How can Instructional Design be visual as well as engaging?

My dad used to explain astronomy to me using salt pots and oranges. The orange generally represented the sun, whilst the salt pots, ketchup bottles and whatever else was on the kitchen table stood in for planets and comets. He would then make them all ‘orbit’ each other, enlisting my help when he ran out of hands and demonstrating why the moon seemed to change size each night, or how a solar eclipse worked. Despite the side effect of my food often going cold as I turned forks into astronauts, I remember much more about distances between planets than I do about the floodplains I was forced to study in class. I am sure that this is mainly due to the teaching style – getting directly involved with a demonstration and seeing how my actions changed the situation was much more engaging than making notes from a PowerPoint presentation.

e-Learning has been using this ‘show, don’t tell’ approach for a long time. However, although scenarios and interactions go a long way to involving the learner in the course, I think we need to pay greater attention to the different styles of learning. You’re probably familiar with Fleming’s VAK/VARK model of three ‘types’ of learners: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. He makes the argument that some learn best through visual aids such as diagrams, others through discussion, and others by physically carrying out tasks. Although I think this is too ‘neat’ a categorisation of learners, as a mixture of learning types is more stimulating than a single format, I find this model useful for considering all the different elements that make up a good course.

Most e-learning caters for visual and auditory learners, by using graphics, providing discussion points and sometimes including a narrator. The part that I would like to focus on in this blog is the neglected ‘kinaesthetic’ element – or what my dad was using to teach me about stars. Obviously, we are restricted in this element by our medium: we are not in the room with our users, so we can’t provide tactile learning such as carrying out an experiment. The scenario-based approach goes some way to making the learner feel as though they are involved in the process, but I think that there is more that can be done to really immerse them in the course.

We can create virtual kinaesthetic learning in different ways. My school sometimes used a computer-based experiment program, which worked in a similar way to the Science Kids website. It let the user change elements of an experiment (such as the voltage of a battery in an electric circuit) and see what the result would be. It created a safe, realistic environment where you could learn by trial and error, and had the gratifying benefit of watching your results ‘happen’ in real-time. It was also a lot of fun! These kinds of interactive graphics can be used in courses that cover systems training, to show the consequences of actions in an impactful and memorable way. For example, an interactive simulation where the user had to check safety requirements on a van (with onscreen consequences if the right process was not followed) highlights the importance of following the procedure and shows the learner the impact their actions can have.

I also think that we can learn from this fantastic video that explains the fourth dimension using paper cut-outs and an apple (I think the creator may subscribe to the same school of thought as my dad). Again, visual representation allows a very complex subject to be explained in a way that the average person can understand. This technique could easily be translated to animation, but why not take it further? One of the concepts dealt with here is only being able to see something on your own plane of reality – this could be demonstrated by placing the user’s avatar on a specified plane, and asking them to try and identify objects that exist in different dimensions from what they can see in front of them. As the video demonstrates, this is impossible!

So I would advocate giving the learner more control over scenarios in e-learning. This takes a bit of courage from both instructional designers and clients – to create a truly memorable, behaviour changing course you have to allow people to get things wrong, and learn from their mistakes. The design also needs to be striking to create the desired impact – although, as my dad’s orange simulations showed, they don’t have to be overly complex!