Designing learning in the attention economy

When petabytes of data are accessible to anyone with a digital device, information is no longer a scarce commodity.  In the information age it is human attention that is in short supply.  This is a well known problem for anyone with a message to communicate on the internet. It’s an even bigger issue for those of us designing learning materials, especially online or distance learning materials.  We not only need to capture and hold attention, we must encourage learners to invest mental effort in developing new skills and understanding.  This is true for educators developing formal programmes of professional education, employers designing work-based learning, and not-for-profit agencies involved with online public education or awareness-raising campaigns.

Clark (1999) suggests that effective learner engagement requires three things:

  • active engagement or choice: learners may be required to undertake learning, or plan to do so, but they can’t learn anything unless and until they choose to engage;
  • persistence: once a learner decides to engage they must ignore all distractions and work steadily towards a goal in a focused way, sometime returning to the learning materials again and again over time; and
  • mental effort: in other words it’s not enough to attend and persist, learning requires active work.

So how do we create compelling designs that encourage learners to choose, persist and exert effort?  The good news is that we have a lot of evidence about what motivates learners.  John Keller (1999, 2010) has combined much of it into a model of motivational learning design known by the handy acronym of ARCS.  ARCS stands for Attention, Relevance, Confidence and Satisfaction: four related dimensions with implications for the design of learning materials.  The model, and its underpinning evidence, is explored in great detail in Keller (2010) and summarised in Keller (1999). Here it is in a nutshell:

  • Attention is about capturing a learners interest, stimulating an attitude of enquiry and encouraging knowledge seeking behaviour. How you achieve this is limited only by your imagination but tactics might include a provocative or disconcerting image, situation or idea. You might start with a puzzle that needs to be solved, or a story that intrigues. Maintaining attention throughout a learning episode requires variety and a constant flow of different challenges. A formulaic approach will be spotted quickly and lead to anticipation, boredom and disengagement.
  • Relevance is a critical component of any learning experience. You need to communicate clearly how learning connects with the needs of learners, why the learning is important, and how it will it help them to achieve their goals. Can they choose personally meaningful pathways through the material? Is it clear how this connects with and adds to what they already know and can already do?
  • Confidence is required if learners are to persist with learning materials. Confidence is conveyed when leaners feel in control, when expectations are clear, when they can make choices, and when they are challenged but not overwhelmed. Constructive feedback and offering a range of ways to succeed also support learner confidence.
  • Satisfaction derives from participating in learning experiences that are personally or professionally meaningful, that provide a sense of achievement, that offer recognition and a sense of having accomplished something of value. Social recognition and the ability to share achievements through social media or digital badges can also help.

So far so good. But what does this look like in practice?  Lifesaver is an award winning app produced by the UK Resuscitation Council.  This not-for-profit organisation wanted to promote public awareness and understanding about what to do in the event of a cardiac arrest.  Many hundreds of thousands of people have an out of hospital cardiac event each year but fewer than 10% survive.  Yet, if someone starts CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) before an ambulance arrives, a person’s chances of survival can be doubled.  Lifesaver is a crisis simulation programme that can be played on the web a smartphone or tablet. It consists of three interactive video clips where the learner enters the scene as a potential life saver and must make several key decisions and take actions – including delivering simulated CPR  – before the paramedics arrive. Lifesaver won four gold and one silver award at the UK E-Learning Awards in 2013, the first quadruple gold win.

The video below shows some expert users interacting with the app and commenting on its value.  As you listen to the video think about the ARCS criteria: how does the app grab attention, convey relevance, inspire confidence and offer satisfaction.

One final comment, although Lifesaver is an excellent example of a well designed learning resource, you don’t need to blow your budget on interactive video to engage your learners.  There is no evidence that any one media (video, audio, image or text) is better than any other for effective learning. You can create compelling learning materials with plain old text and some supporting images; it’s the learning design that matters.

Download the Lifesaver app.

[This post is a short version of “Optimizing Engagement with Evidence-based eLearning” a talk presented at EduTECH14, in Brisbane, Australia. It also appears on the Learning Designs blog.]


Clark, R. E. (1999). The CaNE (Commitment and Necessary Effort) model of work motivation: A two-stage  process of goal commitment and mental effort. In J. Lowyck (Ed.), Trends in corporate training. Leuven, Belgium: University of Leuven Press.

Keller, J. M. (1999). Using the ARCS Motivational Process in Computer-Based Instruction and Distance Education. New Directions for Teaching & Learning. Summer991999(78).

Keller, J. M. (2010). Motivational design for learning and performance: The ARCS model approach. Berlin, Germany: Springer.

Image credit: Flickr Nathan Rupert