By Linda Rening, Ph.D., studio executive
What is e-learning? That shouldn’t be a hard question, should it?
Yet, I’ve posed that question in lots of different way to lots of different people over the last 20 years, and the answers are… um… let’s say... interesting:
Me: Do you have e-learning in your organization?
Corporate Training Department (CTD): Oh yes, hours and hours of it!
Me: Really? That’s fabulous! How have you developed it?
CTD: We record our weekly sales webinars and post them to our LMS. Our sales people are required to take them.
Me: Uh…. Oh… (Wow!)... Hm-m-m…
To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember what I said in response to hours and hours of recorded webinars being considered e-learning. Really, what is there to say?
The problem is one of vocabulary: Even though e-learning has been around for twenty-some years, compared to other pedagogical methods (think Plato and Aristotle), it is still a new concept. The language simply hasn’t caught up; we don’t have words that everyone interprets the same way. What that means, though, is without a common lexicon and shared meaning there is lots of room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
Does e-learning equate to a delivery mechanism and therefore is a synonym of computer-based training? Does e-learning refer to any kind of asynchronous, technology-enhanced learning experience? Or does e-learning refer to a particular set of methodologies one can use to deliver content?
The answer: it depends on who you talk to, and on the context of the conversation.
In the midst of the confusion, what can we depend upon? Well, we still have ADDIE, the classic Instructional Design method, don’t we? With that methodology, we can Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate learning experience irrespective of the audience, topic, or medium, right?
Unfortunately, no: ADDIE doesn’t get us out of the dilemma of conversations that hinge on equating hours of webinars with the kind of interactive, multi-media e-learning we create at Allen Interactions. Both teaching methods happen on a computer screen and may have similar color schemes, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s like giraffes and spider monkeys: both are mammals who like a certain kind of weather, but hardly the same thing at all.
Even with ADDIE, we are still knee-deep in the quandary of not being able to speak to one another using a shared vocabulary. While, it may be possible to Analyze learning needs and learners without talking about the intricacies of e-learning, it is not possible to move through the Design stage without some kind of basic alignment and common understanding among team members. And that’s where ADDIE stalls out. Without an established Design, it’s very difficult to move forward to Develop meaningful learning experiences.
I’ve worked with other e-learning companies and with hundreds of clients throughout my career, but it has been only in the last 3 years after coming to Allen Interactions that I was part of e-learning projects that consistently went well. The stakeholders and SMEs aren’t different, nor are the learners or learning challenges. What’s different is the way we go about designing e-learning.
Previously, as an instructional designer, I would gather content, analyze needs, and then design an e-learning course. When I submitted a design document, clients were always enthusiastic about my designs and my grasp of the content.
The same thing happened when I wrote scripts for e-learning courses. Clients might wordsmith a bit, but all in all, everyone was happy. So, on we would go to the second of the two D’s: Develop. That’s where everything fell apart.
Clients would be very unhappy, and we’d have conversations like:
Me: But, you approved the script!
CTD: Yes, but we didn’t know it was going to look like that!!
Exit ADDIE; enter SAM…
Our method of Successive Approximations (SAM), with its emphasis on prototyping, circumvents all of the confusion and unhappiness. Because we are able to analyze and design iteratively before developing anything, we can cut through any possible inadequacy of language and collaborate on what interactions will be used to reach learning objectives, and how those interactions will look and behave.
It begins at our Savvy Start. We get together with clients for two days (one day, if we must), and talk about what learners need to be able to do after the training - the desired end state. Once we understand that, we think through contexts and challenges, which brings us to ideas for interactions.
We then have something to prototype. Prototypes start as sketches - think stick-figures on a white board. Anything that is easy to erase or to crumple up and throw away is what we want at this stage.
Once we have an idea of what an interaction might be like, one of our gifted media artists or developers prototype in an authoring tool like ZebraZapps. We’re still not hard-coding anything, just prototyping in a tool that is flexible and easy to change.
From there it’s simple to figure out what everyone likes and doesn’t like. Savvy Start participants come to the screen and point to things, which the person who’s prototyping can change on the spot. Soon there is a lovely silence in the room followed by, “Yes. It should be exactly like that.”
We have just reached shared meaning without a common lexicon and without having to talk about what e-learning is or isn’t.
