Why do we create boring materials?

Bored learnerWhich stars must align before we can design truly narcotic elearning? Here are a few possibilities.

No clear goal: We don’t look closely enough at the business reason for the course (there is one, right?), or we don’t identify the behaviors that will lead to that goal. As a result, we cram in too much content and don’t help learners apply it to the real world.

The wrong tool: We’re using elearning when another method would work better. Maybe if we had a clearer idea of our goal…

Too much telling: We think, “We know things that the learners don’t! We must tell the learners these things!” We’re stuck on “knowledge transfer.” Our goal becomes to organize the information so it travels most efficiently from us to the receiver learner. We forget that we’re designing an experience and think we’re just designing information.

Too much control: If our job is to transfer knowledge, then of course we’ll want to control the learners to make sure they receive each and every bit of the transmission. Don’t let them skip around–delete that menu! And let’s read everything aloud to make sure the learners don’t miss a thing.

Not enough time: Feeling pressured? You’re not alone. Several respondents to Elliott Masie’s 2005 survey mentioned problems like “ever faster development cycles that make it difficult to maintain minimum quality standards” (see What Keeps You Up at Night?). Without time, we can’t brainstorm more creative approaches or stay current with learning research.

Lack of internal standards: Rigorous, written standards for elearning materials don’t appear to be wildly popular. These standards could identify the acceptable approaches to design as well as get down to details, such as prohibiting the narration of on-screen text. In a perfect world, the effectiveness of each course would be tracked and the standards adjusted as necessary.

Fear of creativity: We’re sometimes afraid not only of humor but even of “safer” ideas like dialog, scenarios, simulations, “discovery” approaches, and the many other ways to show instead of tell. Also, it’s hard to find examples of creative elearning, so we don’t have success stories to reassure us.

I’m developing some tools that I hope will help address these issues. But I’m sure there are problems I’ve missed. What are they?

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  1. Wow Cathy, the points you list are very much precise and real.


  2. Another reason, as Donald Clark noted recently, is compliance training. It’s about ‘for the legislation we have to be able to demonstrate that each person was trained in xxx’; this translates to ‘we have to pass on xxx to everyone’ which translates to ‘too much and too boring for trainers’ to ‘put it on the computer’ which translates to ‘no time for anything creative, just get it out – we just need to prove they have done it’ which translates to … boring materials.

  3. Great points, Cathy. I can really relate to what you said about this ‘fear’ of humour and creativity (particularly within the corporate training environment).
    Norman, it’s interesting that you raise the issue of compliance training, and time constraints. We’re doing some organisational-wide compliance training for a corporate client at the moment, and we proposed an approach that we felt was different, engaging and just plain fun. As the general attitude of learners was ‘we have to do this, so we want to get it over with asap’, we really wanted to make the short time allocated a worthwhile, enjoyable (and humourous) experience.
    The feedback we’ve just received was that, while they admire the ‘cleverness’ of the approach, they don’t think everyone will ‘get it’, so they’re looking at a more conservative approach. It can get a little disheartening, but you’ve got to keep fighting the good fight, I guess 🙂

  4. Cathy:

    One thought I have is that the first clever idea that comes into your head (or at least into mine)… isn’t. Boredom can stem from predictability. If I never see that 9-dot, think-outside-the-box puzzle again, I’ll be much happier. And I deeply believe the training world doesn’t need another Jeopardy game. [Especially if you’re not working on recall.]

    A related idea: don’t be too literal. Even if you choose a Jeopardy format, the Constitution does not require answering with a question, nor do you have to let the winner have the first shot at the next question.

    The heart of the matter is: how can I encourage a person to interact with the material? I worked on mandatory ethics training for a federal agency. Fortunately, the ethics attorney who was my chief source believed in using difficult cases, rather than ones in which a vendor offers someone a suitcase of unmarked $20 bills. In our vignettes, possible responses included what I think of as highly orthodox correct answers, perfectly acceptable correct answers, and plausible but unacceptable answers.

