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.

What If The Problem Is You?

In 2013 I’m celebrating a notable personal milestone – it’s been ten years since I entered the world of elearning. In that time I’ve seen many things change (where do I start?) but sadly some things stay the same, and the L&D department is often one of them.

In a previous post I mentioned the Corporate Leadership Council’s L&D Team Capabilities Survey, which Charles Jennings had referred to at the 2012 Learning Technologies Conference.

According to the survey, when asked if they would recommend working with L&D, barely 14% of corporate leaders said yes, they would actively do so. Of the remainder, 34% had no strong opinion and just over half would actually recommend not working with L&D.

And they’ve given us the reason why; the same report states that less than a quarter of line management were satisfied with L&D’s impact on achieving business outcomes.
Stop reading for a moment and let that sink in.

More than half of the manager’s surveyed would recommend not working with L&D and over three quarters were dissatisfied with L&D’s impact on business outcomes.

The root of this is a lack of ownership on the part of L&D. This isn’t about ownership for designing and delivering a piece of training, or of creating a good piece of content and giving a good experience. It’s about sharing in the ownership and responsibility for delivering actual performance results.

Real Partners

How do we do that? For a start, we act as partners.
I do need to qualify this; I’m not talking about a change of job title, I’m talking about a change of behaviour. There are plenty of people who have gone from being a Training Manager to an L&D Managers to an L&D Business Partner without any significant change to the role they play.

This is about real partnership, and real partners;
* Are equal in their status
* Involved in the decision making process
* Aligned to the organisational plan

Again, this isn’t about job titles. No one needs to give you permission to start acting like a partner instead of an order taker (and let’s be clear, that’s the choice). Do you want to be an order taker forever? Being a partner is hard work. It certainly takes more effort than being an order taker and it’s more risky because it requires you to take on your share of responsibility for the success or failure of the business.

As L&D specialists, everything we do should be working towards achieving the organisation’s goals. When someone comes to talk to us about a perceived learning need, it’s those business terms that we should be discussing their requirements;

  • How does this align with the organisation’s goals?
  • What are the specific measurable goals in doing this?
  • What will people do differently as a result of this? (Not know, but do)
  • How will things be improved by doing this? (What are the results we expect to see that will tell us if we have succeeded?)

It’s important that people understand what we do, and what we could do – the potential benefits that we can bring to the organisation. We can only do this if we can talk credibly to the rest of the organisation in terms of achieving their goals, not ours. We must be talking about organisational results and not courses run or modules completed.

Of course, we also need to understand what our customers need and want, but that doesn’t mean coming away with a shopping list of functionality in an LMS or a list of courses to deliver – it means getting a real understanding of what they are trying to achieve, so that you (as the learning expert) can offer solutions.

The better you understand what they need to achieve, the better you understand how you can help them, and long term the greater the chance you have of getting their support,

Build Alliances

Partnership is a two way thing, and it isn’t something that just happens at the point someone has a particular training need. We should be proactively building alliances.

Ask yourself;

  • Who can I build alliances with?
  • Who can help me identify the ways in which L&D can demonstrate more business focus?
  • Who can help me to demonstrate our business focussed approach?
  • Who would benefit from the support of a truly business focussed ally within L&D?

There may be some obvious candidates; line managers who you regularly work with, colleagues in IT, senior HR stakeholders, but don’t limit yourself. Look for anyone in the organisation where it would make sense to develop a real solid relationship; People with whom you can align your short, mid and long term goals and share resources.

Influence the Influencers

One of the greatest benefits of forming the right alliances is that we are better able to influence organisational decision making. If you want to establish a really effective L&D department, it doesn’t do any harm to get somebody senior on board as a cheerleader. Especially if we’re starting from the kind of position that the Corporate Leadership Council survey suggests that we might be.

Perhaps it’s obvious, but if you can’t directly influence the decision makers, then try and influence those people that can influence the decision makers. Use those alliances!

There is one other aspect of ownership that we need to cover, and maybe I’m being a little tough, but it’s tough love I promise you!

Stop Making Excuses

We really have to stop making excuses. In my ten years I’ve heard the same excuses trotted out, whether the subject was LMS, elearning content, social learning or using mobile devices.

  • It won’t work here
  • It won’t work with our people
  • IT says we can’t do it

If we’re going to take ownership for results, this just isn’t going to cut it. At the very least we need to make reasoned arguments why these things are or aren’t true.

Let’s just consider the last point; IT says we can’t do it. It’s a pretty common thing to hear, but if you just accept no for an answer, you become the single point of failure. So what do you do?

If we want be a partner, we should be able to develop a mature relationships with IT, one in which we partner with them, but aren’t dependent on them. Even then, it may be that they say no, and for perfectly good reasons, so what else can we do?

We explore the possibilities;

Are there external relationships that can offer us a solution? Do we have suppliers who can do what we need without the requirement for support from IT?

What about the tools you do have? Can you adapt something you already have to do what you need, or at least get close to it?

Or is there an alternative that IT will support. It may not be exactly the same solution but if it gets you closer to the result than you were before, it’s a winner.

Remember we’re also building alliances, so look for mutually beneficial solutions. If you want to install social enterprise platform ‘X’ and IT say no, but you know they really want to build something with collaboration platform ‘Y’, don’t treat it as second best, get on board and find a way to use that and support their goal too.

Clearly, what I’ve said doesn’t apply to everyone in L&D, but be honest with yourself; does any of this sound familiar? If so, it’s not too late to change.

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