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Synthesize, don’t polarize

November 27, 2014

I saw a tweet quite awhile back that was said something like “smart societies don’t polarize, they synthesize”, which I thought could be applied to many things. Take the learning industry for an example. There can be some times when it feels polarizing. If you deliver courses you are a luddite who is a throwback to the 20th century. Or, if you use rapid e-learning tools, you are responsible for the creation of bad e-learning and ruining the industry.  I’m not sure if it’s just me, but sometimes I think we are not helping ourselves in the grand scheme: the zero sum approach only makes winners and losers.

The way I see it, the solution is only a solution that makes sense in the context of the problem, the business drivers for the solution (time or budget for example) and the culture of the environment. But as an industry we tend to judge the solution based on what we see, and we actually don’t know what’s going on beneath the surface, what lead to that or what criteria was considered. Instead we point out what it isn’t. It’s not mobile-first. It’s got a next button. It’s a course.

I think we would serve our industry better if we didn’t look for ways to identify how others do it wrong (in our opinion) or polarize things. I think we’d do more good if we looked to synthesize or bring polarizing positions together.  You can still try to educate people that a course isn’t the only solution without polarizing. You can still urge vendors to innovate their tools without browbeating those that use the rapid tools.  Think about it the next time you tweet something about the “wrong-ness” of something. Are you just contributing to a polarizing discussion? Can you do something different?

[Note: It wrote this draft post here on the blog and let it sit here for awhile. I’ve been finding time to write blog posts again lately and thought this quote still had merit.]

Instructional Designer’s Mindset

November 22, 2014

I was going to call this post the “curse” of the mindset of the instructional designer, as many of us go through life seeing places where people could really use our help and sometimes we can’t stop. But, in reality it isn’t a curse. It’s a gift!

An instructional designer mindset means:

  • You seek to clarify what the intended audience supposed to DO and HOW are they supposed to do it.
  • You identify that there are conditions that may impede learning and/or remembering
  • Chunking is a legitimate activity (where you “chunk” the information)
  • You think about the sequence of information and how it might best be delivered or repeated
  • You see opportunities for job aids
  • You consider visual cues as a complement to learning

This doesn’t mean that we are looking to turn everything into a course, it just means that we are looking for ways to improve instruction.

Where would an instructional designer mindset be helpful?

Any program anywhere – schools, communities, non-profits, etc

Any time a group puts together a program, there’s an instructional component, whether they realize it or not. It might be in the application forms, in the orientation to the issues at hand (why does this program exist), in understanding their new role or just understanding the program itself. An instructional designer mindset could help program developers to approach the creation of their programs differently and think about how to ensure skills are transferred, and how they envision the program sustaining itself after it’s launched. There are times that enthusiasm and good intention are not enough. For example, one project we are working on helps community members learn what their role is as a volunteer and what the “rules of engagement” are, as they are dealing with youth and we want to be sure that good intentions are combined with helpful interactions. If you’ve ever volunteered and not been sure exactly what you are supposed to do, this might resonate with you.

Health interactions – especially for patients

Imagine you are in the doctor’s office and you get a bunch of verbal instructions and maybe a brochure to help you with a diagnosis, but you are emotional or distracted or just ill, so you forget the nuances of what you’ve been instructed to do. I think there is a huge need for an instructional designer’s mindset across health in general. For most patients, they are not familiar with the ins/outs of their condition or treatment, while health care professionals deal with this constantly. An instructional designer’s mindset might lead us to think about the different stages of competence: and identify how a patient is obviously at a much lower level of competence as a health care professional, and approach instruction from a beginner’s perspective. Chunking and sequencing could be a case of life or death! I’d love to see more of an instructional designer’s mindset in many health situations. Help patients be more supported and in more ways than currently exist. An example, one project that we are working on involves providing instruction for patients with a chronic condition and we’ve identified ways of providing introductory instruction (e-learning) and a range of performance support: how to guides that walk you through the first time, how to calibrate your home machine, signs to watch out for infection, etc. The intent is to empower the patient to manage their own treatment and it takes more than one in-home visit to do so.

