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How to Make Your SMART Learning Objectives Even SMARTER

Light bulb idea clipart

MAY 2014 UPDATE: As I’ve received so many great comments about this post, I’ve now created a podcast version of it, which you can listen to at the bottom of this post.  And I’ve also created an instructional video of it, which you can launch and download from my eLearning Samples page!

In the fall of 2013, the folks at Allen Interactions graciously offered a free webinar for the ASTDNY eLearning Special Interest Group (or SIG). Their topic was the dangers of content-driven learning, and one of their key points was that presenting Learning Objectives at the start of an eLearning course in the traditional bulleted list is not particularly meaningful or effective. True, a bulleted list states what your company wants the learner to walk away with at the end of the course, but it’s not a presentation style that resonates with the learner. The rest of the world doesn’t think in terms of Learning Objectives, and poorly-presented Learning Objectives at the start of the course can in fact be off-putting rather than helpful. The learner has to come first. I have been engaged in this debate for years, and sometimes when working as a subcontractor, it has even been the development shop who hired me that has flat-out said: “Don’t get creative; the client expects to see a traditional bulleted list of objectives, and the same list restated at the end–and if you don’t do it that way, you’re not a good instructional designer.” Hogwash.

After the webinar, I started thinking about SMART objectives, and how we can improve them. Now, back when I  first learned about SMART objectives, the acronym was defined with the following meanings:

Specific
Measurable
Achievable
Relevant
TIme-bound

I did a Google Image search for “SMART Objectives” and found a number of variations, none of them as good as the list above, in my opinion. For example, some lists used “Agreed,” which to me  should be a given on any project, and “Realistic,” which is already covered by “Achievable”–and losing “Achievable” would be a mistake. Others use “Aggressive” instead–but this is corporate buzz talk, and misses the very real need to establish learning objectives that can be met within the confines of the training to be presented.  Be as aggressive as you want, folks. But at the end of the day, each Learning Objective has to be Achievable or it has no merit. And there are other variants as well, but many of them boil down to a question of semantics. You get the idea.

So, what would make Learning Objectives even SMARTER? Almost immediately the answer for the additional “E” and “R” letters came to me. Before I tell you what mine are, I will note that I also did a Google Image search for “SMARTER Objectives,” on the assumption that I might  not be the first person to point out that SMART Objectives need improving. Sure enough, I found a couple of versions. But frankly, I didn’t like them. One added “Ethical” and “Reachable” to the above list. Well, again, as far as I’m concerned, ethical should be a given, or you shouldn’t be doing business. And “Reachable” is redundant; we already have “Achievable.” Others proposed “Reviewed frequently” (a good idea, but again a given in my book) and “Recorded”–which is just a bit lame.

So, what are my “E” and “R” values? Like the other five letters, they should only be added if they add real meaning. For my money, the “E” should stand for “Engaging” and the “R” should stand for “Rewarding.”  Why? Because we need to create Learning Objectives that actually speak to the learner!

We should be creating Learning Objectives that Engage our target audience members, so that they have some “skin” in the game. We have to frame our Objectives in such a way that the they are not just the company’s objectives–they become the learners‘ as well. If we present our Learning Objectives in a more Engaging way, and show how they will be Rewarding to the learners themselves (not just to the company), then we will have truly taken a step toward making our SMART Objectives even SMARTER:

Specific
Measurable
Achievable
Relevant
TIme-bound
Engaging
Rewarding

And when it comes to sharing your Learning Objectives at the start of your eLearning: be creative!  Use a story or scenario, make an exploratory interaction–let your imagination run free and think about what will engage your learners, and how they feel rewarded for investing their time in your course. Challenge them, intrigue them, open with a situation that raises a question with real-world relevance. Consider subtly employing some Gamification tactics (see my other blog posts on this topic).  Whether your course is high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech, help your learners see themselves in the challenge or question you pose. Then, instead of just glazing over or skipping a Learning Objectives slide, they’ll embrace those objectives through the engagement, and take those objectives as their own. Give that some thought the next time you’re defining your Learning Objectives. I’m betting it will make a real, positive difference for your learners.

