by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist
Last week I conducted a series of online sessions about designing e-learning and had a chance to field questions from e-learning designers and developers from all over the world. As is often the case, there were a host of questions of this sort:
“Ok, but what am I supposed to do when my company…
- only gives me a few days to do this?”
- says I can’t use photos, clipart, or hire an artist?”
- says that every lesson has to have this exact structure?”
- [you fill in the blank]?”
Of course, there are strategies to employ to try to get around these impediments, but in many ways, I think these patching efforts really just add to the problem.
If we are serious about actually teaching through our e-learning and making our efforts count, I honestly think a different approach is called for.
Let me tell you a true story. I grew up working on our family’s strawberry farm. During May and June, we did nothing from dawn ‘til dusk picking strawberries (and also going to elementary school!). For a few years my sister, Ida, was in high school, she often had to stay in town for school activities and thus was relieved of a bit of the field labor. Feeling like she wanted to contribute to the family enterprise, she would often use her 4-H training to cook a meal to be ready for us when we returned home late at night. She wanted to make a dessert to complete the meal, but was handicapped by the fact that Mom, during these days, had little time for grocery shopping and so we often had a larder that was inconveniently bare. In particular, we rarely had extra eggs in the house. Ida had discovered a recipe called a “Banana Splizza” (I’ll let you imagine what that could possibly be) that was quick and easy. It called for an egg, but one evening in desperation she tried making the splizza without an egg. It turned into something only vaguely resembling a cake. She served it and we ate it. Was it any good? Honestly, I don’t think any of us paid attention, or if we did, we were hungry enough at the moment not to care. It had ice cream and chocolate on it and it was served up when we expected there to be something that was sweet and so we ate it. Being frugal-minded, Ida then regularly got into the habit of making the splizza without eggs, and having no other evidence, we quit expecting that a splizza could be any better than that.
Well, then came the day when we had no milk in the house either. Out came all the ingredients and a splizza was made without egg and this time with water substituted for the milk. Let me tell you, it was crazy bad, but it was still edible. We pried it loose from the pan and we ate it. For about three summers we suffered through various renditions of that dessert, each suffering in odd ways because the “tradition of the splizza” somehow required that Ida attempt to make it no matter what limitations were imposed on her. Ultimately we quit calling it dessert and instead called it officially “The Surprise.” It may be humorous, in hindsight, but this whole enterprise had some very significant bad effects. We really came to (unfairly) devalue my sister’s skills as a cook. These things she created were sometimes laughably bad, but not really through fault of her own. We also, oddly, came to view dessert more as something that you were required to work your way through, no matter what it was, rather than anticipate it with pleasure for the delight it provided to the end of a meal. And it became the fodder for mockery and something that could never be taken seriously.
I hope the parallel to the questions posed at the beginning of this post is clear. It is dangerous to remove a critical component of e-learning from your development tools, and yet somehow think that there is a reasonable way to still have significant impact. Two of the strongest benefits of e-learning are its capacity for integrating media into uniquely compelling presentations and to provide an interactive environment in which the learner can explore. Yet these are two of the elements that organizations seem very content to skimp on. Limiting your tools to restrict using graphical elements in your design is not far off from thinking it reasonable to bake a cake without an egg. Accepting a development timeline that makes it impossible to design even the slightest bit of interaction that varies from one or two preset question formats is necessarily going to create an experience of really poor quality. There isn’t some magic bullet that somehow makes these things irrelevant. Unfortunately, instructional designers so often have to operate under rules that were implemented for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with learning, but those restrictions clearly get in the way of teaching. Each time a necessary element is removed, we have the choice to say, “Ok, we’ll do what we can without that” or instead to say “Well, that means that e-learning really is no longer a solution.”The business factors that drive e-learning are complex. And every single project, even when you have unlimited resources, requires a series of compromises. So I’m not advocating a philosophy of demand for premium budgets in all circumstances. And often it is the constraints that are responsible for some of the most creative solutions. But sometimes, the limits imposed on your design create a situation where it becomes impossible to create e-learning of significant value. And the cumulative effect of operating in this way is to devalue e-learning and training in general. So while you are doing your best to work around limits on your access to instructional graphics or dealing with the unreasonable time frames that make actual design efforts impossible, you also need to be working to convince decision makers that these are unreasonable limitations to place on the design team and still expect results. Because some business demands have created situations where “anything” online will suffice, many organizations have forgotten how much they are sacrificing by adopting these constraints for their expectations of e-learning. Just as my family was no longer being served a dessert, even though “The Surprise” was presented as one, online programs lacking key instructional elements should really cease to be counted as e-learning, both to be fair to the learner and of the designer/developer.