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.


Big Data, Good Information and A Way For You To Use It

In this article I want to explore 3 connected ideas. The first is about big data, the phenomenon that now makes available enormous, staggering, volumes of information almost instantaneously. The second is a condition that says information already known to us can limit how big data can be used because there are other types of knowing to expand thinking. And the third idea is the sum of the first two: that the intersection of big data and a different way of seeing information means a model must be designed to utilize large amounts of validated information in a reasonable way.

So the era of big data is here. Imagine Niagara Falls and the millions of gallons of water that shoot over the precipice virtually every minute. That’s the scale of information we envision when thinking of the amount of data we can reach out and grab—or in some cases is pushed to us—everyday.  It would be impossible to know it all. But one benefit of massive volume is, when looked at through a certain lens, we have an opportunity to connect seemingly unrelated bits of data and discover trends, make predictions, even pre-position products and services long before we click, point or touch. It’s the compilation of colossal amounts of data that presents a challenge. How do we pluck just the right information we need from this torrent of bits?  This is the difficulty with information management in the era of big data; it’s like trying to take a sip from a fire hose. Our need is not to get information it’s how to get just the right content to help us work with more accurate and insightful facts and, smarter and faster?

Clearly then we see how working out a process to employ big data and make quality business decisions is difficult. Furthermore consider this context, our second condition:

“There are known knowns” began an answer to a question at a US Department of Defense News Briefing made by Donald Rumsfeld while serving as United States Secretary of Defense in February 2002. Actually, here’s the whole tortured phrase… “there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.” Though it may seem convoluted it is a “brilliant distillation of a quite complex matter,” said Mark Steyn, a Canadian columnist and echoed by many others, even legions of his detractors.

While good information on its own is valuable its utility when combined with other data to discover other, perhaps new data and still newer meanings is really profound. Sometimes the information is known and we need to fasten it in context, other times we don’t know there is… and what is…  trustworthy information but have to discover it; and more abstract yet, as unknowns the potential of useful but opaque information demands we peer into the future and ask ‘what if’ and proceed to manufacture information on (hopefully intelligent and intuitively perceptive) speculation.

If you’re in the business of solving problems—and who isn’t really—you’ll need an information life cycle model to regard big data and the ‘knowns issue’ to manage a collection of information for maximum use. And beware; too much data without vetting and affirmation, means you might miss the really important stuff, an effect that keeps security services awake at night. And therein lies the third concern of massive information management.

By summary then, we face three elements in our quest to make big data work for organizations:

    1. Gathering information factoring the effect gained when combinations of content reveal even newer more, newer, meaningful data
    2. Respecting knowns and unknowns as  fact and as potential ‘black swans’ (an unpredictable or unforeseen event, typically one with extreme consequences) that can and will skew results if not discovered prior or during information capture or application
    3. Culling the really useful information or data—those bits directly related to the problem at hand—from the gargantuan amount of information flying about making it accessible, contextual and changeable.

Here’s a model than might help us slow down a bit, turn down the faucet and cull out know information and potentially new content when big data offers additional tonnage of content.


The flow chart illustrates how information would be categorically organized; a model for the standardization of an information life cycle in big data world.

Ultimately culling useful information from an almost limitless stream comes down to energy, resourcefulness and commitment. When building a learning course for example, your subject matter experts deliver very specific information as they must do. However, is there other data in text, as visuals, in video that might provide a different way to see the information? Clarifying content by shifting the context just a little bit can often shine a light into corners formerly unseen. Whether one has the time or inclination to make the effort to go shopping for more information is dependent on time and budget, yes, however, when looking to make learning better and richer, drinking from the stream is often a task worth enduring. Creating metaphors mined from a combination of newly discovered information can improve the user experience—and enjoyment—like spinning a kaleidoscope and seeing new patterns. Using a model such as the one proposed might make such an effort more reasonable.


In the modern era, the textbook is still the spine from which teachers deliver information. Despite the ubiquity of Wikipedia and the web, most teachers rely on a single source to reference the bulk of instructional material for knowledge transfer to their charges. Some texts are terrific; contemporary information well researched, written and compelling with story-based content attractive to the mass of students. However along with soaring prices, how up-to-date can they be—and how often will new editions replace dated volumes?

Textbooks are generally written by more than one primary author and reviewed by committees of content experts, practitioners in that field, and university educators. They are often generated as often by changes in information in the field as by publishers whose teams of researchers not only scan for the latest information but for the need to sell books.

