What Alex Trebek Can Teach E-Learning Designers

In my work as a custom e-learning developer, clients often ask me how to balance rich design against the need for future updates. By this, they generally mean that their content is subject to change on a yearly—or even monthly—basis. Their perception is that compelling content is expensive to build, and even more expensive to maintain.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Careful and deliberate design of learning experiences can balance both perspectives (engagement and cost).

This was brought home to me a few days ago while I was stuck in traffic in a New York City taxi cab. If you haven’t been in a NYC cab recently, they now have video monitors that display snippets of news and entertainment: what’s playing on Broadway, a profile of a New York borough, etc.

They also have re-purposed content from broadcast shows, such as "Jimmy Kimmel Live," the local news, and "Jeopardy."

The "Jeopardy" segment is the one that caught my attention. The show’s producers could have simply run a segment from the program on the taxi screen—that’s what the other TV shows do. But what "Jeopardy" does is different, and personalized:

  • Alex Trebek came on and said something about whether you are cabbing it to midtown, downtown, or the airport, traffic is always crazy like this in NYC (or words to that effect—I was only half paying attention). The content was contextualized to my situation at that moment. I was, in fact, stuck in traffic. And Alex was talking to me!
  • Then he said, "But I think you’ll enjoy these quick rounds of ‘Jeopardy.’" A promise to help in some small way!
  • Now this is where it gets tricky. Many of the best "Jeopardy" questions rely on current events. But it would be prohibitively expensive to have Trebek record these little snippets continually. So, they had two choices: fall back on generic content, or serve up something fresh. The generic content would have been fine, and really, it is what I expected. But instead, I was surprised to see a question related to the recent Grammy Awards. This was fresh, topical content that exceeded my expectations. I was suddenly paying attention.

How did they do it? Clearly, it would not be efficient to have Trebek tailor-make segments for display in taxi cabs. So instead, they had Trebek introduce the segment, and then switch to a female voice (probably a producer or voice talent) to deliver the actual question. Trebek came back to say something engaging and funny, and then back to the female voice for Question 2. Then, Trebek reappeared to wrap up the segment.

So, the producers cleverly used the expensive asset (Trebek) to deliver emotional impact at the beginning, middle and end. And they scripted those segments so that they would be timeless. That way, they had to get Trebek in the studio only once, and his recording would have a long shelf life.

Essentially, the Trebek segments acted as a "wrapper" to surround the quiz part of the content. With this framework in place, the producers could then hire less expensive voice talent to deliver the questions, which can be quickly and cheaply updated.

The end result is a user experience that is engaging and seamless. If I weren’t in the business of reusability of content, I wouldn’t even have noticed that Trebek didn’t deliver the actual questions. The whole thing just flowed naturally and seamlessly, and I was lost in the experience for a few minutes.

So, as an e-learning designer, how can you adapt the "Jeopardy" approach? I have a few suggestions:

  • Separate the "frame" of your course from the content.
  • Invest heavily in the frame to create the emotional impact and context that is essential to learning. This investment will buy you goodwill among your users, and save money in the long run while delivering a quality experience.
  • Modularize everything, so you can easily assemble and reuse pieces.
  • Think about transitions. A well-designed transition from the frame to the content (i.e., from Trebek to the voice talent) will not even be noticeable to the learner.

What do you think? Would the "Jeopardy" approach work in your environment? Have you seen similar examples of well-executed repurposed content?