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Incredibly Obvious e-Learning Design


linda(250)by LInda Rening, instructional designer

Have you noticed that everyone seems to be an expert in “training?” It seems curious that folks who have deep knowledge and experience with things like: sales, pharmaceuticals, electrical engineering, marketing, customer service, etc. also believe themselves to be experts in training. And yet that’s what I see: highly-educated and deeply-committed Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who want to step out of their field of expertise, and into ours.

Why does this phenomenon occur? I think it’s because everyone went to school. Seriously, I do. Because all of our SMEs and clients went to middle school, high school and, many to college, they feel they are prepared to make decisions on the best ways to transfer knowledge to learners.

The analogy seems ludicrous, but, we’ve all been to a doctor, too. Still, we don’t go around brandishing tongue depressors and ordering each other to, “Say Ahh,” do we?

Among the tragic flaws in believing that having been to school prepares one to create training is the central difference between learning in school and learning in the workplace: School is rarely “performance-based” learning. If we don’t count classes that teach “vocational skills,” like car repair, sewing, woodworking, etc., and focus on the core academics, the purpose of education in school is three-fold:

  1. Mastering depths of knowledge and theoretical skills that may or may not be applied later
  2. Learning to think critically
  3. Knowing how to use information resources

Compare that with the purpose for training in the workplace:

  1. Know the appropriate behaviors in a given situation
  2. Improve performance
  3. Get better results, ultimately increasing profits

Because our clients and SMEs―who, I must point out, truly are entirely well-intentioned—don’t know the difference between education and training, they often recommend dubious ways to approach e-learning in the workplace.

Consider these examples from the public and private sectors (No, I couldn’t make this stuff up):

  • Beginning a phone-based customer service e-learning course with the history of telephony
  • A government entity starting its compliance course with the history of related legislative actions, starting in 1927
  • Teaching bio-medical sales liaisons how to read X-rays and CAT scans by giving them the history of imaging technology from 1895 to the present

Those techniques may make sense in a college class because they teach the depth of knowledge about a subject area, but they do more harm than good in a corporate training environment.

Let’s step out of the classroom entirely… Do we teach someone to play poker by giving them the history of playing cards? Do we help someone learn to ride a bike by describing the invention of bicycles?

Of course we don’t. We let new card players play cards, and beginning bike riders try it out. We may deal out a few poker hands or run alongside the bike for a while. But ultimately, we just let them do it.

The “just let them do it” philosophy would be a great way to design corporate training programs, too.

  • Are you teaching marketing? Let learners market something.
  • Do you have to do compliance training? Let learners correct a form, or decide what’s wrong with a fictional person’s actions.
  • Are you teaching sales? Give learners an opportunity to sell something.

If you must include the history of telephony, x-rays, or bikes, put such content in an optional resources document.

Although all of this seems incredibly obvious, I believe it is a matter of following this process:

  1. Identify the performance you want
  2. Give learners an opportunity to demonstrate that performance from the safety of their computer screens
  3. Offer performance support along the way like job aids, checklists, mentors, etc.
  4. Provide instructive feedback when learners fail to complete a task correctly

I think there are a couple of key things to remember when actually implementing the process to develop e-learning courses. The first is to encourage our SMEs and clients to stop thinking like students in a traditional classroom. The second is for us to ask the right question. The central question is not: what do learners need to know, but, rather, what will learners need to do when they get to the real-world job environment?

We have to encourage our well-meaning clients and SMEs to put down the history books, step away from the tongue depressors, and focus on real-world performance.

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About Author

Linda Rening
Linda Rening

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