Which text is selected is as much political as pedagogical; sometimes by fiat resulting from state or national tests to which the textual content must align, or on the local level by committees of educators who select from a narrow range of choices that must satisfy the same requirements. Texts compel teachers adhere to the proscribed curriculum so a higher percentage of students will pass their state’s test. Text selections can, unfortunately become an expression of political or cultural orientation. When school boards—think Texas or Kansas here—demand textbooks align to standardized or ‘high stakes’ tests that themselves are replete with prejudicial, politicized and questionable information the truth dies in the false rhetoric among the vehement and vocal critics of modernism . Darwin, the barometer of scientific objectivism and generally accepted fact, like climate change, Reagonomics, the Civil War, the canon of literature and other hot issues—might be revealed in a realistic and balanced manner in some texts, but meet fierce opposition in these municipalities. In such places you can be sure publishers will accede to the wishes of the textbook purchasers—customers—and modify their product to sell. Put succinctly, in some states, school districts and schools, dinosaurs died and became oil, yet in those same oil-producing states, dinosaurs were domesticated as transportation.

Into the fray steps the software, Apple’s iBooks Author:

“So, the big story is really about how this effects the billion(s) dollar industry of textbook publishing. Apples iBooks will sell for no more than $14.99. So, if the publishers are looking to keep their profits at current levels that most likely means someone is going to get cut out of the deal. It’s obvious that someone is the author. But the good news is that with a free authoring tool and the iTunes/iBook marketplace, I think the authors may end up getting the better end of this deal.
I’ve been it for several years now but I’ll say it again, “Teachers will be the next millionaires.” (Emphasis by the author) With today’s technologies, and the new technologies just around the corner, there is no reason why a great teacher couldn’t produce content for sale, and mentor students for a fee, and make a very good living.” (“Apple Announces Textbook Revolution.” www.elearndev.blogspot.com, 19 January 2012)

At first blush, this seems fantastic. Taken from a purely instructional perspective, the ability to create a multimedia text that will surely fascinate this generation of learners and incorporate disruptive technologies is profound. Kids live in this world every minute. Finally school catches up to real life. Wow! Couple this with online sharing and collaborative ventures and we are in reach of best in class teaching and reference materials. Note the author quoted above (Brent Schlenker in this case, a very sharp educator and aware blogger) grows misty over ‘great teachers’ producing ‘great textbooks.’ This presumes only great teachers will master the tools and build terrific texts–up to the minute, media rich and iconic.

What about the mediocre teacher who also has the technical chops to produce a compelling volume? Even if their books are clearly viewed as insipid, who is to say they won’t be adopted somewhere? The contrarian in me (a former teacher, administrator, university professor and state consultant—and textbook author) worries that we may be launching a confabulation of substandard information produced by competent software manipulators with substandard or politicized content. And where will teachers get the energy and time to organize and design and develop unique interactive texts. Even with the relative simplicity of the tools. It’s possible they’ll default to the lowest common denominator amongst content to push out material viz, rapid elearning, to speak to students in their ‘umwelt’ and that looks close to entertainment or at best edutainment.

Schools of education are totally in the Stone Age here so don’t expect teachers to experience development techniques to help them become instructional designers. Not all teachers are good writers, nor have they been trained in the profundities and nuances of graphic and interactive design. Besides the very real daily issues of keeping groups of students on task and in line are still job one in most classrooms.

Here’s a rubric that I believe tosses into the ring a way in which to examine what teacher-built texts could be.

It’s certainly not comprehensive, rather a point of departure. I’d like to start some dialogues here, look forward to a debate about the realities that will eventually present themselves as the tools roll out, and teachers commit to self-authoring. So I’ve drawn my line in the sand. I hope great teachers can not only master the technology but gain the time to produce first-rate contemporary texts—ones that can change as real facts become known. And students will be the real beneficiaries to the extant they can respond in kind by building their own materials questioning and inventing other realities. But it’s all too likely that without standards that had better evolve quickly, there’s an equal chance given the history of school progressivism, teacher built texts can be equal to the worst produced by publishers.


There seems to be a revival of interest about informal learning. I suppose the definitions range from information gleaned from informal sources—everything from Wikipedia to People Magazine to storytelling, to disruptive media like tablets and smartphones. Some suggest it’s content discovered while looking for something else. Kind of like an accidental scavenger, a web surfer. No matter how the information is presented, gathered or used it appears the single best notion is that it was unintentional and/or secondary to the main thrust of what is or was to be learned.

Let me suggest we might think of informal learning as ‘Ad Hoc.’ This is not to say passive though it could be serendipitous – just because you ‘come across’ something worth spending time with doesn’t mean it won’t support formal content. If learning is as brain scientists tell us, empowered by the relationships of ideas, the gymnastics of making connections provides meaning and quite often enrichment; then hurrah for informal learning.

