New job aid summarizes action mapping for teams

UPDATE: The new version of the job aid is available for download from this big action mapping graphic.

Original post from May 2016:
I’ve drafted a job aid that summarizes the entire action mapping process. You can download it as a Word doc here. (Did it download as XML gibberish? Here’s the quick solution.)

Use the job aid with your client and subject matter expert to show them the process at a glance, from the initial analysis of the problem to the rollout of the solutions.

The aid is intended to help everyone on a project do the following:

  • See at a glance what their responsibilities are and when they’ll be required
  • See that your role is not “convert content into training”
  • Focus on solving the performance problem, not delivering an information dump
  • Use an agile approach based on prototypes and outlines

Snippet of action mapping job aid

The job aid is a draft. Help me improve it! Please comment on this post with any suggestions you have, or send me a private message.

The job aid mentions some tools you can use at each step. Here are two of them:

Goal template: You’ll find the template and some tips in my post How to create a training goal in two quick steps.

Problem analysis flowchart: You can download it and see how to use it in my post Is training really the answer? Ask the flowchart.

I’m working on an activity-design planner that will help you ask your SME the most useful questions so you can design realistic challenges. I’m also working on a template you can use for a project outline, which could replace the traditional and often rigid design document. I’m hoping to release these with the book, and when they’re ready I’ll be sure to announce them in the blog.

What do you think? What would make the job aid more useful for you?


Scenario design course scheduled for November

There are still seats available in the November session of my hands-on scenario design course. The courses usually sell out, so you might want to register now if you can.

Let me tell you everything you need to know! Or not.

Plane to ZekostanCongratulations! You’ve just been assigned to work with a design team in Zekostan. You’re leaving in a week.

Your Zeko colleagues know that you’re coming from a very different culture and might have trouble fitting in. Luckily, they’ve developed some materials that help people from your culture prepare for working in theirs.

You can choose one of the following “Prepare for Zekostan” packages. Which will you choose?

PACKAGE 1. A 56-slide online course in which a nice Zeko woman describes some cultural differences, bulleted tips appear on the screen, and you complete a quiz to confirm your understanding.

PACKAGE 2. A one-page PDF of tips, plus eight online branching scenarios in which you practice responding appropriately during typical interactions in the Zeko workplace.

If you’re like most people, you want package 2, the PDF and scenarios. You can put the PDF of tips on your smartphone to review as often as you like, and the scenarios will help you practice applying the tips in a safe but realistic-enough setting. You’ll be able to make mistakes in private and learn from them, instead of making them in front of your new colleagues.

Separate the info from the activity: It’s the Zeko way

Your preference for package 2 will also reassure your Zeko colleagues that you share their views about design. They’ve moved away from presenting information in an “engaging” way and then testing recall.

Instead, they put the information in a simple format that people can easily refer to whenever they want. They focus their design time on creating challenging, realistic activities that help people practice the decisions they need to make on the job. As people try the activities, they can refer to the information.

Example: Greet your colleague

How do the packages compare? Let’s look at how each package “teaches” a greeting.

PACKAGE 1: A nice Zeko lady appears as a talking head on the screen. “People new to the Zeko workplace are often surprised by our way of greeting our colleagues,” she says in a pleasant voice. “Greetings are of course very important in every culture. In Zekostan, we use greetings to show our connection to others by highlighting what we have in common. So when we greet each other at work, we identify a role that we have and that the other person also has, and we salute them from that role. For example, if you are an engineer and you are greeting another engineer, you would say, ‘The engineer in me salutes the engineer in you.'”

The following appears as a bullet point on the screen: “Salute new colleagues using the job role that you have in common.”

Eventually, you get to a quiz. One of the questions is, “How should you greet a new colleague?” and one of the options is, “Salute them using the job role that you have in common.”

PACKAGE 2: The PDF has a section that looks like this:

GREETINGS
New colleagues
Goal: Highlight what you have in common
Technique:
     1. Identify a job role or responsibility that both of you have.
     2. Say, “The [job role] in me salutes the [same job role] in you.”
Example: “The engineer in me salutes the engineer in you.”

The practice activities in package 2 often begin with you meeting new colleagues. In one of the scenarios, you’re a project manager, and your new boss introduces you to a team mate who’s also a project manager. You have to decide what to say. You choose, “The project manager in me salutes the project manager in you,” and your new colleague welcomes you warmly.

In another scenario, you’re a quality assurance manager. Your boss introduces you to a colleague who’s an editor. What should you say?

  1. The quality assurance manager in me salutes the editor in you.
  2. The quality advocate in me salutes the quality advocate in you.
  3. The detail freak in me salutes the detail freak in you.
  4. The team member in me salutes the team member in you.

