Mistakes that taught us how to create good e-learning courses

More and more companies today are investing resources into e-learning. Courses motivate employees, introduce them to new company products or policies, increase job satisfaction, and, of course, enhance skills. Over the past decade we have designed numerous projects and e-learning courses. Along the way we’ve made a few mistakes, and we’ve seen clients and colleagues stumble too. We decided to compile a list of the most common issues and situations that arise during production. It is our hope that this introduction to e-learning will save you time and resources.

1. Bad scripts

There are three types of scripts in e-learning — informational, motivational and training. The script type will depend on the difficulty, current employee skills, company objectives. Informational scripts are the easiest. Their main goal is to inform employees about a new product or service in the company and how to use this new knowledge during the day. In a simple informational course, you don’t need a complex story, characters and story arcs.

The main goal of a motivational course is to change employee behaviour, approach to work or something else. In this case, a character that can lure employees into the story is a good addition.

A good training course requires a more complex script. The main goal of a training course is to work on an existing skill and acquire a new one. Training scripts work better with a storyline, a conflict, a main character, interactive elements and games.

The script is the foundation of the course. It requires a structure, clear targets, a development path. It’s not uncommon for companies to have an interesting idea, a noble desire to teach their employees new skills, but their course is all over the place with vague objectives and no storyline — trainees aren’t immersed or cannot quantify what they learned at the end. Treat your e-learning script like a movie script, the first draft will definitely be bad, be prepared to write 10.

2. Low motivation

Any action requires motivation. There are two types of motivation – internal and external. Internal motivation is doing something out of interest, curiosity or love for the activity. External motivation is doing a task out of fear of punishment or a desire for a reward and gain. We’ve noticed that companies often concentrate only on external motivation. Promising promotions or scaring with fines. This motivation is short lived. A good course combines both internal and external motivation, that way you have a higher chance of keeping your trainees in flow state, inspiring interest and a desire to learn and grow. “Flow state” is a term in positive psychology, a mental state of intense concentration and immersion on a task.

Take a look at video games. It’s proven that gamers have better selective and sustained attention. Their memory retention and skills are increased up to 40% through engagement. Gamification raises internal motivation. Employees are more likely to go through the training course more than once out of fun and a desire to learn.

As Karl Kapp, one of the leading minds in gamification and e-learning, put it: “Gamification is using game-based mechanics, aesthetics and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems”.

Apart from engaging elements, consider how the course will be received. If you’ve never used courses in your company, it’s better to start small. Otherwise you might end up scaring your employees. Are they not good enough? Will they be fired? What does it mean for their career? This is avoidable and unnecessary work stress. Courses while mandatory, shouldn’t be scary. To properly introduce your employees to this new concept – start gradually. Design a short “trailer” course. Collect feedback. Build interest. After that you can successfully implement longer formats with the proper motivation.

3. The course is too easy or too difficult

Who is the course for? Will they be able to adjust the difficulty? How long will their attention span be? Courses shouldn’t be too easy or too difficult. We know it can be challenging working with boring technical information, moulding it into something interactive, engaging and even entertaining. Play with speed, rewards, visuals, motivation. A course that’s too easy, will be seen as a waste of time and disrespectful. A course that’s too difficult will not meet your goals.

We aren’t only talking about the script and overall information within the course. The interface and design also influence how the course is perceived. Is your staff tech savvy? Will they be able to follow along and press the right buttons? Will they need pop-up clues? Now consider the opposite, too many clues and tips will demotivate them and visually overload.

In video games players are always given problems according to their level. No player is ever given a challenge that is impossible to overcome. Thus, the quest does not require talent, but skill. This is why gamers learn from a young age to persevere. They play the game and come back time and time again until they’ve acquired the new skill and move to the next level/quest. Here we come back to gamification in e-learning – using “game thinking and aesthetic” to engage.

Similar to creating ad campaigns, you should write down a detailed analysis of your target audience. That way you will create a truly custom-made course that meets your needs.

4. Low engagement

Depending on the complexity of your course and budget, there are various ways of adding interactive elements and gamification. From email newsletters with weekly score boards to software and programming. You don’t need millions to engage with your employees and skipping this step is one of the biggest mistakes we’ve seen in the business.

Online courses aren’t as interactive as real-life classrooms. The teacher can’t ask questions in real time and students cannot compare answers or discuss topics. That’s why interactive elements are crucial when designing e-learning courses. Watching a video is better than reading dry text, but you can and should take it a step further. Sometimes companies worry that interactive add-ons can get expensive, but they don’t always have to be a complex software or visual effects. An interactive element is a helpful tool to keep trainees in flow state and can be as simple as a test, questionnaire or hidden pop-up in a presentation.

