Almost anytime you are explaining an idea to a less informed person, a dash of ignorance will help you judge their knowledge and abilities more accurately.
Why is this? Apparently a teacher is much more effective if they don’t know their subject too deeply. This reflects my own experience at school – my physics teacher had a PhD and was incapable of seeing things in the same way as his class of struggling A level students. But my chemistry teacher was fresh out of teacher training and was brilliant at making chemistry accessible. In addition to different levels of knowledge they both took a different approach to the science of teaching but my physics teacher’s depth of knowledge actually made it really hard for him to help us understand some of the basic concepts.
When I meet with a new e-learning client one of the things I often get asked is ‘Do I know the subject matter?’. My stock answer is: ‘You are hiring me for my ability to design effective online learning not for my subject matter expertise.’ Now clearly it helps if we know a little about the subject already but the last thing we really need to be is an expert.
In practice most e-learning is aimed at foundation level knowledge so the amount we need to know isn’t too onerous. Nevertheless, approaching a new subject with a fresh and open mind really helps when designing an initial learning experience. If we are working with a subject that is totally new to us then we do have to catch on pretty quickly if we are to design some useful learning within what is usually a pretty tight timescale. And that brings me to the key point of this article.
When researching and learning about a new topic there comes that ‘Golden Moment’ where we know just enough to create an effective learning experience but not so much that we miss the tricky parts that learners might encounter. You’ll intuitively know that Golden Moment when it arrives – savour it because at some point down the line you’ll wonder why everyone is finding it all so hard!
I think this playful definition sums up the situation nicely:
What’s the definition of an ignoramus? Someone who doesn’t know something you learnt yesterday.
A social learning guru once suggested that my company name was misleading since it was impossible to design learning. Her argument was that learning is something that happens instinctively and that you can’t design it or force it in any way.
Was she right? Is it not possible to design learning? Maybe not but we can design for learning.
We may not be able to design the actual learning that people do but what we can do is design a resource, an experience or an intervention that encourages, stimulates or facilitates learning – and this applies equally to the classroom and the online environment.
When clients buy e-learning they often start by giving us a list of learning objectives. Our task as learning designers is then to design a resource that will result in learning by those who go through it. Ultimately clients want their learners to have all learnt the same thing, but in practice what they learn will depend to a large extent on what they already know. Learners will have different ‘aha!’ moments as they work their way through the learning material.
As learning designers our key role is to design scaffolds for learning. We take information and knowledge and present it in ways that help learners make sense of it all and which help map the new knowledge to their existing knowledge. To do this we use a wide range of devices, tactics, and strategies.
Sometimes these devices, tactics and strategies are embedded in learning design methodologies. Sometimes they are just intuitive approaches honed over years of experience in helping people understand stuff.
Learning design isn’t rocket science – every day teachers design learning experiences within a classroom environment. They aren’t designing the learning but they are designing the activities and interventions that will encourage and stimulate learning.
And this takes us back to social learning. Social learning is clearly not designed learning. Social learning does happen naturally. However left to its own devices it’s very inefficient and virtually impossible to manage or monitor. For social learning to be truly effective the environment (technical and cultural) needs to be right and this will need the hand of a designer in its widest sense.
This article first appeared in e-Learning Insights from the E-Learning Network (ELN) as part of their 24 Tips series.
If you are interested in web and UI design it’s likely you will have come across the great skeuomorphism debate that’s currently raging around Apple. Until a few months ago I didn’t know what skeuomorphism meant but now that I understand the concept I think it’s useful to explore its relevance to e-learning design.
So what is skeuomorphism? Wikipedia defines it as:
A skeuomorph is a physical ornament or design on an object copied from a form of the object when made from another material or by other techniques. For example a calendar application which displays the days organised on animated month pages in imitation of a paper wall calendar.
Skeuomorphic designs are ones that mimic real world objects. Here are some classic examples – all of them iOS apps.
Skeuomorphism is popular because people are familiar with the real world objects mimicked and also because they have a certain warm and comfy aesthetic. However it’s an approach that has some failings. Firstly, not all of the replicated real world objects worked very well in the first place. My password app Mecrets uses a safe tumbler which although initially fun to play with becomes a real pain when trying to get access to a password in a hurry. And why should an address book look like a Rolodex when most users will never have used a Rolodex in their lives.
More significantly, skeuomorphism is at odds with responsive designs – all that lovely wood and leather is a problem since it usually relies on bitmap images not vector shapes. Windows 8 takes a non-skeuomorpic approach and its tile based minimalist look works well across a wide range of devices.
Although we never referred to it using a skeuomorphic label, skeuomorphism has been popular in e-learning design. I’ve worked on many projects that have adopted a skeuomorphic approach and generally if you present designs that echo real world objects clients like them better than more minimalist designs. But have we taken skeuomorphism as far as it will go? Professionally I think we have but e-learning design newcomers – and especially those using rapid tools like Articulate Studio or Storyline will undoubtedly continue to favour the approach. Tom Kuhlmann regularly posts free resources that are skeuomorphic – the desktop, post-it notes, photo frames and the blackboard all being particular popular in rapid e-learning designs.
Kineo have recently been championing the responsive approach for e-learning design primarily because of the need to present learning content on a wide range of devices, but responsive designs are also inherently non-skeuomorphic (the need to re-flow content and interface elements such as buttons and data entry fields makes skeuomorphic tricky to implement). If other content developers follow this trend, and it’s very likely now that clients want their e-learning on all devices, then it’s likely we will be seeing fewer skeuomorphic designs across the board.
