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Design Confusion

November 12, 2015


The word has such lofty connotations. You create. You make. You construct. You model. You build. You design.

I’m a designer. An instructional designer. I design instruction. Seems pretty simple, right? Well, it used to be, but it’s become a bit more muddy these days. At least to me. Recently I’ve noticed a few things that blur the lines between instructional design (or more specifically e-learning design) and other types of design, including web design and graphic design or just misappropriating the term “online course” (and by association instructional design). I’d argue not in a good way. Design is certainly a term that is being applied to all kinds of fields: business model design, app design, product design, industrial design, usability design, etc. But the intent of how design is applied is different. Or at least it should be.

First of all, what is design?

According to Wikipedia,

there is no universal language or unifying institution for designers of all disciplines. This allows for many differing philosophies and approaches toward the subject.

Which explains my confusion. Design is such a broad term!

These are some examples of how I see design confusion manifested:

Confusing the purpose of a website and an online course/e-learning.

I’ve seen a few “educational” websites where it is called an online course, but it would appear that the emphasis on the project is actually to provide resources. They are often quite attractive and it’s obvious that the web designer took a lot of time to make them look cohesive and usable. But, they are framed as online courses, not websites. All I see is text or maybe a video or animation. What do I click? I read the text, now what? I watch the video of someone talking at me. So what? The most alarming thing for me is when these are health topics. These are sites that SHOULD be instructional: how to manage a chronic health condition or how to identify someone at risk for example. There’s little that helps apply any new information. There’s no differentiation between what might need to be learned or memorized vs what could be referenced. There’s not a lot of context about when this information would be best accessed. There’s not a lot that I actually do on these sites. I worry that there’s an emphasis on including existing resources or focusing on high production values and little to no thought to the educational aspect.  A website and an online course are not interchangeable. Just because you view them both on the web, doesn’t mean that they are the same thing. Moreover, there are many instances where BOTH would be useful. The design intent is what matters. If you intend to make an educational website, then make sure you include instructional components.

It only matters if it’s pretty

I’ve noticed an overemphasis on visual or graphic design to determine the effectiveness of a course (or a website for that matter). I think great graphics or visual design should support e-learning (and web design), but bristle at some of the things I’ve seen that are supposed to teach you something. They look gorgeous, but don’t actually have any structure that would support learning. Or they are “award winning” courses, based on the visuals. No mention of whether or not they are instructionally sound or have had impact on the business problem they were intended to change. I’m especially irked when this is done for public projects. If we want to support a behaviour change, for example, in financial literacy for youth, why would we just create a pretty website and call it a course? All that money and effort into slick graphics aren’t going to translate magically into learning.

Interestingly I read this article during the contemplation of the post you are reading: One of the statements that jumped out at me:

“Apple is reinforcing the old, discredited idea that the designer’s sole job is to make things beautiful, even at the expense of providing the right functions, aiding understandability, and ensuring ease of use.”

So, it’s not just me that is noticing the trend towards “pretty”.  Form and function are both necessary for great design. Don’t design for the accolades of other designers. Design for usefulness for the user and to address the business problem.

Anyone can make an online course. It’s easy!

Another interesting aspect that I’ve noticed is the explosion of online courses sold by individuals. These courses are usually subscription style online courses or e-learning. I would argue that many of them are actually marketing material (you are either providing training as a way to demonstrate your expertise or as a product that provides passive revenue). Some of these are quite good. Others are terrible and sound like get rich quick schemes. The biggest beef I have with these, is that they are typically passive pieces of content that are pushed out. There’s no behaviour change expected. There’s no skill practice. There’s not even any learning activity. Mostly it’s click to get access to my exclusive webinar type of stuff. It’s just a series of emails that push content to you. I love the notion of subscription training, but not every subscription course is created equal and some use the term “course” a little more cavalierly than I’d like. If the intent is to teach something, then make sure you allow people to learn.