Sebastian Bailey of Mind Gym Promotes Bite-Size Learning at ASTDNY Meeting
Mind Gym LogoAt the October ASTD NY monthly chapter meeting, guest speaker Sebastian Bailey of Mind Gym spoke on a topic near and dear to my heart: rethinking learning delivery in smaller, more manageable chunks spread out over time to enhance knowledge transfer.  Sebastian calls it “Bite-Size Learning.”  I call it good old-fashioned common sense.  As Sebastian put it succinctly: “It’s not about cutting and pasting, it’s about reconceptualizing what you can do within that time.”
Sebastian led an engaging and interactive session, frequently asking us to partner with another attendee to perform one of his activities.  The first interaction brought out one of his key points: after a short-term change, we all tend to go right back to what’s comfortable and familiar.  Sebastian presented compelling evidence that true change and learning transfer can be better assured by making the learning sessions more manageable in length (he favors a 90-minute maximum), and spaced out over time to allow better reinforcement and retention.  He was quick to note that actual length of any particular session really depends on what’s being taught, and that if something less than 90 minutes will do–even better!  I noted in chatting with him afterwards that this approach also aligns with a reality we all face today when trying to hold an audience: television and film have moved steadily toward shorter and shorter scenes, and more cross-cutting of them, to keep idle minds engaged.  I liked a comparison Sebastian made: ensuring good learning transfer is like practicing good parenting.  Cramming too much information into someone’s head in a short space of time (for example, a two-day executive boot camp) does not provide lasting learning transfer as effectively as introducing topics in smaller doses over a sustained period of time, allowing the learner time and breathing space to absorb, reflect, and associate.
We had another activity and much discussion around what roadblocks might stand in the way of taking a fresh look at learning delivery and migrating to more of a bite-size approach.  I offered two that he agreed with readily: organizational tradition (“But we’ve always taught it this way!”–again, really just the desire to cling to the old habits), and fear on the client’s part that all their learning points couldn’t possibly be covered in less time–that something important would be left out.  In reality, this comes down to solid knowledge of the content, and thoughtful design–not just instructional design, as Sebastian pointed out, but also program design.  To work, bite-size learning needs to be a holistic approach from the start.  Other possible roadblocks identified included lack of commitment and ownership, and insufficient understanding of the material’s key learning concepts.
Here’s Sebastian’s list of common misconceptions about training, and his reply to each:
“Longer = better”   No, it’s just longer.
“The event is the hero”  No, learning transfer is the hero.
“Design for the participant outliers (aka lowest common denominator)”  No, design for the context of the application.  Engage and stimulate everyone.
“We treat people all the same”  We should mass customize (as Starbucks has done).
“The change isn’t worth the cost.”  Focus on value to company and customer satisfaction, not just price.
Sebastian also offered examples of how the bite-size approach is also actually more cost-effective to implement.  More efficient, less costly–that’s a recipe any learning organization should want to embrace.
So how does a learning organization embrace bite-size learning?  Sebastian cited the Pareto Principle, which translated into learning terms means essentially that 80% of your transfer comes from 20% of your content.  In other words, it comes down to letting go of the “Trivial Many” pieces of information and focusing on the “Vital Few” learning elements instead.  After all, as everyone present  agreed, quality of learning is not truly measured by time expended.  The key is distilling your content down to the Vital Few topics, and figuring out how to spend just enough time on each one.
Sebastian also offered this simple model: an ongoing cycle made up of Engage, Participate, and Activate.  Here he gave voice to what many of us in the room already believe: for effective transfer to happen, learners need to have a stake in the proceedings from the start, and to be active participants in the learning experience, not just passive sponges or information buckets.  As a professional actor, I can tell you this from personal experience onstage: the scripts that most “grab” an audience are not the ones that simply lay everything out and tell the audience what to think and feel.  A good script (and good learning) pulls the audience into the event and makes them willing and eager participants.
With regard to possible challenges, Sebastian suggested his own variation of a common model for the areas of likely failure, as applied to learning:
Before (Context for the learning event): 40%
Event (a single learning event): 20%
After (Post-event support for transfer): 40%
In other words, what comes before and after a learning event is most likely to be where we fail to deliver what the learner needs.  Whether you choose to deliver your learning event as “big gulp” or bite-size, that truth remains: we always need to provide our learners with meaningful context for why they are being offered the learning event(s), and support for the new behavior after the event(s).
In closing, Sebastian noted that we all need to focus on increasing “opportunity recognition,” leveraging the power of giving learners targeted hints to help them see the opportunity for the solution themselves. We provide them with the tools, a way in, and motivation–and they put it all together for themselves, enriching the experienced and deepening retention.  With that focused help from us, the learning transfer success factor increases enormously.
Thanks again to Sebastian and to ASTD NY for another excellent, invigorating session.  For more about Sebastian and his company, I encourage you to visit the Mind Gym web site.
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.
SPEAKING OF TIPS: IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY SUBSCRIBED TO MY QUARTERLY TIPS NEWSLETTER, NOW IS A GREAT TIME TO DO SO FROM MY HOME PAGE.  THE FALL ISSUE IS COMING OUT IN A FEW DAYS, AND IT’S GOING TO BE COLORFUL!

