Psychologist Barry Schwartz coined one of my favorite phrases with the 2004 publication of his book, “The Paradox of Choice.” At long last, I finally had a scientific explanation for why I hated Blockbuster Video. I would instantly fill with dread at the mere sight of the bright blue and yellow storefront, paralyzed by the endless rows of movie rental options before me. Thirty minutes of my life wasted as I wandered up and down every aisle, picking up box after box, only to eventually want the one new movie that isn’t in stock. Rest in peace, Iowa City Blockbuster.
Choice is good. I definitely don’t want to be stuck watching Gigli every Friday night until the end of time. Most economists would say offering folks more and more options is ultimately a great thing. The basic idea being that hey, there are more options for those that want more options, and those that don’t care about having options can just ignore the options. Seems simple enough, right?
Turns out that too much choice isn’t always a good thing. We can’t always ignore the options. In fact, according to Mr. Schwartz, infinite choice is actually paralyzing and exhausting and basically awful for human society. The same can be said for e-learning. Too much choice in an e-learning course can actually be distracting and detrimental to the learning experience.
There’s been a lot of debate recently about whether or not the paradox of choice is a fact of life. Is less always more? Or is more choice sometimes a good thing? When it comes to e-learning, I’d argue that it’s about finding the right amount of choice, and then ensuring that those choices are clear and meaningful to the learner.
Finding the Sweet Spot of Choice
We like to say that adult learners want control over their learning experience, and it’s true. If you’ve ever sat through an e-learning course that is locked down to audio narration, you’ll agree. Most learners want the ability to skip content that they already know without having to wait for a narrator to finish rambling about information they already read onscreen in a fraction of the time.
We often also give adult learners control by letting them explore topics in any order, and we craft activities that support a similar open exploration of content. At the high end of custom development, we craft simulations that offer a limited sandbox environment where learners can do anything in any order at any time, just as they would in the real world.
None of these are bad choices to offer your learners. The trick is to determine exactly how much choice to offer learners so they benefit from the variety of options and are not paralyzed by it. And in order to find that “just right” amount of choice, you need to identify meaningful choices that align with your learning goals. Oh, and then user test.
What Makes Choice Meaningful
We’ve already established that e-learning and life are basically one and the same, right? In e-learning and life, sometimes a choice matters and sometimes it doesn’t.
For example, when you launch a course, you might be presented with a virtual world that is full of unlocked scenarios that you can explore in any order. Sometimes, selecting which scenario to engage with first matters a whole lot, because one of the learning goals of that course is to teach learners how to distinguish between high priority and low priority tasks or customers. In other courses, this choice of scenario order is meaningless. You can complete scenarios in any order, often in the name of freedom and learner control, but the act of choosing isn’t meant to be a learning objective targeting your critical thinking skills. The order in which you complete scenarios doesn’t matter at all.
This is a problem because even the most basic of choices requires critical thinking. In order to make a choice, learners need information about how valuable, or rewarding, each selection would be. When you present learners with too many meaningless choices, you start to muddy the choice waters. Learners now have to sift through a course that has meaningless choices (what order to complete scenarios in) and meaningful choices (selecting the correct answer within a scenario). So, in addition to making each choice, they now also have to determine if the choice actually matters (and therefore requires their thought and attention) or is irrelevant to their learning goals. This is inefficient and frustrating and ultimately works against the goals of your training course.
Learning Is Ultimately About Improving Future Choices
Too much choice, Mr. Schwartz’ paradox of choice, happens when we give learners a poorly articulated mix of meaningful and meaningless choices. This isn’t to say that you can’t offer learners ANY meaningless choice or freedoms within an e-learning course. You can, but you need to do it well.
Clearly communicate to the learner the reward of each and every choice so time and energy isn’t wasted trying to determine the value of each choice. This concept, the idea of making choices valuable and rewarding and clearly communicating that information to learners, should ultimately drive every choice you offer.