Here’s an example of, at least for me, the best kind of informal learning. My wife and I recently saw Woody Allen’s terrific film, “Midnight in Paris.” Aside from the story and plotline, the director paints the cityscape with a loving hand and inhabits it with characters from the Parisian heyday of the early to mid nineteen twenties. We get to meet Picasso and Dali, Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds and Ernest Hemingway among others. And they are brought to life with dialogue they might have, and in some cases actually spoke. This is particularly true of actor Corey Stoll’s portrayal of Hemingway. Spurred on by his characterization I decided to read ‘A Moveable Feast’ the author’s description of his life in Paris as a young and struggling writer. Then too, the soundtrack with familiar tunes in some cases—and quite arguably—performed as in the case of Cole Porter just as he might at an evening soiree, that made the movie even more potent. So I purchased the soundtrack as well.

Let’s add up the ‘learning’ from a movie I intended to watch for entertainment only.

  1. A study of Parisian architecture from photographic angles and perspectives not seen in guidebooks, documentaries or even after a couple of visits.
  2. Information about art and artists, music and musicians, writers and their works.
  3. How the relationships all of these young and vibrant talents thrown together, that made what Stein coined the ‘lost generation’ such a roiling pot of creativity.
  4. Finally, the effect of this environment and people on the protagonist with whom we as an audience bond transported in a personal way.

Anyway, we went to see a movie for pleasure. However, I was encouraged to study the writing and music of the time and received enrichment and delight.

Is this informal learning? In a sense yes because the information I sought afterward was assembled organically and from curiosity. So is that a bad thing? Is the learning less important or salient? No, if you want to learn what you want to learn. When there is great enjoyment, the endorphins kick in and there is potential for exponential personal growth. Everything will have meaning to the learner.

Tablets and smartphones have made made information more readily available; time and space mean even less. If you’re intrigued about a topic then follow a thread until you are sated by a sense of completion or as has been known to happen, sensory overload.

Once we formalize the process of learning and form expectations, objectives, outcomes, KPIs, and other performance measures two things happen. The core information is delivered in a linear and focused way so it can be measured and the the opportunity to ‘drift,’ that is find casual connections is diminished. One might be told to look elsewhere for examples and so on, but nonetheless it’s scripted. There’s no denying we have to learn things we might not find particularly entertaining or mind expanding. There’s no adrenaline rush from studying topics of minimal interest even when they have career importance and possibly tied to an extrinsic reward. Nevertheless it must be done. Even if there is useful information on the periphery learners are not encouraged to seek it out.

In the field of education, one of the latest trends is that of open courses, called MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses). Such courses are based on the theory of connectivism and on a network where a lot of  people are doing independent but interrelated work. It’s collaboration on a global scale. Generally, everyone is working to assemble knowledge and learn about a particular topic but individuals are free to come at it from any angle. In this way, the subject is examined from multiples of different approaches. The content is infused and enriched. I wonder if MOOCs are the beginning of a hybrid of formal and informal learning.

Could this be a model for schools?
In most secondary schools, separate classes and courses compartmentalize instruction. Students have no one place to put their learning’s together to make a cogent whole. The relationship of one course’s content to another’s goes unexplored—there is neither opportunity nor invitation for reflection. Instead of individual courses we might allow for the type of learning…based on discovery… that will resonate with students, inform them factually and humanistically. Just like “Midnight in Paris,” was a nucleus from which students set off on explorations of culture, history, literature, art, and architecture, each strand could then be explored in depth, individually. In fact, what made Paris the center of creativity in the twenties was in some part the result of the First World War, so there’s another even more potent theme just waiting to be revealed. Of course, this mean school needs to be reinvented and there really is no interest in a meaningful reconstitution of education. But let’s not get into that.

The Corporate Venue
This might be tougher, especially if the topic is narrow, technical, and the skills learned must be applied in a direct and rigid way. In addition, this is often necessary. Learning to run an application, program a website, or design a manufacturing process to take costs from production offers few opportunities for exploration of happenstance. And yet, ask anyone who programs in code how they get into a zone and become fabulously productive for a given and fixed period of time. What sets this the ball in motion? Creativity is spurred on, we know, when there is a deep emotional response or a rich intellectual insight within the grasp of an individual. Could it be the distillation of informal and passive explorations can provide this jump-start? Moreover, if so, how will corporate educators adjust for that kind of opportunity, the kind that seeks to spur on creativity on a wholesale basis? I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn the greatest creators in the past few decades have emerged not from formalized training programs in education settings but rather from the fringes of experience earned by ‘messing around’ with ‘stuff’ that captivated and later drove them to explore more formally ways to capitalize on their ideas.

