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All the Things e-Learning Can Be

Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

I frequently find myself engaged in nearly the same conversation each time I speak with instructional designers and developers engaged in corporate e-learning projects.  Readers of this blog will recognize my persistent advocacy for instructional interactivity as the necessary component for successful e-learning: we must create engaging, immersive experiences with compelling context, challenge, activity, and feedback.  I often illustrate this with an assortment of Flash-based e-learning modules that Allen Interactions has partnered with various clients over the years to create. While the demos are convincing, a common response is that the designers/developers don’t have the time, the resources, or the tools to be able to create that kind of e-learning.  Instead, they must use limited tool sets to do the best they can in the time available. 

That’s perfectly understandable.  As organizations try to create e-learning, many attempts will fall short of ideal.  And having something finished is often better than obsessively working to perfect a single design while too many other topics remain untouched.  The old saying, “An instructional design is never finished; it’s only abandoned” continues to be true.  Even with the best examples there are always shortcomings that one wishes could be fixed--compromises made because of project constraints or simply failure to recognize or implement better ideas during development.  It is only to be expected that widespread efforts at e-learning result in products of huge variation in quality and effectiveness.

The difficulty arises for me when we, as a field, begin to accept what currently is created as e-learning as being as good as it can or should be.  So many corporations veer into e-learning without really planning adequately.  They free up a little time for one of the training staff to explore e-learning a little with as slight a commitment as possible.  PowerPoint is the ideal tool for such efforts, and when combined with any of a number web packaging tools to embed the presentation in a SCORM compliant module with pre- and posttests it usually produces something of apparent value--at least for the efficiency of the organization if not for actually teaching anything.  And sadly, even creating this kind of e-learning takes considerable effort; it is difficult to criticize the e-learning without unfairly criticizing the sincere hard work that went into its creation.  The common result seems to be that the organization then trims its vision and criteria for success to what can be done relatively easily, rather than establish a powerful vision for what e-learning should be and, over time, create a supportive environment that includes professional skill-building in design/development staff and allotting reasonable time frames for development.  What should be seen as barely good enough becomes established as all that is expected.  Instead these efforts should serve as a stepping-stone to overcome the limitations of this entry-level e-learning.  It should inform an organization that demands tools to bridge the gap between those that are too difficult to use and those that enable designers to implement required interactive functionality.

There’s an interesting story that effectively inspires me to continue to focus on a high standard of excellence, even when it would be easy to accept “good enough” in place of great.  It concerns the writing of the lovely ballad from the American musical theater tradition:  All the Things You Are -- arguably the greatest song ever composed.  Jerome Kern wrote the music and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics.  It was written for a Broadway show that flopped, but the song itself was recognized as a masterpiece and has been recorded countless times in the last 65 years by nearly every great recording artist.  The last line of the verse goes like this:

Some day my happy arms will hold you,
And some day I’ll know that moment divine,
When all the things you are, are mine!

Beautiful! Except that Hammerstein was never quite satisfied. His desire was always to embody deep emotions out of straightforward natural simplicity, and he was uncomfortably aware of the slightly awkward word order reversal of “moment divine” that was necessary to complete the rhyme.  To the end of his life, he kept thinking of how he could have “fixed” it.  He never came up with anything.  And besides the song was out there and couldn’t have been changed anyway. The fact that the song didn’t meet the author’s idea of “perfection” doesn’t make the song bad; but I’m sure that Hammerstein’s dogged awareness of how this lyric gem, that anyone else would have easily rested a career on, still fell a little short of ideal guided his subsequent lyrics -- elevating all the countless masterpieces from his later projects (Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, etc.).

It understandable that at times we have to make compromises in our e-learning development based on time constraints, short-term budget limits, manpower, and tool capabilities.  But it is dangerous if the corporate values and vision that support an e-learning effort in an organization cease to recognize these flawed efforts as compromises to quality that are necessarily made on the way to creating something really effective and instead establish them as the ultimate standard of excellence.