Creating a Magic Circle for Online Learning

What manipulatives can you send or give to your learners so they have something in their hands while going through an eLearning program? How can you engage their whole body in learning instead of just relying on words and animation on a screen?

There are people in the workforce who remember a time before laptop computers. The first online class was offered 35 years ago, even though it would be another five years before we had access to the Internet. It’s important to realize that eLearning is a relatively new concept for our species.

Although authoring tools and platforms have given us the ability to create visually attractive and engaging learning programs, we, along with our primate relatives, learn with our hands. (How old was your child when you finally “trained” them to quit touching the television?) It is unlikely that, as a species, we’ve reversed millions of years of learning and creativity to develop the ability to learn solely by staring at a screen.

Yes, eLearning has given us the ability to efficiently transmit information to learners, but we all know the forgetting curve whereby most people won’t remember even attending a training—much less any of the information they were taught—six weeks later. Unlike any time in our history, a piece of glass now separates us from information.

It’s yet another example of how technology and automation have disconnected us from our world. Few people know how to grow their food anymore. They can watch movies about farmers or read a Webpage about farming, but until they get out there and start working with the materials, they will never truly develop knowledge and skills.

Or to say it another way, you can have an eLearning course on how to drink water, but until your horse is by the stream, it will never truly learn how to drink. Similarly, you can lead an employee through a training program, but until they are physically doing something, they will never truly know what you taught them.

And then COVID-19 happened…

Engaging the Whole Body

As the pandemic raged, many companies and institutions had to convert their training programs to online and virtual formats in a matter of days. At universities, professors quickly typed up their lecture notes and posted them on the learning management system (LMS). For many business sectors, training ended. People had to fend for themselves, at least until the conversion to online learning was complete.

When a vaccine comes along, and we return to a face-to-face existence, the temptation will be to keep all of those online courses. They’ve been built, the costs are sunk, so why should we redevelop other methods for training employees?

Well, because one crisis does not change the hardwiring in our brains. We will lose significant skill development unless or until we engage the whole body in training. After all, our nervous system is a two-way street. Our brains may tell our bodies to perform a certain way, or for us to react and speak in specific patterns, but it is our bodies as a whole that tell the brain what is happening out here IRL (in real life).

At our company, we have a program that has been very successful when it is instructor-led, both in knowledge transfer and in developing creative and innovative learning programs. We also have a virtual version of the same program to accommodate Learning and Development (L&D) professionals who don’t have the time or budget to attend a live certification. And while our virtual program has a higher completion rate than most eLearning programs of its length, we know that those folks going through the virtual experience will not be as creative or engaged as those attending live events.

And then COVID-19 happened…

The Treasure Box

We had several instructor-led programs scheduled and a responsibility to train the folks who had registered, but we also wanted to create a “Magic Circle” for participants in the new, modified version. While the live programs were six contact hours in a single day, we anticipated that people could not Zoom for that long and maintain energy and creativity. So we split the program over two days. But we needed more if we were going to get the results we expect from our programs.

We needed to put manipulatives in learners’ hands. Yes, we could e-mail them the files they would need for different card-game activities, and, yes, we could have “required” them to print out the cards. But would they? And how would we know if they did?

Our solution? We physically mailed our learners a treasure box. There were some pirate-themed items in there, as well as a message-in-the-bottle thumb drive with needed documents stored on it. We sent them the cards they used during their discussions and activities, so they would have something to touch and handle while in their breakout rooms. For our “graduation,” we met for a Zoom happy hour, dressed as pirates to debrief the experience.

And we’re pleased with the success.

So what manipulatives can you send or give to your learners so they have something in their hands while going through a training program? How can you engage their whole body in learning instead of relying on words and animation behind glass? How can you tap into our natural ways of learning so your programs are successful even in the post COVID-19 era?

Even in an online environment, we can still create a Magic Circle for our learners.

Jonathan Peters, Ph.D., is the Chief Motivation Officer at Sententia Gamification. He has spent more than a decade studying the science and art of motivation and persuasion. As a speaker, he has helped audiences from Melbourne, Australia, to Augusta, ME, more effectively communicate with their customers and team members. With Sententia, he applies his knowledge and experience to make learning more enticing, engaging, and encouraging through gamification. Peters is the co-author of “Deliberate Fun: A Purposeful Application of Game Mechanics to Learning Experiences,” and is also an adjunct professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, though he calls Austin, TX, home. Contact him at: