CORPORATE INSTRUCTION IS STILL DISCONNECTED FROM MILLENNIAL LEARNING STYLES – A LIST BASED ON OBSERVATIONS IN THE WORKPLACE

By this time we all know the tropes that define who millennials (M) are, how they act and their fundamental personality characteristics. You’d think with all of this proven—and nowhere is it more evident than in large corporations—that learning programs would have been adjusted to align instruction with M proclivities for workplace education.

Having just spent some time at an F100 company I can affirm with great certainty, most instruction is still a series of bland courses and in some cases long and winding webinars. It bears remembering we are in business of transmitting only three things: knowledge, skills, and behaviors. I saw few instances where any modifications to training accommodated the ways in which young employees would spark to, tolerate, let alone benefit from anything being taught unless it was compulsory. And of course, pushing training down to a M will just shut down their attention. So, with a grudging acceptance of what had to be learned, skills absorbed only if they had immediate utility, and behaviors, well…let’s just say the millennials I was working with and around were not among the receptive.

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You can refer to two articles I had written back in 2014 about multi-generational learning and see even then, there was a clear rubric and tactics for reaching millennials. Unfortunately, making a case to adjust corporate learning programs and actually rewriting and modifying delivery are at polar ends and still out in the frozen tundra. [Overcoming Generation Differences When Building Learning: Part 2

NOW EVERYONE WINS: OVERCOMING GENERATION DIFFERENCES WHEN BUILDING LEARNING]

So, what to do. CLO’s it seems, unless really enlightened, have not passed down by policy the need to make learning aligned to what will soon be their largest contingent (25%) of employees. The company I just left dictated to the CLO that webinars would be the mode of choice for sales enablement and product knowledge – and they were level set to be 60-90 minutes. For sales staff! A double whammy there, right? A young millennial in sales is being taught essentially in the exact opposite learning style that would yield useful results.

A LIST OF WHAT MIGHT ATTRACT AND DELIVER USEFUL LEARNING TO MILLENIALS

  1. Learning has to be in small bits and any of these learning elements I’ll mention need not be delivered in any particular order– but they will be repeated in what I call a multi-touch ecology. Hyperconnectivity is baked in to millennials as is multitasking. Millennials are 2.5 times more likely to embrace and use new technology. This approach has elements of microlearning but it benefits the learner because it is repeated in other modalities & technologies.
    • For instance, in a short form course, organizations might deliver one or two elements of knowledge, skills or behaviors, make it interactive and/or with gamification and require responses. Consider collaboration within the methodology. Those responses are recorded and then the course is revisited for learners to rectify any incorrect responses. Nothing radical here except for the amount of time on learning – short attention spans will be honored.
  1. Learning with multi-modal exposure. Consider the power of a short, sharp podcast (or many) accessed and aligned to courseware – further amplifying recently introduced content.
    1. Questions posed in the podcast might be pushed out to mobile devices where, once again responses would be entered and tabulated.
  1. We’ve just laid out three modes: a short course, a podcast, and mobile learning. Let’s not forget dedicated pages on Facebook for content, polling and collaboration, and Twitter or SnapChat for instant feedback. Short videos right off Smartphones – 10 seconds worth – carry incredible power to influence, to convince, to give testimony. New tech must serve the learning purpose and be considered ‘cool.’ Finally, a mentor or coach would have the opportunity to not only work with the individual millennial but also learn what modalities worked best – and what components of this ecology yielded both cognitive results and emotional commitment. Multiple touches of the same knowledge, skills and behaviors are vital to retention and even more so for sales staff.
  1. These elements have all the benefits of autonomous learning, can be collaborative if so designed and tend to be informal. All three criteria are in the personality set of younger employees.

joeerica

Multiple touches—that is delivering the same content over different methodologies and modalities are essential for millennials. Learning is short – but repeated with multiple touches

  1. Learning can be collaborative
  2. Learning is couched inside compelling technologies
  3. Learning is interactive
  4. Learning is delivered on demand
  5. Learning is multi-modal
  6. Learning has digital with human feedback
  7. Learning is autonomous
  8. Learning content while repetitious is tolerable with multiple modalities
  9. Learning with multiple touches will be the norm
  10. Learning will be put to use because it happens over time – not a one sitting – therefore it will always be top of mind

As I looked around the work floor, I noted my millennial colleagues who, to a person were hard working, committed and extraordinarily helpful to an older geezer like me. Nevertheless, they also shared the frustrations they had with long, drawn out courses, for instance during onboarding, that might have been produced in 1999. That’s no way to motivate people who come predisposed to do good work. When learning is delivered to their particular learning characteristics, they become empowered, more loyal and see the corporate culture as honoring their personal temperament. That’s a lot of big wins. It’s up to the corporate masters to commit to modify learning, reach, and reach out to the millions of new workers whom they will be leading and managing now and more so, in the very near future.

