The Simple Life: How a simplified eLearning project structure sets you up for success

“Keep it simple, stupid” is a phrase everyone knows, but actually applying it to our work isn’t always straightforward. In this article, we explore the how and why of simple eLearning project structures and discover that simplicity isn’t the death of ambition.

Do you remember the first time you ever used a word processor? If you’re of a certain age, your entry point into digital publishing probably involved typing up a monstrous chimera of colorful perspective-skewed Impact font WordArt and awful clip art. Your sentences almost certainly alternated wildly between font sizes and font styles (including the obligatory Matisse-ITC and Comic Sans—typefaces to make the father of fonts, Sir Horace Helvetica, spin in his grave).

Your approach to new software tools has doubtlessly matured since the time you last heard someone actually spell out the words “Information Technology”. However, it’s still human nature to overcomplicate things. So it is with our approach to eLearning project structure—where less is definitely more. But why is that the case, and what is the right level of ‘less’?

What makes an eLearning project structure too complex?

We believe that course creators don’t set out with the intention of making their eLearning projects needlessly complicated. After all, we understand the general principle that simple is better.

Instead, the problem is more about recognizing how unintentional complexity happens and preventing it. In eLearning authoring, some things that increase project complexity include:

  • Complex use of advanced authoring options
  • Unnecessarily using complex asset types, especially those with high interactivity
  • Letting courses accumulate too many pages, branches

Sometimes the root of the problem is technology rather than design. For example, your hosting/distribution solution can force you to find inelegant workarounds when the most obvious and simple methods aren’t available to you. If your LMS doesn’t allow for small courses to be linked together, you may be tempted to build a single, inefficient, monolithic course to contain everything. This can quickly become too difficult to manage.

Fundamentally, you have to make a conscious effort to use your authoring tool’s features sparingly. They can be remarkably effective but if you get too carried away, you risk fatiguing or confusing your learners. Think about the learner journey—what’s appropriate and where it’s appropriate. Don’t just use something because it looks fancy.

The benefits of a simple project structure

Simple designs are easier for everyone to understand. The following list covers some key reasons why this is true of course design:

  • Use advanced options wisely:
    • You should avoid building processes that are more complex than they need to be. Anything beyond Topic A leading to Topic B, leading to Topic C adds complexity for the learner but also complicates your test strategy.
    • Complex combinations of variables and display conditions make maintenance harder. If you or another learning designer return to a complex course, it can be more difficult to determine how and why logic is set up a certain way.
  • Using complex/high interactivity assets only when appropriate helps by:
    • Reducing clicks, which when overused can be fatiguing for learners.
    • Prioritizing transfer of knowledge—what you want to teach is presented in the most immediate and engaging way.
  • Covering fewer topics means courses that take less time to export, and less time to upload (and update, if you are relying on large SCORM uploads rather than another solution, such as our Gomo LMS Wrapper).
  • Building simple pages leads to fewer edits to copy/pasted elements when reusing content—there will be fewer links to other screens and variables to edit.
  • Control the complexity that you can. Some forms of course complexity aren’t optional: for example, if you need to deliver training in multiple languages. The import/export impact (and translation cost!) of every unnecessarily complex element you build will be multiplied by the number of languages you have.

What does a simple eLearning project structure look like?

We’ve established that there are benefits to having a simple project structure but what does that structure actually look like? We recommend following these principles:

  • Have as few pages as possible. Without overloading pages with too much information, try to minimize the number of pages you use. Your user is going to switch off if they have to click through too many things.
  • Cover only a few topics per course. Our first instinct may be to make a resource as comprehensive as possible, but this goes against the widely-acknowledged effectiveness of smaller learning resources.
  • Keep your pages succinct: Don’t bombard a page with assets—your learners will get lost and lose focus on the content. The majority of single screens should contain no more than:
    • Title
    • Text
    • One interaction type
  • Aim to use a maximum of 5 asset types per project: Use a wider variety across all of your eLearning, but keep to basic asset types for most screens. More complex types should be used only where they are most effective.
  • Include clear instruction text: Don’t leave users to wonder about what to do next. Include short, clear statements such as ‘Once you have answered this question, click next’.
  • Simplify navigation: The user journey should be as simple and linear as possible. Use minimal interlinking between projects—i.e. only where it’s essential for learner understanding.

Don’t forget: proper planning underpins all these points. You’re more likely to arrive at fewer pages, fewer topics, tighter content and simpler navigation if you set out exactly what you want to achieve and the most appropriate assets to do so before you begin. When you construct your courses in a more ad-hoc fashion, you’re going to end up duplicating the same functionality in different ways.

Simple learning projects don’t require simple toolsets

What this doesn’t mean is that you only need the simplest possible toolset to succeed. If 90% of a plumber’s job could be done with a single set of wrenches, they would still need to load up their van with all manner of cutting, cleaning and other tools for the other 10% of jobs.

Some level of variety in your eLearning assets is needed because:

  • Learners are just as likely to get fatigued encountering 20 of the same screen type as they are to be fatigued by interacting with 20 different screen types.
  • Simple text and image layouts aren’t the most efficient way of teaching or reinforcing certain concepts.

The important thing is to have a view across all of your content. Having the ability to occasionally drop a more unusual asset in for a key message makes it less likely that learners will get complacent about your learning programs. You need to find a balance between simplicity and variety. Lean towards the former, with certain assets kept in reserve for when they’re most effective.

In a similar vein, we’re not saying that you should never use more complex display conditions to gate-off certain content or support more than simple ‘yes/no’ question types. We merely advise that you need to have a strong reason for using them. Always question whether there are simpler ways to structure eLearning projects, or if the nuanced feedback/data you’re hoping to create by using these features has a practical application.

Gomo is an eLearning authoring tool that allows you to create learning that is exactly as complex as it needs to be (while still remaining ambitious!) Click the link below and start a free 21-day trial today.

About the author: Adam Fox

I joined Gomo in 2014 when LINE communications merged with Epic and the Learning Technologies Group was formed. I bring to the team my experience in creating engaging, intuitive and innovative technical solutions. I have a solid background in taking projects from concept stages through to final implementation spanning desktop, server-side, front-end and mobile platforms.

Over the past 10 years I have created award winning learning solutions for key clients across defence, automotive and corporate sectors. In 2015 we developed many new features in Gomo which helped scoop a Brandon Hall Gold award. The increasingly impressive client base and potential for many more awards makes Gomo an exciting place to work.

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