Thursday, January 14, 2010

Structure and Story line: What suits business e-Learning

"The essential fabric required to pursue a study are good structure and engaging storyline." Academic titles follow the same fabric, but biased towards making them administration-friendly than student-friendly. Students enroll in a program and hence would continue to pursue the objective irrespective of quality or hardships.

This post sets off to make a correction in the e-Learning spectrum. In context of web, administration friendly can be taken for search engine friendly courses vs user rated useful courses.

e-Learning, premises on 2 qualities (based on Knowles/Andragogy theory).

1. It is a self-directed study: No matter, there is a schedule/time table, when in e-Learning, you need self-direction. How much Learning Environments support you, it requires "your" time for undivided attention, self-introspection and self-reflection. The key in e-Learning is "self". Contrast this with a classroom enrollment, where learning is centered on "peers" and collaboration.

2. We need multiple views of same information for better comprehension: From Andragogy principles, it is well understood, that more we grow professionally, the more dashboard views and multiple data representation aids are required. This lets us faster application of mind to ask right set of questions and perform on the job.

In our daily lives, we naturally do the following:
  • We read the details for the heading that attracts us in morning news paper. (Self-directed)
  • We buy a book by its cover and/or the last page testimonial and/or synopsis and/or through a good review earlier.(multiple views)
  • We buy shelf items that are stacked at eye level (self-directed)
  • We feel and weigh a package by hand to determine the worth. (multiple views)
To address the above qualities, "The essential fabric required to pursue a study are good structure and engaging storyline."

1. STRUCTURE : Areas of conscious attention for a "structure" design need to be in
  • Concentrated Positioning: I call it the "vastu effect on learner. Having one-liner paragraphs, phrased bullets with sparse meanings, scatters away the energy.Having a paragraph of rich text makes you take a serious note. Having bullets with sentences reinforced with powerful graphics and little live animation, makes the recall stronger. Having auditory walk through of on-screen movements leads to cinematic experience.
The credence to your content is with respect to position. What I see first, gets in memory lane first and fast.

  • Calibrated Variability: Driving through curves is fun than pushing the gas through straight highway. Isn't it ? Hence variability is important.For example, a screen with auditory and animated introduction, followed by screens with emphasis on text, followed by activity screens, followed by screens with bullets, followed by screens with visuals, ending, say, with an auditory summary aid in variation and help our cognitive ability of differential attention. It is difficult to give stream lined attention beyond few seconds (remember adult learning principles). But please remember: "No breakers". The variability should not be sudden. It needs careful calibration.
This, feature, is the USP of e-Learning and fundamental difference with respect to instructor led materials and text books.
  • Hooking Theme: Being a self study, e-Learning courses needs to be "pleasure-centric" than "pressure centric". Hence a benefactor to hold the hands to make the next movement is a mandatory requirement, oft missed(not out of course but lead into the course). This will treat learners as individuals with respect. The overarching theme for designers, gives a consistent start on a positive note than a serious action note.
  • Riveting Context: In "Made to Stick" Heath brothers talk about "knowledge gap" as a means of play to gain attention in making messages stick. Same applies to e-Learning content. To make the objectives stick,
    • preface it with a context and
    • preamble it with tangible benefits.
  • Color and Size: It is without argument accepted theory about how we carry our instincts for color preferences and size attractions. A dark background and a bold bigger font text in contrast color at top left, is header and important. (remember, Positioning also plays a role). A differential colored text is spotted first and sticks more than the paragraph itself. The area allotted to picture vs text determines the spatial arrangement we make in our memory for remembering the lessons.
More graphics makes us recall the graphic relation with real world, while more text makes us read and remember the phrases to adapt action on ground based on similarities.More than aesthetics, color and size are instruments to be used with caution and optimally towards learning purpose.

2. STORYLINE : Areas of conscious attention for a "storyline" design need to be in
  • Timing the Lead: In Made to Stick, there is a story on a journalism class to write leads. It is a classic and true eye opener. For more details, read the book. It is a definitive good read. The crux is that a "Lead" is what I anticipate and should get it first before moving on.Tamil Movies give a good learning dimension in this point. All leads while introducing "Super star" Rajnikanth are examples of good leads. The essence of such leads can be seen in the
  • Palpable anticipation of the timing of hero entry in the audience,
  • The unbridled enthusiasm of enjoyment for closing in the introductory moment in the audience,
  • The introduction is dramatic enough to literally move people from seats to the dance floor
  • The predictiveness of the hero entry is almost certain in the first frame
  • Vividness: Post the lead, the vividness needs either time, place, event or people. Look at traditional way, when we tell a story to our kids. They mostly start with
    • Once upon a time...
    • In an ancient village, there lived...
    • It was hot afternoon when a crane was thirsty....
    • In a forest, there lived a lion king....
Same best practices can be applied to designing a study.As Heath brothers in Made to Stick speak about the "Concreteness" quality. Concreteness or Specifics are easily related and hence actionable. However too much specifics will make you miss the big picture. Hence specifics followed by brief generics, pegs the reference frame for holisitic view. Then bring in more specifics and close the loop towards conclusion.
  • Climax/anticlimax/Conclusion: As the proverb emphasizing experience states,"The proof the pudding is in the eating", the best of the study is reserved to the last. The final part needs to be memorable for the entire sequence to be useful and beneficial. In story/movie parlance, this is climax/anti climax ending. What people walk away is remembering this last sequence to give a rating. What we recall in exam is what has been deeply ingrained in our memories through visualizations and linkages.
Thus summarizing through linkages, analogies, moral makes a good sense to end a story in style.
  • Predictability and Rhythm: Well, we normally know the ending to ALMOST ALL stories.
    • Victory over Evil.
    • Triumph of good.
    • Heros trash villains.
    • Seperated relatives get together
Isn't all of them saying the same thing.While predictability is same, each sentence makes a different rhythm and conjures different images. May be bring up a unique movie title for each of the titles How is it possible ? Indian Classical Music has seven basic notes. The combinations and permutations are numerous, each sounding different for normal listening. Similarly predictability for each written notes, courses, graphic, text, animation, video and auditory combination is more or less same: e-Learning courses needs to be "pleasure-centric" than "pressure centric". While,each course has a different rhythm towards the same end.

The importance is to have predictability and Rhythm in courses. Absence of rhythm in making a bad mix of text, graphics, animation, audio would result in jarring effect affecting the study process.

Think about it. When ever the above attributes are present, we must have
  1. gleaned an insight,
  2. learned a nugget at a time,
  3. improved our wisdom to react to changes,
  4. look at humor and compassion side in adversity.
How many times, have you thought of users for structure and storyline ? In what ways have you devoted time to structure and storyline in designing courses ? Do visual designers define and enable good structural views than pleasing aesthetics ?

Many such queries will go a long way in delivering better e-Learning course ware. Thoughts please!!

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