Learning Design: The Great, The Good and The Good Enough

This could be a story about buggy whips. You might know the classic management tale of the craftsman who was proud of building the most handsome and useful whips to spur on carriage horses at the turn of the last century. Unfortunately, as you you probably know the tale, carriages once replaced by the automobile rendered his lovely product useless.

I have watched from the trenches and sidelines as classes of learning professionals are now being divided —again by technology into two camps; those who know how learning should be constructed and craft it and those who can manufacture, at time and cost savings, the actual product.

Learning designers strategize how to solve problems to achieve performance improvement applying theory to fact and constructing course elements, flows and production processes. They gain agreement with stakeholders about content, audience, time on learning and assessment and the larger components of an experience. They scaffold the project so each step falls into place in a logical progression. In some cases, the learning designer will offer a narrative reflecting the content back to the stakeholders to ensure the critical content is captured. Additionally they might also write the actual storyboard incorporating the elements including the interactive and experiential (as well as social) elements that will make the course interesting if not compelling. The best and greatest courseware, the most inventive and exciting depends on a designer who can sculpt content into a story, then work with an interactive and/or graphic designer to sharpen the user experience across multiple platforms finally passing the work to a developer to program—as designed—for implementation.


Developers are those folks who know how to use the tools chosen by the enterprise to express content online in an effective and dynamic format. For the past number of years, while learning theory and ideas about making courses exciting have evolved growing with the speed and bandwidth available for elements like video, developer tools have been refined exponentially. Think of the industrial model—build an assembly line, now improve the assembly line and the tools—then make better products. However, this works well only when everything being made is a replica set to standardized requirements. Learning is not like that. Even when producing multiple courses with similar content, the opportunity to breathe excitement into each one is more present when designers do what they do best and developers express it. No template, no matter how sophisticated can allow for all the shadings required by great learning. Instead developers take the tools and either use them out of the box or, as I saw in a number of organizations, create, and in most cases struggle to build work-arounds expressing the designers intent while trying for hours to keep within the constraints of the software. An entire industry has been built around PowerPoint (by example) as the foundation for programs like Articulate. And the tide is with them since money flows downhill from big corporate enterprises and their subordinate constituencies. Better, faster, cheaper. And good enough.

The precedent for this was the explosive improvement in desktop publishing more than a decade back; once an associate learned the software they could generate print materials. The problem—and the connection to the current argument, is simply that these folks were not trained as graphic designers. The results spoke for themselves; a lot of bad design, quickly produced and reproduced. Moreover, when it was accepted by many managers as ‘good enough’ the die was cast for the attitudes we see now in learning design and development.

Here lies the collision and connection: In the hopes that ‘rapid’ eLearning cannot only reduce the time to create courseware the tools, ever more nuanced, allow developers to become designers as well. It’s seductive; managers cut down head count, more work can be pushed out the door by learning groups under pressure to deliver fast changing content, and costs drop when the designer, a more highly trained, often senior and knowledgeable resource can be set aside or redeployed. I don’t believe there has been a study conducted on performance improvement or even a Kirkpatrick view of which types of courses yield intended results. But I do know anecdotally that learning designed courses, where each professional works to their strength always seem to have an A-ha factor. Most other courses—those of the template kind—are utilitarian and though they might satisfy the requirements or outcomes, learner satisfaction cannot compare. This is dangerous and grows more so every day as multi-generational learners want different kinds of learning experiences.


The facts are there is room at the learning table for both types of development. However, there is no real lobbying group or organized industry to support the learning designer model. My fear is that learning and instructional design preparation will move even further towards the industrial model, templatized learning produced by individuals whose preparation has introduced them to a fair amount about learning…and the skillsets demanded to operate the tools. Unfortunately, there is too much complexity and uniqueness in learning to allow for excellence when this mashup becomes the status quo.

Those of us who have grown up in the era of learning design are more than ever segregated from access to development. Even with HTML5 used by great developers who can customize components to meet learning design objectives with wonderful precision, I see a rending of the system that will soon go the way of the buggy whip. So much of life today, from the professional sphere to just everyday life seems to be populated by people who figure that good enough is just that. Time is precious, financial strains are everywhere, the speed of life is overtaking the human ability to sustain its own sense of equilibrium in a world of instant everything. So let it go and accept the outlier will be the customization of learning only when absolutely defended by insistent clients with the budget and care to desire excellence. Otherwise, wait for tools to exhibit their next iteration, artificial intelligence.



Let me make this clear at the outset; my birth family are the tribe of the Old Testament so my father’s association with the Christmas holiday was learned from coworkers, Nat ‘King’ Cole, the tree at Rockefeller Center and New York fragrant with good cheer – often lubricated with smoky liquids around the 25th. That is until he had grandchildren. This was of course the divine gift my wife and I delivered to him – most likely our lifetime’s crowning achievement.

