4 myths on how to spice things up in online learning

How do we make an online course exciting? What makes people stay and do the work? We talk a lot about ‘engaging’ the learners, but what does that mean?

Most articles in the e-learning sector focus on self-paced e-learning modules (e.g. Articulate), webinar presentations, or academic asynchronous e-courses. Many try to convince us that there is a ‘best practices’ approach for each. Yet ‘spicing things up’ means different things in different types of online learning. It also depends on your target group.

Here are some common misconceptions about making your online courses more engaging.


Myth #1: Adding visuals and interactive content is necessary to cater for all learning styles

First, the learning style theory has been debunked a long time ago. If you’re not convinced, read the excellent 2004 report entitled ‘Learning styles and pedagogy post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review’.  In his article ‘Every learner is different but not because of their learning styles’, Clive Shepherd suggests some characteristics which both research and practical experience have shown to be important instead.

There isn’t a % of the population that are ‘visual’ learners. It’s much more complicated. And even if it were true, what would you do with that information? Ignore the ‘readers’? Design X number of different courses to make sure everyone is happy? And as you’re going down that route, have a look at the many other dichotomies in the literature. Are you taking into account the verbalisers? The convergers? The pragmatists? The assimilators? The simultaneous processors? The list is very long…

Back to those visuals. There are lots of reasons why we should add visuals (photos, illustrations, diagrams, maps, charts, etc.) in e-learning, but it’s not because of learning styles. If it’s a meaningful visual, it will help everyone.  But if visuals are used incorrectly, they can deter learners.

When ideas are hooked onto an image they tend to lead to deeper learning. However, that doesn’t mean we – designers – need to provide all the images. That’s a misconception.  Our brains are very creative and form a lot of our own visuals. We do this when we read and when we listen. Research shows that visuals can sometimes harm learning by disrupting the learner’s organisation of information into a coherent mental model. Ask the note-takers, the scribblers and the mind-mappers – if you always do it for them, you are missing the point.

What about interactive content?

Any web search on ‘e-learning’ might give you the wrong impression that it’s all about interactive content: bite-sized content interspaced with mini-scenarios where users choose one of the three-four possible solutions. These modules are great for part of our training needs (this blog post helps with deciding when they are useful). Many articles make it appear as if this type of interaction is essential to engage the learner. After all, people need to be active and clicking on the right answers is ‘doing’, right? No.

There is a lot of misunderstanding about the real meaning of interactivity. It does not mean a click of the mouse to change a colourful screen. It means getting students involved with their learning. Real involvement is never shallow – it requires higher level thinking skills.

Do we need interactive content in all e-learning? Yes, but keep in mind that ‘interaction’ can take many forms. In collaborative eWorkshops, they might be smart real-life stories with real problems, which are solved by teams of learners. It is perfectly possible to achieve very high interaction with very few visuals and no bells and whistles. It all comes down to good learning design adapted to the type of topic and the target group.


Myth #2: Learners don’t like text

For a long time I thought I was the odd one out for unsubscribing from blogs that switched to podcasts/videos instead of regular well-written articles. Watching and listening takes far too much time. Turns out that there are in fact many people just like me. Did you know that younger adults prefer to get their news in text, not video? The research is American, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this could be generalised. And by “younger” they mean people under 50…

“Younger adults are far more likely than older ones to opt for text, and most of that reading takes place on the web.” Here is Stephen Downes’ take on this: “The problem with video news is that you have to sit and wait for it. That’s fine if you’re in a receptive consuming mode, but if you’re engaged and active online, you want the news now.”

Next time you’re about to convert all of your e-course text into video or multimedia modules, this is perhaps something to consider?

By all means, write better text. Learners want to read jargon-free plain English texts, not insurance policies. There is a whole range of reasons why many academics can’t write, so don’t copy their language. Most of us have moved on.  There is plenty online help available to un-learn bad habits.


Myth #3: Adding games makes learning more fun

In some training programmes, games are a must. Through educational games, my children made huge progress in maths, science and spelling when they were still at school. They learned languages that way too. Pilots, soldiers and many other professionals use serious games to simulate on-the-job decisions. They’re just the best way to learn those types of skills.

However, that doesn’t mean games have a place in all our training programmes. I have written before about how games can spoil e-learning and how gamification can completely dis-engage (and irritate) your target group.

Badges are a popular gamification element and the same applies. Think hard before you add them to your e-course. Stars and leader boards might work wonders in ‘drill and practice’ training, but they are misplaced in any learning of soft and/or complex skills where the application depends on context. A lot of people can’t stand the shallowness they tend to promote.


Myth #4: Adding a discussion forum will make the e-course more engaging

The new trend is ‘social’ – “if only we let people talk to each other, they will stay and do the work as well”. Anyone who has added a discussion space (forum or other) to a traditional e-learning course has learned the hard way that this doesn’t work.

Interesting online discussions don’t just happen and collaboration does not automatically lead to learning. Meaningful learning through collaboration online needs to be carefully designed. A ‘share-if-you-care’ forum added to an otherwise content-focused e-course won’t make a difference at all. It doesn’t make it more ‘active’ or ‘engaging’. If you’re interested in designing real teamwork, have a look at some of my past blog posts: here or here or here (and many more).


We all know that too much (badly written) text will turn off your learners and that a Las Vegas approach will do the same. But the discussion about how to make e-learning more inspiring shouldn’t even be at that level. Spicing up online learning means a fundamental shift from a ‘content is king’ approach to more engaging learning methods that focus on thinking, doing and true collaboration.

Reflections on the ‘New Groupthink’ and lessons for asynchronous collaborative e-learning
How do I know what e-learning approach is right for what topic?


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