A Very Articulate Talk from Tom Kuhlmann at ASTDNY Meeting

Kuhlmann and Anderson AvatarsTom Kuhlmann, VP of Community for Articulate, and David Anderson, Community Manager at Articulate, were at the New York Institute of Technology in NYC on 9/24-25 to teach two one-day classes targeted to folks who are new to eLearning.  On the evening of 9/24, Tom also gave a separate talk about where eLearning fits into the whole learning picture today, with a few assists from David. These events were co-sponsored by ASTDNY and STC NY Metro, with support from TrainingPros.  There was a modest admission charge for the evening talk, but Tom is always well worth hearing, regardless of your level of expertise.
Despite the title of his popular “Rapid eLearning Blog“, Tom no longer embraces the term “rapid elearning”; each project takes the time it takes, and the process is always changing. He gave the example of the evolution of business résumés from hand-typed to online. (And I would add that now I’m seeing “infographic” versions!) Processes naturally evolve over time.  Tom noted that while in the early days learning teams were made up of a large group of single-skilled people (Flash, web, instructional design, graphics, etc.), the advent of “rapid” eLearning development tools (including those from Articulate, like the excellent Storyline) has somewhat “democratized” the process.  He pointed out that while such tools have empowered companies to create a lot more of their eLearning content internally, it has also typically resulted in the reduction of roles on an eLearning team–often to the extreme where one person may have to wear all the hats.  I was glad to hear Tom remind his audience that having these tools is not the same thing as having instructional design skills, and that the recipe for eLearning success must still include both.  As he put it: “Good instruction needs to be intentional.”
I also agree with Tom that while there may be a cost savings to a company in the reduction of the number of members on an eLearning team, something is lost, too: the broader perspective that naturally comes from more pairs of eyes on a project.  He encouraged attendees to make sure they always take two steps, both of which I embrace and practice myself:
  1. Identify and engage the executive with final course sign off at the outset, and
  2. Make sure to involve a representative sampling of the target audience’s team in identifying the topics and presentation plans for the eLearning content.

That way, the course is more thoroughly and effectively vetted before it is built, saving everyone time and potential headaches.  I would also add that for companies who keep their learning teams small, it’s that much more important to have a well-thought-out archival system in place, to keep a record of what has been created (and agreed to in writing with clients), and ensure that all source files area readily available should the chief eLearning team member be out or leave the company.

An audience member asked about consistency of formatting in eLearning, and whether that can become a “trap” that limits creativity and learner enjoyment.  Tom opined that organizations tend to get what they’re willing to pay for, unfortunately. And they typically want the same kind of course they have seen in the past–often simply because they haven’t seen anything better. In my own work, I’ve found that creating and sharing a quick mock-up of a few slides to share my vision for the course will help bring clients on board quickly.
Of course, budget is always the bottom line.  Tom cited Compliance courses as a classic case: we all know that a company typically produces a compliance course only to meet a regulatory requirement, so they don’t want to waste a lot of resources putting it out there. Hence the omnipresence of un-engaging, ineffective compliance training. I couldn’t agree with Tom more that while it’s both important and helpful to create some instructional design templates to ensure a measure of quality and consistency within a course and across multiple courses in a curriculum, it’s also important to give courses their own identity, and to leave room for creativity.  I consulted with a great company once that had just invested a good deal of money in an eLearning rapid development platform, but then locked down the content presentation slide by slide in a well-intentioned attempt to ensure instructional design soundness and consistency from one course to another. Their lockdown meant all courses needed to present exactly the same elements in the same order for every course–regardless of topic.  It’s still possible to exercise some creativity within such constraints, but courses–and learners–naturally need variety.
With regard to the cost and complexity aspects of eLearning, Tom rightly questions a course development model like “level 1-5” because it implies that a course built simply and inexpensively (level 1) is low quality and a course with all the bells & techno-whistles (level 5) is always the best, which is simply not the case. I was glad to hear him reinforce the goal of fitting the learning to the specific audience need. If a simple how-to video is suitable, great. If complex interactivity (like scenarios) is needed, so be it.  I would add that both of those examples could be produced inexpensively or expensively; that’s where creativity comes into play again.
Tom closed his talk with a few common-sense recommendations for folks just getting started with creating eLearning:
  • Offer good instruction (meaningful content and interactions)
  • Leverage graphic and visual design (learn to communicate visually; look everywhere for free or affordable graphics)
  • Practice efficient production with tools (become fluent with your tool; don’t settle for basic skills)
  • Build reusable interactions and templates
  • Assemble your resources, and then commit to making them successful
He also stressed the importance of being part of a strong user community (like Articulate’s eLearning Heroes forum) and noted that non-Articulate users can still benefit from a lot of the discussions and free templates on their forum. I couldn’t agree more.  If you’re not already registered there, I would strongly suggest you sign up and begin reaping the benefits of crowdsourced creativity today.  You’ll see David on there regularly, answering questions and giving feedback.  You should also sign up for Tom’s Rapid eLearning Blog, if you haven’t already; he shares excellent advice and lots of free templates.  And the next time Tom is in town, you should make a point of attending and absorbing some of his great tips.