My dad was a typographer, a craft job a composing lines of text in metal. His company on 45th Street in Manhattan set type for all the advertising agencies whose ads were designed in the day and required production overnight to be ready the next morning for inclusion in print publications. My father worked his way up from compositor to general manager owing not just to his skill on the stick, but with people especially. He was, in a word, a schmoozer. This made him the perfect guy to close sales over steaks and drinks at the Palm. In this he was, as always successful. It also provided him with, shall we say gifts, from very grateful vendors who enjoyed the contracts he would award.

During the year, often at odd times, I’d get a call, “Rich, do you need a new guitar, camera, slide projector, TV, frig, etc.” The same largesse extended to his wide coterie of childhood friends whose businesses did not offer such ‘perks.’ And to my wife, whom he called Red (Irish, as you may expect) anything she wanted. The point is he was disposed to spread his good fortune rather than scrooge all for himself.

Nowhere was this truer than at Christmas, an excuse for even his exceptional level of gift giving. And to whom better than my son and later my daughter. Not only his grandchildren for whom most share great love, my dad was excessive to the point of nuttiness. Perhaps his love had a psychological component. He was proud I had become a high school teacher after a short stint as an advertising creative, and owned a house (he always rented – how could such a busy man take on the responsibilities of drywall). He saw my talent in design and always had his employees set type for me in my little logo design/graphics business that added a bit to the family coffers – and said to my mother I was as talented as the art director’s whose work he ‘marked up’ from agencies like Young and Rubicam, BBD&O and Grey. In my gifted young son…his grandson, he saw what could be. Failing with my sister whose troubles he could not fix, he found a second chance with my daughter, who born with physical problems fought to live and thrive and at three was a both adorable and to his sentimental heart required the presence of a grand-champion.

Anyway, that’s the back-story.

The moral—and I’ll get it over with now—is that giving is an expression of not what you should offer—but all you must share no matter the cost in dollars, whether affordable or not. Time is fixed, but love expands. Memories become more powerful in the telling long after the actual events.

So Christmas at my house went like this—and I can assure you this is 100% true.

The week prior to the ‘day’ my wife, my son, maybe 8 years old at this telling (though this went on for 10 years) and my daughter 3, would bundle up and drive to the volunteer fire company lot and buy a tree. Though our living room had 12-foot ceilings, my wife whose love of the holiday exceeded her sense of geometry inevitably drove me to buy a 13-foot tree. Roped to the top of our station wagon (no SUVs yet) we trekked home where I proceeded to heft this coniferous beast (an enemy at the time) to the backyard where I could perform surgical machinations supervised by Mrs. Dr DeBakey. The tree had to be shaped just so but still touch the ceiling, always scratching off a coat of paint. And there had to be room for the angel. Decorating would begin. Jan, my wife, who has a way with home design things had very particular regulations, plus a host of antique ornaments handed down from generations past as well as our own rather eclectic (Surfing Santa) collection. Everyone participated but me, exhausted from cropping, schlepping, and balancing one hundred pounds of asymmetric tree that required guy wires to hold it steady. Music played and the job was happily concluded—always to spectacular results.

Then the event: Grandma and Grandpa arriving on the 24th. Grand kudos heaped on my wife for the spectacular house and tree. A wonderful meal, a little television, and then the ritual of putting the kids to bed. I always reserved this privilege. ‘The Night Before Christmas’ was our ritual.

The four of us adults would be tired. Dad, as always was planning to sleep with my son, no matter the size of the bed—both of them waiting for the sleigh bell. (I would do the honors with a real one later in the night). But before…

Mom:”Now Richard, we didn’t go crazy this year. It’s getting out of hand you know… The presents are on the back seat of the Buick so you might as well get them.”
Dad: Cornering me in the kitchen, sotto voce: “Everything is in the trunk; some of the toys have to be assembled.” (Thanks Pop. I never got to bed before 3am. Ever). You ever see the size of a 1977 Buick LeSabre trunk? Let’s keep in mind the Mafia found it useful in disposing the formerly alive. And I became, by default an expert in building Big Wheels, drum sets with missing parts, doll houses and furniture, Star Wars kits, hockey goals, miniature train sets, you get the picture. Dad had neither patience nor tool sense.He made up for it in the size of his heart.

Cut to the sound of jingling bells and my father and son giggling in bed—except for his rasp you wouldn’t know who the bigger kid was. Then finally, Christmas morning.

Picture this…A giant tree with lower branches completely pushed aside—a living room completely covered with gifts—virtually no floor space left.

