While traditional instructional design principles are still central to creating effective e-learning, they are not sufficient in themselves to create learning in an asynchronous learning environment. Arching over traditional design practices is the need to account for the unique requirements of computer-delivered instruction and interaction through three powerful success factors. While these factors actually apply to all learning, they are absolutely essential when designing asynchronous e-learning.
1. Motivate the learner to learn.
The importance of motivation in the learning process is well-understood. Learners (particularly adults) need to comprehend and value the anticipated outcomes of the learning event but also be energized to engage in learning activities with focused attention.
However, motivation in most traditional learning environments doesn't come from design, but rather from unpredictable dynamic characteristics of the learning environment - the wit and personality of the instructor, social contact and expectations from peers, and real-time adjustments by students and instructors to the immediacy of the teaching moment.
Unfortunately, these motivation factors are frequently absent from asynchronous e-learning. The designer must step outside of the comfortable boundaries of writing objectives and sequencing content and, in addition, design full experiences in which the learner can understand personal relevance, take ownership of incentives to perform (perhaps through risk or urgency), be an active participant in learning, and engage in an emotional context. Any e-learning that fails to account for these elements will fail to connect authentically with the learner, and ultimately fail as a teaching tool, no matter how perfectly the content is crafted.
2. Focus on behavioral outcomes.
Teaching is dependent on effective two-way communication. While graphics, audio, video, and other media presentation avenues provide a rich channel of information to the learner, designers of e-learning are at a severe disadvantage to create meaningful interactions simply because the methods for gaining information from the learner are so limited. Excepting specialized input mechanisms such as voice recognition or customized control devices, most lessons can only tell if the learner has pointed to something or if they have typed some letters on the keyboard. This leads to ridiculously simplistic questioning techniques.
But we know that learners best master and remember the things they do. When learners are only asked to operate at the level of trivial recall, they invest little of the effort required for meaningful learning. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to then engage in significant meaningful feedback.
Designers must work dedicatedly to overcome these limits by designing challenges in which the learner's actions require active processing and represent real-world actions. The learning interactions should shift away from simple recall of information and move toward application of information to achieve some valuable outcome.
3. Create meaningful and memorable experiences.
Learners need assistance in attaching meaning and significance to new content. When all content is treated identically, both in media and in teaching strategy, learners have nothing distinctive or relevant to aid them in creating competencies that will persist beyond the learning event. When asked about successful learning experiences, almost all people acknowledge that those learning events were a success more because of how the learning occurred rather than specifically what was learned.
When e-learning is built within strict standards that stipulate absolute uniformity across lessons, it becomes nearly impossible for learners to attach specific meaning to any particular bit of that content. When everything looks the same, it is hard to remember any specific detail. When content is written in the style of documentation rather than as a narrative to engage and draw the reader along, it is challenging to read for meaning.
While it is important to create standards and processes to make the development of e-learning efficient, the design still needs to create distinctiveness and purpose so that the learner has some hope of taking a long-lasting experience away from the training.
The benefits of asynchronous learning often come at the cost of meaningful and memorable learning, though e-learning is often characterized as boring, simplistic, and ineffective. Because there is no instructor present in the learning moment, the design process for asynchronous e-learning must include specific plans for engaging the learner in targeted learning actions in a way that designers of traditional instruction have not had to use.
Incorporating these principles into the design of asynchronous e-learning components is a learner-centered (rather than a content-centered) approach to instruction. Constructivist theories of learning tell us the importance of individual and active processing and assembling new knowledge and skills. Accounting for these success factors in e-learning design will automatically shift the learning environment to one in which the learner is focused on performance outcomes rather than on the simple acquisition of content.