You take the safe route and choose 4. Your new colleague gives you a decidedly cool welcome. You click “Why did this happen?” and see the following:

You’ve suggested that the only thing you have in common is that you’re assigned to the same team. This can be interpreted a veiled insult. When you don’t have the same title as your colleague, choose the most flattering responsibility or trait that you have in common. In this case, “quality advocate” would be best.

Look at the information or not: It’s up to you

In package 2, you’re not required to read the PDF before you start the activities. For example, you could ignore the PDF, jump right into the activities, offend people, click the optional feedback to find out what you did wrong, go back and make better decisions, and finally look at the PDF, treating it as a summary of what you learned through experience.

“The adult in me salutes the adult in you.”

Your new Zeko colleagues think it’s disrespectful to require grownups to all be exposed to the same information presentation, regardless of their prior knowledge. They think we treat adults like children when we tell them what to think and test them 5 minutes later to see if they can still think it.

Instead, your new colleagues base their design decisions on the following facts:

  • The people using the material are adults who have been learning from experience for decades.
  • They might already know some of what we’re supposed to “teach” them.
  • Some of their most memorable lessons started out as mistakes.
  • Adults’ self-esteem will not be squashed by a mistake in a training scenario.
  • When people struggle a bit, they can learn more deeply.
  • If people don’t want to struggle, they can always look at the supporting information or optional help.
  • Well-designed scenarios help people prove that they know something while they also practice doing it.
  • We’re in business, not education. We want people to do stuff, not just know stuff.

Obviously, the examples were simplified, and both packages provide just a band-aid approach to cross-cultural skills. A more effective preparation would dig below the surface pleasantries to help newcomers see from the Zeko perspective. In that case, I’d argue that scenarios would become even more important, because they’d help people notice subtle cues and shift perspectives in complex social interactions.

Explore some more

Scenario design course starts on Feb. 10
For a lot more on helping people learn through scenarios, consider signing up for my scenario design course, which starts on Feb. 10. There’s still room in the European session, which meets in the morning in the Americas.

Learning Technologies in London
If you like the idea of taking information presentation out of activities, you might like my London Learning Technologies session, “Throw them in at the deep end.” You’ll overhaul some conventional activities to make them more immersive and challenging. I’ll also be talking with practitioners at Booth H21 as part of the LT eXchange, and I’ll be part of the BarCamp with Aaron Silvers, Shannon Tipton, and David Kelly. All of this happens on Feb. 3. I hope to see you there!

Photo by Colby Stopa

Do you work in a course factory? Do you care?

Are you a cog in the course factory, or are you a performance consultant? Where do you or your clients fall on the following spectrum, and where do you want to be?

(Feed readers, there’s a table here! It might appear at the end of the post in your feed reader.)

Course factory

————–

Performance consultancy

My job is to create training. ————– My job is to improve the performance of the organization.
I shouldn’t question the client’s decision to provide training. ————– Since my job is to help the client solve their performance problem, I need to determine if training really is part of the solution and identify what else might help.
The only thing I ever design is training. ————– I might design job aids, create help screens, identify ways to streamline processes, encourage managers to provide stretch assignments, push for better communication tools…
My goal is to transfer knowledge. ————– My goal is to solve a performance problem, and the best way to do that isn’t clear until I analyze the problem. Maybe it has nothing to do with knowledge.
The best way to transfer knowledge is to push information at people so they’re all equally exposed. ————– If information really will help solve the problem, I look for ways to let people pull it when they need it. Training might not be necessary at all.
Training is an event, like a one-time course or workshop. ————– If I decide a practice activity will help, it might be just that — an activity, not a course, delivered in any format, maybe in a live session, maybe as part of a “try it when you want” collection of online challenges, and preferably as part of a series of activities spaced over time.
Once the training has been delivered, I’m done. ————– If the performance measure has improved, I’m happy, but I’m not done. I need to talk to the people affected by the project to find out what’s working and what isn’t.
When I finish one project, I wait for the next request to come in. ————– I notice problems and suggest solutions before someone asks me for help, because I know what my organization is trying to accomplish.

 

Two opposing sides?

Industry gurus have been pointing out for some time that L&D needs to stop being a course factory and become more of a performance consultancy. Sometimes they express their opinions with such zeal that it can feel like they’ve divided us into two irreconcilable groups: We’re either marching onto the bright consulting field waving the flag of the latest workplace learning model, or we’re stubbornly hiding in the basement, cranking out irrelevant courses.

Cranking out the courses in the basement factoryI agree we need to become more of a performance consultancy. In fact, I think some new models of workplace learning don’t go far enough, at least as I understand them. They correctly and importantly remind us that people learn in a million ways, regardless of our “help.” They give less attention to making sure that learning will actually solve the problem.

If we’re going to be performance consultants, we need to identify all barriers to performance. We can’t assume that knowledge and skills will help.

I also don’t think we’re divided into two opposing groups. Instead, I see a spectrum.

