Baby Boomers and Instructional Design

Filed Under (Baby Boomers, e-learning, instructional design) by Chris LaBelle on 02-03-2009 and tagged , , , ,

We recently began a project called, “Mastery of Aging Well: A Program for Healthy Living”.  The funding for this project came from the USDA and the principle investigator and content provider is a very well-respected associate professor tied to OSU Extension.  agingwell_image2From a very pragmatic standpoint, the PI’s stated goal at the beginning of the project was to take her content and represent it in a more compelling, web-based format that would incorporate multimedia.  This was an exciting prospect for our group as we have graphic artists, photographers, videographers, journalists, editors and a few instructional designers.  We chose to develop two separate tracks for the content: One option was what was termed “Tier 1″ and would represent a pared down version of the content and very little user interaction. “Tier 2″ would reside within OSU’s E-campus site and would cost the user a fee for access to this more robust set of media assets, i.e. videos, interactive games and other user-centric tasks that focused on knowledge retention and assessment.

So, after selecting Adobe Presenter as the most appropriate (and efficient) authoring tool to port the content into a web-based format, we began to think through some of the instructional design considerations for our baby boomer target audience:

  • How many of our users would have access to the Internet and be relatively comfortable with web-based conventions that define navigation and content organization?  We had some poll data that we were able to look over and also extrapolated based on some of OSU’s past experience with online gardening classes. Overall, we felt that it would be reasonable to assume that the vast majority of our users were at least comfortable with the basics of browser navigation.  Beyond that, we assumed accessibility would be extremely essential in the design of the course.
  • How should we handle the basic ergonomic/usability issues with this audience (design mapped to audience need): font size, icon choice, pacing, etc? In short, we were forced to ask a lower-level question: “How much should we accommodate versus migrate or progressively encourage towards adoption? This was an interesting question and as you can imagine, our scale leaned heavily towards accommodation.  While there is a relatively large corpus of literature around workplace accommodation and usability, availability of research on this topic as it relates to Baby Boomers and Instructional Design seems scant. There is quite a bit of anecdotal information on how baby boomers adapt to new electronic media–here are a few examples:

Janet Clarey’s Blog (see the bottom for references and interesting discussion)Reeves, T.C. (2006). Do Generational Differences Matter in Instructional Design? Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology (EPIT).

Instructional Design – Considering the Learning Needs of Older Learners (Instructional Technology and Distance Learning Journal, 2004)

Tom Johnson’s Blog

.  While there is quite a bit of discussion and focus on “digital native” versus “digital immigrant”, the primary focus of much of this work is how traditional learning institutions need to adopt to meet the needs and expectations of the digital native. In our case, our target audience would be primarily 55 and over and be coming directly to the course via a recommendation from their local extension office or a website like Oregon AARP.

    As we looked more closely at these questions, we asked ourselves, “Has anyone else focused their research work on this area? Are there any principles of Instructional Design that could help guide us with this specific target audience?”

Pate, Du and Harvard in the article Instructional Design – Considering the Cognitive Learning Needs of Older Learners, state:

“Research has provided evidence that mental decline is not a consequence of aging.  There is hope that continued learning prevents or delays mental decline.  Results also show significant improvement in memory and confidence in one’s mental abilities through personal physical and mental fitness…The greater challenge is to position education as an essential practice for quality of life across the lifespan.”

So, in many ways, we need not assume that baby boomers are starting with less cognitive capability than younger end-users and in some ways, if as Clark et al suggest, existing long-term memory plays the more important role in true learning potential, then older learner might actually be starting with an advantage in terms of their ability to relate new content to existing mental cognitive schema or experiences.  However, this provides very little information regarding an optimal approach as it relates to usability and ergonomics.  On that level, we simply assumed that we should aim for the highest level of accessibility possible to ensure audio, visual impairments were taken into account and also a certain level of unfamiliarity with aspects of the electronic medium.  In other words, we used 24 point Arial font, organized graphical assets in predictable and uniform ways, ensured these assets were separated with generous amounts of space, placed large font topic headers above large images, included the narration on the right rail area if a user wanted to read the narration, simplified the navigational scheme so a user could simply enter the course and then watch the presentation with very little navigational interaction, ensured the use of color enhanced readability and so on.