And so…
I’m afraid I’ve raised more questions than provided answers. I suppose that keeps in the spirit of informal learning though. We do know that both formal and informal education is important and each has utility. If I pose any argument it’s that in our rush to inject learners with information we leave out experiences that will not only make the learning more colorful and retentive but we perpetuate the perception that there are two kinds of learning; formal for school and work and informal for pleasure and personal growth. And that’s just unfortunate.


When I first heard the term ‘gamification’* I had the sensation of a spider wiggling down my shirt at a picnic. It’s in the same league as ‘monetization’ and ‘level set’ and, ‘incubator’, words coined to make professionals sound, well, professional. I’m not against jargon in general; shortcuts are good if they are pithy and have substance. Not so ‘gamification.’ Defined originally as ‘funware’, it demeans both game playing and education. For the most part, game playing aims at developing recall. For lower level objectives, I suppose this would be tolerable if it weren’t distracting from higher-level intellectual outcomes.

For clarity, Games are well-crafted stories built in digital form with learning objectives frequently placing the learner in real life decision-making situations. They use the best practices of education and peda-androgogy and because they are dynamic and built to the same standard as say ‘World of Warcraft’ I find them admirable. I wish there were more and were applied with greater frequency but they are, as you might expect rather pricey.

Gamification is not Games. They’ve be clearly invented by instructional designers/educators in lust with technology. I have a wonderful cliff near my house they can be lobbed off. Its parallel in the public school universe is extrinsic reward schemes granted to students for showing up for class on time, good behavior and completing homework. In other words…as I see it, bribery. (I know this is contentious). I know there are many gamification fans and supporters out there and I respect your desire to improve public and corporate education. Just prove that the time, energy and money pays quality learning dividends and I’ll rethink my position.


Let’s set the record straight: If game design is used to make learning through technology more interactive and engaging, count me a fan. When gamification means achievement badges, reputation points and virtual currency, contests, Farmville, or systems for rewarding the acquisition of knowledge or skills—especially in a professional enterprise—I raise an eyebrow at the quality of employees and the (lack of) management resources that sees the need to move them to action with these techniques. A little immature, don’t you think? Reward systems are best used, and have been employed as marketing tools by product managers and marketers to move stuff off the shelves or entice people into chasing a purchase. Wrapping this around new metrics like ‘engagement analytics’ purveyors believe they can empirically demonstrate positive results—commercial and educational. Gaming is a tool that’s become a practice morphed into an industry with commercial drivers. (By the way, note I have not given any space to naming these enterprises…I’m not shilling for them. Look them up if you’d like but don’t be swayed by the hot graphics, testimonials and the robust claims).

Frequent readers of this blog know I am a skeptic. So using any metrics, I challenge Gamification builders to reveal learning performance improvement by users in their real work achieved by Gamification techniques alone. And within a reasonable time period.

A last point: In a learning environment, game interactions become not just exploitations of the basic human trait towards distraction, but will defocus the learner from the real content to be transferred.

*(The term may have been first coined by Nick Pelling in March 2004 for his gamification consultancy startup Conundra Ltd, via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamification). I presume Pellings’ was a commercial venture process.

Seth Godin has recently written, “Knowing about a tool is one thing. Having the guts to use it in a way that brings art to the world is another. Perhaps we need to spend less time learning new tools and more time using them.” (Emphasis is mine).

In any learning environment, this is the common process applied, whether called A.D.D.I.E. or an analogue:

  • There are Problems
  • Preferred solutions are known and become objectified targets
  • Learners acquire knowledge and skills to practice solutions, first guided and then independently
  • They revisit decisions to modify solutions were they learn they have fallen short
  • Recap: A summation of the learner’s solutions aligned to the preferred solutions
  • Look back: Review for changes in performance shortly after the learning and at intervals as necessary

Here is a brief taxonomy of learning techniques in use now and when designed to meet objectives quite useful. They also obviate the need for games and reward systems. Also, while most are part of traditional computer-based elearning they can easily be designed as disruptive, via migration to tablets/smartphones.

Low Level Online Learning Interactions
These are used primarily as checks for understanding, previews, and reviews. Once coded the content can be dropped in matching desired outcomes.

