The Slippery Slope Of Learner Engagement

The Slippery Slope Of Learner Engagement
Summary: Learner engagement is a tough beast to tame. Granted. But let’s not forget that it’s not the end goal in itself. Read on to find out why, and what to focus on additionally.

Two Stories Of Learner Engagement In Training

It was a wedding in the family. Yay! After two years of being cooped up inside home due to COVID-19, we were finally getting to meet loved ones, binge on festive food, and exchange banter. And so it was that I met this distant cousin of mine, whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade. Let’s call him X.

After the initial enquiries and catching up, and the inevitable talk about the weather, our conversation gradually shifted to work. We exchanged cards. Yes, I carry my cards even to the grocery store next door, so don’t judge me, okay? But then in my defense, X was carrying his cards too!

Anyhow…I spoke about my work, and he listened intently. And then he said, "You know, the L&D team in my company is great. They always make it like you’re playing a game or having fun, and at the end of it, you learn!"

What? Did I hear that right? Here, sitting right in front of me, was every L&D-er’s dream audience…someone who loves what they put out, and laps it up eagerly.

My curiosity naturally piqued, I asked if he could show me something, provided it was not confidential. He assured me that it’s not, and then proceeded to fire up the LMS on his mobile phone (which was really cool looking, by the way). He loaded a course. It was on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

He loaded the course as I waited with bated breath, and there it came up. The course followed a "gamified" approach. The entire course map was laid out, and you could choose the topics that you wanted, to view them in any order. And for each topic that you chose, you were shown the section of the policy on that topic. This was then followed by a couple of recall questions on that section. And guess what? You earned points!

It seemed as though each topic was assigned a weightage. So if you chose to go through a topic with a higher weightage (the topics of more importance, I presume), you got higher points, and so on. And at the end of the course, viola! You got to see the total points you’d garnered, along with a celebratory text and audio. The course then pulled data from other learners’ performances (I’m guessing xAPI), and said you’re in the top 6% of learners. I really should be proud of myself, shouldn’t I?

Huge sigh of disappointment! What promised to be a well-designed course (from X’s feedback and from initial impressions), had fizzled out under the slightest scrutiny. I had noticed in the course that the policy talked very strongly about violations, so I wanted to know if there was a system where they could report if they noticed something. X didn’t know. It was either not covered in the course at all, or it was and he hadn’t paid attention.

Gamification: Another Story

At this point, I want to cut to another story. It goes way back to our early days, at least 16–17 years ago, when the idea of eLearning was still somewhat new… and gamification was even more novel. This was a fresh engagement with a new client, where only a few details of an existing gamified course had to be updated.

The course was on compliance, though I forget the exact topic. The main thing was that the course, developed by an external partner, had won a number of awards. The client too was really excited about it. They told us that it had generated a lot of buzz amongst employees, and that people loved to go through it. Naturally, we were excited to see it too.

So they did share the existing course, and here’s what we got to see. The course was divided into three sections, with each section based in a city. When you clicked to get into a section, a landscape view of the city became visible, where you had to look for hidden parrots. There were about five or six of them in each city, hiding a nugget of content.

You basically moved your mouse over the entire cityscape, clicking in random places until you revealed a parrot. And when you did… guess what? A piece of information got revealed. This piece was basically a portion of text copy-pasted from the policy document. There were other "engaging" elements in the course, but I don’t really remember any of them today. All I remember is:

  • The course had stunning visuals
  • It made learners go on a perceived treasure hunt (looking for parrots hidden all over the city)
  • It ended on a sour note, revealing policy documents followed by an equally insipid Q&A

Another huge disappointment!

Why Learner Engagement In Training Is Important

Learner engagement in training is really important. It’s essential to grab your learners by the eyeballs and get them to pay attention. If they don’t pay attention, how will they understand or absorb anything? But engagement in training is not the end goal in itself.

The end goal is something else. We want them to pay attention, so that they can learn. We want them to learn, so that they can do whatever the course is talking about—either build a skill and/or confidence in a skill, or modify their behavior, and so on. Therefore, engagement in the training is the means by which we can accomplish our final end goal, which is effectiveness—which is the ability of the learner to successfully accomplish the objectives set out in the course.

In that regard, intrinsic engagement is always better than extraneous engagement. The former draws the learner deeply into the material being taught. It can keep them absorbed, without taking their attention away from the content unnecessarily. On the other hand, the latter (extraneous) is a shallow form of engagement that uses bells and whistles to detract from the material. A course that offers shallow engagement is merely entertaining, and is actually worse than a boring course.

So what does deep engagement in training look like? I would say, it’s a state in which the learner willingly and enthusiastically participates in a learning activity, works hard toward achieving a predefined goal, and comes out successful, having moved toward that goal. Quite a mouthful, huh?

In simpler terms, a deeply engaging course is one that makes learners live their real-life personas within the context of the course, doing their work, taking action, making decisions, and experiencing the consequences of their actions and decisions. In even simpler terms, scenarios. Those that mirror real life in terms of the complexity of the situations faced, and have consequences and detailed feedback built into them.

Both the courses I talked about above had only the shallow kind of engagement in the training. There was not a single scenario in sight. No decision-making. No consideration, or weighing the pros and cons of an action to be taken. Learners were excited to go through them, but to what end? To be entertained?

This exactly is the problem with relying solely on learner feedback (hello, smile sheets!) to measure the success of a course. We tend to get learner feedback raving about our courses, and then we wonder why we still don’t get a seat at the table. In both cases, I could see that the teams had put in a lot of effort to create the courses, but it was painful to see that they had failed to reach their ultimate goal of hitting the course objectives. And they were probably unaware of it too.

How about you? Have you come across any such examples?

eBook Release: Learnnovators
Learnnovators is a multiple-award-winning organization that specializes in the design and development of custom e-learning solutions for the workplace. We also offer a Learning Management System, Learnosphere.