All posts by James

Motivating Adult Learners

‘Adults in modern society are on a lifelong educational journey’
Raymond J Wlodkowski, Regus University, Denver

Technology presents bold new opportunities for providing adults rich learning experiences in the andragogical tradition. It directly caters to adults’ desire to be self-directed in their learning. Technology-based learning demands that learners be ready for self-directed learning. Unfortunately, there is a high dropout rate among online learners, especially in complex e-learning environments.

The drop-out rates tend to be higher than in face-to-face settings, learners often feel isolated and levels of learning interactivity are often trivial and do not approach the richness of case studies and projects in face-to-face settings. Intrinsically motivated students appear to be more successful in e-learning environments. They are generally more explorative and inquisitive, and accomplish more in a given time period. They do not necessarily do more in a fixed time period, but their higher effort and persistence allows them to accomplish qualitatively greater things. In addition, in a computer environment, they explore proportionally more parts of the program that are designed to gratify participants’ curiosity.

One of the most common questions from organizations trying to grow their online education businesses is ‘How do we keep learners engaged and make sure they actually complete a course?’ It’s a big issue, and it has gotten even bigger with the rise of MOOCs and the abysmal retention rates they have demonstrated so far. Of course, some people exalt in this.

Improving Motivation In e-Learning

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory (SDT) focuses on control versus autonomy as the differentiating factor between various forms of extrinsic motivation (activities that lead to a separable outcome) and intrinsic motivation (engaging in activities because they are enjoyable or interesting).

Extrinsic motivation refers to motivation that comes from outside an individual. The motivating factors are external, or outside, rewards such as money or grades. These rewards provide satisfaction and pleasure that the task itself may not provide. The most controlling form of extrinsic motivation is external regulation, which is performing a task to receive an external reward of avoid a punishment. A less controlling form of extrinsic motivation is introjected regulation, which is performing a task to avoid feelings of guilt or to affect one’s self-esteem or sense of self-worth.

Intrinsic motivation is defined as performing an action or behavior because you enjoy the activity itself. Whereas acting on extrinsic motivation is done for the sake of some external outcome, the inspiration for acting on intrinsic motivation can be found in the action itself. For example, you may read books simply because you enjoy reading.

Is a Decrease in Self-Paced Learning Bad? Or Good for Competing Technologies?

The news from the US is that revenue from self-paced e-learning is falling and will continue to fall, from a peak of $21.6 billion of 2015 to an anticipated $18.3 billion in 2018. Until recently, self-paced e-learning products were only in high demand in developed economies. Due to the rapid adoption of e-learning now taking place in developing economies and the explosion in the number of new suppliers, the game has changed significantly.

This needs to be seen in context. The spending appears to have shifted to other products, just a product substitution. In this case, that shift appears to be in favor of mobile products. This is consistent with the industry’s expectations for a preference for mobile devices, but the curtailing of training and educational budgets by organizations cannot be dismissed. Consequently, the reduction in budgets means buying more cost-effective technology. This entails more than just the adoption of self-paced products, but also the uptake of collaboration-based technologies, mobile learning, game-based learning, and simulation.

*Ambient Insight is an integrity-based market research firm that uses predictive analytics to identify revenue opportunities for global learning technology suppliers. It uses predictive analytics software and proprietary algorithms to triangulate measurable Total Addressable Market (TAM) forecasts.

Using Affordances to Make e-Learning Effortless

Given that a user interface interacts with users, a critical factor to be considered in improving the usability of an e-learning user interface is user-friendliness. Affordances enable users to more easily approach and engage in learning tasks because they strengthen positive, activating emotions. However, most studies on affordances limit themselves to an examination of the affordance attributes of e-learning tools rather than determining how to increase such attributes. A design approach is needed to improve affordances for e-learning user interfaces.

Many user interfaces have been developed based on structured and iterative methodologies. These methodologies consist of a series of processes involving analysis, user task analysis, heuristic evaluation, formative evaluation, and summative comparative evaluation. However, this functional design approach does not pay attention to affordances, properties of an object that induce specific behaviors on the part of users, and is therefore limited in that intended affordances are not systematically considered in the design process.

With the ubiquity of advanced technology in the early 21st century, most people may have no particular difficulty in navigating user interfaces. However, when learners perceive an interface as affordable, they are likely to operate the interface effortlessly and, therefore, to show desired learning behaviors.

Cognitive Benefits of Video Games

The potentially negative consequences, a mix of legitimate fears and unfounded speculations, of video-games are widely publicised. These are, usually, fears of anti-social attitudes, isolation, obesity, behavioural problems, psychopathy and violence. But there is mounting evidence that video games may help children develop logical, literary, executive and social skills. For the sake of avoiding binary thinking, let’s be clear that there are games that feature the positive effects and there are games that feature the negative. I am not going to defend something called Killer Slasher Zombie Monks.