All of this begs the question: is there actually anything special about instructional design? Am I deluded in thinking that there’s a difference between web design and e-learning? Is the proliferation of online courses good or bad for instructional design? Is everyone confused about design these days or just me? Am I alone in worrying?

In a series of posts, we’ll explore design, from the perspective of instructional design, and try to make sense of it all.


Learning to learn | Learning to think

August 17, 2015

I’ve seen a few articles around the topic “Learning to Learn” recently:

It would seem that learning to learn is a skill that is in demand. But (and this could be a wild generalization), I wonder how well we as a society teach learning. I’m not talking about learning styles, or generational preferences. I’m talking more about process than content. We focus a lot on “what”, but as a rule are less interested in “how”.  I see this as a parent (one of my pet peeves) and as a custom training developer.

One of the most common aspects of learning to learn is learning to think. And a very important aspect of that is the use of critical thinking. You might be able to learn a lot of facts or theories, but if you can’t apply them or can’t identify a bias around the information, then you have an opportunity to learn about your learning. IF the lack of critical thinking is a knowledge or skill gap, the good news is that you can change this as an individual, a parent and an organization.

How do you go about developing and exercising critical thinking?

  1. Baloney detection kit
  2. Shift your perspective (Rubber ducks), change your thinking or use techniques like six thinking hats
  3. Develop new habits
  4. Channel your inner 3 year old and embrace the word “why”

These could all help individuals build their critical thinking skills in general. However, organizations are more interested in whether or not employees think critically about their work.

As a custom training developer, we do get tasked with building product training modules or policy/procedure training. And oftentimes, the client laments that their employees don’t apply critical thinking. One example is that the custom software or tool saves the employee time to calculate something, but the employee doesn’t know/understand what logic it’s based on and won’t recognize if the bottom line is out of whack or not. If you are putting together training, it’s important that you include aspects that provide the employee/target audience with the fundamentals of what’s important and add practice situations. Don’t just dump information on them, but help them see how these are applied in their work. Find ways to get beyond the facts and help them understand “the why” behind the what.  You may not teach them how to be a critical thinker in every situation, but you will ensure that they can critically think in THIS situation.

How do you design training programs that support critical thinking?

  1. Use realistic scenarios and situations where you can emulate and illustrate the repercussions of the task
  2. Include coaching from a manager, journeyman, mentor, etc
  3. Don’t treat training like an event – build in opportunities to revisit the information

I’d love to hear how you’ve approached this. How do you learn how to learn? How did you learn to think? Are learning and thinking the same thing? Share your perspective.


An ode (of sorts) to serendipity

July 9, 2015

I’ve just returned from a short trip to New York City, my first trip there. It was a celebratory trip and there was some self-imposed expectation of greatness. I wanted this to be a trip to remember and while some things were planned or at least written in a list, there’s so much to see and do, that I left some up to chance. I was not disappointed with that choice.

2015-07-03 15.28.53

On one foray downtown, we decided we wanted to go looking for vintage shops. On the trip, we are serenaded by a doo-wap group on the subway. We give them a small amount of money and they sing just for us. It’s pretty awesome, actually. We alight from the subway and wander into a cafe/restaurant that looked popular and ate a fabulous lunch with a great vibe and did some serious people watching. Some sloppy internet research led us to think a certain street was going to be bursting with shops. It turned out to be 90% restaurants and bars. We had just eaten, so it seemed pointless to sit and eat again. So, we found a subway station to check out a different neighborhood. Arrive at a park where a large jazz band is playing for picnicking families. Plop ourselves down to enjoy the concert. It is fantastic. After awhile we decide we’re going to continue walking the neighborhood and grab a cold drink. What do we spot, but the giant new and used book store with a city block of used books lining the street in library carts. We gleefully browsed, holding up ludicrous titles that would suit this person or that. We pick up a couple of books and march onward. Hit the free night at MoMA and battle the crowds, and the selfies (really people, why do you all need to take a picture?) but enjoy the energy. Truth be told, giggle at a few of the pieces. So, vintage shopping as we planned it was kind of a bust, but the day was fantastic.

