Overcoming Digital Fatigue with Learning Design that Activates Engagement
September 3, 2020
The shift to remote work triggered a massive social and technological experiment as organizations moved quickly to digitize in-person training. The early results of this unprecedented migration are in, and with the benefit of hindsight, learning designers are now figuring out the best way to provide learning experiences that are engaging and deliver meaningful business impact.
One major issue that has come to the fore is what is referred to as ‘Zoom fatigue.’ We struggle to focus and engage as our minds work in overdrive to process the intense experience of a ‘constant gaze’ and a loss of personal space. What’s more, in an era of remote work, people also have a range of situations at home that make it a less than ideal learning environment, and one which they can’t get a reprieve from.
“Very soon, you learn that to make other people think you’re making eye contact, you have to stare not at anybody but the little green light on your computer, the aperture of the camera, so you feel completely alone.”
Problems with video-conferencing as a learning platform can extend to instructors too. Accustomed to creating engagement through physical presence in a face-to-face setting, many are finding that their tried-and-tested techniques do not easily translate into the online environment. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle has observed, in order to create the illusion of connection for learners, instructors often have to deprive themselves of that same experience: “Very soon, you learn that to make other people think you’re making eye contact, you have to stare not at anybody but the little green light on your computer, the aperture of the camera, so you feel completely alone.”
The net result: it is now obvious that replicating face-to-face learning experiences online is more difficult than we thought.
Good learning design can overcome digital fatigue and create engagement
Modern approaches to learning design are taking advantage of advances in technology and learning theory, and forcing a rethink of the content, processes, and tools that make up learning experiences.
One of the newer learning design approaches is to purposefully target the perfect mix of synchronous, asynchronous, or blended learning models to promote collaborative learning and drive engagement. While recent experiences with Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms suggest that a purely synchronous approach isn’t ideal, this doesn’t mean sacrificing the benefits that synchronous learning can offer, nor surrendering to some of the pitfalls of asynchronous learning that are traditionally associated with e-learning.
Here we will consider how to make the best use of synchronous, asynchronous, and blended learning modalities to deliver training that shifts the paradigm of online learning from individual consumption to social participation in order to deliver the impact businesses need, while meeting the needs of learners. First, let’s get some definitions out of the way, then discuss how they can be best used.
Learning design that optimizes for engagement, and seeks to avoid the pitfalls of conference calls, is critical for moving forward in workplace learning. It can make the difference between putting meaningful learning on hold, given today’s challenges, or coming out of the pandemic era stronger and better than ever. Having a sense of when to use synchronous modalities like video-conferencing, and when to incorporate asynchronous and blended techniques, is key to designing learning experiences that works best for their intended audiences.
Synchronous learning happens in real-time, at fixed times, whether in-person or online.
Asynchronous learning can be done at any time, at the learner’s convenience, from any location.
Blended (also known as polysynchronous) learning uses a combination of asynchronous and synchronous online learning. Traditionally considered as a combination of classroom and online learning, in today’s environment, blended learning includes a mix of synchronous and asynchronous online learning.
Synchronous brings people together, but can struggle to engage
Synchronous online learning was initially assumed to be the next best thing to in-person interaction in the pandemic era. It is true that — when designed and delivered well — synchronous learning can create social presence and enable conversational flow. However, as we’ve seen, overuse has led to a second “pandemic” of sorts, in the form of widespread disengagement on conference calls that seem to never end. Good design takes into account the needs and circumstances of learners, so you’ll need to understand that you can’t just move in-person experiences from a classroom to a digital room.
Using synchronous online learning effectively means knowing what works for your learners and your topic, and what doesn’t. Despite the issue of learning engagement, video-conferencing still has an important function. It is effective for informational sessions that are short enough to maintain engagement, and for experiences that can be broken into sessions and delivered over a period of time. As it stands, video conferences are the closest thing we have to face-to-face interactions with our colleagues.