  • They include– Rubber Bands, Fill In’s, Drag & Drops, Matching, and both verbal and visual constructions are typical. The names are generic with many names for similar actions
  • The media has traditionally been Flash when built locally
  • Off the shelf products, e.g. Articulate, Captivate, Camtasia, Lectora, and other rapid authoring tools support basic interactions but are somewhat superficial given the need to employ these in a variety of environments
  • Mass market availability permits any instructional designer with knowledge of the tools to design for a series of learning based checks

Mid Level Interactive Techniques – as Guided Practice

  • Scenarios: For instance: Replication of ‘Office Events,’ Selling, Soft Skills, Application Use (Step by step w/correction)
  • Simulations: For example: Decision Making > On point, real time type action –oriented Sims with feedback loops for self-correction
  • Media: Static Images w/Voice Over, Avatars w/Voice Over, Simple Animations, Flash, HTML5 Most are one-offs where the content is very specialized, e.g., healthcare, though most can be generated using an authoring template.

Higher Level Techniques – Best used when moving from guided to independent practice

  • Virtual Realities w/Active Role Plays as Real Time Events
  • Stop Action Realities – Decision/Crisis Points
  • Real actors/real dialogue, built as a ‘digital shorts’
  • Could be avatars as actors but roles and actions are true to life and specific to the client’ need
    Media: Video, HTML5, Flash
    Quite a few of these become fully realized Games as the content is completely bespoke – custom made for each experience.


If these are done well, and have meaning and utility for the delivery of knowledge, skills and behaviors, in content as diverse from salespersons to management training, the concept of gamification is superfluous – rendering it cartoonish and beneath the intellectual and cultural status of the learners.

The reality is elearning is best when it is highly interactive with an emphasis on true situations. Gamification, with its emphasis on rewards for achievement is not a learning tool. It is an attempt to motivate; to actually move learners from passivity to those who are committed to the topic at hand. I trust that well designed instruction requires neither badges, awards nor competitive scoring to create effective learning uptake and performance improvement. Let’s do a great job of developing compelling elearning and leave the Gamification on the shelf where it belongs.

Getting Close to the Ground

Notwithstanding the imperatives of cultural expectations, by the time a kids are in high school their trajectory has much been dialed in: College, training of some sort, the military, or work. There are subsets of each; the junior college to build a reputable GPA to get into a four-year school or a career that demands certification of some sort, vocational training institutes for technical knowledge and skills for local employment, or military service born of patriotism, money for college or, particularly in this economy, a lack of options.

So there’s been this pecking order going on for more than sixty or more years. College for the boardroom, classroom, higher academic pursuits like law and medicine; technicians who draw blood, troubleshoot computers and provide public service from police to municipal workers of all types, and tradespeople who through a ‘connection’ can apprentice through a union sponsored program or intern with a generous business owner.

But what about ‘those’ kids barely who after barely graduating from high school, are now sitting home or hanging with friends playing video games, no job in sight, and no skills for sale. Moreover, as time progresses whatever skills they might have had are aging out. They fell through the cracks these kids, no idea how extricate themselves from the bottom and every day less and less self respect. You’ve seen them; the single mother, the nineteen to twenty five year old whose vision of the future just doesn’t exist, out on probation, the chronically unemployed whose craft is gone forever when the hammer and vise was replaced by the keyboard, the iPad and cheap overseas labor. These are the ‘losers’; with no jobs they hang out scratching for change at some meaningless job (if they’re lucky) while living communally. Some have returned to, or never left home, relocated to the basement now that their bedroom is a home office.

As an alternative, sensing an opportunity to do good (for money) arrives on the scene the online training institute to try to fill this void. With a low threshold for admittance, plus one-to-one counseling, applicants also find a friendly financial aid department that helps them get the loans and grant money to set them on a path to a future. For their money (to be paid back of course) they receive their textbooks and a computer. All the courses or programs are focused straight at jobs and careers. Some are frighteningly fundamental: Keyboarding as a course in 2011? As it was explained to me, many of the younger students are whizzes at World of Warcraft, but can’t send email or surf the web—let alone write with Microsoft Word. They have never owned a computer.

These ‘institutes’ (a bit overinflated to imbue solemnity) are a reasonable alternative to being a ‘loser’ wouldn’t you say? It’s what I call ‘close to the ground’ education. Learn ‘right now’ material for the most contemporary and in demand employment sector, get educated or certified fast and go get a job. The best of these schools have a placement operation—well connected to businesses, nationally and locally, since students are online everywhere and matching graduates to employers should be job 1. Because learning starts with simple core material, virtually guaranteeing success, formerly ‘anti-students’ will hang on as their achievement becomes habitual.

If the story is well told and marketed in the right communities operations like this can sweep up those youngsters, single moms, potential petty criminals, people looking for a way up and out who were left behind.

