A self-paced eLearning feature that is experiencing a resurgence these days in the on-screen host or mentor. Why, you ask?

Here are 5 good reasons:

  1. Mentors are familiar: they fit our expectations from school days about how instruction is conducted.
  2. Mentors aid learning comprehension by directing attention to what is important, suggesting learning strategies, summarizing key points, and communicating passion about the subject matter.
  3. Mentors who are recognized as subject matter experts or have some connection to the learner lend credibility to what is being said.
  4. On-screen mentors add visual interest: eLearning is a visual medium. A dynamic host enriches the program’s visual landscape.
  5. A mentor can become a continual learning “brand”: using the same mentor in a number of programs helps link those programs in the learner’s mind. The mentor’s image can also be used in collateral materials such as promotional posters or after-learning follow-ups.

Some suggestions to make it work:

  • Consider using two hosts, possibly male and female. In some scenes, they can appear on screen at the same time, creating an interesting on-screen dynamic. More often, they alternate as new lessons or subjects are introduced.
  • Use the on-screen host(s) sparingly – mainly for introductions, instructions, segues, and summaries. Establish the host’s presence, then cut to other images supported by voice-over narration. Too much screen presence can wear thin.
  • Explore the possibility of using a staff member or respected subject matter expert as a host – but only if they “present well” on camera, and only if they have credibility with your audience.
  • When the host is on screen, make him or her the main focus. Other visuals, especially text, on screen at the same time will compete with what the host is saying and make it difficult for learners to absorb all the information.
  • Test a number of hosts with representative end-users before making a selection. No host will be universally popular with viewers, but some hosts test better than others.

Using an on-screen host is often surprisingly inexpensive. The major costs are for talent (if you will be using an actor), video recording, editing, and programming. Digital video recording and editing technology has reduced costs substantially in recent years – generally to no more than a few thousand dollars for a host’s sporadic on-screen presence in even a multi-hour learning program.

As with everything good, there can be some downsides to using on-screen mentors. For instance, if the subject matter is likely to change frequently, changing what the on-camera host says will require video re-shoots. If a mentor who is a staff member leaves the organization, his or her continued presence in learning materials may no longer be appropriate. If the expected shelf life of the program isn’t too long (not more than 18 months – to 2 years), these are probably acceptable risks.

Of course, your host doesn’t have to be a real person. Some highly effective eLearning programs use avatars (photo-realistic animated characters) as hosts. That will be the subject of another blog post.