boring content

Have you ever been tasked with building eLearning games or courses, only to find that your sole source of material is a collection of lifeless, boring eLearning content? We’ve all been there: spending hours trying to put lipstick on a pig that is, well, still going to be a pig at the end of the day.  No amount of sound effects or graphics can mask that pig.  In moments like those, it’s easy to feel defeated, knowing that your learners are going to be miserable and that there isn’t a thing you can do about it… or, is there?

During the course of my career, I have spent hours upon hours trying to come up with creative “lipstick” for boring content pieces until one year, faced with the challenge of yet another compliance eLearning course, I had a breakthrough: I realized that I didn’t need to spend any more time wrestling with that yawn-worthy content, and neither did the learner. I achieved this through (brace yourself Instructional Design World), not focusing on the content. To better understand what this means, let’s start with the mistakes of our dear friend, Willy Wonka.

Ditch the Willy Wonka Tour and Give Them a Swig of the Fizzy Lifting Drinks

Remember Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? No matter how helpful and insightful the Willy Wonka Factory Tour was, those darned kids just didn’t learn anything unless they tried it for themselves: from swimming in chocolate rivers to three-course-dinner gum to fizzy lifting drinks. Often in eLearning we want to provide our learners with a tour of our “important key points.” We expect them to be excited by our factoids, stock photos and sound effects when in reality the learner just doesn’t care. They’re distracted, disinterested, and looking around for the relevance and intrigue. They want to do something, to try something. You can capitalize on their internal desire to try things out by giving them something to do, and in the case of a course with boring content, making it something that isn’t, at its core, touring the content. As a byproduct of getting the learner engaged in something that asks them to demonstrate knowledge rather than acquire it, they will learn anyway. You both win.

Here are five ways you can start handling boring eLearning content like a pro:

1.    Violate Their Expectations

Roger Schank talks a lot about this concept, and I have long been a fan of it. The quickest way to pull people out of boredom is to do something they don’t expect or ask them to do something they don’t expect.

Example: A few years ago a colleague and I worked on a PCI Compliance Course where the learner assumed the role of an identity thief in training, traveling the world to work with some of the best criminals to learn how personally identifiable information could be compromised and stolen. They would practice hacking computer passwords using common tricks from professionals. I just shocked you a little, right? We were nervous too, but this instructional strategy immediately captured their interest. It indirectly taught them what they should be doing to protect their information, as well as the customer’s.

2.    Have Them Game it Up

Designing game-like experiences for learners that require them to demonstrate knowledge in order to win creates immediate motivation to learn content.

Example: The year after the Identity Theft theme, I took that same dry base PCI Compliance information and turned it into a Compliance Carnival. There was absolutely no instructional content for the learner to go through. The course opened up to bright carnival music and presented the learner with a map of the carnival grounds.  Each main area of the map was a game that allowed them to earn a ticket (e.g., Balloon Pop game, Squirt Gun Game, Bumper Cars Game, Test Your Strength with a hammer game, etc.). When they earned enough tickets, they could gain entry to the big Fireworks Show (course completion). Each game was different and fun, and the only skill required to win it was demonstration of knowledge. If they needed help, they could launch a supplemental window that allowed them to review fundamental course content, which they could then use to beat the game and win their ticket. Most importantly, though, there was no “Factory Tour of Information.” I received a lot of personal e-mails from learners that year telling me they had never had so much fun with a course, and we had a much easier time getting our organization to 100% completion.

3.    Let Them Take on a Role

Instead of tasking the learner with learning the content, give them a role to play that enables them to do something. They are welcome to use “content helps” built into the course that assist them with their role, but you don’t always have to spend time going through the content itself. The learner can reference the content as needed to fulfill their more interesting role and when they do, they’ll be much more engaged with it because they need it to solve a problem.

Example: I once designed a Disaster Recovery course by telling the learner there was a major disaster at each of our company’s facilities, and their job was to help salvage situations (for example: deciding how to help an employee who just had a heart attack, or evacuating employees from a building safely).  If they needed help, they could consult resources but the course focused on them solving problems, not learning content. The learning came as a byproduct of their action.

4.    Help Them Feel Something

Touching on the affective domain helps learners to connect with the content in a more powerful way, and gives access to long-term memory. Often what makes content boring is that there isn’t inherent relevance or connection between it and the learner. You can establish that connection by helping them get emotional about the content in a productive way (like with humor, music or stories).

Example: I once started off a Workplace Violence Prevention course with no introduction at all. Rather, I used images and audio of the aftermath of a tragic workplace violence event. This may seem risky. But it combatted the biggest challenge of the course: their disbelief that it could ever happen to them, which created an engagement barrier. I solved that by starting the course with the aftermath video, allowing them to virtually experience the exact thing we wanted their help in preventing.  This experience also helped them see, hear, and feel the regret of others who thought that this type of thing couldn’t happen at their workplace. As a result, the rest of the content immediately became more relevant.

5.     Be An Advisor

This article wouldn’t be complete without this perspective: you need to partner with your stakeholders like a pro, too. Every professional working in adult education needs to add value through their role as a learning advisor to their stakeholders, recognizing that the people requesting this training may not understand the significance (or more importantly, insignificance) of the content they are giving you. Over the years I have learned to focus on what matters most: the behavior your stakeholders want demonstrated by the learner. This not only makes the content that is left more naturally engaging, it narrows the learner’s focus to what matters most. If you can help your partners see that this approach will yield the behavior change, you can create win-wins.

Example: I was once asked by a procedural department to create an entire training piece using their policy manual as content. Through consulting with them, I helped them see that the more successful design would be for me to create experiences that allowed the learner to use the policy manual to make decisions. By helping them see that this would result in the same end goal, a win-win was achieved for all.

Don’t let boring eLearning content overtake you, or your learners. These tips can help you to proactively eliminate unnecessary content before you are asked to design it, or design it in ways that allow the learner to use it rather than tour it—a lesson dear Wonka learned the hard way.

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