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Lessons Learned: Getting the most of e-learning

22 Apr

Just a brief post today to share a paper that my colleague, Nancy Henry, and I have been working on and is now available.

Lessons LearnedA lot of the content from this Lessons Learned whitepaper has been included in previous posts, so if you are a careful reader you’ll see some overlap. That should come as no surprise — these are the very subjects I think about in my work (and sometimes in my dreams) every day.

As always, I would be happy to hear your thoughts and critiques.

How do I use this thing? Learning to learn from e-learning

18 Apr

It is a timeless scene: A high school class is about to begin, and just about every student pulls out their notebook and pen, perhaps a text, ready for the lesson. Inevitably, there are always one or two kids who just sit there, empty-handed and desk uncovered. The teacher wearily prompts those students: “Would you care to join the class today by getting out your notebook and pen?” Most of the time, with visibly exaggerated fanfare, they will prepare to join

At least he Jeff didn't come empty handed.

At least Spicoli didn’t come empty handed.

the lesson.

These kids don’t need to be told how to learn in class. Most will take notes, raise hands, ask questions, highlight text. But there is nothing instinctive or natural about it. They have learned through their school years how to learn, or at least how to give the appearance of learning. They do it because they were taught to do it, and it is a skill that improves with practice. (Whether this is a good system for a modern classroom is debatable, but that’s not the point here.)

Even though I have been designing e-learning for years, I was recently reminded of the importance of teaching learners how to learn in what for many may be an unfamiliar learning environment: alone at their screen. Instructional designers should know that learner analysis is part of the job, but we should dig in to find if there is a place to learn how to learn in our e-learning programs. It took this video from the Global Online Academy to remind me of this valuable lesson.


While we can safely assume that manipulating mouse and keyboard through an e-learning course is a familiar enough activity, we should not assume that learners know how to use it as they would a live, classroom session. Depending on our audience, we may need to take on the responsibility to teach learners effective ways to learn from an online course. Strategies may include:

  • Copying-and-pasting into a digital notebook
  • Bookmarking more difficult sections to return to after an initial pass
  • Pointing out ways to contact subject matter experts (SMEs) and instructional designers to answer questions
  • Using course links effectively
  • Doing independent search, clip, compile and share activities around the topic (PKM), formally or informally
  • Taking traditional notes on paper (back to the future!)

It’s a matter of words

28 Mar

What’s in a word? Well, quite a lot it seems. Recently, in both my personal contemplation and my professional discussions, I have been grappling with what to call this thing that we do. We are e-learning practitioners and we have an e-learning team. That is how we refer to ourselves and how our organization refers to us. That’s (mostly) fine for our internal reference, but it becomes problematic in a larger context.

Let’s try on some other words to see how they all fit:

"E-learning!?  You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

“E-learning!? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

E-learning: Setting aside the lack of standardized spelling (eLearning, Elearning, elearning, e-learning, E-Learning, etc.), what does e-learning mean? Per my previous posts, in a world where we are compelled to be life-long learners or risk “falling behind,” and in which we spend considerable hours in front of screens of all sizes, what is the “e”? Yes, we learn in many ways, but for many e-learning is an opaque, esoteric term. For others, it immediately conjures the dreaded “module” — pages of texts to click through and perhaps take a quiz at the end. Not exactly what I’d like to be associated with.

I know E-learning has stood the test of time: The eLearning Guild (in which I am an active participant), ASTD e-learning certificate, the great E-Learning and the Science of Instruction, and so on. But then again, times they are a-changing (and always will be). When someone comes down my hall to tell me that they need one of those e-learning things, somehow I feel that the term has failed to have our intended meaning.

Distance Learning: “Back in my day, we took a distance correspondence course to become a radio repairman. Then we were set for life!” OK, maybe that is a bit unfair to that term and those who use it. But, I also don’t think it comes close to describing what we do. Certainly a person in an organization can be learning while sitting next to another person who is learning and across from the instructional designer who created it. Distance is neither a defining condition nor a very apt explanation, any more than reading is a form of “distance communication.”