My next e-learning storyboard is definitely going to much more minimalist – provided I can persuade the client to ditch all that wood, metal and leather.
If you are reading something are you learning? I guess most university students would respond with a resounding ‘yes’ but in the closeted world of L&D we don’t really classify reading as a proper learning intervention. True we can all learn something by reading – we probably do this every day when we research stuff on the internet. In this respect reading is probably one of the most common ways that we access informal learning. But it doesn’t deliver when it comes to formal learning and development. Why is this?
One reason I guess is that we are all wired differently and not everyone can be relied upon to learn simply by reading. I don’t want to get into learning styles here but it’s pretty clear that some people will learn better by doing rather than reading about doing.
I learn pretty well from reading, or at least my reading sows the seeds of learning. To really learn something properly I also need to apply it in the context of my own experience. Two people can read a book on time management but each will learn something different and apply that learning to their own situation in quite different ways. The new information or knowledge that is presented to us via the text can create those ‘aha’ moments that lead to real learning.
Donald Clark wrote an interesting post back in 2009 reviewing a book by Professor Pierre Bayard called ‘How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read’. Here’s a quote from Bayard:
Books have a special status as ‘almost objects of worship’ and non-readers are stigmatised. Yet reading is often non-reading, as we forget most of what we read almost as quickly as it is read. As we forge forward, content is forgotten in the wake of memory that disappears behind. Most reading is forgetting.
I sort of know what Bayard is getting at here. Sometimes I can read a book, get enormous enjoyment from it, but then forget a lot of the detail very quickly. I read lots of stuff on Stalin last year (I am insanely curious about the whole communist experiment) but I can remember almost none of it now. I also read lots of business books – some I want to quickly forget but others do fire off an ‘aha’ moment or two – and sometimes just one really valuable ‘aha’ moment can make the £9.99 a really good investment. If I really want to learn from a book I make notes and draw a mind map. You should see the stuff I have on ‘The E-Myth Revisited‘.
Reading is also very efficient. The human brain has adapted over the last few thousand years to be very effective at translating the visual symbols of writing into meaning. For a really interesting read on the science behind the ‘reading brain’ I recommend ‘Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain‘ by Maryanne Wolf. OK I admit I have forgotten most of it already but it did create some ‘aha’ moments.
At the Like Minds Conference in Exeter last year Molly Flat talked about ‘the innovation that is the book’. Her point was that the book is still the best value knowledge sharing device (even if it is delivered via a Kindle) and I think I agree.
As a learning designer who is trying to write a book there are many parallels between the creative process for a book and for an e-learning course. Maybe in the end I will end up with a hybrid of both. But the road is certainly a challenging one.
Developing e-learning courses that aren’t simply page turners isn’t straightforward (guess that’s why us learning designers are still able to make a meagre living). It takes a lot of experience both of learning design and learning technologies combined to create engaging online learning experiences. However, there are some simple rules and methods you can follow to help ensure that your e-learning is more than just a boring old page turner.
In this article I will describe a really simple approach that I first came across in ‘E-Learning by Design‘ by William Horton and which I use as a core part of my ‘Instructional Design for e-Learning‘ course. It’s called the ‘Absorb/Do/Connect’ approach.
The idea is that for each topic in your e-learning course you create three elements:
An absorb element where you introduce the topic and provide a knowledge primer. In this phase the learner is absorbing new knowledge (or possibly refreshing existing knowledge). The absorb elements could be following a presentation, reading text, watching video, or exploring a diagram for example.
A do element where the learner then applies that knowledge – usually in an activity. The activity may also require the learner to apply pre-existing knowledge or even to fill in the gaps in what they were given in the absorb activity.
Finally the connect element links what they have done with their own real world situation. This could be an example from their own organisation or a practical exercise or assignment that links back into the workplace. A job aid could also be used as a connect activity.
Not all topics will require all elements. Simple topics may just need an ‘absorb’ element, others an ‘absorb’ and a ‘do’, and some might skip the ‘absorb’ and drop learners straight into a ‘do’ or even a ‘connect’. It’s also possible to swap the order – a ‘do’ followed by an ‘absorb’ (this follows the age old principle of dropping learners in at the deep end and then following up with feedback).
That’s it. Simple but actually quite effective. And it works whether you are developing conventional SCORM e-learning packages or more flexible learning pathways delivered via an LMS or a VLE like Moodle or Willow’s Pathway platform.
Here’s an example of the approach applied to an online course on fire safety:
When we design an online learning programme one of the first things we do with clients during our Learning Design Day is to try and define the audience as accurately as possible. We try and identify who they are, what they already know and also what their motivation is for learning more. Sometimes we manage to identify a specific group that will particularly benefit from the learning but more often than not we end up trying to design something that works for everyone. I guess this is one of the downsides of e-learning – because it’s so easy to train so many the temptation is to push it out to as wide an audience as possible to justify the cost. BUT this is a flawed approach because instead of speaking directly to our key target audience we end up being bland and ineffectual. That’s why this article from B2B marketing agency Velocity caught my eye and makes a lot of sense for those involved in learning design too:
Marketers are instinctively inclusive. Our default is to set our crop-sprayer on the widest possible setting, covering the largest possible audience for everything we do. If a single piece of content can cover more than one target audience, why not go for it? It saves time and money and raises your Return on Content. Unfortunately, it’s not always a good idea to try to kill two birds with one content stone. In fact it’s rarely a good idea.