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e-Learning...as Easy as Pie

Ethan Edwards

Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

Some of you may be surprised to learn that I am a pie maker. In fact, for a few years I had a small home-based pie baking business. So it is not unexpected that I have strong opinions about pie. And here we are approaching Thanksgiving Day, the day when more people are eating pie, willingly or not, than any other day of the year.

There are many choices in one’s approach to pie. Buy a complete pie? Buy a crust and put in a commercial filling? Make your own filling? Make everything from scratch? There is no right answer for everyone or every situation, so it rather irritates me when “experts” say that it must be done one way. Neither is there any particular virtue in a homemade pie beyond the enjoyment that your family and friends take from eating it.
custom elearning

There’s an interesting parallel in how we go about creating e-learning for our organizations. And I think the decision stymies a lot of would-be e-learning professionals.

Pre-baked: The easiest path to pie and e-learning is to buy it off-the-shelf. Store bought pie usually has soggy, crumbly crust and bland, inoffensive filling—tuned to some unknown consumer’s tastes rather than to yours. It looks like a pie and you can claim you served pie without having over-exerted yourself. It’s a gamble, though. Sometimes what looks like an ok pie from the outside tastes so bad that it would have been better to have had none.

The same thing applies to e-learning. Off-the-shelf titles are quick and (sometimes) cheap. The problem is that they are generic, like bought pies, and have little useful specific substance. I fear that some companies providing off-the-shelf solutions care less about whether the lessons address performance issues and impact business than having an extensive catolog of titles to offer. And to be fair, just like gourmet pie shops, there are some content companies that can provide an excellent (and often expensive) off-the-shelf product. But you still may sacrifice your specific needs to what that company presents.

Buy the crust and filling: This takes just a litte time and effort but gives the impression that one is something of a baker. There are a range of crust options, but these days you can get a pretty decent crust from the dairy case. Usually the filling is not great, but it’s easily transferred from can to pie in a jiffy. And it works pretty much the same regardless of what kind of pie filling is purchased. The pie is hot and slightly customized and feels like one’s own.

In e-learning, a quick way to get started is to choose or create some generic shell or template for one’s lessons. Then, simply take existing content from PowerPoint presentations to fill the shell, pop in a few questions, and there you have your own e-learning. It’s a reliable process but usually provides the idea of a pie more than the magnificence of a pie.

Buy the crust and make your own filling: I bet that this is the way most pumpkin pies are made these days. The prepared crust gives a decent head start, but mixing the filling from scratch lets the baker make critical adjustments—cinnamon, ginger, and no nutmeg is my advice regardless what the recipe calls for—that will make the pie really match your tastes. It takes a little longer, but once attempted, people find enough value in the investment to not retreat to store bought.

This is also where I think most e-learning developers are headed. Some of the tools with mid-range capabilities allow considerable customization of what each learning experience might be, while maintaining a simplified shell or limited authoring options to make the process seem achievable. You’ll still find sacrifices made to instructional quality from time-to-time based on the assumption that it would be too time consuming to implement a full-blown solution. One hopes that this doesn’t happen too often, but as is true of each level, most students (and designers too, actually) don’t have enough experience to know how much better it could be.

elearning developmentMake everything from scratch: This strategy starts with whole ingredients and assembles the pie exactly as the baker wishes. While this is how the best pies I’ve ever eaten have been made, it also is how the worst pies I’ve ever eaten have been made. With greater possibility comes greater risk. But with a little experience, the risk almost disappears. This allows subtle differences in the shortening used (butter, Crisco, lard) to complement the flavor and texture of the filling. It encourages some experimentation that might otherwise be skipped. One can make very precise adjustments to the fillings and seasonings. Overall, it uniquely makes possible the dream of the perfect dessert to wrap up a meal.

Again, truly custom e-learning can create amazingly engaging and effective interactions. They may take a little more planning and some more sophisticated tools to pull off, but the end result can be exactly what is needed to truly address the specific performance needs of your organization. Once accustomed to the benefits of this kind of e-learning, it may be hard to justify when a completely store-bought pie might ever be appropriate.

What’s the point of this analogy, you might be thinking? Well here’s the insight that I was hoping to illustrate. Regardless of where a pie-consumer is on this spectum, they tend to stay there. That is, a pie buyer doesn’t suddenly start baking pies. When a pie buyer attempts that, the result is often a disaster and the conclusion is that pie baking is a mystery forever out of reach to a novice. But this isn’t the case at all. The real problem lies in the fact that good pie baking requires some skills and experience. The skills are not difficult and the experiences come naturally, but there is a learning process that must be mastered. If you’ve never made a pie before, it is easy to say that it is too difficult and will take too long. That’s only true at first. With experience and practice, from-scratch pie baking is nearly as quick as any other approach. Because of my experience, I can make a crust from scratch, roll it out, and have a lattice top in place in about 5 minutes from start to finish (with the right tools and ingredients; I use a glass rolling pin—I know it would take me at least twice as long if I had to use a wooden rolling pin).  I’m not saying that to boast, but just to emphasize that practice is necessary to make us able to perform what initially seems insurmountable, quickly and accurately.

And so it is with e-learning. Designing great e-learning is not impossibly difficult. But it is impossible if attempted without the right tools and the discipline to systematically improve one’s skills and grow with experience. Too often I see “buyers” or “assemblers” of e-learning reject the possibility of creating really great e-learning simply because of the expectation that they do not immediately have the ability to build the ideal custom solution. It will only remain impossible if you never take the first step to expand your skills as a designer.

So I encourage you to be brave. Take the next step. Buy that crust; open that can of filling; cut up your own apples; measure out your flour. You’ll be surprised how far you can go if you keep your eyes open to the possible rather than being bound by what your organization has known in the past. I guarantee that you’ll have e-learning programs that delight and educate and entertain. And that is something that everyone will be truly thankful for.

Have a wonderful and safe Thanksgiving.