Lines in the sand

Before I get to my point, I’d like to give you some background information.

For better or for worse, I’m something of a perfectionist. I’m also something of an idealist; this combination makes life very difficult sometimes. When I embark on a project, I’m usually driven by an innate desire to do it the “right way.”

Before coming to the e-learning world, I worked with print publishing and radio production for about a decade. These are excellent fields for perfectionists! Print production allowed me to work with extreme precision, down to a pixel (actually, a point: 12 points in a pica, 6 picas to an inch!). Radio broadcasting requires precision to a second; there is no room for mistakes. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenges presented by both fields, and, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I enjoyed the constraints: things were black and white, right or wrong, no in-between. Lines were drawn in the sand, cross them at your own peril.

When I went to grad school, I majored in Education, specifically the Instructional Technologies program. In grad school, students are taught instructional design from a ‘best case’ point of view. An idealist point of view, with an emphasis on always performing a thorough analysis of the situation, followed by the implementation of a well-designed solution, followed by lots and lots of evaluation. This was the right way to do things. The line in the sand was clear: skip these steps at your own peril.

Instructional design: the right way or the realistic way?

Being an idealist, I eagerly bought into what was being covered in grad school. I believed (and still do, to a point) that every project should follow ADDIE or a similar model. C’mon, it makes sense, doesn’t it? Again, the line in the sand had been drawn: skip these principles at your own peril.

Now that I’ve spent a few years working full-time as an instructional designer-slash-e-learning developer, I’ve learned first-hand that the instructional design ideals taught in grad school are quickly thrown out the window when you get a ‘real’ job. The most common culprits are time and money, but sometimes it’s managerial ignorance or politics, too.

I’ve witnessed that most training departments don’t do any post-implementation evaluation. It’s not for lack of desire, they simply don’t have the time and/or resources. “Well, they at least do a thorough analysis of the problem, right?” Nope, not so much. An analysis is done, to be sure, but it’s usually pretty quick, and the SME has a pretty influential role in defining the problem, which conflicts with the instructional designer’s main function: define the problem by evaluating the situation and questioning all assumptions, then, if applicable, design a training solution for that problem.

However, many real-world training teams don’t even have an instructional designer, which means the SME carries much more weight. Oftentimes, due to staffing and funding issues, the SME and the trainer are the same person!

And thus the world of e-learning development software is born.

The crazy world of e-learning development

A team with an instructional designer, given the time and resources, would probably not use most of the e-learning development tools on the market because of their inferiority. A much more mature and robust e-learning course can be created by a tandem of an instructional designer, technical writer, graphic designer, and web programmer. But who in this world of downsized training budgets has the funding or time to build a team of experts to create these highly customized courses?

Hardly anyone.

So e-learning development products flood the market, and suddenly SMEs are empowered to create their own professional-looking training materials — fully LMS-compatible! — in a matter of hours. Instructional designers cringe, but the masses have spoken, and they like their newfound abilities!

e-learning development, the right way or the realistic way?

As a perfectionist who is well-versed in the world of e-learning technology, and as a trained instructional designer, I admit I have turned my nose at e-learning development software for a long time. I drew my line in the sand, as I have been taught by both experience and education, and I knew which side I belonged on.

Assuming you even need a course — job aids, podcasts, screencasts, wikis and online forums may solve the problem without even requiring a course to be built — the right way to build an e-learning course is to follow an ADDIE-style model, with an emphasis on instructional design and evaluation. Your courseware should be as interactive and engaging as possible (without falling victim to adding interactions for interaction’s sake), should incorporate the latest Web and accessibility best practices, and should be SCORM-compliant. Avoid clip art and cheesy stock art whenever possible.

However, many people will tell you the realistic way to build an e-learning course is to use a template from an off-the-shelf e-learning development tool. It will contain limited but easy-to-use interactions, allow you to insert whatever free clipart and/or images you can find on the web, and will lead to a simple, decent-looking course in no time, without hiring a contractor.

You wind up not with a Mercedes or BMW, but a with very functional Ford… it gets you from A to B and well within budget.

I admit I find it hard to argue with the ROI of this approach. Having said that, I have always been highly annoyed by the poor aesthetics and code quality of most of these e-learning development tools. But does anyone else care? No! They don’t look under the hood, they just care that the car starts when they need to drive it. I can’t fault anyone for feeling that way. I would feel that way, too, if I wasn’t the mechanic who puts these buckets of bolts together.

I’ve also had issues with how the cookie-cutter nature of the software tends to lead the user away from instructional design considerations — I wouldn’t be surprised if the trainer creates their e-learning course so quickly that they probably haven’t even done any analysis and assessment before digging into the development work.

But again, I’m finding it harder to say that this approach is wrong. Context is key, and in many of these situations, a brief, quickly built and deployed piece of training (perhaps not even a full course) may be a perfectly suitable solution. Bullet points are not always evil.

Can’t we all just get along?

Yes, I have been questioning the ferocity of my beliefs for some time, and conversations with others (and the e-learning blogosphere) have led me to eventually shift my opinion on the subject: No, lines do not have to be drawn in the sand, and the simple act of drawing them may be more harmful than helpful.