 

ASTDNY: Josh Bersin on Continuous Learning (Part Two)

ASTDNY logoThis is the second half of my write-up on Josh Bersin’s recent fascinating talk about Continous Learning at an ASTDNY meeting.  Before reading this post, you may want to read the first half here.

Part Two

Need for a Learning Architecture:  As part of his recommendations, John emphasized that success requires implementing a Learning Architecture, a structure of Constraints and Tools that work consistently for a specific company.  Again, the specifics may well differ from one organization to another.  He noted that the companies who leverage a Learning Architecture have greatly increased effectiveness in knowledge retention and behavioral change.

Josh cited Accenture as an example: they developed a five-level proficiency model, culminating in recognition at a cultural level of expertise.  Key learning components include Formal Learning, Job Experience, and Collaboration, with Deliberate Practice tying them all together.  He notes that many companies don’t consider “Job Experience” a legitimate category of learning, but that in fact it’s a core element not to be taken for granted.

Audience Analysis:  Josh reiterated that the more you know your audience, the better you can tailor your learning content to resonate with and motivate them.  Bersin surveys showed that companies know the obvious data like demographics, but very little about social and cultural personae.  He pointed to a couple of success stories: a Netapp learning resource custom iPad app that offers targeted, prescriptive learning based on the employee’s role, and an employee site at The Cheesecake Factory, that incorporates video sharing and gamified elements, to target their primarily young audience of employees.

Learning Culture:  Having touched on the concept of Continuous Learning, Josh posed the question: ‘”What drives real learning?”  He stated something that most of us have learned from our own painful experience: the majority of what we put out there into an LMS or other similar repository isn’t being leveraged.  Josh believes that High-Impact Learning Organizations (HILOs) achieve their success in part because they genuinely value learning at all levels in the company.  He also pointed out a key “ah-ha” moment from HILO survey responses: their Management is open to hearing bad news.  That flexible and pragmatic approach trickles down into the learning sphere, and it certainly ties in with Josh’s theme of the need for Continuous Learning in this ever-changing market.  Every challenge is an opportunity, and leaders who close their ears to bad news are missing that opportunity.  He also offered what he called his Six Keys to an Enduring Learning Culture, which included a number of expected items, and two that perhaps need more attention: Reflection, and Trust.

