For the past two months or so, I’ve been writing high profile video scripts and storyboarding in a group whose company is synonymous with the 2008 economic collapse. That they made a recovery and paid back most of their bailout money is a testament to leadership and perseverance. But I wish those same qualities extended to training, for here, little was produced that could be considered responsible online education. Like most subjective or creative ventures, it comes down to choices. Beginning with objectives for what learners should take away and then demonstrates in their performance, to the design process and finally the software used to build courseware always determine the instructional yield at the end. When you desire higher order learning; that is information that actually teaches beyond mere recall, then how you design and what software you select for development define your expectations most clearly. If you’re happy to live and feed at the bottom—and by this I mean the lowest end of the taxonomy, providing simple information transfer or at best skills and recall that ask little of the learner you can default to what is easiest. You know, and accept training not education as your outcome. Reminds me of Lewis Grizzard’s humorous tome “Shoot Low Boys, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies.” And for training, the contemporary tool of choice is Articulate.
Low-Level Learning Cheats the Learner
What I call ‘low-level’ elearning is the product of 3 conditions; the desire to move content to delivery as fast as possible, using the most basic software tools from which this can be accomplished, and lastly if something important is being tee’d up online but the development tool isn’t up to the task, the organization puts up fierce resistance to deliver learning in a different medium.
I harbor a patent dislike for packaged authoring tools like Articulate. Popular to the point of ubiquity, one can quickly see why since with very little instruction a learning designer can become a learning developer. Them that invents can own the means of production. It’s highly seductive, relatively cheap in price and learning overhead. Nothing wrong with that except for three insurmountable issues: The first being Articulate and other analogues, encourages anyone to believe they know how to create learning. This attitude diminishes expectations of what learning could be to what the tool will allow it to be. Not to get too deep in the weeds here but learning and instructional design is a discipline that requires significant education to get it right and be of some use. From my vantage point, training managers effective at face-to-face instruction believed they knew how to translate that form into online instruction. Furthermore, having no grasp of how to build let alone interpret a storyboard never held back their opinion about how a screen (which they continued to call slides after that infamous program that serves as an anchor for Articulate) should be populated. The comparison might be a dentist who decides to attempt heart surgery. I mean they are both doctors, right? So the tool invites simplistic, often poorly constructed, and wrongly paced learning as a composite of (I’ll call them by their right name) template screens that the ill prepared but titled deign as adequate. That’s how you get training, not education.
Armor Plated Articulate
Let’s keep I mind there is a learning-industrial complex surrounding Articulate. Thus sycophants, add-ons, templates, coaches, workshops, companies offer training that ensure it has become and maintains its self-righteous place as the default program for delivering low-end elearning. This is one moat you cannot easily cross. It’s well insulated from attack, whether from learning or economic exigencies.
Articulate provides very limited options in terms of interfaces, screen designs, and interactivities (there are 10 out of the box – like drag and drops and the like) that cause developers to suspend inventive screen design to push material out on tight schedules. I observed talented developers, who knew all the nuances and ‘tricks’ to fool Articulate into executing pretty neat operations for which it was not designed curse the heaven’s when a day’s worth of work crashed. At one point I ordered up a truly engaging interactive and the developer with whom I worked finally resorted to a mash up of Flash squeezed into an Articulate shell to create the most creative piece to come out of the that shop. Perhaps this is why Storyline is starting to gain traction. It is not linked to that (as yet unnamed) Microsoft Office program but it does offer the option to forsake templates and move towards more free form development. Plus it migrates to either Flash or HTML5. Of course, companies have beaucoup dollars invested in Articulate and the people to run it so this will be a bottom up migration. A revolution of the learning proletariat perhaps.
Managers Who Say ‘Good Enough’
Finally, management claiming to be realistic about scheduling and resources insisted what came out of that workgroup was good enough—better than anything the company had ever seen to that point. I refer you to the Grizzard quote. Understanding the limits of the tool, and recognizing that trying to re-educate internal executive clients was a losing proposition both politically and temporally, as the group manager let the learning product slither out the cubicle. Yet every single piece of courseware was—long after the storyboard had been approved and the course firmly digital, was picked over and redesigned. Now I ask anyone who knows anything about elearning if that is not a severe contraindication to all that good production means. And I blame this partially on Articulate; if clients think a course can be knocked together with such ease then what’s the big deal about modifying whole chunks of screens. It’s the inmates running the asylum.
Overall, results were measured by the number of courses that made it from a facilitators guide to the LMS at the lowest possible costs measured against production hours, stock photography purchases and additional matter—music or more robust narration for example. No accounting for redevelopment that, by most metrics costs ten times the amount to modify if quality assurance in the storyboard stage were respected. But the concept was foreign—it was let the client see it in its finished form and then we can negotiate changes. Duh?
The Ubiquity of Easy
Perhaps I thought this whole situation was an anomaly and that most other large firms including learning vendors reserved their higher concepts and critical thinking demands for courseware using Flash and HTML5. Not so. I asked former clients and employers how they were building projects and more than 60% said when necessary, they had assigned junior level designers and developers, or instructional designers who had expertise with Articulate—or, to be fair other templatized programs to produce complete courses. When I dove a bit deeper and asked what types of content and at what level of cognitive learning were they building with PowerPoint based tools (there, I said it) they admitted these were – to use one phrase – quick and dirty but they could at least turn a small profit and churn dollars through the company.
In the final result we have a process that insists good enough is, well… good enough, a tool that allows that attitude to flourish even when it the process demonstrates it is inefficient and a disregard for any other options that could improve results even if Articulate remained the developer tool of choice. This is a systematic failure. But for all that, plus missed deadlines and costs incurred by backwards facing repair work, the organization was impressed enough with the visual look and the rolling out of low-level content to be satisfied. There was never any attempt to examine how much or what was ever learned—no one knows (though I suspect) these courses simply replaced stand up training and there singular benefit was only one of scale. You know, less trainers, more viewers in multiple geos, But I’ll bet my reputation the conversion of ILT to this form of online instruction will be revealed as the equivalent of the emperor with no clothes. There’s no learning there, only screens of information; a low-level target for sure.
The Third Way
Let me close this distressing topic by referencing Edward Tufte. I can recall reading his famous treatise, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” where he advocated this idea: Instead of spewing out bulleted slides, especially for complex information, it would be better to produce a high end print piece which would delve into the nuances of a topic and—my insert here—distribute it the same way courseware takes wing—online and accessed from an LMS or Portal. True there might not be any interactivities but—and this is a biggie—with the groundswell acceptance of infographics and the ability of people to ‘get it’ visually without a ton of text, perhaps we have a third way of delivering information. Add to that the capacity of infographics when designed with interactive components (using the newer Adobe program suite) there’s a better model now available. Moreover, combining a good written treatise with high-end infographics seems to me a much better way to offer meaningful information than the kerplunk I hear every time someone tells me they are fluent in Articulate. That, to me, telegraphs all I need to know about the depth and quality of the learning. Better to design a Word doc with good graphics then obey the regal law imposed by rules bound tools like Articulate.
Regem ut mortuum esse.