“Technically speaking”: The importance of language in e-learning
14 October, 2010
E-learning is a powerful way to transmit knowledge. It conveys content through a variety of communication channels that work together to reinforce the key message. The success of this reinforcement is based on the quality of each instructional process, with language playing a leading role. It is made even more important given the context of e-learning, where software resources cover most of the learner’s essential needs. If they are inadequate, the learner will need the constant support of a tutor, making this type of training program ineffective. Language is critical to resources and visual aids—think about the concepts and instructions displayed on screen and covered in narration—and must meet several criteria in order to achieve the targeted learning objectives.
Above all, the level of language used must be tailored to the audience, meaning it should relate to the learners (based on their level of education, occupation and socioeconomic status) and lead them to a better understanding of the subject material. Whether we’re talking about style, tone or complexity of language, each of these parameters should be given special attention because learning starts with the accessibility of the language in which the content is presented. Clearly, the language used will be different for a young teenager than for a retired person. Similarly, we will adapt our structures and vocabulary if the training is aimed at high school students as opposed to university graduates. Moreover, the tone—be it formal or playful—must respect and enhance the concept being learned. For example, in a serious game where the learner is expected to become familiar with the various technical processes of the production chain at the plant where he or she works, a lively, investigative style can be effective. If this first approach is ignored, and the learner fails to click with the subject material, it will be very difficult to proceed with the training.
Once we reach the learner, it is important to make smart choices in terms of the terminology of the field covered by the training. We must be careful not to make it too simple or too complicated. It should be appropriate to the job in question and include relevant terminology that is both necessary and useful, introduced in a measured way. To ensure that the terminology talks to, not down, to the learner, complex terms should be presented in a way that makes them easy to integrate into everyday speech. The learner should be able to grasp the full scope of the knowledge being transmitted through the accuracy and richness of the chosen vocabulary and the tools that allow him or her to explore these terms (e.g., glossary, examples, images, animations, etc.).
It goes without saying that a training program with a coherent, clear and rigorous structure, starting with the table of contents and continuing through the modules, concepts and activities, gives the learner a simple roadmap, optimizing the use of available resources and clearly demonstrating the opportunities, milestones and targets of the proposed learning path. Another critical component of any e-learning course is that it is free of clumsiness, misspellings and grammar errors. Poor quality language seriously tarnishes the credibility of its authors and compromises both its instructional and commercial success. After all, language is used to teach concepts, and the program’s instructional value can be degraded by the way language is used and the impact it has on the learner. High quality language allows the learner to assimilate the subject material and perfect his or her mastery of the terminology. The quality of language—whatever the learner’s level—should never be compromised. It is, without a doubt, a sign of the quality, success and sustainability of any e-learning program.