I’ve talked to many people who want to leave the course factory behind but have trouble seeing how they could actually do it. Some have to fight their organization to take just one step because their job title is literally “Course Producer.” To climb out of the basement, they have to drag the dead weight of their department with them.

In the title of this post, I asked, “Do you care?” Most people I’ve heard from care. They know that cranking out courses on demand doesn’t meet the real needs of the organization. They just need help finding a way out of the basement.

For a lot more about why we need to move toward performance consulting, see The Business of Corporate Learning by Shlomo Ben-Hur. Jane Hart has a recent series of blog posts on what she sees as a stark division in L&D, starting with this post. In this interview, Donald Taylor sees the L&D world as divided not into two sides but four regions on a quadrant.

Looking for feedback on my book

If you’ve read this far, you might be interested in giving me feedback on my upcoming book. Map it: The hands-on guide to strategic training design offers a step-by-step process to help training designers leave boring courses behind and instead find the best solutions to performance problems. It’s action mapping all grown up. I’m looking for 30 people to read a PDF version and complete a survey about it, so I can make the book as useful as possible.

Map It helps you find non-training solutions to problems. And when training is part of the solution, it helps you design challenging practice activities that can be provided in any format, not just in courses or training events. It shows you one way to start climbing out of the basement and to bring your client or boss with you.

I’ve been using it with my scenario design courses and plan to publish it in early 2016.

I’m looking for a cross-section of my intended audience to be beta readers. If you’re interested in participating, please fill out this quick demographic survey. (Thank you, everyone who responded; the survey is closed now.) From the responses, I’ll pick 30 people to receive a PDF version of the book. The first survey requires your email address so I can send you the book if you’re chosen; the second feedback survey will be anonymous.

If you just want to know when the book is published, sign up for the announcement list. You’ll get an email when the book is available, which should be in early 2016.

Finally, before we go back to our places on the course assembly line, let us sing in solidarity with our fellow workers who are hauling out the data on the Xerox line.

Factory worker photo by Howard R. Hollem. Public domain; US Library of Congress.

Field guide to action-mapped materials

Is that an action mapped course?What does an action mapped course look like?

Action mapping has grown in recent years to apply to all types of training design and performance support, not just elearning. It’s a process, rather than a style of product. It should rarely result in just slide-based elearning, because the method focuses on solving performance problems, and one lonely online course rarely solves any problem.

With that huge caveat, I’m sometimes asked what an action mapped course looks like. It might look like this:

  • It was created to help you develop skills that you actually need on your job.
  • The course is part of a larger solution to a real performance problem. Other parts of the solution might include job aids, changes to processes, more attention from your manager, a monthly discussion session…
  • The material is aimed at you, in your job, not at “everyone who might ever work at Acme.”
  • It feels like a stream of activities, not a presentation interrupted by an occasional quiz.
  • You’re plunged into an interesting activity, not first “prepared” with an information dump. You pull the information you need in order to make a good decision. You control how much information you see. (See this approach in action at my Learning Technologies session in London on Feb. 3.)
  • The decisions you’re required to make are the same as the decisions you face on the job — real decisions with consequences.
  • You’re allowed to draw conclusions based on the consequences of your choices. You’re not immediately told “Incorrect!”
  • If you prove that you can make good decisions about Situation X, you’re allowed to skip ahead to Situation Y. You’re not forced to “expose” yourself to all the information.
  • You’re treated like an adult. For example, no one reads the screen to you.
  • There are no flying bullet points, applause from invisible crowds, or dinging bells. The material is interesting because it’s challenging and relevant, not because someone went to the bling store on 70%-off day.
  • The course isn’t a one-shot deal. For example, additional activities are provided over time, whether as elearning or in other formats, because few problems can be fixed by a one-time mini-course, no matter how well designed it might be.

This checklist can help you evaluate the action-mappiness of training materials.

Book excerpt: Compare the traditional approach with action mapping

To see how action mapping changes our approach to design and creates a different type of activity, you might read this PDF excerpt from my upcoming book. It compares how two different designers approach the same project.

In the story, Tina Teachalot thinks her job is to design a course. She uses a weak version of ADDIE and produces the type of course we’re all familiar with. Anna Action von Mapp thinks her job is to solve the client’s problem. She uses action mapping to create a more varied solution. Part of that solution includes self-paced activities that plunge people into challenges with optional help.

But I want to see examples!

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any publicly available examples of action-mapped materials. (Know of something? Please let us know in the comments.) People I’ve worked with have designed solutions for internal use only.

There are good individual activities out there, but we can’t say that they were the product of action mapping because there’s usually no information about the problem they were designed to solve or the reasoning behind the design. They’re simply activities in people’s portfolios or on web sites. You can see a lot of them on my elearning examples page.

One of my favorites of these more generic activities is CameraSim. You learn from the consequences of your decisions. For people brand new to using a DSLR, I’d provide a little more optional hand-holding than the site does, maybe as help screens connected to the controls themselves and optional explanations of why the photo turned out as it did.

