Becoming a digital learning content designer

This is an annotated version of the presentation I gave at the Learning & Development Show in London, which launched the CIPD’s new Digital Learning Content Design programme, which I will be delivering.

The year of the blend

This is the year of the blend. In 2014, Onlignment will be revealing its More Than Blended Learning approach, with a new book, tools, videos and a variety of other ways to help you build your blended learning skills.

This year we will also be re-launching our much neglected blog as one part of a new website. The past year we’ve been so busy working for clients, we’ve not been able to devote the time we would like to sharing our ideas and telling you what we’re up to. We have exciting plans to put that right, so please be patient.

20. Why the majority of learning will take place online

Designing blended solutions

The networked computer rather complicates the choice of learning media, primarily because the Internet accommodates both synchronous and asynchronous communication. If, as a learner, you want to collaborate with your peers in real-time, you can do so with all sorts of tools from simple text chat, to online telephony using tools like Skype, through to sophisticated web conferencing systems which provide a virtual classroom experience.

On the other hand, if, as a learner, you demand the flexibility to learn as and when you wish, you can enjoy all the advantages of offline media with the added ability to connect with others at your own pace through forums, social networks, blogs and wikis. Already the Internet combines many of the benefits of face-to-face and offline media. Maybe one day it will surpass them both.

The Internet will transform learning above all because of its scalability. Sites such as the Khan Academy, providing video tuition in maths and science, have already reached more than 100 million learners. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are making it possible to deliver higher education to tens of thousands of students at a time, at a tiny fraction of the cost of an on-campus education.

Online learning will soon become the default option, at least for adults, but that does not mean it can or should be universal. We have already discussed the special benefits that can be attributed to learning face-to-face. And, until ultra-fast broadband is universally available on all devices, we will still need to carry some of our learning materials around with us.

A little pragmatism

Systematic approaches are rarely followed to the letter in the real world – after all, let’s face it, life’s just too short. What’s important is that when we cut corners, we do so consciously, applying the main principles with common sense and a great deal of pragmatism. My Blended Learning Cookbook is laden with examples of typical learning problems and uncomplicated blended solutions. If you find it hard (or simply too boring) to apply the systematic approach, you’re welcome to copy any of the recipes that you find relevant to your experience. The end result should be the same – more effective, efficient learning interventions.

That brings this series to an end. All of the posts in the series will be included in the third edition of the Blended Learning Cookbook, due to be published later on in 2013. This will include more detailed analyses of the various decision options and a revised set of recipes. We also hope to produce a video summarising our approach to blended learning.

Until then it’s over to you. Please share your blended learning experiences, whether or not you are applying our suggested approach.



19. Why we shouldn’t write-off offline media

Designing blended solutions

Offline media can be simply defined by the fact that you do not need to be online to consume the content. The first example of an offline medium was the printed page, which did, of course, revolutionise learning. In the twentieth century we also found ways to record and distribute sounds and moving pictures, using an assortment of tapes, films and discs.

Sales of ‘collectible’ media – books, CDs and DVDs – seem to be in terminal decline as we increasingly choose to download the books, music and films we want and to store these on hard drives and portable devices. However, the consumption of these media remains offline. We can still read our Kindles and listen to our MP3 files when there are no Internet connections available – and that’s more often than we think.

Offline media are essentially asynchronous, in that the parties to the communication do not have to be available at the same time. As a learner, asynchronous communication provides you with the greatest flexibility – you can learn what you want, as fast or slow as you want, as often as you want and wherever you want. More importantly, you are under no pressure to respond: you have as much time as you want to reflect on the content that you consume and to form a response. And reflection is as important a part of learning as action.

Next up:  Why the majority of learning will take place online

18. Why some learning simply must be face-to-face

Designing blended solutions

It might seem strange to classify face-to-face communication as a medium, because no technology is required to act as an intermediary between sender and receiver. However we define it, we must not ignore it because for thousands of years it was the default means for delivery of any sort of learning experience. Now, of course, we have many more choices, so is face-to-face learning still important?

First of all, face-to-face communication is synchronous; it takes place in real-time, requiring all participants to be available simultaneously. Synchronous communication has immediacy: it allows the learner to get quick answers to questions and speedy feedback on their performance; it permits teachers and trainers to respond rapidly to emerging situations; it allows for free-flowing discussion. Synchronous communication has an important place in many blended solutions.