Talent Management:  For this discussion, Josh divided learning experiences into two basic categories:

  • Performance-Driven (simple measurement of accomplishing a specific new task successfully or not), designed to improve on-the-job performance for that role
  • Talent-Driven Learning (harder to measure), designed to improve performance across the company’s culture

He finds the Kirkpatrick model limiting because it doesn’t give enough weight to engagement as a component of success.  He considers Talent Management to be essential as a foundation on which to build a strong learning culture, and that neither is possible without strong engagement.  And of course, managing Talent mobility is always about finding that overlap between Company needs and the Individual’s needs and desires.  Their research has confirmed what many of us already believe: that the highest return is to create continuous development planning for employees, so that employees know what they should be taking, and why, at each phase of their growth.  Without that, employees are easily lost, overwhelmed, and become disengaged.  But blending Continuous Learning with robust and flexible Talent Management addresses the engagement gap, and leads the way to world-class career management.  And that, in turn, leads the way to business success.

Measurement:  It goes without saying that Josh is a big proponent of measurement.  He acknowledged that it’s a very complex topic, bigger than training itself.  He considers measurement another ongoing journey, and that it must be integrated with the rest of a company’s talent measurement efforts, so that the company can make meaningful, data-driven decisions.  This is the path to joining the ranks of HILOs.  He summed up his measurement recommendations neatly:  “Broaden your perspectives beyond the ROI of your training.”

By way of an illustrative recommendation, Josh shared the Bersin Impact Measurement Framework.  He noted that his team felt that the Kirkpatrick model needed to be expanded to a more practical list of targets:

  • Satisfaction (level 1)
  • Learning (level 2)
  • Adoption (whether the target audience completed the training)
  • Utility (would learners recommend the training as useful)
  • Efficiency (whether the learning experience was cost-effective)
  • Alignment (to identified business need)
  • Attainment (how well it met targeted goals: on time, on budget, well-presented material, etc.)
  • Contribution (success of social context)
  • Feedback (who contributed it, how much received, etc.)
  • Activity (volume, behaviors)
  • Individual Performance
  • Organizational Performance

He foresees a time in the near future when learning measurement will become part of something like “Talent Analytics.”

Josh brought his thought-provoking talk to a close with this mantra: “Remember that learning is a continuous process and is always talent-driven.”  Josh noted that he would be more than happy to return to another ASTDNY meeting, and we should certainly take him up on that generous offer as soon as possible.  Thanks again to our gracious hosts at Marsh and McLennan (who provided elegant snacks as well as a beautiful meeting space), and to Josh for his comprehensive and invigorating talk.

ASTD NY: Josh Bersin on Continuous Learning (Part 1)

ASTDNY logoJosh Bersin, Principal & Founder of Bersin by Deloitte (formerly Bersin & Associates) recently spoke at  an ASTD NY meeting.  You can read the one-page summary of my write-up on the ASTDNY blog here.  But Josh had so many interesting things to say that I felt it well worth posting my complete write-up here on my own blog, in two parts.  Part Two (which touches on Learning Architecture, Audience Analysis, Learning Culture, Talent Management, and Measurement) will follow next week.  Enjoy!

Part One

When Josh Bersin talks, smart people in the Learning field listen.  Josh noted that while his company is now part of Deloitte, they are still an independent evaluating entity.  Bersin’s firm is known industry-wide for the depth and breadth of their research, analysis, and forecasting in the Learning field.  Josh is an engaging, straightforward presenter.  He freely acknowledged that some of his slides were perhaps a bit too jam-packed with information, and that font sizes and colors were perhaps not ideal for a large audience like ours.  But perhaps it’s part of his modesty that he didn’t expect such a huge turnout; there wasn’t a single empty seat in the lecture room.  Despite his acknowledged place in the Learning field, Josh eschews the titles of “guru” and “thought leader” and instead considers himself “just a really good learner.”  This modesty has served him, and all of us, well.

