Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Engage Learners Graphically

I have talked a lot lately about the wisdom of "in-sourcing" the competencies needed to produce good eLearning - competencies and expertise that you may not have on hand. For example, I understand the important role that good graphic design plays in communicating a message and in engaging learners on different levels, but I can't produce it myself. I know good design when I see it, but would be hard pressed to explain why it is good. This is why I have called on the services of Anie Kojarian for many our eLearning projects.

Anie is a Visual Communicator who has a fine art degree and has taught herself how to use tools such as HTML, Flash and Captivate. This grounding in what constitutes good design, together with the ability to bring a vision to life, is invaluable. Good graphic design is not only important in its own right; it can make an eLearning experience much more engaging for the learner and aid in the realization of learning objectives.


I recently asked Anie some questions about "graphical engagement." Her responses follow.

RN: What are the key principles of good graphic design?

AK: That's a tough one to answer in a short format...entire books are published on this topic. But if I were to narrow it down to a few key points, I would say:

- Keep things consistent...use repetition of colour, font types, alignment, shapes, link colours, etc.
- Use the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid!)...avoid clutter, keep your presentation clean and clear
- Use visual cues...i.e. appropriate images that support the surrounding information
- Be aware of focal points...ensure hierarchy of information is clear...i.e. that which is most important should stand out as such (use high contrast)

RN: How can good graphic design enhance learning?

AK: Good design makes it a more pleasurable experience for the learners. They don't have to struggle to figure out what they are supposed to do. The eye is guided to what is important and can grasp instantly the flow of the eLearning experience. Good design can help keep learners interested, engaged and motivated to complete tasks.

Also, good design can provide a variety of stimuli and appeal to learners with different learning styles. This can help learners retain more in their long term memories.

RN: What are some of the most common graphic design errors with respect to eLearning?

AK: Here are some of the most common mistakes I see:

- Non-creative people creating graphics
- Clutter...using an overload of unnecessary clip art images
- Lack of consistency...when one page doesn't look like it belongs to the next page, making it more difficult to navigate through all the pages
- Lack of a focal point on the page, everything looks the same, the eye doesn't know where to go
- Not enough white space...the page should have some breathing room
- No contrast
- Loud background images, making it difficult to read the content
- Pages and pages of bullet point lists, no break up into small paragraphs, no visuals, no other senses being engaged

RN: Thanks Anie!

AK: My pleasure...

Friday, May 26, 2006

The 70 / 30 Rule?

We ran another webinar yesterday in our on-going series. It was titled How to Build a High Performance Team for Effective eLearning. We had 21 people logged on from across North America, representing a variety of sectors (educational, government, services, utilities, pharmaceutical, professional association, etc.). The focus of the webinar was how to put together a great eLearning development and implementation team, using both internal resources and filling competency gaps by contracting in needed expertise as required.

When we polled the group regarding how much they currently do in-house vs. contracting in needed help from the outside for their eLearning projects, the average that emerged was around 70% in-house vs. 30% contracted in. Now I know this is not a valid statistical sample (and not likely to become as entrenched as Pareto's 80 / 20 rule), but we found it interesting that this 70/30 split in eLearning effort was so prevalent across the board.

Another trend that we noticed from the group was that most contracted in a great deal of help as they started out in eLearning, but gradually developed more internal capacity and competency for eLearning as they went along. Some who have been at it a while may start inching up from the 70%, moving closer to 80% in time (hey, we're back to Pareto again!).

Our main point in the webinar was that you should not try to be a hero when starting out in eLearning. No one person, or even small group of people, will have all the necessary competencies to do eLearning well in the beginning. Realize this and you will save yourself a lot of grief. Identify your organization's core competencies around eLearning and contract in people who can bring special expertise and experience to round out what you lack.

Remember, experience is what you get just after you need it. Learn from those who already have experience (i.e. have already made the usual mistakes!).

Some of the competency gaps noted by webinar participants within their own organizations included: project management, technical skills, change management, and internal marketing (selling eLearning within the organization).

