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Cracking the e-Learning Nut



Ethan Edwards

by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

As fall is here in its full glory and the world prepares for winter, I’ve begun the arduous process of harvesting black walnuts.  There are several old walnut trees here planted by my grandfather that, in spite of this summer’s drought, have dropped an unusually large crop of walnuts on the ground.  For those of you unfamiliar with how black walnuts grow, let me tell you it is a long, labor-intensive process where every step except for the ultimate eating is not very rewarding.

walnuts1Walnuts fall and are encased in a thick, wet, fleshy husk that through aging, rotting, and the work of small worms is reduced to a hard, papery coat.  In collecting the walnuts in this stage, which sort of has to be done to save them from the marauding squirrels, you are guaranteed to have hands and clothes permanently stained dark brown.  Once collected, you need to remove these dry husks, either by hand, or devising some other methods like my dad’s of spreading them on a hard surface and driving over them repeatedly with the car.  Then you can lift out the actual nuts that are encased in thick hard shells and lay them out to dry for a week or so.  Then you have to get off the remaining skin residue, usually by putting them in a gunny sack and shaking them around, letting the hard, rough nuts rub the dry powder off each other, letting the dust sift through the burlap.  Only then do you face the slow task of opening the nuts with a hammer, trying to exert enough pressure to break the shell but not so much that you crack the fragile meat inside.

I remember vividly the many nights my grandmother would spend in the basement sitting at the anvil, hammer in hand, cracking walnuts.  It’s a tedious job, and many hours of work result in only a small container of nut meats.  And it’s somewhat uncivilized, unfit for genteel spaces, as hard pieces of shell fly and ricochet all over the place.

With this facing me, I wonder if there isn’t some easier way?  Certainly commercial walnut growers have specialized equipment to ease these tasks, but I can’t warrant that kind of investment for my little operation. I could buy walnuts, but mainly what you can buy are English walnuts.  English walnuts look like a nut, have the texture of a nut, and are easily cracked with a hand cracker or easily found already shelled and chopped. But they pretty much taste like nothing.  (You never hear about anything being “walnut” flavored; only “black walnut” flavored.) English walnuts give you the technical substance of eating a nut with none of the pleasure.

But will I invest the time to crack those black walnuts?  I’m not sure.  It’s pretty hard to be committed to spend my evenings in the basement rather than on comfortable couch in front of the television.  I’m afraid I may not possess the perseverance my grandma had.  But if I don’t, it’s entirely because of my own choices.  And it will be my loss to not enjoy the unique and irreplaceable benefit of having black walnuts to bake with.

Okay, so what does this have to do with e-learning?  It just strikes me that this is exactly the choice that faces each of us involved in designing and developing e-learning at every point.  Developing e-learning that actually has an impact on performance is a much bigger task than most people would guess.  Designing interactivity for computer delivery is not hard so much, as it is time-consuming.  There aren’t shortcuts to doing the required analysis and working through the designs of interactions, media, content, and evaluation.  Then one has to wield one or more uncooperative or inadequate tools to try to wrestle the design into some deliverable format.  It’s hard work.  Sort of feels like pounding on black walnuts with a hammer.

Unfortunately, the temptations to skip the work are everywhere:

  • Just use simplistic questions rather than activities that actually relate to the behavioral objectives.
  • Exclusively use prebuilt templates, usually created to be as generic and inoffensive as possible rather than for instructional efficacy. 
  • Rely entirely on canned clipart and meaningless images to “decorate” the screens rather than inform the instruction.
  • Scrap any kind of challenge because the simplistic authoring tools don’t allow anything but rote questioning and dismissive immediate judging.
  • Be content with content presentation in lieu of actual instruction because PowerPoint lecture presentations are so easily transferred to web delivery. 

We can end up with something that people will call “e-learning” but with none of the impact that instruction actually should have.

So it really comes down to what we value as training professionals. Do we actually believe in the possibility of creating performance change through engaging, interactive training? Or is e-learning just a formality we engage in to fill a place with little actual regard for the effect it has? The choice is ours.  As for me, just as I owe it to to my Grandma’s memory to carry through and crack those walnuts, I owe it equally to the learners who will be subjected to the e-learning I build to create experiences that will fuel curiosity, enhance understanding, build competence, and inspire excellence.  

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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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