Josh noted that Learning is and will always be a rapidly-changing space and marketplace—which can be a good thing for those of us in the Learning field.  He reinforced that his team takes their topics of study from us, as Learning industry professionals; our evolving priorities become their priorities.  Key areas of study for his team: Learning & Development, Talent Management, Leadership Development, Talent Acquisition, and Human Resources.  Every few years, they perform reassessments on key topics to identify what’s changing.  Josh’s talk was lengthy, detailed, and far-ranging, and he has graciously agreed to make his slides available to ASTD members.  I encourage you to seek them out and take the time to review them.

Continuous Learning: Josh believes that high-impact learning for the 21st century will come from creating a culture of what he terms “Continuous Learning.”  Their research has shown that the #1 issue facing companies globally is locating and landing the right Talent.  And the #2 issue is deploying that Talent effectively.  He pointed out a grim paradox in today’s business climate: companies are struggling with intense competition to identify top talent, desperate to hire.  But even as they do so, we’re still facing high unemployment.  He feels that this is partly due to the difficulty of aligning the existing Talent in the market to ever-more-specific business needs.  Josh pointed to a disconnect between what people are learning in school vs. what’s needed in today’s workforce, and to the difficulty all companies are having as they struggle to wrap their arms around the now-essential mobile learning.  There is a young, mobile, social workforce out there now with different expectations and skills with regard to virtual learning and collaboration.  He warned that this segment of the population doesn’t hesitate to express dissatisfaction with a company on public forums if they don’t feel sufficiently engaged.  But Josh also cited the fact that all-virtual isn’t necessarily the answer, either.  He cited the example of Deloitte creating Deloitte University in Texas: the company realized that in addition to their virtual structure, there was still a need for a physical face-to-face gathering place to occasionally “ground” their learning and development initiatives with in-person events.  Bersin’s survey of Top Talent Priorities for 2013 across organizations includes management capabilities, leadership skills, building high-impact performance, and more.  It’s a daunting and all-too-familiar list.

Given all of that, how does a 21st century company become a High Impact Learning Organization (HILO)?   Josh believes Continuous Learning is the key.  He also believes it’s necessary at all levels of business for a number of reasons.  In addition to increasing specialization, people are exposed to more learning channels and are simply learning faster, and the old HIPO (High Potential) Talent Management model only focused on leadership levels, missing the growth of Talent at all other segments of the workforce.

Bersin’s High Impact Learning Organization (HILO) survey process examines a series of factors, asking companies to self-evaluate their performance with regard to different outcomes.  He finds that when hundreds of companies are surveyed, there are clear themes: Effectiveness, Efficiency, Alignment. So what exactly are HILOs doing so well that gives them the business advantage?  Josh offered this list:

  • Mentoring & Evaluation Capability
  • Performance Consulting Capabilities
  • Audience Intelligence Capability
  • HR Alignment & Using HR Metrics

He noted that HILOs tend to be strong with knowledge management, business intelligence, and more savvy with rich media, audio, social media, and performance consulting.  They also demonstrate a more organic blending of Learning and Talent Management functions; Josh pointed out that not long ago, these were viewed as separate disciplines.  Bersin research has also shown that the more effectively companies work at evaluation and measurement of learning effectiveness, the more successful the learning outcomes.  He says most companies simply feel overwhelmed by the challenge of managing all their learning and talent management content in all its various forms.  But for HILOs who have a better handle on it all, the impact is enormous: According to Josh, between 2008 and 2011, high-impact learning organization profits grew 3x faster than the rest of the organizations studied.  Clearly, learning agility is a key business strategy for success.