Identifying needed competencies for eLearning via competency mapping will be a topic of one of our upcoming webinars in June. For details on this, and for information on how to view a recording of yesterday's webinar, check out our website:

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Joys of Contracting "In"

I am constantly amazed at how many organizations (even very large ones) have only two or three people responsible for eLearning. These very small teams are charged with designing, developing, producing, implementing, and managing the eLearning initiatives in these organizations. Not surprisingly, they are often overwhelmed by these responsibilities, have difficulty meeting project deadlines, and are stressed out.

Producing good eLearning is a complex process. There are many different competencies required (e.g. project management, instructional design, programming, technology support, evaluation skills, etc.). It is rare that all these are found in one or two people. Something inevitably gives way when an individual or very small team is expected to bring all these competencies to bear on an eLearning project. Quality will suffer and/or timelines will not be met.

There are a number of strategies for closing these competency gaps.
  • have your team develop new competencies (this takes time and does not address capacity issues)
  • hire people with these competencies (you take on new overhead and have to carry these costs no matter what level of development work you have down the road)
  • contract in the competencies as required (provides flexibility to access certain needed competencies when needed)
Smart organizations decide what core competencies they have and then contract in those competencies in which they are lacking. This allows them to be nimble, to react to internal demands for eLearning as these arise, and to expand and contract their operation as demand dictates.

We are in the eLearning business and we contract in various competencies as required in order to provide the exact competencies required for the project at hand.

Notice I say we "contract in." We don't like the term "contract out," because it sounds like a disjointed process whereby work is done somewhere else and separate from the job at hand (kind of like sending shirts to the laundry). We prefer to make our contractors - whether instructional designers, graphic artists, Flash programmers, etc. - part of our internal team and working together toward common goals for our clients. Our core competency is the ability to orchestrate this whole process to meet client expectations on time and on budget.

So give it some thought. Are you trying to do everything yourself? Is this smart? Do you have the flexibility to respond to demands for eLearning as these arise? What are your core competencies, and what can you do to strengthen your team from without?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Ideas for Rapid eLearning

We hosted an interesting webinar yesterday titled Rapid eLearning: 5 Ways to Reduce Your eLearning Development Cycle Times. About 30 individuals from across North America and a range of sectors (e.g. manufacturing, retail, financial, service, and academic) logged in and participated.

Here are some of their comments, which mirror trends that we have found in interacting with clients trying to reduce their development cycle times:

Drivers for Rapid eLearning Development

"Demand from management"

"Quick changes in our industry - global restructuring"

"Keep up with current trends"

"Limited resources"

"Rapid growth"

Barriers to Rapid eLearning Development

"Resources, resources, resources"

"Lack of funds and support"

"Availability of subject matter experts (SMEs) very limited"

"Infrastructure to support technology"

Strategies for Reducing Development Cycle Times

"Asking SMEs for just the content, not the structure"

"Look at use of templates more than I have to date"

"Convince management to expand the e-Team to include graphic artists, html'ers, etc."

"Cover what the end user needs to do the work, and skip the fluff"

"Assign a project manager who can ensure everything stays on time"

For the record, here are the 5 ways we advocate to reduce eLearning development cycle times:

1. Better focused content
2. The right tools for the job
3. The right people in place (within and/or without)
4. Good streamlined processes
5. Good management of people and processes

For details, you can become a newsletter subscriber via our website, and you will receive access to the webinar recording when it is ready. Go to:

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Time = Money: The Driver for Rapid eLearning

There has been a lot of hype lately about "rapid eLearning." It's difficult to read an eLearning journal, or go to an eLearning conference lately, without someone talking about rapid eLearning. Well, there is a very good reason for this and, although it sounds trite, it is as true as ever...TIME = MONEY.

The drivers to produce more quality eLearning more quickly are things like shorter product life cycles,very quick and frequent business process changes, time-mandated compliance in a number of areas, etc. Some traditional means of eLearning development do not accommodate these immediate demands and business pains quickly enough. It is of no use to anyone if the training is ready, but it is too late (in terms of having employees knowledgeable about new products as they are released, being able to execute a new process as these come online, or being in regulatory compliance when mandated, etc.). Or, in the case of a learning institution, after the new semester has started.

Not to mention the fact that the longer it takes to produce eLearning, the more likely this type of training in itself will be more expensive.

