Posted tagged ‘instruction’

Let’s get rid of the instructors!

9 September 2014

The title of my previous post, Let’s get rid of the instructional designers!, was a tongue-in-cheek reference to a radical view of instructional design.

I think it would be safe to say that the vast majority of us in the L&D profession do not advocate the riddance of instructional designers. On the contrary, they are the experts in a science that is critical to the overall performance of the organisation.

The title of this post however, while similarly tongue-in-cheek on my part, is much less so on the part of many of my peers.

We live in an era where “training”, “lecture”, “course” and even “teaching” have become dirty words. In their place, a learner-centered vocabulary espousing “inquiry”, “exploration” and “discovery” are the soupe du jour.

A manifestation of this trend is no more vivid than in the invective directed at MOOCs – or more accurately, xMOOCs. To many L&D folks, these types of courses (there’s that word again) are mere replicas of the lectures and exams that they so despise. Ergo, xMOOCs are bad.

Now I maintain this view sells xMOOCs short, but for the sake of argument I’m willing to pretend that this mode of delivery is devoid of constructivist empowerment. I acknowledge that many MOOCs do replicate olde worlde instructivism, at least in part.

And here’s where I propose something counter-radical: Sometimes that’s a good thing.

Screenshot of Foundations of Business Strategy

Indeed, I advocate direct instruction under the following circumstances:

1. When the learner is a novice.

Novice learners don’t know what they need to know. But the expert does.

By adopting an instructivist approach, the expert can scaffold the learning experience and construct a foundational framework for the subject matter. The learner can then build upon this foundation by other means.

2. When the subject matter is complex.

By definition, complex subject matter consists of interconnected parts which may be difficult to make sense of through inquiry, exploration and discovery.

Sometimes it makes more sense to have someone who understands the system explain it to you end-to-end.

3. When the subject matter is black & white.

It’s worth noting that complex is not the same as complicated, whereby inquiry, exploration and discovery may be eminently suitable for gathering multiple versions of the “truth”.

Geopolitics springs to mind, but cooler headed topics such as strategic thinking and decision-making are also highly dependent on context, lending themselves to a more constructivist approach.

But not all topics are like that. Consider financial statement analysis: the content is so straight-forward that it would make little sense to inquire, explore and discover, when you could simply see how it’s done and practise it for yourself.

4. When speed to competence is important.

Learners in the workplace are time poor, and whatever the topic, their employer demands that they get up to speed quickly. Otherwise, don’t come Monday.

These people don’t have the luxury of a semester to inquire, explore and discover. They need to know what they need to know now.

5. When the learning outcome is non-negotiable.

There are some things that your employer must know that you know. It may be critical to your role, a compliance obligation, or a risk management issue; so it can’t be left to chance.

Personally, I think the indicator of must-know learning is its assessment. I wouldn’t care so much where, when or even how you learned it, so long as you did.

However, I can also see that if an employer found itself in court because one of its employees sexually harassed one of his colleagues, it would want to demonstrate that it had provided sufficient training to that individual.

6. When the learner is less inclined.

We in the L&D industry tend to believe (or want to believe) that our target audience is just like us. They’re self-motivated individuals with a hunger to inquire, explore and discover.

The truth, of course, is that our target audience occupies the full spectrum of autodidactism. And dare I suggest many huddle at the lower end.

Woman using computer

Getting back to xMOOCs specifically, another point I wish to make is that just because they are delivered in an instructivist manner, does not mean they must be consumed in an instructivist manner.

While the learner is free to work their way through the curriculum along the pre-defined weekly path, they are also free to inquire, explore and discover at their discretion within a thoughtfully structured environment.

But oh no! If we empower the learner to drive their own MOOC experience, they might not finish it!

Grumpy cat thinking they just won't complete their MOOCs.

As history reminds us time and time again, no one view is ever the “right” one – at least, not all the time.

Our perspective is so dependent on the circumstances that we learning pro’s must appreciate the problem before trumpeting or poopooing the solution.

Just as it makes little sense to get rid of the instructional designers, it makes little sense to get rid of the instructors. Instead, let’s get smarter about instruction.

Udemy for you and me

13 August 2013

It seems like every time you blink, another free tool becomes available to help you create online learning resources.

One of them is Udemy – a web-based platform that enables anyone to create and deliver online courses for free. Simply open an account and you are provided with the tools you need to structure your curriculum, upload your content, and publish your course to the world.

Udemy has actually been around since 2010, but I only recently decided to dabble in it. In so doing, I created Audacity Crash Course and The Wide World of MOOCs.

