“Interaction” is an industry buzzword both course developers and learners crave in the modern online learning environment. Today’s instructional designers must learn how to navigate the rise of the hyperactive e-learner, namely, the incoming (or existing) employees who power-click through content for completion, not retention.

Overcoming this obstacle begins first by understanding the motivation behind power-clicking, and then applying this knowledge to course design.

Motivational Breakdown

The motivation behind power-clicking stems from the belief that achieving a check mark for completion, as quickly as possible, will result in more time to do what is meaningful.

Despite good intentions and trending design efforts, if a user displays this behavior, he/she either a) does not perceive the course to be meaningful, or b) perceives something else to be of greater value at that given point in time.

What Feeds This Mindset?

Several components play a role in influencing this behavior pattern, including today’s culture that values instant gratification, speed and accessibility of technology, and the average human attention span.

However, the most significant factor at play often remains overlooked: how an individual’s past learning experiences have impacted his or her attitude toward adult learning. After all, experience drives expectation.

In relation to employee learning, the majority of these expectations are derived from college and university courses. Understanding the online learning environment in higher education is crucial to successfully creating content that eliminates stereotypes at the corporate level.

The Online Learning Environment in Higher Education

Traditionally, online college courses include elements of instructional videos, corresponding PowerPoint slides in a PDF format, and standard open or closed-note exams. Interaction is measured through group discussion boards, where posting a reply to a fellow classmate is required.

Grades for written course components are typically given for effort, and monitoring online exams is virtually impossible. Often, searching for the answer to a quiz question on Google produces the entire answer key, enabling the learner to quickly — and effectively — achieve a passing grade. Is this cheating or mere resourcefulness? Some college students would suggest the latter.

These past experiences serve as a precursor to assumptions employees make about future online learning.

Where Does Existing E-learning Miss the Mark?

Given what we know about the motivation behind power-clicking, it’s safe to say that learners search for what is meaningful. Without this knowledge, the corporate e-learning industry tends to approach the behavior of power-clicking from a narrowed view, focusing instead on incorporating new technology to solve a perceived attention span deficit.

The following statistics create a compelling argument:

  • According to a study by Microsoft, the average humanbeing now has an attention span of eight seconds.
  • A large scale study by MIT found that the optimal video length is under six minute
  • Advertisers lose 33% of their video audience within 30 seconds; 45% within one minute; and 60% within two minutes.

Adapting online learning to meet specific time constraints seems like the logical solution if (mistakenly) maintaining a learner’s attention is the end goal.

Evolving industry trends such as gamification, microlearning and virtual reality offer ample opportunity for user interaction. Though these trends provide revolutionary and necessary advancements within the learning industry, technology often creates a mindset that attention is linked to interaction. The thought process follows: If a user engages with the material, he or she is paying attention, and if the user is paying attention, learning objectives are more readily achieved.

However, there is a distinct flaw in this equation. While virtual engagement can be tracked by number of “clicks,” slide-views or expected duration, attention is not a measurable outcome and, therefore, cannot accurately track learning.

Why is Attention Not a Measurable Outcome?

Measurable learning objectives exist to quantify the amount of information a learner has obtained from instruction. Learning goals such as “to know” or “to understand” are impossible to measure on their own, but pair them with an action verb and you can accurately achieve desired results (i.e., “At the conclusion of this course, the learner will be able to list three ways product x differs from product y”).  Attention falls into this same category.

Outright, clicking for completion is a learned behavior. Experienced e-learners, regardless of age, know they don’t have to pay attention to pass a course, or even to accomplish a larger goal such as obtaining a degree.

The inability to quantify attention and, thus, link it to interaction or engagement, can be shown by examining the optimal video length of six minutes and applying it to several experiences:

  • Have you made a work-related call and spoke to someone longer than six minutes?
  • Have you recently watched a movie that was over six minutes and not checked your phone or talked to the person next to you?
  • Have you had dinner with someone and engaged in conversation longer than six minutes?
  • Have you read a story to your child or tried a new bedtime routine that lasted longer than six minutes?

These questions might be tricky to answer, but if you think about even one instance where you surpassed this expected timeframe, it is evident that attention has nothing to do with counting minutes or, according to Microsoft, seconds.

Moreover, our brains are not hardwired to countdown this specific timeframe, sound an alarm, and go, “Well, that’s it! Move on!

While it is important to keep up with new technology and teaching strategies, applying this new perspective on a professional level can ultimately help us conclude that directly providing meaning and purpose supersedes the way in which information is delivered (i.e., storytelling, gamification, AR/VR).

Applying This Knowledge to Corporate Training

When approaching corporate learning, employees know the value of time, particularly their free time.

The average employee spends approximately 1% of the work week engaging in training and development. This means that the majority of assigned courses must be completed outside of standard office hours.

Monetizing free time can now be calculated by participation and demand for new time-saving services such as curbside pick-up, meal-kit subscriptions and even grocery delivery. Willingness to pay a premium price in order to save time for what is meaningful runs parallel to the motivation of the hyperactive e-learner.

From the learner’s perspective, several questions come to mind when approaching an online training: How will this course help me, today, to earn more money or advance my career? Will this information help me tomorrow, or is this technique simply a fad? Can I get this information from another source? How does my success depend on learning this material?

If these questions are not appropriately answered, new technology and interaction unintentionally create a burden to the user. Establishing purpose, direction and value can take top trends in technology to the next level and regain user excitement toward e-learning.

Overcoming the Hyperactive E-learner

For a simple solution, visualize a middle school math class. Specifically, visualize the one student who, in every class, without fail, raises a hand and asks, “When am I ever going to need to know this?” For adolescents, the answer to the “why” question is typically, “because I said so” or, “because you have to.”

How often is this attitude taken with adults (“because it’s your job”)?

For instructional designers, specifically and directly answering this question is the key to overcoming the hyperactive e-learner.

The challenge now exists to change the game for adult learning. Pre-emptively stating the purpose at the start of every course, even if it seems obvious, is the best way to create immediate impact. This goes beyond merely alluding to the “why” in learning objectives. Although learning objectives show purpose on an administrative and/or managerial level, they are rarely read by the learner.

If a course is not relevant in the immediate future to an employee, consider making it optional versus mandatory. This gives control back to the learner by allowing him or her to choose a course based on personal value, elevating willing participation in the course.

The second step in overcoming the hyperactive e-learning is to link the assessment to a real, applicable task an employee does on a daily or weekly basis. Exams, whether formal or informal, measure the level in which an individual comprehends information.

Providing opportunity to practice a newly learned skill or apply newly acquired knowledge further solidifies the meaning and purpose provided at the beginning of restructured courses. Minimizing power-clicking is about creating meaning, rather than striving for engagement, and aligning that meaning with learners’ current job roles.

To expedite course development, keep these three questions in the forefront of your mind:

  1. What do I want my learner to know?
  2. How do I want my learner to apply it?
  3. Why does this matter (i.e., what immediate impact can the learning have on learners’ success)?

“Quality over quantity” holds true when developing or evaluating existing e-learning libraries. And, as the value of time has exponentially increased, the power of the “why” has never been more important to the success of both corporate and adult learning.