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Online Learning is no Child’s Play

My 1.5-year-old baby jumped in excitement and clapped her hands in glee! What was the excitement all about? She had just learnt a new nursery rhyme, Baa Baa Black Sheep! She was always thrilled to learn new things-to scribble with a crayon, to learn dance steps, to learn words and to learn new ways of being naughty! I looked at her and being a Learning and Development professional, wistfully thought of the learners in my classroom training, "I wish each one of my students was so excited about learning." Then, I pondered further and thought about online learners. How does a trainer engage learners who are sitting remotely and doing an online training alone, without any view to their immediate reactions? What if, we, as trainers and instructional designers could make our online courses so involving that our learners stop viewing them as just an organisational mandate? How do we get our learners to be eager to do an e-learning course?

I am thinking 'Motivation' and the theory of 'Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs' comes to mind. Maslow’s Theory indicates that there are 5 levels of needs-Physiological, Safety, Social, Self Esteem and Self Actualisation. Maslow suggests that motivation and behaviour are driven to fulfill these needs and the base needs must be fulfilled first before moving higher. So how does this apply to online learning? Let me examine Maslow’s Theory from a child’s perspective and then evaluate how it works in the e-learning world.

1) Foodie first, then singing – Have you ever tried getting a hungry toddler to sing and be excited? Or one who is sleepy? You can’t, because they will cry the house down! No matter how chirpy or bubbly a baby is, they want to first be well fed and well rested. Only after that, can they think of playing and having fun. That is nothing but the first need in Maslow’s Hierarchy-Physiological Needs-the basics (food, clothing and shelter) come first and only after these needs are fulfilled can one move on to higher needs.

Physiological Needs in Online Learning

So how would physiological needs map onto an online learning environment? Everything that is a basic necessity for a learner to do the course is a physiological need: -

  • Learners should have access to the basic technology (a laptop/desktop with the required software and connectivity) required to do the course

  • They should be able to access the course on their mobiles if needed

  • Learners should have enough breaks within the course to keep them engaged

  • Make the course accessible to those with special needs. Most e-learning authoring softwares have the option of making a course accessible through tabbing and closed captions

2) Mamma, I am scared – If my baby is scared, she becomes completely closed and obviously refuses to be her usual happy self. This brings us to the second need in Maslow’s Hierarchy-Safety Needs. Both physical and emotional safety needs should be met before moving on to the next level of needs.

Safety Needs in Online Learning

Again how does this relate to online learning? It is in eliminating the fear of the unknown and not making learners feel threatened by new technology that they have to access for their e-learning training. In other words-

  • For online learning, security will be knowing how to access the online course and being able to comfortably navigate it. There should be a standardised and easy user interface.

  • To eliminate the feeling of exploring an unchartered territory, the course should outline the learning objectives and outcomes up front.

  • The course can also be sensitive to those who have special needs by having the transcript available as a resource.

  • Sometimes, older learners who aren’t as technologically savvy feel threatened by so much technology. It might help to ease things out for them by giving them a demonstration of how to access the course. Maybe pair them up with someone junior(more tech savvy?) so that there is mutual learning.

  • Learners should have/be given the required time and flexibility to complete the course.

  • They should know whom to reach out to in case of questions

3) I want to play with other babies – My daughter cannot contain her joy when she sees other kids. She keeps saying, 'Baby, baby' and wants to say 'Hi’ or give them a high five! Which means we are all social beings and third in Maslow’s Hierarchy are Social Needs

Social Needs in Online Learning

In a classroom setting, if there is a positive interaction with the trainer and peers, that itself becomes a motivating factor to keep a learner engaged. The question is how can we meet a learner’s social needs in e-learning where the learner is probably doing this course alone?

  • Well, maybe there can be a recorded video message from someone senior in the organisation? For e.g., if it is a new hire induction module, there can be a Welcome Message from the CEO. Perhaps there can be a character who is a narrator and guides learners through the entire course.

  • The e-learning module can be part of a blended learning format that allows for some online instructor led forums, chat forums or group projects

  • There can also be action-based learning weaved in. For e.g., students can be given a 30-day action learning challenge, where each day they are given new actions/tasks to complete. After completing the task, they post their learnings in their group chat forums so that they can learn from their peers too.

  • Have someone whom the student can reach out to in case of questions or challenges.

4) Clap, Clap, Clap – Every time my daughter does something she thinks is an accomplishment, she will insist we all clap, by saying, "Clap, Clap, Clap”. Self Esteem is the fourth need in Maslow’s hierarchy-the need to feel respected, recognised and appreciated.

Self Esteem Needs in Online Learning

It is important that learners feel respected while doing an e-learning course. How can this be achieved?

  • Maybe to start with, the instructional designer can connect with some learners to get their inputs on what they like seeing in a course and to get real life examples. This already makes learners feel more involved.

  • Build on the knowledge that learners already have, instead of teaching down to them, get them to explore things in the module and apply what they know.

  • Let them have control over how they guide their learning. Let them know why they are doing the course and what they stand to gain out of it. Get them to apply what they have learnt.

  • Recognise them when they do well in a review or quiz. For e.g., In an e-learning course there can be applause or a trophy being given

  • In an online course, creating options for peers to recognise each other will make the virtual environment very encouraging and also meet self esteem needs. For e.g., buttons for liking, applauding or giving a star to a fellow participant could be one way.

  • There could also be online contests built into the course and the names of the winners can be displayed on a virtual notice board in the online session

5) I am the Master of my own life - The baby is not even 2 but wants to be in charge all the time. She wants to do it all herself-eat by herself, dress by herself, clean by herself. She feels a tremendous sense of accomplishment every time she does something on her own and achieves her goal. That is the highest and ultimate need in Maslow’s Hierarchy-Self Actualisation-reaching one’s fullest potential

Self Actualisation Needs in Online Learning

This is hard to achieve even in a classroom training. How can this be achieved in an online environment?

  • In an online learning class, you can get learners to take responsibility and take charge of their own learning by submitting a learning contract indicating what they want to learn at the end of the course and what would be evidence that they have learnt it.

  • For an e-learning course, the 'What’s in It for Me', can be demonstrated onscreen as a learning journey which depicts how the skills the learner is going to learn will add value to his/her current and next role.

"Wheeeeeee!”, the toddler goes chasing after her pretend 'Doggie’ for the umpteenth time! Will Maslow’s Theory transform our online learners into these eternally beaming individuals? Probably not, cause online learning ain’t child’s play! But it will evoke a certain quiet contentment and involvement for sure. After all, there exists a child in all of us!

Contact us today at to develop engaging online learning!

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