Sunday, August 19, 2012

Just DO It

No, this isn't just a slogan for an iconic sportswear company. This is what instructional designers need to make sure they are providing in the training they design.

Why are we taking employees out of their productive environment and putting them into a classroom, or making them launch an e-learning course on their desktop, or going through a self-study workbook, or attending a seminar? Are we telling them a lot of information they may or may not store in their head and then sending them back to work to be productive? Or are we providing them with some knowledge and the ability to apply it in some meaningful way that will make their work (or home) life better or easier? It's not about what will I know when I'm done with this training, it's what will I be able to do.

Do is the key word. I can learn an interesting piece of knowledge in a class, or from a book. That interesting piece of knowledge can sit in my head for years and I can recall it whenever I want. But if I can't take that piece of knowledge and do something with it, I've been educated, but I haven't been trained.

Now if I take that knowledge - like how to make a useful spreadsheet, and I create a spreadsheet that helps me track projects, or create a budget - now I'm doing something with that knowledge. Now that knowledge has been applied and made my life better or easier in some way. Now I have been trained on how to create a spreadsheet, I can do it when needed, and through my ability to create that spreadsheet I am demonstrating both the knowledge and skill.

For some people this may seem obvious. In my experience you would be surprised how many times myself and other instructional designers are asked by someone to create "training" when all it is is an information dump with no method of applying that knowledge in a way that lets the learners do something when they're done.

Or, equally as bad, they are provided with the knowledge and a method of how that knowledge could be applied it in some meaningful way, but there is no practice. Sometimes it's assumed it's so easy to do, practice isn't necessary. Sometimes there just isn't enough time set aside for practice, so the expectation is they will do it on the job and "learn by doing." Sometimes practice is difficult due to technology reasons, so learners watch an instructor do something while they do nothing but passively observe. They have the knowledge of what to do and how they could do it, but once they've left the classroom or the online course, they still haven't done anything except maybe answer a few True/False or multiple choice questions. Unless you're a professional student, your job does not consist of taking quizzes, you're expected to get things done. Knowledge without application is education, not training.

So the next time you're asked to develop training, make sure those learners will be able to do something, and that they've practiced doing it for a significant portion of the class. I understand this is not always possible because the world is not perfect, but keep it in mind and do the best you can. Make sure the assessment makes them demonstrate they can do it, not answer quiz questions about how it would or could be done.
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Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Pizzazz Trap

First of all, I haven't blogged in quite a while, and I apologize for that.

I was working a long-term contract that lasted for a year and a half - which is fantastic in this economy. Fortunately, most of my posts are on e-learning theory, so regardless of how old they may be, the theory still holds up over time, in my humble opinion.

With that said, let's get to it...

When it comes to e-learning development, I have had more than one client tell me, "Make it look fancy! We want lots of animations! More animations!"

I call this syndrome "the pizzazz trap."

It's a fairly common syndrome, and it's easy to understand. We have computers that are capable of projecting video, sounds, and moving graphics. Because computers have the capability to project these interesting items, and we now have an internet that can project them to anyone, some people feel because we CAN do it, we MUST do it. Why? I have found two reasons why they feel this way.

REASON ONE (the reason often given):
The more sound and video and flashy graphics, the more engaged the learner will be.

REASON TWO (the reason sometimes given):
The more sound, video, and flashy graphics, the better the course can be used as a marketing, impressing our customers and "the boss."

Let's take Reason Two first. It's true, the fancier and flashier something looks, the more attention it gets. If done with quality, it is a great way to show off a company and/or product. This is why movies and ads with big special effects get a lot of attention.

The problem is, even a movie with fantastic special effects can still be a bad movie if the writing and/or story is bad. A poorly written ad can make an impression, but if we don't remember the product that was pitched, how effective was it? We even see this conundrum with the Broadway play - "Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark."

Audiences are amazed at all the wireworks - when they work properly. But consistently people complain that the story is disjointed and hard to follow, and the music is utterly forgettable. It is simply not a good play. Another interesting fact is because of all the effects, and hiring Bono and The Edge of U2 to write the music, the play cost over $65 million to create, which all experts agree will be impossible to make back (the example given is Shrek: The Musical, which cost $25 million to produce and did not make a profit).

They fell into the "pizzazz trap."

