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.