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A Commencement Address for e-Learning

By Ethan Edwards, Chief Instructional Strategist


It’s that time of year when our children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews are wrapping up the traditional school year, and many of them are graduating from some defined course of study—high school, college, etc.—marked by graduation ceremonies. Along with commencement exercises come commencement speeches that provide the opportunity to comment on the just-completed shared experience and set the learner on his or her way to future success. Sometimes inspiring, sometimes sentimental, sometimes clichéd, sometimes predictable, these speeches do offer a final review, of sorts, of the experience of education. 

It makes me ponder what a “Commencement Address for e-Learning” might be like. Here are two possibilities. Which would you like to claim as yours?


Possibility I:

Students, managers, LMS administrators. WE MADE IT! You have all earned the distinction of completing your e-learning curriculum. Doesn’t it feel great to have spent hours trudging through countless pages of content?  I bet you thought you’d never get to the end. But you learned the value of perseverance. In spite of all clues to the contrary, you continued hitting the “Next” button, keeping the faith that the end would come. You triumphed in the creativity you brought to each challenge, realizing that if you carefully placed your cursor in the same spot on the screen, you could make progress by mindlessly clicking without even paying the slightest attention, as you used that time to perfect your Candy Crush Saga skills on your tablet. You dreamed big, choosing to bid on eBay collectibles as you waited for the tedious narration to play out. You took risks, carefully weighing your chances when guessing the answers to the routine knowledge checks thrown your way, cementing the valuable knowledge that the longest answer is usually correct rather than the questionable payoff of reading anything. But it wasn’t always easy. Sometimes you felt trapped in modules in which legal accuracy and compliance regulations conspired to create mind-numbingly boring instruction. But you understood how you are part of a greater community of shared values, realizing that you were no more responsible for actually learning any of this content than the administrators and designers were who ignored their responsibility in creating training materials that failed to engage at so many levels. You honored tradition, pouring over outdated modules that were carefully created by converting existing PowerPoint decks into clumsy online formats. You learned teamwork, commiserating with your cohorts about how irritating it was that each and everyone of you experienced the exact same training, in spite of the fact that you are all adults with enormous differences in skills and experience, all of which were completely ignored by the training you received. And yes, you sacrificed for others, recognizing that IT professionals and LMS providers have little or nothing to do with training, yet deserve to dictate training policy by applying shortsighted standards that have nothing to do with performance outcomes but everything to do with arbitrary implementation requirements. But don’t worry; this is only a temporary separation. Next year we’ll insist that you return to complete these identical modules.  So remember what you have learned that has helped you succeed: the correct answer is usually “C.” But even if that lesson is forgotten, you will always know that if you make a mistake—any mistake—the answer will be provided and you can easily move forward without having to really read anything. Congratulations!

Or would you prefer this?

Possibility II:

Experts and leaders. WE MADE IT! You have all earned the distinction of completing your e-learning curriculum. I know many of you are probably feeling a little sadness that it is over. You’ve enjoyed the challenge of exploring relevant e-learning scenarios that relate directly to the work that you are expected to do. You were made comfortable knowing that you could complete the training on your own schedule, at your own convenience, not pressured by arbitrary schedules to finish before you felt adequately prepared. You were energized by friendly competition made possible by the leaderboards and discussion groups where you could see how you were doing relative to your cohorts and go back and improve your performance through repeated practice. You were rewarded for existing competencies as the e-learning modules used adaptive branching to let you to move forward as soon as you demonstrated mastery. You gained insights to help you beyond the training sessions, using the scenarios and immersive interactions to learn and apply new skills in a meaningful context. You were rewarded by careful attention to detail and productive thinking by being at the center of the learning experience, rather than being a passive observer. You can feel pride in knowing that these experiences will still be present as a continuing resource to help you when confronting a tricky performance situation. And you can look forward to a reunion of sorts—each year you’ll recertify your expertise through a similar module that will provide fresh situations and let you demonstrate how you respond to new challenges. You are an extremely valuable member of this community and it is an honor for us that our training programs have helped you in your path to excellence in the organization. But this is only the beginning. This training is not an end in itself, but is preparation for you to continue growing and learning as you apply this new knowledge into your daily interactions with your co-workers and our clients.

I think I know which summary I’d like to be part of.

Gentle readers (thank you, Charlotte Bronte for that phrase that I never thought I’d have the chance to use), I always try to write from my heart, combining a dedication to being a constructive force in our learning universe while sharing a firm belief that training, when done right, can truly make a difference in people’s lives. And as designers of e-learning, we have a particular opportunity and responsibility to create moments of truth, of connection, of inspiration, and empowerment in our e-learning designs. I started out writing this blog this week primarily motivated by illustrating the absurd aspects that appear in some typical e-learning courses, but unexpectedly, I feel re-energized in the potential we have for creating really positive change in our organizations. Truly in honor of the wonderful phenomenon of success and opportunity represented by all of the young people starting off on new paths, I want to share the words to a poem by Robert Frost that was performed by the Concert Choir when I received my bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign back in 1983. It is message of both trust and awe in what we know about our world and what we might expect to achieve.


Choose Something Like a Star

By Robert Frost

(from The Road Not Taken)


O Star (the fairest one in sight),

We grant your loftiness the right

To some obscurity of cloud—

It will not do to say of night,

Since dark is what brings out your light.

Some mystery becomes the proud.

But to be wholly taciturn

In your reserve is not allowed.

Say something to us we can learn

By heart and when alone repeat.

Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'

But say with what degree of heat.

Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.

Use language we can comprehend.

Tell us what elements you blend.

It gives us strangely little aid,

But does tell something in the end.

And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,

Not even stooping from its sphere,

It asks a little of us here.

It asks of us a certain height,

So when at times the mob is swayed

To carry praise or blame too far,

We may choose something like a star

To stay our minds on and be staid.

Want to share this post? Click to share these tweets!

Click to Tweet: Two commencement addresses for #e-learning that are a must read from @ethanaedwards! @customelearning

Click To Tweet: @ethanaedwards ponders a Commencement Address for #e-Learning. Which would you claim? @customelearning

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About Author

Ethan Edwards
Ethan Edwards

Ethan Edwards draws from more than 30 years of industry experience as an elearning instructional designer and developer. He is responsible for the delivery of the internal and external training and communications that reflect Allen Interactions’ unique perspective on creating Meaningful, Memorable, and Motivational learning solutions backed by the best instructional design and latest technologies.

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