Monday, 25 July 2011

I’m an Instructional Designer so respect me!

Instructional designers, like all workers, are treated in different ways by different people but a key question, which as yet remains unanswered, is are they respected?

Over the course of the last few years I have come across a number of instructional designers (who obviously have to remain anonymous) who bemoan the fact that the role they play in designing eLearning programmes is not respected or appreciated. Many of them feel unvalued, frustrated, demotivated, usurped and fed up. By nature, instructional designers are very good, if somewhat unassuming, team players, however for many a feeling of exclusion has become the norm.
So, what’s going on that has led to this sorry state of affairs? Well, I have managed to determine two causes which, singly or together, invariably lead to one effect.

Cause 1 – Project managers rule
For instructional designers who work in teams, alongside graphic designers, video producers and programers, there is usually a project manager ‘conducting’ the work and acting as the ‘go-between’ with the team and the client.
When a project manager is not and has never been an instructional designer, problems arise when they assume the instructional design mantle and seek to cut-off essential communication channels with the client and the lead/senior instructional designer.
In situations where the project manager is a control freak and/or will do anything to keep the client happy by agreeing to their requests, no matter how unwise, inappropriate, time-consuming or costly, then the lead/senior instructional designer becomes impotent and their vital role ceases to exist.
In the worst case scenarios, project managers have even been known to undermine the credibility, knowledge, skills and experience of instructional designers by dismissing the latter’s efforts and achievements to the client, as well as keeping the two parties well apart in order to retain their control.

Cause 2 – Authoring tools dominate
In this situation, the instructional designer is forced to work to the lowest common denominator ie the authoring tool or software. The instructional designer is told “We will be using ‘X’ tool, so you will need to design the programme accordingly.”. Depending on the tool, as some are not so limited as others, this can result in the instructional designer being severely constrained in how they can treat the content. Not only is this extremely frustrating, it is also very demeaning, somewhat akin to asking a top-notch organist who is used to having four manuals at their disposal to achieve the same musical outcome with only one manual!
In those cases, which sadly are becoming more and more common, where the instructional designer is also the programer, then the tool in question easily dominates most design considerations. The individual in question either forgets any instructional design knowledge and skills they may have or lets the tool dominate their design.
In either case, the outcome is one in which the ‘science’ and ‘art’ of instructional design plays very little, if any part. No small wonder then that many people are asking just what is an instructional designer good for!

Effect – Bottom of the heap syndrome
In an increasing number of cases, instructional designers are now being treated as second class citizens. In terms of an eLearning pecking order they are rapidly being relegated to the bottom of the heap. No small wonder then that so many feel unvalued, frustrated, demotivated, usurped and generally fed up.

A recipe for disaster
If this state of affairs continues then quality and fit-for-purpose eLearning programmes, irrespective of whether they are stand-alone, form part of a blended learning solution, or are used as a form of performance support, will rapidly become a thing of the past.
Sound and effective instructional design are the sine qua nons of all formal learning solutions, as well as for provision which is used informally for performance support. This is no more true than when, arguably, the most demanding delivery medium of all, eLearning, is involved.
We have got to do something to address this current lack of respect of instructional designers by, first, acknowledging that it exists, second, by bringing it to the attention of others and, third, by enforcing our role as indispensible L&D professionals. I sincerely hope that this post will make a positive contribution to the first two steps.

“I got to have (just a little bit) – A little respect (just a little bit)” (Aretha Franklin)

If you have had similar experiences to then please do use the comments box and tell me about them.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Terror of Templates: an Instructional Designers nightmare!

In today’s world of rapid everything, particularly when it comes to e-Learning programmes, I have noticed and become a victim of a most disturbing trend: the scourge of templates.

Rapid e-Learning design has its place but not when instructional design is compromised. The use of templates is nothing new, where at the start of a e-Learning project it is agreed by the instructional designer in conjunction with the client, the graphic designers, and the programers, where specific assets can be placed on the screen.
Over the last few years though, I have noticed a most disturbing and counter-productive trend – one where templates become the sine qua non of all e-Learning design; effectively kicking instructional designers into touch. So, here’s my take on what is the good, bad and (the downright) ugly of using templates in designing e-Learning programmes.

