Sunday, November 20, 2011

E-Learning - Snagged on the Saw Tooth

At this week’s meeting of the Atlanta chapter of ISPI, students from the University of Georgia demonstrated various tools relevant to e-learning. While introducing the session, Gregory Clinton (one of their professors in the Department of Educational. Psychology & Instructional Technology) showed a sawtooth diagram that elegantly summarized the history of e-learning authoring tools:

Clinton reviewed the early days of e-learning, when Authorware emerged as the tool of choice. It got more and more capable and powerful, then suddenly: disruption. The Internet bloomed and abruptly e-learning had to go online. Delivering applications within web browsers over slow connections radically changed the authoring tool landscape and limited the capabilities of what authors could build.

Over the next 15 years of course the situation gradually improved: wider bandwidth, more capable browsers, plenty of interactivity. The new king of e-learning was Flash. The SWF format enjoyed almost universal support and was the output type for all the leading tools.

But now we are in the midst of another dip, and e-learning creators are again snagged on the tooth of the saw. Flash for all its enormous virtues was never efficient on mobile devices, and two weeks ago, Adobe gave up trying to make it work.

On hearing the news, I visited the Flash and Captivate sites and looked into the patchwork solutions Adobe has been working on to export from these authoring tools to HTML5. Judging by the community reactions, the results have been underwhelming, to say the least. Meantime, Articulate seemed to be in denial; their site having no mention whatsoever of plans for exporting to anything but SWF.

Of course, we are early in the process. Eventually, the tool makers will catch up and robust interactive e-learning will get easier and easier to produce on IOS and the other mobile platforms. Things will be great again...For a while...Until we hit the next tooth of the saw.

What do you think? What tools and methods will emerge to deliver robust e-learning on mobile devices?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Top 3 things I learned at ASTD ICE 2011

This week I attended the ASTD International Conference & Expo in Orlando. My first ICE, and I experienced many great sessions and product demos. Here’s what’s stuck at top of my mind:

1. Daniel Bilton and Cary Harr from Booz Allen Hamilton compared and contrasted research on the effectiveness of e-learning techniques to a survey of opinions by practitioners. The research—on topics such as voice-over narration vs. text display, and visual vs. non-visual presentation of concepts—often contradicted the survey results. My main takeaways are that the research findings are often contradictory, and diving deeper into the studies suggests that the effectiveness of techniques may vary greatly by audience and the type of subject matter being taught. In other words, beware of blanket statements.

The opinion survey is still open and you can complete it here:

2. The Herrmann Brain-Dominance Instrument® presented by Ann Herrmann-Nehdi. While Ruth Clark’s latest book  debunks the concept of visual vs. auditory learning styles, Herrmann International has built a holistic system of learning styles based on neurological research. I don’t know enough to judge the validity of all the research, but I did find the system comprehensive and compelling. More importantly, it is designed to be useful to practitioners.

Copyright 2011 Herrmann International

The system postulates four learning "brain types," and shows mixtures of the types aligned to different occupations. It also provides learning strategies that work and don’t work well for each quadrant. Excellent material and a great presentation.

3, ZebraZapps from Allen Interactions. I heard about this tool after last year’s ICE conference, but had not yet seen it in action. It is a cloud-based, point-and-click application for designing and developing interactive Flash modules. Flash developers know that you can do just about anything in Flash, IF you can write ActionScript. The point of ZebraZapps is to make ActionScript interactivity functions available in a WYSIWIG interface. Extremely powerful and fun. And maybe a game changer for advanced e-learning authoring. I can’t wait to get my hands on the tool start playing.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Poem for Evidenced-Based Training

I am thoroughly enjoying Ruth Clark’s Evidence Based Training Methods: A Guide for Training Professionals. Not only does it provide practical advice for instructional design that is actually based on research, but Clark’s writing is quick and easy to read and her recommendations clear and memorable.

This is partly because Clark adeptly practices what she preaches. The book itself is a superior “learning environment,” using key techniques recommended by the research: informational graphics, stories and examples, “organizing” questions to spark engagement.

One of my favorite insights comes early in the book: the knowledge that short-term memory consists of both visual and audio centers leads to the concept of “dual channels” for learning delivery:

When you read a concrete word such as flower, you are more likely to process it in two ways, as phonetic data and also as the image that your mind forms when reading the word. In contrast, a word such as moral is not as easy to visualize, and in many cases you encode it only in a phonetic format. Concrete words that can be encoded in two ways have a greater probability of being stored in memory. (page 31, paperback edition).

Every poet and copywriter knows that concrete words are stronger and “stickier” than abstract words, but now at last we have the brain science to explain why!

So here’s a little poem I wrote in praise of Clark’s insight. It might help you remember the idea of dual channels:

Abstract’s Less Durable than Concrete
Elephants are bigger than enormous,
A pear more memorable than appear.
Names of things are sounds and pictures:
Pointed’s less pointed than a spear.

A comforter is warmer than comfort,
Compared to being, a bee has more sting;
Any one star is clearer than brightness:
Ideas vanish faster than things.

Even pain is less painful than a punch in the nose,
And the rarest beauty holds no candle to a rose.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

To Script or Not to Script: Should You Write Instructor Guides?

When you create instructor-led training (ILT), what kind of script or notes or other information do you provide for the instructor?

