In a recent post I mentioned there are alternatives to “rapid” e-learning that can be used to avoid the common present > ask-a-question >click next death march.  Rapid e-learning tools can certainly decrease the time it takes to develop e-learning, but in my experience they dramatically increase the time it takes for an employee to learn.  More efficient, less effective.

Minimalist Learning Design: A less-is-more approach to developing skills fast
An alternative approach is minimalist learning design.  The minimalist approach builds on a less-is-more philosophy that deliberately avoids unnecessary information presentation and gets learners involved in tasks almost immediately.  Developed by John Carroll (formerly of MIT, now at Penn State), the approach originated as a more effective way for people to learn technical applications.  It has since been applied for a wide variety of task based learning designs.

Avoid e-Learning that just gets in the way
The goal is to minimize the way e-learning can actually obstruct learning and instead focus the design on activities that support learner-directed activity and accomplishment.

The basic principles are these:

  • Allow learners to start immediately on meaningful, self contained tasks. People want to work in a meaningful context toward meaningful goals. Sometimes well intentioned learning objectives and lock-step instruction get in the way of practical progress. Give learners realistic projects as quickly as possible. Make all learning tasks self-contained and independent of sequence
  • Rely on the learner to think and improvise. Do not try to give the user understanding when you can count on the learner to create understanding. Leave out material that the learner can infer. Less is more.

  • Minimize the amount of reading and other passive forms of training. That includes unnecessary use of passive media. Allow users to fill in the gaps themselves. Permit self-directed reasoning and improvising by increasing the number of active learning activities

  • Include error recognition and recovery activities in the instruction. People use error diagnosis and recovery as a means of exploring the boundaries of what they know. Making errors does sometimes confuse and frustrate people, but when they are properly managed they are powerful learning opportunities.
  • Introduce real work immediately. Instruction, no matter how well organized will fail if it does not support the goals people bring to the situation. There should be a very close linkage between the training and actual job tasks.
  • Exploit what people already know. Relating what learners already know to what they need to know makes it easier to use the knowledge to rapidly solve new problems

The less-is-more paradox
Keeping training lean, task focused and practical requires a less casual approach to learning design than the “SME as designer” approach behind much “rapid” e-learning.   To make learning simple and effective, paradoxically,  requires detailed task and process analysis to understand specifically what learners need to accomplish, how they do their job, and the mistakes they typically make.

Other advanced approaches to learning and e-learning design share similar principles.  Roger Shank’s case based learning approaches and Jeroen Van Merrienboer’s 4C/ID for example, both focus on building learning around a task and provide just enough on-demand guidance to accomplish it.

Good self directed e-learning takes a little more time and professional skill to develop than rapid e-learning but the benefit is much more “rapid” time to performance which, I hope, is what we’re all after.

To learn more about minimalist learning design:

Carroll, J.M. (1990). The Nurnberg Funnel. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Carroll, J.M. (1998). Minimalism beyond the Nurnberg Funnel. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Theories in Practice database

Edutech Wiki

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2 Responses
  1. Tom Gram


    Thanks. Even though the minimalist approach tends to focus on instructional documentation, I think it fits nicely with any task or problem based approach to learning design like those you mention and others.

    It’s unfortunate that the e-learning mainstream is still so grounded in providing too much information with so little application. It’s understandable I suppose. We have a long history of subject experts designing training for classroom programs. Rapid development tools have enabled the same approach to e-learning. Not always a bad thing. And the tools aren’t fully to blame. As always there is lots of room for better learning design. Tom

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