What I’ve Learned about Designing eLearning

This semester has been an interesting one for learning more about instructional design.  I was fairly confident in my design skills when I walked into the classroom the first night.  I have craved learning more about the tools used for creating and offering online learning.  I did learn a great deal about Course Sites this semester, which has been a nice addition to my design toolbox.  There were definitely other learning opportunities that I outline here.

Challenges encountered

While working on the Primary Sources in the Classroom online course for LVA, I learned just how much creating instruction for an organization could influence changes for that organization.  The deeper that I got into the design with my SME, the more inconsistencies (opportunities?) we uncovered.  Each one of them is an opportunity to improve the organization overall.  However, dealing with each one slowed down the design process considerably.  My experience has been to design in such different environments.  Either I have been an internal trainer so I already know a lot more about what those challenges are so I intuitively work around them.  From an external design role, I have been given a design template to follow.

Since this is the first online course that LVA will offer to the public, I knew that we were creating a precedent for future online courses.  What I created for this course could become a template for future class.  Another more subtle precedent is that I was creating a standard for online learning that includes interaction between the learner and their content and their instructor.  Instead of clicking through screen after screen of content, the design should include interactive activities and assessments.  It also includes an opportunity to create communities of learners outside of the library.

I have been reminded that technology should only be used to enhance the learning; it should not become the learning.  I get very excited about learning new tools and tricks.  These things can often take over instructional design.  I get so excited about including them, that learners could end up spending an inordinate amount of their learning energy and time just learning some new technology.  The new technology then becomes the focus of the learning rather than the content of the instructional design.  Technology needs to enhance the learning, not detract from it.

Another insight is that by sending learners all over the web for different tools and different interactions, it could diminish the sense of online presence and community that designers work so hard to create for online learners.  By having one central location, like a Google site or Course sites for examples, gives learners a sense of “place” for their learning.  Taking field trips is fun and exciting, but I think learners want the comfort of having their own classroom, even if it is online.

Instructional design comes quickly to me.  It is one of the reasons that I love it!  It has been good practice to articulate my vision to my stakeholders.  Then, be patient while they feel things out, try the training on, and articulate their own thoughts and ideas.  When I was working solo in a training capacity, my stakeholders usually just wanted to cross the training task of their strategic plan.  They were not engaged with exactly what I was training or how I was training it or even how the training could affect the organization in different ways.  It has been very different to work with an organization that thinks about these things and is very sensitive to how training influences their business.

What I learned

In the course of the semester, there are a several lessons about instructional design that really stand out for me.

My biggest ah-ha moment was finding the Rapid E-Learning Blog by Tom Kuhlman.  He pointed out that the design of eLearning courses should mirror the motivation level of the intended audience.  In hindsight, this feels kind of like a “Duh” but it really resonated with me.  My assumption is that all e-Learning design should be somewhat snazzy.  It should have amazing interactions between the learner and the instructor, the content and the other learners.  It should have rich activities and assessments that carry the learner through the learning experience.  I had not considered that the time and energy it takes to create the snazzy stuff might be wasted on a highly motivated learner.  They are there for the content.  In some instances, these learners may need or want the content as quickly as possible so holding it up to design the interface or the learning experiences could reduce the credibility of the designer.  It is one more facet of the audience that goes into the overall design consideration.

Getting other people involved in the instructional design process was powerful for me.  Not only brainstorming and sharing thoughts and ideas with my SME, but also the sessions with my design peers in class, gave me several new and different ideas.  I did not always incorporate the ideas that I got.  However, it was a thoughtful, purposeful process.  Some times, an idea from someone else led to yet another, even better idea as I went through the process.

Learning how incorporate key stakeholders in a better way is still a challenge for me.  This goes back to making sure that I am being very articulate about what I am trying to do.  At times, I still feel like I am over-explaining and/or defending my choices and design too much.  I know there is a way that I can get feedback in a better, more constructive way.

