Sunday, November 22, 2009

Training You Can be Thankful For

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope you're reading this at home, or somewhere over the river and through the woods, though I don't know any companies giving employees a week off for Thanksgiving (or any holiday, for that matter!) these days. Either way, I bet there's turkey in your very near future. And that's a safety issue, and thus a training issue, which is right up my alley for this blog, isn't it!

It's a safety issue because turkey is fraught with opportunities for foodborne illness from salmonella, campylobacter, and other bacterial contamination. There's danger when you buy your bird, when you store it, prep it, cook it, put the leftovers away, and get them back out for tomorrow's sandwiches and the next day's tetrazzini. It's a wonder we survive this gauntlet of doom!

OK, it's not all that bad. We can be thankful that safe practices can mitigate those risks. And we can be thankful that training can beget safe practices!

E-learning takes a lot of different forms, and this week's topic gives me a chance to expound on a quick chunk of philosophy. "Make it interactive" is Commandment #1 in the e-learning bible. At least, it is a key buzzword for sales departments in e-learning vendor teams. But like many lofty pronouncements, here's one whose vagueness leaves it open to a great deal of interpretation.

What's "interactive" mean? If there's a button to click, and something happens as a result of that button, well, that's interactive, right? (answer: yes. But interactivity is a continuum, and at the other end would be a highly detailed, visual simulation with multiple branches allowing a learner to make choices that steer down various wrong paths to learn from mistakes.)

The importance of interactivity - and the application of its highest levels - isn't a blanket thing. It's dependent on what the learning objective is. And in the case of turkey safety, give me a clear, accessible job performance aid, and save the expensively-produced, 3D animated simulation for something like learning to land an airplane.

One of the big sources of turkey danger has to do with the size of a turkey - it's one of the biggest pieces of meat you'll ever thaw or cook. What this means is that both thawing and cooking take place from the outside in. By the time the inside of the bird has thawed at room temperature, the outside has already reached unsafe temperatures where bacteria can thrive. And when the outside of the bird has cooked long enough to kill those bacteria, the inside still has a ways to go. So timing - for both thawing and cooking - is key. And timing depends on the weight of the bird.

What's the best instructional design to put this information into my brain and affect my behavior in the kitchen? I need to know this stuff for a few minutes each year, and the rest of the year, it doesn't really matter to me. I don't need to practice and drill until I've memorized the cooking time for a 13-pound vs. a 16-pound bird at 325º vs. 350º.

The design needs to take into account that different people learn best in different ways. I need a
chart, dangit. That I can check while I'm cooking on Thanksgiving afternoon. Maybe some explanatory prose. And a meat thermometer. (I really need to set up an Amazon associates account so I can make bank off product placement like this!)

You might learn better from a video. And your neighbor might not speak English. There are
free streaming videos on King County, Washington's website in English, Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

Someone else might not be as experienced as you and I, and need recipes to go along with the temperature/time charts. All that information has been made available by the USDA on their website at the aptly-named

Another learner might be a rank beginner who needs to know about everything from shopping to serving, from
farm to table.

Not interactive enough? At least the USDA fakes some interactivity with a searchable FAQ: "'
Ask Karen' is a knowledge base with information for consumers about preventing foodborne illness, safe food handling and storage, and safe preparation of meat, poultry, and egg products."

I didn't find any free training on cleaning up after dinner, so... let's just watch the game. Go Broncos!

Turkey photo:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Adaptable Workers with Adaptable Tools

"Senior executives and managers say the people they work with are more adaptable today than a few years ago." CLO Magazine summarizes a study by NFI Research in a recent article entitled Recession's Silver Lining? Increased Adaptability. The article credits economic need and a new sense of frugality. According to the study's author, Chuck Martin, "Many in business today have had no choice but to become more adaptable considering the impact of economic conditions on business."

One participant in the study mentioned that "employees have become more adaptable since realizing the benefits and efficiencies that technology has brought to their work."

The relevance to training and the efficiencies technology brings to it should be obvious. The economic necessity for agility and the flexibility offered by e-learning create what should be a perfect storm for adoption of of web-based training.

E-learning is at its core flexible. The mantra has always been "anytime, anywhere." E-learning unbinds learners from the limitations of time (we don't have to shut down operations to get everyone into a class at the same time) and space (we don't have to all be in the same classroom to learn).

That's flexibility at its most basic. So why do so many consumers of e-learning speak of feeling trapped?

I talk to plenty of training and HR leaders who are feeling stuck, in three main ways. They're compromising on training quality with disputably relevant off-the-shelf content, they're forced to access courseware living on a server somewhere, and they're shackled into a subscription contract that requires them to predict how many seats in this course, how many in that course, and whoops, we're out of seats and have to buy more to get all our training done, and whoops, we hate this training but we're contracted through 2011 with this provider. (take a breath, Greg!) (OK! but how is any of that flexible??)

So what needs to happen to put training back into the realm of agility to match this newly increased adaptability of the workforce?

1) A number of e-learning content providers market their courseware as "customizable," but what that means is that clients can log into the provider's proprietary system, make minor changes to the existing course, and abandon their "custom" course when their contract with the provider ends. The only way to provide truly adaptable, agile course content is to provide source code and ownership of derivative works.

