Effective Online Training with Disorienting Dilemmas

“All children, except one, grow up.” J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1911)

“Okay, now I don’t want to alarm anybody in this room, but it’s just come to my attention that the person to your right is a liar. [Laughter] Also, the person to your left is a liar. Also the person sitting in your very seats is a liar. We’re all liars. What I’m going to do today is I’m going to show you what the research says about why we’re all liars, how you can become a liespotter and why you might want to go the extra mile and go from liespotting to truth seeking, and ultimately to trust building.” Pamela Meyer, How to Spot a Liar, TED.com (2011)

Difficult choices in businessGreat writers painstakingly craft the first line of their novels. Great speakers often agonize over their opening lines. All in the name of grabbing attention. So, why are so many training courses kicked off with the bland formula of: instructor introduction, list of learning objectives, and bulleted list of the training topics? Shouldn’t unforgettable training content, like outstanding novels and unforgettable speeches, begin in a memorable, attention-hijacking way, too?

When creating your next online training module, find ways to think outside the box—or outside the canvas of your screen dimensions, as it were—and grab your learner’s attention immediately, maintain the level of interest, and end on a high note.

Disorienting Dilemmas Lead to Transformative Learning

Transformative learning is an evolving educational concept which helps the learner to transform his perspective, leading to behavioral change. It is touted as a basic tenet of adult education. The concept is attributed to Jack Mezirow, Professor Emeritus at Columbia University. Transformative learning has three sequential parts: self-awareness, a challenge to beliefs or assumptions, and behavioral transformation through critical reflection. Learning is catalyzed by a “disorienting dilemma”—a situation that forces the learner to see that his current preference, or frame of reference, is not working effectively.

Challenge: Consider designing your online training module with a disorienting dilemma for your learner to consider immediately. Cause the learner to critically consider why she should intellectually engage in your learning content.

For example, imagine you are creating a leadership training module for a newly promoted, first-time manager. What might transpire if, instead of kicking off the module with a slide that reviews the course agenda, you began by asking: “You’ve just been offered a within-ranks promotion from individual contributor to manager of a team of software developers. If you take the promotion, your teammates will become your direct reports. And you know that Ben, a key software developer on the team, will quit. He wants, and is expecting, the promotion himself. What do you do?”

Start with a disorienting dilemma. Throw out that bulleted list of agenda items (or save it for later, if you must). Start with a message that connects your content with why the learner signed up for the course. Everything else will follow.

Create Content that Inspires Action

First tell me Why I need to learn from your training content. Then tell me How I will learn. Only then tell me What I will learn.

This mandate has become my personal rule for organizing learning content since viewing Simon Sinek’s classic TED Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action. Sinek discusses the necessity of communicating from the inside out, rather than the opposite (which is most common), in order to establish an emotional connection between the audience and your message. This idea is pivotal in order to create learning content that inspires action.

Challenge: For the next online training module you create, review the course agenda slide. Can you transform that slide into something else that better communicates why the learner should learn your content? Perhaps begin with a group discussion on how the course content ties back to the organization’s mission, or the learner’s personal goals. Then discuss how learning will occur (types of exercises in the training, resources available, etc.). Only then discuss what will be learned. For the last piece, you can consider re-inserting your slide with the bulleted course agenda, but not before. Better yet, find a way to throw out that bulleted course agenda completely, and still convey the learning objectives.

What is boring. Why is engaging. Connect learning to Why the learner needs to pay attention, and learner engagement will increase throughout the training module.

Clinch It with the Close

"Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day." Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (1936)

The sentence, Mitchell’s last in Gone With the Wind, implies both an ending and a beginning. The (learning) journey is not yet over. There is more to be done.

Challenge: When closing your online training module, what is the next step that you want your learner to take after training? Do you want her to apply the learning on the job immediately? Do you want her to be inspired to engage in the next microlearning module you’ve planned? Would you like her to seek a mentor? Do you want her to recommend your training module to someone else? Increase sales numbers? Design a better product? Be a charismatic leader? Change the way she interacts with her co-workers?

Learning does not stop when the online training module has been completed. In order for your learner to truly internalize your content, what is the next step that you need her to take? Like great writers, find an inspirational way to embed the message of that next step in the parting section of your online training content.

Gain Attention, Sustain Immersion, and Promote Retention

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)

“It was a dark and stormy night” is an often-mocked and parodied first line for a novel. It’s an example of “purple prose”, or overly-descriptive writing style that is so flamboyant and exaggerated that it draws attention to itself. In that respect, the sentence is pure genius. The line is so memorable that it evokes emotion (positive or negative—you decide) in the reader. And we remember the words.

As an instructional designer, consider similar “genius openings” by making an unforgettable impression on your learners. Sustain learning through communicating from the inside out (start with Why, then How, then What). And close your training in a way that inspires action and makes the post-training steps clear to the learner. Unforgettable online training experiences are created by content that gains attention, sustains immersion, promotes retention and inspires action and change.

What techniques do you employ to ensure that your learner internalizes and uses your training content? Please share your examples with us through our social media sites.

Gauri Reyes is a talent developer and learning leader who's had roles ranging from software management to managing the learning function in organizations. She is Principal Learning Strategist and CEO at Triple Point Advisors and Founder of the YOUth LEAD program. Follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+.

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