Designing eLearning used to be some elusive skill that I wanted to obtain.  I was worried that I didn’t have the skills to do it.  There was some magic piece of software that I needed to learn that would help me do it.  What I have found is that creating a quality online experience is not that different from creating that same experience in the face-to-face classroom.  A goal of creating quality online learning is to mimic some of the experiences that students get when they walk into a physical room to learn.  The learner needs to be able to interact with more than just the content; they also need to feel connected to their instructor and their peers.  The choice of software and interactive tools is important, but often secondary to making sure there are great activities and assessments and community.

Like my long ponytail?

Like my long ponytail?

Adult Friendly & Kid Appropriate

When we walked through the Civil War exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society, Andy Talkov continued to point out the different pieces of technology included in the exhibit.  Several times, our conversation turned to whether or not that certain piece of interactive technology is for children or adults.  What I noticed is that even the pieces that were geared towards children engaged our class though.  I’ve walked through that exhibit twice now.  It seems that both times, adults couldn’t keep their hands off of the technology – any of it!

Ever since then, I’ve wondered if technology brings instructional design for adults and children closer together in style some how.  I’ve spent so much of my professional career championing the differences between andragogy (teaching adults) and pedagogy (teaching young people).  But two different times, I watched grown adults excitedly interact with technology aimed at kids.

Gaming seems to enforce this idea.  Grown adults enter the world of online gaming all the time.  Now, games have to have warnings, like movies, to inform parents of content that is not appropriate for children.  Let me say that again, “Games require warnings about content that is not appropriate for children.”

This non-formal learning environment seems to offer technology that aboth dults and children can interact with.  It almost reminds of old Disney movies.  The fairy tale story is for kids.  There are animated characters and a moral message to the story for young people.  But, there is also an undercurrent of adult humor and/or themes.  Kids don’t get it, they don’t even know it’s there.   Adults notice it and it keeps them engaged…

Going All The Way

I found this great article, “You Want E-Learning Success, But Are You Prepared to Go All the Way?” by Tom Kuhlman on The Rapid E-Learning Blog.  Tom outlines three key areas to consider before and after building online learning: Motivated to Learn, The E-Learning Course, and Support Ongoing Learning.

When thinking about your learners/audience, I found it interesting that Tom pointed out that if you have a highly motivated learner, your design can be very simple and rich in information.  I myself have tackled a peer-reviewed article, rich in statistics, with no pictures, just because it’s something that I’m interested in.  I will even have it open in one window and Google opened in another window so that I can continually look up things that I don’t know or understand.  Usually, I’m not that motivated though.  I’m just curious or I want to “get the gist” of what someone is talking about.  I think most learners are like that and Tom’s three tips are valuable – keep the course relevant, practical and as short as possible.

When actually designing the E-Learning course, Tom suggests three areas to focus on – content,  look, use of the content for the learner.  I have been participating in lots of online learning events and webinars lately.  Generally, it’s not for the content but rather to see how they are designed.   It amazes me that some of the big, snazzy webinars are so poorly constructed.  One that comes to mind is an online webinar put on by Ancestry.com about finding Irish Ancestors.  I am a novice genealogist and have a rich Irish ancestry so I was actually intrigued.  With all the hype about genealogy right now with the online tools and “Who Do U Think U R?” television show, I was also prepared for a good dose of marketing.  That’s just about all I got out of it.  It wasn’t 10 minutes into the presentation before I had another window open, surfing the web for things not related to genealogy or Irish ancestry at all.  I half-listened to the entire thing though and came away with nothing.  It was pure marketing, no content or application for me.  I was so frustrated that they had marketed their marketing as education.



Ongoing support is crucial – I don’t think any trainer or educator doubts this.  I like Tom’s ideas for making the learning relevant and useful, even after the training is over.  Getting managers involved and using social media might be tough sells, depending on the organization.  But, I think as time goes on, these will become the norm rather than the exception.  I choose to stay ahead of the curve and at least promote these methods!

If you haven’t checked out The Rapid E-Learning Blog and your serious about designing online learning, it is definitely worth your time!