    What metaphors of communication are primary to this demographic and how could we leverage characteristics of this medium to help bridge the gap between web-based and print-based communication?

In many ways, our metaphor for our “Tier 1″ phase of the content resembled the TV as opposed to a typical web-based interactive E-learning course.  “Tier 2″ would include more of this web-based interactive content and would assume more explicit instructions for completing the course would be provided to the end-user. We also received comments from several users early on that suggested they were expecting video or TV-like interaction on the screen and that there were times when they saw a still photo and didn’t immediately understand the person in the photo was not the person doing the audio narration.  Our overriding hope was that what we lost in interaction and user-mediated learning, we would make up for with accessibility and familiarity of the presentation format. We also had to balance our cost and time requirements against benefits and user needs and quickly landed on Adobe Presenter as a “rapid development” tool to help port PowerPoint content to a web-based environment and add audio narration, videos, SWF files and other objects with relative ease.

  • What types of questions could we ask during our pilot testing to ensure our anticipated design choices were consistent with our end-user needs?

We obviously asked about all of the usability issues mentioned above. Additionally, we expected the unexpected and tried to collect open-ended information about the user’s motivation and feelings about the content and medium. Feel free to email us if you’d like to see the actual pilot test questionnaire.

  • Is there a significant different between technology fluency for seniors who live in urban areas of Oregon compared to those who live in rural areas?

This is something that we still need to better understand.

  • How much should we slow down our course pacing or repeat content for this audience to help ensure content retention?

Some designers use one image every seven to ten seconds. We generally tried to introduce a new photo and accompanying bullet points every 10 to 20 seconds. We therefore slowed down the pace considerably.  The audio narration was obviously not slowed down in any way.

  • How would the inclusion of images, videos and other assets influence the learning experience of this audience relative to the core content? In other words, would they the images helpful, distracting?

So far, the comments that we’ve received thus far are that the images add to the learning experience. Generally speaking, for modules that have 40 slides, we generally have 90-110 photos, or 2.5 photos per slide.  Slide audio length varies from about 40 seconds to 90 seconds.

  • Should we “auto-navigate” the course for this population in our Tier 1 approach or, force the user to click the advance button from slide to slide?

Since our Tier 1 modules do not include any interactive elements, we decided to have the presentation play automatically.  A user can pause the presentation at any given point, but, we felt that it was advantageous to leverage the TV metaphor for the more basic treatment of the content and simply auto play the module. So far, our end-users seem to prefer this approach for Tier 1 content.

  • How would learner affect or motivation influence our population’s perception of E-learning? Would they have more hesitancy or negative affect compared to a younger population? If so, how could we help address this via course design?

This obviously plays into the different decisions we are making about the design of the course, the navigational scheme, usability factors and content organization.  We will be conducting our larger-scale pilot test soon and will have more concrete evidence to go on.

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2 Comments Already, Leave Yours Too

Bob Rost on 11 March, 2009 at 3:45 pm #

Please elaborate on your statement above about “selecting Adobe Presenter as the most appropriate and efficient authoring tool” for the Aging Well Tier 1 series of learning modules. I know there are other similar kinds of tools–such as Camtasia–to choose from. I’m very interested to hear more about some of the reasons for your choice of Adobe Presenter for the Aging Well online course project.

Chris L on 12 March, 2009 at 2:19 pm #

Hi Bob, this is a good question. I inserted some thoughts into the blog recently. In short, we liked the “rapid development” nature of Adobe Presenter and felt it also allowed us to build a uniform navigational scheme with little effort. Lastly, we were really impressed with the ability to integrate video, audio narration, SWF files and other objects into the presentation with very little effort.

Interestingly, when the module expands into “tier 2″, i.e. more interactivity and complexity, Adobe Presenter will also accommodate this as well.

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