How to add the human touch in your eLearning design

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eLearning programs are faced with the dilemma of creating effective online learning without losing the human element. What can be done to achieve this ? In your design, help keep the emotional connection to your learners. Help them experience human warmth by connecting learnings to real-life situations. Apply the five tips.

When do you get inspired and excited about an eLearning program? It happens to me when I have an on-going mental conversation with myself and with the writers of the course. When I sense they are “present” in the eLearning programs, I feel encouraged. Unfortunately, this is more of a rare experience than what should be the norm. Oftentimes, our eLearning programs feel cold and detached, lacking the warmth usually experienced in a face to face interaction. Why is this the case? I think that in our rush, it is easy to overlook that learners learn best if we include human elements into our design and delivery of eLearning programs.
The loss or absence of empathy and catharsis in eLearning programs have been one of my on-going interests and study. Sherryl Turkle in her book “Alone, Together” says digital technologies connect us closely and yet we experience less of each other’s presence. She warns that our over reliance and distraction with technologies (cell phones, PDAs, computers) can lead to isolation.

According to Turkle:

“Technology promises to let us do anything from anywhere with anyone. But it also drains us as we try to do everything everywhere. We begin to feel overwhelmed and depleted by the lives technology makes possible. We may be free to work from anywhere, but we are also prone to being lonely everywhere. In a surprising twist, relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void, but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down.”

From another perspective, in “Body of Thought”, Scientific American Mind, Siri Carpenter writes that although our minds can successfully process abstract information separate from the actual experience, there are many cognitive processes that are so intertwined with the body – that the way our body experiences things dictates how we understand them. For example, “the flexing of our facial muscles does not just reflect our emotions but is necessary for our experiencing them.”

I see a correlation between the ideas of Carpenter and Turkel and our eLearning design approach. Carpenter reinforces many of our beliefs that the “body and thought” relationship is ingrained in our human nature such that learning and doing or learning and interacting with other people is a strong natural need. As we move further away from human contact, we ran the risk of being isolated, as Turkel asserts.
Admittedly, self-directed learning programs offer enormous benefits that learners and leaders have become accustomed to tolerating and accepting its lack of warmth and loss of empathy therein.

The question, therefore is, must eLearning feel cold, detached and devoid of human elements? Can we create eLearning with the idea of extending “human warmth”? Can eLearning writers and developers project empathy through their lesson pages and multimedia? There are a few things we can do to make this happen.

These are simple ideas you can apply to add some warmth and human touch to your eLearning programs:
1. Use the “mind-heart-body” design approach
In writing for eLearning, try to remember that learners are whole beings. They learn with the combination of the mind, heart and body. Although we design technology assisted learning, it is people who use technology. Help the learner move their experience from thinking, to feeling and then doing.
2. Let human presence be felt – Add synthesis
Oftentimes, many of us produce eLearning programs with static content, which are factual, statistical and mundane. The temptation is very strong to copy and paste the content from a PowerPoint file and publish it online. Why not add a simple and short summary on why the content should matter to the eLearner? Jakob Nielsen does this very well by always adding a few lines of summary or synthesis or “what’s in it for you” comment. Learners feel that you care and took the extra step to show them the “benefits.” You tried to inspire them.
3. Always use the first person voice

Compare the image (A) and (B). Which one grabs you more? Why?
Image (A) is spoken from a first voice. In using the first voice, you retain the emotional tone and flavor of a situation. It helps the learners to quickly connect the concept into real-world situations. Of course you may not get approval for this type of caption in your eLearning due to some legal and sensitivity constraints. However, try to keep the tone always on a “first voice” basis.

As writers, we have a strong temptation to explain to the learner. Such is the case in image (B). When we explain the image, we interrupt the learner’s instincts to connect the abstract idea to his/her emotional experience. We break or discourage the “body and thought” that Carpenter alluded to.

4. Provoke conversation in the learners mind example – ask questions of learners
Starting, ending or inserting questions in your writing or lessons help learners to focus on the meaning of the content. This allows them time to interpret the content and connect it to their real-life situation. Ideas like reflections or questions at the end of each page or section, highlighted to call attention, help learners summarize the value of the content in their own work situation.
5. Instantly bridge to real life applications off line
Jane McGonigal of the Institute for the Future has been a proponent of extending the life of online games into real world situations. She believes that online gaming can help users translate online interactions into real-world positive consequences. Following McGonigal’s thought, as we see more of learning done through online means, we need to provide learners the opportunities to quickly apply ideas in real-life situations. Real-life situations allow for more in-depth human interactions. 

Some examples:
Software eLearning – allows learners to immediately practice the skill with actual cases. In a data base coding topic, adding an activity to apply a line of code immediately, rather than wait for the whole program to be completed, allows them to put the skill to practice.
Coaching eLearning – allows learners to apply the concepts in face to face situations. In skills like negotiation, add an activity to let the learners present a case and negotiate a deal with his/her peer or leader.
Human touch must persist in eLearning

It is our nature to always attach concepts to the physical, emotional and real world; “mind-heart-connection”. We may never regain many of the lost warmth from human contact in eLearning programs, but we can help eLearners feel the human touch by embedding the elements of personal touch in our design, systems and delivery.

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Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”