To provide another example, I could describe my scenario design course, because that was very definitely action-mapped, but that’s a big project and therefore another blog post. It’s a blend of live and asynchronous materials in several formats, spaced over time, not slide-based elearning.

Photo: Itamar Grinberg, Israel Tourism, edited

How to respond to learning-style believers

“What do you mean, I shouldn’t accommodate people’s learning styles? You can’t tell me people don’t learn differently! I see it in the classroom all the time!”

Maybe you’ve heard that from a classroom presenter (I have). Or maybe you’ve heard this from a client:

“Be sure to include narration for the audio learners! And add lots of drag-and-drops for the kinesthetic people.”

The rare and neglected accordion learnerLearning styles have been popularized by well-intentioned people, including possibly your professor of instructional design. However, the claim that we have to adapt our design to accommodate different learning styles has been repeatedly debunked by research.

Then why do people cling to the belief? Let’s look at one reason why learning styles are so appealing and how we can respond to the believers on our team.

First, the research

These resources link to or summarize research that debunks learning styles:

Debunk carefully — morals are at stake!

The myths that put people into special categories, such “visual learners” or “digital natives,” have a powerful emotional appeal. As a result, questioning them can backfire. I’ve certainly received some impassioned responses, and I know that some of you have, too.

In Urban Myths about Learning and Education, the authors suggest that these myths could be a type of moral panic. In a moral panic, believers claim that there are stark differences between groups of people and that only moral people care about these differences.

Emotions can run high thanks to the believer’s moral commitment. For example, imagine that I believe in learning styles and I’m a member of a team on an elearning project. I notice that no one is planning any narration, so I say earnestly, “Don’t forget the auditory learners!” Someone else says, “Oh, that’s all been debunked.”

I’ve never heard that before. How might I respond?

“Are they saying I’m an idiot?” I think. “I’m not! I care about the learners! The team is just finding excuses to take shortcuts. They don’t care about the learners like I do!” So I fight back, maybe by debating learning styles or just resisting others’ ideas.

This is the “worldview backfire effect,” according to the authors of The Debunking Handbook, available for free from SkepticalScience.com.

How can we respond?

One way to avoid the backfire effect could be to frame your disagreement in a way that doesn’t threaten the believer’s moral position. That way, you can keep their emotions from rising and clouding their thinking.

For example, you might first acknowledge the believer’s compassion and then offer alternatives that meet even more important needs, so agreeing with you won’t harm their position as someone who cares about the learners.

You can also offer an alternative explanation for the situation that the myth is intended to explain, or suggest that the people who originally promoted the myth did so for their own profit, both techniques recommended by research cited in The Debunking Handbook.

For example, if you have a learning-style believer who wants redundant elearning narration “for the auditory learners,” you might say the following:

“That’s an important point. We need to consider how people’s preferences might affect their learning.”

  • This acknowledges the believer’s compassion while reframing learning styles as preferences.

“For example, research shows that people learn best when they can control the pacing, which is actually hard to do if we use a narrator for everything. So if we added a narrator for the subset of people who prefer narration, we’d take away the control over pacing that everyone needs. If we made the narration optional, we’d still have to spend a lot of the budget on it, which reduces our ability to use techniques that everyone needs.”

  • We’re suggesting that the believer’s compassion can be extended to even more people by letting go of the focus on one group.

“Unfortunately, much of the research that seems to support learning styles was done by people who sell the learning style inventories or otherwise profit from them. Independent research doesn’t support the idea of changing our approach to accommodate learning styles, but it does say we should give everyone lots of practice over time. Since there’s more research support for spaced practice, it would be most effective to use our budget to design more practice for everyone instead of hiring a narrator for a few.”

  • We suggest that the myth was created by someone for their own purposes, sucking all the compassion out of it, and then build up the believer again by giving them a different way to show their compassion for the learners. Of course, the alternative approach could be anything supported by research, not just spaced practice.

I’m saying that all learners are exactly the same. Not.

Some learning-style believers say that science fans like me just want to turn learners into robots, denying their individuality.

I say that the best way to honor people’s individuality isn’t to shove them into simplistic categories so we can pour information into them, but to provide them with the respectful support they need to drive their own learning, at their pace. And if we use techniques that independent studies show actually work, we’re respecting learners’ time and showing true compassion for their needs.