2) Via an internet connected computer is one way to access a multimedia course, but what happens when you need to train workers on site in the Congo or the depths of Siberia? What happens when your business has nothing to do with information technology, and your learning lab consists of a couple laptops in a trailer at the jobsite? What if you have 35 employees and no LMS? Courseware locked away on someone else's server isn't adaptable or agile - you need to be able to provide the same training via an LMS, company intranet, and CD-ROM or other portable media.

3) Whoever came up with the learner seat subscription model was a sadist, a masochist, or both. It's torture for clients - predicting how many employees need these seven courses, which subset need these other two courses, which population needs those five other courses... and in times of high turnover, those predictions go out the window, don't they. It's also no walk in the park for the hosting vendor - they've got to service all those changing needs, and assist in juggling someone else's learner seats. Painful all around! For max adaptability, a perpetual license for unlimited access to training content (especially when it's source code in the client's hands) is the only truly agile option.

If we don't capitalize on the adaptability of our people by giving them the most adaptable tools available, we don't win the economic battles we're fighting.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

EITHER Agility OR Agility!

Last week I wrote about making a dilemma or controversy out of something where both sides were right, and I have more to rant about this week.

Folks weighed in with their own strong opinions about the burning controversy. Someone even questioned why there would be text in an e-learning course at all. (Hmmm...)

But again I find myself asking, why the "either-or" here? Wouldn't the training you create be more agile if you made both available to your learners? Modern multimedia tools (in the case of GCPLearning, mostly Adobe Flash) give us the ability to be extremely flexible. We can very conveniently show and hide any feature and offer alternative means of access as a set of options in a multimedia course delivered online, so why in the world wouldn't we make BOTH forms of text presentation available to learners? ("make both available... make both available... make both available..." Repeating myself is sure sign of a passionate rant!)

We've been evolving our design along these lines ever since our self-proclaimed "3G Design Revolution" of 2002. Maybe we should have bragged about it more in the intervening seven years!

Here's our thinking on the topic. Adult learners come to training with a wide range of educational levels, life experiences, and reading and language abilities. They also bring the usual variety of learning styles to the table. So being able to choose the learning style - the form of access to information - that works best for them makes a big difference in their success.

In the e-learning courses we develop, we started calling it "user-controlled narration," though now I'm thinking perhaps we should call it "user-controlled access." In a nutshell, our learners can see and/or hear the course in whatever way works best for them.

Full text display is an option; the default is on-screen text synced with audio. This leaves more screen real estate - room in the frame - for instructive graphics and interactivity.

Similarly, since the learners can also control the audio narration, they can turn it up, turn it down, or turn it off to best suit their learning styles and personal preference.

These key features also make our courses accessible to sight- and hearing-impaired learners and those who don't have or want to use audio capabilities on their computers.

Built-in flexibility seems so basic, such a given to us, that we made "agile" part of our tagline and a big part of our e-learning entire vision. Agility is the cornerstone of our content, our delivery system, and our business model. It's beyond me why anyone gets so set on one way being right when the world demands us to be flexible.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Whole Lot of Either/Or Noise

Two discussions inspired my posting this week, both about being all diametrical-like in approaches to facets of e-learning. Why is there an instinct to ricochet between the horns of a dilemma rather than just riding comfortably on the dang thing's head? (Look at that head: doesn't it look all soft and comfy? What in the world is your attraction to those horns!?) Does everything have to be a controversy; is everything either/or? or can we teach ourselves to make looking for the utility of two different approaches our default way of thinking?

Let's focus on the first one, a well-posed question by Bob Little on eLearn: Rapid e-Learning Polarizes Opinion. Bob says:

Much to the disgruntlement of instructional designers and other e-learning specialists, rapid e-learning tools are offering in-house subject matter experts excellent opportunities to produce e-learning materials relatively quickly and cost-effectively...The e-learning experts complain that rapid development tools are helping e-learning amateurs to turn out low-quality and poorly-designed materials that merely pay lip service to the ideals of instructional design.

The same issue is being discussed in different flavors in a couple different LinkedIn forums. I'll cut to the chase and tell you my opinion on the matter: SMEs with no ID experience can create one kind of excellent instruction, and PhD-level Instructional Designers can make another kind of excellent instruction. And we should look for perfect applications for both types of training, and be proud of ourselves for making efficient use of the resources at our disposal.

How about an example: my dad taught me to ski by being a great skier, and my mom taught me to fold fitted sheets because she knew a really cool trick for it. (OK, not a fair example - they were both teachers! But your parents taught you things too, without having ever heard of Don Kirkpatrick or Benjamin Bloom or Robert Gagne.) Point is, our parents were subject matter experts, and they didn't take a research-based approach to designing a learning event for us; they just showed us how to do it, watched us try, corrected our errors, and made sure we knew how to do it. Voila, learning.

Another example: Bill Preston was one of my high school English teachers, and because he was a thoughtful and deliberate designer of instruction, using a diligently planned approach, he managed to enable all manner of 16-year-old idiots to not just wade through McBeth, but to savor the intricacies of Shakespeare's games with language and actually get that play. Voila, learning!

SMEs with a will to teach can create richly applicable training materials. And expert learning designers with a will to learn the subject matter can create elegant and efficient training materials. Smart people (like GCPLearning, of course!) will utilize both approaches.

What's the controversy?