What Makes for Truly Engaging eLearning? – Clark Quinn

This guest post from Dr. Clark Quinn explores how to make learning solutions more engaging and more importantly meaningful to the learners. Hint, it’s much more than quizzes, graphics and fun activities.


Why, despite all the fine production values and clever interactions available, is our eLearning so dreadful? It is, sad to say. The general lack of clamor for more eLearning by learners is a clear indication. The question becomes one of ‘why’. And I’ll suggest that the answer is an insufficient awareness of what truly leads to engagement.

Let’s be clear. Production values matter. The lack of them generally induces a lack of trust in the quality of the material. Similarly, we do need interactions. Yet, learners stay away in droves. Why? That’s the story we have to unpack.

What we want, what we need is true engagement. What is this? It goes deeper than merely having an appealing appearance and a regular series of clicks. We want to integrate the heart and the mind in a deeper experience, one that’s truly meaningful. One that takes interactions into a more important direction.

What we’re talking about is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. And it comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from where we start. There’s a phenomenon of expertise that it is ‘compiled’ away. That is, it becomes automated in a way that is below conscious inspection. As a consequence, our experts can’t tell us 70% of what they do, according to research from the Cognitive Technology group at the University of Southern California.

What experts do have access to is what they know. So, we get a large amount of information to present. Which we dutifully test to make sure they know it. And that’s not fun. (It’s also not going to lead to any ability to do.) We can try to cover it up with points, badges, & leader boards, but it’s still knowledge dump and information test.

If we’re going to make learning meaningful, it has to be about doing things that learners recognize as valuable. And that includes material they need to know, but then applied to what they recognize they need to be able to do. Which means you can’t just take what SMEs tell you, you have to dig deeper. You need to find the decisions that learners need to be able to make.

There’s a second aspect to making meaningful learning. When learners practice relevant tasks, they want to practice them in settings that they are interested in. As Henry Jenkins, then a professor at MIT, opined: “Choose a role that the player would want to be in”.

When we put these together, integrating the emotional side of intriguing settings and the cognitive side of meaningful tasks, we have an experience that’s effective and engaging. It’s this alignment that powered my book on learning game design, Engaging Learning, and underpins my workshop on learning experience design at the upcoming Learning Solutions conference. I’ve also got a new twist, pushing the envelope further, and we’ll talk about not just engaging, but transformative learning experiences. I hope to see you there!


Clark  will be presenting a powerful work shop at Learning Solutions Conference & Expo in Orlando. Join him on Monday, March 25, 2019 for Learning Experience Design: Integrating Engagement and Learning Science where you’ll learn that “designing engagement isn’t a one-off thing, it’s a set of systematic yet creative actions that reliably yield experiences that are effective and appropriately engage emotions.” 

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