Monday, August 25, 2008

Notes on Blended Learning - Part 2

As noted in my previous post, when you design a training course to solve a business problem, you might consider three different delivery methods:
  1. onsite, classroom training
  2. instructor-led web-based training (aka "webinar" or "synchronous e-learning")
  3. self-paced web-based training (aka "tutorial" or "asynchronous e-learning")
Or you might choose a combination of the three; that is, a blended learning approach.

First, here is my take on the pros and cons of the three methods:

Classroom

Pros
  • simplest and cheapest to develop
  • allows immediate student feedback and questions
  • instructor can easily gauge learning
  • content easily updated
Cons
  • requires scheduled time away from the job
  • requires dedicated instructor time
  • success depends on the instructor's skill
  • cost of maintaining an in-house classroom or hiring one offsite
  • travel costs for instructor and/or students
Instructor-Led Web Training

Pros
  • relatively simple and cheap to develop
  • some (limited) facility for immediate student feedback/questions
  • can be recorded and archived for reuse
  • scales better than Classroom training for large audiences
  • content easily updated
Cons
  • requires adequate technical infrastructure (computers, broadband, headphones)
  • technology can be unreliable
  • requires scheduled student and instructor time
  • success depends on the skill of the instructor (more difficult to deliver well than classroom)difficult to judge student engagement and learning
  • if students work from their desks they may multitask and lose attention
  • often less interactive and engaging than classroom or well-designed self-paced training
Self-Paced Web Training

Pros
  • available anywhere/anytime
  • learners can learn and review at their own pace
  • always available to review
  • scales well to unlimited audience size
Cons
  • most difficult and expensive to develop
  • cannot immediately answer student questions or measure effectiveness
  • content difficult and costly to update
Blended Approaches

All of that said, there are certainly opportunities to combine two or three of the approaches for business training. A few examples:
  • Create a self-paced web tutorial as precursor training for a classroom course. This allows the learners to preview the content and help ensure everyone is up-to-speed when the class begins.
  • Combine a self-paced web training course with a monitored forum or wiki. Encourage learners to post discussion, questions or feedback and an instructor to monitor and provide answers.
  • Begin a series of instructor-led web training sessions with a single classroom session. This can built engagement by allowing everyone to meet face to face and help the instructor gauge the knowledge level of participants.
Comments?

What pros and cons do you see in the three delivery methods? What examples of blended approaches have you found to be effective?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Notes on Blended Learning - Part 1

After you've recognized that training is needed to solve a business problem, how do you decide on the delivery method? How do you choose whether you should deliver instruction by:

  • onsite, classroom training
  • self-paced web-based training (aka "tutorial" or "asynchronous e-learning")
  • instructor-led web-based training (aka "webinar" or "synchronous e-learning"
  • some combination of the above ("blended learning")

Following up on my previous post on heuristics, I would love to be able to formulate simple guidelines for this, but it is not a simple problem.

Considerations

From the reading I've done on this lately, it's obvious that choosing the best delivery method depends on a lot of factors:

  • Learner preferences - Are the learners comfortable with online instruction? Can they learn effectively using self-paced training?
  • Resources - Are qualified instructors available for instructor-led training? Are qualified design and production resources available for self-paced e-learning?
  • Instructor preferences - Are instructors comfortable and experienced with e-learning?
  • Scheduling - Is there adequate time to develop self-paced e-learning? Conversely, is there time in learners' schedules for them to attend instructor-led classes?
  • Technical infrastructure - Is there sufficient equipment and bandwidth for synchronous e-learning. Is the equipment reliable? Are support people available if needed?
  • Budget - Self-paced e-learning is usually the most costly to develop. But weigh this against the cost of learners' lost job-time for attending instructor-led training.

More to Come

All of that said, I think there are pros and cons that can be stated for each approach. And sometimes, by blending the delivery methods, a skillful designer can make the most of the advantages and minimize the drawbacks.

More on this in my next post.

Friday, August 15, 2008

How the Wiki Was Won

Yesterday I attended a meeting of the Atlanta chapter of STC (Society for Technical Communication). The presentation was a case study about using a wiki for knowledge sharing and collaboration at a software company. There was some excellent discussion on tools, processes, pitfalls and workarounds.

You can find my full report here on the Atlanta STC blog.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Heuristics: Do you need to present information or provide training?

I am always on the lookout for good heuristics, rules of thumb to help me slice up and sort out communication problems.

When a client calls me because they need to provide "instructions" or "documentation," one of the first questions I need to answer is: Do they need to present information or provide training?

