Adding a Degree of Challenge in Online Courses

Adding a Degree of Challenge in Online Courses

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.

Decisions, decisions…

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.

But How?

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.

Adding a Degree of Challenge in Online Courses

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?

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  • Vaughan Waller

    Many years ago Price Waterhouse (as they were then) made a programme on the interpretation of financial statements – not what most would call an interesting subject. But it was set as a challenge to the learner to solve a murder mystery – it was either a suicide or a murder. The answer lay in the statements themselves so you had to learn how to really read and understand the words and figures to solve the mystery. It was also impossible to cheat and go to the end until you had done the whole course. I think the attainment of a goal is a great challenge but it takes ingenuity, a lot of planning and a reasonable budget. Forget rapid authoring since while you can do basic branching you need a full range of logic (IF-THEN-ELSE) to make this work as a real challenge. Another point is that a challenge is better when done as a group rather than just as an individual activity – it is so easy to lose heart when you are working alone.

  • Shalini Merugu

    Thanks for sharing that case study Vaughan! You’re right, it takes a huge amount of effort for designing a course with this degree of challenge and engagement. Incidentally, I had also been thinking of a a sleuthing theme for the scenario when I wrote that post. But like you, had my reservations on how far something like that could be possible with rapid authoring tools. Incidentally, came across this interesting blog post on Articulate’s Rapid eLearning Blog:, which shows how to build ongoing branching that can “continue forever”. Must try it for a longer complex scenario and see how it goes.

    I couldn’t agree with you more about your point on this kind of a challenge being best attempted as a group. I guess the reason a lot of instructional designers do not attempt anything along the lines of the Price Waterhouse case study is precisely because it can be too big or complex for one person to handle it comfortably. Nothing like some synergy to get creativity flowing!

  • Grant Dawson

    How do you measure success?

    How do we measure success?

    One of the most interesting things that I have seen done with interactivities was several years ago, it was so powerful and engaging that it still sticks in my memory. I came across a game called “Silent Steel” and all I could say was ” WOW! this is where CBT will be heading in the years to come”. It has not happened…yet.

    The game places you in the position of a submarine captian. Different video segments/scenarios play out based upon your response to various questions posed by the computer. The challenge for the captain was to navigate through a series of situations without sinking the ship. It must have been costly to develop.

    The current situation here in the USA seems to be that CBT is used mainly to deliver information to the workforce, as required under some regulation (OSHA, EPA, DOT etc.), and real learning does not seem to occur in these cases. It’s just corporate CYA. But it is cheap……ie 50,000 workers have taken our CBT related to Hard Hats and passed etc. so we love it and hold on to it.

    Real learning (success) will come only when we create interactions and engagement.

    What do you folks think?

  • Zanda

    Vaughan and Grant, thank you for sharing best in class scenarios.

    Often e-learning is an equivalent to a boring professor in a huge auditorium. Learners just do other stuff and dont focus. With rapidly growing e-learning usage, we actually turn to this old auditorium. It is very cost effective, but with very low added value.

    Average e-learning option is fine if the result of a training is pure compliance and the developers actually dont care whether learners remember anything.

    If e-learning is supposed to bring added value, it should become more learner – intuitive. I guess the training should be built in a similar way as marketing works. It starts from customer insight, market analysis, market segmentation and products have various features for different segments. Every e-learning should have similar logic… it should contain various paths to guide learners through the material.

    The learners are very different and this should be reflected in e-learning design.

  • Perhaps what is needed is to “challenge” the learner to make real meaning from the content and use it in context. If you want to do more than just deliver content, you need to provide interesting opportunities for the learner to work with the content. It does depend on the learning platform you have available of course, and what type of assignments you are willing to give and review with the learners. Although I am somewhat new to creating such courses, I am working on ways to convey what I know about children with disabilities to teachers in countries just starting to look more toward the inclusion of these children. I can not merely give them information (although that will lay the groundwork toward changing perceptions), I must engage them to try new things and share their learning with others. I also hope to create Virtual Professional Learning Communities (VPLCs) to link teachers in my courses with peers here who can mentor their learning after the course.