Templates – the good
First of all, let me say that as an instructional designer I define and use templates. However, these are very simple and few in number. Generally, they just cover where graphics and text can go, to make life easier for other instructional designers in the team and for the programers.
Knowing what the various options are, it’s relatively easy to look at some content and decide what screen layouts to use: graphics & text, text & graphics, graphics/text and so on.
What happens next though is left solely to the instructional designer, in terms of how the text, graphics and audio work with one another, and the interactions that are required. The instructional designer is therefore completely in charge.

Templates – the bad
Here, the programers, with minimal or even no input from an instructional designer, come up with 20 or so templates, all of which are to do with what they want to see in order to make their lives easier.
Very few, if any, of these has anything to do with what an instructional designer would have chosen or that will work best for learners.  They attempt, and generally fail, to describe everything, including interactions.  Their use serves only to provide boring and predictable e-Learning programmes.
In short, these types of templates become a strait jacket for the instructional designer, depriving the latter of any creativity or of using their considerable knowledge and skill of learning to produce high quality, effective e-Learning.

Templates – the (downright) ugly
OK it goes like this. An e-Learning provider (who will remain nameless) gives me a total of 80, yes 80, templates to use (and on pain of death if I didn’t use them correctly). Each one of these 80 templates is so complicated, so restricted, and so inane that I rapidly lose the will to live!
Being an inquiring soul, I ask why do all these templates have to control what I do? Answer: “Well, we are using an offshore company to keep the costs down and this is the only way we can control what they provide”.
So, the tail is wagging the proverbial dog. I tried, oh believe me how I tried, but after a few days I gave up, as I couldn’t work/dance to such a cacophony.
I also felt that everything I knew and was experienced in doing as an instructional designer had just flown out of the window.  In short I’d become the operator of a sausage machine!

Sweet dreams
If I am going to sleep well and perform at my best as an instructional designer, then the ‘terror of templates’ has to become a thing of the past.
I do wish more instructional designers who have had sleepless nights or, worse still nightmares, about this scourge of the templates would also speak out. The life of an instructional designer can, at the worse, be a fairly unthankful task but with all these templates, it is rapidly becoming an unworkable one.
As I always live and work in hope, can I now say ‘goodbye to the terror of templates as “Sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree?” (Eurythmics). I most sincerely hope so.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Should you blow up your LMS?

Does your organisation have a learning management system (LMS)? If it does, do you love it or hate it? Either way, what is its role – is it a disabler or an enabler when it comes to learning?

Learning management systems have been around for at least 10 years and were, at one time, regarded as an indispensible component of all e-Learning provision. Today though the nature of learning in organisations is changing to include and acknowledge both informal and social learning which means that the usefulness of the LMS needs to be reviewed.

Why have a LMS?
Many organisations embarking on e-Learning have been recommended to buy a LMS, in fact this is often the first thing they buy, even before the e-Learning programmes, courses, modules, etc, on the advice of vendors. "The greatest scam ever pulled off by vendors was convincing management that an LMS isn't just a database. The second biggest? That they really needed one. The third? That it is a ‘Learning’ ‘Management’ System." (Jane Bozarth, 2010 on Mark Oehlert’s eClippings blog).
A learning management system is basically a software application for the administration, documentation, tracking, and reporting of training programmes, classroom and online events, e-Learning programmes and training content. A robust LMS should be able to do the following (Ellis 2009):
§  centralize and automate administration
§  use self-service and self-guided services
§  assemble and deliver learning content rapidly
§  consolidate training initiatives on a scalable web-based platform
§  support portability and standards
§  personalize content and enable knowledge reuse.
By using a LMS organisations can track its staff’s use of training programmes, their test results, how long they took to complete a course, to name but a few. This capability has led many to say that a LMS is a sine qua non of all regulatory/compliance training and, as this use has much credence, it is difficult to argue against it. However, the current debate is much wider than this, as it would be very difficult to justify the cost of a LMS (which can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds) for just regulatory/compliance training requirements.

