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Letting the Web Guide Web-Based Training Trends

What do you think are the biggest differences between most websites and most corporate web-based training (WBT)? I know it seems absurd. Web-based training obviously lives on the web. That said, I see us (our profession) making this differentiation all the time. Sometimes we may even think we know better than the web, don’t we?

Think of all of the instructional arguments you’ve heard, or maybe made yourself, against conventions like scrolling pages. I have even read it in a popular Master’s program textbook. Sigh. I heard this argument earlier this week when I asked a very talented designer why she wouldn’t consider a scrolling page to accommodate a long, but realistic and valuable, dialogue sequence. I think I could read her mind, “Wow. Michael must know why that’s a bad idea. How do I answer in a way that won’t embarrass him?”

As instructional designers, we have been fighting the web for years. I remember working on my first web-based course back in 1999 (my client was only then transitioning from CD-ROM and LAN delivery of CBT or computer-based training). Naively, I designed my project to use the browser features and navigation. I didn’t realize at the time that instructional design pros would choose to hide browser bars, invent our own navigation controls, and try to mimic the learner experience we were serving up prior to the web. Too many of us thought learners would leave the course if we gave them the same control they had online. I believe our dependence on old methods was always a substitute for a more robust technology, like video, that our delivery modes couldn’t accommodate yet because of bandwidth constraints.

So let’s get to specifics. What are those differences in best practices for web-based training and what things are becoming ubiquitous online?

WBT Conventions Web Media Trends
“Designed” user experience User-controlled experience
Timed events User-triggered events
Integrated media Segmented media
Immersive environments Less thematic environments
Fixed layouts Flexible, inflow layouts
Desktop delivery Flexible delivery
Gratuitous interactivity Richer media with less interactivity
Page/slide/frame organization Scrolling/sliding/nested organization

If you love deeply immersive courses with highly themed content and layouts that present themselves to learners only as intended, with timed visuals, audio, and other media that autoplays, you may be living in the past. The same is true of our collective affinity for interactivity, that holy grail of the designer’s quest. And if our focus should just be about the technology or what that technology affords learners, why should we upgrade our WBT conventions to be more like the web? Because I’m pushing learner experience by pushing responsive design that isn’t tied to a single delivery environment. And it’s smarter to follow the web on a few key things even the experience will only be used on a desktop.

Consider our love-hate relationship with video. By 2017, some 69% of consumer web traffic will be online video. But, until quite recently, online learning professionals have been avoiding it for years due to bandwidth and budget constraints. During those years we made use of audio-driven slideshows as replacements. To counterbalance that strategy, we added links, pop-ups, and a hundred variations on the multiple-choice question. To scale the strategy, we created authoring tools to help produce these courses. Then, to dress this up, we used more sophisticated visuals and layouts.

But essentially, many of these were done to compensate for budget and bandwidth. In many cases, what we call interactivity could be better presented (memorable narrative, emotional impact, better sequencing) through video that would then also play on myriad devices. We tend to love video except when it encroaches on this ultimate goal of interactivity. Maybe we should consider that interactivity was only a work-around all along? We need to revisit the mix of strategies we’re using, use much more video, and reinvent some presentation and activity “pages.”

Those activities that do survive the gratuitous interactivity purge likely will need a makeover. Take web-based games and simulations for instance. How much does a virtual space that looks like the work environment significantly contribute to the experience? It certainly ties our hands in terms of technologies and delivery. So could this sort of faux-immersive metaphor detract from the core of what we’re really trying to simulate? We’re currently working on a couple of game-based simulations for clients (one a well-known brand of athletic footwear and the other an online university) where the focus of the simulation, including the visual experience, is on truly important, decision-making variables and consequences rather than a so-called immersive, virtual space. The minimalist approach is refreshing and technically responsive. Check out a similar approach in this learning game developed by McKinney.

Ultimately, I think we need to challenge definitions and look outside our own habits and best practices for inspiration. Sure, our WBT friends are doing some interesting work – I particularly like the direction of the Adapt learning community – but there are new examples all around us in online marketing, news media, and entertainment. We should look outside our tools and start using the same tools as other web developers. Just because your web-based training authoring system only gives you tools and templates for slideshows (enhanced with hot spots and multiple-choice questions), doesn’t mean that’s what online learning is supposed to be. And it’s definitely not all it could be.

Discover the fascinating world outside the norm. See the future of web-based training.