Lesson Learned: Be open to veering from your plan2015-07-04 11.35.15

The next day we thought we’d wend our way east towards ourplanned fireworkswatching spot that evening. After the circle line boat tour, we thought we’d check out the Highline, but it was raining, so, we opt to explore more of the East Village (we had only hit the edge the day before). We head into Alphabet City. It’s raining and the streets are sort of empty (it’s the 4th of July). We spot a community garden that’s open and wander through it, marvelling at how we love the contrast of urban and green. We continue on and it’s raining harder, so we duck into a pizza restaurant and eat the most amazing thin crust pizza while we wait for the skies to clear. We ask our server for some shopping advice. She gives us a few suggestions, but lets us know they may not be open today (holiday). We finish our meal and look across the street and there’s a funky shop with piles of vintage jewelry and stuff. Score! Sun comes out so we continue on and find another tiny shop where we find a one-of-a-kind jacket on the $5 rack. Perfect fit. Score! Eventually we continue to our fireworks spot, stop to watch a break-dancing show for the crowds (wow!) and then find the busy “Fourth” celebration spot. Bands, food, shops, it had it all, except seating. Apparently (in Manhattan anyway), people don’t sit much. We enjoy things for a couple of hours then decide we should make our way to the fireworks viewing area, which turns out to be jam packed and we spend the next hour in a crowd surrounded by police. Eventually they send us away, as the FDR viewing area is full. So back to the streets where we realize we should have stayed where we were. Oh well. We people-watch some more, oooh and ahhh at the fireworks and then head back to the hotel. Exhausted but very pleased with how the day turned out.

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Lesson Learned: Ask for input

We have a bit of time to kill before our Broadway matinee, and we leave our hotel to discover a street market is setting up outside and there’s food carts, tacky souvenir stuff, music that runs for several blocks. So, we meander and snack and souvenir shop. It’s a great atmosphere. After fretting over picking which Broadway show we should go to, we pick one that we hadn’t heard of and have a fabulous time. After the show, we hit Hell’s Kitchen and decide to do a mini-restaurant crawl. Appies at one place, dinner at another. We end up with appies at both and our selection is based on how we are feeling at the time. Everything is delish. Hop a bus and spend the morning at the Met followed by a ramble through Central Park. We packed our books and some food to just enjoy the atmosphere of this iconic park. Find a spot and chill. We saw a cardinal (not a bird we get on the west coast) which was unexpected. Get slightly lost as we try to find the exit on the west side, but stumble on to Strawberry Fields and serenaded by Beatles sing-along. Serendipity!

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Lesson Learned: Take a leap

Now that I’m back home, I realize that I didn’t do some of the touristy things (missed the Empire State or “Top of the Rock” view), completely bypassed some neighborhoods (Upper West Side – whoops) and could have saved a couple of hours here or there with a bit better planning, but on the whole allowing for some serendipity was a great decision. As a compulsive planner, this went against some of my instincts, but I’m glad I did it. It’s a good lesson for learning as well. Sometimes you need to allow time and space for serendipity, you never know what you might discover and learn. As for me and NYC, well, let’s just say I’m planning future trips that’ll be the same blend of planning and discovery.

e-learning for social programs and community initiatives

June 23, 2015

There are a lot of causes or issues in the world and we often see wonderful websites or resources that are beautifully presented to provide information related to a particular need. As an instructional designer, I often find myself identifying that a form of training or instruction could enhance a campaign or website and increase the likelihood of long term behaviour change. There are some elements of instruction, and particularly e-learning that I think could enhance a website:

  1. Interactive video – adding in context and engaging critical thinking about a story or situation in a video could be incredibly powerful. Imagine the video plays and at a certain point, it stops to ask you what to do next, or it points out something that you may not have noticed, but is critical to learn for prevention. Consider Lifesaver, an interactive film.
  2. Branching scenarios, especially first person perspective scenarios – there are lots of places where a slight adjustment in language could make a big difference. Instead of “what should <insert name here> do?”, it’s “what would YOU do”. Branching in other ways can help you show the variety of options related to a single concept. Here’s an example of one that helps you see the impact of your choices, here’s another one.
  3. Interactive features especially with contextual feedback – providing context-sensitive information really underscores the learning opportunity. This might be taking notes within your e-learning and email them to yourself, or completing a survey within the course (at a point in time) to build a profile. Maybe you are able to drag things across the screen to sort or reveal more information. Here’s an example about recycling.
  4. Voice over narration – somewhat overused in corporate projects (especially where they are reading what’s on screen), but if they add emotion, it will engage people on another level. Your web resource is now a bit more like a movie than a website – consider this example: The Great Flu.
  5. Sequencing – providing content in a sequence allows you to guide someone through the content and build their understanding and skill in a stepped way. Using sequencing can also enable the content to be layered and repeated, which is crucial for learning and recall.

Most of these interactive or media elements in e-learning are actually about CONTEXT. Context is so important to good instruction and takes your content to a level where people can clearly identify what’s in it for them. It also allows them to internalize. It isn’t just information about the cause or issue, but it’s about them and how they are more empowered to manage themselves. Most importantly the focus is on what will they learn, not just what information they might be exposed to.

Think about some of the things that you’ve seen advertised or campaigns. Here’s a list of some that I noted in my twitter feed or things I noted in the Instructional Designer’s Mindset:

  • Mental health awareness: youth, men, First Nations, new mothers, etc
  • Gender identity
  • Health Prevention
  • Injury Prevention
  • Health education (i.e. sex ed)
  • Chronic health conditions
  • Aging (i.e. supporting aging parents)
  • Financial literacy, especially for kids
  • Investment fraud awareness
  • Web literacy
  • Food waste
  • Reducing garbage or other eco-living goals
  • Citizen science initiatives
  • Healthy eating
  • Parenting
  • Violence prevention
  • Anti-bullying

Imagine you were in a position to do community outreach for an issue like this and you wanted to maximize the impact that you could make for your cause/issue. You’d want to invest your resources into something that is going to change behaviour, right?  Consider going beyond the brochure and website and find out about e-learning. The best part about e-learning, is that it will not only increase the likelihood that people will learn a new behaviour, but it can also extend your reach (geography is no longer an issue), strengthens your ability to sustain the learning, and you can launch a campaign with the goal to change behaviour, not just increase awareness. It can also benefit your certification program and complement your in person training.

We’re focusing on how we can help organizations that build capacity or address issues like these over the coming months. E-learning doesn’t need to be corporate focused or fall into the domain of post-secondary education. E-learning can be used to enhance and extend existing awareness campaigns and an instructional design mindset can go a long way to changing behaviour. We’ll include stories of how our clients have incorporated e-learning so you can get an idea of how it might help you too. It would be a great thing to be able to build capacity in our communities and help people live happier, healthier lives, don’t you think?

Wearables and xAPI

June 16, 2015

If you read my blog, you’ll know I’ve done a series of posts on wearables:

These have mostly focused on the tracking/monitoring aspects, less on the content delivery side (from devices like: Oculus Rift, Google Glass, Hololens, etc). Questions around tracking will of course lead to L+D questions around how to capture and report on this type of information.

In the L+D world this has always meant the Learning Management System (LMS). The LMS has a limited repertoire, however and could not accommodate the distributed data that wearables would/could create. Enter the Experience API (xAPI). This handy protocol allows you to track based on statements (“Holly” “did” “this”), which increases dramatically what can be tracked and reported on. But as with many things in our ultra-convenient technology laden world, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!