And, the hard work is done. Now instructional designers know what they are designing toward, media artists know how the e-learning should look, and developers know how it should behave. All that’s left is further iterations to refine and perfect.
Ask five training and development professionals and three subject matter experts, “What’s a click/tell?” You’ll get ten different descriptions and two “I don’t knows.” Imagine how much more complex and confusing are conversations about the immersive simulations we often create in our e-learning courses!
But, with SAM and its iterative process, no one needs to be able to describe a click/tell, a simulated environment, or even define e-learning. Everyone has been involved in defining outcomes and determining solutions. Everyone has walked through the various approximations. Everyone has had a hand in creating learning experiences that are meaningful and memorable.
Learn more about Leaving ADDIE for SAM Workshop presented by Dr. Michael Allen in Toronto on April 9.
by Richard Sites, vice president - client services
After a long week of traveling to client meetings for discussions on building new e-learning courses and revising old ones, I was glad to jump out of bed Saturday morning to head to the golf course. My Saturday morning routine is a nice comfort at the end of a long week filled with too many airplanes, conference rooms and security lines.
I’ve brought up my love of this sport before and the kookiness that often ensues. But this last Saturday morning was about as mundane of an outing as possible. Only a handful of the boys showed up this week. The smaller the group – much like dogs – the less likely there will be loud, boisterous behavior. But that doesn’t mean there were fewer stories about how bad someone’s swing is, or how pathetic their putting has been, or someone’s inability to hit a decent wedge shot. These are ever-present at all golf courses.
Just as customary is the whining about the ineffective parts of one’s golf game is the story about the new club they just bought to help solve this problem. This “buy a good game” mentality is standard protocol for most golfers. If you have ever seen Tin Cup, you’ll appreciate the lengths that a golfer will go through to improve their game.
The biggest problem, however, is that this does nothing to improve the problem – which is the golfer’s swing. It only bandages the problem for a little while. And when the newness of the latest game-improvement club wears off, there will be another trip to the golf store for a new one.
Because this was a rather quiet Saturday morning on the course, I couldn’t help but to let my mind wander a bit. And of course, it wandered back to work and the challenges that clients have with building and revising e-learning courses.
There are myriad reasons to initiate a new e-learning development project, from underperforming employees, to a new system launching, to updating content to match the changes over the past year (or more). There are just as many ways to deliver whatever instructional treatment we design.
But, there is only one real reason for building good instruction and that is helping learners perform better. (Or as we like to say here at Allen – To get the right people to do the right thing at the right time.)
Although it may seem logical to update old e-learning with new graphics and interface, or to build a better assessment at the end of the course, or add some animation to the course design, these are merely new clubs in the bag. What is most important is how we plan to fix our swing!
While I can attest to the improvement that a new driver gives – in terms of distance and accuracy – it is not enough to ensure that the errors of my swing don’t produce a giant slice out of bounds. Only by focusing on the reason why I tend to hit a lot of houses at my course will I be able to improve my performance. I don’t need a new club in the bag; I need good strategies and practice to improve my game.
In the same light, we cannot change e-learning – or build different e-learning – by implementing new graphics or treatments or post assessments, without focusing on the performance we hope to change. We should always strive to produce the best product for our learners, in terms of media, navigation, instructional treatments, etc. But these decisions should always be based on the need to better support the learner’s performance.
More often than not, an hour at the range focusing on your performance will do a whole lot more for your swing than a new driver. Trust me, I own three.
by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist
Each time I teach the ASTD e-Learning Design Certificate courses, I’m reminded of how many organizations look to e-Learning as the vehicle for delivering compliance training — training that for legal or regulatory reasons the organization is required to conduct and document. Compliance training often is related to certification or accreditation, and failure to comply may result in hefty monetary fines or restrictions to even operate.
It seems that organizations rush to use e-Learning in these situations for two major reasons: the burden of teaching this bureaucratic information consistently through other means is too onerous, and the reporting of completion data through an LMS greatly simplifies the effort to document compliance.
Unfortunately, there are two common attributes of the resulting e-Learning that virtually guarantee failure: company-wide acceptance that compliance content is by definition “boring” excuses the worst sort of useless page-turning as the instructional model for the learning modules, and the “check-box” reporting mentality creates simplistic and meaningless interactivity that begs to be ignored by the learners. (And this check-box mentality is coming back to haunt organization as many overseeing entities have realized the meaningless nature of this kind of reporting and have begun to validate training through site visits and more challenging qualitative evaluation methods.)