I’ve focused here on just the “moral panic” appeal of learning styles. I think they’re appealing for other reasons as well, including:

  • They’re fun like a Facebook quiz is fun. “I’m a visual learner!” Or maybe you’re the rare and neglected nasal learner.
  • They make intuitive sense. Of course we all have different strengths and learning preferences. What’s not supported is the claim that we need to adjust instruction to match learning “styles.”
  • It’s currently popular to put people into categories of all types, so learning styles fit into a larger trend — says I, the high-D INTJ “overachieving” myopic height-advantaged asparagus avoider and bad singer.
  • They’re easy. Simple rules like “Add pictures for the visual learner” are easy to apply. It’s “hard” to use more effective design approaches, such as designing realistic practice activities or helping learners gauge their own progress.
  • A belief in learning styles encourages people to use a wider variety of media in their instruction, which when done well is a good thing. However, pointing out the invalidity of learning styles doesn’t mean, “All instruction must be text!” That’s a false alternative. The content and nature of the task should determine the media. The authors of Make It Stick sum it up this way: “When instructional style matches the nature of the content, all learners learn better, regardless of their differing preferences for how the material is taught.”
  • Learning styles are still being taught by some instructional design programs.

What has been your experience? Why do you think learning styles are still popular? What works for you when you’re faced with a colleague or client who wants to accommodate learning styles? Let us know in the comments.

Write a strong goal: Sell it to Scrooge

A pile of Euro coinsWhen a client says, “My team needs training,” they might not realize it yet, but they have a bigger goal in mind. That goal is the real reason the project has to happen.

Unfortunately, it’s common to develop training with the wrong type of goal. Below are some typical goals. They all have a big blind spot. What are they missing?

  • Salespeople will know all the product features.
  • Managers will handle difficult conversations better.
  • Everyone will use the new software.
  • People will be aware of the dangers of the internet.
  • Leaders will help people adjust to big changes.

If you had $40,000 and someone asked you to spend that money on any of the above goals, what would you say?

Here’s what I’d say: “What will I get in return?”

A business goal is the “What’s in it for me?” for the organization. It justifies the existence of the project in business terms. None of the goals above clearly shows what’s in it for the organization.

Let’s see how it works with the first goal, “Salespeople will know all the product features.”

Sell it to Scrooge

Imagine that I’m a C-level type in a widget company and I’m sitting behind a tidy pile of $40,000.

A training person, let’s call him Bob, comes to me and says, “Give me that $40k, and in return, salespeople will know all the product features.”

“What, can’t they read the product brochure?” I say, wrapping my arms around the money.

“Well, yes, but they’re not selling our widgets as well as they could,” Bob says. “Our mystery shoppers say that the salespeople just sell the micro widget. They ignore the mega and mongo widgets even when they’re the best widgets for the customer. We have a reputation as cheap widget-pushers.”

“So tell them to sell more mega and mongo widgets,” I say.

“But we don’t want them to sell the mega or mongo if it’s the wrong widget for the customer,” Bob says. “That goes against our mission and will hurt our brand.”

“You want this money,” I say, “so you can help salespeople identify the best widget for the customer?”

“Yes, that’s it,” Bob says. “I guess just knowing the features isn’t enough. They have to develop the skills to identify the customer’s needs and then match the features to those needs.”

“And then what will happen?” I say. “How will I get my $40k back?”

“Sales of mega and mongo widgets will go up,” Bob says. “Since we make more profit from those than from the micro widgets, we’ll make more money.”

“And…?” I say in my most annoying tone, still gripping the money.

“And our reputation will improve, helping our brand,” Bob says. “Overall sales could go up and we could gain market share, because we’ll become the widget company that really listens. Everyone else just pushes widgets.”

“All right,” I say, reluctantly peeling $20k off the pile. “Here’s some money. Let’s see if you can show a 5% increase in mega and mongo widget sales by fourth quarter. If so, we’ll use the rest of the money to expand what you’re doing and see if we can gain market share.”

What changed during the conversation?

Bob’s goal started as this:

  • Salespeople will know all the product features

It ended as this:

  • Mega and mongo widget sales will increase 5% by Q4 as salespeople identify the best widget for each customer

Bob now has a way to measure the success of his project, at least in the short term, and it’s a measure that benefits the business as a whole. His new goal justifies the expense of the project.

Bob’s new goal also shows everyone involved in the project that he’s serious and is going to measure results. It shows that “training people” like Bob play vital roles in the success of the organization.

Imagine the training that results

A good business goal helps you sell your project to Scrooges like me, but it also has a profound effect on the type of training you develop.

Bob’s original goal was “Salespeople will know all the product features.” What would have happened if I were out of the office and someone gave Bob all the money without challenging his goal? What kind of training would he create?

Bob’s revised goal aims to increase sales of specific products by having salespeople identify the best widget for each customer. How did the new goal change Bob’s approach to his design?

See what happens next

I’ve continued the story on a separate page to keep this post short.

If this seems like something out of a book, that’s because it is. I’m writing a book on action mapping, and it should be available in the next couple of months. I’ll be sure to announce it in the blog.


Scenario design course starts soon

My four-week, online scenario design class starts on April 21. I’ve added a second session scheduled for the Americas because the first is nearly full. Find out more.