The LMS critics
Very recently, both Dan Pontefract and Richard Culatta (2010) have criticized the standalone LMS:
"Those organizations (and frankly public learning institutions) that are clinging to their standalone learning management systems as a way in which to serve up formal ILT course schedules and eLearning are absolutely missing the big picture. Sadly, there are too many organizations like this out there." (The standalone LMS is dead, Pontefract, 2009).
"The traditional stand-alone learning management system (LMS) is built on an industrial age model. There are two specific problems with this model, first it is monolithic within a learning institution and second it is generic across learning institutions." (The traditional LMS is dead, Culatta, 2010).
In addition, research conducted by the LMS supplier IMC found that among larger organisations, most had a LMS, with over 90 per cent having had one installed for more than two years and nearly 50 per cent of these had a LMS installed for five years or more. When these organisations were asked if they would recommend their current supplier only 23 percent said ‘very likely’, with negative responses totalling 50 percent, leading to the conclusion that either they were not completely satisfied or they had made the wrong decision in the first place.
When asked if they were completely satisfied with their LMS in relation to both current and future requirements, only 30 per cent said they were, with an astounding 70 per cent saying they were dissatisfied, and where 30 per cent said that their concerns were in relation to future requirements.
Is it the learner, the L&D function or the organisation who benefits the most from having a LMS? Again, whilst most people are using it to benefit their learners (ie as an enabler) and to capture data of use for the L&D function, such as management reports, there is considerable under-use for the benefit of the organisation, which coupled with a very low level of satisfaction with their current supplier, means most are unable to show a realistic return on their investment in the functionality of their LMS.

The changing nature of learning
Jay Cross has, for many years, been one of the main advocates of ‘informal learning’, which has led to the term becoming established in mainstream use. Although there is no scientifically proven research, it is generally accepted that approximately only 10 to 20 percent of our skills learning comes from formal means, such as training courses and development programmes, and with which the L&D function is typically most comfortable.
The essential approach of a traditional LMS is to ‘push’ content to situations where gaps in skills have been identified. The LMS is key to identifying a skills need, delivering content (in the form of a course, module, etc), monitoring the learner’s use of what is provided, and recording if the learner’s needs have been met.
However, informal learning relies on the ‘push’ of content at the point at which there is a need. This means that the LMS now needs to be able to capture that skills have been acquired informally if the skills database is to be keep up-to-date, otherwise it will become a disabler of learning.
In addition, people are now using public social and collaboration tools to build their own personal learning networks for use in their work. To include all these tools or to retrofit them into the functionality of a traditional LMS is a massive undertaking, although those suppliers who are evolving are looking at ways in which to do this.

What’s the solution?
There are two different viewpoints here. One view is that it is easier and better to add some management capability to the social networking tools rather than retrofit all that functionality into a traditional LMS. The downside of this is from the aspect of data migration to ensure that there is a transfer of data from one area to the other.
The alternative view is to forget the previous approach, because what is needed now is an organisational system which supports and enables an informal approach to learning as, quite simply, you cannot manage or formalize informal learning as it then just becomes formal, managed learning.
This type of system is an example of enterprise 2.0 architecture (blogs, wikis, chat etc). More and more collaboration systems are now appearing in the marketplace, commercial systems like Socialtext and Jive, and open source systems like Elgg and Liferay, which cater for all budget sizes. The use of this type of enterprise system will support the relatively new concept that learning=working and working=learning.

The way ahead
As Don Pontefract has said “Whether you’re in a private or public organization ... start first with a ‘collaboration’ system rather than a ‘learning’ system, and build out from there.” and, even more to the point, “Blow up your LMS.  Find a way to integrate it into your collaboration platform.”(2009).
If you are tempted to go down this route then it is vital that you work with your IT Department or Business Operations on this, as a whole-enterprise approach is required here and not yet another L&D initiative!