Eichenbaum et al (2014) published a literature review of recent research demonstrating persistent positive effects of video games on fundamental cognitive processes – processes such as perception, attention, memory and executive functions. Most research uses action gaming in its methodologies since such games create an environment where players are required to pay attention to many things simultaneously, react quickly, make rapid decisions and remember strategies that worked in the past.

This type of research requires two strategies:


Experienced gamers are compared with non-gamers. While the results tend to show the gamers perform better, it is not certain the games were the cause of the superior performance. They may already have had those superior cognitive abilities and that predisposed them to becoming successful gamers. So, their cognitive abilities exist and their superior gaming exists but there is no evidence of a causal relationship.


Similar people, equal in all relevant qualities, are assigned to a control group or an experimental group. The control group is left unaltered, the experimental group plays games and the two groups are compared at the end.

The preceding was a crash course in methodology and now I’ll summarize Eichenbaum’s findings:

Improvements in Basic Visual Processing

Improved visual contrast sensitivity. Fifty hours of action video game play (spread over ten to twelve weeks) improved visual contrast sensitivity (the ability to distinguish subtle differences in shades of gray) compared to controls (Li et al., 2009).

Successful treatment of amblyopia. Amblyopia, commonly called “lazy eye”, is a disorder arising from early childhood in which one eye becomes essentially non-functional. Li et al (2011) demonstrated gaming significantly improved the condition even restoring 20/20 vision and stereoscopic vision in some of the subjects. As one such sufferer, this is quite exciting for me. I and the occupational nurse at work were astonished to find I just wasn’t processing sensory input from my right eye.

Improvements in Attention and Vigilance

Improved spatial attention. Green & Bavelier (2012) found that action video gaming improved performance on the ability to isolate targets from distracting backgrounds, key to driving ability and, interestingly, an identifying trait of the highly intelligent.

Improved ability to track moving objects in a field of distractors. Action games improved the ability of players to keep track of moving objects that were visually identical to other moving objects in the visual field (Trick et al., 2005) Practice makes perfect.

Improved Self-Restraint

Action games improved performance in a test of the ability to refrain from responding to non-target stimuli, in a situation in which most stimuli called for a response but occasional self-restraint was productive (Dye, Green, & Bavelier, 2009).

Combating Dyslexia

In cases where dyslexia is compounded by deficits in visual attention. One study showed that as few as 12 hours of video game play improved dyslexic children’s scores on tests of reading and phonology (Franceschini et al, 2013). In fact, the improvement was as least as that achieved by training programs that were explicitly designed to treat dyslexia.

Improvements in Executive Functioning

Executive functioning is that group of processes (such as perception, attention, memory) that allow for rapid, efficient problem solving or decision-making. Many experiments have shown positive effects of video-game training on executive functioning. Here are two examples

Improved ability to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously. Chiappi and et al (2013) found that experience on an action video game significantly improved performance on the test, the Multi-Attribute Task Battery, modelled on skills required in piloting aircraft. High scores on this test correlate well with real-world piloting performance.

Increased mental flexibility. Gamers are significantly better at task-switching ((Anderson et al, 2010; Green et al, 2012; Colzato et al, 2014).

Reversing mental decline that accompanies aging. Age-related cognitive decline is reduced by video games in the elderly (e.g. Basek et al., 2008). Torres, 2011, demonstrated that video gaming improved self-esteem and quality of life in elderly people.

Improvements in Job-Related Skills

Studies, mostly correlational and therefore not proving causality, indicate that video games improve job performance in jobs that require good eye-hand coordination, attention, excellent working memory, and quick decision-making. MKinley et al, 2011, demonstrated that video gamers were better than non-gamers in ability to fly and land aerial drones and were essentially as good as trained pilots in that. MKinley et al, 2011, in another correlational study revealed that young, inexperienced surgeons who were also keen video gamers outperformed the most experienced surgeons in their field.

The evidence still isn’t overwhelmingly convincing and there appears to be a number of researchers that are pushing an agenda or, at least fallen to group-think, but I do believe, unshackled enthusiasm aside, that the area is showing promise.

What Is Instructional Design? (You May Be Surprised!)

The last contract I accepted from a university ended over a year ago – and I still have a strong aversion to ever being in that situation again.

It was then I discovered they had actually wanted a web developer but HR had forced the Instructional Designer job description on them. Having met the other ‘Instructional Designer’s on the campus, I realized none of them had any training in the field, just multimedia developers and teachers who had staked a claim.

Instructional design involves doing far more than designing instruction. In that sense, it is really a misnomer. Instructional design is designing a system that enables employees to not only learn, but to do. Here are the components of this system:

  1. Creating a suitable environment;
  2. Devining the goals;
  3. Preparing pre-training events and activities;
  4. Designing the course materials;
  5. Creating post-training support;
  6. Evaluation of the course; and
  7. Devising remedial action.

So, you can see, instructional design is much, much more than designing instruction – more than preparing for a class, more than Flash development, more than being a web monkey.

