Let your right brain do the design

At last month’s ASTD we spent some time with Michael Allen and his team, which is always fun. Michael’s a great guy and always talks a lot of common sense about e-learning design. His session at ASTD spelled out – literally – why you need three M’s in your e-learning, and why you shouldn’t let your left brain drive. Top tip material if ever we heard it...

ADDIE, you baddie

Michael started with a stinging attack on ADDIE and all its empty promises. Not the hardest opponent to topple, but an interesting point came out of it. ADDIE is mainly about process. Process is fine, we all need some of it. But if that’s all you’ve got, something’s missing althogether from the heart of your e-learning. In fact, the heart is probably missing.  Think of ADDIE and the many varieties of process-driven instructional design as ‘left brain’ design. You get your goals, check, you turn them into learning objectives – all good and proper stuff, but that’s a long way from doing something interesting in design.  The same is true of doing content analysis, breaking down large volumes of content into their smallest divisible elements. It’s a useful scoping approach, but the temptation is to then start with the simplest concept and work up to the most advanced.  What’s the problem? Simple stuff is usually pretty boring. Learners want to do something interesting. Your process is getting in the way of them having a memorable experience. 

The result of being too process-focused and overly analytical? Well, you know the result:  A lot of e-learning that ticks boxes against the objectives, and covers all the bases, but is boring beyond all reason. As Michael put its (we’re paraphrasing):  E-learning works on scale. If you design bad, boring e-learning, you have the potential to do a huge amount of damage on a massive scale. So take some responsibility for your actions and don’t be boring.

Right turn, Clyde

So how to give your right brain the steering wheel? How to be more creative in your e-learning design? We all leaned forward collectively with such force that I’m sure the building tilted. Sorry, people – there’s no magic formula for coming up with great ideas (you knew that in your hearts anyway). But there were some helpful tips (and a plug for Michael’s new book, in which they’re explored more fully, but you’d forgive him that).  Some things to think about:

1. Make sure it’s MMM-learning

No, not delicious, or extremely mobile, but rather:

  • Meaningful: Are you creating experiences where learners are doing things that matter in real life?
  • Memorable: Are you creating experiences that will stay in people’s memories when faced with the same or similar challenges in real life?
  • Motivational: Are you creating experiences that enable people to achieve real goals, or recover from failure, with just the right amount of coaching and support

These three concepts are implicit in a lot of e-learning design models and theories, but it’s nice to think about them as floating on top of whatever design approach you take.  Michael’s view was that they’re reinforcing, hence M x M x M. So if you’ve failed to address one of them, the whole experience scores a zero. 

And of course you’ll have spotted the theme in the three questions – are you actually creating experiences, rather than just formulating screens? Effective e-learning consists of authentic activities in which people have clear goals, a task to perform, experience the consequences, and get just the right amount of feedback and support to give context and generalise from the specific. Since we’re age-old (some of us very age-old) proponents of goal-based scenarios, you’ll get no arguments from this camp.

2. Spread it out

Do you have just too much content? The issue with taking a content or gap analysis, or any coverage based approach is that you invariably end up cramming more content in than you should. The simple mantra here is 'Cover less, but do it better'.  Or you could do more but spread it out over a much longer overall experience.  If you want to give people real choices in a complex, situation, such as understanding a client’s concerns, or negotiating a hostage release, don’t shortcut any of the steps or choices. Let it all happen and create a rich experience.

Yes, time and budget constraints will always come to bite – but your defence is the effectiveness of a well designed experience compared to an overstuffed content delivery device. 

3. Start at the end

Instead of starting with the lowest-order task, and making the learner gradually earn their stripes and the right to try more difficult things, why not get them to where they really want to go anyway – straight to the exciting stuff? Nobody goes to flight school hoping to spend a lot of time in theory classes. They know the flight simulator is the real deal.  In e-learning we have the freedom to drop you straight in at the deep end. If they can’t handle it? Fine – coaching and guidance can support them. But better to overstretch a little, than to underestimate people’s abilities and be (here’s that word again) boring.


It’s all good stuff as usual from Michael – and chimes with a lot of our top tips over the years too. Keep an eye out for his new book, ‘Successful E-learning Interface’, on Amazon from July.

Got other ideas for getting creative in e-learning? Well don’t just sit there looking all ingenious. Come and tell us in the eLearning Professionals Group