When an organization faces a real and immediate training challenge that needs to be addressed, the higher-ups do not want to hear things from their training department like "it generally takes us six months to produce an eLearning course," or "you can count on it costing X thousands of dollars per instructional hour." For some training challenges, the old rules (if they ever were rules!) no longer apply.

Quality eLearning can be produced quickly without necessarily having to sacrifice too much quality.

There are three ways to approach the challenge of rapid eLearning.
  • tools
  • people
  • processes
There are tools that make it much easier to produce eLearning. Authoring software such as Macromedia Breeze, Lectora (by Trivantis), or Articulate Presenter make it easier for non-technical people to produce eLearning. In fact, most LMS / LCMS software makes it fairly easy to produce eLearning content. However, there is a danger in having SMEs (subject matter experts) use tools to quickly create eLearning. They don't always have an appreciation for how people learn, and become too enamored with their content rather than with what competencies employees need now. As a wise sage once said, just because you give someone a hammer, does not make that person a carpenter.

Tools are important, but I prefer to focus on people and processes in looking for ways to speed up the eLearning development process. Development cycles can be compressed significantly when you have the right people on the job, with the right skills, with streamlined processes that allow decisions to be made quickly and sign-offs to occur infrequently and only when absolutely necessary.

I also think it is important not to rely too heavily on SMEs to produce eLearning content. In my experience, SMEs are often the biggest bottleneck in the process. They are typically very busy people, not always good at articulating what they do, and rarely produce material in a timely fashion. It is better to have instructional design experts interview SMEs, distill a lesson down to its essence (less is more), and bring the learning alive with relevant stories.

Remember also that eLearning does not have to be a course. Sometimes a timely job aid or electronic performance support system (EPSS) can be produced much more quickly, and will be much more effective. (See my previous post on this topic).

Finally, perhaps the greatest improvement to eLearning development cycle times is better management. Too often those managing eLearning development projects are training personnel who have little or no experience at managing what is, in essence, a software development process. They let the process (and the programmers, instructional designers, IT staff, etc.) manage them, rather than the other way around. Sometimes eLearning development projects take six or nine months to complete because the person in charge allows it to take this long.

The field needs more leaders who know how to orchestrate tools, people and processes to meet organizational training needs at the speed of business.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Why I Hate Conferences!

I have attended five conferences over the past seven months and have noticed a disturbing trend. All these conferences were focused on eLearning and/or workplace learning. And although many presenters spoke of the brave new world of training and the need to do things differently and to engage learners in new and innovative ways, each event was really no different than any conferences that have happened over the last few hundred years.

The pattern is a familiar one. Gather in a big room and be talked at for an hour or so. Then adjourn to smaller rooms where the same thing happens, only on a smaller scale. Repeat this for three days, until your butt is sore, your knees have seized up, and you are bored to tears. We seem to talk a lot about the importance of interaction and engagement in the training field, but are lousy at practicing what we preach. If you are lucky, you can ask the odd question here and there, but for the most part you experience a very passive mode of learning.

There is often a lot of talk about the importance of sharing the collective knowledge and experience of all those in attendance at the conference, but, in practice, there are really precious few opportunities to do so.

Elliott Masie tried to reverse some of these trends in the Learning 2005 Conference last fall. There were opportunities to network electronically with other conference participants both before and after the event. However, the event itself was pretty much the standard sit there and listen model.

You would think as "learning experts" that we would realize that gathering people together physically in one place is a precious opportunity and that we should make the most of it by encouraging rich, meaningful, real-time interactions. However, we often squander these opportunities. For example, at the recent eLearning Producers Conference in Boston, I sat through a one-hour discussion about simulations and another one on gaming in training. We talked about simulations and games. We didn't see any simulations or games, nor did we experience any (we didn't even see screen shots of examples). This was rather surreal. It was much like going to an art gallery, being blind-folded, and having someone describe what was on the walls. All I could think was, "I waited for hours in an airport lounge for this?" We could have accomplished the same result via a conference call.

We need a new model of conference, one that is based on collaboration, idea sharing, learning-by-experiencing, and learning-by-doing. I encourage anyone interested in exploring a new model of conference to drop me a line. Sore butts of the world unite!