5. Information overload

Information overload is something we have seen time and time again. Dry texts with technical data will result in very low memory retention. You must clearly outline your objectives and take it one lesson/subject at a time. Divide the course into several stages if you have to. Ask yourself, is this information critical for the outlined objectives? Don’t forget, your course is not the only thing trainees encounter during their day. They are bombarded with useless loud information from the moment they wake up. Do not get lost in the noise. Infographics reduce cognitive overload, eye-catching visuals help memory retention. Simplify as much as you can. What you can’t simplify – turn into a game.

6. Using irrelevant stock photos

For very tight schedules we’ve developed a lifehack – sketches. Drawing a simple sketch is easier than designing infographics and illustrations, takes less time and is always better than using stock photos. Course images need to be relevant to the content and add to it. Exaggerated, cliché, fake images with happy office individuals will not connect with your audience. The visuals are there to tell a story and engage. Ideally, you should create your own illustrations. We know you have a deadline. But you’ll never find the perfect picture that explains exactly what’s in the script. Your design should also be consistent. Otherwise you will encounter three problems – the course will look unprofessional and all over the place, the visuals won’t perfectly match the text, and the stylistic inconsistency will divert precious attention from the information.

7. Lack of communication between project members

We’ve noticed that occasionally companies hire a separate script writer, design company and developer. In such cases people come into the project at different stages, never actually meet or work together. A diverse range of issues can arise. We had several projects over the years where we were given a script to design around, however, we couldn’t talk to the authors, because they weren’t part of the team anymore. It’s a mistake to think that an e-learning script is something separate from the design. Changes need to be made throughout the project, details adjusted, rearranged, some information expanded or shortened (consider information overload). We realised that designers shouldn’t be afraid to tell their clients about required edits, even if those edits are not in their official area of expertise.

The issue doesn’t stop at the design stage. Sometimes E-learning developers are also hired on a freelance basis. We understand, deadlines and budgets are tight. You’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, a year or more on the script, design and conference calls. Do not waste all that effort by hiring someone externally with no access to the design team. A button that is supposed to change shape will just be a regular boring button. Fonts won’t align properly. Nuances and interactive elements could be lost making the whole project look cheap and messy. Today, we don’t settle for anything less than what we call “pixel perfect” and we demand to oversee the build stage or assemble the project ourselves.

To summarise – your whole team should be available and communicating throughout the project, from script to finish.

8. Wrong platform

Every platform has its own nuances and technical constrictions. When choosing the right platform for your course, keep in mind who, where and what time during the day will be using it. Mobile, tablet and computer courses and software have different functionality and capabilities. Choose your platform before writing the script.

One of our previous clients was a big retailer with an impressive budget. They invested millions into the project – a corporate system tracking employee KPI. Later we found out that employees weren’t allowed to use the few office computers at the stores. But the program wasn’t designed to be viewed on a smartphone. So, managers couldn’t check employee stats on their phones in the morning on their commute to work and employees couldn’t use the system at all while at work, and had to do it at home. Now, this particular example isn’t about an e-learning course, but the same logic stands. Consider what time during the day (before work, at work, or after work) the course will be used. Will employees use their phones, personal laptops or company provided tech? Do they need to be monitored? Will they need an internet connection?

9. No usability testing

Testing can find unforeseen issues in your course, show user expectations, their level of engagement, learning path and satisfaction. Most importantly, it doesn’t require a state of the art usability testing facility, can be done in one day in one room with 5 subjects.

Initially, when designing courses, we didn’t perform tests unless clients specifically asked for them. We submitted our work to the responsible managers on the client side without ever talking to the end consumer. After the course was assembled and introduced to employees, we collected feedback which was occasionally negative. Even minor inconveniences can influence how consumers react to a course. Now, UX and UI testing is part of our work and we take the time to explain to our clients why it’s important. Even with a good script, proper platform, detailed strategy and planning, it’s still necessary to test on all stages (scriptwriting, design, assembly). It doesn’t break the bank, will not increase the budget, but provides invaluable feedback, making your course as clear, useful and convenient as possible.

Resume

It would be foolish to say that creating courses is easy, but when done properly the benefits undoubtedly outweigh the costs. Creating a meaningful and impactful learning experience will help your business in many ways, from better collaboration in the workplace to increased productivity. It’s a cost effective, focused and flexible tool that will save you time and money in the long term.

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