MAY 2014 UPDATE: As I’ve received so many great comments about this post, I’ve now created a podcast version of it, which you can listen to at the bottom of this post. And I’ve also created an instructional video of it, which you can launch and download from my eLearning Samples page!
In the fall of 2013, the folks at Allen Interactions graciously offered a free webinar for the ASTDNY eLearning Special Interest Group (or SIG). Their topic was the dangers of content-driven learning, and one of their key points was that presenting Learning Objectives at the start of an eLearning course in the traditional bulleted list is not particularly meaningful or effective. True, a bulleted list states what your company wants the learner to walk away with at the end of the course, but it’s not a presentation style that resonates with the learner. The rest of the world doesn’t think in terms of Learning Objectives, and poorly-presented Learning Objectives at the start of the course can in fact be off-putting rather than helpful. The learner has to come first. I have been engaged in this debate for years, and sometimes when working as a subcontractor, it has even been the development shop who hired me that has flat-out said: “Don’t get creative; the client expects to see a traditional bulleted list of objectives, and the same list restated at the end–and if you don’t do it that way, you’re not a good instructional designer.” Hogwash.
After the webinar, I started thinking about SMART objectives, and how we can improve them. Now, back when I first learned about SMART objectives, the acronym was defined with the following meanings:
I did a Google Image search for “SMART Objectives” and found a number of variations, none of them as good as the list above, in my opinion. For example, some lists used “Agreed,” which to me should be a given on any project, and “Realistic,” which is already covered by “Achievable”–and losing “Achievable” would be a mistake. Others use “Aggressive” instead–but this is corporate buzz talk, and misses the very real need to establish learning objectives that can be met within the confines of the training to be presented. Be as aggressive as you want, folks. But at the end of the day, each Learning Objective has to be Achievable or it has no merit. And there are other variants as well, but many of them boil down to a question of semantics. You get the idea.
So, what would make Learning Objectives even SMARTER? Almost immediately the answer for the additional “E” and “R” letters came to me. Before I tell you what mine are, I will note that I also did a Google Image search for “SMARTER Objectives,” on the assumption that I might not be the first person to point out that SMART Objectives need improving. Sure enough, I found a couple of versions. But frankly, I didn’t like them. One added “Ethical” and “Reachable” to the above list. Well, again, as far as I’m concerned, ethical should be a given, or you shouldn’t be doing business. And “Reachable” is redundant; we already have “Achievable.” Others proposed “Reviewed frequently” (a good idea, but again a given in my book) and “Recorded”–which is just a bit lame.
So, what are my “E” and “R” values? Like the other five letters, they should only be added if they add real meaning. For my money, the “E” should stand for “Engaging” and the “R” should stand for “Rewarding.” Why? Because we need to create Learning Objectives that actually speak to the learner!
We should be creating Learning Objectives that Engage our target audience members, so that they have some “skin” in the game. We have to frame our Objectives in such a way that the they are not just the company’s objectives–they become the learners‘ as well. If we present our Learning Objectives in a more Engaging way, and show how they will be Rewarding to the learners themselves (not just to the company), then we will have truly taken a step toward making our SMART Objectives even SMARTER:
And when it comes to sharing your Learning Objectives at the start of your eLearning: be creative! Use a story or scenario, make an exploratory interaction–let your imagination run free and think about what will engage your learners, and how they feel rewarded for investing their time in your course. Challenge them, intrigue them, open with a situation that raises a question with real-world relevance. Consider subtly employing some Gamification tactics (see my other blog posts on this topic). Whether your course is high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech, help your learners see themselves in the challenge or question you pose. Then, instead of just glazing over or skipping a Learning Objectives slide, they’ll embrace those objectives through the engagement, and take those objectives as their own. Give that some thought the next time you’re defining your Learning Objectives. I’m betting it will make a real, positive difference for your learners.
LORD POLONIUS What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET Words, words, words.
LORD POLONIUS What is the matter, my lord?
HAMLET Between who?
LORD POLONIUS I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.
HAMLET Slanders, sir….
