Sunday, April 06, 2014

Seriously - Stop Talking; Start Showing

A few weeks ago, four leading lights of the learning business - Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn and Will Thalheimer - released a call to arms. Their Serious eLearning Manifesto laments the sorry state of eLearning and asks those who agree to sign a manifesto pledging to commit to producing eLearning that is relevant, performance focused, contextual and interactive. The basic delineation between what is and what should be can be seen in this breakdown they supply in their manifesto:

Reading through the Manifesto, I found myself nodding my head in agreement. There is little to disagree with; it is a nice summation of best practice principles for results-focused eLearning. However, I kept thinking this is really preaching to the choir. Most learning professionals who are  serious about eLearning are already onside with such an approach and can easily distinguish between good and poor eLearning. The challenge is in convincing decision-makers - clients, executives and paymasters - that eLearning will be much more effective if we can move beyond the typical approach of producing content heavy page turners based on memorizing useless facts.

In fact, such a question was posed to the writers of the Manifesto during their online launch. Michael Allen replied that the best approach to convince decision-makers about a better way of doing eLearning would be to demonstrate to them two contrasting approaches - one standard passive, non-interactive content-focused page turner, followed by quiz, versus an example showing an active learning approach focused on realistic contexts and learner choices. Allen said that would make it easy to get buy in for a smarter approach to eLearning.

That's when it hit me. Allen and his colleagues would have been better off demonstrating bad vs. good eLearning, than in writing a long document of principles and then talking about these for an hour via a web presentation. In the end, these are just words, and words only take you so far (particularly when trying to sway those not in the learning business). I really think that the Manifesto authors could have been more effective by setting up a website that demonstrates two contrasting approaches to the same training challenge. One button could be labelled "The Usual," that demonstrates the worst of what eLearning can be (e.g. boring, linear, predictable, obvious, forgettable, irrelevant). The other button could be labelled "A Better Way," that demonstrates an approach that exemplifies best practices (e.g. contextual, interesting, interactive, engaging, relevant). Seeing, after all, is believing.

In fact, Michael Allen took such an approach at a Masie Learning conference session I attended a few years ago. He showed typical approaches to sexual harassment training, and then showed a sample from a very simple yet powerful and highly interactive online course that his company had developed for a client. Everyone there clearly understood the difference between the two approaches. Much better than a manifesto.

Twenty years ago I worked for a company called Lifelearn, that produces educational products for the veterinary industry. Back in the 90s Lifelearn was producing eLearning that exemplified everything put forward in the Serious eLearning Manifesto. Veterinarians worked through realistic case studies, made decisions on diagnosis and treatment, and saw the results of their decisions (including the possible virtual death of animals). The learning was performance focused, there were real-world consequences for decisions made, and there was "spaced practice" in that learners could go through the same case studies many times.

I remember one time being at a conference to market Lifelearn's products to veterinarians. One of my colleagues would talk about how great our virtual training programs were whenever a veterinarian ventured into our booth. Many only had a few minutes as they passed through, and would leave before my colleague could demonstrate the programs. I took my colleague aside and told him to stop talking, and start showing (in much more colourful language). Because once people saw it, they got it.

I won't be signing the Serious eLearning Manifesto. Why?

1. I got "the religion" on this stuff years ago. Signing a pledge seems a little redundant.
2. Words are cheap; actions count.
3. Although I understand completely the idea of shaking things up a little, the idea of a "manifesto" is a little OTT (over-the-top). I believe meaningful change is more evolutionary than revolutionary.