Rio 2016 Olympics

What the Olympics can teach us about eLearning

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Well if you’ve been watching the TV at all for the past couple of days then you’ve seen that the Olympics are in full swing in Rio, Brazil this year.  Now at this point you might be wondering what on earth the Olympics have to do with eLearning.  After all the Olympics are the institutional embodiment of everything physical rather than digital.  They’re all about human beings pushing themselves physically to the heights of skill and endurance for both personal and national glory.  And you would be right, that on the surface that has very little to do with eLearning.  But underneath there are some interesting commonalities and lessons that can be learned.

We Pay Attention to what’s Important

When was the last time you saw a group of people so invested in synchronized diving?  When was the last time you even thought the words “synchronized diving” together before this week?  The 2016 Olympics includes 42 different sports broken up into 306 events, and most people would have a hard time even imagining what most of those events would be throughout the last 3 years.  But during these Olympic games everyone cares.  They care about Badminton, Handball, and more types of Gymnastics than I as a layman can really differentiate.  They care because for these couple of days those sports are important.

And how does that relate to eLearning?  Well the simple truth of the matter is that we only pay attention to what matters.  Last year you would be hard pressed to find someone with an opinion on the Modern Pentathalon, but now that it’s an important event people will not only pay attention to it, they’ll offer criticism as if they were an informed expert.  One of the problems that continually plagues eLearning courses is that people just don’t think they matter, ironically this feeling is often exacerbated if the course is mandatory.  So if we want people as engaged with our courses as they are engaged with an Olympic sport they didn’t even know existed before this week, then we have to tap into that same feeling of importance.

It’s a Rare and Special Event

Part of the reason the Olympics have such an aura of importance, and so easily capture the imagination of so many is that they occur only every four years.  You can’t just turn on the TV and see the Olympics whenever you want, they’re only available at a specific time, and that scarcity helps feed into how important they are.  

For eLearning then, the takeaway is obvious: less is more.  If your team begins every day with another eLearning course they’re going to get bored fast, no matter how engaging the content may be.  Anyone with 500 channels of cable knows that constant novelty can paradoxically offer its own special type of monotony, and we want to avoid that at all costs, because if it feels monotonous it doesn’t feel important, and if it doesn’t feel important we won’t pay attention.

Less is more should be the mantra both within the course and without.  Internally every piece of eLearning should be tightly edited so that it communicates exactly what it needs to without wasting any time.  And externally courses should not be offered for just anything.  To offer an overly simple example, no one needs an eLearning module on the office’s lunch policy.  On the other hand an eLearning module that offers crucial best practices that will help everyone do their jobs better, well that’s a special event.

It’s a Serious Production

Whether the Olympics are special because they’re a serious production, or they’re a serious production because they are special is a bit of a chicken and egg question.  However one thing you cannot deny is that the Olympics are a huge production.  Whether it’s the pageantry of the opening and closing ceremonies or just the logistics of having all those sporting events and hosting all those people, the Olympics has a lot going on, and that’s part of why we watch.  We want to see something lavish and spectacular, and we want to watch as someone wins big by a narrow margin.  It’s the spectacle of the thing.

And while it may seem weird to imagine that eLearning can be a spectacle, it absolutely can.  Whether it’s presenting your content with high quality production values, or using an interactive scenario or model rather than a simple quiz format, it is possible to take an eLearning course and make it a production which can actually captivate people’s attention.

Rooting for your Team

But when it comes to captivating people’s attention, there’s nothing quite as good as the feeling of rooting for your team.  You may not be an expert on the sport, but you can still cheer when your country wins the Gold.  There’s nothing quite like that feeling, and it’s one of the reasons we always have, and always will love sports.

And while it might seem a little contrived to offer members of your team gold medals for completing an eLearning course, there’s no reason it has to be quite so on the nose.  Take an inter-departmental competition for example.  Something as simple as competing to be the first department to have a 100% completion rate on a course, can help increase buy in from people who might otherwise have put it off for a later time and forgotten about it.  Or, on an even higher level, framing the course content in terms of an achievement for your team.  By getting your employees to see themselves as a team in fact, as well as in name, will help not only with engagement on an eLearning course, but also with engagement in other areas as well.