This odd exchange between the king’s advisor Polonius and the supposedly mad prince Hamlet from Shakespeare’s famous tragedy came to mind as I read a thought-provoking blog post by my friend Angel Green, a wonderful instructional strategist. In her article, my friend half-seriously states that she hates words in eLearning, dubbing them a “necessary evil.”
But of course, we all know that blaming words is like blaming the messenger. Words can engender great good or great harm–ask any advertising executive, playwright, or politician. It’s all in how we use them. Or, to my friend’s point, misuse them. Think of all those Twitter and Facebook posts you really don’t need to see. All those eLearning screens that are simply walls of words, not keys to knowledge, understanding, and change.
Let me put it in a more Shakepearean metaphor: words are seeds. They need the right exposure and room to grow. If you plant too many of them too closely together, they’ll vie with each other for the sunlight (i.e., the audience’s attention), and the end result will be a scraggly bed of weeds that people avoid, not the well-manicured garden an audience will enjoy exploring. But the carefully-planted, memorable phrasing is money in the bank. The right words presented in the right way at the right time will take root in our audience’s minds–and grow.
Once you’ve whittled down your course’s words to the meaningful ones, in many cases you can greatly enhance their delivery by selecting the right voiceover talent to convincingly share the story and “sell” the script you’ve written (and of course, remember to include a Closed-Captioning option). Take the time to find a voice that matches your story’s character(s), and that sounds like someone talking naturally to the learner. Even a neutral narrator can have some personality, and should subtly communicate an eagerness to share the information for the learner’s benefit. Using quality voiceover talent pays for itself: suddenly your words take on a whole new life in your learner’s ear. Your course can now reach the auditory learners as well as the visual ones. Add some nifty, meaningful interactions for the kinesthetically-inclined, and you’ve got a course that will make a lasting impression on everyone!
When it comes to including particularly dry text, sometimes editing isn’t a choice; the language may be a regulatory requirement or even part of a court settlement. But in most cases, I’ve had success convincing legal teams that it’s best to put legalese into a pop-up window or take-away item behind a clickable shiny medallion, charming character or other appealing graphic. Use that icon consistently throughout the course to alert the audience to such material. Make the legalese a resource, not part of the main flow, and give its presentation some class. That way the information has been treated with respect–without bogging down the learner, who mostly just wants to get on with the course.
Impressive as they can be these days, interactive elements shouldn’t be the only “good stuff” in an eLearning course. Even when it’s a course your audience is required to take, they’ll respond to real engagement in any form. The right words are good stuff. They promote mental interaction. Used with theatrical flair, they can be great on their own. Ask Shakespeare. Or, they can play their part brilliantly right alongside the interactive techno-bells and whistles available to us today. More people are finally catching on to scenario-based courses as the most natural approach to memorable learning: Good stories stay with us. Put your learners in a situation they’ll recognize, one that will prompt an emotional connection. Maybe start them “in medias res”–in the middle of the story–so they have to hit the ground running, and think on their feet. Then give them a few tools, just enough information and guidance, and encourage them to put it all together themselves as they go through your eLearning course. Don’t do it all for them. Use words to tease, surprise, amuse. Regardless of the type of content: involve them, and make it entertaining! If no one on your team is a wordsmith–hire one. It’s worth it.
It would be nice if our clients and corporate lawyers better understood how words need to be used in eLearning–but in truth it’s not their job. Even though they share your goal of getting the course’s message across, words mean something different to them. A contract is not a meeting memo–and neither of them is eLearning. Lawyers use words to define and regulate; business clients use words to communicate and record. We–meaning instructional designers, strategists, and performance consultants–use words to inspire and enable change. And of course we use images in the same way. We’re the ad agency of the eLearning team. We’re the storytellers. We help translate and simplify, until only the essential words remain. The ones that learners will remember.
Words, images, and interactive elements need to exist in an organic, symbiotic balance within your eLearning courseware. Logorrhea is not a disease your eLearning course can afford to catch. But to return to Hamlet, Polonius, and the messenger metaphor: if your eLearning course materials aren’t written in an engaging way right now, don’t stab the old man behind the curtain. Go back and have a serious talk about words with the king. He started it!
If you have a great example of use or misuse of words in eLearning, I hope you’ll share it in the Comments.