Photo: aditza121 via Compfight cc

How to be a learning mythbuster

“Wait, we can’t design the training that way, because Zeus will rain down fire as punishment!”

You might not hear that particular myth, but I’ll bet you’ve heard many others. Here are the most popular myths I’ve heard from learning designers and their clients.

Chart showing high percentage of people believing myths about learning

Oh, those numbers in the chart? They’re just an estimate based on my experience. They’re not real.

They’re like the numbers that someone tacked onto a graphic created by Edgar Dale, magically turning it into a “scientific” and unfortunately misleading “truth” about how much we remember, as Will Thalheimer thoroughly shows.

Putting science-y numbers on concepts is just one part of a larger problem we face: We let unfounded beliefs influence us.

It’s a cultural problem

Why do myths flourish in our supposedly science-based profession?

I like to use a flowchart to analyze performance problems. If we were to use the flowchart to answer “Why do training designers make decisions based on myths?” I think we’d find that the main problem is an environmental one:

We work in organizations that believe harmful myths. We’re pressured to work as if the myths are true, and we can’t or don’t take the time we need to keep our knowledge up to date and combat the myths.

Stand up to the client

We need to change this cultural problem, and one of the first steps is to politely stand up to the client who believes in the impending punishment of Zeus. “I understand your concern,” we might say. “Luckily, research shows that Zeus doesn’t actually exist and has no opinion about our training.” We back this up with a link to an easy-to-read summary of research showing the non-existence of Zeus.

For example, let’s say we have a client who believes in learning styles.

“Learning styles are real,” they say, “and we must design the training to accommodate them.” This has been debunked repeatedly yet stubbornly lives on. It’s one of the most common excuses for inflicting slow narration on elearning users. What can help us debunk this?

  • This PopSci article is a quick, entertaining read and could be a good one to send to the client.
  • Learning styles: Worth our time? links to two major debunking studies and highlights techniques that work better. It might appeal more to learning geeks.
  • Here’s an excellent roundup of opinions from L&D luminaries, from Guy Wallace. It might help convince people who need to see that many experts argue against learning styles.

It’s also helpful to dip into research compilations in our spare moments. For example, the extensive PDF report Learning to Think, Learning to Learn organizes research into specific, plain-English recommendations that are easy to read in short bursts. It’s aimed at people who teach remedial courses but applies to all types of adult learning design.

For research specific to elearning, I always recommend e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer.

Expose myths to the sun

Another way to weaken myths is to clearly state them, to bring them into the light and ask stakeholders, “Is this really true?”

For example, here are some beliefs that affect our ability to design effective training. What would happen if we had our stakeholders stop and consider whether they’re actually true?

  • If there’s a performance problem, training must be the solution.
  • Training is a one-time event or course.
  • Training means putting information into people’s heads.
  • Our job is to make this information easy to understand and remember.
  • We should first tell people what they need to know, and then give them an activity so they can check their knowledge.
  • We shouldn’t let learners make mistakes because that would demoralize them and they’ll only remember the mistakes.
  • We shouldn’t let people skip stuff they already know because they probably don’t really know it.
  • We should measure learning with an assessment right after the training.
  • If we’re designing elearning, it should look like a slide show. No one will learn from a normal web page with scrolling.
  • If we’re designing elearning, we should have a narrator talk through the slides because no one will read.

I could go on (and on!) but you get the idea. A lot of assumptions drive what we do, and we need to clearly identify and question them before they steer us in the wrong direction.

What are the most damaging or stubborn myths that you’ve seen? Have you been able to fight them effectively? Let us know in the comments!


Jan. 28, London: I’ll be giving a talk on writing effective scenario questions at the Learning Technologies conference.

I’m hard at work on a self-paced course on scenario design. Life intervened and delayed my work for awhile, but the material will be available early this year. You can sign up to be notified when the course is ready.

3 ways to save gobs of time when designing training

Everyone wants it yesterday. So how can we deliver on time? Here are three possibly bizarre ideas.

1. Don’t design training

This hamster would like you to read the policy.Does the client just want everyone to be “aware” of the hamster sharing policy? If so, your best bet might be to send everyone a link to the policy with the message, “Read this policy, and share hamsters according to its rules.”

If you have the marketing department send the email, they can track how many people opened it and clicked the link to the policy. If they know what they’re doing, they can even tell you who clicked the link and who didn’t, and who read all three pages of the policy and who wandered off after page 1.

In fact, the marketing department can help you write an email that will make people want to read the hamster-sharing policy. They’re experts in this stuff.

2. Design super-targeted training

Most people who say “My team needs training” are making a ton of assumptions. They jump to conclusions about the problem (“They need to understand!”) and the solution (“They need training!”).

If you let their assumptions drive what you do, you’ll waste time creating more training than is useful or effective.

Your secret goal is to find non-training solutions to the problem. To do that, you invite the client to a quick needs analysis discussion, which you’ll disguise as a meeting to “help me understand the problem.”

