Things have changed a lot in the 34 years I’ve worked in the eLearning field. It used to be that we had clearly delineated roles most of the time between the instructional design team and the computer-based training development team in most organizations in which I worked or that I saw elsewhere.
Roles are not that clear-cut any more. Following are my thoughts at the start of 2014. I hope you’ll add your thoughts in the Comments section below.
In the beginning
Instructional designers were expected to know … well, instructional design … and so usually held a master of arts or a master of science degree in instructional technology or a similar field. Designers were heavily project front-loaded, performing the analysis stage, talking to subject-matter experts, and creating a robust design guide and a full set of storyboards.
Developers, those proficient in eLearning tools, tended to be back-loaded, taking the designer’s guide and storyboards and making them work, along with media specialists and other team members. It was not an ideal situation, as in most cases it would have been much better for designers and developers to understand each other and work more closely together across the project timeline rather than being front- and back-loaded so much. Storyboards left too much to the imagination, and the result was often less than stellar.
And then PowerPoint tools happened
Ten or more years ago, suddenly we started seeing the PowerPoint add-in tools, and there have been many dozens that have come and gone quickly in the marketplace and a handful that have survived. PowerPoint-based eLearning tools certainly have their place, and I’m quite fond of them. However, nobody should think that they allow for all the power that comes with some installed and cloud-based tools. I use them sometimes, but most of the time my instructional design needs exceed the capabilities of those tools. Are we perhaps focusing too much on what the tools can do and not on the learners that have to experience what we create for them?
The thinking is, “Hey everybody knows PowerPoint, so let’s build on that.” The sad fact is that these tools have been part of the movement that has convinced many that the role of the instructional designer is not all that important and that a subject-matter expert is capable of putting together wonderful kick-butt eLearning. All it does in most cases is to kick the butt of the learner. Instructional designers are still out there, but they’re now expected to know one or more development tools, and for most people it just isn’t possible to be both a great instructional designer and also be an excellent developer. It might be a question of left-brain vs. right-brain, or perhaps it’s just difficult to dedicate the time necessary to become very good at both practices.
And then things got worse, for designers and for vendors
The advent of many of the more recent eLearning tools has resulted in more examples of poor eLearning, not fewer, but that’s mainly because, in many cases, we have severely compromised the role of the instructional designer. When a new tool is introduced, or an existing tool is updated, I take a close look at what it offers. Does it pile on more cute items that let you make your interfaces pretty or does it give you true power, the kind that lets you create the very best eLearning for your learners?
Tool vendors have it tough because eLearning is such a diverse and customized business. No two projects I’ve created for different clients have been the same. Once we determine the audience and the subject matter to teach, that old idea of instructional design comes into play, and we try to determine the very best set of interactions, media, and other aspects of the learning. What works for a learning audience of surgeons does not necessarily work for a learning audience of accountants. Heck, even a learning audience of heart surgeons may require a very different approach than a learning audience of brain surgeons.
Finding light at the end of the tunnel
Only when the above steps are accomplished should we determine which are the optimum tools to choose to accomplish the required tasks. If the tools seem cost-prohibitive, consider that the cost of delivering bad or boring eLearning can be a lot more expensive. Ideally, the cost of the tool is reasonable and learning the tool doesn’t take a long time, though we should fully expect that any tool that has powerful features will require some time to master.
So we can place every tool both on a scale of power and on another scale of ease of use. In last year’s tools survey that The eLearning Guild conducted and that I coauthored with Patti Shank (eLearning Authoring Tools 2013: What We’re Using, What We Want), I included the question, “What is more important to you for your primary authoring tool—power or ease of use?” The result was that 59 percent said they wanted more power and 37 percent wanted ease of use. The remainder didn’t know.
If that is any indication, we need tools that give us real power, not just the power to churn out more eLearning faster and at less expense, but to create learning that truly helps learners achieve what we hope to have them achieve.
So my plea to tool vendors is simply to give us more power, more abilities. This year I will be pointing out in every tool review what kind of power the tool gives you and in what kind of learning it may work best. Sticking with one tool for everything may make sense in short-term accounting terms, but the result can be less than effective.What tools do you use? What kind of power do you find they give you and how are they helping you create excellent eLearning for your learner audience? Please share your thoughts below.