By Linda Rening, Ph.D., studio executive
What is e-learning? That shouldn’t be a hard question, should it?
Yet, I’ve posed that question in lots of different way to lots of different people over the last 20 years, and the answers are… um… let’s say... interesting:
Me: Do you have e-learning in your organization?
Corporate Training Department (CTD): Oh yes, hours and hours of it!
Me: Really? That’s fabulous! How have you developed it?
CTD: We record our weekly sales webinars and post them to our LMS. Our sales people are required to take them.
Me: Uh…. Oh… (Wow!)... Hm-m-m…
To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember what I said in response to hours and hours of recorded webinars being considered e-learning. Really, what is there to say?
The problem is one of vocabulary: Even though e-learning has been around for twenty-some years, compared to other pedagogical methods (think Plato and Aristotle), it is still a new concept. The language simply hasn’t caught up; we don’t have words that everyone interprets the same way. What that means, though, is without a common lexicon and shared meaning there is lots of room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
Does e-learning equate to a delivery mechanism and therefore is a synonym of computer-based training? Does e-learning refer to any kind of asynchronous, technology-enhanced learning experience? Or does e-learning refer to a particular set of methodologies one can use to deliver content?
The answer: it depends on who you talk to, and on the context of the conversation.
In the midst of the confusion, what can we depend upon? Well, we still have ADDIE, the classic Instructional Design method, don’t we? With that methodology, we can Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate learning experience irrespective of the audience, topic, or medium, right?
Unfortunately, no: ADDIE doesn’t get us out of the dilemma of conversations that hinge on equating hours of webinars with the kind of interactive, multi-media e-learning we create at Allen Interactions. Both teaching methods happen on a computer screen and may have similar color schemes, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s like giraffes and spider monkeys: both are mammals who like a certain kind of weather, but hardly the same thing at all.
Even with ADDIE, we are still knee-deep in the quandary of not being able to speak to one another using a shared vocabulary. While, it may be possible to Analyze learning needs and learners without talking about the intricacies of e-learning, it is not possible to move through the Design stage without some kind of basic alignment and common understanding among team members. And that’s where ADDIE stalls out. Without an established Design, it’s very difficult to move forward to Develop meaningful learning experiences.
I’ve worked with other e-learning companies and with hundreds of clients throughout my career, but it has been only in the last 3 years after coming to Allen Interactions that I was part of e-learning projects that consistently went well. The stakeholders and SMEs aren’t different, nor are the learners or learning challenges. What’s different is the way we go about designing e-learning.
Previously, as an instructional designer, I would gather content, analyze needs, and then design an e-learning course. When I submitted a design document, clients were always enthusiastic about my designs and my grasp of the content.
The same thing happened when I wrote scripts for e-learning courses. Clients might wordsmith a bit, but all in all, everyone was happy. So, on we would go to the second of the two D’s: Develop. That’s where everything fell apart.
Clients would be very unhappy, and we’d have conversations like:
Me: But, you approved the script!
CTD: Yes, but we didn’t know it was going to look like that!!
Exit ADDIE; enter SAM…
Our method of Successive Approximations (SAM), with its emphasis on prototyping, circumvents all of the confusion and unhappiness. Because we are able to analyze and design iteratively before developing anything, we can cut through any possible inadequacy of language and collaborate on what interactions will be used to reach learning objectives, and how those interactions will look and behave.
It begins at our Savvy Start. We get together with clients for two days (one day, if we must), and talk about what learners need to be able to do after the training - the desired end state. Once we understand that, we think through contexts and challenges, which brings us to ideas for interactions.
We then have something to prototype. Prototypes start as sketches - think stick-figures on a white board. Anything that is easy to erase or to crumple up and throw away is what we want at this stage.
Once we have an idea of what an interaction might be like, one of our gifted media artists or developers prototype in an authoring tool like ZebraZapps. We’re still not hard-coding anything, just prototyping in a tool that is flexible and easy to change.
From there it’s simple to figure out what everyone likes and doesn’t like. Savvy Start participants come to the screen and point to things, which the person who’s prototyping can change on the spot. Soon there is a lovely silence in the room followed by, “Yes. It should be exactly like that.”
We have just reached shared meaning without a common lexicon and without having to talk about what e-learning is or isn’t.
And, the hard work is done. Now instructional designers know what they are designing toward, media artists know how the e-learning should look, and developers know how it should behave. All that’s left is further iterations to refine and perfect.
Ask five training and development professionals and three subject matter experts, “What’s a click/tell?” You’ll get ten different descriptions and two “I don’t knows.” Imagine how much more complex and confusing are conversations about the immersive simulations we often create in our e-learning courses!
But, with SAM and its iterative process, no one needs to be able to describe a click/tell, a simulated environment, or even define e-learning. Everyone has been involved in defining outcomes and determining solutions. Everyone has walked through the various approximations. Everyone has had a hand in creating learning experiences that are meaningful and memorable.