Audacity Crash Course landing page The Wide World of MOOCs landing page

I thoroughly enjoyed using Udemy. I found it to be a simple yet powerful tool.

Having said that, everything has its pro’s and cons, and this was no exception. In case you are considering using Udemy for your own purposes, I will share some of my experience with you now…

Thumbs up


  • Udemy is incredibly easy to use. Creating lectures, rearranging them and uploading the content is a dream. I jumped straight into it without referring to the instructions, and while I’m familiar with authorware, I expect it’s intuitive enough for Average Joe to work out too. If not, it’s carefully scaffolded each step of the way.

  • The help resources are helpful. When I couldn’t figure out how to delete a lecture, for example, I found the solution via someone else who had raised a similar problem.

  • Every course undergoes a quality review process by the Udemy team. If and when it meets their standards they will add it to the marketplace, which means it will be discoverable by the public. The turnaround time for this process is 3-4 business days, which I consider reasonable.

  • When you publish your course, it is immediately live on the interwebs. That means prior to (and even regardless of) it being accepted into the marketplace, it will have a URL which you can promote to your target audience.

  • The business model enables you to monetise your course by assigning a price to it, of which Udemy claims a 30% cut. This seems reasonable to me, as it is the same cut that Amazon takes via its Kindle Direct Publishing service.

  • A coupon generator allows you create discount coupons at your discretion, empowering you to set the discounted price, the number of coupons, and the deadline. Of course, your cut will then come out of the discounted price rather than the full price. (The algorithm is slightly different for coupon-derived sales.)

  • You can also add your course to the Udemy affiliate program, which makes it available for others to promote for a share of the spoils. Conversely, you can earn a cut by promoting other people’s courses too.

Thumbs down


  • Udemy assumes that the bulk of your course will be lectures. In fact, one of their standards is that the course contains a minimum of 30 minutes of video content. While I understand why they do this, I also suspect it encourages “padding” and might make the course longer than it ought to be.

  • Another standard maintains that the lectures be 2-15 minutes in length on average “or appropriately long based on the instructional content”. I ran afoul of this one when I published The Wide World of MOOCs because – as you can see on the landing page – most of my lectures are less than 2 minutes each, which I argued was instructionally sound in light of the nature of the content.

    If Udemy had rejected my argument, I would have had no choice but to consolidate my Q&A videos into one long clip – which not only would have compromised the integrity of the instruction IMHO, but also would have affected the marketing as prospective students would not be able to see the full outline of the contents.

    Luckily though, the Udemy folk were true to their word and honoured the “or appropriately long based on the instructional content” aspect of the standard.

  • Udemy’s predilection for video presents another unexpected quibble. Leaving aside academic arguments about the pedagogy of lectures – which I think, for the record, depends on the circumstances – the curriculum builder labels every stage of your course a “lecture”. This makes it awkward when, for example, you want to upload a reading list, or web links, or a template. None of these things is a lecture, but they’re called one nonetheless.

  • While Udemy allows you to pick the thumbnail of each video lecture, it offers you only a limited selection. Typically you would want to pick the first frame; otherwise the video appears jumpy as it briefly shows the thumbnail drawn from somewhere midway before autoplaying from the beginning. Unfortunately, though, this first frame is often left out of the selection.

  • The method for deleting a lecture isn’t obvious. Having to click the little pencil first as if you were changing its title doesn’t make sense.

  • While rearranging the lectures is beautifully afforded via dragging and dropping, the same can’t be said of the downloadable materials. Murphy’s Law dictates that you need to make an edit or an update to the file at the top of the list, which means you must delete them all and then re-upload them.

  • You have to send an email to the affiliate team to request them to add your course to the affiliate program. This is a bit clunky, and naturally you want to fire off the request straight away. The problem is, your course can be added to the affiliate program only when it is live in the marketplace – which it won’t be for another 3-4 business days!

Open palm

Suggestions for improvement

In case anyone from the Udemy team is reading this, I respectfully suggest the following improvements…

  • Relax the enforcement of the standards. If a particular course doesn’t technically meet a requirement, the review team should be authorised to make a judgement call on whether to let it slide.

  • Consider labelling each stage of the course a “topic” rather than a “lecture”.

  • Allow the course owner to upload a customised thumbnail like YouTube does. That way, if the system doesn’t automatically pick up the first frame as a thumbnail, the owner can plug it in manually.

  • Place the trash can icon on each lecture’s banner so that it’s obvious how to delete it. A warning message should be sufficient to prevent accidental deletions.

