Make Mine a Double


I’ve been thinking a lot about the psychology of eLearning. I’m not even certain that ‘the psychology of eLearning’ is a thing – but it is something that I find myself banging on about a lot at the moment, especially when talking to academics, instructional designers and other learning technologists, so I may sound like a crazy fool. Or this is old news, in which case, you can stop reading now.

If you’re still reading, I’ll try to explain what I mean by way of one of my patented food analogies:

A couple of weeks ago I went back to my home town for the weekend to catch up with family and friends, and started the weekend in the pub. We started off in the local Wetherspoons, where my partner ordered a gin and tonic. He specifically ordered Tarquin’s gin (a brand that he had never tried before), and it was served in a standard tumbler with a couple of ice cubes and a slice of lime. And very nice it was too –  I had a sip and decided that I wanted to buy a bottle while I was in Cornwall.

We finished the night in our hotel’s bar, where my partner ordered another Tarquin’s gin and tonic. This time the drink was served in a long stemmed gin glass, again with ice and a slice of lemon. Again, I tried a sip – but this time it tasted much better. It shouldn’t have; it was the same mix of the same ingredients – but I am convinced that because it was served in a ‘proper’ gin glass and not a standard tumbler, it made a real difference. On a subconscious level, I guess felt that I was being ‘better cared for’. Maybe it had a placebo-like affect: because it looked nicer, it tasted nicer.

I think the same applies in eLearning; specifically via instructional design.

A lot of people involved in developing online resources suggest that function trumps design. As long as an online package does what it is supposed to do, then it works. And on a mechanistic level, yes, it does. I mean, who wants something that looks nice, but where the interactions don’t work? But I have seen a lot of fully-functioning elearning packages that, for all their drag and drop, fully-functioning multiple choice questions and multimedia elements, just look uninspiring. Lots of black text on a white background, lots of corporate clipart, and tonnes of ‘click forward for more of the same’. These packages do what they need to do, students work through them because they need to – but do they feel valued by the content? Are these packages the elearning equivalent of a gin and tonic in Wetherspoons? And, if you are paying up to 9k per year to study, should you, on some subliminal or subconscious level, feel valued by the institution you’ve given your money to?

I don’t know. Obviously, I can’t make a judgement based on a theory I haven’t really done anything with. Maybe I should talk to some students, see if I’m on to anything here, or just stating the bleeding obvious.

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