Knowing how to increase engagement in your online course is key to designing a successful eLearning environment. In her blog post, “9 Tips To Improve Online Learners’ Engagement,” Sharon Thomson lists some of the primary barriers to effective eLearning and elements of online course design that can address these issues.
Perhaps the greatest enemy to learning in both traditional and online environments is distraction. Part of your task as an online course designer is to avoid distractions in your learning environment, so learning to recognize those issues is important.
Strive to keep your visuals clean and on point. There should be no unnecessary text, images, or audio in the learning environment, and elements that do exist need to be cohesive and visually consistent. Visual clutter is confusing and makes your content inaccessible – the opposite of what you want to achieve. Any element that does not apply directly to the content you are presenting should not be there.
Choosing basic fonts that are easy on the eye is one way to help students stay focused on what they are reading. Serif fonts, like Times New Roman, are fine for headlines, but sans-serif fonts, such as Helvetica, are best for content. The wrong font can be as difficult for students to read as bad handwriting. Keep your fonts clean and easy to read for good comprehension.
Colors can also present difficulties, especially if they are used with fonts. Black or gray text is generally best, with subdued colors – or no colors – in the background and margins. Black text on a white background is always a good place to start, with careful use of gray text, especially if you also have color images or video on the page.
Images and video can be extremely effective tools for presenting and clarifying concepts, but if those elements are not directly relevant to the material you are covering, they can instead be confusing and distracting. Resist the temptation to over-embellish, or to insert elements that you think are interesting and fun but do not really support the basic concepts you are introducing. And make sure the elements you do use are high-quality. Bryan Harris’ marketing blog called Video Fruit is a fine example of relevant use of imagery to support the subject matter he is presenting.
Navigation through the learning environment is also vital. Make sure tools like buttons, menus, and links are functional and easy to find and use from page to page and section to section. Moving around in the learning environment should be simple and intuitive. Consider that individual students have different learning styles and accommodate their ability to locate the resources they need when they need them, even if those resources are out of sequence.
Learning styles also dictate that images, video, and charts and graphs are helpful to some students, but unnecessary or even disruptive to others. Make supportive visual and audible resources available but peripheral. Support materials are designed to clarify concepts and strengthen your delivery, so use them for that specific purpose. You can also blur or remove segments of visuals that do not add to your area of focus, or may even distract from the point you want to make.
When you have a good deal of text content for students to read, it will be easier for them to stay focused and involved if you break up that content with careful use of structural elements. Bolded headings and subtle formatting, bulleted lists, short paragraphs, and other visual elements make information more immediately understandable. Using a service like ProofHub for feedback on your course design can help you target areas that need improvement.
Without careful curation of your content and design elements, your pages can look like a randomly assembled scrapbook. Assure that you are achieving and maintaining student engagement by making the most of eLearning design and technology with a learning management system like lifterLMS that makes clean, effective online course design and resource integration accessible.
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Joshua Millage: Hello, everyone. We’re back with another episode of LMScast. Today, we’re talking about Tips for Improving Online Learners’ Engagement. This is actually a blog post that I found by Sharon Thomson. Sharon is a writer in eLearning LMS space. She has a lot of great articles out there. You can find a lot of her stuff at elearningindustry.com. If you go to lmscast.com/engagement, I will put a link to her direct article that we’re going over today in today’s episode.
Chris, why don’t you start it off? Let’s go through some of these bullets and let’s give our feedback on them, get some perspective.
Chris Badgett: Sure. The first one is removing excess images, text, and graphics. In my mind, the space you hold for somebody to learn, you think about a traditional classroom when you’re growing up, the teacher is always trying to remove distraction whether that’s chatty friends, cell phones, beeping and texting.
Joshua Millage: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: Close the window if somebody is being crazy outside. Just removing distraction is an important part of learning. On a website, that’s extra images, texts, and graphics. I think, graphics especially and images, if they don’t hold direct educational value, they shouldn’t be there.
Joshua Millage: Yeah, I think so too. I mean, it’s all about focus. I mean, in terms of design, even just visual design, white space is important so make sure that the eye is attracted to the various areas of the site that you want it to be attracted to. With learning, that would be the content that’s necessary to be learned.
Chris Badgett: Yeah.
Joshua Millage: Let’s not try and remove people’s focus from that to something that doesn’t matter of lower priority.
