This post has been updated on June 23, 2020.
The modern learner is used to all kinds of technology and has everybody, from friends on social media to retailers, competing for their attention. Needless to say that so much stimulation only raises the bar so it’s important, if you are a designer of online courses looking to get more customers, to be aware of this and work at making your product meet the high demands of the easily bored subscriber.
Information can be found pretty much everywhere nowadays so in order for people to choose your course over other free alternatives it has to be not only truly informative but also attractive.
Animated does not mean interactive
There is a common misconception about what interactivity really is. For many designers, adding a few choices for the participant, giving the possibility to click on buttons and links count as an interactive experience.
This couldn’t be more wrong.
I’m clicking on the keyboard of my computer to write this and don’t feel any sort of interaction going on. There is a result of my actions (the text that appears on the screen) but that’s it.
In the context of adult learning, interaction has nothing to do with animations or witty screen distribution of items and everything to do with engagement and retention.
If anything, online course designers should take a good look at what the online gaming industry is doing and translate those mechanics into their courses.
Designers should work with the interest curve
In his book The Art of Game Design, A Book of Lenses, Jesse Schell explains the interest curve — how planning and controlling the progression pace results in player engagement.
Basically, the audience enters with little interest that has to be piqued with a hook. This will result in them being intrigued and the designer has to steadily build interest with peaks and valleys leading up to the highest point – the climax.
It is much like with a very good story except that in a course, like in an online game, the sequence can be repeated in fractal units to cover more extended periods of time.
You need to find the fine balance between narrative and mechanics in order to keep the learner involved. This is what the need for interactivity is all about.
Learners want choices
Especially when we are dealing with adult learners, we must be mindful of their need for autonomy. People are engaged when they feel they have a say in whatever process they are involved in.
There are at least two ways of making this happen:
Allow the learner to decide what the starting point should be in a selection of topics — this will definitely solve the interest issue and, if necessary, the learning path can be to some extent guided by learning specialists by useful recommendations or even compulsory units.
Organize some of the content in the form of branched scenarios — learners can explore various versions and thus have a truly personalized experience. This is most useful in the case of those who don’t give the correct answers and get to explore more information before making a second, more informed decision.
Quizzes are engaging and fun
Even if traditionally they came at the end of the learning intervention, quizzes are a good way of raising interest by giving learners the impression that the information they have gained is already relevant for something.
It’s important, though, to make them as entertaining as possible and to offer some incentive for answering them correctly. You can even employ some gamification mechanics and use a series of questions as keys to unlocking more engaging content such as short interviews with certain influencers or surprising multimedia episodes.
The ways in which you formulate the questions can also be very varied, ranging from true or false to multiple-choice, drag and drop lists or even vocal responses – Siri and Alexa have surely taken conversations with our devices out of the field of pathology.
Virtual environments are catchy
Virtual voices may not be in our heads but virtual realities can very well be with the latest technological developments. Whether you have the possibility to use 360° videos or full-blown simulated reality, these environments are great when it comes to the immersion of the learner in the subject matter.
They also provide a safe medium where all the learned skills can be tested and practiced without the fear of mistakes or failure. Much like in online gaming where the hero can try several times to pass a level (quite frequently coming back from the virtual dead), the learner can return to the simulated reality and test various techniques and approaches until they feel confident enough to apply the knowledge in real life or work.
Making online courses interactive is compulsory if one wants to meet the expectations of today’s learners. It takes the right amount of narrative, game mechanics and technology to come up with a balanced yet engaging formative experience.