How to design motivating eLearning: Autonomy

The legendary game designer Sid Meier (Civilization, Starship, Railroad Tycoon) once claimed that a good game is a series of interesting choices. In the context of a learning experience, interesting choices make learning feel like a game. 

Reminder: what is Autonomy? 

Autonomy is the sense that what I’m doing is not a strictly predetermined task, but rather something which am in control of. It’s one of the three main pillars of motivation, along with Mastery and Purpose.

Let’s also recall that gamification is a set of motivational design principles. Therefore, any gamification schema must have all three main elements of motivation in mind. And any eLearning design must at least ensure that there is no conflict between user tasks and what needs to happen for users to feel motivated.  

Go back to your school days! Remember how excited everyone got when a teacher offered the class a choice over what to do next? Or when they told the class that they were free to approach a task in whatever way they wanted? This is because the sense of autonomy was heightened, and motivation increased. 

The practical side of things 

Designing a learning experience that keeps asking trainees what they want to do next is not only extremely challenging, but also not particularly advisable. Certain learning objects need to be seen and certain tasks need to be performed by everyone. I like to think of motivational design as a slight deviation from classic eLearning design.

When we gamify, we’re not creating game-based learning. This is a different story altogether. Rather, we add sprinklings of game elements to make things more interesting – and to encourage specific user behaviors. 

Design elements that promote the sense of Autonomy 

There are literally countless ways to make our trainees feel that they’re masters of their own fate. Below is a list of a few popular ones! 

  • Branched scenarios. In story-based learning, this design technique creates different outcomes depending on the users’ choices. This is also known as a ‘choices matter’ design, and motivates users by making them feel impactful.  
  • Alternative learning paths. The practice of giving trainees more than one ways to attain a learning objective. For instance, one path could include a reading passage, a video and a quiz; another starts with the same video, skips the reading passage, and offers a longer quiz. 
  • Interface customisation. The ability for the user to change the interface to suit their preferences. Fully developed learning environments allow users to change the location of buttons or other controls, to maximise the display area, to hide or show secondary menu items, and to change the interface skin. 
  • Ability to determine difficulty levels. For instance, allowing users to select whether they will experience the “beginner”, “intermediate” or “advanced” version of a learning object.  
  • Avatar customisation. Straight from the game design industry, this allows users to determine how they appear to others inside a system. 

Also remember to avoid some very common demotivating practices (unfortunately seen in too many modern instructional design efforts): 

  • Not allowing users to skip or fast-forward long videos.  
  • Blocking users from moving forward unless a challenging task is completed with a perfect grade. 
  • Not allowing users to review or retake learning objects, lessons or courses. 

Beware of too much choice! 

Feeling autonomous doesn’t mean standing in front of a blank canvas without any guidance. Learning is a structured experience, and it’s often the case that things must happen in a certain order, in a certain way, and using certain tools. Also, keep in mind that too much choice can cause confusion and waste time. 

Next article: Mastery!  

In the meantime… 

Watch Dan Pink give a richly entertaining talk about autonomy, mastery and purpose on TED!  

Unless of course you want a chat with one of our eLearning designers? Get in touch! 🙂

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