Tag: online courses

Vive la evolution

Last week, Laura Layton-James stumbled upon my post Online courses must die! and she left a wonderfully detailed comment.

I was so enamoured with what she wrote that I feel compelled to repeat it here…

An excellent post Ryan. When running courses on how to create engaging eLearning (concentrating on the self-study module) we concentrate on designing, as Cathy Moore puts it, experiences. To me it’s a total waste of time reposting the information that already exists somewhere on the intranet in a pdf. As you say, a waste of resources when L&D’s expertise as learning consultants (which is what we are) can be put to better use creating those skills based activities that will test application rather than regurgitate facts and figures.

Unfortunately, the blame (if we have to lay blame) lies with the increasing need to tick boxes. It seems that if we just point people in the right direction for the information we can’t be sure they’ve read it. So we think the solution is to type it all up again in shorter chunks and ask them a load of questions which only tests immediate recall.

Bored at the computer

If it’s eInformation / eReference that’s needed, that’s fine. We can make that more visually appealing and easier to read on screen. We can even make it more enjoyable to view in the form of videos or podcasts.

Where the real learning takes place is in the analysis of the material in relation to a specific work-based problem. A problem that the learner is likely to face in the workplace.

An example I use is the mandatory fire safety course. It tends to be boring when done in the classroom where facts upon facts about the fire triangle are poured into learners’ heads. If they’re listening carefully enough they might be able to answer some questions on the fire triangle and what constitutes fuel, heat and oxygen (I’m still not sure if I’ve got it right). Tell me, in a fire how many people will be standing there pondering on the fire triangle. Really what would do us more good is to either assess realistic risks, or evacuate safely in the event of a fire.

The fire drill

Encouraging more of a user-generated and peer-to-peer learning environment may not be to everyone’s taste so a VLE such as Moodle will give more control. But L&D’s real and untapped value will be in the nurturing of learners, working with SMEs to provide digestible chunks of information, designing bite-sized resources and providing study guides and recommended personal learning plans so learning becomes more individual and task based.

Definitely, why force individuals to go through the same mandatory content year after year when all they may need is a yearly, skills based assessment. If that assessment highlights skills gaps then a more flexible learning programme will make sure individuals learn only what they need not what they don’t.

It’s no longer about what we know but more about where to find the information and apply it to tasks.

I couldn’t agree more.

Thanks Laura!

Online courses must die!

A touch dramatic, isn’t it?

Now that I have your attention, please bear with me. There’s method in my madness…

The myth of rapid authoring

The proliferation of so-called rapid authoring tools over the last few years has coincided with an explosion in the number of online courses developed in-house.

In the bad old days, technically challenged L&D professionals had to pay exorbitant fees to development houses to produce simple modules. These days, however, everyone seems to be creating their own online courses and distributing them via an LMS.

In tandem with this trend, though, has been the increasingly familiar cry of “It’s not interactive!”. Critics rail against boring page turners – and rightly so.

Woman bored at the computer

But you know what? Even when L&D professionals consciously integrate interactivity into their online courseware, I usually don’t think it’s all that engaging anyway. Increasing the number of clicks required to view the content does not make it more interactive. It just makes it annoying, especially for time-poor employees in the corporate sector.

Yes, I know you can embed real interactivity into courseware via games, branched simulations, virtual worlds etc, but hardly anyone does that. It requires time – which you don’t have because you’re too busy building the online course – or dollars – which defeats the purpose of developing it in-house!

So what’s the alternative?

Frankly, there’s nothing most online courses do that a PDF can’t. Think about it: PDFs display structured text and pretty pictures. Just like a typical online course, without the fancy software or specialist skills.

Anyone (and I mean just about anyone) can create and update a PDF. Suddenly SMEs are back in the game… Write up a Word doc and convert it? Easy. Update the Word doc and re-convert it? Easy.

Now that’s what I call rapid.

The best of both worlds

If we dispense with online courses in favour of PDFs, how can we incorporate interactivity into the learning experience?

Enter the Informal Learning Environment (ILE).

Occupying a place on the continuum somewhere between a VLE and a PLE, an ILE is an informal learning environment that a facilitator manages on behalf of a group of learners.

Essentially, an ILE is a space (like a website or intranet site) that centralises relevant learning resources in a particular domain. The site may host some of those resources and point to others that exist elsewhere.

