E-learning and Webinars Can Both Benefit From a Non-Linear Approach

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The late British playwright Harold Pinter once wrote a play called Betrayal that begins at the end of the story and works its way "back" to the beginning. It's very powerful to see the ending first—the play involves a love triangle—and then watch the actions of the characters that led to there.

I also once heard author John Irving describe how he penned his novel A Prayer for Owen Meany; he pictured the very last scene and then asked himself, how did this character get there? It was a fascinating look into the mind of one of America's great novelists.

I was reminded of those stories this morning reading a column by Kristen Parker on the Event Garde blog. In discussing a new e-book by instructional strategist Ethan Edwards on the 10 principles for creating a meaningful e-learning program, she chooses the three most important. The first one is this:

"Design the end of your lesson first. This may go against how many of us learn. And for linear thinkers, perhaps this concept presents a challenge. But think about it. How many times have you started a project with raging enthusiasm, only to run out of steam by the end? Edwards contends many instructional designers focus so much attention on presentation that sometimes content gets lost. So to avoid playing The Little Engine That Could, Edwards suggests designing the end of a module first to allow designers to expend the most energy and effort on the part of the lesson that matters most."

There's no rule that says everything we do has to be linear. Ken Molay, who writes the excellent column, The Webinar Blog, once advised this: "Instead of going from slide 1 to slide 40 in sequence, separate your information into subtopics. Ask your attendees to vote on which is most important to them and what you should cover first, next, last."

"You can still get through everything you wanted to say, but you give your viewers the illusion of control," Molay continued. They feel in charge of the content they receive." I recall a famous screenwriter saying that rule one is to tell your story in a non-linear way with jumps and flashbacks. I hadn't applied that thinking to webinars, but Molay wants presenters to tell a story, so it makes sense.

Over the years, I've always emphasized that when two or more people proof something—a program, a document, a script—one person should start from the back. As Parker wrote above, our energy level is just so much higher at the beginning—especially with something like proofing which takes lots of concentration.

In his aforementioned e-book on e-learning (I'll refrain from any e-comments), Edwards adds more to the argument of not saving the best for last.

"In almost all cases, an e-learning module should build to a valuable outcome. It is the culminating interactions/simulations/evaluations that most clearly embody the hoped-for learning outcomes. Yet many designers misplace their most creative design energy by designing linearly, focusing so much on initial content presentation (that has relatively little impact), and then run out of time, money, or energy by the time they are ready to tackle the interactions that will actually make some difference.

"This violates the way that Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) tend to share their content, but the actual presentation of information will have little significant impact on learning. The interactions will. Start designing the end of a module first. Create activities that truly display performance change. By starting here in sketching and prototyping, you will apply your most productive and creative design efforts to the part of the lesson that matters most."

The action that he recommends? "Focus your initial design energy on interactivity." That actually jibes pretty well with Molay—and Pinter. What better way to get an audience immediately involved than by giving them the high drama first?

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…