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Feelin' groovy
experts now believe that e-learning must elicit positive emotions to succeed

By Lisa Currin / January 2004

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I was four when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Can't say I remember much about the rest of 1963, but that afternoon remains vivid in my memory. I remember my parents crying; I remember the pattern of the afghan hanging over the white Naugahyde sofa that my mother and I sat on while the black-and-white television dribbled out details of the tragedy.

Ask almost anybody in the world where they were when two commercial jetliners plowed into the World Trade Center. If they weren't living in a cave or deep in a coma, odds are pretty good they'll have a similarly vivid, almost snapshot-type recall of where they were on September 11, 2001.

But ask what they had for dinner last Tuesday evening and get ready for a blank stare.

It's no accident that the death of President Kennedy and the September 11 terror attacks are etched deep in our collective gray matter: Those events evoked powerful emotions in all of us. Even those of us too young to understand the events themselves knew—through the reactions of the people around us—that something BIG had happened.

Events like these stay fresh in our memories because our brains are hard-wired to remember—to learn—things that are connected to intense emotions.

"First there is emotion; after that comes cognition," explains Frank Thissen, Professor for Multimedia Didactics and Intercultural Communication at the University of Applied Sciences in Stuttgart, Germany. "You know exactly what you personally did on September 11, 2001, because there is a link to a very intensive emotion."

Thissen, who is in the midst of a large research project studying the role of emotion in e-learning, says that while negative emotions tend to make us remember data and details clearly, positive emotions help us remember more complex things. For that reason, an e-learning experience that doesn't engage our emotions is unlikely to hold our interest—or leave us with much long-term learning.

Overcoming E-Dreariness

That doesn't mean that learning must be face-to-face to be effective. In fact, Thissen points out that studies have shown that, as long as aspects of face-to-face communication are present, "we humans are very easy to cheat. Joseph Weizenbaum showed in his ELIZA experiment in 1968 [through a computer program designed to generate natural-language responses to users' typed statements] how easy it is to give a human the feeling that the computer is communicating with him. The problem is not the technology, the problem is that nearly all of the [e-learning] environments I know metacommunicate dreariness and boredom, and they only address the cognitive part of learning."

One only has to look at the high failure rate of e-learning endeavors and the enormous dropout rate associated with even successful ventures to see that something is drastically amiss. But the solution can be elusive.

"Learning is still a subject that is not well-understood," says Don Norman, professor of computer science and psychology at Northwestern and co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group. Norman, whose new book, Emotional Design, is slated for publication in January 2004, says one of the problems is that many teachers think the correct way to teach is "to lay out the material in a very logical structure, to be very clear about each step.

"In my opinion, that's faulty for two reasons," he continues. "First, logical structures tend to be very dull and boring—students have no idea why they're learning it. Second, you don't work to retain information that's just given to you. When someone works at getting the information, they structure that information in their head so they can find it later. Basically, you remember what you care about."

Until the last 10 years, he says, emotion was thought of as "the irrational part of the mind, so anybody studying learning wouldn't study emotion. Learning was about logic and reason, emotion was about irrationality."

And when people did begin to look at emotion through the scientific lens, the initial focus was on negative emotions. "It's only in the last couple of years," says Norman, "that people have studied the positive emotions. And the positive emotions are essential for learning. It turns out those are what drive curiosity and exploration, which is how we learn about the world."

Exhibit A: Tom Sawyer

As human beings, we are driven to find out what's going on in "the secret places," says Thissen. Tasked with painting a picket fence, Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer manages to get his friends to do the job for him by making the act of painting sound mysteriously appealing. In order for students to remain motivated, the learning environment—online or off—must appeal to that same basic human drive to understand the unexplained.

And that's where course development is key. "It's very easy to stick your lecture notes up on a Web site, but it makes for a very bad course," says Norman. "The problem-based approach is good, but it requires a whole new approach to teaching, and most faculty members don't know how to go about it."

