Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sizing Up an eLearning Lesson

By Shelley A. Gable

If you’re designing a one-week course, or even a partial day course, how do you divide its content into lessons?

Intuitively, I used to define lessons by topic. Some lessons I’ve designed are as short as 15 minutes, while others are up to four hours. The topic would drive the length. Conversely, an instructional designer I used to work with felt strongly that a lesson should be an hour, and he would look for ways to logically organize content into one-hour chunks.

Why does lesson size matter?

The length of eLearning lessons matters for at least two reasons:

-1- Learner Perception

Lessons clearly chunk content within a course, which can help learners keep the information organized in their minds.

Lessons also create natural breaks, which might encourage learners to take breaks at key points throughout a course. Although the nature of eLearning usually allows learners to set their own pace and take breaks whenever they want, many opt to wait for clear stopping points (i.e., the end of a lesson).

Appropriately sized lessons can also help create a sense of progress for learners. A single, four-hour eLearning lesson may feel like it’s never going to end. This can cause learners to feel antsy, lose focus, and start clicking through the content too quickly. In contrast, several 30-minute lessons can make a course feel less massive and overwhelming.

-2- Reusability

If you need to develop training for several audiences with similar but different needs, you may find it helpful to design lessons in a way that makes them reusable in multiple courses. Smaller lessons with a more limited content focus can be helpful in this case.

For example, consider this scenario:

You’re designing new employee training for a telecommunication company’s customer service function. The function has several departments, each servicing a different product line (e.g., landlines, cell service, internet, consumer, commercial, etc.), and each department works with a different computer system. Although the various departments perform similar types of tasks, each department follows a different procedure for a given task.

At a glance, it might seem like each department needs its own unique training program. However, with detailed analysis of the content to be trained, you might find that some lessons can be shared across multiple audiences if the content is chunked just right. This might mean designing lessons that address a single performance objective.

For example, if a customer calls to cancel an account, most companies want employees to determine the cancellation reason and attempt to keep that customer’s business. If this conversation is handled similarly by the various departments in our fictional company, then the soft skills related to this task might be taught in one set of lessons that are shared across the departments, while system procedures related to the task might be taught in another set of lessons that are specific to each department. The shared lessons result in fewer training materials that must be developed, stored, and maintained.

What are your best practices for dividing course content into lessons?

Do you aim for a certain lesson length? Do you divide it by topic? By tasks? Do you optimize for reusability? Or do you follow a completely different train of thought?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Six Principles for Sticky Ideas that You Should Know

By Derek Howard

Great ideas are golden. This is especially true in the business world. A great idea can save money, rake in new business and ultimately really plump the bottom-line. Big or small, a great idea is a great idea. Unfortunately, sometimes, no matter how great the idea is, it just never seems to catch on. Why is this?

The good news is that it’s rarely the fault of the idea itself. The problem usually lies with the communication and/or instructional design: how the idea is presented (or with the environment, but that's another story). If an idea never manages to reach and grab hold of its listeners, then its brilliance becomes beside the point. Look at it this way; if great ideas are the currency that drive a business, then you’d better make sure it’s one your intended audience uses. This is true whether you are pitching marketing ideas or introducing new concepts in a training program. As we know from instructional design, the exchange process becomes almost as important as the message itself.

So the question becomes how do you go about making an idea more effective and less likely to fade? Part of this is knowing your audience. That’s easier in the training world than in marketing (such as random visitors to your website); but whatever your purpose, there are techniques to improve your chances of staying on people’s minds.

Two experts in this field are Chip and Dan Heath. In their book Made to Stick, the Heath brothers discuss and dissect what makes an idea stick (see an earlier post on this blog, Does Your eLearning Stick?, for a quick look at how the book relates to learning theory.) In fact, the term “stickiness” defines this work. As they put it, an idea that is sticky is one that is easy to grasp, memorable and stands a good chance of changing people’s minds. That’s definitely a good learning or marketing outcome.

