Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Learning is a Process, Not a Thing

The eLearning field is prone to hype, and one of the most hyped things I have come across in the last five years is the promise of learning objects. It is difficult to go to an eLearning conference or read an eLearning journal without hearing about the wonders of these self-contained electronic learning widgets that can be catalogued, shared and re-used. In the imagined future of eLearning, there will be millions of these wonderful resources that will be accessible via searchable learning object repositories (many financed by our tax dollars) and that can be downloaded, plugged in, and re-arranged, like so many Lego pieces.

I have always been skeptical about learning objects. But I have never been able to articulate this skepticism better than Michael Feldstein has in a recent article in eLearn Magazine titled There's No Such Thing as a Learning Object. Michael is Assistant Director of the SUNY Learning Network and sums up his position on learning objects as follows:

"We learn by doing. We consider. We compare. We measure, discuss, debate, critique, test, and explore. We try, fail, and try again. Learning is an activity. It's a process. Given this undeniable fact, the term "learning object" can only be an oxymoron. An object is a thing. We don't learn from things. We learn from doing things... We must balance the instructional objects against learning activities, the nouns against the verbs, by having a complete sentence with a subject (student), a verb (cognitive process), and a direct object (content). Jane measures velocity. Harry critiques The Iliad. We debate learning objects. If we are going to consider objects in the context of learning, then let them be direct objects. Taken by itself without the learner and the cognitive process, a "learning object" is the pedagogical equivalent of a sentence fragment. It is only occasionally appropriate and often fails to communicate."

Proponents of learning objects seem to think that the problem with eLearning is that there is not enough eLearning content out there. Learning objects are akin to bricks, and the thinking seems to be if we have enough of these at our disposal, we will all be able to coble together wonderful buildings. However, I don't think that bricks are the problem.....we are awash in bricks.

What is needed, in my view, are more skilled architects and tradespeople who can design and build beautiful and functional learning environments. Sure, bricks are part of the structure, but only part. When you look at a magificent cathedral, for example, you do not see the bricks. The total is definitely more than the sum of the parts. I think the same thing holds true for excellent eLearning.

This is why I always correct people who say that MIT is putting all its courses online via their Open Courseware Initiative. This simply isn't true. Admirably, MIT is making a great deal of course outlines, notes, reading lists, related resources, photos, graphs, recorded lectures, assignments, quizzes, etc. freely available online, but they are not conducting courses online. You cannot interact with faculty and other learners, or get expert feedback on your work, which is the real value of an MIT education. It is just more stuff (albeit good stuff) added to the infinite array of stuff already freely available online.

But stuff is stuff, and we only learn so much from stuff. Real learning is a process, it is about doing, getting feedback, reflecting, and doing again.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Determining Competency Requirements

My colleague Mike Grant led a webinar today on How to Develop Competencies for Effective eLearning. His main point was that we should be concerned about competencies because the knowledge, skills and abilities of those working on your eLearning projects will be the key determinants of success. Now, this is an oft-heard refrain from the eLearn Campus team, but Mike provided some frameworks for determining competency requirements and then laid out some simple do's and don'ts.

Competency Frameworks for eLearning

1. By Roles

This is the easiest, and probably most common, way to think of your organization's competency requirements. You can break down needs by roles that need to be filled. For example:
  • Project management
  • Instructional design
  • Programming / production
  • Graphic artists
  • Subject matter expertise
  • Technical support (IT)
2. By Management Processes

You can break down required competencies around your key processes for managing eLearning in your organization. As an example, Mike used the "5E" framework:
  • Establish value
  • Effect change
  • Engage stakeholders and learners
  • Experiment
  • Evaluate results
There are competencies that are essential for fulfilling tasks within each of these key process areas.

3. By Stage-of-Development

You could also think of competencies you need within the context of where your organization is in the stage of development with respect to eLearning. Mike outlined four such stages:
  • Dabbler: just experimenting on the edges of eLearning, not really sure of end goal, not really considering all the needed competencies to do eLearning well
  • Establish Value: starting to focus on the underlying value of eLearning to the organization, establishing a model for eLearning, setting up key metrics
  • Early Stage Committed: clear on internal vs. external competencies that need to be brought to bear on projects, have a process for managing competencies
  • Late Stage Committed: managing value and having processes for continuous improvement
Your organization's competency needs will vary depending on which stage it is in, as will the mix of internal vs. external competencies.

