Performance improvement professionals are naturally curious about how individuals learned their profession. How were they trained? Did they shadow a senior coworker, listen to lectures, take e-learning courses or jump into role-play activities? How has their training shaped their performance?

This is where the benefits of e-learning become relevant. E-learners can practice their skills in a safe environment without having an impact on their co-workers and customers. That being said, learning professionals who create training for those in high-risk professions have been at the forefront of developing realistic training simulations.

For example, it’s important to train medical professionals to make life-and-death decisions on a daily basis while still providing them with a safe place to hone their skills. Realistic e-learning has a strong advantage by providing real-world situations in a risk-free, online setting.

Professionals in high-risk work environments are not the only ones who can benefit from real-world experiences in e-learning. Learning professionals use many techniques to incorporate realistic situations in learning solutions.

Why are real-world experiences effective in e-learning?

Realistic scenarios in e-learning are effective because they can be easily recreated to mirror the learners’ work environment, enabling them to apply their new skills quicker.

E-learning also offers the opportunity to model behaviors such as the use of avatars.

“Creating avatars and having a learner perform a task as an avatar influences that person’s actual behavior outside of the virtual environment,” states Karl Kapp in his book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education.

Tools and techniques to create real-world experiences

Instructional and visual designers use numerous tools and techniques to create realistic scenarios in e-learning. Here are a few powerful techniques:

Avatars: For the past decade, the use of avatars has shifted from being a hallmark of high-end, highly interactive training to a more commonly used, cost-effective method of adding engagement in training courses. Recent trends suggest a move away from a playful, 2-D cartoon style and instead towards realistic 3-D characters more akin to virtual worlds and high-end video games.

Software simulation: Any organization that handles customer data needs a safe environment to train its employees. Software training with simulations has been a cornerstone of e-learning since its inception. The move towards a platform that offers robust learning through discovery, provides learners with the opportunities to explore, attempt to complete tasks, correct themselves by following hints and coach them to stay on track.

Environments: When learners begin an immersive e-learning course, they should feel as if they’ve stepped into an office, store or warehouse. You’ve grabbed their attention and they’re anticipating what’s next. The incorporation of realistic 3-D environments and the use of different camera angles and motions can make learners feel as if they are moving through the environment as they would in real life.

Story: While the aesthetics of an e-learning course play a major role in creating a real-world situation, the immersive experience can quickly be broken if the tone, dialogue and text suddenly feels unbalanced. A story is critical to creating realism in e-learning and courses are often based on real-world case studies and scenarios. For example, in an office situation we may mimic a learner’s typical workday including the emails they would receive, phone calls they would make and meetings they would attend. All content needs to mirror real life and avatar dialogue needs to be conversational and appropriate for the profession. Cindy McCabe has an excellent two-part blog series on storytelling for simulations.

Creating real-world experiences in e-learning courses

Learning professionals must work within the confines of the clients’ budget and timeline. Consider these constraints part of the challenge. A few tips to help you get started:

  • Refer to your learning objectives and identify what’s most important and complex for learners to grasp. If you aren’t able to make the whole course an immersive simulation, target your efforts where they will have the greatest impact.
  • Meet with the audience. Interacting with your audience will allow you to get a sense of their work environment and culture. The inputs will inform your use of photos, illustration and animation (depending on your budget). It will make the course more relatable to your learners.
  • Plan some time to meet with subject-matter experts and gather case studies that can be used as the basis for scenarios. Look for the special nuances that make the company and its audience unique. You can use this content as a lead-in for multiple-choice questions, effectively asking the audience to analyze and evaluate a situation.
  • Use avatars. Photo-based avatars are a low-budget alternative to walking and talking characters. While avatars are not as high on the engagement scale, they still add realism to the learning experience. Stock photo sites now offer more options with the same model in multiple poses.

Should e-learning courses always be as realistic as possible?

You might be wondering if moving toward developing real-world experiences in e-learning courses is a solid instructional strategy in all situations. In many cases it is—but you might find there are some cases where not including all the details has benefits as well. Karl Kapp describes this approach as “abstraction from reality.”

For example, learning games that have a broader theme unrelated to the learner’s work environment or using game elements, can be very effective. Turning a routine set of tasks to be learned into a team-based race against the clock increases engagement and collaboration. Incorporating a mood meter into a hospitality simulation gives learners instant feedback about their actions.

It is important to simplify the details and focus on the learning objectives with real-world experiences in e-learning. If a typical sales engagement takes several days, the clock will speed up within the e-learning scenario to fit a reasonable seat time and keep the learner’s interest.

John-Carlos Lozano’s blog post “Focusing on Objectives with Abstraction in Gamification,” offers more examples of abstraction from reality. It explains the benefits of using this approach in e-learning courses, simulations and face-to-face training.

There are many considerations that go into creating the best e-learning solution for a specific audience and environment.