image of brontosaurus: thin at one end; thick in the middle; and thin at the other end

eLearning - Why they're doing it all wrong.

I've been involved in the eLearning field before eLearning was even a thing. I created eLearning infrastructures back in the day of 56K dial up. Just that dial up sound alone makes me cringe. Because of limited bandwidth I had to be very frugal with resources and manage what learners downloaded and smartly cache content. What is so facinating about all of this is that now, over 20 years later the web is catching up to this idea with PWAs (Progressive Web Apps). And although applications are catching on to PWAs, eLearning platforms have not. If you'd like to continue, I'll explain.

Getting to the point is user-centric design.

One of the great advantages of a digital age is that information can be gleaned quickly. Indeed, great user centric design allows people to achieve tasks or acquire information with less effort. As I've written about before (Chasing Digital Strategy) user centric design is driven by the Buckminster Fuller philosophy of 'doing more with less'.

So, what does the dinosaur above have to do with efficiency and eLearning? Well, the reference is to a Monty Python skit about a professor's theory that amounts to a whole lot of nothing, and is, in truth, a massive waste of time.

Great digital design should be concise both in content and delivery. Whatever gets me to what I need quickly and efficiently should be considered a win. For instance, this is one of the best user interfaces I have ever found for setting an alarm on a phone.

image of clock-like wheels to set alarm time

This alarm interface allows you to set an alarm in 4 simple steps: touch the hour; touch the minute; touch a.m. or p.m.; and touch the set button.

This GUI (graphical user interface) perfectly demonstrates a guiding principle of good user design: simplicity.

But the GUI is just one part of good user-centric design. How a well designed, user-centric application makes it to its end user is equally important and this is where every popular eLearning delivery system fails miserably. If the ultimate goal of the GUI is to let the user accomplish a task in an efficient and simple fashion, there is also a need to deliver the application to the end user in an efficient and simple manner.

All the current, popular eLearning delivery systems fail to deliver eLearning content in a simple, efficient manner. Popular eLearning applications such as Captivate, Storyline, Articulate all deliver content and infrastructure together. To use an analogy to illustrate this point, imagine that you wanted to buy a new vinyl record to add to your vintage, vinyl collection. But the seller forced you to buy a record player with every record you purchased; i.e. the seller only sells each individual record with a bundled record player. Every time! That is what each of these eLearning platforms does.

The problem with this approach is that the infrastructure for eLearning is bundled with the content. So things like the navigation, menu, loaders, etc are all packaged and distributed with content again and again and again. The issue with this is time, efficiency and bandwidth. This extra bloat increases download time for the end user; consumes precious bandwidth especially on mobile (and we all know how prevalent mobile is these days); and the same infrastructure gets downloaded again and again and again.

Did I mention that, ahem, dinosaurs are thin at one end, thick in the middle, and thin at the other end? Wow, these eLearning packages waste so much of the end learner's time, bandwidth, and ultimately money. I'm not trying to suggest that there is a link between them and the dinosaurs. Oh wait, yes I am. So then what's to be done?

Enter the PWA

elearning player where the guts of the app permanently resides on a learner's phone

One of the beautiful things about eLearning courses is the fact that each course shares very re-usable functionality: a menu structure; a navigation system i.e. play/pause, next lesson, previous lesson, etc. If you understand the main gist of a PWA: that a portion of the application resides on the user's mobile device, and only the changing content needs to be downloaded. eLearning lends itself beautifully for a PWA. So, why not have users store part of the eLearning system on their mobile devices? The part that really never changes: The Player. To refer to my previous analogy, why not download the record player once and then only load the records depending on what the listener wants to hear; or in the eLearner's case, learn.

From straight on this eLearning looks the same as it always has but there's a fundamental shift: a technological shift. The brains of the eLearning infrastructure has been moved on to the learner's mobile device...once. The Player, now residing on the user's mobile device, can play an infinite number of eLearning courses but the learner will only load The Player once. Only the content, the eLearning content layer in the image below, will change as the learner consumes more courses. If you really wanted to get fancy, you could even add a skin layer for branding. Again this layer could permanently reside on the local mobile device and simply watermark all the courses that are sandwiched between The Player and the skin layer.

elearning player where the guts of the app permanently resides on a learner's phone

The content itself is simply dumb content: it may have markers within it to indicate it's beginning (perhaps, thin), and a middle (perhaps, thick), and an end (perhaps, thin again). To me this makes for clean, efficient delivery of eLearning. Anything else is simply Anne Elk. mmmhmmm. This is my theory and no one else's. The theory which I have, is my own...

Steve Harrington

- not the douchebag one

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