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Achieving a Bountiful e-Learning Harvest

By Ethan Edwards, Chief Instructional Strategist / @ethanedwards 

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I don’t know what it means that my random activities so often trigger comparisons to the challenges we face in the field of e-learning, but the latest example occurred last week in regard to walnuts.  Black walnuts, specifically.

There are several old black walnut trees scattered around the home place here, planted at some undocumented time a hundred or so years ago by my grandfather or by his father. In the early days of settling these farms, making everything productive was of paramount importance. So almost all the trees planted were nut trees, as they could provide human food, animal feed, and much desired shade. But among nut trees, the black walnuts are something of a mixed blessing. They are the most reliable in delivering a crop each year, but they are among the most problematic plant products to deal with. I do my best to ignore them, but one of the trees stands near the drive and drops an obnoxious number of nuts in my path in a way that cannot be overlooked.

Harvesting black walnuts is not easy!

So each year I undertake the task of harvesting these nuts. If you have experience with black walnuts, you need no further explanation. If you don’t, let me enlighten you. In autumn, black walnuts drop from the trees, encased in a thick, goo at some stage of ripening from emerald green to charcoal black. As they age, the casing gradually rots, creating a layer of slime surrounding the rock hard nut underneath. This substance creates indelible stains and is potentially toxic to other life. In collecting them, you need to be prepared for stained hands or ruined gloves. After drying for several weeks the slime decays to leave a crisp residue still clinging to the nuts. The nuts must dry (in an open place not subject to squirrel raids), and be separated from the husk residue. Some recommend backing over them repeatedly with a car; I find vigorous shaking in a gunnysack to be more effective.

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But that’s only half of it. Then the real challenge begins: patiently breaking the shells to extract the actual nutmeats. These are not like the pale English walnuts found in holiday nut mixes that are opened easily with a mild squeeze of a nutcracker. Cracking hardwood black walnut nutshells requires the force of a hammer applied with a great deal of force. Too light a touch and the shell remains intact. Too much force results in a useless mound of crushed nuts and shells.  I’m told that commercial growers actually explode the shells in a vacuum, an option not useful to a hobbyist black walnut grower. (As further evidence of the hardness of these shells, it is telling to note that a Google search for “walnuts” and “sandblasting” brings up more than 225,000 matches!) At last, after the tedious cracking and sorting process is done, one might feel lucky to have a cup or two of walnuts left to add to brownies or other treats.

So “in a nutshell,” black walnuts are probably one of the most labor-intensive products to harvest and process. Is there an upside to all of this?—Well, yes, there is.  Black walnuts provide a taste unmatched by anything else in the world.

So what does this have to do with e-learning?

Well, I think a lot. In working with designers and organizations to create effective e-learning, I find it is relatively easy to convey the importance of instructional interactivity, but relatively difficult to change design behavior. Designers seem stuck in producing exactly the kind of training they know to be of little value. When pressed to explain this, designers often cite constraints and expectations that have been set for e-learning development. Operational constraints almost always seem to take precedence over learning efficacy:

  • “Yes, I understand how this is essential for learning, but we only have one week to create each module.”
  • “We don’t have access to any graphics.”
  • “Our authoring tool doesn’t do that."

Designers (or at least their organizations) demand that these real challenges are somehow optional. It is akin to saying, “I want black walnuts but I won’t get stains on my hands, I don’t want to wait for them to dry, and they need to be able to be cracked with a hand nutcracker.” It’s a nice wish, but it’s not going to happen. Depending on which particular constraints you value, you end up with something else entirely: walnuts left inaccessible in the hard shells, walnuts easily cracked but tasteless as the English variety, artificial walnut flavor substituting for actual nuts, or a pile of useless smashed nuts. In the case of e-learning case, cutting corners results in non-interactive content dumps, tests without any actual instruction, content awkwardly shoehorned into inappropriate templates, etc. Unfortunately, one can’t magically wish the hurdles away.

Just like harvesting black walnuts, creating e-learning requires some critical efforts for which there are, as yet, no substitutes.

E-learning must be designed.

That is, one can’t create interactivity without addressing specific aspects of the audience, the delivery constraints, and the desired performance outcomes. There are some effective shortcuts, but one can’t just skip a focused effort on design.

E-learning must be authored. 

Creating e-learning is more than formatting or decorating content. Even the simplest effective authoring systems must allow the developer to construct interactions with branching, variables, and feedback. This is a logical process that doesn’t necessarily require the complexity of programming, but it does require logical, structural thinking of a technical nature on the part of the developer.

E-learning must be carefully tested for quality and functionality.

This is a level of course correction far more complex than simple proofreading. Even if the authoring system doesn’t feel like “programming,” what is created is a “program” that needs to be validated by carefully trying all possible options, expected or random, and fixing shortcomings that are revealed.

Of course there are many more essential tasks in creating e-learning, but these are among the most important and the ones most frequently unaccounted for. It is a fallacy that these disciplines are optional. Unfortunately, if these functions are performed perfunctorily or skipped altogether, you end up with e-learning that fails to impact your learners or achieve your desired outcomes.

So to the extent that you are pursuing “rapid e-learning,” remember that rapid is the optional part. The interactivity essential for learning continues to require thought and effort. Be clever and efficient in your work, by all means, but don’t expect effective training modules if you refuse to account for the essential components needed for designing instructional interactivity.

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