(From an article by J. Christian-Carter (2010), Training Briefing, No 55, Croner, Wolters Kluwer (UK) Ltd.)

Monday, 27 September 2010

Getting into those important spaces

For the last few years I have read and heard so much about how trainers need to wise-up, get with-it, and embrace social media. This is undoubtedly true but how will people know what to do? The simple answer: by reading Jane Bozarth’s book ‘Social Media for Trainers’, that’s how.

For all you trainers out there, there is one book which should be on your ‘essential reading’ list: Social Media for Trainers: Techniques for Enhancing and Extending Learning, Jane Bozarth, 2010, Pfeiffer, ISBN 978-0-470-63106-5.

Why? Well, as Jane says in her book “It is critical, if workplace trainers intend to remain viable and credible, that they understand how to participate in the networks and use the social media tools to extend their reach and enhance the development of the employees they are charged with developing.” Surely, only luddites would tut at this and say that social media tools are not for them? Which means that if you are reading this blog, it would be reasonable to assume that you are not one of the ‘tutting’ brigade, so read on.

To start with, I felt I should support the technology focus of this book, so I downloaded it from Amazon and, using the Kindle app on my iPad, read it electronically. As a result, I realized that via this medium it wasn’t only a book but an interactive one at that, allowing me, via the many hyperlinks, to go straight to tables, diagrams, etc. in the book itself and to access straight away the valuable external website links provided; which really added that extra bit of something to what was a very pleasurable reading and learning experience.

The book opens with an overview of social media tools and current trends, both of which are covered superbly. This is followed by chapters dedicated to Twitter, Facebook and Other Communities, Blogs, Wikis, and Other Tools, each of which provides a long list of ideas for activities, discussion topics and formats, and exercises using the tool in question. I found each of these to be very informative, well thought out, and extremely valuable.  Even as a fairly experienced blogger and twitterer, I learned so much more and, although I was not a great fan of Facebook, I now see it in a much more positive light. The book concludes with an overview of the larger picture, ie social learning, along with suggestions for gaining organizational support for change – which nearly blew my socks off with the number of citations, examples, and case studies provided.

One of many meaningful messages in this book is as follows: “Research … indicates that as much as 70 percent of workplace learning is informal, occurring outside the classroom and in the spaces between formal training events. Social media is one way for the training department and the training practitioners to get into those spaces and reach employees between events.” – hence the title of this blog post.

As Jane says “In essence, training approaches incorporating social media strategies more closely resembles how we really learn in our day-to-day activities.” I could not agree with her more and, if you do too, then make sure you get and read this book. As I said to someone the other day on Twitter “you will not be disappointed” if you do.

Finally, just take a moment to think about your own organization or those for which you provide training. Social media tools are here to stay, so why not incorporate their use into your training provision? Then, having read Jane Bozarth’s book, draw-up a plan of action for doing just that.

You can contact Jane Bozarth via her website on Facebook at Jane Bozarth Bozarthzone and via Twitter at @janebozarth.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

What has Twitter done for you?

It started when Jane Hart ( ) sent me a tweet of a blog post ( which was entitled ‘What Twitter Has Done For Me’. This got me to thinking about how much Twitter has done for me, so here are my immediate thoughts.

I blogged 3 months ago about ‘Twitter – 1 year on’ and, having re-read that post, I now realize that in the intervening period quite a lot has changed:

§  Twitter has now become my main CPD (Continuing Professional Development) tool. I hadn’t realized this until now but through Twitter I have learned so much about so many aspects of my work and interests.

§    Twitter has put me in contact with some well-known and respected L&D professionals, as well as many people who work at the ‘chalk-face’ (what an out-moded term that is but you know what I mean!). Not only has the number of people who ‘follow’ me risen considerably in 3 months (which is important) but it is the quality of these followers which has really made all the difference.