Josh’s team recommends this maturity model to help organizations take action:

  • Level 1:  Incidental Training (in the moment training)
  • Level 2: Training & Development Excellence (learning/knowledge repository, LMS, etc.)
  • Level 3: Talent & Performance Improvement (how well you are leveraging learning resources to effect behavioral change)
  • Level 4: Organizational Capability (agility and effectiveness)

Josh also noted this snapshot of a timeline for evolution of Learning Solutions from 2001-2011:

  • Get Materials Online (2001)
  • Expand, Blend, Improve eLearning (2004) – Rapid eLearning, Information vs. Instruction
  • Solve Talent Problems (2007)
  • Informal Learning Skills & Specialization (2011) – Collaborative/Social Learning

He feels we’re in a transition to a new era of “Continuous Learning”: nothing has gone away, but we need to bring it together with the current socialized learning trends: “The only way to stay relevant is to stay current.”  In the Continuous Learning Model, a company has to identify which elements of training are most effective for their target audience, and work to maximize effectiveness of those elements.  He gave words to what everyone in the room knows: it’s not possible to keep on top of every type of learning.  He pointed out that you need to know more about your target audience ahead of time these days, to ensure that the Learning Events you offer are really aimed at them, to maximize retention.

Stay tuned for Part Two of Josh’s talk!  It’s equally filled with great nuggets of wisdom.  I will post it next Sunday.

 

My Giving Voice to Your eLearning Talk at ASTDNY Was a Hit!

ASTDNY logoOn Tuesday, May 14th, I gave my talk Giving Voice to Your eLearning at a Manhattan meeting of ASTDNY’s eLearning Special Interest Group, for a fun and appreciative audience.  My thanks to SIG co-chairs Enid Crystal and John Galto for inviting me, and to attendees for their participation and enthusiasm.

For those of you who attended, as promised, I am posting the Appendix slides for a limited time here as they include a number of helpful links on the topic. If you enjoyed the session and find these slides useful, please leave a comment on this post to let me know!

For those who missed my talk, I give an overview of how quality voiceovers, used appropriately, can significantly enhance the quality of self-paced eLearning modules.  I provide my “Three Golden Rules” for success, along with specific tips and tricks for getting the most out of both amateur and professional voiceover talent.  I also share some basic tech guidance to help first-timers get up and running.

If you know of an organization that would benefit from my talk, please contact me.  You can see a description of that talk and my other offerings on my Courses page.

Leaving ADDIE for SAM at ASTD-NY January eLearning SIG Meeting

041282.Addie for Sam BC.inddOn Wednesday evening, January 23rd, Dale Carnegie Training kindly hosted ASTD-NY’s January eLearning Special Interest Group (SIG) meeting.  Guest speaker Richard Sites, Ed.D, Vice President of Client Services for Allen Interactions, was a gracious, amusing, and interesting presenter.  Richard took time out of his busy schedule to speak with us about the new book he worked on with his boss Michael Allen (creator of Authorware and well-known learning guru), provocatively titled Leaving ADDIE for SAM.  Richard explained that when ASTD Press approached Michael about writing a new book, Allen Interactions had been evolving its own alternative to the traditional instructional design process model of Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate (ADDIE).  So it seemed the perfect topic to explore at length in a new publication.  Their goal was to set forth and make the case for their own process, the Successive Approximation Model (SAM).  The main goals of SAM are to provide a cycle that works faster, and gets to the “true voice” of the learning content more effectively, than a traditional linear interpretation of the ADDIE process might allow.  Another stated goal for SAM is to provide “the highest probability for performance change”–a goal we all share regardless of our preferred process.  Richard cited the book’s robust sales since its publication in September 2012 as a clear indicator that we in the eLearning industry are always seeking process improvement, even to long-standing models like ADDIE.

Richard cited four common challenges or misconceptions that often haunt the eLearning instructional design process:

1) “Skillful execution of a process guarantees a quality product.”  Of course it doesn’t, because there are always so many variables.  There is not necessarily a direct correlation between process and product.
2) “Accurate information is the key to an effective learning experience.”  Accuracy is important, of course, but let’s face it–on its own, it doesn’t guarantee engagement or retention.
3) “The environment in which we work does not affect the design of the learning experience we create.”  We all know that ivory tower instructional design isn’t likely to speak to a real-world target audience.  We need to be in the trenches with our client and their audience.
4) “Because you went to school, you know what makes a good learning experience.”  Richard allowed that people who have had an education will of course have opinions about what makes good (and bad) learning, and they’re entitled to express those opinions.  But it doesn’t make them experts in the learning field, especially not in the area of eLearning.