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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.

Background3

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.

ATT00091

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.

 

The Learner, 70:20:10 and Customer Experience

iStock_000008801928SmallMore so than in other efforts learning demands a careful balance of content and context. Many courses or projects chock a block with great information never quite achieve the results intended because of the way the information is delivered. Still too many learners won’t or cannot stay engaged. And it’s not for lack of effort by designers. Neither dynamic media, nor learner engagement exercises, even all the bells and whistles designers build on can always keep the learner riveted. Moreover, it’s not the pacing nor structure of events nor even the implied threat the learning or training is a job requirement. When learners are asked about courses a range of answers emerge, from I liked it but it meant little to me in my job, it was just not interesting, it was isolating, dull, the same old thing. So, if you believe, as do I, there is a missing element, hang on, I may have some insights.

Firstly, it’s important to clear off the Kirkpatrick levels. Not dismiss, just set them aside. Traditional learning and development is about pushing out information. What I suggest is a different way of thinking about the learner perhaps reflected in Kirkpatrick but not aligned to its grid like way of organizing learner uptake. Rather the lens through which we should start is Charles Jennings’s 70:20:10 approach.

Looking back to the original premise, that courses even with great content are bashed on the shore of rocks of delivery and contextual modes, than Jennings realization about how learning works is even more in line with my premise. And not to hold you in suspense, I am advocating we begin to think of learners as customers and every aspect of the learning experience as a customer experience. In the customer experience (Cx), world companies look at their service by way of touchpoints.

Touchpoints are every interaction taking place between the company, product or information—the content—the user or customer of that information and the context or channel used to communicate. Calling your cable company, speaking with a representative offers many touchpoints. For instance, how many rings did it take to get through, did the customer service representative understand the problem, how did she speak to you, could he resolve the problem, how long did it take, or perhaps you got better service using the website. The media, in this case the phone, is referred to as the channel. Companies measure each touchpoint in each channel against criteria in order to examine their process, develop standards and measures to improve customer service and contain their costs.

As learning people, we might take a lesson from touchpoints in Cx. In business, every time a touchpoint is observed, measured, and found lacking, it is improved—called touchpoint renewal. Now think of learning experiences whether virtual or face-to-face. Every interaction with content is naturally in a context (channel). So working online, the UI/UX channel might have been designed with minimal cognitive overhead in a handsome interface so information can be actuated easily. The more interactions, more touchpoints, and more reflective thought by the designer is required. Or in a classroom, instructors who focus on critical content and presents interactively have touchpoints relevant to that context or channel.

Learning designers can think in touchpoints when they build instruction or training. If we begin to think like this courses will improve simply because each action is viewed as an individual, measurable touchpoint. There are two elements, the content and the quality or style with which it is delivered (no matter the context or channel) and the learner (or customer). The smoother, faster, clearer the touchpoint, the easier it would be for learners to navigate and perhaps benefit from the experience. Customer experience thinking does not require a major pivot in the way courses are developed. Instead, it’s a mindset and reminder that learners need to be serviced as customers or even as buyers with a choice. Knowing your learner needs, your customers, and what they must achieve at the conclusion of the experience can help shape designers decisions about what to insert into a learning experience, the style, and the channel.

iStock_000004786684SmallJennings research clearly says most learning, over 80%, takes place in the workplace not the classroom (and I assume not the screen either). He has demoted formal learning to the ’10’. This diminishes the role of the learning designer or at least, as far as I can tell reshapes it. Experiential learning through contact and information with others yields—according to Jennings—better development and business outcomes. A conversation with a colleague in the pursuit of a solution or the sharing of an incident that leads to an A-Ha moment is planned. Keep in mind, these interactions all have touchpoints, too. That ‘20’ doesn’t mean we can easily measure the import of every utterance and seek to improve coaching or mentoring conversations by observing or eavesdropping continuously. However, it’s worth considering just how powerful informal, professional language is and how worthy it might be to bring to daylight the concept that everything one says or does has a value that is measurable in terms of utility and effect. This would include sharing via social media as well. As we know, a useful point made in Twitter, evinces a piling on of like-minded comments. These touchpoints will have extraordinary reach and thus value if the sources are trusted and adds to the validity of the single point under review. Most importantly both Cx and 70:20:10 are performance and productivity focused.

It would seem terribly logical for learning designers, ID’s, courseware, and content builders to become aware of the customer experience. If our product is the transmission of knowledge, skills and behaviors—and we expect change to result from each learning event, than designing with care and scrutinizing each touchpoint is another valuable way to look at and improve learning outcomes. Perhaps the designer’s role will change toward one of director; scripting a full 100% development experience—composed of 70:20:10 where every action or activity plays a role in the education of a learner and the idea of the total customer experience is viewed via touchpoints ensuring all actions are focused on results.

