Learning for people, by people

My colleague (and fellow contributor to the Spicy Learning Blog) Lucy and I presented at last month’s eLearning Network event on creating effective and engaging learning content. This is a dauntingly vast topic and our biggest challenge was probably stripping down everything we wanted to say to some key messages that might actually prove useful to other delegates (or, at the very least, provide some food for thought). In the end, those key messages were.

  • The importance of getting it right first time and how this can be achieved.
  • What good learning content really looks like.
  • How to move from good learning content to great learning content.

Lucy began by talking about how best learning providers can meet the expectations of their clients. She identified three main points here.

  • Taking a consultative approach – The very best client-supplier relationship are actually strategic partnerships, in which the provider doesn’t simply deliver one-off products but works with the client to identify their business needs and develop a long term strategy, and supports the client in measuring results and evaluating progress.
  • Developing long lasting relationships – This depends on the provider really making an effort to understand the client’s culture – what kind of people work there, what do the respond well to, what are the organisational constraints, what kind of appetite is there for different training methods?
  • Delivering fit for purpose solutions – Of course, no partnership will survive, let alone thrive, unless the provider consistently delivers on time, on spec and on budget.

All these become more challenging when the client or audience is new to e-learning. In these cases we often have to overcome an initial resistance to or scepticism about e-learning. This can’t be done unless we really do engage with the organisation and its people, identifying the barriers and working to overcome them. More than this, though, we need to let our passion and enthusiasm for what we do speak for itself, and turn any scepticism there may be into support. It all comes back to creativity, collaboration and communication.

So having discussed why it’s so important to deliver good learning content time after time, we turned our attention to what that really means. Everyone’s got their own ideas about what ‘good’ looks like, but some words crop up time and time again – engaging, relevant and effective are three of them – so we spent a few minutes thinking about how these things can be achieved.

  • Engaging – You could argue that e-learning is limited in its ability to engage, what with it being more often than not a relatively solitary activity when compared with classroom workshops. But there are elements of classroom training that can work just as well online. Elements like collaboration and discussion (using video or graphics to communicate case studies or real life events), the opportunity to practise in a safe environment at your own pace, and the conversational tone and ‘people’ aspect.
  • Relevant – e-Learning might on the whole reduce the amount of time required for training, but it doesn’t mean people don’t want it reduced even further. People don’t appreciate spending an hour completing an online training course if they can’t easily and immediately see how it’s relevant to what they do every day at work. One of the best ways to ensure and demonstrate relevance is to use scenarios based on the kinds of situation they’ll face every day, to ask them to make the kinds of choices they’ll be confronted with at work, and – crucially – to include clear and full discussion of what’s in it for them – what are the consequences of doing the wrong thing and what are the benefits of doing the right thing?
  • Effective – No matter how engaging and relevant, learning content can’t be considered ‘good’ if it doesn’t deliver the improved performance and business results it promised. One way to ensure effectiveness is to make sure questions and activities are used to maximum effect: you need to challenge your learner, not trick them. And they’re more likely to remember what they learn if they are actively involved in working things out rather than simply passively receiving information (we’re firm believers in the value of test and tell, as opposed to the all too common tell and test approach).

But why stop there? Is ‘good’ always good enough? Often it’s the little things that make the difference between something good and something great. Things like taking advantage of your position as an instructional designer – you’re not a subject matter expert when you begin (though you will be by the end of the project) so you can identify with the end users. What questions do you have? They’re probably the questions the learners will have to, so they’re the questions you need to make sure you answer.

The way you use technology can be another big factor in whether you deliver something that’s just good enough or something with the wow factor. There’s just no point showing off your team’s combined technical expertise if the end result doesn’t align with the strategy. Too many fancy graphics and animations, or excessive use of video or sound effects, can actually work against you, diluting your key message and distracting from what’s important: sometimes less can be more.

Finally, don’t pigeon hole yourself! Our industry isn’t just technology focused, it’s also people focused. Just because your job title is ‘graphic designer’ doesn’t mean you can’t contribute valuably to discussions about learning strategy; Flash developers often have a budding writer inside them; and why shouldn’t instructional designers also be able to edit video? Don’t stick within your comfort zone – push yourself to learn new things, blur the boundaries between roles and teams and constantly keep yourself on your toes. Refusing to just stick to what you know and keep going as you’ve always gone before is one great way to make sure that what you produce is always moving forwards too.

Our presentation slides can be accessed here and the full event report can be found here.