Then you’ll run this type of kickoff meeting, walking your client through the first few steps of action mapping.

The meeting will help your client see how changes to tools, new job aids, and other non-training interventions can solve the problem.

If still you end up designing training, it will probably be shorter and more targeted.

3. Focus on challenge, not bling

In elearning we’re tempted to make up for the lack of human contact with an avalanche of irrelevant stock photos, narration, and flying bullet points.

I harp on this constantly, but I’ll say it again: An intriguing, challenging activity often works perfectly well as text. In fact, once you start adding media, you can actually damage an activity, as participants in my upcoming scenario design workshops will see.

Think text can’t hack it? Learn some handy phrases in the imaginary language Zeko in an activity that relies 99% on text. Or see if you can guide the AutoLoon L&D department to the best solution to their performance problem, undistracted by cheesy stock photos or narration.

I can already hear people saying, “But what about learning styles?!” to which I say, “Learning styles are bunk.”

Wind turbine breakaway view

An actually useful image

Obviously in many situations more time-consuming media like video, animation, and audio are absolutely necessary. Try understanding how a wind turbine generates electricity without seeing at least a breakaway illustration of its innards. Even better, the right image can eliminate the need for text.

But what I see far more often is pointless, time-wasting bling applied to a boring presentation.

If we’re expected to produce “content,” we have a choice:

  • We could spend a couple of hours writing challenging, bling-free decision-making activities that help people learn through experience, or
  • We could build a bunch of slides to present the content, and then spend several more hours searching for non-gag-inducing stock photos to add “eye candy,” creating slick transitions to “keep the learner’s interest,” recording unnecessary narration because we can’t expect people to read, and fussing interminably with the timeline to make the narration track properly with the flying bullet points.

Unfortunately, our employers often expect bling. One way to win them over to a more powerful but less bling-infested approach is to show them several examples of challenging, thought-provoking materials designed the way we think would work best.

What do you think? What has helped you create powerful training in a short time? Let us know in the comments.

Jettison the genies and let learners think

Elearning has genies, superheroes, and wizards. Live training has the all-knowing instructor. I say all of them should stop being so darned helpful. Here’s why.

Let’s say that you’ve dusted off your bike and have been riding it to work, but it’s no longer shifting smoothly and the chain keeps falling off. You tightened a nut that you thought might help, but the chain fell off again.

Now what? Which of the following will make you a smarter biker?

A. You download a troubleshooting guide from the internet. You spend two minutes going through its steps to check cable tension and the condition of the chain, and you discover that a loose Dunlowbrat was the problem. You tighten the Dunlowbrat and you’re ready to roll.

or

B. A hipster genie appears with a poof. “In cases like this,” he says smugly, “you need to tighten this thing here. It’s called a Dunlowbrat. Here’s a screwdriver. Now tighten the Dunlowbrat.”

Hipster genie promising to make you awesomeWhich is more efficient? Solution B, obviously. You didn’t waste two minutes checking other connections or puzzling things out. The hipster saved you time by telling you what to do.

Which will make you a smarter biker? Solution A. When you went through the troubleshooting process, you learned that cable tension and chain condition can also cause problems, which will make future problem-solving go faster and give you a better understanding of how a bike works.

You also might be more likely to remember a solution you discovered on your own rather than the one that someone with “superior knowledge” simply told you, although the trauma of having a hipster genie suddenly appear would certainly be memorable.

What does this have to do with instructional design?

Let’s turn your bike problem into an elearning activity with a clickable bike.

Challenge: Your bike no longer shifts smoothly, and the chain keeps falling off. Click the part of the bike that is probably causing the problem.

You click a likely-looking nut.

Feedback: A hipster genie pops onto the screen. “Nope! That won’t work. In cases like this, you need to tighten this thing.” He points at a screw on the bike. “It’s called a Dunlowbrat. Click the Dunlowbrat to tighten it.”

You obediently click the Dunlowbrat and an animation makes it look like it’s tightening.

Hipster genie: “Awesome! You rule!”

Your dignity and your brain wither simultaneously.

Genie-free rewrite

Let’s jettison the genie from our elearning version and see what happens.

Challenge: Your bike no longer shifts smoothly, and the chain keeps falling off. Click the part of the bike that is probably causing the problem. If you’re not sure, follow this troubleshooting guide.

You ignore the troubleshooting guide and click the wrong nut.

Feedback: The chain falls off again as you’re climbing a hill, and you get grease on your clothes right before your meeting with the directors of HugelyImportant, Inc. Try the steps in this troubleshooting guide.

You open the troubleshooting guide, which has you click on a bike part for each step and concisely explains why you’re checking each part. When you click the first part, you’re told that it feels tight already. The same happens for the second part. When you click the Dunlowbrat, you’re told it feels loose. You choose to tighten it, and you get the following feedback.