As you might expect, presenting information, while not simple, is a whole boatload simpler than providing training.

  • Presentation requires good information design, structuring of content, and easy-to-use access methods (search, index, browse).
  • Training usually needs all of this, plus more: learning objectives, lesson plans, engaging content design, simulations, practice, evaluation. Training is more complex and costly to develop.

But how do you choose? A splendid set of heuristics is provided by Michael Allen. I highly recommend his book, Michael Allen's Guide to E-Learning (John Wiley & Sons, 2003) to anyone who needs to do any kind of training in the corporate world.

In discussing when to present information vs. when to deliver interactive training, he provides the following decision table (pgs. 278-279 of the paperback edition).

(By the way, if anyone knows a way to format a table in the blogger interface, help me out!)

Choose Presentation When...
Content is readily understood by targeted learners.
Learner differences are minimal.
Errors are harmless.
Information is readily available for later retrieval and reference.
Desired change to existing skill is minor and can be achieved without practice.
Learners can easily differentiate between good and inadequate performance.
Mentorship is inexpensive and will follow.

Choose Interactivity When...
Content is complex and takes considerable thought to comprehend.
Learners are diverse in their ability to understand the content.
Errors are injurious, costly or difficult to remedy.
Information needs to be internalized.
Behavioral changes will require practice.
Learners need guidance to differentiate between good and poor performance.
Mentorship is costly, limited, or unavailable.

There is plenty of great food for thought here, which I may expound on in future posts.

Does anyone have other frameworks for determining when training is needed? Like I said, I am always on the lookout for good heuristics.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Not Elevator Speeches, Stories!

My problem with the elevator speech

I've never been comfortable with the idea of the elevator speech. You know, the proverbial dynamic and enticing 30-second description of your business that you give to the hiring CEO you happen to meet on the elevator, and he's ready to hire you by the time you reach the 10th floor.

I've tried to put one together several times and it always comes out sounding canned and worse (because my business is so multi-threaded) confusing.

But...A communication consultant who cannot communicate his value in 50 words or less. Not good!

How I found a solution

So I was delighted and relieved recently when I heard a panel discussion on networking and one of the panelists said she thought the whole elevator speech idea was bogus. "No CEO is going to hire you after hearing a 30-second canned speech," she said. "Doesn't happen."

(I would love to be able to give her name and a link to her site or blog, but I confess I neglected to write it down and now can't find it referenced anywhere. I apologize and promise to do better.)

Instead, she said, use stories. Have one or several brief stories ready to explain how you have helped your clients solve their problems.

Brilliant. I'm a big believer in the power of stories for both marketing communication and training, so I thought this was an excellent lesson.

And the very next day...Proof of Concept!

The next morning, I happened to be at another networking meeting. I shook hands with a tall, gray-haired guy who turned out to be a chief marketing officer for an IT consulting firm. He asked what I did and I gave a version my 10-second intro: "I do writing and training development, mostly for technology companies. I specialize in making complex information clear."

Didn't mean much to him, I could tell. So remembering the lady's advice, I launched into a story.

"For example, on a recent assignment I worked with C-level executives of a marketing services company as they were beginning to design their next generation software product. I sat in on their brainstorming sessions, documented everything they said and helped them think through the gaps and inconsistencies. From there I wrote initial customer-facing marketing documents and also requirements and specifications for the engineering team."

His face lit up. Comprehension!

I had told him a story he could relate to and now he had an idea of how my consulting practice adds value.

Stories, such a handy tool. More on stories in future posts.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Mercurial Mind at Work

Setting up this blog was easy; figuring out what to write first was hard.

You see, as a business and technical communication consultant, I work in many disciplines. In the past year alone I've filled the roles of technical writer, documentation architect, business writing coach, instructional designer, e-learning developer, marketing writer and (sorta) product manager.

This is exactly NOT the advice usually given to freelancers and consultants. "Focus your business," the gurus say. "Don't make the mistake of trying to be all things to all people."

I can't help it. I'm a generalist in an age of specialization. I'm just curious and interested in too many things. So every time an intriguing opportunity comes along, I charge after it. A mercurial mind at work.

So I expect this blog will reflect my meandering explorations across many domains: e-learning, instructional design, technical writing, content management, user-experience design, software development, marketing writing. I'll also touch on lessons learned in running a consulting practice and in coaching people to be better communicators. And, I promise to link to interesting writings by thought-leaders in many of these fields (See my blog list at right for starters.)

So stick around, gentle reader, I can promise you this: It will be different every time.