Virtual Learning: I admit this one really boils my butter. When I’m watching a show about the platypus, I’m learning. When I’m taking a course on the latest computer system, I’m learning. And, when I’m making connections between my colleague’s Twitter feed and the latest industry trends, I’m absolutely learning. None of it is virtual – it is all real! As real as 8th grade math class was (which was virtually useless, I concede). Learning is learning, no matter the media. So, until I put on the high-tech goggles and start learning to slay dragons, let’s put this one away.

Digital Learning: Hmmm.. this has potential. Yes, what I do is design learning programs that are (mostly, anyway) delivered through digital media: some combination of sites, courses, videos, webinars, online affinity groups and communities of practice, curated websites and content streams, etc. Would the larger world read digital learning to mean learning about digital technology? That is a potential problem, but it may not be insurmountable.

Holistic Learning: OK, I’ll put on the Enya and you get the crystals. Shame, because I think some word that implies a comprehensive program of adult learning, one that encompasses courses, social learning, performance support,


Enya wants in on our holistic learning.

professional development paths, etc., is a worthy endeavor. But I don’t think I could pull off calling what I do “holistic learning” – and I know my colleagues couldn’t. (Joking, dear friends! Sort of.)

Performance Support Programs: I do like the idea of leading with the purpose (performance support) rather than the delivery vehicle (courses, job aides, websites, webinars, etc.). After all, that is the purpose we undertake any adult learning program, isn’t it? For learners to apply what they know and what the learn in order to perform better. A bit more closely aligned with HR-speak than I might care for, but it’s not bad.

I have a close colleague here, though, who strongly objects to the term “perform” as it applies to people and their jobs. Actors perform. Trained animals perform. But free-thinking people have self-determination and agency beyond mere performance. While I don’t have that reaction, there seems to be enough folks out there who do to consider carefully how and where we use this term.

Online Learning: Online, that is connected to, well, something: The Internet, the web, the LMS, the satellite, the cell phone tower, the intranet. Even if we are still working in CD- or DVD-ROM-based training (it’s 1998 calling: It wants it’s CD back!), the notion that we are using a connected tool (the PC) on which to learn seems pretty solid. And, it sets personal or classroom learning settings as something apart from online learning. Do we have a winner?

Can we swap “online learning” for “e-learning” as the more succinct, less negatively connotative term? Perhaps I’ll take it up at the next eLearning Guild event.

I would love for your thoughts on this. Feel free to leave a comment.

Learn to Teach, Teach to Learn

21 Mar

Imagine this: Learners need to learn to run data, analyze the numbers, and report the findings in a coherent, consistent way. (It could just as easily be “operate a software system” or “build community outreach programs”… it doesn’t really matter.) There are 20 of them. Plus, they have very limited time to meet and are geographically disperse. Go!

What to do, Ms. Instructional Designer? Mr. E-Learning Practitioner?

One approach is to allow the learners to become the expert trainers, and have them teach each other. Who doesn’t recall the details of a topic they’ve had to teach? Want to learn to play chess better? Teach a lesser player to play better, and your game will improve, too.

So, in our hypothetical example, you could divide the learners roughly into thirds (7-7-6), and charge them with becoming an expert on one of the three essential training content areas (collect, analyze, and report). If each team can collaborate, all the better. If not, individual effort is fine, too.

Then, when you do have your precious opportunity to gather in person (live or online), each person/group takes their turn as expert trainer to teach the others on their particular topic. (Yes, this is a flipped-classroom model.)

Angelos Morenao, Yoga-Inspired Art

Angelos Morenao, Yoga-Inspired Art,

Approaching a complex organizational performance need in this way has several benefits:

  • Empowers active learning
  • Teaching, by its very nature, reinforces and deepens learning
  • Builds collaboration and organizational learning culture – learners are in it together
  • Creates internal experts for future help
  • Allows the trainer/ID to relax and let others do their work for them

Sadly, that last point is not even remotely true. But, it does make us approach our role quite differently. Rather than tight authority over a specific e-learning track or training room, we open our controlling fist to the chaos of the crowd. What that means is we become curators, coaches, mentors and evaluators.