So Many Eyes, So Many Questions

I follow the Education Blog for the Rubin Museum of Art on an intermittent basis (as in when I have time to actually read all the amazing stuff in my Reader).  I thought that this particular post was a great reference to embracing and tolerating technology in a non-formal learning environment.  Is this blended learning – combining talk about technology while f2f with your learners?

Shiva Vishvarupa

Shiva Vishvarupa

What I particulary love about this post is the docent’s willingness to meet her audience right where they are.  She spoke to them based on their experience in the moment.  I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince our docents that know the material and they don’t need to prove that to everyone.  They need to stop doing an “information dump” on every patron that they meet.  I encourage them to try asking questions like – How people feel?  What do they know already?  What are they learning?  Are they learning new things?  Did they learn anything that challenges what they thought they knew?  What do they think the exhibit means?  Why do they think it’s organized the way it is?

So far, we’ve moving away from the “info dump” slowly.  But, we’re still moving!

These kinds questions seem to create an environment that supports a higher level of self-directed learning.  Patrons get to explore their own thoughts and how they measure up against the exhibit.  They get to interact with their docent and one another.  They also get to interact with content on a more personal basis.   What would need to happen to create a similar experience in an online environment?

Who’s Driving?

Nina Simon writes a great blog called Museum 2.0 and she also published my new favorite book – The Participatory Museum.  In these publications, she explores the intersection of Web 2.0 tools and the museum experience.  In a post to her blog from April 2009, called “Avoiding the Participatory Ghetto: Are Museums Evolving with their Innovative Web Strategies?“, Ms Simon explores how advancing online tools and presence may leave the physical museum behind.  This can create an experience for a visitor to either outlet (the website or the physical museum) that is confusing or disjointed.

I found the Ms. Simon’s (and her commenters) views compelling.  Now that I’m studying Large Group interventions in Change Strategies, it’s a great example of what could happen if you don’t touch all the points of a system when facilitating large, cross-departmental change in an organization.  Rob Stein is quoted as saying “institutional change has to start somewhere” and I thoroughly agree.  But what does this do to the consumer at the museum – the patron who is looking for an informal education experience – but the museum has a physical and online presence that doesn’t quite fit together?  Can this diminish the education experience?

On the other hand, as I am studying Online Instructional Design for Adults , I think it’s great that someone is raising the bar in museum settings.  Are the web designers and instructional technologists and instructional designers supposed to wait for archivists and curators to catch up?

A lot of this is managed by Vision and Mission statements and the like.  If an organization doesn’t value innovation, their web designers probably don’t face this dilemma.  I would venture to guess those organizations won’t be around for much longer either though!

So who drives this bus?  Who is invited along for the ride?  Who is the guide (shout out to Steve) that is managing or facilitating this process?  Mostly, where does the museum patron fit into the picture?  To continue with the metaphor, are they just at the destination when the bus pulls up, waiting to see what/who arrives?  Are they standing on the street watching it go by?  Or, do we invite them to ride the bus with us?  This last choice seems both outrageous and practical.  After all, they are the consumer.  Who’s going to take this FURTHER into the future?



Challenged in the Moment

I’m working on an online training program for K-12 Teachers.  It’s a project for LVA and for ADLT 642.  I’m actually really excited to jump into it.  I’m amazed at how much there is to learn and understand about the content in order to be a good consultant on this project.  I was really excited about the design I have done so far with my SME.  Then, another key stakeholder asked me some questions that made it clear that I have still more to learn.

The questioning made me feel defensive.  I certainly do not think that I know everything about the topic.  I also know that different stakeholders have different objectives for the program.  I know all of this on a very logical level.  Yet, questions make me edgy.  Then, I start to think that I haven’t done enough to build rapport or to establish my credibility with the client.  It makes me doubt myself.

How do I make these sessions (or even just the moment) more positive?  Is it up to me to redirect the meeting so that it’s one of mutual discovery?  Or, do I just suck it up and take notes?  In the moment, this is really challenging for me.