• Adding the human touch to digital learning content

    Posted by Admin in Artist News on January 21, 2018

    Learning is a very human experience. To learn successfully, it requires us as human beings to exchange information, give and receive feedback, share perspectives, engage together in practical activities, support each other through the bad times and get together to celebrate our successes. People need people.

    According to Dr John Medina, ‘Our ability to learn has deep roots in relationships. Our learning performance may be deeply affected by the emotional environment in which the learning takes place.’ The foundation for a good relationship is a teacher or trainer – or writer of learning content – who is credible with learners. This person needs to be friendly and show respect for learners while at the same time setting high standards and exhibiting confidence in the ability of learners to achieve great things. In short: ‘Relationships matter when attempting to teach human beings.’

    In an ideal world, we would probably provide personalised support for every learner, but this gets more and more unrealistic as online learning groups get larger. We need to find ways to retain that essential human quality to the learning experience even when we have a great many learners.

    One way we can all do that is through the content that we provide to learners – the videos, the podcasts, the self-study materials and the job aids. It is easy to see these as impersonal ‘corporate’ resources but they don’t have to be like that. Content is just another way of connecting ‘teachers’ with ‘learners’.

    The best content provides no barrier to this connection. Just like when you read a great book – you’re not interacting with paper, you’re participating in a storytelling experience. That’s why videos are so popular in online courses – they provide that all too important ‘teacher presence’. But interactive content and reference materials can achieve similar results.

    Professor Richard Mayer’s ‘personalisation principle’ holds that you will achieve better results with multimedia learning content when you adopt a friendly, conversational tone, a phenomenon which he attributes to the fact that this more closely resembles a person-to-person interaction. Text that uses a formal, impersonal, third-person style tends to make the author seem invisible, whereas the use of first-person narrative makes each student feel as through the teacher is communicating directly with them.

    Learning designer Cathy Moore has long railed against what she calls ‘corporate drone’, a formalised style used often in workplace learning materials, which comes over as impersonal, lacking in authenticity and un-engaging. Like Richard Mayer, she argues that when you write learning content in a conversational style, there is a greater chance that the learner will react to the content as they would to a real teacher; in effect, the teacher communicates to them personally through the medium of the computer, much as they would face-to-face or through the pages of a book.

    Professors Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves argue that our interactions with computers are fundamentally social and natural, just like interactions in real life. We respond emotionally to the human characteristics exhibited by on-screen text and voiceover. Even though we know very well at an intellectual level that we are only interacting with software and not directly with a real person, emotionally it matters to us whether the software communicates with us in a polite and friendly manner. Similarly, Mayer found that people learn better from a human voiceover, rather than one synthesised by a computer, further emphasising our desire for a more human relationship with our virtual teacher.

    With the increasing focus on artificial intelligence (AI), we might be led to believe that the human touch is becoming less of a necessity but the only difference with AI is that we don’t have as great a need for real, human teachers to give their time to individual students. The tone adopted by an AI environment still needs to be friendly and encouraging and, of course, every phrase employed by an AI interface has been input at some point by a real person. He or she would be well advised to remember that learners want to be treated with humanity.

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