So your PDFs can go in there, but so too can your audio clips, videos, puzzles, games, quizzes and simulations. Don’t forget podcasts, RSS feeds, slideshows, infographics, animations, articles and real-life case studies. Not to mention blogs, wikis, discussion forums and social bookmarks.

Unlike a VLE, an ILE is strictly informal. The learners can explore its resources at their own pace and at their own discretion. No forced navigation, no completion status. In this sense, the pedagogy is constructivist.

Unlike a PLE, an ILE is communal. It exists to support a community of practice, whose members can (or more accurately, should) incorporate it into their own respective PLEs. In this sense, the pedagogy is connectivist.

But that’s not to say that the pedagogy of an ILE can’t be instructivist either. The facilitator should provide a learning plan for novice learners which defines a sequence of study, identifying specific resources among the potentially overwhelming array of options.

The sky’s the limit

An ILE is a scalable and flexible learning environment. If we view each resource within that environment as a learning object, we can appreciate how easy it is to add new content, update old content, and remove obsolete content.

Four marbles

It’s incredibly inefficient to use up the precious time of an L&D professional to build, publish, test and upload an online course, only to edit, re-publish, re-test and re-upload it later, just because a few words need to be changed and a graph replaced. Instead, the SME can create and update the object via Word.

If you are keen on creating interactive tutorials, games or virtual worlds, now you can go for it! You have more time, and new tools are coming out that are making these kinds of thing easier to do. The finished product can be added to the ILE as another learning object. Again, if it needs to be updated later, there’s no need to edit, re-publish, re-test and re-upload a whole course – just that object.

If you commission an external developer to build a smokin’ hot immersive scenario, guess what: you add it to the ILE as another learning object. When it needs to be updated, you pay the developer to work on that object and that object only.

In this age of iPhones and Flip cameras, why not encourage your learners to generate their own content too? It’s another rich source of objects to add to the mix.

All these examples illustrate my central premise: when content is managed in the form of independent learning objects, it remains open and flexible, which means you can keep it current, relevant and organic.

Rockin’ role

Under the ILE model, the role of the L&D professional finally evolves.

The SME is empowered to produce content, which frees you up to apply your own expertise: instructional design. This may involve a greater focus on engagement and interactivity.

The responsibility of learning is assigned back to the learners, which frees you up to guide, scaffold, encourage, discuss, prompt, probe, challenge and clarify. In other words, facilitate learning.

Your value in the organisation goes through the roof!

Take the ass out of assessment

I claimed earlier that there’s nothing most online courses do that a PDF can’t. I glaringly omitted assessment. Please note I left it out on purpose.

There are just some things that the company must know that you know. You get no argument from me on that.

However, how we assess that knowledge is bizarrely old fashioned.

A donkey

While it’s convenient to wrap up some content and a quiz into a single package, I just don’t see the point from an instructional design perspective. Forcing someone to register into a course, just to pass a dinky quiz at the end, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

It is widely acknowledged that the vast majority of learning in the workplace is informal. From exploring an ILE to chatting around the water cooler, there is a myriad of ways that people learn stuff. Assessment should represent the sum of that learning.

This is where the LMS comes in. In my view it should manage assessment, not content. More specifically, it should deliver, track and record standalone tests that are linked to particular competencies.

When the LMS is used in this way, the L&D model aligns more closely with the learning process. The employees learn informally all over the place, using an ILE as their central support resource, then (if necessary) they record their competence. The focus of measurement shifts from activity to outcome.

This unorthodox approach makes many people nervous. Their primary concern is that someone can jump straight onto the test and pass it immediately, without ever “doing the course”. In response, I make these three points:

  1. You can jump straight to the assessment in most online courses anyway.
  2. If someone bluffs their way through the assessment and passes, clearly it wasn’t robust enough. That’s your fault.
  3. Conversely, if someone passes the assessment because they already have the knowledge, what’s the problem? You are recording competence, not making people’s lives difficult.

Of course, this kind of nervousness isn’t confined to the corporate sector nor to e-learning. For example, many universities have a minimum 80% attendance policy for face-to-face lectures. I don’t see the point of turning up just to fall asleep with my eyes open, but that’s another story!

The method in my madness

Online courses must die because they are unsustainable in the modern workplace. They aren’t rapid, flexible or scalable, and they usually don’t take full advantage of their medium anyway.

So unlock your content and manage it in the form of individual learning objects in an ILE.

Shift the bulk of the content to PDF. In the age of e-readers, no one will notice much difference.