Feedback: The bike shifts smoothly and the chain stays in place. You roll into work relaxed and grease-free.

Face-to-face version

Obviously, in face-to-face training this would be a heck of a lot easier. Let’s say we have a bike-maintenance class in a parking lot. The instructor could bring out a bike that has a loose Dunlowbrat and have someone ride it around the parking lot while shifting. Everyone watches as the chain falls off. The rider also reports that shifting was rough.

The instructor says, “What should we do?” and a few members of the class propose tightening the wrong nut. “A lot of people do that,” the instructor says agreeably. “Let’s tighten that nut and see what happens.”

The chain falls off again, the class is puzzled, and the instructor doesn’t say, “It’s a loose Dunlowbrat.” Instead, he says, “There’s a process we use to diagnose this type of problem. Here’s a handout. Let’s go through it together.”

But genies are fun!

If you’re sure that your audience likes genies, superheroes, and wizards, you’ll probably want to keep using them. But I’d suggest that you encourage the genies to act more like the instructor in the face-to-face example above, helping people find the best solution, and don’t let them tell people what to do or how to think.

You might also want to tell your genies to keep their feedback (“Awesome!”) in line with the level of learners’ accomplishment, unless you’re intentionally using over-the-top humor. Our hipster genie could actually be a fun, over-the-top guide, but only if he uses the techniques of the real-life instructor and helps us figure things out for ourselves.

Genies are a symptom of a deeper problem

The main reason we add genies and their superpowered friends is because we’ve let the material be primarily a presentation, and we just want to make the presentation more “fun.” A deeper solution is to overhaul the design so there’s far less presentation and a lot more learning by doing.

What do you think? Do you think genies can use their magical powers to deepen learning, or are they just another way to add bling to boring presentation? Let us know in the comments.

All photos in this post (c) iStock

5 quick ways to pull learners into a course

Typically bad stock photo“Welcome to the course Online Responsibility,” a too-perfect male voice intones while you stare at a stock photo of a man who’s grinning idiotically at a computer.

“Billions of bits of data travel through our firm every day,” the voice drones on while the stock photo changes to science-fictiony swirling lines and numbers. “Since the dawn of the digital age, electronic communication has…”

You lunge for the Next button, but you’re not allowed to click it until the droning man finishes, which he finally does while you’re in another browser tab, watching a video of a cat playing the piano.

I’ve seen a ton of elearning, and the painful majority of it starts this way. What are some alternatives?

1. Use a meaningful course name and skip the explanation.

If the title of the course is “Data Privacy,” then you can trust learners to understand that it concerns keeping data private. A meaningful title frees you from having to ponderously explain what the course is about.

2. Nix the narrator.

In corporate L&D, our learners are adults who can read for themselves, and they do it a heck of a lot faster than a narrator talks. Nothing squashes my interest in a subject more thoroughly than having the material spoon-fed to me by a slow speaker who apparently thinks I’m dense. In my sacrilegious opinion, the best use for a narrator is to talk about a graphic that isn’t already self-explanatory, not to deliver information that could be more concisely and quickly delivered through text. Here’s some research to support this. (And our main goal should be to design experiences, not information.)

3. Immediately show concise, appealing objectives.

Briefly tell the learner what they’ll be able to do as a result of the course, and focus on what they care about. Here’s a sample makeover of some boring objectives.

4. Motivate by showing, not telling.

Normally, your objectives should be motivating enough. If you think your learners need even more motivation, avoid the temptation to present statistics or to otherwise tell them why the topic is important. Show them through a story.

For example, you could (quickly!) show a young couple with a baby being turned down for a mortgage because one of our employees accidentally released their private data, which a bad guy used to get credit cards and destroy their credit history. For more on using stories to motivate, see Made to Stick.

5. Put basic information in activities, not a presentation, and let people prove that they already know it.

If you want to make sure everyone has the same basic knowledge before continuing, design activities that let people either prove they know the basics or discover the basics through feedback.

For example, in my scenario design course, I want everyone to have the same definition of “scenario.” However, I don’t show the definition at the start. Instead, I just say, “Let’s see if you can identify what I think a scenario is.” I then show several examples and non-examples and ask for each one, “Is this a scenario?” In the feedback I explain why the example fits or doesn’t fit my definition of “scenario.”

This starts the material with an activity, rather than a presentation, and I suspect it makes the definition more clear than a text blurb would have. It also lets people who already know the definition skip ahead by skipping the detailed feedback once they’ve confirmed that they made the right choice.

What do you think? What techniques have you seen or used that get learners immediately, actively involved in a course? Let us know in the comments.


London workshop on June 6

Please join me and Norman Lamont in London on June 6 for the fun, hands-on workshop “Training design for business results.” It’s action mapping on steroids. You’ll get in-depth practice applying activity-centered design to one of your projects. Learn more about the workshop.

Scenario design online course

Learn more