Explain like I'm me

The most frequent approach to designing online learning goes like this: introduce the topic and outcomes - deliver a sequence of facts and a bunch of information - test how much of the facts and information got retained - conclude, move on to the next batch.

The most frequent complaint about this approach goes like this: someone else, not the learner, makes a priori decisions about the "enoughness" of it all. They decide how much information is enough. They decide how much complexity is enough. They decide when to dwell on a topic, and when to move on.

This means that a learning designer misses a LOT of tricks (they couldn't not; they're just them). Here's one I want to talk about today.

We've all got a preferred threshold for explanation.

Some of us are "explanation foes" - we don't need the details, we just want the big idea. A beginner cyclist will need to know that turning the pedals makes the bike go, and that gears make turning the pedals easier or tougher.

Some of us are "explanation fiends" - we want to get to the bottom of why things are the way they are. A custom bike fit will measure and adjust every milimetre of your bicycle setup, from your toes to your fingertips, and give you a bespoke recommendation for what bikes, groupsets, shoes or handlebars to use - and why. I know why aerodynamic socks matter now - and why bad aero socks make things worse.

It gets better: we're "explanation foes" in some areas and "fiends" in others. If you're here to fix or fit my bike, we'll talk all day and I'll have plenty of questions. If you're here about my car, you have the right to remain silent, take my money and get it fixed.

It gets better still: our disposition for this changes depending on our mental state, mood, workload, and so on. If I've got all day, I'll talk about the bike fit for as long as it takes. If it's an emergency bike fix, two hours before a race, I'll just want the key details and skip the rest because of how stressed and harried I am.

Coming back to our customary approach to packaging online learning: what if each of these packages always came with an "explanation depth" slider? If you're in a rush, you keep it low and gloss over it to learn the main points. If you're interested, intrigued, or confused, you "zoom in" on any portion you like - getting more content, more connections, more complexity and uncertainty.

At a certain level of depth, you'd probably want to switch social connection. You'd want to meet other folks who chose to dive deeper here - to see what they saw, to discuss what they found and what brought them here. Again, you'd want control of that switch for yourself - I'm all for geeky conversations today, other people may prefer the "big picture" banter. And, on other days, I'd be in my introvert mode - just choosing to explore for myself.

And, at a certain level of depth still, you'd be bound to see more questions than answers, more puzzles than solutions, more "here's what we don't know" topics than "here's what you know now" assertions. Again, it would be up to you to gauge your tolerance to this. A learner on a first aid course probably wants the certainty of "here's how to keep people safe from harm" - another person taking the same course (or the same person, on a different day) might go deeper into the issues of anatomy, trauma, or medicine, and reach the "more questions than answers" stage.

If you create learning for others, at the very least, you should be aware of your "explanation tolerance" in general, and in a given context. The next step would be to build something outside of this comfort zone. Any direction is fun.

(Plot twist: game designers are decades ahead of learning designers on this)

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