Let’s take an example from one of the earlier posts about wearables in manufacturing situations:

“There could be RFID chips or near field communications in the machinery, the product, or on their clothing to track activity, pacing, speed, weight, etc. Perhaps it’s using motion tracking to provide insights on their physical performance. This might ensure not only high productivity, but also provide feedback on techniques that may prevent repetitive strain injuries. There might also be sensors that provide insight on their physical responses – heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, etc. There are also gadgets that capture data and transmit wirelessly via bluetooth, which generates data and could provide an opportunity for trend analysis.”

What exactly would the organization want to know/track?

  • Motion tracking inputs?
    • Which ones?
    • How frequently would those be collected?
  • It would be helpful to correlate this with any workplace injuries.
  • It might also be useful to correlate with who completed what training

Take a step-back and think about not only WHAT you’d want to collect, but more importantly WHY do you want to/need to collect that data.

When you start to think this way, you can find touchpoints that would give you data that is useful. We’d want to know that the employee is getting the right training and feedback on their performance to not only ensure productivity, but also their health and safety. It would be great to deliver performance support at the point of need, during the task. An interesting example that I’ve seen recently is: As modern instructional designers, it behooves us to learn more about how we might imagine this and actually do this. Thinking beyond the training event (attended/completed a course) is a paradigm that we really need to shift.

How this actually comes together technically in terms of developing solutions and creating xAPI statements is still a bit of a mystery to me, but I’m keen to learn more. @FionaQuigs and I are hoping to expand on this by learning together, and she has started the conversation on the Logic Earth blog.

Check back in or watch on twitter for updates! And share any insights you have.

Some additional resources:

e-learning for … everyone?

June 10, 2015

Recently I was interviewed for, Canada’s online legal magazine:

These articles came out of a discussion with Natasha Chetty of Bellwether provides strategic planning, business development, reputation management and training services to professional service firms and related organizations. Natasha and I had recently met and she was intrigued by the breadth of e-learning options and thought that some of her connections and clients might find information about e-learning useful.

It has got me thinking that there are hundreds (maybe thousands or more) of groups or people that might not be aware of how e-learning might work for them. Some organizations are well on their way to understanding and implementing e-learning. But others might be less aware of how you might leverage e-learning.

To “spark your interest”, here’s how some of our clients have used self-paced e-learning:

1. Academy – used e-learning to supplement face to face sessions, as a great value add to their product suite. Their use of e-learning was to include self-paced modules before and after a workshop to prepare and/or reinforce concepts and support offline activities. It was a good way to incorporate a ton of content into a more structured framework.

2. Software company – used e-learning to enable customers to gain competency with their software product through small modules. They had been offering open enrollment webinars for customers, which was convenient for the instructor, but not for the customer. They also used e-learning to enhance the customer journey, ensuring that the customer received the right module at the right time for a more logical sequence. All the modules were also re-purposed as performance support for customers.

3. Non-profit -used e-learning to reduce risk of losing key instructors and to increase consistency of training. With one instructor and a vast area to visit, this non-profit decided to create self-paced modules and a discussion guide to enable local facilitators to support learning about their cause.

4. High tech accelerator – used e-learning to spread their reach and provide access to entrepreneurs outside of metropolitan areas. By creating self-paced modules, the organization was able to provide more service to a larger geographical area. It created several modules that entrepreneurs could complete at their own pace. There was a set of worksheets that accompanied the modules to help the learner translate knowledge into action.

5. School districts – used e-learning to provide training around innovative initiatives (adults mentoring youth). This group recognized that a way to not only convey the philosophy of their program, but also offer skill-building opportunities and reflective suggestions would prepare program participants with more information and increase the number and quality of successful mentoring partnerships.

6. Real estate appraisers – used e-learning to help apply theoretical concepts to practical real world situations. There’s a lot of theory, math and models involved. These are usually taught with textbooks and lectures, however when it comes to putting the theory into practice, there are some real world constraints to consider. Using self-paced modules allowed for pictures, interactive elements and instructional feedback to solidify the practice. It also provided a way to contrast good and bad practice.