Though the book is filled with tons of great advice and ideas, there are six key principles that the Heath brothers suggest to make any idea sticky: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and stories- what they refer to as the SUCCESs.

Simple means just that- your idea should be explained in the most simple and straight-forward manner. The brothers advise everyone to first find the core idea of your message and build your training program or presentation around it. Sharing this core idea can be tricky. You want to reduce your idea to its base form without turning it into some trite phrase devoid of any real meaning. One suggestion they give is to use existing designs and ideas to compare/promote your own. Being able to say something is “like” something that an audience may already be familiar with can really help them grasp the concept.

Unexpected is getting your audience’s attention through surprise and interest. As the Heath brothers suggest, things that stand out as different or unique tend hold our attention and stick around in our head a lot longer. If you can break people out of their normal pattern of thinking, you can cause them to pause and hear your message.

Concrete represents making sure people not only understand your idea but remember it as well. This can be especially important when your ideas are being shared between different groups of people; the Heath brothers give the example of engineers vs. manufacturers. Know your audience. The more solid your idea is seen by your audience, the better they are able to hang onto and use it.

Credible is the principle that helps people believe. In order for people to accept an idea, they have to have faith in the source. The Heath brothers break down credibility into two sources: internal and external. Internal is the message itself - the data, which should always be made accessible to your audience (simple and understandable, not dense and convoluted). External authorities are either experts or celebrities that will promote and lend weight to your idea.

Emotional is the concept of making people care about your idea. People have a tendency to think with their hearts and guts more than their heads. It won’t matter how great an idea you have if you can’t get people to have an emotional attachment. The brothers recommend such techniques as appealing to your audience’s self-interest and sense of self to create this connection. This is the "what's in it for me?"

Stories are what make people act. Stories involving your idea can act as a catalyst to get your ideas into action. We’re all suckers for a good story. A well placed and thought-out narrative can act to both inspire people and show your audience how to follow the suggested course of action your idea represents.

Great ideas are valuable to everyone; they're at the center of our training program or presentation. However, sometimes they need a little help to be easy to grasp, memorable and stand a good chance of changing people’s minds. Made to Stick is an excellent resource for those looking for just such help. I highly recommend giving it a look. The ideas in this book are sure to stick with you.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Rapid Training Development the Agile Way

By Jay Lambert

If you've developed a learning program for software, at some point or another you've likely had to develop training before the software itself was even ready.

It was this very scenario that Teresa Teirney and her associates at Nationwide faced.

As with many (read most) technical training projects, Nationwide started developing training modules before any system content actually existed; but in a flash of inspiration, they decided to try using Agile development methodologies during the instructional design and development process. The goal was to minimize the amount of re-work typically associated with these projects.

Teirney spoke about the process they followed in her session 'Agile Instructional Design & Development' at the recent Lectora User Conference 2010.

As defined by Wikipedia, "Agile software development refers to a group of software development methodologies based on iterative development, where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing cross-functional teams."

These requirements and solutions are typically tracked on a "story wall" that constantly changes as the project progresses. The story wall might be a literal wall of post it notes or might be virtual.

Decision making focuses on what is vital to keep the project moving. Studies show Agile reduces both development time and scope creep; clients on an Agile project typically accept what is necessary and ask for fewer extras.

Think about that - training only on what is necessary. We all should be big fans of that. (See an earlier post on this blog, Pointing to the Five Moments of Learning Need.)

One way this 'training only on what is necessary approach' is accomplished is by commitments being made at the last responsible moment; as the project progresses, this tactic reduces re-work in two ways. For one thing, the last responsible moment in a system training project should mean that the system being trained is final; you'll have fewer edits to an eLearning module developed for a stable software system than you will for one still in development itself. And then of course, the last responsible moment implies that limited time is available; limited time means no time to add the "nice to haves" into your training.

Following Agile means identifying and reacting to rapid change. How rapid depends, but Nationwide chose a 3-week iteration for their development cycle. As Teirney put it, "think 'what can I produce in 3 weeks that will be helpful?'"

