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Reduce cognitive load to make your course more scalable

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As our forced global experiment in online learning is showing, it’s more challenging to create online learning, and more challenging to learn from it, than is the case with classroom-based learning.

But...why?

The reason is that the online learning interface adds cognitive load to the learning experience.

But again… WHY???

Two factors that add cognitive load to online learning are lack of immediate feedback and reduced social presence.

When the instructor is not in the same physical location as the learner, in real time, it’s harder for the instructor to know when learners are getting lost or confused, and it’s harder for learners to get the help they need.

Crossroad signpost saying this way, that way, the other way concept for lost, confusion or decisions


Another factor that is specific to online learning is the extraneous cognitive load added by the need to NAVIGATE the online interface.

It’s not always clear and obvious to learners where to start, where to click, or what to do next.

And taking the time to make it clear and obvious cuts into learning time and is not the most fun and engaging aspect of online learning and teaching, even though it may be necessary.

In general, it’s important to spell everything, including navigation, out  very clearly and specifically when setting up your online course.

Sometimes the only way to know you have NOT done that enough, is to listen to the tech support calls you get once you launch.

It’s not the most fun part of a launch, but hearing directly from your course participants about where they are getting stuck, lost, confused, or facing challenges, is an important part of the E in the “ADDIE” model of online course design.

 (ADDIE stands for Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate).

If you EXPECT to receive this type of feedback and take it in a spirit of discovery about how to continue improving your course, you will compensate for some of the lack of feedback otherwise inherent in online teaching.

So... let’s say you get feedback that students are struggling with course navigation.  A helpful approach is to create upfront guidance on how to navigate every aspect of the course, and make sure to respond to tech support calls as soon as they come in.

Creating a culture of openness to feedback, willingness to make necessary changes, and caring support, is an important aspect of effective teaching...whether online or off.

The thing is, though, that that way of teaching is not scalable.

 It’s doable for 30 students, or maybe even 50, in a cohort. 

It’s NOT manageable (at least, not by a solo edupreneur) for 500 or 1000 students at a time.

Group of experts meeting online

So simplifying course navigation and reducing cognitive load as much as possible 

are critical to making an online course more scalable.

But there’s a catch, because often the things that make a course more engaging, -- such as varying the types of content and including interactive activities -- add to navigational complexity.

A course that’s a series of talking head videos one after the other is very easy to navigate. But it’s also not engaging from a learning point of view. Students can easily go from one video to the next. But there’s not much for them to DO while watching long videos.

But including engaging activities that require a switch from video to PDF downloads to interactive games, adds complexity to the navigation along with adding engagement to the course.

Bulldog trying to get through a cat door


So in other words:

 as a course creator, it’s easy to get stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Sigh.

These dilemmas have business implications, because if you have to be personally available in order to ensure a good learning experience for every learner, then the number of learners you can serve at any one time is limited by your own time, energy, and capacity to address whatever comes up.

As I see it, there are four qualities that an online course business should aim for,  in order to  fulfill the promise of online learning (a promise that many are feeling has NOT been fulfilled, right about now).

Ideally, we want our products and services to be:

  • Service-oriented: helping people make their lives better in some way
  • Serviceable: effectively delivering the promised transformation
  • Sustainable: able to be provided in an ongoing way that does not exhaust time, energy, and resources
  • Scalable: able to be offered to large numbers of people

These factors are CONSTRAINTS…limits or guidelines we must address in order to make an online course business work for both our learners and ourselves.

And the challenge is making all those components work together and stay in balance, all at the same time.

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of the Course Design Formula® Master Course

Space is limited.

Enrollment is via private interview only.

Reducing navigational complexity (while maintaining as much engagement and variety within the course as possible) will make a course more scalable.

The challenge is how to do that without also removing engagement and interactivity.

What is the sweet spot where each of the factors is optimized?

My sense is that it’s not necessary to optimize all four factors in the SAME version of a course, as long as we are able to optimize all four factors in our BUSINESS as a whole.

You can offer a high-level mastermind (that is not scalable, but provides tremendous value) to a very small number of select, highly motivated learners.

That course can have a lot of interactivity even at the cost of adding complexity to the navigation,  because you will be available to help shepherd people through.

You can also have a different course, with simpler navigation and little or no personal interaction with you, that is infinitely scalable. 

Chocolate cake with bonbon


 It may not be possible to have our cake (in the form of a highly customized and personal learning experience for our learners) and eat it too (in the form of a highly scalable hands-off online course), all in one course.

 A possible solution is to have multiple courses that serve different purposes for different segments of your target audience.

Two Chocolate Cupcake On A Wooden Board


What are your thoughts? 

Have you grappled with these, or similar, issues in designing your own courses?

Let’s talk about it in the Facebook group,

 or join us at the Learn and Get Smarter community meeting to share your thoughts in person.


 Save your spot 

in the January cohort of the Course Design Formula® Master Course

Take the stress and overwhelm out of setting up YOUR online course

Come to the community meeting

Saturday, December 12th,2020

9 AM Pacific/ 12 Noon Eastern

many people online in a conference call