Of course some learning activities only really make practical sense face-to-face. Obvious examples are where it is vital that teachers and learners can quickly pick up on the nuances of body language, such as when practising interpersonal skills; or where learners need to interact with the physical world, such as when driving or operating equipment. These circumstances might well mean that a face-to-face element to a solution is essential, whether in a classroom or on-the-job. Which is not to say that other elements of the solution must also be face-to-face.

There is no doubt that a really well-delivered face-to-face event is a memorable experience, even if this is a rare occasion. Think of all the music you listen to: how much of this is in a concert hall or other live venue? What about the drama you watch? How much of this is in a theatre rather than on TV or at the cinema? The same goes for sport: how much of this do you see in a stadium rather than in an armchair? It’s perfectly adequate for many of our everyday learning activities to be online, even if these are not life-changing experiences.

Next up:  Why we shouldn’t write-off offline media

17. More and more media to choose from

Designing blended solutions

Technology has dramatically increased the selection of media available to learning professionals. Of course all learning was originally accomplished face-to-face, providing an immediacy to the interaction, a rich sensory experience (you see, you hear, you touch, you smell) and, if you’re lucky enough to be one-on-one, the ultimate in personalisation.

Books, when they arrived, provided the counterbalance, by allowing learners more independence and the ability to control the pace with which they learned. The invention of the telephone provided additional connectivity for learners and tutors working at a distance. Videos, CDs and all their variants made high-quality audio and video available to distance learners.

But perhaps the most significant new technological medium is the networked computer, in all its many forms from desktop PCs to mobile devices. Networks connect learners to three billion other Internet users and countless trillions of web pages. ‘E-learning’ is the rather inadequate name we give to the use of networked computers as a medium to facilitate learning. In practice, it is more a media category than a single medium, because it is capable of supporting a wide variety of different tools and techniques, many of which have almost certainly not yet been invented.

Next up:  Why some learning simply must be face-to-face

16. Only now do we concern ourselves with technologies

Designing blended solutions

In this series of posts (first post here), I describe a simple process for designing blended solutions that are both efficient and effective. This process has three stages: (1) analysing the unique characteristics of the situation in which the solution is to be deployed; (2) selecting the right blend of methods to meet the needs of the situation; and (3) determining the delivery media best suited to these methods. It is to this final stage that we now turn.

Only now do we concern ourselves with technologies

Very few of learning methods are tied to a specific learning medium – they can usually be applied in more than one way, perhaps online, face-to-face, even over the phone. It’s an important aspect of this approach to blended learning that you leave the choice of medium until last. First you establish the methods that you believe will be effective in meeting the demands of your particular situation. Then you select the most appropriate media for delivering these methods, looking to optimise efficiency without compromising on effectiveness. The result of this may be a rich blend of different media; on the other hand, it may be that you choose to use the same medium throughout. This is not important – your goal here is to optimise efficiency, not to introduce variety.

Let’s just pause for a moment to make absolutely clear how methods and media impact on the likely success of your solution. Broadly speaking, methods determine effectiveness – if you choose the right methods, you are likely to achieve your learning objectives.

A great deal of effort has been put into research to test whether the communications media used for learning have a similar impact on effectiveness. Thomas L. Russell undertook an analysis of more than 350 studies conducted over the past 50 or so years, each attempting to compare the effectiveness of one learning medium with another. The title of Russell’s book is The No Significant Difference Phenomenon, which says it all. A meta-analysis of 96 studies, by Sitzmann and others, published in 2006, makes clear that it’s the method, not the delivery medium that makes the difference. When web-based and classroom instruction employing similar methods were compared, there was little or no difference in outcome. That is not to say that the choice of medium is unimportant; it has a big impact on the efficiency and flexibility of the solution, but not its effectiveness.

Needless to say, real-life is not quite that simple. You clearly cannot use any medium to deliver any method – the medium must have the necessary functionality. So, a book is not a suitable medium with which to hold a discussion (although the book might stimulate a discussion) and you are not going to get very far practising first aid skills on a mobile device (although the device may be useful in modelling those skills). Evidently some common sense is required.

Next up:  More and more media to choose from

15. Eating elephants

Designing blended solutions

Some learning requirements are relatively straightforward and it becomes evident very quickly what the most effective methods will be. On the other hand, we also find ourselves designing solutions to much more complex problems, such as inducting new starters, training apprentices or preparing employees to become managers. In these situations it is hard to pick the most appropriate strategies and social contexts because these need to vary as the intervention progresses.

