Presentation or Interaction

Michael Allen notes (p. 128 of Designing Successful e-Learning):

While much of today’s e-learning fails because it is simply a glorified, electronic presentation of information rather than the learning experience people need, there are times when just making information available is enough.

Allen’s book is about e-learning, but I’d argue one could say the same thing about instructor-led training (offering lectures when guided practice is what’s needed). Allen follows up with an interesting table describing when to offer a presentation versus when to offer interactivity.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I think this is an important topic because adding interactivity is a non-trivial investment.

Allen asserts that presentation is the most appropriate design when the content is readily understood by the targeted learners, when errors are harmless, when the desired change is minor, and when mentorship is really available.

Allen’s view is sensible. I was initially surprised he didn’t also call out learner motivation as a factor. Learners who have high intrinsic motivation for a topic are more likely to thrive despite passive instruction (in just the same way that learners with low intrinsic motivation can defeat even the best designed instruction). However, upon further reflection, I’m not sure it is fair to force more motivated learners to suffer through inappropriately passive instruction just because they will.

One related thought I have from time to time is that I fear SME developers (SMEs who develop courses in their area of expertise because they are expected to, not because instructional design is a passion) may actively seek out justification for creating presentations instead of interactive instruction. That is to say, given a decision table to help them decide whether to do a presentation or build interactivity, SMEs will try to find a way into the first category. It’s less work for them, more comfortable. This impulse is compounded by the reality that SMEs tend to overestimate what their learners already know. To that extent, I think it’s smart that Allen uses pretty stark language in his table, reserving presentations for low-importance situations.

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