Overcoming Generation Differences When Building Learning: Part 2

When we last visited this topic about a week back I promised to create a visual—a chart of sorts—to encourage learning and instructional designers to consider how generational bias in training delivery. Just looking to start a conversation.

A Quick Review
You might want to pop back to the original article: http://tiny.cc/qpsrax

We know we’re engaging three distinct groups in today’s workplace, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y (Millenials). Each has specific preferences for general communication and they carry over in training as well. Whether creating a training program when all three groups are in the room or accessing courses online demands the learning designer incorporate specific ways of delivering information with the appropriate assets, techniques, and technologies. Initially, we would hope learners, right from the first word or screen, slide or handout, would buy-in and see value; a predisposition that his will be a good experience. During the training, we build formative experiences to keep all groups interested and motivated to continue, committed that the investment in time is worthwhile. Finally we would want participants to exit the training experience appreciating it was translatable into their work life. If this is accomplished, the next training experience will be viewed much more favorably and meet with less resistance.

Acknowledging their generational age, and considering their technological age (how savvy are they to tech) as well as comfort with social media, influences how they will respond to courseware. Though there are three distinct groups, many learners exhibit the preferences for learning outside the generational ‘norm’. These people are to be commended for either learning new technology, appreciating other ways of ‘seeing’ learning or just curious enough to drop a toe in the fast flowing stream of change. We need to depend on these folks to help convert those who tend to be inflexible.

Caveats abound:

  • This is not a fully scientific approach nor based on academic, androgogical research
  • It is the product of crowdsourcing, anecdotal research and discussion with hundreds of learning/instructional designers and clients not to mention intuition
  • My professional experience over thousands of hours of course building across more than twenty verticals and five geos and over 25 years of design have informed these findings, too

I am fully prepared to hear from all quarters. It’s a living document—a work in progress— so send your ideas to rshadrin@wonderfulbrain.com. I’m hoping criticism will help improve this instrument not merely tell me where to get off or how narrow-minded, oblique or stupid this exercise is.

Anyway, someone had to put a stake in the ground. Apparently me. I hope it doesn’t end up in my heart.

Ultimately, the learning designer has to make everyone happy if information transfer is to take place. Elements that ‘favor’ one group more than another will always be necessary. If knowledge, skills and behaviors are to be transmitted, absorbed and used than instructional design should seek balance. Occasionally this compromise is not appreciated nor well tolerated across the generations. Nevertheless, it is absolutely necessary to honor each aspect of the generation’s learning preferences and mitigate those that irritate others. Skillful designers know how to navigate these choppy waters and subtle mixtures of learning preferences can always be developed. Can the design ever be perfect. Well, no. But reasonable learners in all generations can recognize when attempts are made to entice them into a learning experience. And the organization expects each generation, besides tolerance, adapt as necessary to improve performance and solve problems through learning and training experiences.

GenCon

NOW EVERYONE WINS: OVERCOMING GENERATION DIFFERENCES WHEN BUILDING LEARNING

During an interview about a week back I asked the project manager about the audience for which the training courseware would be designed. The strongest criteria, emphatically made, was the consultants ability to work out a curriculum for 24 to 70 year olds. She added, by the way, some of them ‘don’t play well with others’ or didn’t want to take the training…and were clearly hostile. I know the second part is actually more enticing to discuss than the first but we’ll save that for a sequel.

It’s far from the first time any educator has faced this situation but it did get me wondering. A good place to start in preparing for such a project would recognize the characteristics of learners in each of the 4 major generational groups in today’s workplace. From that point discover, categorize and develop with some confidence the types of learning each would be most comfortable with then craft an overall rubric to be used when designing courseware for multi-age audiences. Looking around I did find an article where this conundrum was voiced. That solution was to conduct a needs assessment, offer basic training particularly in the technologies for those unfamiliar with online learning, and then take out an ‘insurance policy’ by creating what really was a back up curriculum in case of mass lethargy or a pedagogical mutiny. This answer seemed too superficial and really doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.

The Generations
Although these descriptions may seem a bit broad there is agreement the characteristics of each generation are accepted as real and true.

