to incorporate or adjust for. I don’t want to create a course that doesn’t feel like it belongs.

  6. What can we assume about their motivation levels?

    How we might look at building compliance training is very different to how we might build a safe work procedure for example.

  7. What is driving the need for this training?

    Has the training been requested by a Union or was it requested by employees? Maybe a particular incident happened that we need to know about. Is this part of a broader company improvement initiative?

Good eLearning course design understands that all cohorts are different.

Experienced designers know that this is critical – you must understand your learner when designing eLearning. There are different levels of work, different industries, different motivating factors, different cultures. What worked for one group may not work for another.  I would encourage you to take the time and follow the discipline to conduct the learner analysis each time. 

Start with the organisation’s objectives. Overlay that with what we understand about the learner and now you’re ready to start the design process. The heading of this article is deliberately controversial, and I don’t actually agree with it in its entirety. 

Of course your opinion is relevant. Input should be sought from all stakeholders – but not as a proxy for the learner.  

About Paul Eldridge

Paul is the Head Honcho and has close to 15 years of online and blended learning experience. With many battle scars and war wounds over the years, he likes to help other organisations navigate the sometimes complex landscape of learning platforms and content development.

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