Traditional eLearning can often be challenging for anyone who processes information differently from the ‘neurotypical’ majority. Is it possible to build content that is effective for everyone?
About a month ago, I wrote a blog post about creating a brief for an eLearning project. I finished by inviting feedback, as I hoped it would grow into a useful ‘how to’ guide, with other professionals suggesting additions and improvements.
The very first feedback I received discussed the idea of tailoring courses for neurodiversity. I was rather embarrassed to admit that this wasn’t something I knew very much about, so I started to research how eLearning designers could make their courses effective for all individuals, regardless of their cognitive differences.
My first thought was to create another ‘how to’ guide, this time outlining a range of neurodivergent-friendly techniques we could use in the design process. I’m sure anyone who has a good understanding of neurodivergence will be chuckling to themselves at my well-intentioned naivety as they read that, and it wouldn’t be long before I was in on the joke myself.
My flawed ambition to create ‘The Ultimate Guide to Designing eLearning for Neurodiversity’ actually started really brightly. I noticed that there was a lot of overlap between designing for neurodiversity and established good design practice, such as uncluttered layouts; concise text; use of images, icons and media, etc. Could the answer involve going back to basics? Rediscovering best-practice techniques that had been neglected by some designers in favour of edgy, stylized experiences?
Of course, it could never be that easy, for the simple reason that no two neurodivergent people are the same. Even when they have the same underlying condition, their personalities and preferences can be widely different. This creates challenges for the eLearning designer because of the inherent contradictions. For example, using audio clips might seem like a great way to make content more accessible to some learners with dyslexia, but others – including other dyslexics – may struggle with auditory processing or sensory impairment, as also experienced by some autistic people.
If a solution for one learner creates a problem for another, can we create the ‘perfect’ course – one that is equally accessible to learners who process information in such widely varied ways? Is this possible, or even desirable?
There will always be situations where using the same learning for everyone will not be the best solution; however, offering learners choices and variety within an eLearning course could be one way to create more inclusive and individualised experiences.
Let’s take a simple example where the learning objective is to understand three key benefits of aspirin; relieves pain, thins the blood, and is easily available. The simplest way to present this information would be to use this exact, concise wording and present it in separate, appropriately-coloured text boxes with a large, dyslexia-friendly font such as Calibri or even Dyslexie. This would be suitable for the vast majority of learners, but some will require more detail to understand and retain the information.
At this point, presenting the learner with options – for example, different media – will put them in control of the way they use the course and will increase their likelihood of finding a path that works for them. Including statistics may be helpful for some, but anyone with dyscalculia could skip past that. An accompanying graph or chart could make the information more digestible to more people.
A narrative that tells a patient story and includes the key learning points may be another way to make the information resonate, although large blocks of text should be avoided where possible. Perhaps the story could be presented as a comic book, with illustrations and humanist fonts favoured by some dyslexics. A podcast-style audio clip of the story could be another option.
The key here is to offer the learner the choice; they can complete some or all of the media if they want to, but if they only choose one option, the key learning points are still present. I would argue that this approach creates a richer, more involving experience for all learners, including neurotypicals.
The realist in me is fully aware that creating a multimedia extravaganza every time we want to get a simple point across will not always be the best way forward. The time and budget restrictions imposed on all eLearning projects will not disappear as we strive to improve the accessibility of our courses. However, by educating ourselves about the myriad challenges faced by neurodivergent learners, we can consider their situations as part of our design thinking and aim to lessen their struggles. In that spirit, here are a few resources I have used in my research that may be helpful:
‘The Ultimate Guide to Designing eLearning for Neurodiversity’ is not an instruction manual but, appropriately, a different way of thinking. Embracing neurodiversity can drive continuous improvement so we can deliver an improved experience for more people.
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