Richard provided a quote from Michael Allen that highlights a key reason they created SAM: “It’s too early to define a process unless you’ve defined the product you want it to produce.”  Richard offered the Allen Interactions view that a traditional, rigid interpretation of ADDIE “doesn’t have a product expectation.”  To play devil’s advocate, I’d have to say that I have always seen establishing that clear expectation of end product and desired outcomes as a fundamental part of a successful Analysis phase in ADDIE.  But as with laws, I find a lot of this dialogue can often boil down to semantics and individual interpretation.  SAM is also built on Allen Interactions’ “3M” Design Principles: Meaningful, Memorable, and Motivational–i.e., relevant to current job responsibilities, engaging enough to encourage knowledge transfer, and inspiring enhanced performance from learners. Again, nothing to argue with there!  So what are the SAM phases, then?  There are only three main ones.  But note that the second and third have mini-cycles within them:

  • Preparation Phase: Background and Information Collecting; End product: a preliminary form of Design Document
  • Iterative Design Phase: Prototype, Review, and Design in an iterative cycle as needed (goal: Max of 3 cycles);  End product: a Design Proof
  • Iterative Development Phase: Develop, Implement, Evaluate, in an iterative cycle (again, with a limit to cycles);  End product: the finished eLearning course

Richard said that at Allen Interactions, they do not create traditional Storyboards per se; instead, they prefer to put together a series of simple prototypes (created with anything from MSWord to Articulate Storyline to Flash) to “sculpt” the course iteratively with the client’s input as they go.  Their SAM process means showing these visual and interactive elements to clients during their second phase, arguably a phase sooner than ADDIE.  In my experience, a proof of concept (a real hands-on taste of what the target audience will see) very early on is always important to ensure that you and your client are on the same conceptual page.  So I certainly agree with Richard here–although again I think only the most rigid, linear interpretation of ADDIE would preclude that being an early part of the process.  But if eLearning content creators out there aren’t offering their clients an early functioning proof of concept  before the Develop phase of ADDIE, then the SAM methodology may help make the need for that more clear.

“Challenge-based design” is what SAM is meant to encourage, through what Allen Interactions calls their CCAF model: Context, Challenge, Activity, Feedback.  Richard’s example: a line of people at Starbucks are trying to grab a cup of coffee quickly so they can all get to work on time.  The Barista sees the context (long line of clients in a hurry) and the challenge (getting the orders done right, quickly).  The activity is filling the orders efficiently, and the feedback is the customer’s response (satisfied or not).  SIG co-chair Enid Crystal pointed out that these are the same elements typically discussed in the creation of gaming software, and Richard readily agreed.  I think most of us would agree that we live by these basic principles when designing our interactive eLearning.  Richard noted that he might want to change “Feedback” to  “Consequence” to in their model; I would suggest perhaps “Results” or “Outcome” as to my ear “Consequence” has a slightly pejorative ring to it.

With regard to outcome, Richard provided an appropriate quote from Michael Allen:  “Good learning experiences aren’t just about facts, they are about becoming a more proficient, capable, and valuable person.” I couldn’t agree more.   As someone who has never taken the ADDIE model too literally, the SAM approach makes perfect sense to me.  I suggested, and Richard agreed, that for those of us who have always viewed ADDIE as a high-level guide rather than a rigid, lock-step process, SAM could be considered a more in-depth depiction of what really goes on “under the hood” in ADDIE when working with clients.  I would even suggest that rather than being a “giant killer” alternative that leaves ADDIE dead in the dust, SAM might be considered ADDIE’s transgendered alter ego!  When queried by some of the attendees, Richard did note that while there is no formal separate “E” (evaluation) phase listed in their model, evaluation is of course always part of the initial discussion with the client.  He rightly noted that in reality, most performance evaluation follow-through lives or dies in the hands of the client.  We can encourage it, but at the end of the day, the client must want it and own it, as the learning process continues back on the job long after the eLearning course has been completed.