Some of my peers are also re-examining their beliefs and asking questions; I think this is great, since our field is a quickly evolving field. Just today, Aaron Silvers wrote about tactical versus strategic planning:

Lots of organizations in the last 10-20 years solve problems by looking at the immediacy of issues. The brushfires. The low-hanging fruit.

Aaron wasn’t writing specifically about what I’m writing about, but the line struck a chord with me; putting out fires and trying to grab the “low-hanging fruit” is a primary cause of the explosion of just-in-time training, a large chunk of which is e-learning courseware developed using “rapid elearning” development tools such as Articulate Presenter.

Clive Shepherd is excited about this, saying

One of the really exciting consequences of the web 2.0 revolution is the emergence of all sorts of new learning objects, designed for quick access when you need something that’s just-in-time and just enough.

  • Short videos
  • Slide sets
  • Podcasts
  • Mini e-books

Each of these media can be developed using commonly available tools and skills, something that can’t be said for interactive tutorials. They are better suited than tutorials to performance support applications, where learning is not the primary objective.

I’d like to emphasize two of his phrases: “performance support applications” and “just enough.” Most e-learning is designed to help someone do their job. The learner is a busy person and doesn’t really want to take long-winded courses; s/he just wants to know enough to get the job done. Likewise, most training developers will choose the easiest and fastest way to create these training materials, ideals and theories be damned!

Personally, I feel torn between wanting to satisfy the needs of the learner in the quickest fashion possible, and wanting to present a complete, thorough course using sound instructional design, including needs assessments and evaluations.

Warning: gestalt shift!

I think what this boils down to is that we’re in the midst of a gestalt shift from ‘courseware by professionals’ to a rapid e-learning world (and no, please don’t use the term elearning 2.0!).

If this is a rapid e-learning world where SMEs produce courses, where do the skilled e-learning developers fit in? I believe there’s room for all of us. Clive Shepherd admitted “It’s still quite hard for non-specialists to create good interactive tutorials, even of the rapid variety.”

I recently exchanged emails with Tom Kuhlmann from Articulate, and I really appreciated what he had to say about the topic:

It was just a few years ago that only a few people were able to create those horrible gray web pages with [little] more than text. Now, look at where we’re at. You need no technical skills and with some of the new 2.0 web tech, you can create some pretty impressive stuff.

I’m for anything that democratizes the process and gives people power to develop their own training and whatever else they want to do. Are you going to get perfect courses? No. But that will create a market for those that can produce better stuff.

I think there’s a place for it all, and with that a lot of opportunity for people like you who have good programming skills. You’re able to help the novice ID/SME bring their content up a notch.

Where do professional e-learning developers go from here?

I agree with Tom, but I’d like to take it one step further: rather than “helping the novice ID/SME bring their content up a notch,” I feel it’s the responsibility of professional e-learning developers to pressure the e-learning development tool industry to improve their products to meet higher standards, both in terms of web & accessibility best practices, and in terms of educating their customers on what comprises sound instructional design.

I think there’s an excellent model to follow: In the early- to mid-90s, Adobe and Aldus produced high-quality instructional booklets explaining the print production process from start to finish. These guides were distributed free with the manuals for specific software titles (PageMaker and Freehand). The guides were extremely well-written and illustrated, and taught me a lot about the preproduction and printing process before I ever stepped foot in a print shop.

Why did they supply these free books? I never really found out. My assumption is that a deeper understanding of the print process would foster more skilled use of their software, and a deeper appreciation for its power/capabilities.

The e-learning development tool industry would be wise to follow that lead; educating its customers about e-learning and related topics (ADDIE? Gagne? SCORM? Design principles? Color theory?) can only help to improve the industry as a whole. And as we all should know, if we do a good job, the learner does a better job, and the world becomes a better place.

3 Replies to “Lines in the sand”

  1. Funny story, Philip…

    Yesterday, I’m pulled into an emergency phone call. We have a variety of issues that pop up because even though we’ve standardized the use of Articulate to generate E-Learning, our ISDs are maturing in their E-Learning Design skills that they’re now pushing the technical envelope of what you can do with Articulate… to the point where we have a small but pervasive set of repeatable issues with Articulate tracking in the LMS.

    Articulate, as a Rapid E-Learning tool, is the gateway… um.. tool to another tool. My people are self-identifying that Articulate can’t be used for every E-Learning situation. I could’ve directed them to a better tool at the same time as I introduced them to Articulate (or instead of it), but without that pain, they would not have learned for themselves the **why**.

    The good news is that we’re already on track for a collaborative tool (I’m currently fancying Unison, but I’m still pretty open to suggestions) that can handle a larger array of design requirements.

    The whole point is your whole point — it takes time and effort to make something stick. Garbage in… is garbage out.

  2. Brilliant post, man. I am struggling with the same issues – but I do believe there is room for everyone.

    The key now is determining which projects require more in-depth A&D (&E, if we’re lucky) work and maximizing ROI on both the small and the large projects.

    Politics and money will play a big part in most companies in deciding which projects get the funding for the full ADDIE work.

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