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Have You Practiced Your e-Learning Today?

Ethan Edwards by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

I just finished a fascinating book I heard reviewed on NPR a few weeks ago.  It’s called How to Write a Sentence; and How to Read One by Stanley Fish.  Fish’s premise is that when studying writing, too much emphasis is placed on the specific grammar and words as the building blocks of language and not enough focus on the sentence form, which is really the basic source of meaning.  You can get all the grammar and words correct and still not actually say anything.  That certainly is something that plagues our conversations about designing e-learning as well—the analysis and design dialog is all about how many words per screen are allowed, what is the smallest acceptable size of text, whether objectives are listed etc.,--never mind that the piece as a whole is unendurable with no effectively expressed outcome.  None of that "correctness" matters if the e-learning application doesn’t communicate something tangible to the learner. (My favorite ludicrous conversation is debating whether screen information formatted into bullet point lists should have periods or not...as if that will have the slightest impact on learning.)

Business womanI could spend some time discussing this issue of focusing on details at the expense of meaning, but it seems sort of obvious, for one thing, and also, and more importantly, there was another point in Fish’s message that sparked a more interesting challenge to me.

In speaking of aspiring writers, he addressed the paradox of new writers recognizing great writing but feeling defeated immediately. "I could never write like that." His point is that while it is true one can't write Pride and Prejudice as a first effort, the impediment is more lack of practice than ability. He advocates that the writer at first forget about meaning and content and just practice writing sentences; hundreds of sentences in a particular form. (For example, write 100 different sentences beginning "Had I...") This builds fluency and knowledge of what various sentences convey independent of specific content, and then those sentence forms become natural tools when we finally have something to say. (My sincere apologies to Dr. Fish for this inadequate representation of his thesis; if this interests you at all I highly recommend this short book.) 

I do think this is a real insight into the difficulty new designers of e-learning face. Many are put in the situation of having to create something polished in a new medium with almost no preparation, and the first task may be to create a significant piece of training that will go out to hundreds of learners.

Interactions take many, many variations, but there really are a somewhat limited number of forms: interactions to reveal new content, interactions to maximize practice opportunities, interactions that provide focused performance feedback, interactions that build fluency, to name a few. You really ought to practice designing interactions that won't necessarily turn into anything useful, but will give you experience into knowing what you can do. Look for mistakes in these trials and figure out how to fix them. But don't use your real content; pick something unrelated where you won't get hung up on content.

I remember years ago when I was trying to learn to build Authorware interactions, I created a whole series of interactions about how to make pies. The content was so far from anything I'd actually ever build that I could really focus on the various forms of interactivity and what each might accomplish. Don't worry about building a full lesson; just build what my friend Edmond Manning calls an "Applet"...a mini application. 

So find examples of interactions you like. Pick some meaningless content, and just start designing interactions. Design each as you would if the goal is memorization of content. Design another as if the goal is to encourage problem solving. Design another as if the goal is to teach a rote procedure. As you do this, you'll get a really deep sense of how critical the elements of Context, Challenge, Action, and Feedback are and how you can play with them to achieve different outcomes. And when you are ultimately faced with creating e-learning on real content, you'll be surprised at how much easier it will be to come up with great examples of e-learning.