Richard left us with the following equation to sum up their approach:
(SAM + CCAF) x Partnership & Communication = Meaningful, Memorable & Motivational Learning Experiences

If you have followed the ADDIE process rigidly until now (for instance, only introducing proof of concept and visual elements in the Development phase, and disallowing minor internal iterations), then Michael and Richard’s new book may serve as an important awakening for you, or at least some meaty food for thought.  Otherwise, you may see it as a potentially clearer way of expressing what you’re already doing.  I do think that the high-level steps of ADDIE may be simpler to explain to a client than SAM for discussion purposes, and I still reference ADDIE freely on my own web site for that reason.  But in my experience, the SAM approach is more what real-world eLearning project cycles look like behind the scenes, and both Richard and Michael deserve a lot of credit for sharing SAM with the learning community.  If you have the opportunity to hear Richard Sites speak at other functions, you should go.  He is an excellent presenter, and a good listener, with an obvious love of learning, and an in-depth understanding of what it takes to create memorable, transformative eLearning.  Thanks again to Dale Carnegie Training for hosting this invigorating event, and to eLearning SIG co-chairs Enid Crystal and John Galto for arranging another valuable session.

Emerging Trends and Roles in eLearning

On the evening of February 1st, I attended an ASTD-NY eLearning Special Interest Group (SIG) meeting kindly hosted by Visiting Nurse Service of NY, and SIG co-chairs Enid Crystal and John Galto.  The guest speaker was Ross Squire, the man behind the well-respected eLearning staffing and consulting agency, Knowledgestaff.  I heard Ross speak at an ASTD event a couple of years ago and found him to be great at “reading the waters” of the eLearning business.  I like Ross because he’s clear-headed, thoughtful, and tells it like it is.  This session was no exception.

Ross’s evaluation of the current climate matches what I’m seeing, point for point.  Companies who cut staff as a result of the 2008 Wall Street fiasco and subsequent deep recession are not restaffing in the patterns we’ve seen in prior recessions.  Instead, in many cases, they are content making their fewer remaining staff members do more work.  After all, it enhances their bottom line.  Only if they really can’t get the work done in house are they looking outside–and then, frequently offshore.  When companies do go looking for new workers today, according to Ross, they are seeking renaissance workers more than ever, people who have a strong skillset across a variety of disciplines, rather than specializing in just one area.  Yet, interestingly, the promising spurt of client inquiries his firm has had in the last month is mostly for full-time staff positions, rather than freelance consultants.  We’ll see if that trend continues!

According to a survey conducted by Ross’s company, the emerging trends in eLearning are:

  • Social learning
  • User-generated content (wikis, etc.)
  • Mobile learning
  • Outsources services

None of these is likely to be a surprise to you.  The writing is on the virtual wall.  Ross also reports that New York area learning executives have unanimously identified the following emerging roles as essential going forward:

  • Performance consultants
  • Community engagement managers (gatekeepers for social media, etc.)
  • Talent management/human capital specialists
  • Content librarians (to maintain data storage and access)
  • Project/program managers (with global and language skills)

Ross’s talk also included his “annual tune-up” tips: a lot of sound advice about how those of us in eLearning should manage our careers in the face of the the current economy.  I was very glad to hear him include a segment on investing in yourself.  More than ever, it’s essential to stay on top of trends, and also just to give yourself time and opportunity to grow and learn.  After all, regardless of the economic climate, you’re worth it!

If you ever have the opportunity to hear Ross speak, I urge you to attend.  He’s an engaging and deeply knowledgeable speaker, and he’s genuinely there to help.  You’ll be glad you went.  To view his materials from the session, click here.  And if you live in the NY area and you’re not already a member of ASTD’s New York chapter, I urge you to join; there’s a lot of great information being shared at their events.  You can click their logo on this post to visit the ASTDNY site.