This is a good example of how positive motivators for one group can be at best neutral or even de-motivating for others. While one hopes that individual businesses value the positive impact on the individual worker of these training topics (like sexual harassment, workplace diversity, or even something as practical as emergency preparedness), the primary motivation for the organization to comply with these training requirements is a matter of administrative duty. They have no choice if they want to continue operating.
This administrative duty does not really transfer with the same impact to individual employees, yet I am amazed at how often the sole “welcoming” message to the learner that opens a compliance training piece is essentially, “The only reason we’re making you do this is because we have to.” This message is reinforced when the learner gets into the “training” and is subject to the tedious and inane page turning and trivia activities that result from this sort of design approach.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As twisted and misguided as some of these regulations have become in their official implementation, there is usually a valuable idea at the core. Workplaces really do function better when there is a shared respect for diversity; no worker wants to be the victim of sexual harassment, and it is in everyone’s interest to be able to proceed safely in various emergencies.
These topics touch each learner in very personal ways, and any training that is going to be successful is going to have to tap into how each employee is responsible for the work climate. The motivators that are going to engage the learner by necessity will have to address attitudes, personal consequences, and elicit specific memories of past experiences that can be tied to the objectives. This will not happen unless the designer of the instruction creates interactivity that will lead the learner in that direction.
Creating bad e-Learning is just as expensive as creating good e-Learning. Actually it’s probably more expensive when you take into consideration the wasted training time and the ill-will and distrust that it builds while not teaching. Just because we think of the course as required teaching doesn’t mean that learners process it as required learning. The necessity for creating meaning and relevance is probably even greater than for the other training projects we face.
by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist
Spring has arrived in full force here in Southern Illinois. Whenever I drive into town I pass right through an enormous apple orchard (actually, I believe it's the largest family owned orchard in the US) and right now the apple trees are in full bloom. Most apple trees are not self-pollinating; that is, they need a different variety of apple to be in bloom nearby in order to make a decent crop. Depending on the variety, fruit will be sparse and less vigorous or may not form at all without cross pollination. So it's really important to plant multiple types of apple trees.
This is clearly apparent in this hillside orchard: this part of the orchard is predominantly planted with one variety, but the "pollinators," clearly visible by their contrasting bloom and pruning pattern, are scattered evenly throughout the planting. They aren't expected to produce fruit for picking necessarily and are pruned to produce maximum bloom rather than optimal fruit. They very well may be crabapples, as some of those varieties do a great job pollinating even though the fruit is not useful. But the important thing to note is that the producing apples can't do it all by themselves.
So what does this have to do with e-learning? Not a lot directly, but I think it can serve as a useful analogy for what needs to happen during design and development to get the best e-learning products. Too often I find that e-learning designers are working entirely on their own-designing, developing, and implementing their lessons with no one off whom to bounce ideas. Even in situations where multiple designers are working in the same organization, it is surprising how completely each person can be siloed, with only minimal contact with fellow-designers. It's sort of like being a poor apple trees without a pollinator.
Here at Allen Interactions we have the benefit of working in studios. Each studio comprises of full complement of the skills and resources required to complete an e-learning product: instructional designers, project managers, developers, content writers, media specialists, etc. We try to include all team members in critical discussions during the life of a project as much as possible, and we find the multiple perspectives to be invaluable in coming up with the best designs. A large part of making e-learning work is understanding human nature, so even people without formal instructional design training can contribute in significant ways to the design.
Even though you might not have the benefit of a team or of a dedicated studio, it is important to do whatever you can to find a colleague to involve yourself with during the design portions of your project. There are several key points in the design process-very early in the brainstorming phases and at each significant review point-where you absolutely need to have the benefit of someone else's eyes. The more you invest in a solution, the more invisible its flaws become to you. And your colleague doesn't even have to be an instructional designer to be helpful (remember how indispensible the services of a lowly crabapple can be). The exercise of justifying your design ideas to someone else and really listening to that person's comments will do amazing things for the quality of the thinking behind your designs. Unnecessary content and burdensome sequences become very clear almost immediately. Another point of view can be exactly the catalyst to jump start your own insights in a different but more productive direction.
It's a simple concept, but one that will bear ample fruit if you are industrious in seeking partnerships with others, even if you still are in a department of one.