Baby Boomers (Post WW II, 47-65 years old)
Creating a pleasant work environment is paramount

  • Like steady work and climbing the corporate ladder, consider their coworkers to be their main social network
  • They put work at the center of their life and focus on building the company
  • Viewed as ‘seasoned’, thought leaders, or subject matter experts, has a stronghold on experience
  • If you want something done, pick up the phone instead of waiting on an email or text response

Generation X (Born between 1963-1980, early 30s to mid 40s)
genxfemale

  • Often labeled ‘slackers’, but are the best educated generation
  • Display a casual disdain for authority and structured work hours, dislike being micro-managed, skeptical and embrace a hands-off management philosophy
  • Will put in the hours while maintaining a reasonable work-life balance
  • Incorporate social media seamlessly into their personal and professional lives

Generation Y (Also called Echo Boomers or Millennials, born between 1981-1994, early 20s to early 30s)
millenial

  • Will make up 46% of the US workforce by 2020
  • Expect near universal positive reinforcement from authority figures while seeking job satisfaction
  • Incredibly technology savvy, immune to most traditional marketing and sales pitches
  • Rely heavily on blogs, instant messages, tweets, text messages
  • Demand work-life balance, flexible hours, work-from-home options, and mobile technology

 Generation Z (Soon to enter the workforce, born between 1995-2009)
First generation never to have experienced the pre-internet world. Already technology-focused

Where the Problem Begins
Let’s just back up a bit. School is the common denominator amongst all generations. But the problems that continue to arise in public education are magnified when boomer type instructional modalities are used to pitch information at millennial students. Teachers, the curriculum, methods and even the spaces for instruction are evidence of a generational disconnect. There are many superior older instructors who have made the technological and sociological leap to align content with context to educate their charges. But, in general this divide is not uncommon and where that happens, little learning goes on. Unfortunately many youngsters get patterned and adapt attitudes that, even as adults carry a distaste for learning not in their preferred mode. However these students are now our employees and need to be convinced by example learning can be made meaningful respecting the ways they want to, and best can learn. The question to consider? Are employees of a generation too rigid or overly reflexive in their rejection of training? Put another way, how malleable and adjustable are employees willing to be?

Where is Alignment in the Organization?
In corporate training we expect all generations to make adjustments so courses, training and instruction can be cast from a single or a few uniform models. After all this is the workplace. But that no longer cements an employee’s commitment nor guarantees willing participation. If we don’t honor the fundamental attitudes and proclivities of each generation we risk losing learners at the outset. Often staff, having endured training delivered in essentially a mode akin to a foreign language, have attitudes about training harden into instant negativity every time a required learning experience comes around. The problem that begs a solution is how best to design learning for all  generations.

Organizational Intolerance
Corporate leaders are skeptical  about the costs associated with learning and training believing there is not a high enough dividend in performance change to drive up profits. They would be extremely unlikely to embrace multiple course types to engage each generation in their learning ‘sweet spot.’ Instead corporate education needs to innovate, devising learning experiences to lure employees by offering a variety of ways to interact with information, absorb and most importantly use what they learned to be better at what they do—for themselves and the organization. Enough quality experiences and the fear, inertia or rejection displayed by generations will dissipate replaced by a more optimistic attitude about training at work.

A Way to Look at Instruction with Generational Regard
The goal is to reach every generation in their preferred learning style suggested by their social description. How? Develop learning elements, experiences, and technologies integrated into the content of courseware or training that speaks to each generation. This balanced methodology will engage all learners—not all the time nor in every instance—but enough so each group can sense an invitation to learn has been extended to them. Such an experience might offer elements (scenarios, interactivities, video, animation) techniques (direct instruction and gamification) experiences (role playing and decisions making strategies), assessing for competence (tests, role plays, scenarios, games) and media where learning might be best delivered (live, virtual, online, mobile, mixed), so that every generation can find relevance. Content will be carried forward in multiple modalities; formal, informal, social, participatory, for collaborative teams and individuals. Text, visuals, audio and interactivities will drive information respecting the sensibility of generational familiarity.

And while many employees are archetypes of each generation there are enough who just marginally typify the description of that generation. Of course this does not mean they are outliers, they simply fall into some other generational category.  I believe we can make some reasonable assumptions about the elements that once incorporated into instructional programs will reach every generation in their preferred learning style leaving no one outside the scope of education.

So what would a multi-generational learning plan look like? That’s going to need a well crafted visual. Stay tuned for Part II.

WHEN YOUR LEARNERS ARE ENGINEERS… BETTER KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

It can’t be a secret that stereotypes are often well proven by personal experience. And in my many years building learning, whether facilitated instruction or elearning it’s a cardinal rule that instructional designers need to know many aspects of their target learner’s personality traits. One, and maybe the most important metric, is their profession. The notion this alone determines both the techniques and design elements you should employ suggests the challenges you’ll face when the precepts of good learning are antagonistic to the personality characteristics of your audience. I don’t believe there is a more difficult group (I don’t mean they’re not nice people mind you) of learners—but whose typology seriously conflicts with story-based instruction than engineers.