Finally, Mike laid out his five steps to good competency management as this relates to eLearning.
  • Determine a framework for your competency needs (see above)
  • Map out your existing internal competencies against the needs you have
  • Determine core versus external competencies
  • Create a competency development plan
  • Develop competencies within the framework you choose
Remember that this is a fluid process. You are always examining evolving competency needs against what you have, what you should get from elsewhere, and what you can develop internally over time. And you are always recalibrating to find the right balance to get the job done.

Here is a link to a recording of the webinar.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

In Search of eLearning's Magic Bullet

In my daily interactions with people in the eLearning field, I get the sense that many are looking for the "magic bullet" - that one thing that will solve all their challenges and help them meet all their goals for their eLearning. And, more often than not, they are looking to technology (e.g. authoring software, learning management systems, web conferencing tools, simulation builders, etc.) as being that magic bullet.

Go to any eLearning conference and you will see that the trade show is chock full of technology vendors. Participants eagerly troll the isles hoping to find the elusive and treasured magic bullet. The technology vendors themselves have set the agenda to a large extent and perpetuate the idea that the secret is in choosing the right technology. However, I am here to tell you that there is no one magic bullet in eLearning, particularly not amongst the myriad of tools available.

Sure, good tools are helpful (as they are in any task), but a tool is a tool is a tool. An excellent authoring tool can no more create powerful and effective eLearning, than a terrific multipurpose garden tool can create an amazing garden, or the newest table saw can create an exquisite cabinet. Why? Because it all comes down to the skill of the people wielding the tools and managing the project.

In my experience, you need people in three general competency areas to create great eLearning.

Learning Competencies

People who understand how learning actually happens and who can work together with subject matter experts to design and facilitate learning environments that engage, inspire and transform.

Technical Competencies

People who understand how the technology works and can take the vision of the people mentioned above and make it real, and make it work as it should.

Management Competencies

People who can manage the whole process: make the business case and ensure real organizational needs are being addressed; marshall the required resources and deploy as necessary; and evaluate effectiveness.

Have I won the award for stating the most obvious? You would think so. Yet, time and again I see organizations invest disproportionately in technology instead of people. The results are predictable: very mediocre eLearning.

The best tools that money can buy will not save you. I would much rather have talented people who know how to create effective learning, because they can make even the lowliest and cheapest technology come alive for learners. (Obviously, the ideal is to have great people using great tools, but I would err on the side of the former every time.)

eLearning is pretty much like any other endeavour. If it is of real value it is likely because there is a group of talented, dedicated, and hard working people who created this value. Hey, could this be the real magic bullet?

Note: For those interested in this topic, we will offer a free webinar titled How to Develop Competencies for Effective eLearning, at 12:00 noon Eastern, on June 22nd.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Respect Different Ways of Learning

We ran our How to Bring eLearning to Life: Graphical Choices & Tools webinar today, with 40 participants from across North America. My colleague Anie Kojarian did a great job laying out the importance of good graphic design in helping to realize the goals of your eLearning. She said that looking at a poorly designed eLearning course was like looking at a bowl of soup....it is a mish-mash that doesn't make any logical sense.

Good graphic design works hand-in-hand with sound instructional design to help engage learners, let them understand the importance and hierarchy of content and learning tasks, and, very importantly, respects different learning styles.

On this last point, I think too much eLearning is text-based and only engages a limited number of senses in learners. Interestingly, when we polled webinar participants today, asking them how they preferred to learn in a number of specific circumstances, most responded that they were visual learners. The second highest number categorized themselves as kinesthetic learners (i.e. they like tactile learning, actually doing things, experimenting, etc.). Yet, we do not design to this reality often enough.

We in the eLearning field should be doing more to respect the different ways that people learn. Let's do away with the mind-numbing text dumps and introduce graphics and photos and videos when appropriate (a picture worth a thousand words, and all that). And let's give learners more opportunity to learn-by-doing (e.g. making choices, carrying out tasks, experiencing simulations, role playing, etc.).

Are your trainees visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners? Do you know? Chances are that they are a bit of all three. If you respect this reality and design to it, you will likely have more success with your eLearning.