On New Year’s Day years ago, I had found myself in Swedesburg, a small town in Southeastern Iowa, on a familiar road. For 20 or 30 years, I have traveled this stretch in my holiday trips and it has always intrigued me. The road itself is nothing spectacular, but every time I reach this benchmark I am met with a familiar face; the roadside attraction that I refer to as the Hay Donkey. The creature, composed of straw and ribbons, is a milestone that I always look forward to.
After doing research on this, I’ve come to learn that this is a Christmas tradition: the Swedish Straw Goat or julbok. Although I’m not Swedish and I don’t know much about this holiday tradition, I have come to greatly appreciate its presence in my travels.
Now you might be thinking, what does this have to do with instructional design? Tradition and routine is rooted in our behaviors and culture, and this also extends to the way that we approach learning.
We are confronted often with the challenge of designing and developing (or in many cases, updating) annual compliance training modules. It is astonishing how uniform the request is:
“We must deliver this training every year and report compliance for all employees to a regulatory agency. Nobody is interested in doing it. Learners don’t want to do the same thing over and over. But we can’t do anything else—we have to make sure every person sees this content.”
It’s easy to accept this at face value, and many of us do. But on pondering this a little longer, isn’t it strange that compliance training is somehow not like so much of what we are called to do and enjoy? When you think about it, humans don’t really seem to redo many of the things or tasks that occupy our time for leisure. Repetition, or being met with familiar expectations, brings us confidence and comfort. We actually seek out opportunities to repeat things that we enjoy or have significance. People choose to go on the same vacation year after year, people engage in hobbies that usually involve the repetitive performance of a relatively small set of tasks, and people go to concerts specifically to hear music they have heard before.
So it seems that the real problem with compliance training is not actually the repetition, but rather the tedious and punitive instruction that is created, unfortunately with the justification “Listen, it’s compliance training that we have to do; there’s nothing we can do about it.” In fact, there is a lot we can do about it. We need to apply the same rigor of immersive and motivating design that would be applied to any other subject area not cursed with the label “compliance.”