“Make it interactive” is one of the most frequent requests learning designers receive from their clients. While Drag-and-drops and polls are how interactivity is often explained in the request’s inevitable follow-up question, these are likely grasps for interactivity’s more elusive form, that hidden fantasia of worlds — what’s under the hood, beneath the surface, that something something.
One of the hardest things to communicate about learning experience design is how the end result is the synthesis of tools from multiple disciplines working in harmony. Our tools are borrowed from the kits of different communities: academia, startups, UX, product, data, and advertising, to name a few.
The craft of learning design is in the restraint and combination of these tools to create a synergy that is at once invisible to the eye and indelible in your memory.
In the spirit of an expanding vocabulary, here are 10 alternatives to “make it interactive” and how each…interacts with one another.
Make it Solve a Problem
Whether it’s filling a company’s technical skills gap, meeting a region’s hiring needs, or developing novel solutions to wicked problems, a course should attempt to reach out and address an acute pain. As Higher Ed and corporate learning face increased scrutiny over student employment rates and return on business investment, respectively, the need to align what’s being taught with what’s needed in the workplace has never been so critical.
It follows in both worlds that outcomes are likely to be positive if learning programs are rooted in a mission to alleviate a problem.
In corporate learning, the physical and cultural gap between the ‘classroom’ and real-world application is not as daunting as Higher Ed. To close this gap quicker, learning design studios like LEO have developed white papers on this particular topic of identifying and solving an important business problem and measuring its impact. These, along with the general lean startup methods, have been incredibly helpful to me.
In Higher Ed, an industry alignment is a little more difficult. Not only does it take effort and humility to get out the door and talk with hiring managers about their talent needs, it assumes the capacity to do so on top of other responsibilities that are tied to promotions, like research and grant writing.
While this industry connection is more historically established and professionally auspicious in some schools (e.g., engineering, nursing, or business), the liberal arts often have tougher ways forward.
Fortunately, alternative inroads are in their nascency. Credegrees, the combination of a bachelor’s degree with an industry-recognized credential (imagine an English major who uses skills earned from a Python credential to analyze instances of slang across Shakespeare’s cannon) show the potential to strengthen a student’s grasp of a subject while also setting them up with the relevant skills to be competitive for jobs within and outside their course of study. Additionally, doubling down on the stalwart selling point of how humanities programs produce critical thinkers and expert communicators is another step some universities are taking. As the latest report from Josh Bersin forecasts, the newest gap is the behavioral skills gap, with abilities like effective communication, creativity, and ethics in high demand.
Make it Authentic
If you’re looking to solve problem that necessitates learning, a natural next step is to consider how your solutions (the new experience you will create) reflect the day-to-day needs and realities of the people who know those problems intimately.
Situating learning experiences in scenarios students are likely to encounter is not only an effective way to get buy-in from students who may be skeptical of a topic’s relevance, it’s also fantastic way to ensure that these skills can be recalled when necessary. Where this gets difficult is taking the time to conduct enough research to separate global similarities from individual nuances in processes and culture. If you stick with this mentality, however, people will notice, industry will start coming to you more often, making this discovery work a bit easier.
Make it Backwards
While trying to solve an acute pain in a way that appreciates its context, you’ll inevitably develop a constellation of research findings but no clear way forward. Backwards design provides that structure.
Backwards design is the obvious but often neglected idea that you should consider the desired end result early into your design process and then work your way back. On the surface, it’s an easy three-step process ensuring alignment between outcomes, assessment, and activities:
- Identify the desired learning outcome.
- Determine what is acceptable evidence of these outcomes.
- Draft a web of experiences that prepare students to demonstrate that evidence.
Where backwards design often falls short is when it is applied just to these high-level components. Done well, backwards design is repeated many times over to help you determine the sequence and scope of lessons, as well as the outcomes, assessment, and activities at the granular level of the lesson. Like our research, this approach takes a good deal of discipline and care to not only repeat this process many times over, but to ensure that along the way, decisions consider the real-world context of each of the three components. Are projects authentic to the work practitioners do? Are they evaluated as practitioners are? It’s a lot of work, but as Phil Hill recently recognized, it’s the defining ‘innovation’ in EdTech’s last decade.
Make it Approachable
For many professions, the bar for entry-level work is demanding. Throwing students into authentic projects that are too demanding could exacerbate the imposter syndrome and result in dropouts that could have been saved. While it’s important to reduce the time between learning and its authentic application, early learning experiences need to be light versions of the real thing.
Video games are great examples of providing these slimmed-down simulations. The earliest levels of games allow players to enter a completely foreign world and perform a new skill right away, learning the rules and values of the space as they progress. The secret behind this engagement? Some of the oldest tools in learning: a compelling story and well-placed scaffolds.
Make it Fun
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. While demonstrating the relevance of material to a career goal and embedding learning in authentic contexts is a great way of developing buy-in from students, it can be a bit….business cat.
Consider how learning experiences can slightly deviate from a buttoned-up industry track to be more whimsical and fun.
- How could your class develop a script that counts the number of times Homer Simpson says “d’oh” over the course of 30 seasons?
- How could you hack the flatscreen in your company’s lobby to play Lionel Richie songs on repeat?