This takes us back to Reason One.

Does creating a course with sound and video and flashy graphics really engage the learner? Perhaps at first, but ultimately it will not.

People like to look at moving pictures, listen to nice music or a pleasant voice-over, and see quality graphics...for a while. But ultimately why are they taking the course? To be entertained? To be impressed with the time, effort, and budget spent on the course? Of course not - they are taking time out of their busy day to take the course and learn something.

If the material contained within the course is not relevant to the learner, no amount of pizzazz or interactivity is going to keep them engaged for long (unless the course is so short they don't have time to get bored). Eventually they will realize they are not learning anything useful; and as they realize they have better things to do, they will turn off or ignore the course.

There is another issue to pizzazz that needs to be addressed: does it distract the user from what is being taught? If I have a voice over or text telling me something important, but at the same time I can interact with a graphic or click on a video before I absorb the content, am I really getting the information I need? Am I being engaged to the point where I am being distracted from learning?

This is a mantra that cannot be repeated enough, because it is too often ignored - CONTENT IS KING.

You do not NEED pizzazz to learn something. If that were true, we would be incapable of learning from reading or going to a lecture. However, video, audio, and special effects can take a well-written and relevant course and make it much more enjoyable.

The motivation to learn does not come from pizzazz, it comes from the potential to learn something useful and helpful - like how to get a job, how to save money in a tough economy, or how to do your job more effectively so you work smarter and not harder.

And, like with Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, there can be a high cost to having lots of pizzazz in e-learning. Higher production costs, longer production time, and increased file sizes which can cause technical difficulties.

Don't get me wrong - I am not saying there should be no sizzle with your steak. But all the sizzle in the world doesn't make a rancid piece of meat taste good.

Start out with relevant content. Make the writing pithy and tight. Then, keeping technical limitations in mind, sprinkle in audio, video, and nice graphics that help enhance the content - not distract from it. It's not easy, and it may not be popular with all clients, but ultimately it's what's needed for the real customer - the learner.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Nice to Know vs. Need to Know

As mentioned before, people are busier than ever at work. We have more work to do, and in today's economic climate, there are usually fewer people to help. This means we need to be as efficient as possible to get the job done on time.

It is with this in mind that designers of e-learning (and all training, really) should focus on what's really important. People sitting at their desks are assaulted by phone calls, e-mails, fellow employees and management. What little time they do have for e-learning, they certainly don't want to feel like it's wasted on something that tells them something they either: A) Already know, or B) Don't need to know.

Adults in the workplace want to learn how to DO things. Or they want to know things that will help them DO things better. What do I consider "nice to know" information? My general rule of thumb is, if they can do the task or process without that piece of information, it's just nice to know. Information that is critical in allowing an individual to complete a task or process is "need to know" information.

Does this mean "nice to know" information should be ignored? Absolutely not. But learners should not be forced into learning it, because they may not consider the information relevant to them. However, there are some learners who are self-motivated who may be interested in the "nice to know" information. They may feel they are getting more in-depth learning from this information.

There are simple ways to separate the "need to know" vs. the "nice to know" information, so learners who just want to get the essential information and be on their way, and those who want more information are both appeased.

The easiest way to separate the information is to create rollovers and links that allow users craving more information to access it without disrupting the flow of the course's "need to know" information. Learners who just want the essential information can easily choose to ignore the rollovers and links and move forward. This way you can have one course that appeases both audiences. Just make sure to mention at the beginning of the course that the extra links and rollovers contain additional information, so users know they have the option.

Another method is to simply have separate courses that provide all kinds of "nice to know" information. The disadvantage is a new course needs to be created from scratch, but if it's information that rarely or never changes, it only needs to be done once. An advantage, particularly if you have an LMS, is you can keep track of how many people are accessing the "nice to know" vs. the "need to know" courses.

The most important point is to keep the "nice to know" and the "need to know" information separate. Really examine the information that is being put into an e-learning course and ask yourself, "Does someone NEED this information to perform this task/process/procedure/etc.?" This will keep the core information of your course as short, sweet, and relevant as possible, and your learners will appreciate it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Value of Human Networking

Yes, my last post was on using social networking online to find a new position. I think it's critical to never forget the value of human interaction as well. After all, chances are you will be working for a human being, so it's good to know how to interact with them.