Putting The ‘Design’ Into Instructional Design

One of the greatest takeaways for me, I have found, is how empowering it can be to realize the significant impact each of us can have as designers when we take on the central instructional design challenge: Create an environment and an experience in which the learners will gain some knowledge or skill more effectively and efficiently than they could without the instruction.

Unfortunately, many organizations completely overlook that aspect of designing instruction—especially when the instruction is intended for online delivery. I find that in many cases instructional design has been diminished to simply word processing and formatting existing documents or presentations into a web-compatible format. I worked with a remarkably limited instructional designer in a Welsh university. Her idea of an ‘activity’ was to give the learners another Word document or another PDF to read. (Yes, her idea of giving the learners a break from reading was to – give them something more to read.) Or, that enriched media e-learning is little more than an elaborate decoration that doesn’t change the experience in any central way. That interactivity rarely rises above the useless task of repetition of presented information.

Design has to tear the content apart and restructure it with the learner and the capabilities of the delivery mechanism in mind. Design can’t be a cookbook solution. Different content domains will require different instructional approaches. Different delivery environments will create unique challenges and opportunities for the learner to interact with the content and challenges at hand. To the mediocre designer with only a hammer, everything is a nail.

e-Learning Design’s Lost Focus On The Learner

E-learning appears to be the perpetual new kid on the block, probably because the  sector gets re-invented before it’s had time to wear down the rough edges as technology evolves at so fast a pace that it always seems like there are as many people just starting out in the industry as there are experienced practitioners. These novices tend to migrate from web development, multimedia development and teaching without any attempt to develop the requisite skill set. Of course some do, I’m one such myself, but most simply diminish the role to match their skills.

The result of this endless re-invention is that the conversation surrounding the field is focused more on how to get started than on how to improve e-learning. Focusing on how to get started almost always seems to center on what the designer should do—and buy. So that, despite being around for decades, it’s always in the starting gate. And the novice practitioners tend to be rather egocentric: ‘How do I get qualified?’, ‘What software should I use?’, ‘Which blogs should I read?’, ‘How do I make a storyboard?’ It’s all Me, Me, Me. OK, I’m overstating the case but I find myself more and more working alongside people whose attitude is ‘They’ll get what they’re given’ when it comes discussing the learners’ needs.

I had the unpleasant experience of attending an e-learning conference in Dublin last year. There were a number of things that made it unpleasant, but the standout was my encounter with an Instructional Designer from Trinity College. An American lecturer proposed an activity for our group to work on, one that had caused her aggravation in the past. Whenever she asked her high school students to create a wiki about their community, they didn’t know where to start. I pointed out that familiarizing them with wikis had now become part of the task, and the Trinity ID grew so irate at me derailing her learning design to factor in this, she literally turned her back on me and blocked me with her shoulder.

The Fear Factor of Social Learning

Social media is new but social learning is not. Formerly known in research circles as CSCL (Computer Supported Collaborative Learning), researchers have long acknowledged the importance of community. It has been formalized in such models as Engeström’s Scandinavian Activity Theory (with its description of the interaction of individual, tool and rules of the community) and the social constructivism of Vygostsky and Leont’ev.

The Instructional Designer, when designing training programs should not overlook the power of the community and try to utilize it. This idea is formally enshrined in the work of Jean Lave, Communities of Practice. Such levers include:

  • depending on each other to accomplish work and support customers;
  • courage to speak up and say “I don’t know this, but who can help?”;
  • learners who guide their own needs as you support them, not the other way around; and
  • learns from peers through technology.

When an Instructional Designer adds a community through a social platform into the learning toolbox, it helps to extract and make available knowledge held by individuals within the organization highlighting their expertise and best practices.  The power and strength of any organization comes from individuals within the organization sharing what they know with the community at large.  There truly is power in numbers. However, that reference to a toolbox brings to mind Pandora’s Box, the box that contained all the evils of man. It is understandable that an Instructional Designer should feel some trepidation when such a resource is to be relied on. Everybody knows about ‘common sense’ but why is it they are blind to ‘common nonsense’, right?

Designing for Motivation

Knowing what motivates people, what satisfies humans in terms of design and how it impacts the learning process, allows the crafting of an effective e-learning design. Motivation itself is a broad subject, drawing from fields as diverse as cognitive psychology and selling. There are three distinct motivation theories that have been developed by scientists and psychologists that try to explain ways to motivate learners. Each seeks to explain motivation and how it influences the learning process. These are the key ideas behind each theory and consider using them to create effective courses.

  1. Flow Theory
    Flow theory was proposed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi to describe the experiences of intrinsically motivated people, those who were engaged in an activity chosen for its own sake. Such activities were viewed as worth doing just for the sake of doing them rather than as means to another end.
  2. Path-Goal Theory
    The path-goal theory, developed by Robert House, asserts that a learner’s performance and motivation is directly influenced by the behavior of the instructor or leader. Online instructors and course developers must implement meaningful tasks, provide support, and utilize behaviors that match the learners needs and expectations.
  3. Self-Determination Theory