And I agree with the entire premise but for one prickly issue. The curriculum, for the vast majority of courses are products of textbooks remodeled for online delivery by…I don’t know…a teacher, course developer, practitioner in the field? This practice includes lifting tests as well. Consider that some phlebotomists might be good online teachers and even help write a meaningful and realistic course, but what would be the odds? In a world where, with some serious due diligence a course can be created from online sources, how can that be defensible if only as cutting corners get programs to market fast. BTW this new educational domain is reinvigorating the bottom line for textbook publishers.

So my reservations—a demand for more course development rigor and a change in the delivery of instruction—should be addressed. At some point, after these schools are at moving at full charge, and I hope they do, educators are going to come a-knockin’ and they will not like what they see.

My prescription is very simple. The material a field practitioner writes must be shaped into learning by a certified educator (the model we know best – instructional designer and SME) to create viable courseware. The curriculum for each school that accepts or helps funnel federal money as loans to students must be accredited for academic programs and audited regularly like high school regional reviews. And why must all instruction be online? Surely, with a bit of effort administrators can discover ways to make the courseware include humans—even if only as out-of-class experiences.

What would I want to measure as benchmarks of success? How many students in a certificated course have graduated, what is the drop out percentage/rate and most importantly, how many graduates are working. This is not only a fair longitudinal study; I would offer the same challenge to America’s high schools.

It’s an imperfect model at present. However, those institutes with which I am familiar are working towards meeting higher standards. Don’t let my liberal tendencies fool you—there’s nothing wrong with making money when offering opportunities for success. Even a bit noble actually. No other initiative has made any substantial change for the educationally disenfranchised, and touted there’s a glimpse of a future. Raise the quality of these institutes, tighten alliances with businesses, raise awareness and market the heck out of them in every community. One of the highest callings of all enterprises is the specter of hope. Since the government is fighting among itself, and the Department of Education can’t get its act together, let private enterprise have a go. At this point, there is little to lose and much to gain.

Baking the Cookies: Hiring Learning Consultants to be Successful

So many words have been written about dysfunctional organizations, if weighed would easily capsize…oh, say an aircraft carrier. Those who work in cubicles are often victims of enterprises that are so inefficient and in some cases borderline dysfunctional it’s stunning anything of value is created.  If you want to smell the enticing aroma of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, then follow the directions on the box.

Take the case of a senior manager, having been apprised no one on the staff has the skills or time to fulfull a critical assignment, brings in a consultant to address the problem.  She believes the functions have been clearly defined and deliverables understood by all.  Confident one problem along the critical path is sewn up in response to the needs expressed by the requesting manager, she moves on to other matters.  And never reviews the work product again.

Except – the immediate manager modifies the assignment/methodology/direction, and/or the support promised – everything from equipment to people resources is neither available nor provided.  The consultant somehow muddles through or cannot possibly deliver neither fast nor good enough.  The immediate manager reports the consultant is failing or has failed.

Every time I complete a contractual assignment, I’ve taken some time and distance trying to synthesize what all too often seems to be a virus unique to large enterprises.  I think I’ve come upon a way of looking at these deficiencies.  As I see it, they fall into 3 general categories:

1.       Preparedness
One should be safe in assuming there has been agreement among both senior, middle management the consultant is needed, and his function, deliverables, and schedule defined and agreed upon.  Too often that’s not the case.  During the recruiting/hiring process the consultant is introduced to the task and deliverables—and agrees to the project parameters only to find the resource or equipment, access, etc. will not be forthcoming.  Later, like after a week.

Also, in too many cases, companies are not ready for the consultant, who arrives ready to work only to find IT hasn’t stripped last user’s material, a server file or location created, a name and password generated, no plans made to get a parking spot, security key card, policies and procedures never formally reviewed. The cube hadn’t been cleaned since Hannibal crossed the Alps.  I recently had my name misspelled and entered into the server, but had to begin working realizing of course if my name were to be ‘fixed’ all settings and defaults would require reconstruction.

2.       Clarity
One-step more granular than preparation in the absolute assurance everyone on the inside is truly on the same side.  That is, from the top manager to the immediate supervisor there are procedures, processes, controls, and risk management in place for not just the next hire but the many who follow.  I have yet to see – at any company – and I mean the Fortune 100/500 a document outlining the intake procedures for consultants.  Now, it may exist, which should leave even more red faces as obviously it’s regularly ignored. I believe there should always be a risk management component.  In this context, if the consultant is not delivering, a conclave should be convened where the problems and solutions are vocalized.  If difficulties persist, the consultant has to go – even if the company is at fault.  Not to be too paranoid but that’s generally an indication some internal enemy is plotting away.  Neither has the consultant time, nor the political juice to do much that won’t end in termination anyway.