At its essence, Agile is simple evolutionary design; get enough out to be useful, then come back and improve it. And sometimes you'll find that what you initially thought to be useful is all you really need.

Accordingly, you should start with the simplest thing first and build from there. So Nationwide started with job aid development. Over the course of the full project, they added podcasts, coaching cards, asynchronous eLearning modules, and classroom-style workshops led by subject matter experts (SMEs).

As a best practice, Teirney said that SMEs must understand and commit to involvement for the life of the project. (Really this applies not only to Agile, but also to any significant training project.) As situations come up, the SMEs must be actively engaged in order for the Agile collaborative decision-making process to work.

Interestingly, Nationwide didn't restructure their learning organization for the Agile test. But Teirney was quick to point out that, "there is an organization cultural change that comes along with it."

For starters, Agile development requires close working proximity; if yours is a virtual or geographically-scattered team, then you must still replicate the close proximity environment somehow. Agile requires teamwork and heavy communication and collaboration, not only amongst the development team, but also with the customer. Communication, Teirney stressed, is vital.

And because it involves change and iterative development, Agile requires significant attention. If you try its methods, you must stay on top of the current state of both the subject matter and the training you are developing for it.

As it turns out, we've been following many practices Teirney suggests for some time in our technical training projects. We've just never called them Agile.

How about you? How do you approach projects when the instructional design and development must be completed in conjunction with development of the training matter itself?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Writing to Educate and Entertain: What Would Stephen King Do?

By Shelley A Gable

When you write content for eLearning, do you think of it as technical communication? Creative writing? Something else entirely?

I recently read an article called "The Write Brain: How to Educate and Entertain with Learner-Centered Writing" by Kathleen M. Iverson in the August 2009 issue of Performance Improvement Journal. Here's how she addresses those opening questions:

By blending fictional and technical writing techniques with learning theory, we can craft written materials that both educate and entertain.

I think this idea can be added to the list of principles we all generally agree with, but that many don't do consistently in practice.

Why might this be?

First of all, this blend of technical and creative writing isn't usually a primary focus when someone new to the field is introduced to instructional design. Much attention is given to the systematic and systemic elements of good instructional design. And while learner engagement is bound to come up, the topic has enough dimensions that a discussion of writing style might not make it to the forefront.

Another consideration is time. Most instructional designers I've worked with are decent technical writers. As long as they have the content that must be trained, they can produce technical writing to support that content with relative ease. For most, a more creative approach might require additional thought and maybe even a group brainstorming session. We should really do these activities whenever we can, but sometimes time constraints make it challenging.

I've been on a learner engagement kick lately, thinking about tactics like storytelling and visual design in eLearning. This article fits right into that.

And Iverson goes on to raise a clever point that prompted me to stop reading and think for a moment:

Imagine if Stephen King were to write training materials or textbooks and how his books would differ from the traditional dry, exacting discourse that we often see.

What an intriguing question. What would someone like Stephen King (or any acclaimed fiction author) make it a point to do if he had to write for eLearning? Borrowing ideas from the rest of Iverson's article and reflecting on my own experience, below are some answers that come to mind.

  1. Maintain learners' attention with stories and scenarios that include foreshadowing, cliffhangers, and other forms of suspense whenever possible.

  2. Write stories and scenarios in a way that prompts learners to care what happens to the characters.

  3. Use a conversational tone that is easy, even pleasant, to read.

  4. Describe situations and procedures in a way that creates an images in learners' minds (visual design techniques can help with this).

  5. Learn from the examples of best selling nonfiction books that use stories to teach, such as Who Moved My Cheese and the Fish! series.

Iverson makes the point that stories written to educate and entertain are brain-friendly. Entertaining stories tend to be meaningful to us, making them easier to remember. If they're informative, they can help create new connections in our brain to retain newly learned information in long-term memory.

What else do you think Stephen King would do?