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  • Rikki Lee

Instructional Design for the New Brain

The smartphone has been around for about a dozen years, and so many people have become overly dependent on one. In fact, it's likely your smartphone holds a lot of the information that your brain used to.

You rely on your smartphone for information you can't recall or skills you've lost, such as important phone numbers, your passwords, definitions and spelling of words, your current bank balance, directions to a restaurant, a calculation of the tip for that restaurant’s wait staff, and so on. And after you’ve checked the smartphone for that data, you'll usually just forget it again. Why bother keeping it in your brain? Whatever information you need is just a swipe and a few taps away!

The smartphone is an essential link to your world, and you wouldn’t dare leave home without it. You primarily communicate with others through voice, text, email, video or chat on that smartphone. And if you ever lose or misplace it, you feel disoriented until you finally find it or buy a replacement.

What's in your brain?

Now that your smartphone has taken over the everyday details of your life (as if it's a second brain), what stuff do you keep in your own brain? Usually, it’s filled with thoughts and experiences, with relatively few facts and figures. It contains mostly what you think, what you take in through your five senses, and what you remember from the past—although many of these functions, too, interact with your smartphone. For example, your brain might contain:

  • Your memories of a past camping weekend with the family (photos taken with your smartphone)

  • Your plans for an upcoming high school reunion (its website bookmarked on your smartphone's browser)

  • Your thoughts about current work projects (which are backed up on your computer and accessible from your smartphone via a cloud storage app)

  • Your recollection of a favorite song (available in your smartphone's music library)

  • Your ruminations about a TV show (which was streamed on your smartphone)

  • Your recall of a video conversation with a friend (made from your smartphone)

  • And your reaction to a news story (accessed from an app on your smartphone)

If you forget one or more of these thoughts or experiences—such as what you used to think about years ago or what you thought you wanted to do just a few seconds ago—how can you remember them if they’re not on your smartphone? If you try hard enough, you might be able to. The thought or memory might resurface later, when you’ve stopped thinking about it. But after recalling it, it may be much more difficult to forget next time.

Thanks to the Smartphone Age, your brain has been rewired so that it works differently from your parents’ and grandparents’ brains. They had to remember practically everything—or write things on lists (remembering where they put the lists). They retained more useful information because they didn’t have a smartphone to store it for most of their lives.

Designing tips for the new brain

Of course, the use of smartphones has several implications for designing instructional projects. For example, attention spans are shorter, touchscreens are the primary source of information, multitasking is commonplace, and almost everything is shared. With that in mind, here are some ways to make training more valuable for the new smartphone-dependent brain:

Focus on experiences: Whenever possible, consider using fictitious scenarios and real-life incidents to illustrate important points in your courses. Without these “experiences” to reflect on, learners may miss what they’re supposed to learn, even if you repeat the points multiple times. Also, give classroom learners the opportunity to discover for themselves the importance of each “experience” through discussion and role-playing. For online learners, provide questions that require thought, ask for more than a yes-or-no response, and offer immediate feedback.

Minimize facts and figures: Today's new smartphone-prone brains can’t hold a lot of information that’s unrelated to everyday life or that’s presented without real-world context. Use only those facts that can be illustrated with examples, videos and still images. Provide in digital format any background information for learners, who can read it after class on their smartphones.

Work with short attention spans: For online courses, use a fast-paced instructional design with text captions, shapes, images and/or animations on each slide that arrive and leave every few seconds, along with nearly constant background audio. Vary the placement of objects from one slide to the next. In the classroom, don’t discuss new information for more than a few minutes at a time, especially if you can’t provide a practical example. But frequently reiterate the important points throughout the course, so that they’re retained longer.

Add a social media element: Regardless of how many people take a course online or are present in the classroom, training has traditionally been a one-to-one experience, where the trainer delivers knowledge and the learner absorbs it. But our brains now seek more social interaction, even if it's only virtual. Try expanding the learning experience into a social dimension to increase engagement and participation. For example: Post important points every day for review on Twitter. Begin a Facebook group for learners to connect and discuss important topics from the curriculum. Offer additional information or a live-streaming event available through your company’s or LMS’s portal and enable feedback with a chat board.

Be smartphone-friendly: Include a phone-sized responsive template in your design so learners can easily view courses on today’s larger smartphone displays when accessed from the LMS. This may require larger font sizes and a smaller amount of information on the screen at any particular time. Also check if your LMS offers a mobile app.

Finally, accepting the smartphone as your “second brain” is the initial step toward embracing a future with artificial intelligence and personal robotic assistants. When that happens, we’ll update this blog post with new tips.

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