How being nice is the best digital learning strategy

May 1, 2020

I recently came across an article talking about how people are already starting to experience video conference fatigue. This is hardly surprising.  As someone who has delivered and attended countless hours of training by webcam, it’s easy for me to empathise. Presenting even just an hour-long session to a group of largely silent participants can be a very confronting and lonely 60 minutes. Participating in online meetings and training sessions takes its toll, especially if appearing on webcam isn’t your cup of tea (quite a common complaint).

While the increase in video conferencing may be leading to some getting worn down, an increase in undertaking online learning can also lead to further fatigue. As many organisations have looked for quick and easy ways to fill gaps in their digital content and online delivery, there has been a rapid increase in the number of formal eLearning courses being rolled out.

Formal vs Informal

Like many, my exercise regime has changed recently. What used to be a nice balance of incidental exercise (like walking to work and picking up kids from school) and structured workouts (a run, gym session, basketball), is now pretty much zero incidental (unless you count walking from my desk to the fridge) and all structured. Unsurprisingly, this is taking a toll, as I find I need to run longer to make up for the lack of incidental exercise and end each day with aching knees and ankles.

Similarly, where we once had a had a nice mix of formal learning balanced with social and on the job experience, now the balance has tipped and it’s largely all formal. And it’s hard on us. People are feeling overwhelmed and learning fatigue is kicking in.

Look familiar? Feeling fatigued and overwhelmed from online learning is common.

Be nice

Being nice to your learners means thinking about them as people first, before categorising or sectioning them into groups to deliver a one size fits all (or one size fits most) approach to delivery.

The people who are required to sit down and complete digital learning have a lot going on. Whether it be home-schooling, job pressures, health concerns, or any of the other many things we’ve all got going on, more often than not the idea of sitting down to complete some online learning is pretty boring, and least not a high priority.

Thinking about what your people need is the first step. When designing a learning program take into account that the person doing this at the other end probably doesn’t want to be doing this. They are an adult with a lifetime of experience and knowledge that you as the learning designer couldn’t possibly know about. Putting some strategies in place can help ensure these people stay engaged.

Reduce fatigue

Staggered starting points

Giving someone an opportunity to prove they have pre-existing knowledge on a topic is a great way to ease the load and help them feel more in control. We have all sorts of quiz, survey and matrix tools at our disposal so a quick stock-take on where someone is at can help a great deal. Another way this can be accomplished is by allowing them to contribute their own content. A video of them demonstrating a skill with commentary and insight can show they really know their stuff.

This could save hours of time for your people and they will appreciate it immensely.

Self-Directed and Micro Learning

When thinking of learning delivery, the default is often for content to be delivered as a large chunk (the standard being 15 to 45 minutes). Micro learning elements are much smaller, consisting of no more than 5 minutes of content for a participant to complete. Content can consist of video, tutorial, eLearning, quick quiz or even just text and images. The key is to provide the smaller learning element in a structured way over a manageable period of time. People are far more likely to want to engage if they know if will be brief. They are also more likely to be able to retain the information, especially if there are subsequent reminders of the key points to embed the knowledge points.

Smaller elements can also be used when provided on-the-job and in self-directed learning. Providing an easy and intuitive way for someone to find relevant information quickly and easily while doing their job is far more likely to reduce fatigue than sitting through a long-winded tutorial.

Assessments – Provide a happy path

One thing that I find really draining is getting through an eLearning module only to find a multiple-choice quiz at the end with 15 or 20 questions. Then if I happen to fail the quiz I am required to go back in and try again until I get a passing score, often set to 100%.

If you do need a quiz at the end of a module, use the method where the participant only needs to go back and answer the incorrect questions again. This takes away much of the anxiety and annoyance but still requires repetition and focuses on the areas for improvement.

Break up sessions

Blended learning is hardly a new concept but sometimes is forgotten.  Breaking up your content so some pre-reading and hard skills can be completed online, then participation in a virtual or face to face workshop is a great way to ensure fatigue doesn’t set in. Saving 20 or 30 minutes of preliminary and introductory content ensures you can use your facilitated session for the important interaction between facilitators and participants.

Use engagement strategies – social and gamification

Social Learning

When done effectively Social Learning is a great way to encourage participation and allow for learning experiences that occur more organically and in line with experiential workplace-based learning. By allowing people to contribute their own content, as well as insight and perspective on a subject, they can find a deeper connection to the content and feel less removed.

Content contributions could be as simple as a comment or providing constructive feedback. The point is to allow for a place for them to contribute their own thoughts and potentially demonstrate skills, communicate with peers, help others or seek feedback from mentors.


This is another tool that when used effectively can drive engagement and participation. Some strategies for gamification tend to focus on making seemingly tedious tasks seem fun. They may come off as gimmicky and the desire to participate may wane quickly.

  • Gamification that works well uses mechanisms that make the participant care enough to want to return and participate multiple times. A particularly clever approach when we consider that research shows that a person starts to remember on the third or fourth time they hear content repeated.
  • Aim to create activities that relate directly to the job a person is required to do. Where possible simulate job processes and use game elements like tracking, timing and scoring to provide a way to give a meaningful score.
  • Use leaderboards and rankings as ways to drive competition. While not all workforces will embrace this, it can prove to be a very strong motivator and one that breaks up the monotony of extended learning sessions.

The main thing I take into account when designing learning and learning strategy is to put myself in the shoes of the people undertaking the training. How would I feel about doing this? If the answer is, I would likely not enjoy it, or even worse I shudder even thinking about it, then it’s time to be nice and put your people first.

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