Choosing Meaningful Names for your eLearning

Ever save a file with a random name, only to not be able to find it later? If only you’d named it something meaningful! The same can be said for naming your eLearning materials.

The Power of Names in Story

I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means Me!

J.R.R. Tolkien

No, I don’t really believe that I’m a pointy-hat wearing, fire-wielding, grey-bearded being sent to protect Middle Earth from the forces of evil.

Some friends and I recently decided to read-through of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings—primarily for that one friend that hasn’t read them yet (…Tony).

One of the things that struck me this time around is the importance and simplicity of how Tolkien names things. Lake-Town. Mirkwood. Rivendell. Let’s take a closer look at an example from Chapter 1. Where does Bilbo live?

“The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as the all the people for many miles around called it….

The Hobbit, Chapter 1.

Bilbo doesn’t just live at any hill, he lives in comfort at The Hill (Capital T, Capital H). Now, Tolkien could have called the place where Bilbo lived anything he wanted—why choose something so on the nose?

There’s a philosophy in writing that you want to do as much as you can with as few words as possible. Every sentence or thought should be advancing at least two of the three of:

  • Setting
  • Character
  • Plot

Now the sentence from Chapter 1 doesn’t tell us much about the plot, but the name The Hill does manage to convey quite a bit about character and setting. It implies not only are there several other hills around, but Bilbo’s hill is the most important one. It’s the biggest. It’s the grandest. People all around know where it’s found and navigate by it.

It also shows that Bilbo has some stature in the community—advancing the second aspect character. To live in such a powerful, iconic place, implies he is of some wealth or importance in the community. He matters.

Tolkien managed to convey all that information regarding setting and character using just two words. (He expands upon it later, but this sentence sets the tone). The name was critical in establishing that. It’s also worth noting that The Hobbit was written as a fairy tale, so he kept the name simple and understandable—important for the intended age range of his audience.

Names for Learning

Great. So an early 20th century English author used names effectively—what does that mean in today’s digital age? Fast forward to 2009, and the release of a video game: Plants vs. Zombies.

For those who are unaware, Plants vs. Zombies is a Tower Defense game. The core of these types of games is simple—the player tries to build a static defense (think soldiers on a wall, watch towers, etc.), against an invading, unending horde of angry monsters. Think the orcs attacking the fortress of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.

Why is that important?

As Jessica mentioned in a previous post, learners are not all the same. They all have their own ideas, experiences, strengths, challenges, and previous knowledge.

And here’s the secret—you can use that to your advantage.

The designer of Plants vs. Zombies understood players have background knowledge before they sat down at his game. At first, the theme seems silly and nonsensical. Why on earth would plants and zombies be fighting?

But if you look a little closer, it’s actually quite clever. In Plants vs. Zombies the ‘tower,’ or stationary faction, is the plants. The invading horde are zombies. See the connection? The designer used two things that his audience was already familiar with to help reinforce the mechanics of the game.

The player will easily intuit the plants they place can’t move. Duh, they’re plants. And of course the unending horde would be zombies—nearly everyone knows that trope.

The names teach and reinforce the basic conceit of the game.

The Practical eLearning Name

So names are important in modern day too, and even for learning. How can I apply this knowledge to my eLearning design and developments?

In short, make sure your names do work, and that you’re not just naming them off the top of your head.

Make sure your names:

  • convey the meaning you want
  • consider the past experience and knowledge of your learners

Example time!

Let’s say you have a series of questions you want to ask to the learner after they’ve been presented with a block of information. What do you call this? Several options exist, each with their own connotations and meaning. Based on what the learner has experienced in the past, and what you’re trying to achieve, you could go with:

  • Quiz
  • Test
  • Exam
  • Knowledge Check
  • Drill & Practice
  • Survey

And I’m sure you could think of a few others as well. But make sure you pick the right name for what you are doing.

Will your learner know what a knowledge check is really? Use terms your audience is already familiar with, whenever possible. A quiz is likely more informal and shorter than an exam. Drill & Practice implies repeating the content over and over again until they get it correct—it may or may not even be graded.

And once you settle on a name for a particular type of interaction—BE CONSISTENT. Don’t change the name (or switch to a different type) without seriously considering the drawbacks. If your learners are going through an entire program of courses, you’ll set expectations for what a Quiz is early on…if a quiz suddenly becomes something very different, you’re likely to cause confusion and consternation among your learners.

This goes for other documents in your courses as well.

  • Is it a syllabus or a course guide?
  • Is it a Journal Entry or a Blog Post?
  • Is it a Reflection or a term paper?

All of these things carry different meanings. Choose the right one.

You’ll be an eLearning wizard.

Do you have any tips for keeping your naming conventions clear? We’d love to hear from you!

Author: Dave Zokvic, Assistant Instructional Designer

Dave helps Model eLearning forge narrative and gamified eLearning and side-hustles as a writer and designer for Northward Compass. Off the clock, he’s likely eating sushi, wandering around a bookstore, playing tabletop games, or picking up his next ‘digital native’ skill.

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