Forced navigation - how NOT to design e-learning

Forced navigation - how NOT to design e-learning

A few years ago, I was in China on three missions for an EU project. The task was to build capacity so that the Chinese organizations I worked with could develop e-learning themselves. (It fits quite well with what we do otherwise :-)). It was an insanely exciting task, not least because it took place in a completely different culture.

I met many humorous, humanistic, and intelligent Chinese people, where I thought there was strikingly little difference in what we perceived as good learning, despite the obvious cultural differences. Clearly, not everyone had much experience with e-learning, but my messages were well received and understood.

However, there was one experience in one organization, which I think wonderfully illustrates a problem with a mindset you unfortunately see all too often, in all parts of the world - ALSO in Denmark.

I was asked for advice about a problem that the leaders of an organization had. The problem was that their users tried to "cheat them".

The background was that they created e-learning for a large group of people for whom it was mandatory to take these e-learning courses. In an attempt to motivate the users, they got some "points" for each course they took. The courses were designed based on a philosophy of "if we show them, they learn". It was very much one-way communication, with long videos, sometimes, but not always, followed by a series of questions. A very classic design :-)

One thing that was really nice about this organization was that they were good at collecting data about their users. And they quickly found out that the users rushed through the courses. They simply opened the courses and clicked next, next, next, etc. (And I think EVERYONE who has taken an e-learning course has tried this).

It was discovered because the total time the users spent on the modules was much shorter than the duration of the videos, and they therefore could not possibly have watched the videos.

The leaders speculated that the reason for this was probably that the students were not particularly motivated to take the courses as they were forced to do so, and that the courses were probably a bit boring :-) (Good suggestions)

But "The solution" to the problem was initially to LOCK the navigation, so that users could not proceed to the next page until the video had finished playing. The good thing about the solution was that it was cheap and quick to implement. (The bad thing, of course, was that it was not a good solution.)

The leaders launched the updated course content and they collected more data. Then they found out that the users simply opened other windows while the video was playing, and that the users therefore still did not watch the videos.

The next suggestion for a "solution" was to program the pages so that they ALWAYS were in the front window on the computer. SO they got a grip on the stubborn users?


The users opened the courses and WALKED AWAY from the computer to do something else, while the video cheerfully finished playing :-) (Fortunately, people are wonderfully creative when it comes to getting rid of things that are boring.)

How they found out that the user went away I do not know. But I know that their "solution" was to ask the users about every other minute to answer Multiple Choice questions (by the way WITHOUT relevance to the content) - in order to force the users to follow along on the screen.

Whether this last measure leads to genuine, deep, learning I am highly doubtful, but what then happened in the "arms race" between the users and the forced, boring, e-learning I do not know.

It happens all the time - also in Denmark

Unfortunately, I have to say that this way of thinking is not unique to this organization, as I have seen it several times before - and since - in the rest of the world, including in Denmark.

Examples of coercive design

Here are some examples of what I call a "coercive design":

  • Users are not allowed to proceed to the next page until a video has finished playing COMPLETELY.
  • Users are not allowed to proceed directly to the final test, but are forced to view ALL the content before they can take the test.
  • In sequences with video or audio, users do not have the option to pause playback and scroll back and forth.

The overall idea of such a coercive design is a belief that if users are exposed to some material, well then they learn it.

Here are some basic problems with this mindset:

  1. With the above story in mind, I would claim that one cannot with certainty assert that users have learned anything at all from such a design. But one may perhaps delude oneself into thinking that one has done one's duty in terms of offering learning on a subject. One will be able to point to a "completed" status in one's Learning Management System and say: "But they HAVE taken the course, so it's not our fault they made mistakes". This is what I call "alibi elearning".
  2. As I described in my article on Motivation – Selvbestemmelsesteorien, it is demotivating to be deprived of one's autonomy (ie not being allowed to decide on one's actions). Motivation is like rocket fuel for learning processes, so it goes without saying that it's a bad idea to do something that demotivates users.
  3. Coercive designs assume that people DO NOT WANT to learn. This has negative consequences for people who actually WANT to learn, as they are subjected to completely unreasonable conditions for learning. Try to imagine that you read a book where you were not allowed to flip back and forth, or that you watched an instructional video where you could not pause or scroll? When I read professional literature, or watch videos with professional content, I make great use of being able to move forward to orientate myself, and back to revisit passages. Sometimes I also need to take a break, if for example I need to consider what I have heard or read, or if I get too tired to learn more. I think most people feel the same way.
  4. Typically, these "coercive designs" will also make it difficult for a user to use an elearning course as a reference by going to a specific place in the material.

It's funny; I have often noticed that sweet and kind people come up with very militant ideas, which they would never impose on people if they were face-to-face with them. It is as if the distance between the sender and the receiver becomes so great that some forget that it is real people like themselves who have to take their elearning courses.

When designing elearning, it is therefore a good idea to ask yourself:

  • Would I like to take the elearning I am creating?
  • Would I offer these conditions to my students if I were in front of them?
  • Is the content relevant for the target group? Can something be cut away?

And then design the courses with the premise that people WANT to learn something.

If you need evidence that users have actually learned something, you can always TEST them (although this does not always reveal the depth of the learning, but we will return to that in another article).

As always, I hope you found this article useful. Feel free to share, and comment if you have any questions or something on your mind.

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