Here’s a recent post by another instructional designer in a similar vein, but focused on the health care professional side:

Social Causes – many and growing

We all have causes we believe in and support. There’s a plethora of channels to get your message out these days and I personally have seen a huge increase in the number of petitions I’m asked to sign, videos promoting the cause and the dreaded “clickbait” to articles about an issue. These are often done with a marketing mindset and I wonder if adding an instructional designer mindset might be helpful. An example: recently I attended a documentary called “Just Eat It” – a film about food waste and I was inspired by the film to make changes, but got a bit stuck about what I could actually do beyond just trying not to waste as much. The instructional designer in me is itching to make an online course, especially a weekly email delivered course that would allow you to take action and creating lasting behaviour change. Like this:

As a company, we’ve been lucky to be involved in some programs that are in this “non-traditional” realm, and we really enjoy them. It’s not typical instructional design, but is does give us opportunities to be engaged in social aspects that hopefully make our communities and maybe our world a better place through the gift of an instructional designer’s mindset.

Do you see other areas that an instructional designer’s mindset could make a difference?

Reflections on DevLearn 2014

November 12, 2014

Having returned from my first ever DevLearn, it seemed appropriate to capture some rambling reflections and share them. As with any large conference there are some ups and downs, and for those of you considering attending a DevLearn in the future, here are a few of my main take-aways (and pieces of advice for the future).

  1. Twitter and my PLN made it a much less intimidating affair than if I went “cold”. Heck, I even had a roommate lined up ahead of time. It also meant the entire conference was more social than it would have been without that existing network. The conversation would also meander through personal and professional topics. My PLN would also connect me to their network, so I was quickly introduced to many people at the conference. This also happened in the expo, where community managers already knew you and greeted you like old friends. I think conference going has changed dramatically with the evolution of social media.
  2. The app/backchannel – I enjoyed commenting on sessions and sharing them as tweets, but I didn’t realize until afterwards that the app wasn’t adding the hashtag, which I thought it would and to tag someone in the app, you put a space between their first and last name, which would then tweet that info, so a bunch of non-DevLearn people were inadvertently tweeted and probably wondered what the heck was going on. The other factor was the “noise” that was generated by people who were pursuing points to get their swag. So, it worked, but had a few challenges.
  3. Themes: responsive design, interactive video, gamification and xAPI. These seem like the themes or trends we’ve been dabbling in for the past few years. What got me excited? Adapt is looking like a good tool to get your hands on for responsive design.
  4. Demofest – I was really looking forward to this portion of the conference, but boy was I overwhelmed by it! Midway through the conference, at the end of a full day, it was hard to keep the energy up. I flip flopped between looking at the coolest options (using tools that I would never use) and looking at solutions that would be within the realm of my possibilities. I’m not sure I retained enough to learn from these. I would love to hear from veterans how they use this part of the conference. I feel like I could have done a better job preparing and circulating. Check out the best of in the elearning guild webinar.
  5. Conference sessions – these were hit and miss – something that isn’t limited to DevLearn. My experience is that there’s a lot of emphasis put on the session proposal and little on how well they deliver on this. Basically if you get poor feedback, you’d probably not be welcomed back. If I’m paying to go to a conference, especially in today’s day and age, when all the sessions are recorded, shared, tweeted and covered, I’d like to know that the session delivery has been vetted. I saw lots of “presenting” and I think we can do better than that.

I do hope that someday they hold DevLearn somewhere besides Las Vegas as they have in the past. For me, it wasn’t the best “learning” environment. Too many bells and whistles for me. Although overall, it was a good experience and I’ll definitely attend another in the future. I don’t want to miss an opportunity to connect and share face to face with my PLN!

There’s a lot of other summary posts on DevLearn out there:

Focus on sustainment

September 16, 2013

It’s been a really busy year for Spark + Co this year. We had our website redone, welcomed six new clients and worked on many projects, ranging from developing management training for a North American restaurant chain (face-to-face training), to self-paced e-learning modules for a national sales team and all points in between.

For each of these projects, we’ve noticed how these solutions almost always include a “manager’s guide”. Whether it’s a short email that we craft for the client to send from their own senior team providing key messages to the manager/coach to support the key activities of the training program, or a full-blown manager’s guide that accompanies the program, it’s a part of learning design that’s essential. Sadly, it’s an often overlooked element.

When you think you are “done” designing and devleoping – stop and ask yourself some of these questions:

  • Do the managers of this training audience know what to do to support and further the learning for their direct reports?
  • Can I clarify the learning activities for them?
  • Can I suggest a schedule of events that support the program after it’s been launched?
  • Do I have a communication plan?
  • Can I develop “management practices” that’ll help them habitualize their support?
  • Am I prepared to create “trigger” emails or alerts to nudge them?