§    Twitter has enabled me to extend my horizons and to return to my educational roots. For many years now I have concentrated and worked in the adult learning training and development world of organizations (corporate, public, small-medium-enterprises). However, my roots are in education (Schools, Further and Higher Education) and through the medium of Twitter I have returned to that world. I now feel ‘clued-up’ with what’s going on and how people who work in these sectors of education feel, think and behave. Perhaps, more importantly, I feel both empowered and challenged by this experience.

§    Twitter has made me want to share and exchange views, articles, news, etc with others. We live in interesting and changing times and Twitter has encouraged me to share with others items of mutual interest as well as wanting to exchange my views with others.  I have to confess that pre-Twitter I wasn’t so keen on doing this but I will need time to reflect as to why!

§    Twitter has given me the confidence to debate L&D issues with others. I know this may sound trite, as those who know me would say that as a person I definitely do not lack confidence! However, outward appearances can often be deceptive and Twitter most certainly has provided me with a medium through which I feel happy to debate issues with others.

So, what has Twitter done for you? Please feel free to share your experiences if you also operate in ‘Twittersphere’.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

The Need for Change

Recently, many challenges have been laid down at the door of Learning and Development (L&D) as far as some much needed change is concerned. However, even if you agree with these challenges, meeting and achieving them is going to be something else altogether.

Every day on Twitter I read so many tweets about the need for a stunning amount of change in L&D. Judging by what people are saying, change in large corporates, public sector organisations, small and medium enterprises, higher education, further education, as well as secondary and primary education is required. Yes, it’s right across the board and, as I value greatly these people’s views, a tremendous challenge for all of us in L&D – perhaps the largest one most of us have ever faced.

My assessment on why this need for change has come about is because so many of our L&D policies, strategies and processes have not moved with the times, or with the technology which we now have at our disposal, and are still firmly based in the last century.
When looking back over the first decade of the 21st Century only a hermit could be justified in saying that there has been little change. In the course of 10 years all of us, no matter where we are located in the world, have seen an exponential amount of change which is already having a direct impact on all aspects of our lives, including our work and our job roles.
For all of us working in any area of L&D, there is now considerable pressure being brought upon us to get ‘with it’ and to drag L&D into the 21st Century. The cost of not doing so isn’t something we should even contemplate.

In a nutshell we need to free-up and open-up L&D in all areas.
In the corporate/public sector world L&D needs to be representative of and support the goals of the organisation: training needs to change both in style and approach; development needs to change with informal learning recognized and rewarded; and, people need to be given the technology and tools to help them learn better and faster.
In education teachers and lecturers need to be freed-up to help their students to learn in ways which suit the latter, allowing them to use a range of learning processes, technologies, and tools.

This is the ‘six million dollar’ question, although the cost will probably run into billions of dollars! But it’s not just about cost, it’s also about attitude – a resolve and a belief that change is required as well as the ability to effect that change.
There will always be those who resist change, initially at least, but unless those people who have the resolve and belief are allowed to start effecting this much-needed change, it will never happen. Those who resist initially will either retire or leave the profession or, more positively, will join in when they see and experience all the benefits that undoubtedly will result.

The learner
For me, it’s all about those who learn. They always need to be our focus and not us, complete with our preferences and prejudices. We are here to help people to learn and to develop as human beings. The omens are good with a growing groundswell of L&D professionals not only clamouring for change but also working extremely hard to bring it about.
The most important action for us is to remove the strait-jackets, which time and other people have imposed on learners, in order to liberate them. This has to be the starting point and then all we have to do is to deliver what learners need and want.

So what challenges are you facing in L&D right now – do please tell and share?

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Learning & Development 5 years on

In June 2010 the BILD (British Institute for Learning and Development) attempted the impossible: to hold a conference with the theme ‘Learning and Development – the next five years’. So, just how did the ‘crystal ball’ perform?

The day’s conference showcased some of the current trends and innovations in learning and looked towards what the future might hold for Learning and Development (L&D). As Jack Wills (the BILD’s Chairman) said “If we accept that a ‘learner’ is a consumer by nature and reflects the society in which he/she lives, we might be able to spot some significant trends in how we might support them”.