  • Curate: We provide the materials, links, and other resources that are going to allow learners to build and contextualize their growing expertise in their area.
  • Coach: We want to monitor, redirect and reward learning along the way; in particular, we will need to guide how they intend to teach what they are learning. Training is hard, and we know it is a skill that many don’t have naturally. So…
  • Mentor: We need to work with individuals to find their strengths in how to present the content (talking, demonstrating, visual depiction, metaphoric illustration, interpretive dance, etc.).
  • Evaluate: Was our flipped method successful? What follow-ups, resources and continuous learning scaffolds need to be in place to build on both the content and the learning culture that has taken root? (Seems like a great place to start an online Community of Practice, but that is a topic for/from another day.)

Seen this way, our job is less to prepare and deliver training “products” or “events,” and more about adjusting to a digital age learning culture. The constant stream of information is relentless, and we need to help our learners make sense of it and flourish beneath the deluge.

Anthropology and ID: Design for people and the culture they work in

24 Feb

Don Draper and Dr. Faye Miller, on Mad Men. She taught him to be at least a little human-centric… a lesson that didn’t take. (AMCTV)

I’m not the first to see the strong ties between instructional design and social–ethnographic anthropology. But, a commercial application that evolved out of the marketing and advertising industries of the 1960s (thanks, Don Draper and his one-time love interest, Faye Miller, PhD.) has crept into numerous fields concerned with how people move through their environment and make sense of the information that confronts them. Instructional Design is no exception. However, you won’t be  shocked to hear it is an under-applied framework in our field of adult learning.

When we take the time to observe, catalog and empathize with our e-learning cohort, we can much better prepare and deliver the desired learning, and their anticipated outcomes. In very broad strokes, these fall into three main categories:


I’ve been part an embarrassingly high number of e-learning projects that did very little examination of when the end-learners would consume the learning. On the job? At home? On the go (mobile)? In a quiet space to allow thoughtful contemplation, or in a chaotic loud environment? Know your learners, and design for where and when they learn as much as how they learn.


Priority splits into two parts: Organizational priority (and possible compulsion) and individual priority, the latter being an individual judgment of perceived value and applicability.

If it is an organizational priority, be it compliance, orientation/acculturation, or as part of a new systems or process roll out, then the job of motivation is simple. But, the job of meaningful execution to make relevant and applicable is pressure-packed for the instructional design and training team: It better be good, engaging, and fun, or the organization will at you when the learning is not applied on the job.

If it is an individual priority, great! Half the battle is won. However, how are folks categorizing, applying, and sharing their self-motivated knowledge? In other words, how does individual learning benefit organizational knowledge and leaning, and vice-versa? This is truly an anthropological question indeed. What kind of community is it? Hyper-competitive? Team-driven all-for-one-and-one-for-all? There are advantages to either, but we had better understand the working culture to roll out effective initiatives and tools to enhance the organizational mission.


How will the instruction be delivered? Is it necessary to have folks outside of their normal work day, or can it be integrated into the flow? There is a common idea among software developers that is coined as “being close to the machine.” The way we should approach instruction should be analogous to that: As much as possible align instruction to be a part of the activity into which it will be applied.


Margaret Mead

Integration can be a challenge for us – especially those of us that are used to our “training space.” We may have to shift to more job aides and performance support. Ultimately, we are servants to the end goal of application, not knowledge, and so the delivery platform(s) we choose should be as close to the time of need of application as possible.

To put a little Margaret Mead into your next learning project, start by putting the design back into instructional design.

In short, applying an anthropological lens to our work places the emphasis squarely on design. Design, after all, places human- (and user-) centric experiences at the forefront: Instructional Design (ID) as a distinct practice parallel but apart from Instructional Systems Design (ISD).

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