Stop That, Try This: Tips to Improve Your Digital Learning Experiences

I am just coming back to surface after a lovely long weekend. In fact, it was Thanksgiving here in Canada, which is a bit like the same holiday in the U.S., except much smaller, with added maple syrup, as we wait for the first polar bear sighting at dusk. I am joking about the last part, so I will say sorry. Because sorry is also what we Canadians do.

I spent some hours on Monday responding to the many who wrote to me after my last post, “Learning Vendor: Here’s Why I Ignored Your Email”. I closed that article with an open call to share your work and be open to feedback. A few came forward publicly – bravery much applauded. Others were more hesitant and reached out via email. One vendor started their email with “I am scared” and described my writing as “scathing”. I prefer honest, but will defer to my husband (Update: I just asked him and he yelled down the stairs, “scathing” – noted). Still, it takes a lot to put forward your product. Thank you for your trust.

Whilst I might be forthright on my blog, I never name and shame. I also do not accept solicited endorsements because is a personal endeavour. It is meant to keep my sanity in the world of L&D (and is far healthier than a 3 o’clock martini habit). Therefore, even when vendors were public about their requests for feedback, I made the decision to email my thoughts, rather than post them. After all, what I offered was an opinion, and those are like noses: everybody has one.

What I did want to share were some of the trends I saw and suggest some ways we can get out of our patterns. I have done similar posts in the past (here and here), but over and over, I see the same thing.

For me, the biggest hurdle is we are so precious about capital “L” Learning, we overlook the medium of digital. We compare and design by looking at other learning examples, instead of other digital content. This will be our downfall.

So, let’s get started…

History lessons. I am proud to have done my part in the fight to stop starting modules with a list of learning objectives. Unfortunately, the new default setting has become useless facts. I browsed through a set of modules about different project methodologies and every single one began with a) year developed; b) who developed it; and c) the country or origin. Basically, three pieces of information I do not give a toss about and do nothing to increase my knowledge of the methodology. You have wasted your crucial make-or-break intro time to engage with trivia. Think of your favourite news website – write with headlines. Put pertinent facts first; history can come later, if needed.

Hire a digital content writer. As of the time of posting this article, I am. Why? Sorry (because: Canadian) most L&D people write content as if for textbooks. It is artificial, wooden, and lacks authenticity. At one company I worked at, a humble, mid-level, employee started a brilliant one-woman blog on our internal social collaboration site. She wrote with honesty, not perfection, and yet she had 1,000+ more followers than the CEO. That’s powerful.

Filming a video? Bring in a scriptwriter. They can weave in a narrative to make your content go from contrived to thought-provoking. I know, writers do not know anything about cognitive loads or Bloom’s taxonomy. But they do write engaging copy – we can *gasp* learn from them. Read more about Authenticity here.

Don’t have the money to hire a writer? Take a few hits from their Top 40 playlist: storytelling, metaphors, and analogies. With the former, add depth to your characters (not avatars) so people can relate to your case studies and scenarios. Do they make a good paella, or take a night course in Italian? Do they play rugby or practice candle-making? The details add realism. If you are writing a course about herding cats, tell a story about when 3,000 cats were wrangled (or try this which is a brilliant example). Storytelling makes content more memorable. Use it.

As for metaphors and analogies, these speak to the very core of adult learning: context. If you can describe a difficult methodology as say, something akin to changing a tire, then you have something the audience can relate to and absorb. This is much more effective than a list of steps to memorise. Likewise, I will never forget that a blue whale’s heart is the size of a small piano. Why? Because I know the size of a piano, but would be unlikely to remember years later a whale’s heart is 5 feet long, 4 feet wide, 5 feet tall (152cm X 122cm X 152cm) and weighs about 400 pounds (181 kg). The ability to conceptualise and remember the size is more important.

Avatars. Ugh, enough already. I have banged on about these so many times, and yet, they survive better than cockroaches after nuclear fallout. No, I do not care if Squidgie the Robot gives me a thumbs-up for a correct quiz answer. Why? Because Squidgie, Patty the Customer Rep, or Hootie the Owl, are not real. Imagine if when you went to, there was a cartoon directing you to headlines. Ridiculous. Likewise, enough with stock photography of man in ill-fitting suit, or woman pointing at forehead in thought. If you really want images to compliment your content, try some free downloads at Use sparingly.

Diversity. We can do better than John Smith and Jane Doe. If your audience cannot see themselves in the content, they will not care or engage. Now, this does not mean calling every Latin American character a token Diego or Maria, or every European Bjorn. Whilst popular names, they signal laziness to your learners. Be realistic. Also, beware of stereotyping. The shifty man with the dark hair should not always be the criminal. It could be a short, blonde woman, like me – because that is real equal opportunity (and an exciting, new, career path)! I could write a lot about this topic, but will leave you with this tool to help you out with names.

Designing learning experiences is a tough business. It would be so much easier if there was a magic formula to follow. But people are not computers that download content. We have become complacent and with the tsunami of content available, we cannot rely on our old tricks. We continue to imitate each other and whilst a form a flattery, we have lost our direction. Next time you build a piece of content, ask yourself honestly if you would go through all the leaps and bounds of an LMS to get to it. If the answer is no, try again. Be bold. Dump the formulas. Push.

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