Chris Badgett: A great thing that just popped in my head is when you think about the traditional whiteboard or chalkboard or whatever, you don’t walk into the classroom and it’s completely full and there’s images on it. You start learning, you take it one concept at a time and then at the end it’s full. That’s how we learn.
Joshua Millage: Right, right. The next one too is choosing the right fonts. That’s something that I don’t think anyone takes any time to think about, at all. I’ve always been told that the best way to do it is have a sans-serif font for headlines and section headers and that sort of thing and have a serif font for the body for readability. I don’t know.
Chris Badgett: I think, it’s flipped.
Joshua Millage: Is it flipped?
Chris Badgett: Yeah. The serif is the little foot on the characters and, I think, the sans-serif, without the foot in the body makes it the most readable.
Joshua Millage: Got it.
Chris Badgett: Sans is a really popular body content font today as well as Helvetica was a little bit ago and things like that because they don’t have any distractions. It’s just the letter.
Joshua Millage: Just the letter, yeah. I mean, taking the time to figure out what font you’re going to use and then making sure that it’s not distracting like papyrus font is really, really important.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, and if you’re anchored it into the past like traditional education, I’m sure everybody at some point had a teacher with really sloppy handwriting, it’s really distracting and interrupts the learning experience when you can’t read or at least easily read what’s on the board.
Joshua Millage: Right, yeah. The next one is choose the right colors. I think that this is a pretty easy one. I mean, you don’t want to have colors that, A, are hard to read and, B, distracting like neon greens and things. I mean, it sounds basic but it’s things that people don’t consider when they’re putting their content in. Call me old-fashioned, but black and white works pretty good.
Chris Badgett: I always try to steer a little bit of the conversation towards grey. There are so many shades of grey between black and white. They can do amazing things just by playing with spectrum of grey and especially if you’re going to be using images and video which are going to have color on them. You don’t want the text to be competing with the images. When the video is playing, you don’t want this flashy, colorful thing over here too.
Joshua Millage: Right, exactly. No, that’s exactly true. Yup. Choose high quality and relevant images. I always hated it when I was in school and the professor thought it was fun to be kitschy and throwing some ridiculous comic or something. I don’t know. It’s just that it didn’t really fit with where we were going. Just felt almost like he needed to take a break, like just keep people in it.
There’s a marketing blog that I follow called Video Fruit, and Bryan Harris does a lot of different images to support his content. Those images are always relevant. They’re never taking you out of the content. He’s making a point, there’s an image. Maybe it’s a graphic or something to drive home the point. The point is it’s all pushing the same idea and, I think that that’s really, really important.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely. I think, one of the things that people do sometimes especially if they’re not really graphically or visually design inclined is you’ll hear people say and in the web design world, if I hear somebody say the word “clip art”, for me, that’s a serious red flag. You don’t want to have clip art show up in your educational content. It needs to be high quality stuff that supports the learner.
Joshua Millage: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Wow, I didn’t even read the next two but easy navigation of online learning material. That is good because, I think, that’s the thing. It’s like you want to make sure when it’s time to take a quiz that that button or whatever is easily accessible when it’s time to progress to the next lesson or section or whatever, that’s also easily found.
That’s actually one of my biggest bones to pick with. The old-school blackboard and some of the old-school learning management systems that have … I’ve just basically been around for the last 5 to 10 years. They’re hard to navigate, man.
Chris Badgett: Yeah.
Joshua Millage: You get through one lesson, you’re like, “What do I do next?” I think, there’s a huge opportunity for usability in the learning management space. I think, it’s important for people to keep that in mind. You’re online so there’s an infinite amount of distractions and they’re all a click away. Don’t give anyone a reason to get distracted. Just make it easy for them to get through your content.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely. We talked about in our earlier episode about learning styles, some people learn better by jumping around or starting at the end and working backwards. If your course is set up, that’s okay as an option. I mean, people need to easily see what they’ve already completed or not or where they left off. All these things are a really important part of navigation and user experience.
Joshua Millage: Yeah, absolutely. I think, the next one goes with what I was talking about earlier. It’s number 6, supporting complex information with graphics and charts. Absolutely. I mean, that goes back to learning styles. Some people are visual, audio, kinesthetic. You want to make sure you’re giving them the ability to learn the way that they learn and to do that, adding graphs and charts to help make a visual representation of the content that’s being talked about is so crucial.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, I think, that’s a philosophical thing. In sales or teaching or whatever, it’s like, “Show, don’t tell.” I mean, of course, you can tell and teach the concept and things like that but when you show a chart based on the data that supports your argument, your teaching, and your concept, delivery just gets a lot stronger.
