Six Characteristics of Learner-Centred eLearning


There is an often overlooked fact about learning initiatives:

It’s the learners that do the learning.

What I mean by this, is that “learning” doesn’t happen in the eLearning or in a face to face session; it’s an internal process that people have to choose to undertake. The purpose of any learning initiative is to motivate people to become learners, then facilitate an effective learning experience.

Seems pretty common sense, but somehow this is so often overlooked in learning solutions. It becomes all about the needs of the business, the needs of the L&D manager, the needs of compliance regulations and the needs of everyone in the business who thinks they have an opinion. For whatever reason, the needs of our audience, our learners, the group of people we actually need to actively do something, are completely forgotten.

This is where 'learner-centred' can help turn your glorified powerpoints into effective learning. Broadly speaking, this concept is all about putting the learner’s needs first, and making every decision from a “how will this benefit the learner?” perspective.

To start you off, here are five core characteristics to learner-centred eLearning design.

1. Keep it relevant

When designing any learning initiative, using eLearning or other delivered means, the content must clearly align with what learners need to know to achieve expected outcomes. For example, if we want to instruct a learner on changing printer toner, you don’t want to go into the history of printers, how to clear a paper jam and when to call a service technician to update software.

This is one of the biggest traps that clients and providers alike fall into. Rather than focusing on what the learner needs to learn, then working backwards to identify the relevant content, they include all the content they can find on the topic. This results in the content equivalent of 'everything and the kitchen sink' on the topic of 'printers' being jammed into a 1-2 hour learning module, then everyone hoping the learner will remember something that will actually help them change the toner. Less is more. Every time you are about to include something, ask yourself “does this help the learner do what I want them to?”. If the answer is “no”, then it's not learner-centred. There is more information on this topic in our blog “From Core to Bore: What to include in your eLearning”.

2. Think about motivation

You need to consider how you are going to motivate your audience to learn. “Why?” you ask. Because you can’t force people to learn! This point is something designers often overlook, immediately labelling their audience as 'learners.'

The learning experience is then designed for learners who, by nature, exist to learn.

Unfortunately, your audience is actually made up of people, so the first step in creating a learner-centred experience is to figure out what will motivate these people to become learners. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your eLearning needs to be the source of that motivation. Depending on the topic, time it’s been accessed, other extrinsic motivators and your specific audience, the source of the motivation for your learners will change. Gamification, storytelling, scoreboards, self-development and external incentives are all motivation methods. But just because each is successful in one situation doesn’t mean it will work for all situations. Take time to understand how and why you can motivate people to learn what you want them to. Learn more about motivation by reading our “Falling trees, mountain biking and eLearning motivation” article.

3. Use adaptive learning

As is the case with clothes, shoes and power ranger outfits; one does not fit all when it comes to learning. When it comes to learning, we need to appreciate that when we look at our audience, their experiences, knowledge and critical thinking skills are all varied. Therefore, forcing everyone to go through the exact same learning experience is not only wasteful, but a sure way to disengage the individuals in your audience.

One of the biggest advantages of eLearning is that it allows us to create an adaptive learning experience. As an individual learner progresses through a course, we are able to use various activities to identify what topics our learner is struggling with and what they already know. Using this information, the eLearning can adapt to the individual needs of that learner and provide them with the knowledge needed to fill any knowledge gaps, rather than forcing them to sit through material they already know.

The outcome is that your audience engages with the material on an individual level, as it's relevant to their needs. From a business perspective, you will also greatly reduce the wasted productivity that comes with having everyone sit through the same 30 minutes of material. Someone who knows the subject may only have a five-minute learning experience.  Someone with more knowledge gaps will have a longer learning experience, based on their needs.

4. Make it immersive

The other day, I was flying my Avenger starfighter through an uncharted part of space on a mission to investigate an unknown distress beacon. As soon as I came out of quantum travel, I was ambushed by two space pirate ships hiding behind an asteroid on my left. I was totally not expecting the ambush and I died.

Luckily for me, this didn’t happen in real life. but rather in a space exploration game. An immersive simulation where I can experience and learn from the consequences of my decisions without the long-term real life effects of being dead.

When it comes to eLearning, we are able to provide a safe, immersive environment for our learners. They get to learn through doing, succeeding, failing and seeing the consequences of their decisions. We achieve this through the combination of storytelling and the technical functionality we have available to us to create branching activities. We can create anything from hazardous environments, conversation simulations, apply time pressures and trigger emotions by putting our learners in a space they are able to apply their knowledge and their critical thinking.

This is both a way to make the experience more engaging and learner-centred, but also deliver better learning outcomes and more confident learners.

5. Make it 'polished'

As much as we would like to think it’s not the case, people do judge a book by its cover. Therefore, the final solution needs to look and feel polished. This doesn’t mean it has to be bloated with 'bells and whistles' (interactivity, animations and pictures) as this is bad eLearning, but rather that everything has a purpose and works properly. If your eLearning looks like a glorified powerpoint that took little effort or thought to create, you can expect your audience to invest a proportionate amount of their energy into absorbing the information.

If your eLearning is full of activities and distractions to “give people a break”, you'll frustrate and waste your learners' time. Not very 'learner-centred' at all.

6. Evolve

This list began with only five points, but the more I thought about it, the more it needed a sixth. Ensure that your eLearning evolves based on feedback from your learners' previous eLearning. The reality is you can't create 'perfect' learner-centred eLearning. Why? Because it can never be 'perfect' for everyone. The expectations of what 'perfect' is will change before you even begin considering what 'perfect' means. What you should do, is invest in understanding what works for your audience, what doesn’t and adapt your approach accordingly. If you use the same approach to eLearning for 12 months straight, your approach is outdated and stale. Listen to your learners, collect data from your various systems, identify trends, failures and successes and then adapt.

And there you have it. By adopting these characteristics, you will be on the right path to creating learner-centred eLearning solutions. You'll help drive a culture of learning, motivate your people to become learners and achieve real change with your learning. Most of all, you'll help progress the expectations of how awesome eLearning, and learning in general, can be.

eLearningRaf Dolanowski