For this reason, as with eating elephants, it pays to take it one bite at a time. Break your programme down into key stages or elements, for example: preparing the learner, presenting learning content, providing opportunities for practice, offering feedback, providing opportunities for reflection and planning, application to the real-job environment, providing on-going support. The exact nature of these stages or elements will vary widely depending on your objectives and your audience. What is important here is that you attempt to separate out those aspects of the learning process that vary in character, because there is a good chance that you’ll benefit from using different strategies and different social contexts for each of the elements. This is where the opportunities arise for blended learning. And if you can’t sensibly break down the learning process for your given situation, that’s not a problem – you can probably save yourself some trouble and use a single approach throughout.

Coming up

Next week, we’ll make decisions about the technologies that will allow us to deliver the methods we have chosen most efficiently. This will be the first time in this series of articles that we have focused in any depth on whether and to what extent we can usefully employ new media. That’s because, however much we love our toys, learning must always come before technology.

Next up:  Only now do we concern ourselves with technology

14. Three social contexts for learning

Designing blended solutions

Regardless of the strategy or strategies that you choose, there is another key decision to make in terms of the people who will be involved in the learning process. Essentially there are three choices: the learner alone, the learner with one other person – typically a coach or instructor – and the learner with a group of peers.

Self-study can range from reading a book at one extreme to engaging in a complex computer simulation at the other. It provides us with a great deal of flexibility as learners because we control the pace at which we learn as well as when, where and for how long. Organisations also benefit because of the cost-efficiencies.

Having said that, although self-study can stand alone, it works best in conjunction with other social contexts. We are social animals and it is natural for us to want interaction with other human beings at some stage in our learning. The social component allows us to share our experiences, test out ideas, obtain support and compare perspectives.

Self-study also relies on a fair amount of self-motivation and discipline. Somehow there is always some other activity that seems more urgent than our study programme. Hard experience suggests that prolonged periods of self-study need to be timetabled with regular milestones that must be reached by specific dates.

One-to-one learning places the learner with an instructor, a coach, a mentor or a subject expert, whether that’s on-job, off-job or remotely. One-to-one learning is highly individualised, which makes it fast and potentially highly effective, but success depends heavily on the quality of the individual responsible.

One-to-one learning makes a valuable contribution but is extremely costly when compared with other approaches. As a result, it is usually rationed to those situations where there is no other option or where the benefits justify the expense.

Group learning expands the resources available to us as learners to include our peers. This can provide useful benefits in terms of shared insights and experiences, mutual support and a degree of peer pressure, although this comes at the expense of flexibility and individual attention. Group learning can take place live in a physical or virtual classroom. It can also occur at the learner’s own pace making use of email, discussion forums, wikis, social networks and similar ‘Web 2.0’ technologies.

Each of these three social contexts has major advantages, but also some significant drawbacks. The art is to use each social context in the situations in which its benefits are maximised and its limitations minimised. In practice this often means using them in combination, as ingredients in a blended solution.

Next up:  Eating elephants

13. Four strategies for learning II

Designing blended solutions

Guided discovery is also a carefully structured process, but the emphasis here is on setting up activities from which the learner can gain their own insights and come to their own conclusions. Within formal interventions, examples might include the use of scenarios, simulations, case studies and leadership tasks, but the strategy can also be employed on the job, using techniques such as coaching, action learning, job enrichment and job rotation.

The driver for this strategy is the facilitator or, in the case of self-study materials, the designer. Guided discovery is best suited to the teaching of principle-based tasks, where the learner will be required in their work to make judgments in widely varying situations.

Exploration hands over control to the learner to make all the choices; there are no pre-defined objectives, no syllabus and no assessment.

The exploration strategy is most likely to be applied in the provision of on-demand support to the learner as they carry out their jobs, sometimes in the form of packaged content, sometimes by access to experts. But exploration is also the underlying strategy behind the use of social media at work – communities of practice, forums, wikis, etc. – that allow employees to provide support to each other.

The driver for the exploration is the learner. Having said that, there is an important role for the learning and development professional as a sort of curator, someone who provides novice learners with the appropriate tools and supports them in finding the right people and content.

The four strategies can be applied to any type of learning intervention. In some cases, different strategies can be used at different stages within a single solution; for example, the use of exposition for essential pre-reading, the use of instruction to convey important rules, the use of guided discovery to bring out key underlying principles, and the use of exploration for on-going reference.

Some learning professionals stick to one of the strategies almost as a matter of faith – it sums up their philosophy of how learning should be achieved. And for some organisations, the strategy that they use for learning is so pervasive that it has almost become a cultural expectation. In practice, it pays to remain agnostic. Each of these strategies has its place, depending on what needs to be learned and by whom. The trick is to use your judgement in determining which strategy to use and when.

Next up:  Three social contexts for learning