In the dim, dim past
Many, many years ago, when I first developed training for technology products, the practice at the company where I worked was to create a "student guide" and an "instructor guide."
  • The student guide contained the course content (concepts, procedures, exercises) and was meant to be used in class and taken home as a reference.
  • The instructor guide included all of the above, plus an almost verbatim  script for teaching the class.
In recent times
Over the past couple of decades, I’ve not come across any cases where instructional designers created full-blown instructor guides with scripts. I assumed this was because these scripts take a LOT of time and were always of dubious value. When I audited my classes back in the old, old days, the instructors generally ignored the script and taught the way they wanted to teach.

Also, since PowerPoint became the master tool for ILT delivery, the prevalent practice I’ve seen is for the designer to produce a PowerPoint, with any notes or facilitator cues in the Speaker Notes.

Much to my surprise
So I was caught off-guard recently when a new client told me they really, really believed they needed an instructor guide with a step by step script for delivering the course. I told them I would research the problem. The results were not what I expected.

I posted the question to mailing list of the Society for Technical Communication Instructional Design SIG, and to the Instructional Design and E-Learning Professionals group on LinkedIn.

Much to my surprise, roughly half of the 15 respondents are producing some form of facilitator or instructor guide--though only a couple mentioned doing verbatim scripts. Still, a robust instructor guide, as opposed to simple notes and cues in PowerPoint, appears to be much more prevalent than I had imagined.

Some Findings
  • Instructor aids, when not a full script, included tips and tricks, answers to common questions, preparation and materials needed (and, of course, answers to assessment questions)
  • Detailed instructor guides are more prevalent in larger organizations and in situations with many different instructors, with lots of variance in their subject knowledge and facilitation skills.
  • They are also common and useful for train-the-trainer programs
  • Instructor guides are helpful in classes where the instructor leaves the PowerPoint to show software steps. Notes in the PowerPoint are less handy in these situations.

A useful design
Having reviewed this information, I was able recommend a 3-column format for an abbreviated instructor guide that I think will answer the client’s needs.
  • Column 1, Media, has a screen images of the PowerPoint, or of the software application being demonstrated.
  • Column 2, Speaking Points, contains talking points for the slides, or step-by-step instructions for the software demonstration. Not a verbatim script, but a summary of what to say and do.
  • Column 3, Notes, has additional recommendations and tips, including how to handle conditional situations and answers to questions that might come up.
My thanks to everyone who took the time to share their comments on the STC list-serv and Linked in. In particular, I am indebted to Kim Kahat of Better Business Writing, Inc, for sharing her facilitator guide design, which I adapted for my client.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Social Learning : Sacred Cow or Golden Calf?

I saw a question on LinkedIn recently asking people to list sacred cows in the Learning Industry. They rounded up the usual suspects: ADDIE, Instructor Led Training, the LMS.

What leapt to my mind may shock you. At least it seems contrarian: Top sacred cow in the learning industry? How about social learning?

Now I admit social media has great mojo for marketing a business. And there are case studies galore to prove that that works.

But social learning?

Maybe I’m just a luddite.

Oh, I’ve seen the slideshows and YouTube videos. "Social media is transforming the world!" "More people on FaceBook than in all of South America." "More tweets in an hour than there are stars in the galaxy!" Whatever.

Seriously, I know there is untapped potential for using social-media type tools for sharing information. And, yes, there may be some organizations out there using them effectively and measurably for learning.

But not many. From what I’ve seen, for every effective learning portal, there are ten abandoned wikis. For every proven success, dozens of non-starters.

And when 80% of the presentation topics I see listed these days seem to be about social learning, I sense a bit of a lemming mentality. “If we don’t use these platforms NOW to transform our learning organizations, we’ll soon be left behind!”

Color me dubious.

Certainly, none of my customers are clamoring for social learning. They want the same old sacred cows, instructor-led classes, WebEx sessions, e-learning. In other words, they want directed learning with structured content. They’re not expecting their people to train each other on technical skills or compliance standards by tweeting.

Maybe my clients’ are all luddites too?

I was amused the other day to read a consultant’s blog post touting Social Learning for Business.  The man makes what seems a very compelling case in ten bullet points. Then I checked the services page of his web site. What is he selling? Instructor-led workshops.

If social learning isn’t a sacred cow, maybe it’s a golden calf. Look how shiny! Everyone is worshipping with irrational fervor. I think with a little discrimation we might see that 1) We've made this idol ourselves and 2) We’re honestly not really sure of it’s value.

Maybe I’m wrong and all those other consultants are right. What do you think?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Learning and Unlearning

Learning is fun, unlearning not so much.

I learned to build web sites starting in 1995 using HTML coded by hand. I learned to lay out pages using tables, with columns and rows laboriously defined by tags.
table tr td /td td /td etc. etc.
Today I have Dreamweaver CS5 on my computer, with a wealth of tools and whistles I haven’t yet learned to use. To learn to build a site with today’s Dreamweaver, I have to first unlearn my old ways of doing things.

We often hear about the challenges of continuous workplace learning, but sometimes the toughest part is the unlearning.

Learning is not so tough; unlearning, that’s a different story.

Maybe unlearning can be accomplished using the same techniques that work so effectively to encourage learning:
  1. Motivation. Engage myself by thinking about the benefits. I can create pages must faster and easier once I learn Dreamweaver. My pages will be coded to modern standards, not dinosaur pages from the 90s.
  2. Clear Objectives. State a goal that is easily measured. I will build one new page by the end of the month.
  3. Chunking. Start with a Dreamweaver template. Deconstruct it a little as a time.
  4. Practice. I’ll work on a real project with real deadlines and benefits. Nothing spurs learning like urgency.
Learning is fun. Unlearning just another form of learning.