For teaching to be effective, cognition and emotion must work together," says Norman. He says four elements must be present for an e-learning experience to be successful:

  • Strong motivation: The material is structured around a problem the student really cares about.
  • Positive encouragement: Efforts to explore and understand the material are rewarded.
  • The social factor: A strong social commitment is present, achieved either by having people work in teams or by establishment of a strong personal commitment to the teacher through continual feedback and interaction.
  • Stress: Frequent assignments that impose deadlines on learners. A little stress is a great focus-booster.

What Joseph Campbell Knew

Few things can grab and hold the attention of a small child as well as the simple, promising phrase, "Once upon a time…"

Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, spent much of his life studying the role of myths—or heroic stories—as they existed across cultural borders. The need to tell and hear stories is part of what makes us human. Our stories define our place in the world, clarify our relationships to each other, and explain how things work.

E-learning that simply throws cold, hard facts at the learner's feet is fighting an uphill battle. We are biologically primed to identify with stories, not facts.

"A great instructor touches the students emotionally," says Allison Rossett, long time professor of Educational Technology at San Diego State University. "He or she grabs them—not just in the mind, but in the belly."

One way to do that, she says, is to use "vivid, real people" in e-learning. Create stories that involve people who are like the people taking the course: "Real people confronting real dilemmas, and doing it under real stress, with all the real surrounding constraints and conditions that the learner deals with."

When an emotional connection is made, "it increases the likelihood that students will be able to transfer the knowledge and use it in a real-world setting."

Making the Social Connection

While everybody who uses the term "online community" seems to define the concept differently, there seems to be universal agreement that a social connection is critical to e-learning success.

"In a real classroom, students do a lot of learning outside of class when they have small study sessions, when they work together on a project," says Northwestern's Norman. "The real advantage of live classrooms is that students are physically with each other and can get together and help each other."

That sense of community is essential in e-learning, he says, for two reasons: "One, students are apt to have similar confusions, and working together is a great way to clarify and understand the material. Second, in an e-learning environment, it's very simple to be distracted by other activities and miss class. The social group helps maintain interest and keep people attending and working."

SIDEBAR: Online communities that work

Jenny Preece, professor of Information Systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has a longstanding interest in online communities. She chaired the first online course at British Open University and has written a number of textbooks on human/computer interaction and online communities.

"Learning is a social process," says Preece. "When you support social interaction, you're supporting learning."

Establishing a successful online learning community is more involved than just setting up a bulletin board and turning students loose. Some guidelines that Preece has found successful over the years include:

Make it easy to share ideas. Online environments like Blackboard and WebCT enable discussion. Preece uses them for class discussions, but she also establishes private discussion boards where students can work together, away from an instructor's prying eyes or overbearing — albeit well-meaning — direction.

Have regular, fixed deliverables. Students have deliverables due every two to three weeks, and receive feedback from Preece and their classmates.

Support a healthy group dynamic. Preece sidesteps many of the classic group problems by helping students with group management skills. She helps them identify a project manager and specific tasks for other group members, makes sure tasks are scheduled and kept on target, helps sort out an equitable division of labor, and stays closely involved to make sure everybody's meeting their commitments.

Promote feedback. Students are encouraged to report back on each other's work within the group, which creates a group ethos that tends to keep everybody living up to their commitments.

Encourage record-keeping. Each of Preece's learning groups keeps a record of all its activities, including all e-mails and online discussions.

Appoint a cheerleader. Many learning communities die a quick death because a professor sets up a discussion board and then waits for students to use it. In the beginning, someone in the core community should be responsible for provoking discussion by bringing up interesting questions, topical issues, and by continually bringing new material to the group.

Reward contribution. People love to be recognized for their contributions. Once a learning community is established, the instructor can keep key members active by thanking them within the discussion boards for their contributions to the group.

Keep the topic narrow. If the group is focused on a fairly narrow issue, the people who participate will be interested in the topics at hand, and the group will be less likely to wander off on irrelevant tangents.

Use good site design. The site should be easy to navigate, meaning it's easy to figure out where you are, where you've been, and where else you can go. It's also a good idea to limit fancy graphics — not everyone has a high-speed Internet connection.


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