    The range of responses, coupled with the individual’s ability to cycle back and see feedback for other responses, went a long way toward the “don’t do this or else” approach.

  5. We have learned to learn “boringly” early on=school. I am guessing you have seen it, but Ken Robinson (see:http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/66) makes this case sooo well at a Ted Conference explaining how schools “learn the creativity” right out of us. It’s an awesome video, entertaining AND educational….whoa!

  6. Norman, I agree that the current approach to compliance “training” is often one of “Just get it out there so we can check it off the list.” If we really believed that the content was important, we’d spend some time making it challenging. I think another issue is the fact that we’re using elearning for courses that should be delivered in other ways. And we’re doing it so cynically that at least one provider of online anti-harassment training places a timer on the screen and forces learners who are going too quickly to sit and stare at the screen while the timer runs down, all so the manager can say that the learner received two hours of training.

  7. Luke, I’m sorry your client got cold feet. File that idea away for a braver client!

    It seems that compliance courses are even less likely to be done creatively, possibly because they exist mainly because of fear (of lawsuits, regulatory trouble, etc. etc.). When we’re motivated by fear we’re even less likely to consider creative solutions.

  8. Dave, I like your examples of the ethics questions–it’s a fun challenge for both the designer and the learner to consider plausible yet incorrect options. One good test of a course on “common sense” topics like ethics is to give the questions to someone who hasn’t read the course materials. If they pass the test, we’ve got work to do.

    Seen on a wall recently: “If you’re thinking outside the box, the box is still defining your thinking.”

    I like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies: http://stoney.sb.org/eno/oblique.html

    Today’s was “Faced with a choice, do both.”

  9. Laura, thanks for reminding me of Ken Robinson’s talk. I hadn’t seen it for awhile and will enjoy watching it again. Ivan Illich’s ideas are also compelling; Wikipedia provides a starting point if anyone is interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Illich

  10. Cathy,

    What a timely topic. I was asked the exact question yesterday when I presented to a group of potential clients and my answer was right in line with your points. My honest answer was that it is easier, quicker, less work and less expensive. Also creating interesting engaging content requires understanding the content and the audience. In most instances that requires a strong relationship between the content developer (most often an eLearning vendor) and the subject matter expert/s (client). You also need an eLearning developer/vendor who understands the value of having an initial needs assessment and brainstorming session to determine what the objectives of the course are and how these can be achieved. Some business users/customers are scared off by the process as they see it as too time consuming and detailed. Developing a creative course also requires the business users/client to think outside the box and use creative/fun graphics and some humor – many companies are too conservative/PC to think outside the box.

    Keep up the good work,


  11. To make my courses interesting for students I create it in powerpoint and then turn it to flash with iSpring Pro which makes my presentations easy to share.

  12. What great points you make regarding reasons why there is the creation of boring materials. These are all valid reasons and as an educator, it makes me stop and reflect on my own teaching practices. I would say that the areas I struggle with are too much telling and not enough time. With the increased demands that are always present in the educational setting, it can all be too easy to stay in our current ways and not look at things in new ways. Too much telling can also go with this because we want the students to gain the information but feel as though there is not enough enough time to bring in many creative aspects that allow them to explore. It is important, however to remember that everyone learns differently and we still need to make our best effort at reaching them.

  13. Nate Beatty says:

    I find that strictly adhering to the instructional design process is slow, tedious, and generally creates boring instruction. hmm maybe it’s just the product doesn’t fall far from the ISD tree? Not to mention the ISD process usually demands the creation of a “project plan”, which is so ridiculously long that no reads it anyway. Long ago I tossed out the instructional design process that I was formally trained in (Dick and Carey model) to focus on quick, cheap, effective, and common sense grounded instruction. That was one of the best professional choices I ever made! Now my design are full of personality and reflect a real person’s experience of learning rather than the drawn out dredge that the ISD process birthes.

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