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Designing eLearning courses is a big responsibility. You often have to answer to many stakeholders, in addition to the audience you’re teaching. Many new instructional designers feel overwhelmed by expectations and advice coming from all angles. However, applying just a few subtle techniques can make huge improvements to your courses.
If you’re just starting out in the field, here are 4 simple tips for instructional designers that will make the process of designing your eLearning curricula a little bit easier.
Adult students approach learning in a different way than young learners do. They’re always asking, “Why should I care about this?” or “What’s in it for me?” Many instructional designers, as well as marketers, abbreviate this as WIIFM. It’s important to answer this question for learners at the beginning of the course. Even more importantly, you as a designer need to ensure the material is relevant to the audience and will teach them skills they can use in their current or future job. Learners who feel the content is unnecessary will mentally check out during the course.
This is one of the most helpful “lenses” that an instructional designer can look through when creating a set of adult-learning lessons. If the information you’re asked to present does not align with the audience needs, push back to find out why the Subject Matter Experts or training department believes people need to understand the content. It’s your job as an instructional designer to advocate for your learners!
Many eLearning instructional designers must also wear the hat of a visual, or graphic designer. The visual design of a course can play a big role in presenting the material. Plus, a visually-appealing course will help keep learners engaged and interested in the content.
One way to present a professional appearance is to maintain visual consistency in your designs. A hodge-podge of colors, patterns, shapes, and fonts throughout a course or website will distract and confuse learners.
A great example of consistent design is National Geographic’s branding campaign. The magazine covers are all different in terms of photos and subject matter. This discrepancy could produce confusion.
However, NatGeo includes its iconic yellow rectangle on the cover. We immediately associate the shape with National Geographic whether we’re looking at the magazine, watching a movie produced by NatGeo, or browsing the company’s website.
That rectangle acts as a filter for the reader. Once the reader sees it, they know the content will have something to do with world travel and cultures. Now apply this tip to instructional design. If the learner sees certain symbols, colors, etc. on your slides or website, what will they think of?
Ask yourself if your message is as visually consistent as NatGeo’s is. If it isn’t, you run the chance of confusing your audience.
According to a study out of MIT, the human brain has the capability of identifying images in as little as 13 milliseconds. Neuroscientists have a theory about why this is the case. The eyes don’t just see the image. They need to get that information to the brain so that the brain will know what to see next, based on the information the image(s) provide.
The brain extracts a good deal of meaning from a single image, and even more so from a series of images.
So, choose strong images that tell a story. This is one of the most important tips for instructional designers. Yes, you should use text in your curriculum. However, text plus relevant images produce greater learning results. This is the redundancy principle in Richard Mayer’s 12 Principles of Multimedia Learning. Other principles at play here include the spatial contiguity principle and the temporal contiguity principle.
The image that you choose should support the text you put it next to.
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No list of instructional design tips would be complete without a mention of white space and text design. The brain orders what it “sees” in clusters, or schemas. If you create a big block of text, the brain will assume that it is all related, even if it’s not.
Breaking up the text into logical and related clusters and putting plenty of white space between each cluster helps the brain to understand which images and text belong together and which don’t. This is a type of segmenting. The brain relies on this type of segmenting to learn.
This is why comics, or graphic novels, are such good learning tools. Each box on a page of comics represents a single idea that fits into the whole. However, it would be impossible for the brain to understand the whole without the segments. The brain doesn’t learn the whole. It learns the segments first. Then, it fits them into the whole.
Incidentally, it’s not just comics that are structured this way. Instruction manuals, textbooks, magazines, and phone apps are as well. Look closely next time you’re reading through any kind of material. You should notice pictures or graphics with word groupings. Authors and designers realize we need to digest information one step at a time. Help your eLearners by applying the same principle of breaking up text.
eLearning instructional designers must present information so learners can easily understand it. How a designer identifies the WIIFM for learners, designs the course appearance, uses text and images, as well as how they break up content all make a difference in how well the learner comprehends the material. Consistency, segmentation, and white space working in tandem help to make a design more effective.