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Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Enjoyable e-learning–is it an oxymoron?

By Clive Shepherd

We all know that eLearning is growing in popularity, primarily because it's efficient. It helps employers by cutting travel costs. It helps employees because it provides access to learning as and when they want. But none of this means that learners 'like' eLearning; for many it's just another mundane chore.

Defining terms

So is it possible for eLearning to be enjoyable? Or is enjoyable eLearning an oxymoron? Let's begin by agreeing our terms, starting with eLearning. As the diagram shows, eLearning has three main aspects, each with a wide variety of forms …

Unfortunately, that's not how many employers see it...

eLearning is all too often seen by organisations as no more than simple self-paced instruction; just like the computer-based training we've had for the past 30 years, only now delivered online through a learning management system rather than offline on a videodisc or a CD-ROM.

The second term we need to define is enjoyment - essentially something that gives us pleasure. Psychology professor Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi defined the following eight components of enjoyment. Imagine if our eLearning was like this:

1. Confronting tasks that we have a chance of completing
2. Concentration
3. Clear goals
4. Immediate feedback
5. A deep, effortless involvement
6. A sense of control over one’s actions
7. A reduced concern for self
8. Hours pass by in minutes

Pleasure can come through physical exertion. Exercise releases endorphins in the brain, which in turn cause a sort of 'natural high'. You wouldn't normally associate exercise with computers, of course, but that's until the Wii came along.

There's pleasure to be had as well from meeting up with friends. We're social animals and we don't like to be isolated for too long, as anyone wading through their sixth hour of self-study eLearning will tell you.

Perhaps video games are more your thing? Yes, of course, we can experience enjoyment using computers; so much so that the problem is in getting yourself to stop. We love a challenge and computer games play on this fact. Increasingly they also allow you to socialise online at the same time.

And so to our third term, oxmoron, which comes from the Greek 'oxus' - pointedly - and 'morus' - which means foolish. Pointedly foolish. An oxymoron is, of course, an inherent contradiction in terms, like eLearning and enjoyment. It's pointedly foolish to think otherwise. Or is it? Let's see.

What gets in the way of enjoyable eLearning?

I've identified five factors that make it difficult for us to produce enjoyable eLearning. The first of these is the policy constraints which many organisations impose on eLearning designers. You know what I mean: no jokes, no anecdotes, no informalities, no choice, no shortcuts – basically, no fun.

Then there are the shortcomings in the designs themselves:

too much content
irrelevant content
minimal interaction
unchallenging interaction
inflexible structuring
inadequate examples
irrelevant examples
insufficient practice
unrealistic practice 

Problems also arise in the way in which self-study eLearning is blended with other approaches:

no-one to answer questions
no-one to share with
no-one to compare against
no-one to argue with
no-one to provide feedback
no-one to follow-up with

And, of course, online delivery isn't for everyone. We have to be aware of the digital divide. There's a hard core that's still lacking in basic computer skills. And not everyone has access to the network connectivity you need if you're going to get the full benefit from learning online.

Lastly, we shouldn't forget that some learning is inherently uncomfortable, particularly when it causes us to challenge deep-seated models that govern our behaviour; or when we need to learn complex new skills. The enjoyable bit comes later, through mastery.

Five ways to make eLearning more enjoyable

So are eLearning and enjoyment compatible? Well, as we've seen, there are plenty of obstacles getting in the way. Certainly we have to do an awful lot better before our eLearning happy sheets will match those of the classroom. I've come up with five ideas that I believe could help.

Challenge conventions: We're not going to make much progress until we challenge some of the corporate conventions about eLearning. That means acting like professionals – more like architects than builders. We're the experts on adult learning and if we're allowed to do our job properly we can really make things happen.

Tell interesting stories: We all love stories; they form the basis for most of our conversations. We remember stories much better than we do abstractions, particularly when we can relate them to our own experiences. Storytelling should permeate the examples we provide and the challenges we set.

Provide engaging challenges: And talking of challenges, there's a lot we can learn from video games in terms of the way we draw learners in and hold their attention. Try to limit the information you provide and substitute meaningful activities in their place – ones that are stretching but achievable with effort.

Don't overdo the self-study: Learners like self-study because they're in control, but they don't like it to the exclusion of the other necessary ingredients in successful learning. They want to be able to interact with tutors and subject experts, and share experiences with their peers. Is that too much to ask?

Express yourself: Lastly, you might need to let go of some of your own inhibitions. Don't be another corporate drone; design your e-learning as if you were chatting with a friend. Tell your jokes and your stories, be a little provocative. In short, don't design anything that you wouldn't want to use yourself.

In conclusion

So, is enjoyable eLearning an oxymoron? Of course not, but it is unusual, and will continue to be so unless we make the effort to buck the trend. eLearning doesn't have to be enjoyable to be effective, but the world would certainly be a happier place if it was.

Clive Shepherd is a consultant specialising in the application of technology to learning and communications at work. With more than twenty five years of experience in this field, Clive is acknowledged as a thought leader in the UK in all aspects of technology-assisted learning and blended learning.


  1. Hi Clive

    Think this is a really helpful article. Whilst I have seen some slick e-learning modules, sometimes they have reminded me of the Health and Safety training session in the office (i.e too simple and therefore a bit patronising). I totally agree that one of the reasons why humans like traditional face to face training is the added pleasure of seeing your colleagues and meeting new ones - so we need to think carefully about stand-alone e-learning self study modules.

  2. Hi Clive

    I found this a very useful article indeed. I am currently trying to design effective eLearning material and the more I look back on it, the duller and less interesting it becomes.

    Some really helpful tips have arisen from your piece there and I will be aiming to put those in to practise immediately.

    The key for is getting people who are technophobes and uninterested in developing skills on their own to let go and get involed.

    Interactive and interesting modules are what I need to focus on.