Last week, Dan Meyer shared the Desmos guidelines for building great digital math activities.
Not surprisingly, these guidelines have plenty to offer by way of designing a wide variety of effective digital learning content. They also align nicely with the design principles we promote through our work with Learning Environment Modeling (LEM).
With that context, I thought it would be helpful to adapt the Desmos guidelines to address the broader design requirements for general digital learning content. Here are six suggestions to guide your work:
1. Contextualize learners by creating an intellectual need for information and skills
All too often, we design learning content by leading with the information we want participants to know. We are well-intentioned in doing this. We want to establish clear definitions, to create a common understanding of the learning task at hand. We want to ensure that the learner knows what they need to know – i.e. what we need them to know.
Unfortunately, presenting information this way generally deprives learners of any context for the information. They often have no idea why it’s important or how knowing about it makes a difference in their professional or personal lives.
Instead of leading with information, we should think about beginning our learning sequences with context – we should ask how we can help participants experience what they need. We should facilitate reflection that creates a personal context for the information.
It’s easier to get learners more invested in the “what” by focusing on the “why.”
2. Design learning content on a trajectory of informal to formal
It seems we’re always in a hurry to “get to the point” with our learning content. We want to get the “right answer,” the formal version of our information, in front of learners straightaway. Once we’ve established that foundation of “formal” information, we’ll move directly to effective application and discussion.
The challenge with this approach is that it eliminates opportunities for deeper, more effective learning – a genuine, self-motivated inquiry about our information. Presenting formal, “right answers” up front makes it more difficult to interest learners in speculation or in thinking outside traditional boundaries.
A more successful approach is to start with an informal, no-right-answer inquiry, and from there move gradually toward formal definitions and explanations. Begin with hypothetical scenarios. Ask for situational conjecture. Present a small fragment of your information and have learners discuss its implications without knowing the full context. Invite them to discover and explore before formalizing the experience.
3. Maintain a constant view of the Big Picture
Everyone agrees that segmenting content into smaller chunks is a good practice when developing digital learning content. Whether the content is video, reading, or an activity, we want to create focused, easily digestible content experiences.
While segmenting content into granular, focused pieces is good, it can also lead to a loss of the Big Picture. Participants can easily lose sight of why the specific information or skill they are learning matters. They forget where it fits into the grand scheme.
In other words, we want to keep learners contextualized throughout their entire learning experience. When presenting an activity or chunk of information, we should remember to insert Big-Picture reminders or reference points.
Context is important at every stage of the online learning process.
4. Design learning content to foster collaboration and conversation
Learners often work asynchronously at their own pace when they engage with digital content. That makes it easy to forget about designing for collaboration and conversation.
With this in mind, we want to look for opportunities in our content design to ask reflection questions that will stimulate personal inquiry and conversation. We want to stimulate participant thinking with questions that will generate genuine discussions, conversations that move well beyond reciting the right answer.
As the Desmos team points out, we want to:
Maximize the ratio of conversation time per screen, particularly in concept development activities. All other things being equal, fewer screens and inputs are better than more. If one screen is extensible and interesting enough to support ten minutes of conversation, ring the gong.
5. Take advantage of and test apperceptive mass
As subject matter experts, we generally create learning content from the perspective of a “knower” who is sharing information with someone who is an “unknower.” In other words, we treat our learners like homogeneous blank slates onto which we will impart a specified quantity of data.
Taking this approach overlooks the fact that our learners have already amassed a great deal of professional and personal knowledge. They have developed apperceptive mass that’s incredibly valuable in processing and understanding new ideas.
When we’re working with adult learners, particularly communities of practice, we can design our content to take advantage of apperceptive mass and create deeply engaging and impactful learning experiences. With such groups, it’s important to help learners test the limits of their previous experiences when it comes to drawing conclusions or making intuitive leaps.
6. Make it easy to interact and play
Our professional experiences tell us that providing easy points of entry into a task increases the likelihood that people will persist with and perform the task well. Participants don’t mind if a task becomes incrementally more difficult, even extremely difficult, if they can start the process and get up to speed with relative ease.
The same holds true with learning design. We want to make it easy for participants to become engaged with our content. Information and skill development may become difficult in later stages, but the beginning should always be easy.
Wherever possible, we want to make the experience playful through interactivity and experimentation. Allow learners room for exploration. Let them play with the ideas first, without consequences from or concerns about being wrong, before moving into more formal instruction.