Lights, camera, elearning!

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Written by Robert Gentle on 25 November 2020 in Opinion

Robert Gentle on what we can learn from cinema and television.

The ‘e’ in elearning stands for electronic; but it should also stand for engaging and entertaining. This is lost on the elearning industry; and that’s why so many courses are boring and uninspiring.

Depending on which study you quote, the proportion of people who actually finish the courses they start is as low as 3% or as high as 12%. Lack of engagement is a key reason. That certainly mirrors my own experience on platforms like LinkedIn Learning, Udemy and SkillShare.

Elearning tends to be dull and tedious because the medium is not understood. Workshops and lectures are merely transferred to screen, but with sexier slides. Death by PowerPoint has given way to Death by Talking Head.

Contrast this approach with cinema. When a book is made into a movie, it changes. The movie is shorter, has fewer characters and a simplified storyline. You can’t just cut and paste a book onto the screen; it’s a different medium.

Workshops and lectures are merely transferred to screen, but with sexier slides. Death by PowerPoint has given way to Death by Talking Head

Similarly, a TV news broadcast isn’t just a cut-and-paste of a radio news broadcast; it’s a carefully scripted mix of sound and visuals. Even TV documentaries, a form of elearning, manage to both engage and teach.
Despite obvious content differences and viewer expectations, elearning is also a visual medium that needs to keep people engaged. Here are some obvious lessons:

  • Keep it short. Movies typically run for around 90 minutes, TV news bulletins 30 minutes and documentaries 60 minutes. These are lengths most people are comfortable with. A lot of elearning, on the other hand, is long – five hours or more is not uncommon. That’s a long time to sit still, especially with no popcorn.
  • Stay focused. A TV documentary explores a single theme for an hour. This encourages the viewer to watch in one sitting, which helps learning and retention. Many online courses, on the other hand, don’t have a strong theme; they’re all over the place with too much material. This forces you to come back later when you have time. Imagine watching a movie in five-minute chunks over several days when you have time!
  • Have a killer intro. If you don’t hook your viewer in the first five minutes with something intriguing or compelling, you’ve lost them. Even TED speakers open with an interesting story. How do elearning courses start? 'Hello. My name is...  I have many years of experience... Let me tell you why this course is important for your career..... What we’re going to learn today is... “ Shoot me now.
  • Talk less, show more. In movies and on TV, people don’t talk all the time; that’s because what’s happening on-screen is used to convey information. This is known in the industry as ‘show, don’t tell’. In most elearning courses, it’s the opposite: the talking is pretty much non-stop, with very little visual material. It’s all ‘tell’ and no ‘show’.
  • Use humour. Why are most course presenters so earnest and serious? How about the occasional witticism, ironic remark or cartoon? Hell, even tragic movies have moments of levity.

What’s needed in elearning is a consumer mindset. We’re dealing with viewers, not learners. The question is not: how can I convert all of my material into a comprehensive online course? Rather, it’s: what aspects of my material can I put across as engagingly as possible in the space of an hour or so? Then people might actually want to watch all the way through.


About the author

Robert Gentle runs the training company



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Submitted on 27 November, 2020 - 11:55
Good article. 'Talk less, show more' is good - reminds me of Nancy Duarte's advice that slide presentations should be a 'conversation with pictures'. Visuals can convey so much in an instant.


Submitted on 27 November, 2020 - 12:27
thanks for the comment Dawn - glad you enjoyed the piece! Jon, TJ

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