Wednesday, March 09, 2011

“I’m not an idiot!” – A Letter from an Agonized Adult Learner

I’m an adult, literate, and a professional. I manage my finances, my investments, wealth and health with equal ease. I manage my family, team, career, and social needs effortlessly. I see no reason why I cannot manage my learning and training sessions. But my training managers tend to think otherwise.

Here’s what my training managers think of my ability to learn:

I cannot spot Next and Back buttons. I need to be told, “Click Next to proceed.”

Do you know, I navigate using maps both offline and online - in fact I refer to them almost everyday on my mobile phone, laptop, and especially love my treasured paper maps. I operate DVD players, music system, home theatre, and the multiple remote control sets in my house with ease. What makes you think I cannot navigate back and forth through an eLearning course?

I cannot read text on screen - I need the same to be read out!

I have been reading since I was 5! Most of my official communication happens over email with people across geographies - and so far I have not had the need for an email reader. Although, it’s not a bad idea considering I receive around 360 emails a day! I perform all my online activities with ease, whether it is fixing an appointment with my doc, booking a movie ticket, or transacting online with my bank - so far I have never had the need for audio assistance to reiterate on-screen instructions.

I cannot decide what is important and is unimportant - so block out headers, highlight too many things on the screen, force me to go through all the tabs and clicks...

Do you really believe that if you force me to 'look' at all the tabs, you ensure that I 'learn' all the crap that’s out there! If I can navigate through heaps and piles of information around me and filter out what I need the most, what makes you think that I cannot discern between critical and non-critical info in my learning material.

For that matter, why offer me something that is not critical – it’s good to stick to things that are relevant to me? But yes, I realize where you are coming from - You want to cut down your effort and design for all! In the process, everyone like me is pained to receive things that are not meant for them!

My attention span is too short!

Well, who told you this is a problem? I drive to work everyday and have a record of zero tickets despite listening to music on the way and with 5 other vehicles around me at any point of time.
All my official communication happens over phone and email - and neither my wife, my boss, or for that matter my kids have ever complained to me about my lack of attention. What makes you conclude that I have a short attention span?

Further what makes you think that you can counter that by making me click unnecessarily on an image 5 times (to make it interactive?) Didn't it strike you that if you really wanted to hold my attention, you could make the content more engaging? Next time, try engaging my mind rather than my fingers - you may get a better feel of my attention span!

Ah, how can I forget the tests and CYUs...

While I really appreciate your efforts to help me reinforce my learning, but may I request you to put in more effort in creating these tests? Smart tests are those that tease my intelligence and not question it? Most trying are those tests where your options attempt to confuse me rather than challenge me.

Fool me with layered content.

"The course has only 15 screens; it should not take you more than 20 minutes." Well almost - until you get inside and realize there are 30 more hidden screens within these 15! Sometimes I wonder whether you really want to 'motivate' me to learn or are you trying to 'con' me by pushing across a legal document with hidden and layered clauses, sub-clauses!

I could go on and on - but I trust your intelligence and have hopefully got my message across to you.

(Inspired by some recent experience sharing sessions with Archana.)


Unknown said...

Yes YOU can do all those things, but in a lot of cases modules are designed for the "weakest links"...

Unknown said...

Yes YOU can do all those things, but in a lot of cases modules are designed for the "weakest links"...

Unknown said...

You should take some comfort from Tom Kuhlmann's instructions. He says pretty much the same thing but as a developer.

As a follower of his, I can say with my hand on heart that I agree with all your points (except maybe the sound one: I wouldn't force you to wait until the speech had finished to move to the next page, but I would like it to be there for the people who like to listen)

Unknown said...

Thank you very much for this great Post! That was the story of my life! or the ID part, anyway.

Greetings from Germany

Unknown said...

I Loved this post, Geeta.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

MumLee said...


Archana Narayan said...

Weakest links? Are we talking about the training managers themselves? Yes, I am quite sure, they are the weakest links.

