Posted tagged ‘lectures’

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…

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

The black hole of adult education

6 March 2012

So the Russians want to build a research base on the moon, and they want NASA and the European Space Agency to help them.

Anyone who has read Off The Planet by Jerry Linenger knows that this idea has about as much chance of getting up as Vladimir Putin has of winning American Idol.

Linenger knows better than most: he spent 5 months on Mir. Despite the years of training and the millions of dollars poured into the program, he and his two cosmonaut colleagues had to rely on their collective ingenuity, tenacity and sheer luck to remain alive.

Endangered on a daily basis by the incompetence of the Russian Federal Space Agency and the political expediency of the US Government, he was caught between a rock and a hard place – while floating between the third rock and outer space.

Space Station Mir Over Earth

One of the most shocking parts of the story takes place in Star City – the cosmonaut training compound located outside Moscow. Linenger was sitting in a classroom, struggling to interpret both the Russian language and the technical complexity of the subject matter…

My only saviour was oftentimes an outdated, hand-drawn engineering diagram hanging in the classroom beside the instructor’s blackboard … During many of my one-on-one lectures, I would block out entirely what the instructor was saying and memorize the diagram hanging on the wall. The diagrams themselves were outdated — showing only the original configuration of the Mir and not the myriad modifications made over the eleven-year lifespan of the station — but so were the lectures. Most of the instructors looked as if they had been teaching the subjects since the time of Yuri Gagarin. They had not kept abreast of the changes on Mir.

Furthermore I had the impression that my understanding the material presented was almost irrelevant to the lecturer. What was important was that they got through the canned lecture word for word, just as they had for the past ten years.

It gets worse…

What struck me as different about the training sessions, as compared to all the schooling I had ever received, was the lack of written materials or handouts. All of the material was presented orally … instructors realized that their job security, to a large extent, hinged on their knowledge of a system or component of the space station. Write the information down and their corner of the market would be lost.

For a fledgling language student like myself there is no more difficult way of learning space systems than by lectures delivered entirely in Russian … I learned very little during the 4:00PM to 6:00PM lecture time-slot, other than how to appear attentive while daydreaming. I spent much of my time asking myself, “What am I doing here?”

And yet it gets worse…

After hearing pleas for assistance from every astronaut training in Star City, NASA shuttle-Mir program managers finally sent over American trainers to help produce some translated, written materials … The Russians were uniformly uncooperative … The goal of helping cosmonauts and astronauts better prepare for a mission was not a shared goal.

The Russians were being paid to train the American astronauts. Each minute of training was paid for. If written materials — clear, understandable, and readable — were made available, we would eventually require less instructor time. Less time, less money. The Russians finally agreed to at least explore the possibility of making training manuals, but insisted that they be paid handsomely for their “vast knowledge and experience”.

Linenger goes on to describe the continuing obstructiveness of the Russian administrators, their exorbitant fees to accommodate minor requests, his interrogation-style exams, the futility of his complaints, his frustration over the lack of change, and how the astronauts on a subsequent mission threatened to leave Space City en mass.

Russian soldiers guarding the newly unveiled monument to Sputnik at Star City, courtesy of Spaceports.

If you think I’m just picking on the Ruskies, you’re missing my point. Some of my best friends are Russian.*

On the contrary, I could write a book about all the parallels I can draw between Linenger’s mission and the state of education in the West today. I’m thinking along the lines of:

• Organisational culture
• Activity vs outcome
• Formal vs informal learning
• Instructivism vs constructivism
• Andragogy
• Learning styles
• Authenticity
• Flipped classrooms
• Peer-to-peer knowledge sharing
• Motivation
• Special needs
• Kirkpatrick’s levels of evaluation
• Academic tenure

… the list goes on.

If you haven’t read Off The Planet, I highly recommend you do so.

Furthermore, I challenge you to apply Linenger’s experiences to your own working environment, and to consider how you can effect positive change.

It’s not rocket science.

* To be read as per Tallulah Bankhead in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.