On one of their documentary series called Deadliest Catch aired by the Discovery Channel, I had watched Alaskan fishermen braving the elements to go fishing for king crab in some of the world’s most turbulent seas with freezing temperatures. And yet, the primary emotion on the fishing crew’s faces was that of exhilaration for pitting their wits against nature and meeting the challenge and dangers head-on. So what’s this got to do with eLearning? Not much. And yet, a lot.
If we were to take a consensus among learners on the top three things that would make them want to engage with a course, I’m reasonably certain that more than 90% of learners would list ‘challenging activities’ as one of the primary motivators for continuing with any learning program.
Why challenges matter
When I say ‘challenging’, I am referring to that element which captures the learner’s imagination, makes him/her want to interact with the course content to be able to perform some action or to engage in some activity to satisfy his/her curiosity about something or be able to crack some problem mirrored by real life. Agreed, to create learning activities that are suitably stimulating and challenging is no mean feat. And yet, we as instructional designers sometimes give up even before we’ve begun. And unfortunately, too often end up creating trivial, overly-simple activities that turn out to be no-brainers. After experiencing this type of an activity 2 or 3 times, the learners simply tune out.
What should a challenge do?
So what is it that our learners want us to do before we can get them to do what we want them to do? In other words, how do we craft challenging tasks for the learners so that they can apply their mind to come up with suitable solutions or answers and hence make that transition from reading about something and internalizing it for use in the real world? One thing is for certain – this won’t happen with questions where learners can make random guesses and move forward in the course. What we really need are activities that grab learners by the collar and throw down the gauntlet – “hey, so you think you are ready for a challenge? Try this!” In a non-offensive way of course.
One of the popular benefits of eLearning is that it enables learners to make mistakes in a risk-free environment. And yet, sometimes, it is precisely this total absence of risk that lulls our learners into a state of complacency. In a classroom session, sometimes an element of risk is added by extrinsic motivators – a lot of times learners are motivated to perform well in order to look good in front of their peers. Or at least to avoid making careless mistakes so that they don’t lose face in front of the class. Now these aspects of social learning motivators are missing when it comes to asynchronous self-paced courses that learners take in isolation. So how do we motivate the isolated learner to do well? To plunge into learning activities and make them their own personal challenge?
I think we could take a leaf out of the online games industry which thrives on creating games with excitement and challenge and where the consequences of taking the wrong actions can result in users being thrown out of the game. In our eLearning courses, we obviously wouldn’t want to resort to such extreme measures, but we do need to add some element of risk, so that learners feel motivated to apply their mind to the problem in an active engaged way and come up with solutions. The biggest challenge for us as instructional designers is to add meaningful challenges in our courses.
One way to do this is through allowing learners to go along a certain learning path based on the decision made in a previous step. This clearly shows the implications of a certain decisions. Teaching the negative consequences of a particular action can be a powerful motivator for learners to avoid making a mistake. I am not recommending fear tactics here, but rather increasing the awareness that learners’ choices would have negative implications in real life. In the following scenario-based assessment we’d used recently, the learner’s choice locks him/her into a certain decision path, with all implications pointed out towards the end. This adds more challenge to an otherwise drab Yes/No question minus a scenario and minus implications of an action.
Finally, we do really want learners who are actively engaged in taking action to meet meaningful challenges in the eLearning course. They must know that they can do well only if they apply their minds to the challenge at hand. And that they have to be willing to make mistakes even though it might have certain negative implications. This will help them avoid these mistakes in real-life events and help them have successful outcomes.
The ball is in the instructional designer’s court- how do we create meaningful challenges? By increasing the level of difficulty of questions? By penalizing learners’ wrong choices and blocking progress till they get it right? Thoughts anyone on ways to add a degree of challenge in online courses?