  • Enable the dragging and dropping of the downloadable materials in the curriculum builder for resequencing purposes.

  • Incorporate an option during the publishing process to add the course to the affiliate program. Then, as soon as it is live in the marketplace, it is automatically added to the program.


All in all, though, I must re-emphasise that I thoroughly enjoyed using Udemy. I think it’s an excellent tool.

Not only can you use it to distribute your own expertise, but it’s so easy to use that the SME’s in your organisation can use it to distribute their expertise too.

Anyone interested in leveraging Udemy for workplace training should look into Udemy for Organizations which provides a private, branded portal with exclusive access only for your employees.

UFO might be a viable option for companies that don’t have an LMS, or for others that are seeking an alternative delivery platform.

Human enough

19 February 2013

It is with glee that the proponents of e-learning trumpet the results of studies such as the US Department of Education’s Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, which found that, on average, online instruction is as effective as classroom instruction.

And who can blame them? It is only natural for evangelists to seize upon evidence that furthers their cause.

But these results mystified me. If humans are gregarious beings and learning is social, how can face-to-face instruction possibly fail to out perform its online equivalent?

That was until I watched Professor Steve Fuller’s Humanity 2.0 TEDxWarwick talk in Week 3 of The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures course.

The professor explains with wonderful articulation how difficult it is to define a human.

Sure, biologists will define humanity in terms of DNA, yet they can’t even agree on whether the Neanderthals were a subspecies of Homo sapiens or a separate species all together.

If we remove our gaze from the electron microscope, we have our morphology. Perhaps a human is an organism that has five fingers on each hand? But does that mean someone who is born with four (or six) is not human?

Perhaps a human is an organism that uses tools? Well, vultures drop rocks onto eggs to break them open.

Perhaps then a human is an organism that uses language? Whales might have something to say about that.

It is an intriguing conundrum that has occupied our thoughts since anyone can remember.

Title page of the first edition of René Descartes' Discourse on Method.

In the 17th Century, RenĂ© Descartes made an intellectual breakthrough. He contended that “reason…is the only thing that makes us men, and distinguishes us from the beasts”. In other words, we are the only creatures on God’s earth capable of rational thought. I think, therefore I am.

Descartes pushed his point by arguing that while a robot might one day be developed to speak words, “it is not conceivable that such a machine should…give an appropriately meaningful answer in its presence”. And despite astonishing advances in artificial intelligence, the philosophical Frenchman remains right. Even Watson, who triumphed at Jeopardy! and today mines big data to help humans make better decisions, can not reasonably be considered a human itself. It is simply a product of computer programming.

Speaking of machines, if a human were to progressively replace her body parts with robotics – hence becoming a cyborg – at what point does she cease to be a human? According to the humanist tradition of Descartes, the absolute difference between a human and a non-human is a property of the mind. So, arguably she will remain a “human” until her brain is replaced.

But that begs the question: if we flip the scenario around and place a person’s brain in a robot’s body, does that make it a human?

All this philosophy starts to do my head in after a while, and that’s before getting into Freud’s posthumanism.

Somehow I prefer Joseph Gliddon’s simpler definition of a human: something that drinks coffee.

Cup of coffee

It’s not as flippant as it sounds, for it is our artificial enhancements that paradoxically make us more human.

Riding a bicycle, for example, is a quintessentially human endeavour. No other creature does it. Yes, a monkey might do so in the circus, but the reason we find it funny (or at least unusual) is because it doesn’t normally do that. The poor thing is mimicking a human.

Similarly, digital technology is an extension of our notion of humanity. Humans are the only organisms that use computers, surf the Web, write text, film video, record audio, and engage with one another in online discussion forums.

So when we view online pedagogy through this lens, we recognise very little of it that is not human. Consequently the strong performance of online students becomes less mysterious. In fact, it becomes expected because, just as a bicycle enhances our capability for travel, digital technology enhances our capability for learning.

This expectation is supported by a further finding of the Department of Education’s research – namely, that “blends of online and face-to-face instruction, on average, had stronger learning outcomes than did face-to-face instruction alone”. In other words, students who had the technology via the blended design performed better than those who didn’t.

But it doesn’t work in reverse: “the majority of…studies that directly compared purely online and blended learning conditions found no significant differences in student learning”. In other words, those who had the face-to-face interaction via the blended design performed no better than those who didn’t. Apparently the online instruction was human enough.

OK, on that bombshell, I think I’ll ride my bike to the cafe and pick up a cup of joe…