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What Does Your e-Learning Yield?

Ethan Edwards by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

Since so many people have asked about them, I’ll start off right away to say that the strawberries have been producing well for the last few weeks.  Of course, for the first week, it was too cold and wet and the last week has been too hot and dry so there has been constant pressure to harvest as much of the crop as possible.  (You’ll note that one primary skill in farming is to never be quite satisfied with what nature doles out….)  But nonetheless, there is little that is more appealing than the look and taste of red ripe freshly picked strawberries.  Customers are aware of the relentlessness of berry season and often hope to offer encouraging words to the effect that “At least the season is only three weeks or so and it will soon be over.”  In truth, the season when the fruit is producing is the not nearly as difficult as the less evident work that was needed to make it possible.

Like so many things, finished efforts appear so much more straightforward when only superficial aspects are accounted for.  It seems this is a problem that plagues our field of e-learning development.  As is usually the case in the ASTD e-Learning Instructional Design Certificate ProgramsI teach, our class discussion at the recent ASTD ICE pre-conference workshop included the topic of how long it should take to create e-learning.  It is distressing (but no longer surprising) that many organizations set expectations that useful e-learning can be created in a week or so.

When this comes up, I dutifully quote the MUCH higher standards that the various industry surveys report (in which development time per hour of instruction varies from around 200 hours up to more than 500 depending on complexity).  Truth be told, though, I hate quoting those numbers as I think they are in many ways meaningless. There is just too much variability in how hours of instruction are measured and what activities are included in computation of effort, etc., to be particularly helpful in deciding how much effort a particular e-learning piece will require.  But the statistics do help paint a more realistic picture as people do place faith in numbers as being “true” when common sense alone should have been enough to point out the absurdity in an idea. 

And truly, it is absurd to suggest a week or even two as a suitable timeframe to create e-learning.,  Just breaking it down into a few pieces reveals this.  Even in the simplest contexts, unless you are already the teacher of the course in question, you’ll need at minimum a day or two to familiarize yourself with the content, understand scope, and define outcomes before you can start designing anything.  Then, because what you are creating is a standalone computer program, you will need to set aside at least a couple days near the end for QA testing to have someone beat on the program to make sure it doesn’t break, which then requires at least a day or two set aside to deal with the issues that are identified by the testing.  This only prepares you for another couple days set aside for user testing before full rollout to make sure the users can navigate through and take meaning from the piece.  So without ANY time accounted for in design or development work, even the tiniest project is going to need a week or two just for mechanics.  So when an organization is setting expectations for e-learning development at 1-2 weeks, they are essentially saying, “We believe that useful e-learning can be accomplished by declaring analysis, design, implementation, and evaluation to be unnecessary aspects in the instructional design process.”

Strawberries copyThis is only possible by concluding that the only time necessary to create e-learning is that which is physically required to manipulate the tools to translate content onto the screen.  That thinking applied to my strawberry crop would go something like this:  

I want us to start having strawberries, and I think we would benefit from producing about six quarts.  I see that over at Edwards Berry Patch it takes about 5 minutes to pick a quart of strawberries.  So since we need six, you should be able to get them for us in about a half hour.  

It’s utterly ridiculous; it ignores the fact that it took a year’s worth of effort to make that strawberry production possible.  This sounds crazy, but it’s not far off of how e-learning decisions are made.

I do want it to be clear that I’m completely in support of efforts to reduce the time required for developing e-learning.  But it has to be done by making the required tasks more efficient—not by eliminating them.  Better tools that allow faster development of richer interactivity and models, iterative design through rapid prototyping instead of exhaustive storyboarding as documentation, and full-team collaboration as opposed to formal handing off of responsibility from one team member to another, are all ways which we have found to be useful in shortening overall development time, without sacrificing the activities necessary for achieving effective e-learning.