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Nuts and Bolts: What Is “Good” eLearning, Anyway?

by Jane Bozarth

March 5, 2013

Column

by Jane Bozarth

March 5, 2013

“Over the years I’ve seen a lot of lists of criteria for buying eLearning, for developing a product, and for choosing a vendor or developer. I agree we have to go in having some idea of what ‘good’ is, at least enough to keep us away from all text or bedtime-reading narration of that text, or seductive but irrelevant elements. The trick? Finding an explicit performance need, getting clear on assessments first, and sticking to a plan that helps the learner learn.”

The other day a friend sent a video-based eLearning program he’d found online somewhere. It was “how to cook a hamburger,” produced by a well-known fast-food chain. It was a case study in everything we seem to think eLearning should not be—garish colors, cheesy special effects, with information delivered by a bad rapper.  

eLearning snobs—and heaven knows I can be one—would have criticized everything about it.

I did learn

But here’s the thing: At the end, I could cook a burger, on time, the first time, according to performance specifications. Bigger picture? If I’d been an actual employee, there would be less waste, many more happy customers, and steady workflow (or whatever other metric the company used to determine the value of this performance).

Why did I learn?

Why did it work? Well, I saw a number of things. For one, it avoided the wall-of-words page-turning disease so common to many programs.

It adhered to Mayer’s principles of multimedia learning, especially as they relate to low-knowledge learners: There was multiple representation of information through explanation in words and pictures—meaningful ones, presented contiguously. (I’m a low-knowledge learner here, by the way. I’ve cooked plenty of burgers, but not according to this company’s specs that made sense, and I’ll use them in future home-cooking efforts.)

The rap-plus-demo approach was consistent with Mayer’s redundancy principle.

And there was no extraneous content: the module was tightly focused on how to cook a hamburger, not on adding condiments, cleaning the grill, or cooking fries. And it didn’t begin with the history of hamburgers or a review of the company’s burger philosophy.  

Others admitted they learned, too

I showed the video while waiting to start a conference presentation last week and the attendees agreed: Yes, the cosmetics were dreadful. But yes—grudgingly—they agreed the program worked. They felt confident they, too, could perform according to spec. And the spec wasn’t a drag-and-drop interaction of putting steps in order, or a multiple-choice quiz asking about the temperature of the grill.

Now, to be fair: This one video worked well for me once. The novelty would wear off very quickly. I don’t want to see 17 videos exactly like this covering every discrete job task. Perhaps that’s an argument for novelty rather than the usual uniformity and consistency across programs or modules?

Here’s the thing: What I saw was an example of someone who took a very specific performance goal and designed a very specific instructional solution for it. I won’t argue that it wasn’t cheesy, and not to everyone’s taste. I won’t argue that the colors weren’t garish and the rap not to my liking. (Also: I’ve seen worse. At least it wasn’t boring.) But the production values weren’t so overdone as to be distracting. And … it worked.

Forget the snobbery: Can the learner perform?

So my thinking? Snobbery about cosmetics aside, over the years I’ve seen a lot of lists of criteria for buying eLearning, for developing a product, and for choosing a vendor or developer. I agree we have to go in having some idea of what “good” is, at least enough to keep us away from all text, or bedtime-reading narration of that text, or seductive but irrelevant elements. And I want to be clear that I’m not trying to make some argument for video-based demonstration-based delivery as being somehow “better,” although YouTube has certainly proven how effective it can be. (Oh, and did I mention that I accessed the video on my phone, which I could hold while I cooked the hamburger?) But I am musing—having spent hours I can’t get back in discussions over the color of an avatar’s shirt—that we maybe sometimes overthink aesthetics when the experience and outcomes should be of greater concern. And I’m thinking that the experience (not just module or course) is “good” if, at the end, the learner can perform. The trick? Finding an explicit performance need, getting clear on assessments first (listing the steps, or cooking a hamburger?), and sticking to a plan that helps the learner learn.

Join Jane at the Learning Solutions Conference next week for several sessions, including a full-day pre-conference certificate program, “Designing for Learner Success.”


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Bravo!
Thank you kind sir.
JB
Jane, in my quest to build my woodworking skills I always turn to YouTube. Can I do something or get closer to performing the task better is my goal. Some of the best videos have low or silly (gratuitous transitions, cheesy text supers) production values but give me the information i need to connect-the-dots (oh that's how to do that, hold the chisel/saw that way) and perform the task. Reminds me of Dave's Whiteboard homage to Muir's How to Keep Your Volkswagon Alive a few weeks back.

Thanks
I would add to "explicit performance need, getting clear on assessments first, and sticking to a plan that helps the learner learn" the following "within the resources availble to develop AND deliver over time." Too often Ive been a part of things that were great on rollout but couldn't be sustained over time.
Interesting post. One thing I didn't see was anything describing the target population. What do they expect in terms of aesthetics? It's not a question of snobbery but rather what appeals to and is engaging for the fast food chain's trainees?
Wonderful. Nice read. Happy that you shared your thoughts and experience.
Having been perpetrator and a victim in the e-learning world I appreciate Jane's perspective. I stated as an author in the Plato/Control Data age where everything was page turning (in fact pretty much text books on an amber computer screen). Later sins included clients insisting on 30-minute lessons and interactions characterized by a multiple choice question after six or seven frames. I hope more designers, team leads, and clients read this and (forgive me) "understand" this.
Thanks for the great reminder that locking ourselves into rigid ideas of what is right and wrong rather than paying attention to how to effectively serve learners (and burgers!) makes us far less effective than we can be.
I don't get notifications about comments so apologies for the delay in responding to some of you. I'm glad it seemed to hit home for many of you and hope it proves useful in future work and conversations. Mark Britz, in tweeting a link to this article, used a phrase I wish I had: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."
Jane
Training is more about learner receiving clear instructions needed to perform task - but the difficulty occurs when the learning curve is huge. If the person was learning how to manage the fast-food franchise rather than grill a hamburger, what changes would be made to make the training effective?
Anonymous @ 4 pm -- cooking a hamburger is a very specific, single task. Managing a restaurant is an occupation, requiring the completion of many tasks, and the application of many competencies. I have managed the training of managers for a large restaurant chain. We used a combination of methods, including video, plus practice, coaching, and long-term follow-up, to develop the necessary skills and competencies. It is also the case that for an occupation as complex as managing a restaurant, the hiring or selection of candidates is every bit as critical as the training and development, and so is the management and support of the managers. You teach almost anyone to cook a hamburger competently. It is far more demanding to develop the person who manages the kitchen and the cooks. Jane's last sentence in the article ("Find an explicit performance need, get clear on assessments, and stick to a plan that helps the learner learn") is the take-away that describes how to create a program that results in successful performance.
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