I belong to the ASTD (American Society for Training and Development). You can see from the name what the organization does. Since I do e-learning, this kind of organization is a perfect network for me to be a part of.

As often as I can, I will go to the meetings of the local chapter of the ASTD. I have met so many wonderful people, and handed out lots of business cards. I've also learned a lot from presentations that are always offered at the meetings, and yes, I have even had job leads.

Through these meetings, although I interact socially with as many people as I can, after I get their business cards (which everyone hands out because we are all networking) I will go to my online networking (particularly LinkedIn) and try to connect to them. Virtually everyone in the organization is aware of LinkedIn, and they are all eager to connect so we can all stay connected beyond the meetings.

These are some simple guidelines I follow when networking in person:

1. Bring enough business cards

I have a special holder for mine, and I always make sure it's full before I go to a meeting. I then use the same holder to keep the cards I receive. When I get home, I go through them and connect to people through LinkedIn, then put the cards in a business card holder I have.

2. Dress for success.

Maybe it's unfair, but people who dress up at these meetings stand out from people who don't. If you want to market yourself as a professional, you should look like a professional when there is even the chance you could interact with someone that may offer you a job in the future.

3. Be outgoing!

I know it's not easy for everyone. I can be introverted at times myself. If you know at least one person in an organization, you have them as a fallback position. The good news is everyone in the organization has a common interest, so it should be easier to interact with them than people who you have nothing in common with.

So far it's worked well for me. I have a freelance position I'm going to be starting on June 8th because of my human networking through the ASTD.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Importance of Relevance

Lots of kids find school boring and a waste of time. If you ask them why, odds are they just don't see how it applies to them - they don't see the relevance.

This feeling carries over to adults, particularly when it comes to training in the workplace. One of the basic principles of Andragogy (the art and science of helping adults learn), developed by Malcolm Knowles is as follows:

"Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life."

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. We adults have a lot to do. Any subject that can help improve how we do our job or our personal life is important. Anything beyond that may be nice to know, but if it's information that won't help us in the here and now, it's something that can be put off until later.

This issue of relevance becomes even more important in an e-learning environment. Why? Consider this:

1. E-learning environments come with lots of distractions.

Most e-learning is done by the user at their workplace computer. That means they have their work phone, their co-workers, and their boss nearby that can be very distracting. They also have e-mail that will alert them when something new is arrived, and will take away their attention from whatever course they may be involved in. If the material is not relevant, it's very easy to tune out or turn off e-learning when the phone rings, or an e-mail comes in, or a co-worker pops in to talk about the weekend. With relevant material, particularly material that's essential or important to getting work done, it becomes more of a priority, and distractions become easier to resist.

2. E-learning feels informal.

When sitting by yourself in front of your computer in your office or a cubicle, it's a very different experience than sitting in a classroom with other people and an instructor in front of you. In a classroom, you almost feel a sense of obligation that you are there to learn something. You grew up in this type of learning environment. Even if you didn't care for the subject or the teacher, not paying attention could have consequences (assuming the teacher was any good). When it's just you at your desk with nobody else looking, if the content is irrelevant, it's easy to just click through it as fast as possible and get it over with. If you find the material relevant to your job, you're more likely to pay attention to it, even without being in a "formal" learning environment.

3. E-learning does not have the benefit of an external motivator (extrinsic motivation).

What do I mean by an external motivator? Very simply, an instructor. In a classroom, a good instructor can read a class and can tell if the learners are engaged or not. If they aren't, the instructor can take action to get them engaged through exercises, pop quizzes, or a discussion. He or she can motivate them to learn, or at least pay attention. Even if the material is irrelevant to the learner, having a human being interacting with them can keep them (even reluctantly) engaged and motivated. In e-learning, particularly asynchronous e-learning, there is no external motivator keeping you engaged. Yes, you can try to make e-learning that buzzes and beeps and has movies and interesting effects, but if all that revolves around irrelevant material, people will still tune out eventually - unless you provide other external motivators such as punishment or reward. But without these motivators or an instructor, it's easy to ignore irrelevant e-learning. Relevant e-learning gets people motivated from within (intrinsic motivation). They WANT to learn how to make their jobs and/or lives easier. Make sure they are getting relevant material that internally motivates them.

