Friday, October 29, 2010

Instructional Design Malpractice

I recently came across an interesting online conversational podcast with Clark Quinn (Quinnovation) and Cammy Bean (Kineo) on the topic of "instructional design malpractice." Of course there is no such crime on the books, but perhaps there should be.

The upshot of the admittedly tongue-in-cheek conversation was that there is too much boring eLearning out there that is overly long, overly detailed, and just not focused on what counts - namely, changing behaviour. Quinn, an expert on the use of games in learning, says much of existing eLearning is an "unemotional knowledge dump." Learners must read through or listen to loads of often irrelevant subject matter content, and then do an often insulting multiple choice test. Is it any wonder that many learners dread eLearning more than root canals?

Ouch, this really hits home. I'm sure I'm not the only one out there who has been guilty of such crimes in the past, or has some embarrassing examples of "unemotional knowledge dumps" in my portfolio. But what brings it on? There are the usual excuses: no time; no budget; client wants a knowledge dump, etc. But if we as eLearning developers were to be honest with ourselves, we are often the problem because we do not fight hard enough for what we know to be the right approach.

Quinn contends that instructional designers need to take a more active role in educating subject matter experts and fighting for what they know works best for eLearners. He says we have a responsibility to keep digging for what is important. Instead of just blindly accepting droves of content from subject matter experts, we need to get to the gist of what the targeted learners will need to be able to do. What cognitive decisions will they need to make? This is what should inform the learning, not memorizing a wad of useless facts.

For Quinn, good eLearning:

  • Is centred on skills (doing vs. knowing)
  • Is lean (focused on what is important, to-the-point, less-is-more)
  • Is emotionally engaging (hooks the learner with clear WIIFM - What's In It For Me - statements)
  • Provides mental models for learners (greater context for new skills that are being developed)
  • Uses examples (makes the learning real)
  • Provides opportunities for practice (learners apply new concepts, make decisions, see results)
  • Provides opportunities for reflection (providing a closure to the learning experience, reflecting on what the learning means in the learner's own context)

We should keep Quinn's seven-step model for good instructional design in mind when developing eLearning. Clients rarely hire us for any particular subject matter expertise we may have. They hire us because we know how learning best happens and what type of learning will have real impact where it counts - in changing behaviours. So it behooves us to take an activist role and fight for what we know works best. Otherwise, we may be rightly charged with "instructional design malpractice."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Work = Learning

"Change is so fast and furious that work and learning blur into one activity."
Jay Cross, et. al., Working Smarter in Terra Nova Circa 2015

Jay Cross and his colleagues at Internet Time Group have recently published an interesting article on the evolution of work. Noting the major shifts in human history, from the Agricultural Age, to the Industrial Age, to the Information Age, they now say we are on the verge of "Terra Nova," a new age characterized by "creative collaboration in networks." Their thesis is that Terra Nova will supplant traditional top-down hierarchies with networks of people working collaboratively, sharing information in real time, to solve problems. To quote:

"Terra Nova screams out for a never-ending process of applying learning while working, not apart from it, predicated on:

1. Learning what you need to know, when you need to know it
2. Reinforcing the lesson by applying
3. Knowing where to find relevant information in lieu of memorizing it
4. Learning from your peers and on your own rather than from instructors following a set curriculum"

We are seeing this shift occurring in our own work for clients recently. Many of the projects that we have worked on lately have been less about creating online courses, and more about creating the means for individuals to learn collaboratively (e.g. learning communities, wikis, etc.), and to learn at the point of need (e.g. searchable knowledge repositories, embedded electronic supports, etc.). Sometimes courses do not meet the learning need because they take too long to develop, their lessons can be forgotten over time, and they are often too long and detailed to meet specific learning needs effectively or efficiently.

This trend suggests that we should worry less about teaching people about specific subject matter content, which can change rapidly in the context of a job, and help them develop competencies in searching, sharing, critical thinking, analysis, networking and collaborating.

I have seen this shift myself for the last few years in watching colleagues who work in IT. Developments in this field change rapidly and regularly. When something goes wrong - such as a system going down - IT personnel do not have time to take a course to figure things out. They need a solution ASAP, so they do Google searches and scan various online IT community of practice discussion boards or help boards, as well as tapping into their network of contacts, for immediate answers. They are learning about the intricacies of their field each and every day in this way. As the pace of change in all fields starts to match that in IT, we are all now having to learn quickly and on the fly.

This does not mean that the course is dead, or that there is no need for the course. There is still a place for the course in developing more complex competencies over time, and for various forms of compliance training. However, organizations have to decide what kind of learning is best suited to a course and what types of learning are best suited for "quick hit" approaches such as knowledge databases, online communities, and live webinars, versus formally-structured courses. To help clients determine what approaches work best for which training challenges, we often provide a decision-making matrix that maps training mode against the complexity of desired learning objectives, degree of feedback required, content stability, timeliness and need for evaluation and tracking.

In short, the pace of change is too rapid, learning needs too immense and immediate, and time is too precious to force fit all required learning in an organization through courses. Learning can no longer be thought of as something apart from work, it needs to be integrated into the daily fabric of work life. We need to create work environments that facilitate learning at all times.