Making Learner-Centered Content Trustworthy, Clear, and Immersive

March 12, 2024

We’ve distilled optimal digital learner engagement into five key ingredients for High Engagement at Scale in digital learning experiences. We’ll share these ingredients over a series of posts. Our first ingredient to explore with you is learner-centered content.

A learning experience’s success, and that of its learners, hinges on two things: 

  1. how well a given organization knows its learners

  2. how well the content itself is put together. 

Our years of experience in learning at Studion have helped us define five key ingredients to learners’ success in digital learning experiences. They’re interconnected and equally important because all of them boost engagement, which is the defining quality of a well-designed learning experience. Engagement captures a learner’s attention, delivers support, and motivates learners to achieve an intended goal. If learners aren’t engaged, they’re less likely to complete the experience. 

What is Learner-Centered Content?

It can be difficult to define learner-centered content. At Studion, what we mean by learner-centered content is content that focuses on learners’ needs, desires, capabilities, and goals. In person, an instructor teaching anything from martial arts to math to movie-making can hone the content and explanations for specific students. They can see in learners’ faces if their content is landing, where they need to give more explanation, or if they’re losing a student’s attention. Instructors can then pivot as needed. 

But when it comes to online learning, centering learners is much harder. With digital learning experience design, the majority of content is created in advance. This requires organizations to spend time getting to know their learners and their learners’ needs before creating and structuring content. Because instructors often aren’t in the virtual room with their students, there’s little chance to respond in the moment to feedback, so learner needs must be anticipated. Also, attention spans are shorter in the digital world. Students can easily wander to more engaging places on the web. 

Prioritize all learners’ needs

Because multiple individuals use the same digital learning platform at once, organizations and content designers must deeply understand and prioritize which learners they serve. Then they must properly center them in the learning experience they’re creating.

Learner-centered content should include all materials and assets, such as concise video lectures, mini articles, blog posts, select case studies and illustrations, and well-curated resources. When creating learner-centered content, we keep three facets in mind: 

  1. The learner needs to trust the source.

  2. The content must be thoughtfully edited to provide clarity to the learner.

  3. The learner needs to be as immersed in the content as possible. 

Together, these aspects contribute to the best content delivered in a way that deeply engages. 

A trusted source 

In our age of AI-generated material, the ability to trust a source means more than ever. Here’s how we break this down.

At the most basic level, learners need their learning experiences to have high-quality text and media.

The quality of sound and video editing and a consistent language style are crucial in building and maintaining a sense of trust. 

Who the content comes from is equally important.

It’s easiest to build trust if the instructor is well known. While few people knew about MasterClass in 2015, the learning platform launched with Dustin Hoffman teaching acting, Serena Williams instructing tennis, and James Patterson talking about writing. MasterClass continued that model to become a learning giant. Selecting brands that learners believe in builds trust, too. That’s what Coursera does by focusing on places like Stanford University or Google. 

Trust can be built through learners seeing someone like themselves in the content.

When Studion created a learning experience for the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF), an organization that empowers students and families with the knowledge and resources to successfully complete a higher education, we knew that learners needed to see examples of real people from their communities. The courses could have been taught by academic administrators or the organizations that gave the scholarships. Instead, we featured recent HSF alumni and prominent professionals so learners could not only see someone like them, but also someone who they aspired to be. 

Thoughtfully edited content

Content that’s thoughtfully edited means more than a copy edit, consistent use of terminology, and video lessons that have nice intros and outros. That’s just the beginning.

Break each online lesson into a small number of short chunks.

Don’t alienate learners with overly long, unedited lectures or interviews. Instead, use shorter videos, readings, or audio clips. Whatever the format, make sure the content is scripted or edited for maximum potency to preserve learners’ time and attention. In our work on a learning experience with Effie Worldwide, a company focused on marketing effectiveness, we wanted to guide learners carefully in their first course on marketing essentials. Because Effie learners were busy professionals with baseline knowledge in the field, we divided content into two twenty-minute sections with breaks. Learners could go as deep into a topic as they had the time and desire for. 

Include clear sign posts and guidelines so learners don't get lost. 

The best courses make progress visual and clear to keep learners engaged. Project outlines with checkpoints are one of many excellent options. With Effie, we included icons for sections such as a Module Roadmap, a Quick Refresher, and Case Challenge so learners could orient themselves. 

Scaffolding,the use of instruction that gradually removes guidance as the learner progresses, is another key technique when editing and arranging content.

Scaffolded content slowly decreases the hand-holding that characterizes earlier lessons while centering learners as their confidence increases. With Effie, the Case Challenge that concludes each module is the culmination of the scaffolding we built into each lesson. When learners get to the challenge, they’ve already gone through the steps to learn and assess their learning. The challenge is an opportunity to test their knowledge.

An immersive experience

The words “immersive content” often make people think of virtual or augmented reality, which are engaging technologies but often unaffordable and not always a great fit in a learning experience. Striving for immersion is an absolute must, however, and there are other ways to accomplish it.

Vary the types of content presented. 

Learner-centered content pays attention to what formats and variety make the most engaging mix for the audience. If learners just watch video after video, they get bored. We can make that same content more compelling and dynamic by mixing up audio, video, visuals, and text rather than having pages of writing to scroll through. 

Invite deep thought by encouraging reflection.

Prompting learners to routinely reflect on content increases learner engagement. For example, our learning experience with HSF took care to include reflection questions after every video. 

Leverage storytelling techniques to draw in and captivate learners. 

As Lani Peterson writes in “The Science behind the Art of Storytelling,” “Scientists are discovering that chemicals like cortisol, dopamine and oxytocin are released in the brain when we’re told a story….If we are trying to make a point stick, cortisol assists with our formulating memories. Dopamine, which helps regulate our emotional responses, keeps us engaged…[and] oxytocin is associated with empathy, an important element in building, deepening, or maintaining good relationships.” An example of this in action is when HSF alumni shared personal stories from their lives as part of every micro-lesson. 

Real World Example of learner-centered content in asynchronous online courses 

Several years ago, Goddard Riverside decided to expand their in-person and Zoom offerings to reach a wider audience. As an organization that trains high school college counselors in how to prepare students for college applications and career searches, they have a specialized training curriculum. They needed this curriculum to remain high-quality and accessible, no matter how it’s delivered. Our challenge in working with them was: how could we create a set of asynchronous online courses that met these criteria and kept the focus on the learner?  

Guided by our approach to learner-centered content, we created multiple assessments of different types based in real-world scenarios, interactive experiences that simulated advising a student, and videos featuring stories from real staff and college counselors. Together these elements combined into a successful digital learning experience that accomplishes both Goddard Riverside’s and their learners’ goals.

Pulling the Threads Together

Understanding who your learners are and centering content around their needs, desires, and abilities will improve trust, retention, motivation, and engagement. Without engagement and motivation, learners can’t learn. Higher engagement results in meaningful outcomes for learners and for the organizations that serve them. This first ingredient of learner-centered content is a key consideration in the construction of a successful digital learning experience.

Does your learning experience meet High Engagement at Scale benchmarks?

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