3.       Behaviors
This is so commonsensical it should never have to be said.  The difficulty faced by a consultant in any capacity is akin to a well-paid indentured servant.  He has neither power nor influence to bend people even when it might be in the company’s best interest to learn of economies, efficiencies, technical issues and so on.  The consultant knows that going above the immediate supervisor to le grande frommage for any reason short of harassment is signing his own visit to the guillotine.  So the smart move by any consultant is practice muteness, silencio, and that goes for getting to chummy with anyone on the staff.  Cordial, yes.  Friendly, OK, bull sessions about the company the boss or fishing around for information staff believes you have (and you doing the same) is a big, fat, no.

So…how to make sure working with a consultant will yield great results.

Paper.  A smart recruiting firm and especially a smart organization should develop a checklist – it need not be biblical in length – but clear and focused that does the following:

1.       Describes, in broad terms, the nature of the project
2.       Describe the deliverables in detail – the more clarity here the easier to define the type of individual required for hire, his skillsets, subject matter knowledge, and experience
3.       Ensure expectations for time on task, volume of work and schedules are clarified
4.       Determine and state with clarity if there will be support by internal experts, technical or supervisory staff, especially those who know the project/program/product – and how much time they will be available
5.       Milestones for a review of progress and product
6.       A daily check by the immediate supervisor to ‘take the temperature’ of progress
7.       Procedure for escalating developing problems: Will there be coaching or remediation if the consultant is underperforming or      summary dismissal

This document should be used by the interviewer(s) as well – both parties know what expectations the company has, and can this candidate meet those requirements and agree.

Ensure all administrivia is completed:

1.       Security, parking spot, building layout, etc., is ready for the consultant
2.       Is the workspace prepared: cleaned, free of left over detritus from the former inhabitant?
3.       Is the hardware, software, files naming protocols, file saving protocols, accessible printers, available, all demonstrated on the first day to allow for a rapid ramping up
4.       What is the protocol for phone and email usage
5.       Can the consultant utilize tech support directly or through, by example, a manager
6.       The consultant should be introduced to staff working in the immediate area and his role made clear to everyone

I’m not sure I’ve hit on every point but this is a good foundation from which you will enhance the likelihood that the best consultant for the work will be contracted, the hire will be capable of meeting expectations, and an agreement of understanding between the consultant and the organization makes clear who and what responsibilities are met.  As a former mentor said, blame paper, not people.  With documentation, few problems will reach even the remediation stage; the workflow will be smooth and people assets aware of their responsibilities.  A quality, on time result follows.

Now I can eat those cookies.

ELearning is Dead, Dormant or in Denial

It’s no secret that coming from leadership positions in public and corporate education I am very critical of substandard learning; ‘e’ or otherwise. Without vigorous advocacy at the top you’ll never get great results. So I ask, where have the learning leaders in major corporations gone? I asked a colleague who was quite sanguine about this and we agreed there are virtually no new positions for directors, managers or above in the big leagues — organizations are just playing musical chairs with execs. In the NY Metro area the same 5 postings have been playing roulette for 4 weeks with an occasional newcomer.

Why? Well, mostly salaries, etc., but there is something a bit more insidious. Let me begin with a caveat. Please voice up if you disagree – nothing would make me happier. What I believe is occurring is the ‘good enough’ factor taking hold. That is, instead of real leadership that can pilot courseware, guiding development through its most dynamic phase (e.g. social media, tablet computing. mlearning) most companies have neither the will nor the belief that any of these technologies and approaches to reinventing learning have much value. Ergo, who needs to spend big bucks for leadership? Instead, pay for more and less expensive instructional designers. Senior IDs are being asked to incorporate meager amounts of new technologies whenever they oversee their peers and only in a small part of the project. Of course putting a toe in the water should require little investment and won’t rock the boat too much. But overall it’s like “Leiningen Vs the Ants.” IDs will keep coming over the hill in droves at $25 an hour. “Look at the production – wow – we’re pumping out those courses”. (Here’s the radio show of the short story).

What we have right now are courses (and in that big bucket I include webinars, collaborative learning models, synchronous chat, etc.) constructed using the democratic tools of design. In other words, anyone can learn, by example, Articulate or Adobe Connect to develop credible learning. This permits CXOs to tout a robust learning and training department with 15 trainers (whose directive to keep the cost down would not dare incorporate tablet computing) and 5 IDs who can pump out online material to resolve distributed learning using regular gas instead of premium.

