Why Learning Experience Matters

The buzzword of the year might be ‘learning experience’. We’re seeing the concept of LX, or learning experience design, rise from idiosyncratic to mainstream. People don’t just want learning events, they want experiences. It sounds good, but to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, is there any ‘there’ there?

To put it another way, while learning is clearly important, does engagement matter? For example, we know that the correlation between a learner’s subjective evaluation of the learning experience and the impact is close to zero. That is, what learners believe about the quality of the learning experience has no relation to whether it’s actually good for them. If, at least, they’re not already knowledgeable about the domain or learning, but that’s typically the case. So why would engagement matter?

I want to suggest that learner experience does matter, for several different reasons. It matters intrinsically, because (done right), it’s better learning. For that reason, it also matters because it helps us focus on making learning that works. Finally, there are times when learner perception matters for business reasons, but also just so learners won’t believe learning is an aversion! Let’s explore these in more depth.

Learning should be hard fun

Why should engagement matter? The first reason is because the elements of effective learning practice align with the elements of engaging experiences. In my book on designing learning games, Engaging Learning, I unpacked the elements of each, and showed how they align. And this alignment proves key to understanding why engagement matters for learning.

For both learning practice and engagement, there’s a need for a goal and an appropriate level of challenge.Mihalyi  Csikszentmihalyi’s model of the ‘flow’ experience shows that finding the place between frustration and boredom puts you in ‘the zone’. Similarly, Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development model talks about how the space between those things you can do easily and those you can’t (no matter how much support you get) is where learning happens.

Similarly, you need a context – a setting – and a story about why the goal matters in the context. From research on contextualized problem-solving, e.g John Bransford’s work on ‘anchored cognition’, we know that solving real problems leads to better outcomes than abstract problems. And from literary studies we also find that an appropriate setting for a story is critical for games, movies, and more.

The list goes on. We need novelty, not totally predictable outcomes. Also, the decisions that the learner takes have to be meaningful to the learner. The way they act on the world to affect it has to be consonant with how they’d act in the world. Raph Koster, in his book A Theory of Fun, showed how learning is the element of fun in games. It doesn’t get any more elemental than that.

Designing Learning Experiences is Designing Good Learning

So, if we understand that alignment, we know that learning experiences, designed properly, can be intrinsically engaging. It’s not just throwing content up on the screen and adding a quiz, but done right, it’s good learning.

Thus, the real reason we should be focusing on engagement: learning!  If we follow the principles of the alignment, it’s better learning. If it’s the right challenge, the right context, it’s better learning. Etc. If we make the learning engaging, it’s better learning!

Learning, at least for cognitive skills, requires spaced and varied practice. (And I suggest cognitive skills are what we should be focusing on, both educationally and professionally, to make a difference in our abilities and our organizational success.) And practice ideally consists of meaningful decisions in context with feedback. Hey, that’s an experience!  And an experience is being put in a situation to act, making choices and watching the consequences. All in a story setting that makes the choices meaningful. You should see that learning, and experiences, share the same structure; these are the same thing. Deliberately creating learning experiences then, done properly, is arguably the fastest way to get good learning!  

Let’s be clear, it’s not like throwing experience designers and instructional designers in a room together means you can expect the outcome to be achieved. This is why ‘edutainment’ got a bad name; you tended to get chocolate covered broccoli or brown rice-flavored candy.  Neither works! But, I believe, if you understand the contributions of each together, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.

When Engagement Matters

There are additional reasons to make the effort. These are both commercial and success-driven. This isn’t a purely academic exercise, but has tangible outcomes as well. It’s good business!

If we’re expecting people to pay for our products, whether we’re selling our learning to individuals or businesses, this alignment makes a better value proposition. Even if it’s implicit, such as customer support and customer training, you’d like the experience to be engaging rather than the typical to-be-avoided learning experience.  Kathy Sierra, in Badass makes the case about how learning is intrinsically linked with product success, and this is a directly related outcome.

However, there are internal-facing reasons for learning to be engaging too. First, as indicated above, the learning outcomes are better. But a second reason is the credibility of the learning designers and the reputation of the learning function.  If it’s engaging, we should not need external elements like points, badges, and leaderboards. We won’t have to trick people into doing the learning. It’ll no longer be an aversion, but recognizably valuable and engaging.

It’s Doable

This all sounds good, but is it doable?  My experience is that the answer is ‘yes’. We can reliably develop learning experiences that successfully integrate effectiveness and engagement. I’ve even been so cheeky as to say “you can’t give me a learning objective I can’t design a game for” (with the caveat that I reserve the right to raise the learning objective ‘high’ enough in the taxonomic sense).

Of course, you likely don’t have to make it a game, or even so engaging people will plop down $80 bucks for the experience. Your learners have real needs that you’re helping them achieve, and so you can limit the work it takes to make it engaging. It may not be ‘Pokemon’, but it’s far better than learning in the old way.

We can, and should, make learning ‘hard fun’. Let’s get to it!

Join Me at Litmos LIVE

As a side note, I wanted to personally encourage you to register for the Litmos LIVE virtual summit, November 7-8, 2018. I’m hosting a session entitled “Integrating Effectiveness & Engagement: Creating Experiences” from 12:15-1:00 PM (PST) / 3:15-4:00PM (EST) on November 7, which you’ll get direct access to as a registrant. I hope you’ll attend this and many of the other 30+ sessions offered at the event.