If we’re going to create quality knowledge transfer, skills building and behavioral changes in our engineer audience then it pays to peel back their character traits that research and experience seem to bear out: Engineers are:

  • problem solvers
  • perfectionists
  • appreciate intelligence in others
  • creative within their field
  • argumentative when supporting their point of view
  • dogmatic
  • risk averse
  • emotionally detached
  • impersonal and reserved
  • not particularly diplomatic
  • uncomfortable with ambiguity and vagueness

Naturally, we can characterize any group of homogeneous learners who were drawn to their profession because these traits were naturally occurring. Also within any profession, practitioners lean into the traits most prevalent in the group and therefore further prove the stereotype. To be fair not every engineer exhibits all these traits, and the degree to which they are demonstrated or expressed vary considerably.

Regardless, given these traits engineers (it’s no stretch to hypothesize) prefer training or education delivered in a very practical way. It is an exhibition of their personalities. In other words:

  • Goals that are clearly presented
  • Results that are measurable/quantifiable
  • Material that is focused directly on achieving stated results
  • Visual elements included only if they directly illustrate a critical concept
  • Information presented in logical sequence and in order
  • Direct, to the point, facts with proofs
  • Concrete examples presented with no ambiguity; delete anything not directly aligned to training objectives

So what would a learning solution look like if it were built to an engineer’s specifications?

  • Clear unambiguous, quantifiable outcomes
  • Screens with material presented in logical order, point by point—like bullets for example
  • Literal, temporal and sequential presentation of information
  • Few if any checks for understanding (the assumption that if the material is correctly presented they’ll get it right; a certainty among engineers)
  • All facts, no emotive content need apply such as scenarios/stories
  • Tell, show, do; period

Many engineers would be just fine with a PowerPoint presentation or its equivalent with the addition of examples if necessary. The sample below is a screen from a course designed by engineers with no input from a learning designer.


Huh? As you can tell this even violates their preferred modalities.
Even an engineer would have problems understanding what this is trying to communication let alone teach.

Finally, let’s look at the considerations an instructional designer might regard as quality learning strategies, techniques and methods when building learning.

Content would have:

  • Objectives achieved through both cognitive learning and intuitive understandings
  • Preview and review experiences
  • Provisions for options, decision making risk taking
  • Employ checks for understanding, feedback and remediation
  • Images that both illustrate learning points, used to generate time, place, emotional content or as another modality for retention; and infographics that explain concepts visually w/o narrative content
  • Offer examples as scenarios/simulations and especially stories
  • Use emotions to help cement retention

By now you can tell I am arguing that the disconnect between the way engineers prefer their information delivered and the best practices in learning are estranged if not divorced from each other. That said; as the learning master how can you reconcile these differences. If your goal is to present information that yields a higher degree of knowledge transfer, what roads are open that will improve learning uptake and therefore performance while enticing engineers to see the learning design as interesting but compelling.

Two Methods for Designing Learning Engineers will Appreciate

  1. Leverage their primary mental framework and traits while chunking and organizing information with enrichment materials to enhance learning retention.

Let’s take the information in the sample screen and deconstruct it.

The objective seems to be an explanation of how automatic data synchronization takes place.

In the current screen learners are told after CM has been added as a Managed Element it is cued up for synchronization. This is followed by two qualifying conditions; one positive the other negative. To monitor the process, the learner is offered a navigation string to access software that illustrates a screen where the process is made evident. While this seems to have logic and order, it is a mashup of too many ideas in one space. Engineers, though we didn’t mention this earlier, really don’t like to waste space so they jam in as much content in one place as possible. This has a double negative effect; there is too much information to digest and it is often confusing and overwhelming, particularly in the screen above since there are two disparate operations.

Now look at this example. Without changing he content—there’s only one element chunked differently—the actual application moved to another screen—there’s much more clarity. There is a logical flow of information and the two options are more distinctive and differentiated. A screen like this meets more of the engineers’ preferences; even though the former seems to be more chocked full of information—it really is jammed up and more difficult to absorb. No doubt when the screen is composed with adequate white space, learners have a better visual experience.

More importantly on the next screen, using a tool like Captivate, the learner could manipulate the data and work through a ‘Show Me, Tell Me, Let Me Try’ option to enhance participation, add interest, and show proofs of fact.

So screen design, which is a function of the instructional design process leads to more clarity and more information presented in a direct and functional manner meeting the engineer’s preferences for ordered delivery of content.

2.       Organize courses to take advantage of engineers drive away from ambiguity

It’s too easy being deceived into building courseware that relies on one set of online screens to sustain the entire learning program. Often, engineers need to learn applications, new hardware, and software and apply their learning to initiate a new method of processing information or bringing new equipment online. When this type of knowledge AND skills must be transferred a blended approach works best.