Joshua Millage: Yeah, absolutely. Okay. The next one, blurring background in the images. Interesting. Interesting. What’s your thoughts on that?
Chris Badgett: I think, it just comes down to focus, again, so that if you are going to bring an image into the learning material or in the conversation, whatever is in the background of that image, if it’s not relevant, blur it out. I mean, don’t cut out the person’s head or whatever it is you’re displaying in the image but if you blur the background, you retained that focus on only the important part in the image.
Joshua Millage: Yeah. Yeah, I like that. It all comes back to focus, for sure. Using heading, bullet points, and proper structuring. Man, this is a huge one for me. I can’t stand it when I get involved in some sort of education. It’s just the brick of text that’s all the same font size and there’s no formatting at all. Your eye fatigues, man, and you can’t even get through it. You’re just like, “I don’t even want to read anymore. This is horrible.”
Take the time to put headings, bullet points, sections. It makes a world of difference and it’s not hard.
Chris Badgett: Absolutely. I think, as time goes on and generations and attention spans are getting smaller, it’s really important to do that because people have the skill because of the Internet and humans didn’t used to be like this where they can just scan stuff. We can scan webpages and things, glean information really quickly without reading the entire thing.
Joshua Millage: Right.
Chris Badgett: That’s not how it used to be like you had to read the whole book. You couldn’t really scan a book but we’re developing as a global culture the ability to really scan. In order to do that, people need headings and bullet points mixed in with the paragraphs and things like that.
Joshua Millage: Yeah, absolutely. I love that. Use proofing tools. I mean, I think that would be something fairly simple like spell checking and that sort of thing but using tools to make sure that everything is set up correctly.
Chris Badgett: Yeah. I think, it’s just distracting in the learning environment when you keep coming across consistent errors like a lack of a space, no periods, spelling errors. It can distract the student.
Joshua Millage: Yeah. Let me just breeze over what she said in the section here. Yeah. She’s talking about a service called ProofHub, that’s interesting, where eLearning designers can quickly and conveniently get eLearning design feedback from distantly located tutors. That’s interesting. She’s actually not talking about spelling or anything like that but she’s talking about getting feedback on the way that a course is designed through the service and so the design of your course. That’s really cool.
I think, that that’s important. Yeah, I mean, when you get feedback on your course or the way that you’ve designed your course prior to launching or prior to putting it into a curriculum, that’s huge. That’s a really good feedback. I’m glad I read that one.
Number 10, consistency and cohesiveness in learning materials. That is big time. Again, you don’t want to have all these different fonts, all these different colors. Just make it easy to read, easy to get through. I think, it’s going to really help people out.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, if it’s consistency and everything, you could just grab all this material from all over the web to put together and make your learning. You’ve done the first step of curation but you haven’t really done the second step which is making it a little more consistent. Otherwise, it’s like a scrapbook or a collage.
Whereas, once you have all the best material around your topic, you can really curate it and create a system that people can go through and get used to and get comfortable so that they can achieve the desired learning objective.
Joshua Millage: Great. Absolutely. I think, this is a great starting point for engagement. We’ve talked a lot about engagement using technology in previous episodes and I’m sure in episodes to come. Any closing thoughts, Chris, on engagement?
Chris Badgett: Yeah. I would say engagement is just one of those big things. In the eLearning WordPress, LMS space is evolving a lot right now and we’re really focusing in on that engagement piece which can be done with technology. We have these achievements in gamification and automated e-mails, just things that can be set up. What we were talking about in this podcast is more about the visual and the experience is so important to engage.
When you marry those two together, when you get the technology tools with the design and whether that’s the website or the instructional design like we mentioned in the last point, you’re building a really … That’s the big opportunity for online education.
Joshua Millage: Absolutely. I think, it’s the cutting edge right here is how do we set up automated and personal engagement to make the online classroom much more like the in-person classrooms.
Chris Badgett: Or, even better.
Joshua Millage: Or, even better. Or, even better, yup. Absolutely. All right. Sharon, if you’re out there, thank you for writing this article. It’s been fun to talk over it and give our feedback from being WordPress LMS guys. Hopefully, you can leave us a comment and give us your thoughts and maybe even have you on the show. Anyone who is out there, you can find this article at LMScast.com/increase-engagement/. All right. We’ll see you next week.