Asynchronous lets learners proceed at their own pace – and also collaborate
Does asynchronous learning mean sacrificing collaboration? While self-paced learning used to be associated with isolated, individualized experiences, technology and best practices have evolved significantly so that designers can add structure, pacing, and collaboration to asynchronous learning.
Modern learning experience design can engage and support learners in ways that promote collaboration asynchronously
Modern learning experience design can engage and support learners in ways that promote collaboration asynchronously. Spacing learning over time can enable reflection, practice, application, and feedback at both the individual and group levels. Collaborative learning experiences can be achieved through thoughtful discussions, team projects, peer interaction, and supportive facilitation. Accountability can be promoted by using deadlines or having learners work in groups and cohorts. When all these activities are integrated into a single learning platform, supported by notifications, dashboards, and accessibility from any device, you can increase engagement in learning to drive behavior change in ways that watching a webinar alone can never achieve.
Asynchronous collaboration can empower learners in a way synchronous experiences can’t. Time and space to process information is something most people need in order to fulfill their potential. The opportunity for meaningful reflection can be lost in intensive, synchronous learning experiences. It can make it difficult for learners to put the information they’re being bombarded with into the context of their own work. Collaborative, asynchronous learning experiences allow each learner to take matters into their own hands, and simultaneously benefit from their peers doing the same.
Like synchronous learning, asynchronous experiences work best when they are well designed. Structures that provide guidance and motivation, such as deadlines, feedback, and group projects can be incorporated into experience design from the start. These structures can provide learners with a sense of support and inclusion, rather than feeling isolated. Keeping this in mind is the key to making asynchronous learning fulfilling, rather than a chore that gets pushed to the back burner.
By shifting some learning activities from synchronous to asynchronous, designers can activate more learning styles and preferences.
By shifting some learning activities from synchronous to asynchronous, designers can activate more learning styles and preferences as learners have more time to process information and think about how they will apply learning to their jobs. The flexibility offered by asynchronous learning has the potential to empower and engage learners. This is a way in which online learning can benefit learners who might be more introverted, and to maximize engagement for everyone.
Blended models can drive engagement and collaboration across the learning experience
Since synchronous and asynchronous learning each bring their own benefits, can they be used together? Absolutely! This is called a blended, or polysynchronous approach. Traditionally thought about in terms of in-person training with online supplementary learning, in the era of remote work and learning, the blend is between video-conferencing and asynchronous learning.
When skillfully combined in a cohesive way, asynchronous and synchronous learning can complement, and even amplify each other, especially for experiences that happen over time.
When skillfully combined in a cohesive way, asynchronous and synchronous learning can complement, and even amplify each other, especially for experiences that happen over time. For example, starting a course with a synchronous call can set the stage for success. Engagement in the overall experience can be heightened when learners get to know each other and the facilitator, and when learning expectations and goals are clear for everyone. The kickoff call can be followed by asynchronous learning, punctuated by periodic, synchronous check-ins, live Q&A sessions, or final presentations. With this, collaboration and engagement occur across the entire experience and avoid digital burnout.
The key to success is a purposeful design process that considers learners’ needs as well as defined learning objectives. In addition to considering what you want learners to know and do, and how you want to measure it, the right combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning can set your learners up for success, and deliver the impact you want.
Design for engagement and impact
Like learners, learning designers can also be empowered by the opportunity for reflection and growth that well-designed online learning experiences offer. Present-day challenges aside, few would argue that traditional, in-person, pedagogical practices are ideal for everyone. A “one size fits all” approach always leaves many by the wayside.
While the current landscape has its unique challenges, today’s learning designers are in a position to address some long-standing problems. The sudden shift to online learning was disruptive, but has opened up opportunities to make learning more engaging and impactful. Thoughtful design that employs synchronous, asynchronous, and blended modalities effectively can be just as rewarding and enriching for learners as in-person experiences, if not more so.
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