Significant trends
Leaving aside the more human performance and organisational change aspects, it is far easier to speculate about how technology will have advanced by 2015 and the role that it might play in L&D. In the last 10 years technology has advanced so much that for some of us it is difficult to keep up with. Technological advancements over these years have, are having, and will have a truly mighty impact on L&D. It’s not just the Internet, it’s also the tools and, more importantly, the vision to see how all the advancements can be used to help everyone to learn.

Immersive technologies
David Wortley from the Serious Games Institute ( gave an excellent presentation, telling delegates what immersive technologies are, what their impact will be on the next generation of learners, how and where they are being used, their benefits for education and business, and their future implications for business and society.

The most graphic part of the presentation was what happens to someone who dies from a head wound/trauma. Whilst this was not something for the faint hearted, it showed in a way that no other current technology could, by linking real-world data to realistic simulations, exactly what happens; it was not pretty.

As David said, “Immersive technologies are engaging our discretionary time, attention and money. It is this investment which is driving innovations in all aspects of society and changing our relationship with technology. Learning is being transformed from a transfer of existing knowledge by experts into a facilitated, self-directed discovery of new knowledge in collaboration with our peers.”.

The future of learning technologies
When it came to predicting the future, Alan Fletcher from the Open University ( was simply superb, so much so, that many delegates having heard him complained of their heads hurting! Having taken those present through a 50 year time travel to the present day, to show how much technology has changed particularly in the last ten years, Alan then went on to demonstrate, by using new media channels, how learning content can be communicated very quickly to the whole world.

As for the future, it will no doubt be based on Web 3.0 technologies and in all probability in less than eight years from now. This will provide us with a semantic web, allowing us the superior handling of information, to apply reasoning technologically and to map a journey between one piece of content and the next, all of which will enable individual learning journeys. Alan concluded by saying that “Latent Semantic Analysis is a theory and method for extracting and representing the contextual–usage meaning of words by statistical computations applied to a large corpus of text.”. No small wonder then that people’s heads hurt?

Mobile learning
Mobile learning is not the same as e-Learning, according to Geoff Steed of the Tribal Group, because most existing e-Learning design guidelines do not apply to m-Learning. The key to successful m-Learning is to use it to deliver small pieces of the total learning experience at the point of need. The concept of ‘at the point of need’ is becoming an increasingly important one and was mentioned by several speakers; it certainly has a particular resonance for all those who see learners as consumers.

Geoff also gave a brief but interesting description of the m-Learning work being undertaken in further education, which had showed improved student retention and achievement, as well as in education more generally ( He concluded by saying that m-Learning gets around current learning delivery barriers and it’s easy to see why.

On the horizon
Brian Bishop, Caspian Learning, who definitely understands the instructional design process, highlighted three technologies which are on the horizon and which he feels will soon become mainstream: augmented reality, cloud computing, and haptic devices.

Augmented reality (AR), which should not be confused with virtual reality, is already in use, eg for military training. It means a live direct or indirect view of a physical real-world environment whose elements are augmented by virtual computer-generated imagery; with the help of advanced AR technology, such as adding computer vision and object recognition, the information about the surrounding real world of the learner becomes interactive and digitally usable.

Cloud computing is also here right now, ie data stored ‘in the cloud’ and accessible via the web. However, it is likely to be used more and more by organisations and individuals, and therefore will have a commensurate impact on learners.

When it comes to the use of haptic devices (the perception and manipulation of objects using tactile feedback) we now have the technologies to create the required 3-D graphics, so it is likely that the use of these will grow in the future.

The future?
Whilst all this may excite or chill people in equal measure, “the game we professionals in L&D play, to some extent, is using the trends and products that the consumers will face: working with them and not against them, using the consumer trends to our advantage.” (Jack Wills, BILD). For those of us who are involved in any form of L&D, we need to appreciate that those who learn are our consumers and, by so doing, we will be in a position to provide them with the learning experiences they need.