Just Say No…

...To embedded, interruptive interactivity in soft skills e-learning. Instead, focus on information design—the art of presenting content in a way that engages people and sustains their interest.

Let’s talk about embedded interactivity. That is, of course, the practice of interrupting an e-learning module with activities such as quizzes or other exercises that force the learner to take action. For many instructional designers, it’s an article of faith that e-learning must be interactive.

But I’d like to challenge that belief by asking an important question: Does embedded interactivity really work in soft skills e-learning? (By soft skills, I mean topics such as sales, leadership, and management.)

I’ve never seen it work. In fact, with soft skills, I would argue that interactivity does more harm than good.

Before our company started producing soft skills e-learning, we did a lot of homework. We watched hours and hours of other companies’ modules. We interviewed instructional designers and e-learning developers. We read books, textbooks, and manuals. They all told us the same thing: Embedded interactivity is a requirement.

So with that operating principle in mind, we set about designing our first modules. New to the field and not wanting to tip over any sacred cows, we tried different ways of integrating interactivity into our videos. But every technique we tried didn’t feel right. They disrupted the narrative flow of the module, broke our concentration, or, frankly, really annoyed us.

At first, I thought we were being too brash— that we were too inexperienced to see the value interactivity brought to a module. But in time, I realized the problem wasn’t us. The problem was this: Designing a soft skills module is dramatically different than designing a hard skills one.

I understand the theory in favor of interactivity— you don’t want learners to “lean back” passively. You want them to “lean forward” and be active during learning.

With hard skills training, “lean forward” is a smart e-learning design strategy. In a course on, say, Photoshop, the module can tell a learner: Now that you’ve learned how to crop a photo, go try it for yourself and come back. But in soft skills, that can’t happen authentically. You can’t interrupt a sales module on cold calling and tell the learner: Go make a cold call and come back.

In fact, for soft skills training, which is almost always non-urgent and often non-mandatory, interactivity fights everything e-learning creators should be doing.

The argument against embedded interactivity is supported by research. In a recent study published in the Review of Education Research, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of “learner control” during e-learning (Karich, A. C., et al. (2014), “Updated Meta-Analysis of Learner Control With Educational Technology,” Review of Educational Research, 84(3), 392-410).

Researchers compared modules that contained aspects of interactivity and user control— including pacing (click-to-advance)—versus no-interactivity modules. The researchers’ conclusion: “The findings suggest that the use of learner control within educational technology did not directly lead to increased outcomes for students… Thus, there does not seem to be an advantage to giving the learner control over any particular instructional component.”

Another 2014 study had even more dramatic findings. Not only were there no benefits to interactivity, it actually interfered with learning. The research explored different ways to pace an e-learning module (Sage, K. (2014), “What Pace Is Best? Assessing Adults’ Learning from Slideshows and Video,” Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 23(1), 91-108). Researchers found that “self-paced” modules where learners advance the slides by clicking a mouse—required if you do embedded interactivity—hurt knowledge retention. As a result, the learners who viewed these modules did poorly on a follow-up test.

The learners who watched “set-paced” modules, where the computer automatically advances slides as the module progresses (no embedded interactivity)—scored significantly better.

But why did people in the click-to-advance group, who were given the power to absorb the content at their own pace, do poorly? The study offered an explanation: Clicking the mouse after each slide divided the learners’ attention, causing a distraction that inhibited learning. In addition, the researchers hypothesized that repetitive clicking could lead to learner “fatigue or annoyance,” resulting in learner disengagement.

This “fatigue” speaks to the failure of traditional soft skills e-learning. Instructional designers have been churning out long, click-to-advance “legacy e-learning” for years. Legacy e-learning’s modules run 30, 60, even 90 minutes long. They contain lots and lots of information in an attempt to cover a big, complex topic. And they usually feature embedded interactivity.

This design strategy continues to fail today. It’s one reason traditional soft skills e-learning gets shockingly low utilization rates.

Legacy modules don’t fail because they lack valuable information. They fail because learners find them unwatchable and, as a result, don’t watch them. In the name of interactivity, legacy designers lost sight of an important goal, perhaps the most important: to engage the learner.

For soft skills training, e-learning designers need to combine instructional design principles with what we call “information design”: the art of presenting content in a way that engages people and sustains their interest. Information design doesn’t replace instructional design—it’s a partner we need to add to the mix.

Our goal as information designers should be to grab the learner by the throat and not let go. We want to control the learning experience. And we want to earn that control by delivering a short, concise, relevant message that’s so compelling the learner will want to stick around.

If that means sacrificing e-learning sacred cows like “interactivity,” so be it.

Stephen J. Meyer is CEO of the Rapid Learning Institute, which provides microlearning content to companies, nonprofits, educational institutions, and government agencies. He writes and speaks regularly on issues related to training and development and the rise of e-learning. Meyer received his MBA from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.