7. Health organizations – used e-learning for patient education to ensure people with a chronic condition could manage their health and lifestyle. The previous approach was to have a nurse visit the patient at home with a binder full of information. The organization realized that this is not only hard on the patients, but also the nurses. The patients were provided with the online modules that they could visit and revisit at any time. The nuances related to this particular condition meant that constant monitoring was needed and online modules enabled patients to refresh themselves on what was needed at that point in time. Nurses could spend time reinforcing and dealing with more complex challenges.

8. Sales organizations – used e-learning to teach sales reps how to sell products and services in a consultative way to support their unique value proposition and to save their sales managers time in product training. Managers are provided with discussion guide and offline learning activities to enable reps to practice what they’ve learned in a coaching environment. This ensures that the reps are learning what they need to learn and practicing with their manager, not the customer. It also provides the managers with the structure to support their reps, not have to be expert teachers.

9. Associations – used e-learning for staff, volunteers and  members – getting all stakeholders on the same page was much easier with self-paced modules. There are overlapping needs from these groups and the organization was able to repurpose the content to meet each of the groups’ needs.

10. You? – do you have an organization need that you’d like to use e-learning for? We’re particularly interested in small to medium sized organizations and groups that offer community service, education around a cause, organizations that want to enhance their product offering or value proposition and pioneering individuals who’d like to find a way to sell their training. If so, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

So, e-learning for everyone? I think it’s likely that e-learning is a great fit for a lot of organizations. Maybe not everyone, but I’ll bet we could find a way for a large majority. If you have a story to share about how you/your organization used e-learning, please post in the comments.

Book Review: Articulate Storyline Essentials

June 2, 2015

I was asked to review the book “Articulate Storyline Essentials” by Ashley Chiasson. The Articulate Storyline Hub is a pretty comprehensive site for learning and troubleshooting Storyline projects and you may wonder if a book is even necessary in this day and age.  What’s nice about a book, and this book in particular, is how it approaches the subject. Articulate Storyline Essentials

This is a nice compact book and really does provide the essentials, without adding extraneous details. As Ashley points out there is a lot of help that can be had on the Elearning Heroes Community. Here are some observations I had:

  • The book is logically laid out and I appreciated the pace of the book.
  • I also really liked the tone of the book. It has an encouraging and enthusiastic tone that reinforced the fact that Storyline is an easy tool to pick up and learn. I have worked with Ashley, so can attest that this is a very authentic style.
  • I would have liked a few more specific references for resources, sprinkled throughout the book. While Storyline does provide you with the basics of what you need, there are features where it is limited (image editing, audio editing) and most developers augment with other tools and novice developers might not know this. “Forewarned is forearmed” they say, and knowing where limitations exist would give developers guidance around managing those limitations. When you come across a limitation, you are disappointed and frustrated that you can’t necessarily do what you want with the tool. I love Storyline but as with any tool, you can’t expect it to be all things to all people.

Note: The book does direct you to a previously published book “Learning Articulate Storyline” which I reviewed previously and mentions another book that Ashley is working on called “Mastering Articulate Storyline” that will extend beyond the basics.

What I really appreciated about this book, however, was how it framed the creation of your e-learning as a “story”. Seems obvious, as the tool is called “Storyline” but most people describe the output they create as e-learning or courses. By labeling it as a story throughout the entire book, you are reminded that you are not just creating a course, but you are weaving a story and that Articulate Storyline is a storytelling tool, not just an e-learning authoring tool. This is a really powerful way to think about your output. It elevates the various components (images, interactivity, audio/video) to story elements. And for new users to the tool, “creating a story” should provide a great starting point to conceptualize projects. Tell the story that you want to tell, don’t create a course.

I think this is a great book for a novice user and very much look forward to Ashley’s next book.

Disclaimer: I was provided a review copy of the book and have worked directly with Ashley. Neither of these factors influenced my review.

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