Students won’t do either one of these tasks at work, but they’re fun and this situational interest may develop personal interest in the material if it’s not already there. In the long run, this type of tinkering and just-for-fun projects is a sign of lifelong learning and ultimately what will keep students interested in the field when work can’t satisfy that element of play that resides in every successful learning experience.
Make it Vary
As you may be picking up, learning experiences can vary between attitudes, as we saw with the case of business cat vs. party cat. Learning experience designs should be self-aware enough to recognize when they’re overcompensating in a direction of teaching and when a step in a different direction, or slighter angle, is more effective.
Learning experiences can vary in ways other than its degree of real-world authenticity. We can also over rely on a context of application, overload on a topic of focus, or over use an instructional tone.
Learning transfer refers to the ability to apply skills and knowledge to new contexts that differ from the ones in which the material was learned. Ever know someone growing up who would ace her standardized math tests but have trouble doing equivalent math problems in the real world? This is a failure of learning transfer. Consider the real-world scenarios you place students in to apply their learning. Are they different enough from one another where students have to pause to consider how they need to apply skills differently from previous problems?
There is a growing set of research focusing on the emotional and affective aspects of learning. It makes a lot of sense. Energy spent stressing out on the gravity of an exam or feeling un-welcomed among a group is energy that can be better applied to the already demanding cognitive process of learning and its application. How do we create positive learning environments free of of distractions? It’s an important question to ask.
One place to start is to think about how you can support varying tones as a course progresses. Our team writes in three tones, progressing from one to the next as their competency improves:
- The Smart Friend: A bright voice that focuses on encouragement and positive reinforcement.
- The Apprentice: A positive and direct voice that focuses on craft and technical ability.
- The Olympic Coach: A positive that focuses on performance, pushing your limits, and perseverance.
Make it for Everyone
All this variability can make you want to crawl to the cool oasis of empirical research. So what is helpful to everyone? There’s a lot of answers here, but the two biggest areas to be aware of are cognitive load theory and the work Richard Mayer has done around presenting digital learning.
Cognitive Load Theory:
Some might say that learning has occurred when we have neatly organized a new set of knowledge into our long-term memory that can be easily and effectively applied across varying contexts. Easier said than done.
We first have to process that information in our working memory, which is very limited, especially for novices, and then we have to pass it along to our long-term memory for storage. If we don’t forget it, then it just has to be organized efficiently. When we look at learning this way, it becomes clear just how important it is optimize the limited space in your working memory.
Cognitive Load Theory helps us determine the best way to present our material so that as much of the limited working memory as possible is available to create new schemas, that fruitful activity that supports long-term memory storage. What’s in the way? Well the inherent difficulty of the material for one, but also you. If you’re not careful, the experiences you provide can actually impede learning. Luckily, there’s lots of information on how to optimize your presentation materials. If you know one name, it’s Richard Mayer.
Mayer is similarly concerned with optimizing the working memory. Stimuli enters our working memory through two channels: the visual channel (what we see) and the auditory channel (what we hear). We take in stimuli from these channels and start to make insights. How we present our material then is all about making good use of these two channels. By overworking one channel and under-using the other, or using channels redundantly, you fail to utilize these channels as effectively as you could. Check out Mayer’s 10 principles for examples of how neglecting each plays out in every PowerPoint fail.
Make it for everyone should also be understood as…make it accessible to everyone. Make learning accessible at the same level of quality for students with disabilities. Make learning accessible by being affordable. Make learning accessible to groups of people that don’t represent the field’s majority identity.
Make it Desire-ably Difficult
Peace, love, and $*%!. There’s no way around it: aspects of learning should be hard. Video games are also inspirations here: video games are not so difficult that you give up, but rather just difficult enough to keep you binging. There’s an academic name for this sweet spot: the Zone of Proximal Development.
Learning experiences should slowly increase the scope of what students can do by themselves by consistently putting them at the edge of their competence and guiding them through these difficult patches with supportive scaffolds. As they progress, your scaffolds can be reduced because you’ve modeled the type of strategies they can use and you’ve tapered the uplift behind each scaffold. For example, whereas a scaffold in the early part of a course might show the steps it takes to solve a problem, a scaffold later in the course would prompt the learner to consider what steps they should take to solve the problem before beginning. By this point, the student should be able to problem-solve independently, they just need the nudge to instill this habit.
Make it Mentor
When we’re talking about scaffolds, we’re talking more or less about a back-and-forth dialogue. For a long time we learned through the apprentice model, and now we’re just getting back to elements of this approach. What made the apprentice model so effective was not only the real-world, hands-on context at its core, but also the immediacy and clarity of the feedback an apprentice master would give. A 1:1 student ratio is as close to a silver bullet as we’ll get to effective learning, but it’s largely cost-prohibitive and not very scaleable. The best substitute we have right now is explanative feedback given within a timeframe that it can be useful to the student. Go a step further and have students gauge their confidence in their answer before seeing the results. This will help them become more aware of just how accurate their confidence in a topic is.
Make it Last
Ultimately, learning experiences attempt to change the structure of the brain in a way that is useful, persistent and flexible. This is just a fraction of the adjectives that can replace ‘interactive’, but hopefully it’s a catalyst for further discovery. Collectively, learning design is an art and a science, and it’s incredibly tough to do this stuff well. But at the end of the day, you’re blowing people’s minds for a living, that’s a great responsibility and a pretty great LinkedIn bio.