Brilliant post, Geeta! I wish training managers would treat adults like adults for a change!

darkmobius said...

While I get Sander's point about designed for the "weakest links" and I'm contractually forced to do that often myself it begs the question shouldn't we try to cater for the majority rather than a safety net for everyone, as frustrating more able people probably has a negative effect on learning for them anyway.

I think the modern idea of trying to "capture" everyone and therefore producing content for the lowest common denominator is actually a dangerous road to go down for effective learning. As all you end up doing is only efficiently serving a minority ("the weakest links") and forgetting what's best for the vast majority. And hence a "dumbing" down.

Maybe with smarter systems in the future we can get to a stage where learning becomes more individualised and tailors itself to the specific learner with knowledge of their existing capabilities. I'm talking about something more sophisticated than simply a prerequisite test, but a persistent adaptible record about your preferences, skills, and practical knowledge (not just what courses you've done before).

Colby Fordam said...

Thanks for writing this. I love the line about “challenging not questioning” your intelligence. As an eLearning developer, I am constantly frustrated by this. I recently wrote a similar blog highlighting an example of challenging and engaging content, hoping content like this will become the standard. Hopefully you’ll find it interesting:

jkcarroll said...

Good post, and I personally would agree with most of the points, but I find that not all learners would agree. I run studies with users on almost all trainings we create before they go live. The number one comment from participants when we take away narration is that they prefer narration. Also, when a verbal prompt is not provided to encourage users to click to continue, many times they do not. Seems silly, but it happens. Because of this, consider putting this prompt in on the first few occasions (or delaying the prompt so that those who do not click are told to after several seconds pass).

I agree on not forcing participants along a certain path and could make an argument on both sides of the attention span point. Anyway, as mentioned, I like the post, but think that unless we collect data on these points with real participants for each training that it is hard to make a blanket statement for all learners. Best practice would probably be to create an "idiot" and "non-idiot" version that learners choose from at the beginning of the course (maybe use different wording).

Geeta Bose said...

Thank you everybody for your thoughts and comments.

@Sander: It's the biggest challenge that designers fall for - designing for the 'weakest link' rather than designing for the 'primary learners'.

@Pablohunny: Certainly, if your learner analysis shows that your primary learners are motivated to learn with audio, then the design must support audio. Designers need to arrive at the right dose of audio to enhance/supplement learning. Interestingly, detailed understanding of the learner during the learner analysis phase can help estimate the right “dosage” and good learner testing before the final release can give you an accurate understanding of the actual “dose”.

@Cornelie Picht @Dominic Rajesh @nishana: Thanks!

@Archana: True, unfortunately designers end up designing for training managers and stakeholders rather than for learners!

@Mobius: You've nailed it right! 'Designing for all' is the biggest mistake that one can make - in the process they erode the value of the learning material and end up designing for none! I strongly advocate a process called Learner Centered Methodology - where we spend significant time understanding learners and their requirements, needs and motivations. This helps IDs evolve the learning design which in turn is evaluated during a learner testing phase. This ensures that the final learning material rolled out maps to the learning needs of the primary learners.

@Colby: Thanks! Will check out your post soon.

@Jason Carroll: It's good to do a detailed learner analysis before beginning the design process. This helps put to rest deliberations about audio, visuals, types of interactions, and navigation decisions. These decisions are further reinforced during the learner testing sessions - and can be fine-tuned at this stage.

I would like to direct you to some interesting articles about identifying learners needs and use of audio in eLearning.

Intuitive Design

Audio in eLearning

Contextual Inquiry

How to conduct contextual inquiry

Dolly Bhasin said...

Excellent post Geeta, I admire your thoughtfulness on posting it for all of us! Adult learning or Andragogy consists of learning strategies is are hardly applied by eLearning content developers.

Geeta Bose said...

Thanks Dolly!

Unknown said...

This was one of the blog posts in 2011 that lingered most in my head after reading it. So, I thought we could make an 'idiot-proof elearning checklist'. Have some questions for such a checklist?