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Engaging Learners Through Instructional Design

Bob Little 

June 26, 2015

After the first performance of his play “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” Oscar Wilde is reputed to have said, “The play was an enormous success but the audience was a failure.” The same could be said for some learning materials and their audiences.

When it comes to technology-delivered learning, designers and developers can strive for richer visual, auditory and even haptic (for example, touchscreen) interfaces and the highest levels of interactivity – but can this technical wizardry be justified in terms of the value it adds to an online learning program? Will people be persuaded to learn only if they’re entertained? How far is this just a hook – and how far does it make the message more memorable, understandable, integrated, and accessible?

When it comes to why adults learn, Cyril O’Houle and his student Allen Tough have suggestions. David Kolb published ideas about experiential learning and imaginative, analytic, common sense, and dynamic learners. Some of the factors to take into account when making changes to satisfy distinctive learners’ appetites include: personality; “perceptual modality;” learning styles; preferences; health; intelligence; environment; extrinsic and intrinsic rewards.

Pure entertainment isn’t the goal but, if the learning material designer can achieve a well-balanced, entertaining learning environment – building in a “wow factor” to the learning materials – this can positively influence a learner’s emotions and motivation. The “wow” could be:

  • “That’s clever!”
  • “At last, something that talks my language.”
  • “How did they do that?”
  • “It’s just like the real thing!”
  • “They’re just like us.”
  • “I get to keep it?”
  • “This’ll make a difference to my results.”
  • “Did I just do that?”
  • “They’ve been listening.”
  • “Someone asked what I think.”
  • “Is that someone I know in that picture?”
  • “I get a certificate.”
  • “I get a pay rise for completing this learning.”
  • “It only takes 10 minutes.”
  • “I can remember this after all these years.”
  • “It’s better than nothing!”

Some ways to achieve “wow” in learning materials include using:

  • Gagné’s nine instructional events – which begin with “grab the learners’ attention” because, otherwise, you never get to the second instructional event. However, if you do it too much, you still never get to the second instructional event!
  • Keller’s ARCS – Attention (which makes learners take notice), Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction.
  • Intrinsic motivation – derived from an appropriate level of challenge, fantasy and curiosity. The curiosity is prompted by doubt, perplexity, contradiction, incongruity, and irrelevance. However, a counter argument is that learning inhibits curiosity and drive because, once you’ve learned something, the desire to learn something else is reduced.

While you can get the “wow” from the learning itself, it can also come from outside the learner. Or you can have dull learning but still have a “wow” because the pay-off for the learner is strong. Not getting a “wow” may be because the learning experience didn’t deal with key issues and/or wasn’t:

  • The right response to the problem.
  • Suitable for the target learners.
  • Appropriate for the technology in place in the organization.
  • Supported by line management.
  • Within budget.


  • “Wow” depends on your audience.
  • Using the right tool and the right time is vital for gaining “wow.”
  • Having “great” content is vital for “wow.”
  • It’s vital to support those who deliver or support the content.
  • If “wow” is in the content, don’t mask it with “wow” in the marketing.
  • Make sure that “wow” is the outcome of the learning.
  • “Wow” is “do I get what I want in the way I want it?”
  • Know who wants to know what and how it can be delivered most effectively.
  • Dump technological gimmicks.
  • Every problem has a solution – but not necessarily the one you were expecting, or wanted.
  • Learning experiences must be based on real life.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Make it fun.
  • Technology is helpful but learning should always come first.

Sarbani Mukherjee, a principal learning designer at e-learning content specialist Tata Interactive Systems, comments, “‘Entertainment’ is more than merely holding an audience’s attention and interest. Be it in a classroom or online, you must aspire to entertain your learner and aim for that ever-elusive ‘wow.’ Where facilitators understand the pulse of the audience and change their style as the session progresses, it’s easier to achieve this in a classroom. We all remember teachers who made us go ‘wow’ – be it for their style, content or ability to make us believe in the dream of a greater payoff.

“As designers of online learning, we can’t feel the pulse of the audience or change our design as the learning progresses. But we can study the audience, analyze their preferences, and create a design to enable performance, support skill development, and lead the learner down a higher path. And then, if all the pieces combine, the audience might go ‘wow!'”

When looking to create the “wow” via technology-delivered learning materials, ID specialist Frank Troha believes that “designers must first know the limitations of the instructional software, hardware and systems at their disposal.” He continues, “I’ve found the biggest design constraints to center around the technology itself. For example, which aspects of the proposed learning can display and function properly on the devices currently used by the audience – and which can’t? There’s also the constraint of learners wanting to be able to quickly log on and off without ‘missing a beat.’ Consequently, the learning should be offered in a series of short segments, if possible.

“Another constraint involves avoiding mind-numbing, predictable, repetitive patterns. But it’s the time constraint that most often leads to pedantic, boring online learning. It’s that particular constraint that’s the most difficult to overcome by instructional designers whose performance is measured more by quantity of output than quality – which, unfortunately, is often the case.”

“Considering what the average organization has in the way of technology, it’s probably easier to get a ‘wow’ by delivering learning in a live, face-to-face learning environment that relates to the work of the audience. We’ve all seen places on TV as well as on huge theater screens, but nothing compares with ‘being there’ to experience such things first hand. So, all things being equal, presenting the ‘wow’ stimulus via a smart phone, tablet or laptop is unlikely to outperform a live, tangible, real-time experience.”

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