Learning Lessons from The Rick-Roll

Now today is April Fool’s Day. It seems like this would be a good time for all of us to
explore one of the most popular pranks in the history of the internet. It’s an early
version of today’s internet memes, and something that I still get hit with at least once
every few weeks. It usually comes in the form of an innocuous link, but you don’t
realize is a prank until you click the link.

Good pranks stick with you long after the prank is pulled, and this one is in this guy’s
opinion, one of the best. Once you’ve been hit with it, and the song associated with it
needles it’s way into your brain, consider your day shot. The song is pure 80’s gold,
not in a classic sense, but in a so-bad-it-must-be-good way. If you haven’t figured it
all out already, I’m talking about the ever popular Rick-Roll.

Greater people than I have tried to figure out what makes the Rick-Roll so popular. I’m
interested in exploring the Rick-Roll not from an internet meme standpoint, but from a
very different angle. Learning is my passion, so I’m most interested in
exploring what the Rick-Roll might teach us about learning.

You might be reading that and think “Has David lost his mind?”. It’s entirely possible,
or maybe I’m just having a little April Fool’s Day fun. I’ve always enjoyed taking an
unexpected lesson from unexpected sources, and this is as unexpected as it gets.

Under different circumstances this might just be a joke, but I really do think there are
plenty of lessons we can take about learning from the Rick-Roll. Let’s explore.


Now remember, I’m not saying the Rick-Roll is an example of well-designed learning. I
express that disclaimer loud and clear. I’m merely saying that there are lessons about
virtually anything that can be pulled from any topic if you look at things from new and
exciting points of view. I feel those types of thought processes open our minds
really wide, forming connections not apparent through the blinders of everyday life.

Getting such thoughts started can be hard, so this post is something I’m writing as
one long rant, not taking the time to think things through too much. This filters
new ideas too much, and in situations like this I want every idea to be considered. I
need to consider object lessons too; things that are obviously wrong,
and yet teach a lesson on how to do something right (or better).

Let’s start with one of the obvious parts of the appeal of the Rick-Roll: Surprise. At the
ecosystem and Learning Solutions conferences, Soren Kaplan talked of the value
that surprise brings as it relates to innovation. Surprise might also help with learning.

Your mind reacts differently when you’re surprised. I feel like my mind focuses
on targets more closely when I’m surprised. It’s as if my mind says “Hold up, that was
unexpected” and immediately tries to figure out WHY.

Doesn’t that sound like something we’d want to happen in a learning program? Most
online learning I have taken is highly predictable. In most cases, people are taking a
work-related course and are familiar with much of the content, so we’re batting
natural tendencies to zone-out due to disinterest.


Now surprising people might combat that. In many elearning courses learners can
easily predict what’s coming on the next screen. I think there’s real opportunity and
value to use surprise in those situations. Tackle the content from a unique new angle,
explore it from a customer’s point of view, or just tell a really extreme story and ask
realistic questions about what went wrong. Try something different; surprise people.

Great learning resonates with people. Sometimes it taps into existing knowledge
or emotions. I think that’s part of what connects people to the Rick-Roll. I would
not expect the Rick-Roll to be popular if it was associated with a song that was
not such a part of pop-culture. Part of what makes the Rick-Roll work is the strong
association people have with the song in the first place.

Resonance is so important to learning. In the case of the Rick-Roll, there’s a very
unexpected and strong emotional connection people have as soon as the first few
notes start to play. Finding ways to tap into existing emotions can enhance learning.

And with all due respect to Rick Astley, the Rick-Roll is packed with humor. The video
represents every cheesy 1980’s cliche in the book. Humor is a powerful emotional
opportunity for learning. Of course, humor is also a very slippery slope that I do
understand many people wanting to stay away from. After all, humor is very personal,
needing context that not everyone shares. I’m not saying learning should be funny –
don’t take it that way – but we should understand that humor is memorable.

And that’s often one of the most important takeaways for a learning program, is it
not? Was it memorable? Does it connect new info with existing knowledge so you
don’t have to struggle with recalling information when it’s needed?

Doubtlessly we all want to build learning programs that are effective in helping fellow
employees in doing their jobs better. That’s why many of us love doing what we do.
Sometimes I will create a problem just so I can go through the thought required to
explore and solve it. Creating a problem just to solve it? That may sound odd, but I
really find that to be an exercise that opens my mind, helps my creativity, and in
the end, helps me build better learning programs.

You’ve just read through a post that is me doing just that. Sure, I explored the
opportunities for learning presented by a Rick-Roll, but my true motivation is more
underhanded than that. And no, that link is not a video. Happy April Fool’s Day.

NOTE: This post is inspired by another.

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