Mom: Looking at my father. “Are you out of your mind? What is this…where did this come from. My God, Shad this is crazy. I swear you’ll spoil these kids. You’re ridiculous, crazy. I can’t believe you…blah, blah, blah.
Dad: A sheepish look for her, a twinkle in his blue eyes and devil set mouth. I’m sure he thought, ‘”Heh heh, beat you again. This is what grandchildren are about and you don’t get it—but look what I did. Hah!”

A staircase with a bend, pajama feet pounding down, and heads craning around the corner to see what Santa brought. And there he was. Santa standing back, arms akimbo, laughing more than the kids. Bursting with joy. Never said a word but how good the kids were and how Santa knew it. At that moment and for days after, that look and feeling sustained everyone reminding us the joy of the holiday was not just in the giving but in the love of the giving and the special sense that one person, imbued with goodness, wit and immaturity—could make every single Christmas special.

That was my Dad. He was, and will always be, Santa. Never to be replaced but for memories which grow stronger, and brighter every year. Though my kids are grown and have kids of their own—and our grandchildren, there is no contest to best the Olympian holidays my father choreographed. Though meant for my young children, his spirit continues to enrich us today. Which is why on this Christmas, this Jew, descended from another Jew tries to keep Christmas a special moment. It’s true I fail; there is some of my mother in me…and that made my Dad all the more special as the paragon of unfettered love. You know as well as I, the toys were for fun and laughs a temporary thing. The miracle was a great spirit touching one man who touched anyone else who could and would pay attention.

Treacherous Business Words Used in Learning Pt2

So we left off with Important/Urgent and I just want to mention that what is important and urgent to someone else may be of little consequence to you. What’s the phrase,”A failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” So true. Of course know when and with whom to pick your battles, right?

I’ve saved these heavyweights for last. Enjoy. Or not.

7.       Strategic

In theory, strategy or strategic plan means looking out in the distance and setting your goals.  Then every decision would be tactical in that each would contribute to the success of the project.  Huh.  That’s gone.  Strategic is now important on steroids.  Whenever you’re asked for the strategy of this courseware or how it fits within the strategic vision of our corporate long-range plan – get out the shovel.  The more times strategic is used the more self-important the speaker and the less concrete the goal.

8.       Rightsize, downsize, best shore, offshore, outsource, optimize, redeploy, downshift, re-engineer.  Now entering the realm of hyper cliché are any of these ways of kissing off staff.  In the learning business, we tend to suffer early – and when training budgets start to be trimmed think of the canary in the coalmine.  Call your connections, dust off the rez, and brighten up your LinkedIn profile because you are soon to be history.  Using this terms makes the executioner feel like he is doing something strategic (see #7) for the greater good of the corporation.

9.       Thank you.  What?  How can some of the most benign words find their way on this list?  Simply when it’s spoken by a machine.  Thank you for your interest, your time, your patience, your value as a customer and such.  We don’t thank people much in online courseware – I don’t know why, we just don’t.  However, trainers are always thanking learners – most of who were locked up in a room for the day, had to show up to the session and compelled to complete the requirements.  Thanking them is obsequious.  Thanking them before the session ends for enduring the training with grace and composure demonstrates commiseration.  Of course, if the trainer was outstanding – the audience will say, “Thank you.”

10.       Interesting

I find this the funniest word on the list.  It suggests, on one hand pondering, deep thinking while all the facts are weighted.  However, as the Chinese say, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” it portends not a good thing.  Nor the doctor holding your x-ray and saying, “Hmm, interesting.  And my favorite use in learning – and it’s true especially in the arts as well – when the patron, viewer, learner says, “Interesting.”  That’s shorthand for you missed the mark.  I’d like to be less interested in employment if you will hire me.

11.       Opportunity

Oh, I know all about opportunities – they used to be called problems.  I will defend account executives (formerly salesmen/women colleagues who enjoy when an an opportunity to sell into a company appears. That is truthful.  Of course, they are there because the business has a problem.  Of course, everyone will first thank each other for finding time in their busy schedules to make the meeting…and once again the shovel please.

12.       Investment

Like opportunities, we do not spend (unless the opposite political party wants to put the taint on the other guys).  We do want to make investments in education, infrastructure, even in learning, public and corporate – with the hopes that the investment will pay off.  Here we are hobbled by two misconceptions.  Firstly, we are going to spend money and we will not (in the actual definition) earn capital in return.  Therefore, without a return on investment – it is spending.  In fact, those who want to make these investments hardly know what they will do or purpose they will serve.  Most egregiously – and this folks (hang your heads low because we share some of the guilt), is because no one knows how to measure the worth of these investments… and determine whether the spending was justified by the result.


So I hope you found this enlightening and humorous – good to laugh at yourself once in a while.  Please try to be interesting when you build your strategy and don’t forget to thank those who recognized the opportunity to see the importance in your project; just remember you might always be downsized, but from me to you I hope your investment will pay off.


Have a safe drive home.