Real behavior change comes after you’ve mapped a behavior chain and can honestly say: “I’ve done my best to sustain this training”.

Book Review: Learning Articulate Storyline

September 13, 2013

I recently read the book Learning Articulate Storyline by Stephanie Harnett.

I’ve always admired Stephanie’s work and was excited to see how she approached her book. You can see Stephanie’s work at her website (all built in Storyline) and in her super-informative Screenrs.

Articulate Storyline.As an avid Articulate Storyline developer, I wanted to find a resource that I could use with my contractors and even clients to get them up to speed on how to use the software. Since there is no official “user manual”, this book offers a really nice self-directed learning resource to learning the product, with some bonuses:

  • Stephanie’s deep understanding from an instructional authoring perspective. While I know Stephanie is a talented instructional designer, it really shines through in her approach to the book. She gives advice that is both feature rich, but more importantly, it’s written from the perspective of “why should I do this”.
  • Her “voice” shines through – everything she explains reads exactly like she was sitting beside me talking me through things.
  • Samples and examples she points to at the beginning of Chapter 4: Adding Characters and Audio, and the additional resources/links in the summary of Chapter 7 are like instructional design gold!

There are exercises to follow along step by step with the flow of the book, which was nice. Since I have experience with the software it’s hard for me to know how a complete novice would find the structure of these exercises, but they were logical and easy to follow for me .

Minor things I’d like to see in future editions:

  • I would have liked to have seen some of the tips in the chapter: Rapid Development show up in the beginning of the book, as she raises some great points about setting up for re-purposing which might affect how you approach a project from the beginning.
  • I would have also liked there to be a bit more visual distinction in the “follow along” sections, just to make them pop (I was working with an epub version), but that’s a personal preference. Additional icons would enhance the navigation of the book.
  • I would have loved to seen the types of examples provided in Chapter 4 for other chapters: Quizzing, States and Layers, Variables and Adding Visual Media.

Overall, this is a great book to help someone get up to speed quickly on Storyline and even a seasoned user will pick up a tip or two.

You can hear Stephanie talk about her book in a recent eLearnChat episode and host @rickzanotti’s written a review of this book as well.

If you want to win your own copy, check out Articulate’s review of it:

Even if you don’t win a copy, you should consider adding this to your bookshelf!

Struggle Means Learning: Implications for Organizations

January 22, 2013

I read this article a couple of months ago, and it really struck a chord with me: Struggle Means Learning: Difference in Eastern and Western Cultures | MindShift. The basic premise of the article (although I suggest you read it, it’s not long)  is summed up here:

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

This is an interesting contrast. I don’t know if it’s true. Seems plausible. But the fundamental comparison is between ability and effort. If it was true and “Western” culture did value ability more than effort, it would pose a number of challenges for organizations:

  • Younger employees have been educated in a culture where ability is more valued than effort. This might result in an entitlement attitude and potentially arrogance when it comes to learning at work
  • A dislike of organizational learning, which by its very nature, you’d have to “go to” or “take” training because you lack ability
  • Pressure on learning departments or instructional designers to create learning solutions that are easy, to allow for maximum demonstration of ability. Those that don’t make learning solutions that are easy find themselves organizational pariahs
  • Lack of problem-solving skills
  • A workforce that may be deficient in tenacity, who lack resilience in the face of challenge or change.

It made me wonder. Does organizational learning have a culture that echoes this?

Do we value ability over effort? Does organizational learning perpetuate this through learning solutions that do not challenge anyone? Do those of us in the organizational learning field feel pressured to make it easy all the time? Are there places where learning shouldn’t be easy in a corporate setting?

How would we design learning that encouraged effort (struggle)? Are these examples?

  • Branching scenarios with no right answer, just some that lead you to different paths
  • Simulations that don’t give you extraneous feedback
  • Immersive solutions – like Augmented Reality or Role playing games

I’d be curious to hear what others think about this.

The nature of e-learning in Australia

January 18, 2013

This post is written by Ryan Tracey

The young nation of Australia has a rich history in e-learning. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and so in 1951 the School of the Air was launched to educate children dispersed across the outback. From Kalgoorlie in the west to the aptly named Longreach in the east, school students in remote communities received their instruction over the radio.