Recently I designed a learning protocol that required engineers to work with an application in a lab setting with opportunities to use software to program hardware to work to specification. However, they needed to have fundamental information before the lab experience. Initially the client believed that once on site in the lab the facilitator could deliver the content and then lead the lab experiences. This would have proven to be overwhelming for both instructor and learner. The time on learning would stretch to five or more days. Lecturing from the platform while walking engineers through the content and then transitioning to the software application training was a model this company had used before. No wonder their ability to fill seats in the training facility was regularly less than 30%.

The solution was to develop an initial introduction to the course material online followed by a synopsis of each unit of learning into a guide distributed well ahead of the onsite lab experience. After each ‘chapter’ in the Learner’s Guide, a short check for understanding would be completed and forwarded to the facilitator. He would then review the responses, see the areas where there was most confusion, and later start the lab session with remediation of those areas. Only then would he begin to deliver the lab (software application) experiences.

The Instructor’s Manual would provide all the labs, screens, teaching scripts and software application directions. Each individual operation would be shared with the engineers in sequence after an explanation of where this experience aligned with content in the Learner’s Guide. Application operations would be selected to include those that posed the most challenges; others would be worked up by engineers on their own time, during or post training with an open invitation to query other participants or the facilitator. In total the amount of lab time would be reduced, learners would have all their deficits resolved during the remediation period and the need to explore over 700 potential individual application operations in the lab unnecessary.

Using pre-instruction, passing responsibility to learners to be ready for the lab, allowing the facilitator to quickly resolve areas of confusion and finally engage learners in the lab with the most critical and challenging aspects of the application made better use of time and left engineers with a sense of community and competence.

Going back and reviewing the way engineers prefer to learn you can see that in online or facilitated instructional design, awareness of their particular personality traits can be mitigated. Better yet—if you are able to design learning with their considerations in mind, engineers, though always a tough crowd, can be reached and taught in an effective way and one where their opinion of the education experience will more than likely be positive.

Scenarios Are Mini Dramas…Not a Glorified Q and A.

Contrary to many articles published lately, scenarios are not written questions with a supposition or proposition followed by questions. They are micro dramas that bring learners onto the screen and compel interaction. Once in, learner needs to work his way out.

One my mantras I have consistency followed is that elearning is an analogue to a television drama. Using this core belief, the components that make up a show can be modified to enhance, if not totally structure an online course experience. Too often, I visit learning that is frankly weak even if it has all the requisite objectives, structure, and guiding scaffold, e.g. ADDIE by example. Whether in Captivate, Articulate, or a full-blown Flash/HTML course too many learning experiences are dry to the mind, dull to the eye and dead to the ear. If this indicative of a general lack of imagination on the part of learning designers, ID’s or constraints place by clients it matters not. The results are courses that are outwardly pushed at learners rather than trying to entice learners and pull them in to the story.

In many examples of courseware, scenarios are one component of a learning experience. While there are many interpretations of the word, there are very few differences in how, as a learning technique, it has been applied. So let me tell you what I think a scenario isn’t:

  • Not a series of questions with multiple answers that try to engender thinking
  • Not a brief explanation of a situation and then questions that demonstrate the learner will know what to do
  • Not a grouping of pictures that ask the learner to choose which is the right answer, whether process, action or straight knowledge

A scenario is part of a longer story enriching the experience for learners by placing them inside the course as a full participant. It would be similar to jumping into a movie while it’s being shown and working your way out again by uttering a magic word. Only in the case of learning, it would mean meeting a challenge as a role player and by actions, words, and deeds, demonstrating competence in order to move ahead in the course. When used at its full strength, which I’ll explain next, it is almost in the realm of gamification; the hot thing in learning now.

The Elements of a Real Scenario
Let’s begin where we always should and that’s with the outcomes we are seeking; not just for the course, but for each scenario. It’s imperative to establish very specific outcomes and their key performance indicators (KPIs) in the design brief. The latter are necessary for evaluating variables like degree of success, number of attempts, quality of corrections and other metrics that will determine whether the actor can go on to the next scene or stay on for take 21.

Based on these outcomes we can now get creative by spinning a situation or state of being into which the learner will be placed. We will need a setting and/or space and the other actors in this little drama.

