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E-Learning Designs: Don't Underestimate Learner Overload

— by Bill Cushard

Course development

I am at the beginning of a long-term project to create an internal certification program for a specific job type in my organization. The method for the learning content will be primarily asynchronous, so that people can go through the program at their own pace. Moreover, a self-paced e-learning program has the added benefit of being a resource that can be referred to over and over again.

The Great Debate

One of the challenges that plagues projects like this is deciding how much of a topic to cover at any given point during the program, especially when it comes to complex topics that you know should be covered in small pieces over time. Our debates are typical, “We need to cover this topic now or learners will not understand what comes next.” “I know,” goes the reply. “But if we cover it now, it will just overload people.” And so the debate goes.

It was great timing when I read Angela van Barneveld’s post in Learning Solutions Magazine last week called Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load. She cites a study from Educational Psychologist, which lays out how the human mind handles the load presented by multimedia learning. The nine ways are an important reminder for what to do and not to do when creating e-learning so as not to overwhelm learners.

Less is More

If I could summarize the post in three words, it would be, “Less is more.” It is critical to present only the essential content elements in multimedia learning. One example is not to put text and graphics on a slide and have audio narration. It is too much for a learner to handle all at once. Think about it. Can you listen to audio, read text on a screen, and digest a flow chart, all at the same time? I can’t. At least, not well. The advice from this article would be to remove the text from the screen, choose a relevant graphic, and have the audio narration cover the text.

The evidence shows this as true over and over again. In fact, if you read Ruth Clark’s book on e-learning (and you should) you will notice she cites numerous studies that all say the same thing, that less is more and that LX designers should only include essential content. But I have to tell you that when I have done this in the past, my customers (I mean learners) have complained that they want to see text on the screen, claiming, “I want to be able to see it in writing. It helps me learn.” The problem is that the evidence tells us otherwise. So, for my current e-learning project, I am going to listen to the evidence and channel my inner Henry Ford who once said, “If I listened to my customers, I would have built a better horse.”

This is not to say we should not listen to our customers (users, learners, etc). In fact, since we are taking an AGILE approach to this learning design project, we plan to run a pilot program in January, collect feedback, and make changes accordingly. However, we will listen to evidence in the research and design in such a way as to reduce distractions so that learners can focus on what they really need to learn.

In your learning designs, I encourage you to think about what the evidence tells us and include only the essentials. Remember, less is more.

Bill Cushard, author, blogger, and head of learning at Allonhill, is a learning leader with extensive, in-the-trenches experience building learning organizations in start-up and hyper-growth organizations like E*TRADE, the Knowland Group, and Allonhill.

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