By all means invest in authoring tools, but only in ones that will help you create interactive and engaging objects – easily.

Exploit Web 2.0.

Use standalone tests to record competence on your LMS. They cover all sources of knowledge.

Informalise learning. Formalise assessment.

Text ain’t half bad

Man's fingers typing on a keyboard.

In a previous post, Give shovelware the shove, I discussed the scourge of shovelware.

I want to point out, however, that text is not necessarily shovelware.

While it’s true that shovelware is typically text heavy, dismissing all text-heavy courseware as “shovelware” is short-sighted. That’s just branding it guilty by association.

We all know that the written word can be informative, insightful, engaging and thought provoking. Of course, people have been learning by reading for centuries.

If we were to turn around now and say that people don’t learn via text, then we might as well throw away our books. In fact, we might as well shut down our blogs and wikis too.

My point is, text-heavy courseware isn’t inherently bad. Sure, it can be done better – but if the quality of the content is good and a bit of thought has gone into the instructional design, then it’s light years ahead of shovelware.

Don’t convert… transform!

I’m sure you’ve had a colleague ask you a question that goes something like this:

We have this user guide here that we use for training – can you convert it into an online course for us?

Or perhaps more frequently:

We have these PowerPoint slides here that we use for presentations – can you convert them into an online course?

In such situations, I’m glad my colleague thinks so highly of e-learning that he or she is willing to pursue it as a mode of delivery.

However, I don’t see much point in converting a document or a slideshow into an online course. It’s simply a waste of time and effort to reinvent the wheel – sure, the new wheel looks bright and shiny, but does it offer any real advantages over the old one?

An old wagon wheel leaning against a farmhouse wall.

In my role as an e-learning consultant, I would advise my colleague to deliver the content as a PDF instead. The learner can then download it, read it, and (hopefully) learn something from it. In other words, the PDF does the same job as the proposed online course, but significantly quicker, cheaper and easier.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking… That’s not very engaging! And I agree with you. One of the wonderful things about e-learning is its ability to support engaging learning experiences. Multimedia, interactivity and non-linearity all promote the learner from sleepy page turner to active explorer.

So whenever you source content from a document or a slideshow for an online course, don’t merely convert it… transform it. Challenge every paragraph of text, every static picture. Can it be delivered in a different format? Perhaps a game? An animation? A quiz? A puzzle? Audio? Video? Should the content be split, rearranged, reorganised? Can something be cut and something else added?

My rule of thumb is to ask myself:

What will my courseware offer that a PDF won’t?

If the answer is “plenty”, then go for it. But if the answer is “not much”, then why bother?

Give shovelware the shove

I promised in my previous blog post, Learning alive!, that I would share with you some of my learnings from the recent AITD 2008 National Conference. I still intend to do that.

However, before I do, there are a few concepts that I want to discuss. The first is shovelware.

A gardener's boot pushing down on a shovel.

What is shovelware?

Wikipedia describes “shovelware” as:

…a derogatory computer jargon term that refers to software noted more for the quantity of what is included than for the quality or usefulness.

The metaphor implies that the creators chose the content material indiscriminately, as if with a shovel, rather than hand-picking quality works.

Shovelware in the e-learning space

One of my bugbears with rapid e-learning is that while anyone can do it, it’s rarely done well.

The typical scenario goes like this: Shell out for an authoring tool like Articulate or Lectora, cut & paste any old text from wherever you can get it, maybe add some clip art to pretty it up, then push it out as an “online course”.

Well, my friends, that’s shovelware.

Shovelware in the corporate sector

In the corporate sector, it’s all too tempting to shift our focus from instruction to production. With rapid e-learning tools we can produce many courses quickly, but you have to ask yourself why you would want to do that. Sure, you can shovel in content by the truckload and build up an impressive-looking library of courseware, but is it useful?

The key issue with shovelware is that it feeds the developer’s needs, not the learner’s. Uploading a certain number of courses to the corporate LMS may meet the developer’s KPI, but that doesn’t mean it will meet the training needs of the company’s employees.

Instead, a learning organisation will value quality over quantity — Development that is informed by training needs analysis and guided by instructional design principles, even if that means less product per unit time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of rapid e-learning and can see that tools like Articulate and Lectora are revolutionising L&D in the corporate sector. My point is it has to be done effectively.

At the end of the day, if the courseware doesn’t facilitate learning, it’s just junk.