By example, we might start like this:

  1. Establishing a locale, setting or space
    Providing a visualization of a realistic environment is essential. This is the stage where the action takes place. In fact, consider more than one virtual space; activities amongst actors, like in a film rely on multiple sets to help tell and sell the story. Place your emphasis on detail. If you watch ‘Mad Men’ you’ll know the efforts Matthew Weiner goes to establish a real feel for the era by inhabiting a set that goes to the smallest detail; a stapler, pencils, clothes hooks…nothing is too small so the place rings true. You may not need to be that fanatic, but it’s a point to remember. Whether you use static images or illustrations, Flash or movies strive for reality.
  2. The actors in this drama must be typical so they can be instantly recognized as a ‘type’. No need to take this to extremes—not every CFO wears neither a three-piece suit nor every creative thick nerd glasses. But try to stick to type. And this goes for their speaking (VO or audio) which should use appropriate technical or professional speak…with some exceptions. When selling learning for example, resist putting abbreviations in a person’s mouth before it’s made clear. For instance, say ‘instructor led training’ before saying ILT.
  3. The action is moved by dialogue but it starts a problem that needs to be addressed. The best prologues have a sense of urgency and can be spoken by one or more persons. And be specific about stage directions as well. If you don’t know how to direct a camera or the proper terms than learn them. You are, remember writing a drama, and even if the budget won’t allow complete customization the many details can be established in less costly ways.
    • (CFO, Stephen, in his office speaking to his marketing manager) (CU – close up on his face)
      “Bob, we need to get our numbers up to meet projections and our sale people are not closing. I’ve spoke to Rona and she is meeting with her account execs today. What do you think about bringing in some training, live, virtual, or online? We have less than 60 days to turn this around.”
      (MS – medium shot where we see Bob gesturing towards Stephen)
      I agree we can’t let this slide. I’m actually sitting in on the meeting and I’ll drive the conversation in that direction. Frankly, I don’t know if our people are saying the right things about our products or their not selling right. But I’ll get back to you ASAP.

4. Making it real often depends on the media and budget. Another consideration is real estate; how many screens can be appropriated without intruding on time constraints.Here is the hierarchy of scenario media by cost:

  • Low Cost:
    Stock images with voice over. To make this work look for stock images that feature the same people in multiple poses. Moreover, make sure you use a variety of voices as well. All too often, a scenario becomes a simple narration of a scene. If the content would benefit from a narrator, ensure that voice is different from all the others. Also, you can drop actors into different backgrounds (settings, like above) using Photoshop to create a transparent background. Having a good ID with top-notch skills makes this a quick operation. Now you can place actors in the best possible office, or warehouse or field site and approximate reality. Lastly use special effects by moving people across the screen; even if it looks phony, it works
  • Medium Cost. Using an illustrator allows you to design any setting and any look for your actors. While pricier your work can begin to establish a branded look and feel and with voice over’s adding the final touch you can create a unique scenario
  • High Cost. There are stock video places where you might find enough content to tell a real story. However, this technique works best when combined with either of the other forms. Multiple media heightens interest and it compels learners to stay focused on the action.
  • Custom video. Clearly the most expensive but usually the most effective form of scenario building. Actually, you’d be making a small movie only interrupted by questions or other actions. You would design stops in the action and perhaps bring in a narrator, on screen, to describe the action to come or review what has just taken place. The learner relates to the narrator and welcomes him as a guide.
  • Multimedia. Mixing forms of media is very effective. Illustration that fades into actual images of the actors is very powerful, just as static images can turn into live action video. Any numbers of combinations are possible; just remember the objectives set forth in the design brief are the target—with apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the medium in not the message.

5. The basic rules of instructional design should include how to use images in scenarios. There are infinite options about how to place objects and people on the screen. Too often scenarios look like home movies with all the action taking place at the same distance from the screen. Everything is in the middle distance. How boring. Add vitality and interest by pushing faces right into the screen dominating the entire frame while other people or the background appears tiny behind the giant face. On the other hand, start a voice speaking before the person enters the picture; and bring an actor from way back into the foreground while talking to someone who is already in the picture. I can’t possibly go in to all the options but I’m sure you get the idea. Variety with a purpose should by your focus.

Bringing In the Learner
While scenarios are interesting and often entertaining, they are not passive. The best results are obtained through interactive elements. Most often, this works by stopping the action until the learner causes it to start again that results from their completion of specific actions.

Here’s a sample of actions:

  1. Selecting a physical action for the virtual you; go to this office; enter the shipping center, load the truck, inspect the device and ensure it is functioning
  2. Choosing the appropriate phrase, selling point, technical language or procedure
  3. Answering direct questions; correcting an erroneous response
  4. Participating in a discussion and offering a suggestion that brings consensus
  5. Completing a form or using an application correctly
  6. Following the next step in process

Scenarios are essentially rehearsals for real events and offer the practice needed to begin forming good habits. It follows that if the responses are correct, the scenario can move ahead. If wrong, the scenario can branch into a remedial loop where the concept(s) are explained using other examples or rationale. NOTE: If there are multiple correct responses, a scenario can have branches that extend the scenario along different paths too, like a game model.