Fast forward to today, and our love affair with communication technology continues unabated. According to the latest Australian Mobile Phone Lifestyle Index, a whopping 76% of Australians own a smartphone. Furthermore, 38% own a tablet, and another 33% are planning to purchase a tablet within the next 12 months.

Our love for our devices may be matched by our infatuation with social media. According to the 2012 Yellow Social Media Report, 62% of Australian internet users visit social networking sites (36% do so daily), while 79% of large businesses have a social media presence.

The implication of these statistics is clear: the future of e-learning in Australia will be social and mobile.

The latter part of that prediction is supported by The New Media Consortium’s Technology Outlook for Australian Tertiary Education 2012-2017, which identified the following emerging technologies as having a time-to-adoption horizon in this region of one year or less:

  • Cloud computing
  • Learning analytics
  • Mobile apps
  • Tablet computing

In order to complement these findings and add a corporate perspective, I recently invited 20 e-learning practitioners based in Australia, from both the higher education and corporate sectors, to identify the ideas and technologies that their respective organisation’s e-learning strategy will incorporate this year.

In the list I included the four imminent technologies identified by The New Media Consortium, plus others that I considered timely or likely. I also allowed free-form comments to enable the respondents to add any other technologies that weren’t on the list.

The results are summarised by the following graph.

As you can see online courses will remain a popular component of e-learning strategies in Australian organisations in 2013. My interpretation of this result is that in this country, industries such as financial services are heavily regulated by legislation and government oversight. From the company’s point of view, the most efficient way of deploying the necessary training to its employees (particularly in large organisations) is via online modules hosted by the Learning Management System. Critically important for compliance purposes, the LMS records each employee’s performance in each module; which no doubt explains why online assessment is similarly popular.The popularity of online courses and online assessment does not necessarily mean that Australians will be subjected to boring page turners. The strong showings of both audio and video in the results suggests that online training is becoming more multimedia rich, and hopefully more engaging and authentic. The prevalence of webinars also suggests that much of the training done online will be live.

The next most popular responses —  intranetknowledge bases and job aids — represent a win for informal learning in this region. At my own workplace I have witnessed a tectonic shift from the traditional, classroom-based transmission of knowledge towards a more constructivist, self-paced approach involving the searching, exploring and discovery of knowledge by the learner on-the-job and just-in-time.

Given the increasing importance of cloud computing in this region according to The New Media Consortium, its relatively poor showing in this survey was surprising. My interpretation of this result is that the security of cloud-based solutions remains a concern for Australian IT departments, over which e-learning professionals have very little influence. The persistence of legacy systems may also be hampering growth in this direction.

Similarly, the relatively poor showings both of the social elements — wikis, blogging, microblogging, social networks and social intranets  — and of the mobile elements — smartphones, tablets and mobile apps — were a surprise. However, another way of translating these results is to recognise that each will be a component of at least 1 in 5 e-learning strategies this year, which probably represents growth over previous years.

The same may be said for learning analytics (another of The New Media Consortium’s imminent technologies for this region). From an anecdotal perspective, I can honestly say that I don’t know anyone who does evaluation well! In the rat race that is Australian business, the jobs that are yet to be done take precedence over those that have already been and gone. The observation that learning analytics will be a component of at least 1 in 5 e-learning strategies this year may be a long-overdue sign that the mindset is beginning to change.

The most disappointing result in my opinion is that of  MOOCs. Buzzword or not, MOOCs provide an unprecedented opportunity to source high-quality content from some of the world’s most respected institutions. However, I must temper my disappointment with the realisation that most MOOCs currently target school and college students. As more MOOCs are launched covering topics immediately relevant to the corporate sector, I expect they will become more popular.

Of course, I must also remember that my survey is hardly scientific. The sample size is too small to make statistically significant observations, which is most obviously demonstrated by the zero result for virtual worlds. I know for a fact they are being used by Australian organisations such as the Sydney School of Medicine.

Nonetheless, I submit that this simple survey sufficiently describes the nature of e-learning in Australia as we head into 2013. While online courses and webinars continue to dominate our strategy, informal learning is making headway. To a lesser extent, social and mobile elements are also making an appearance. But for such a social and mobile nation, the message is clear: there is scope for so much more.


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