Rapid e-learning tools don’t offend me – they are the hammers and nails of production. It’s the smug satisfaction that the end results can be every bit as compelling, dynamic and deliver the requisite knowledge, skills and behaviors equal to that of a Flash (or HTML5) based, interactive gaming, high concept custom developed course. Cost savings in the corporate mindset are justified because there is no hard evidence a custom design really does THAT much more than a bunch of Captivates, glued on to a PowerPoint with sound. Sometimes off the shelf makes sense. OK, for small bits of lower level knowledge or skills transfer I’m realistic. Give unto Caesar, etc.

However I can draw a straight line from the diminishing amount of NEW talent in learning leadership to corporate reluctance to build custom courseware to the slow uptake and incorporation of technology, social media and collaboration inside learning. Explain away the dormancy of e-learning. At the very pinnacle of opportunity, with a palette of stunning colors from which to create a rainbow of courses there’s no renaissance in the offing. Maybe CXOs are holding back to see if the technologies will stick – or the dollar investment has not yet been proven to shoot forth spectacular people performances – those who can reinvent the company, bolster the bottom line and energize the stock price.

So to those of you who are in denial about what is happening in our field I offer a challenge. Show me a course, webinar, tablet-driven interactive learning app and I’ll publish it with a link to my 10,000 or so LinkedIn connections and Twitter followers, etc. Even if I get a pie in the face – I’ll be satisfied providing a model for excellence that is worth the whipped cream and gooey junk inside.

Getting Closer to Bond, James Bond

I don’t believe it’s a secret that information design is gaining traction in the learning world. With so many form factors from smartphones to oversize touch screen computers – and now the iPad, revolution/revelation how we handle data, text and imagery, plus coherent manipulation of screen objects is becoming of paramount performance.

The latest Bond films depict a glance at this next next iteration. Confession—one ticket to geekdom for me: I was as much intrigued by the “desks” and how agents moved around data in a hologram-like environment as the action sequences (Well maybe not THAT much). Huge amounts of materials, available for comparison and evaluation.

From the hawkings of Edward Tufte, a right turn past Gary Hustwit and a stop at frogdesign and you’ll note the amount and placement of data is becoming a considerable factor in two and three-dimensional design.

It can’t be too long for a leap past the ‘pad’ family into another once imagined environment—now sitting on a someone’s drive are plans for total spatial manipulation; that is integrated, animated, user-manipulated, four dimensional access to information. Of course, any real adoption, even if the tech is ready, will occur only after manufacturers and developers have sucked dry holes from their current product margins.

Meanwhile, assuming I am correct or at least close, how will this affect learning; corporate, and public education? If you believe as I do the next few years will bring about a decentralization of the command and control that once was school – or the conference hall that “captivated” business learning had better stand by. Check out the work of Dr. Hans Rosling a professor in Sweden who has enjoyed 4 million YouTube hits about Statistics, the driest dry bed in academe takes on the conflation of data and – more importantly its meaning – and makes it fascinating. In our hands (well… his at the moment) is the power to draw meaningful conclusions brought forward through delivery of critical information by comparison, cause and effect, prognostication and even ‘black swans.’ And, most vitally, this give us a pretty good look in to the future.

So what started in the Middle Ages with movable type through the first Macs to the latest Xoom’s our communicative ability will be exponentially staggering.

The net effect is at least two-fold (it should be four-fold if a hologram I suppose, but I’m not capable of manipulating that amount of data in my head) immediate effect. One, as I mentioned would be the further disintegration of the single expert or limited sources of material accepted as gospel and at face value: e.g., courseware that teaches negotiation strategies for example. I look forward to anarchy with facts – though I am more conservative about too quickly abandoning what we know to be true—only how it can be presented. It’s a real respect or an accounting for learners who apprehend information differently. And the second is a requirement that information design and designers are elevated to central roles designing in the multiplicity of communication modes. This should not be a far-reaching serious profession with discourse stretching from type fonts to charting to engineering for holographic zoom effects.

If you haven’t read up on design lately or at all, I suggest you grab, “Universal Principles of Design” by Lidwell, Holden, & Butler; and “The Information Design Handbook” by Jenn and Ken Visocky O’Grady. These are the minimum of a fundamental intellectual and visual vocabulary, and, in addition to Tufte, Don Norman, and Henry Petroski form an intellectual foundation for clarity of design. Some information looks backward in order to tell us about the present and others about making the present more comprehensible. The same movement must be energized on the visual and interactive design side, too.

Not too long from now, we’ll be projecting a space on to which we can further project materials of all kinds – instantly snatching data to not only observe the present but inform what comes next.

I suppose ‘Q’ would have been thrilled – I’m still impressed that James is as comfortable manipulating his super-smartphone as he is a 9mm.

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.