So before you put together a course - any course, figure out if the material being taught is relevant or not. Will it improve how they do their jobs? Will it give them important information they didn't already have? Will it offer them realistic solutions to realistic problems they may encounter?

We are working more hours with less help than ever before in the workplace. There are lots of distractions coming at us from every angle, and we can only do so much. If your material is important and relevant, you will find your learners are more likely to ignore those distractions and get engaged in that relevant material. If it isn't, you may be spending a lot of time and money creating a course that nobody will have any interest in.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why eLearning?

In this blog, I intend to look at different aspects of e-learning, from theory to tools to my personal experiences. I am assuming anyone who is reading this is currently doing e-learning, or is thinking about it, so I will try to make it as simple and concise as possible, but I will assume you know the basics.

For this first blog entry, I thought it would be a good idea to cover why you would want to have e-learning as a method of training at all? With so many different ways to train individuals, why is e-learning the right choice for a company?

Honestly, e-learning is not always the right choice for every training situation.

There are many companies that choose e-learning because they think it is a low-cost alternative to putting people in a classroom, or at least sending an instructor out in the field. Once you take into account the cost of purchasing an e-learning tool, purchasing an LMS, then paying people to create and maintain courses, it could theoretically cost as much, if not more than classroom instruction. It's important to do the research first and find out the real costs.

Some companies believe they can take an instructor and have he or she conduct a "webinar" or take PowerPoint slides or a manual and use a particular design tool to put it online and it will be just as good. This may be perfectly acceptable for some topics. For other topics, it's critical for the trainee to have a live person in the room to answer questions and explain things. Especially if it involves something complex and mechanical like an engine or similar device.

While I have a background in e-learning design and development, I'm also versed in instructional design. The goal of instructional design is to find the best and most effective way of training people, and each method of training (instructor-led, job aids, online, etc.) has strengths and weaknesses. While entire books have been written on this subject, I will focus on reasons why you would want to choose e-learning either as a primary way of training, or, better yet, to supplement other types of training.

Here are some (but by no means every) legitimate reasons why you would consider e-learning:

1. Difficulty aligning trainee schedules.

Yes, going to a classroom and training would be nice, but people are busier than ever before, and they just don't have the time to go to class. Even if you can get two or three people in a class at a time, what if you have 100 or more trainees? That's over 30 class sessions. If you're under time constraints, this may be unacceptable. Asynchronous can be taken via computer, which means an employee or customer can take it as time allows.

2. The topic of training involves using a computer.

One thing e-learning can do very well are software simulations. Now this isn't to say that learning in a computer lab with an instructor isn't advantageous as well. If a software program is extremely complex, having an instructor present is helpful. But if the program is relatively simple, or a lab just isn't available, or schedules don't allow lab training (point #1), e-learning could be the right training tool.

3. Tracking of training is critical.

If you have a large number of trainees, and it's important to monitor their training (particularly test scores), e-learning with a learning management system (LMS) is an excellent way of keeping track of who is receiving what training and how that individual is doing. Yes, an instructor could take attendance and keep track of test scores and enter them into a database, but having the whole process online is much faster and more efficient - particularly if the trainees are spread out over a large geographic area.

4. Instructor interaction is not necessary or important.

The less complex a training topic, the fewer questions a trainee will have. This means an instructor is not as necessary as with a more complex topic. If the training is relatively simple, and it can be easily conveyed via a computer, then e-learning is a good method of providing training. Conversely, if a topic is complex, e-learning (particularly asynchronous e-learning) would not be a good training method.

5. A training topic has frequent simple changes over time.

What is really powerful about e-learning is it can be distributed to a group of people in a wide area in an instant - at least theoretically. I can make a change to this blog and in an instant it's uploaded and available to everyone with web access. E-learning can be like this, but it takes some planning in advance. If the tool used to design e-learning is not a simple tool, or your e-learning uses complex media such as audio and/or video, that can slow down the process. By the time new audio or video is recorded and placed into the course, the content may be outdated. Remember to take into consideration the amount of time it takes to get changes approved through the review process. If you can juggle all these variables successfully, e-learning can be a great training method for this type of content.

While this is not a comprehensive list of reasons to choose e-learning, it should provide some food for thought. With all the different types of training available, make sure you are choosing e-learning for the right reasons.