You can pretty much teach anything to anyone if you can find a way to put it into terms that they understand. I've talked in a previous blog about analogical e-learning, or in simple terms, making learning relevant to your learners, but here I want to look a little deeper at running a theme or metaphor through a piece of e-learning. Why? The reasons are two-fold; firstly I believe that teaching by relevance may be the single most important factor in learning and secondly it helps to immerse your learners in what they're doing. Think of it like being in a simulator, if that simulator keeps turning on and off you would lose the experience and then you're just playing a game or doing an activity and you're not fully immersed and engaged.
I mentioned theme and this is really important for us. Let's take an example of producing a learning piece for a company selling sports fitness equipment. Their learning piece is intended to show staff how to use their equipment so they can demo it effectively to customers and potential customers. Your start out menu could be a simple corporate type brand with a menu of equipment, or it could be the inside of a gym with the equipment in it that you select from. The gym would be cool - particularly if the equipment animated on hover or selection (again, don't get too carried away with the animations etc - read my previous blog on "Smoke and Mirrors" for more on this!). But then if you did this and then the weights bench and weights section was just logo with standard 'next' type buttons and boring screens you've wasted the 'environment' you created before. What would be cool is if your weights bench was beneath you and you now had things to do with your weights - I don't know, put them on the bar or reach for a towel or whatever. If nothing else your buttons could be gym type buttons rather than the arrows ">" or such.
I joked recently whilst doing our Kineo Christmas function of paintball that it was difficult to know what to do with the gun as nowhere there was a 'next' button or arrow to click, but it's true and it's stagnant and boring. In this case I want to pull the trigger or load or something. As an aside is 'click next to learn more' one of the best examples of overestimation or just plainly inaccurate? I digress and get back to the gym to continue. Next buttons aside, the whole immersive experience relies on consistency throughout. So if I'm giving an example of a customer needing gym equipment, then I want to run with that customer having a certain type of question and consistency; if they're asking questions that show a certain level of existing knowledge then I need to keep that user at or around that knowledge base or it doesn't ring true - and if it doesn't ring true it can't be immersive. For example, Karen asks to show how additional weights are added to the bar and the staff (learner) picks the options to show her, she then wants to be shown how to perform the most basic of exercises on the machine. All good. Now she asks if the tension bands are calibrated to x degrees and made from the latest poylcarbonate do-dah and what their relative psi is at 60% expansion. Not good, how did she go from not knowing anything to knowing in-depth stuff that no-body but super-advanced users would now? It doesn't ring true because it isn't true and so Karen isn't real. Karen is a rank amateur and needs to stay that way to be Karen. If you want to scenario those type of questions bring in a different character.
So using this great scenario approach is great but their are pitfalls. Just like writing a book (yeah, 'cos I've clearly written plenty so I'm qualified to give out advice on this), base your characters on experiences or even people you know. I hate really super smiley characters who ask really difficult questions, because in my experiences on this planet, that's not the way that people who ask difficult bloody questions look. Karen, could be smiley (hey, they say ignorance is bliss) because she asks really easy questions and is non-threatening. What would be great is if your learning could shape the way your character behaves (without changing the very nature of your character of course). So after Karen comes Geoff. He asks the sort of questions some customers like to ask to make it sound like they know plenty and make you feel small. He's very critical and a little blunt. If one path through your learning involves you matching his style what would you expect Geoff to do? He'd probably get mad and walk out or show his displeasure at being ill-treated in some other similar fashion. So if you're correctly running your scenario and you allow the user to treat Geoff this way then make Geoff respond the way you would expect. Again it's all about making that metaphor believable. You can get a great result where Geoff is actually happy with your answers, but don't expect Geoff to turn into mister smiley nicey at the end, because that's not who Geoff is.
I mentioned a little earlier around the graphical use on your learning, but the same goes for backgrounds, controls and overall look and feel. Think of it a little like the early days of Powerpoint and Clipart. Clipart can be really useful, but when it's used with different colours, characters and completely non-releavant stuff on slides it does more than just not help, it detracts. Same here, don't chuck in random background images or stuff that's nearly right. For example if my gym and characters are photo type, then I don't suddenly bring in a cartoon type character or vice versa. Sounding somewhat like a broken record it's a consistency thing and you're trying to create an environment that the user can relate to, and that goes right down to the imagery and colour schemes used.
So armed with some great metaphors and characters in mind, it's time to take your metaphors and run with them; hey what else would you expect characters to do in a gym than run?