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Does Your E-learning Training Pass the 3 Principles Test? (A look at Principle 1)

With so many organizations turning to e-learning to provide training, it’s easy to get caught up in the prospect of saving money and being more efficient. By converting face-to-face training programs into e-learning formats, organizations can offer training 24/7 to audiences in any location. This is certainly an attractive option for providing a cost and time-saving benefit. Unfortunately, this allure can lead to rapid course development, also known as dumping PowerPoint presentations into online training sites with little thought into best design practices.

E-learning, as well as any training, requires careful planning. Once you determine that e-learning is an appropriate delivery mechanism for the type of training you are doing, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does the training optimize the potential for learning?
  2. Does the training either develop or maintain expertise?
  3. Does the training transfer to the job?

If you can’t answer “yes” to all 3 of these questions, or if you’re not sure whether your e-learning training program does all 3, then it’s time to pull back and think about the design.

Let’s take a look at addressing the first question:

How to design an e-learning training program that optimizes the potential for learning

When you design your e-learning training program, you will want to consider that your learners have a limited capacity to process incoming information. This is true for all learners, even those who are well-educated and who learn quickly. When people are engaged in learning, the initial processing of information takes place in the part of the memory called working memory. Once that information is understood and practiced, it can move from working memory into long-term memory where it can be retrieved for later use.

Working memory can only hold a finite amount of information and is limited in the number of operations it can perform with that information at any one time. This makes it difficult for learners to effectively understand the material being presented if their working memory capacity is overloaded. The more complex and unfamiliar the information, the fewer operations that can be performed.  Since memory is necessary in acquiring new information and developing skills, training should be designed to help the learner use the limited resources of working memory as efficiently as possible.

For example,

Consider the first time you drove a car. Possibly, without any instruction, you got behind the wheel and flawlessly began navigating around town. Like an expert, you seamlessly changed lanes, executed perfect turns, merged onto the freeway, and ended the experience by parallel parking in a tight spot between two oversized vehicles. While that is possible, more likely, you started off in a parking lot with no other vehicle in sight while Mom or Dad sat in the passenger seat barking commands about checking mirrors, starting the engine, braking, accelerating, turning, etc. When you hit the brakes for the first time, the car came to a startling stop. When you pushed the gas, you lunged forward. Over time and with lots of patience from Mom or Dad, you transitioned from the parking lot to the neighborhood streets to main roads and interstates. Most likely, you now drive automatically. What was once a step-by-step, thinking-through-each-maneuver process has now become part of your long term memory–a natural skill.

Designing training for new skills requires an awareness of how people learn, giving them the right amount of information to optimize the working memory. Had you been expected to drive a car across town without any more instruction than what is provided in a standard driving manual, you may have survived the trip, but likely would have felt overwhelmed and underprepared. By moving at a natural pace, with just the right information, it’s easier to make the transition from novice driver to expert (and far less risky).

So, just how do you design e-learning training to be sure that you are not taxing the working memory beyond its limits?

Here are some key ideas to consider when you want to optimize learning. (Each of these concepts will be explored in more detail in upcoming posts in the series):

  • Provide the optimal amount of information:  What is too much, too little, just the right amount?
  • Eliminate extraneous information: Are fancy visuals and sound effects distracting?
  • Help learners select and focus on the most important information: Should you highlight it for them?
  • Use language and visual information simultaneously: How can seeing and hearing be used to improve training?
  • Know your target audience and meet their needs: Are you training novices, experts, a mixture of both?
  • Give your learners the right amount of control: Should they be able to skip information, alter the sequence, test out?
  • Use memory support: What kind of tools, resources, and information should you provide?
  • Create an interface that’s a seamless connection between the learner and the training materials: How can the interface support the training?

In this series, I’ll continue to provide you with tips to help you design an e-learning training program that will pass the 3 Principles Test: optimize learning, develop expertise, and transfer training to the job.

In the next post, I’ll introduce the second principle:  How to design a training program that will develop or maintain expertise.

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