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The Blair Witch Learning Project

I can tell October has started here in Toronto. The proliferation of Christmas decorations is creeping up slowly, like black mould, in the corners of the shopping malls in the city. Every year it feels earlier and I loathe it. I even forgo switching from my summertime iced morning coffee as long as possible, just so I can avoid the dreaded red cup at Starbucks. Last year, I made it until December 12th, or -7 degrees Celsius.

So let’s forget about winter and focus on another upcoming holiday – Hallowe’en. I’m probably dating myself with this fact, but it has been 17 (gulp) years since the horror flick The Blair Witch Project was released. It was a film that turned this traditional genre completely upside-down. It featured three unknown actors and no script. Instead, the cast improvised over a week camping in the woods resulting in “found footage” that eventually became the movie (**Spoiler Alert**: They all die).

I’m not a savvy film aficionado. The last time I watched a complete movie in the theatre was well over a decade ago and my husband has threatened, on more than one occasion to get me a t-shirt that says, “The Book Was Better”. Apparently, I have the attention span of a goldfish. Still, I’ve been to enough sleepovers as a teen to recognise the classic horror film trademarks: suspenseful music, dark shadows, and my favourite, the character that never seems to have enough brains to just get out of the house. #Lifehack: You’re alone and you suspect a stranger is in the house? Leave.

There is a formula to horror movies and when done well, works beautifully. When poorly executed, the results are cringeworthy, and make for hilarious viewing.  Case in point: Troll 2. Sadly, a lot of L&D folk love formulas and methodologies, which is not a bad thing if you are Alfred Hitchcock and know how to leverage them. If you are not, then life is a bit more challenging.

I place a high percentage of blame for the dirge of bad digital elearning out there square on the shoulders of (those-who-shall-not-be-named) rapid authoring tools (RATs). I get it; they make your life easier and you can produce content quickly and without requiring coding or even deep graphic design expertise. I have no objection to that. My problem is that these tools are putting the baseline design into a box – or in the spirit of Hallowe’en, a very confining and painful coffin.

I once experienced a learning department that relied on one, and only one, template for all elearning. The construct never varied from: learning objectives, definitions, content, example, interactivity, summary. All navigation was fixed as well. The rationale was that one “should not have to learn how to learn”. This is a curious slant given that this was a learner audience of highly-skilled professionals with a minimum of one post-secondary degree. If they are flummoxed by locating a Next Button, there are bigger issues. In the end, sure the elearning was consistent…consistently boring and ineffective. I also felt like Tippy Hendren in The Birds, swatting away templates and stock imagery, lest my eyes be pecked out.

Now I know there are a lot of proficient designers out there who can work magic with a RAT. You are the Spielbergs and Kubricks. In the average hands, however, these tools can wrong fast. For example, the out-of-the box design is a bog-standard page-turner. Contrast this with the fact that you are probably scrolling to read this article. While you can build a vertical design in a RAT, it is functionality that a designer would have to actively search for.

There’s more. A dirty little secret: all of those out-of-the-box interactivities? There’s surprisingly little concrete evidence that they actually contribute to learning retention. We throw in drag and drops at a rate of every four slides because the RAT enables us do it, and enablers are not good things. If you are skeptical, consider the fact that video is the fastest growing learning media. It is also the most passive.  Now if you want to get deep into the debate on learning styles, I’ll refer to you the brilliant comments thread on David Glow’s profile. Best read in a long time.

Back to The Blair Witch Project, what made it so effective is that it honoured the methodology of the horror genre, but was not confined by it. There are learning courses out there doing this, with Duolingo being one of my favourites. I have been using it daily to improve my Polish to text more with my family. On a side note, I keep getting sentences like, “Nie noszę koszulkę” which means, “I am not wearing a shirt”, and “moi mężczyźni mają wino” meaning, “my men have wine”. Apparently Duolingo thinks I’m doing more than texting when I’m in Poland…

The intriguing thing about Duolingo is that it does not teach grammar rules formally. Rather than long and complicated charts on adjective agreement or verb conjugation, you learn by doing. The app starts right away with basic communication and you are constructing sentences immediately, without any formal instruction. Basically, you learn language the way you would if you were immersed in it. The Bloom’s Taxonomy pyramid is tipped over, and I love it.

Here’s a closing challenge: turn off the lights, pop some popcorn, curl up on the sofa, and dig into some of the elearning out there. Very rarely do we as learning professionals eat our own dog food. Prepare to be shocked, even frightened, but hopefully you also see some learning that gets your heart pounding. Then, next time you are designing, consider ways to make your content intriguing, without relying on clichés. Don’t make the next budget B-movie.

Boo.