3 Tips To Provide Meaningful Context (Or, eLearning Under A Sea Pineapple)

Providing Meaningful Context For Interactive eLearning Experiences

What could be the relationship between The SpongeBob Musical and meaningful context in eLearning? Here goes:

I was recently in Chicago to teach one of ATD’s eLearning Instructional Design Certificate Programs. I love the opportunity these workshops provide to interact with fellow designers who are striving to create the most impactful eLearning possible. This session was no exception in gathering a group of participants of great curiosity and insight.

While the opportunity to work with interesting people was very rewarding, the recurring downside of traveling to teach these workshops is that I have to fill many, many evenings with activities lest my life ends up evaporating in a series of generic hotel rooms. My searching for entertainment sometimes gets me into activities I’d not likely venture to in normal circumstances.

In this particular instance, I found myself (with about 500 young children and their parents) in the audience of a new Broadway-bound theatrical production at the ornate Oriental Theater: The SpongeBob Musical.

The SpongeBob Musical And Why Creating Meaning Is Important 

To understand why this is worth my commentary, you need to know that I had not previously watched a single episode of the popular animated television program on which this musical was based. My knowledge of the imaginary world of Bikini Bottom goes no further than being able to recognize a picture of SpongeBob. I had some general idea that the series involves a very quirky, almost random narrative and comic sensibility, but that’s it.

I left the theater sufficiently entertained, but once again, but I also was reminded of a vital aspect of eLearning design. Now I’m not suggesting that musical theater and eLearning have the same goals, nor that they can be judged by the same criteria, but they do share a similarity in that a designer combines mixed media and performance elements to produce a particular effect on the learner or audience. And a critical component of creating meaning depends on establishing a meaningful context.

The production was amazing. The cast uniformly possessed great talent and charm. The music was tuneful and energetic. The production values were stellar: Creative costumes and wigs, an elaborate and colorful set, dazzling choreography, etc. But I had no idea what was going on; I had no way to relate it to anything that mattered to me. What was missing was context.

The production team took no effort in providing a justification or background for anything that was going on. They simply assumed that I possessed the background and insight to provide meaning to what was happening. Unfortunately, all that I was able to do was sit in a state of bewilderment. Was that a squirrel living underwater? Why were they using karate moves to climb a volcano? Why was a plankton talking to a computer? Did that crab have a whale for a daughter? The confusion was more than I could muddle through.

A few days later, I shared this experience with my niece (who grew up on SpongeBob) and her husband (who works in pediatric medicine) and nothing I reported gave them the slightest pause. My sense of general befuddlement was met with their unabashed enthusiasm for this show they hadn’t even seen.

I clearly lacked appropriate context to “get” this show, and the show itself just assumed that its meaning was self-evident. Our learners are often challenged with the same problem in eLearning. Lavish media treatments, simulations, and expertly crafted content are dropped on learners without regard for whether any of it will make any sense or not. It makes perfect sense to us as Instructional Designers, but may completely mystify our learners. We, as Instructional Designers, need to do the work to provide missing context to ensure that all learners will get the value intended.

Audience: The Key To Creating Meaningful Context In eLearning 

Here are 3 ways to use your audience to create great context in your courses:

1. Understand Your Audience.

Make a serious effort to understand the prior knowledge, experience, and perspective of your learners. This includes exploring their content knowledge, relevant work experiences, and even feelings and interest in eLearning. Find out if you have a group of diverse learners or if you have more of a homogenous population at hand. Don’t assume that your personal experience is a good model for your learners. It’s unlikely that you will be able to design perfectly for every possible variation, but you must account for the variation that you can expect to encounter.

2. Listen To Your Audience.

You can greatly improve the likelihood of success by broadening your review team during the early stages of your design process. Prospective learners and recent “graduates” of the existing training can provide invaluable insights into your design approach – how it meets learners’ pre-existing knowledge, if it is meaningful and relevant, and if the outcomes seem important. This detail is often impossible for the designer, Subject Matter Expert, or even instructors to determine. Waiting until an alpha test before seeking user input makes it exceptionally difficult to actually benefit from what you learn through user testing.

3. Adapt To Your Audience.

If you find out that your learners come to the experience with nearly identical prior experiences, your job is straightforward: Create a path that connects to that audience (even if it isn’t the path prescribed by the Subject Matter Expert). On the other hand, if you find that your audience is very uniformly diverse, create a “default” path that will connect with the biggest recognizable “chunk” in the middle of your distribution. Then provide logic or student choices that branch learners on the edges to either remedial content or to a fast track to avoid repetitive content. If you find two radically different and almost disconnected learner types, you may have to create alternative modules.

Final Thoughts 

I hope you noticed the one thing in common in my suggestions to build meaningful context: Good context depends on understanding the audience. When you take care to build context that connects with the audience, you will have greatly increased the likelihood of creating a truly memorable and meaningful learning experience.