What can Back to the Future, Star Wars, and Ferris Bueller teach us about e-learning?

21 November 2017 by Matt Watts

Teachers, lecturers, mentors, and wise elderly people are all archetypal fictional characters. Harry has Dumbledore, Frodo has Gandalf, those snooty kids have Mary Poppins.

We love the good teachers and we love to hate the bad ones, because we all have an innate sense of which is which. How do we make sure that our e-learning is more Mr Miyagi than Professor Snape?

personality

Have you ever had a really boring teacher? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the epitome of dull. His monotone drone is like verbal chloroform. He lacks any sort of personality, and that makes him impossible to listen to.

We don’t learn from people like him, so it’s fair to assume that we don’t learn anything from e-learning courses like him.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off | Paramount Studios | 1986

Our courses aim to be more like Robin Williams’ portrayal of John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society. Instead of focusing on dry theory, he tears up the textbook in favour of passion and emotion, he frames his content in a way that engages his students.

We want to do the same – to approach content from an angle that makes it relevant and interesting to our learners. We may not tear our clients’ content apart, but we reword, reorder, and reinvigorate it.

In a recent course about the insurance industry and accounting, we created a narrative about a company who insured film memorabilia. We used animation and visual design that was reminiscent of Hollywood, along with distinctive characters who delivered the information through conversation and interaction.

This gave the dry and complex content a much-needed shot of personality, transforming it into a memorable and entertaining e-learning course.

interactivity

John Keating also has the right idea when it comes to interactivity. He gets the boys involved. He turns poetry into an activity.

It’s easy to lose focus if you’re sitting in a room being talked at; your mind wanders, your eyelids get heavy, and you go into standby mode. You can’t do that when your poetry class has been turned into a football match.

One of the most hateful fictional teachers would have to be Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter.  She does a lot of awful things (torturing students, being nauseatingly patronising, having a truly revolting taste in interior design) but her teaching style is one of the most infuriating.

There is zero engagement. Rather than practising magic, the student witches and wizards merely learn the theory. There is no engagement, no application of knowledge, and no learning through doing.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix | Warner Bros | 2007

When it comes to e-learning, the real magic (if you’ll excuse the pungent cheesiness) is in the interactivity. Even something as simple as a multiple-choice question ensures that learners are active rather than passive, making it more enjoyable and more effective.

For example, in training courses designed to teach learners about new IT systems, we make the screenshots interactive. Instead of the learner just seeing annotated images of the systems, we simulate the way that they’ll have to interact with it.

This gives them the opportunity to learn through doing. It’s the difference between reading a book about how to drive and actually getting behind the wheel.

clarity

Confusing, content not written in standard English can be. He’s a great mentor in a lot of ways, but Yoda doesn’t half complicate things with his distinctive way of speaking.

In our courses, we make sure that the language is clear, accessible, and appropriate for the intended audience. It isn’t about dumbing down, it’s about effective communication.

There’s a bit in Back to the Future II where Doctor Emmet Brown starts talking in sci-fi technobabble and Marty insists he speak in English. With a few simple lines of chalk on a blackboard, the Doc uses plain English to explain alternative realities to Marty and the audience.

While we haven’t yet been asked to produce a course on time travel, we hope we’d manage to be as clear and concise as Doc Brown is here.

In a recent course about a new range of hearing aids, there were a few different factors we had to consider when it came to clarity. As the learners were health care professionals, there was a certain amount of terminology and theory that we had to assume they were aware of.

No one likes to be patronised by an e-learning course. The audience was global, so the course was written in US English.

We also made sure to avoid idioms that might be unfamiliar to those outside the UK. The main challenge was breaking down the complex content, structuring it in a logical way, ensuring that language was conversational, and making it as concise as possible.

We baked the raw content into a well-structured, digestible, and slickly presented course.  

motivation

Are you not entertained? Well you also need to be motivated. Great mentors are great motivators. They give speeches that make you strive to achieve, to be the best that you can be, and to kill a whole load of orcs. While our courses aren’t quite Braveheart we do want our learners to feel a sense of purpose.

Goals and targets give learners something to aim for. One of the ways we do this is by using knowledge checks and assessments.  These can be simple multiple-choice questions, or they can be woven into a narrative.

In some courses we use interactive conversations with characters as a chance for learners to test their own understanding. The goals themselves can also be narrative based – solve the mystery, make your branch the most successful, use health and safety training to not get electrocuted.

Nothing motivates like competition. Fictional characters need an adversary to push them to achieve incredible things. In some of our gamified courses, we created a learner leaderboard. This allowed learners to compete against each other. Engagement is never higher than when learners have the chance to beat their peers!

that’s a wrap

Unfortunately, the words personality, interactivity, clarity and motivation can’t be arranged into a memorable acronym or mnemonic. I’m not sure that the concepts can be distilled into a wise phrase like ‘carpe diem’ or ‘be excellent to each other’ either. Maybe just write them on your hand or something?

Our content studio is packed full of ideas and talent to help you communicate your message so if your learners need a little more Obi-Wan and a little less Trunchbull, get in touch today. We’d be delighted to help you build an Oscar-winning solution!

Matt Watts
Learning Innovation Designer

Matt started his L&D career writing courses but soon discovered that his interest in tinkering with new technology could turn into a full-time role.

He’s spent the last year immersed in the world of chatbots and conversational UX, drawing on the dialogue skills he developed during his Drama and Creative Writing degree to create an e-learning bot with personality and purpose.

He also works with the Headstream team to ensure that our LXP is built on sound learning theory.

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