Finally, the scenario continues until the objectives have been met. Managers depend on the structure of the scenario to know competence has been achieved when either multiple correct responses during the scenario have been achieved, or there is a final, summative problem the learner correctly completes. It is imperative learners take away the knowledge, skills and behaviors they need to be more effective in the workplace.

Too many volumes and guides teaching instructional design relegate scenarios to just another technique to be trotted out in a few circumstances. In actuality, the more dynamic and exciting the scenarios, and the more kinds offered, the more television-like the courseware becomes. And because this is two-way, participatory television it has all the components of good story telling with the participation of the learner as a primary actor. We know when learners interact in multiple ways their immediate understanding is high and the application of what was learned is used successfully on the job. That leads to performance improvement…and that is the ultimate goal of any learning system.

Taming Information Overload Before it Devours

Not too long ago we needed design tools like an artist’s palette demands a variety of colors; both to provide many ways to communicate both cognitively and emotionally. Now we have the technological capacity to deliver learning to anyone in the learning style to which they best respond across multiple platforms irrespective of time and geography. With the gate down learning designers can roam far and wide (and deep) to match content, to methods of communication to outcomes.

The challenge is just because we can do anything doesn’t mean we have to do everything. The temptation to employ every idea and methodology is an organic consequence of information overload. And pushed at us by the hour (minute, second?) in all kinds of forms has in many ways had the effect of distracting our ability to solve problems. Rather than making learning design more direct and focused, content is too easily diluted by non-essential information—that, while interesting and valuable—does nothing to amplify the quality of the learning solution. At the same time, as this graphic illustrates, our brains just can’t take it all in. We’ve run out of cognitive space—and most of us do not delve any deeper, wider and in some cases outright ignore anything new having burnt out chasing the innovation comet.

We Are In The Throes Of Pedagogical Pleonasm
What a wonderful word to describe the use of more words than necessary to express and idea. For instance, ‘at this moment in time” presumably means “now.” That’s an apt metaphor of the forces with which we contend. It’s fair to wonder how much is information in courseware is enough and how to maximize delivery for the strongest and most effective outcome.

Information overload, combined with powerful expressionistic tools suggest developers can all too easily be blown off course even when their instructional targets, objectives and KPIs are solid, and more importantly clear. Where the challenge used to be filling in minimal material driving instructional designers to request more help from SMEs, too much available content is driving us towards a condition of learning pleonasm.

The Cure – Specificity Is The Antidote For Distraction
What can a developer, learning designer or courseware developer do to ensure the required elements; the colors of the educational project are included while taming the information overload beast?

Here’s a list of those elements to think about when starting to build learning in a global environment crowded with information from which exclusions, rather than inclusions become more important. As white space on a page offers visual relief, often room for reflection in learning can come only from careful pruning.

  1. Prepare with Clarity
    Long before objectives are even a mote on the screen, conversations with clients that result from questioning and probing; listening for cues and clues to what a client really expects as an end result will pay dividends later. Remember your client’s client is your learning target – not the payer. The performance that gets measured often means continually reminding the ‘paying’ client that understanding.How will those who complete the course differ in knowledge, skills, and decision making, from their naïve colleagues? I’ve yet to see a statement on an SOW that highlights those differences in writing. We write around it but we just assume…and that is too vague.

2. Write highly targeted, clearly demonstrable objectives
No matter how many projects I lead or, I am continually flummoxed by outcomes written by experienced instructional designers that offer no demonstrable measurement to check for acquisition of learning. Going one-step further not only developing the objective, but articulating the way in which each will be taught and assessed. And put it in writing.

3. Ensure you include KPIs
Key performance indicators drill down one-step deeper articulating specific qualities (or quantities) within each objective. Many times KPIs are most effective if ranked in a rubric or table with the most desirable condition at one end and the unacceptable at the other en

4. Operate with Precision
Instead of building in standard ISD form, with outlines, chapters, sections, modules and such, work the opposite way. Give in to information overload; put anything and everything related to the topic into a narrative overview. Then, with the objectives and KPIs on a giant billboard, bring out the scalpel and cut away anything that offers no direct benefit to the learning.

5. Ensure there are milestones and reviews, a standard practice that now takes on added importance – emblazon the objectives across the top of every QA review document,

6. Perform cohort studies for each group of learners when the course completes.
Since each has had the same experience, discover if your courseware or project has had the intended effect or outcomes. When comparing two courses as equal as possible, the one that has applied these steps should be more effective in learning uptake, time on course, and even likeability.

So…in our information rich world, the best courseware and education you will build resists the temptation to include every fact and figure that imparts more information, but in doing so dilutes specific performance objectives. More is often just…more, not better. What serves the learner and leads to desired performance outcomes signals your vanquishing information overload.