I like to begin each column year with a review of the past. It’s an interesting reflection, for me, of what I had on my mind over the past work year, with reminders of conversations with colleagues or important moments of change or innovation in our business. And, as my focus is “nuts and bolts,” I try to remain aware of the needs and perspective of the novice.
In reviewing 2016 I see that several columns dealt with different aspects of the learner experience, an interest sharpened by my husband’s 2014 journey through surgery and recovery. In July I wrote about learners operating in a context we don’t always understand, where customers are made angrier by seeing staff hauled away to watch mandatory customer service training videos. Or we don’t realize that the specifics of a particular job make the very thing we’re teaching impossible for the learner to perform. If you’re asked to “convert” a classroom course to an online format, spend some time in the classroom, where trainers often make on-the-fly changes according to the needs of a particular group—adaptations that may not be written down anywhere. Try to have more influence over how and when solutions are deployed so as not to make things worse for the learner. For that matter, try to have more influence in general.
I noted that sometimes learners are working in a state of panic, where the not-so-rational brain needs clear navigation, simple keywords, and quick “what to do if ____ happens” guidelines. And I wrote about designing for learner success, with an invitation to consider what things (besides tests) can cause learners to fail: things like too much content, poorly constructed interactions, and too much decoration, such as animations that don’t teach and art that distracts.
Instructional design basics
Other straight-up ID-based columns dealt with using themes to help create a more holistic experience for learners, with some ideas for basic plotlines and a caveat about trying too hard to make a weak theme work. There were two columns with tips from my 13 years (that’s right) working in the virtual classroom, focused on how to leverage the chat and whiteboard features to up interaction, increase involvement, and manage large groups. My own favorite of the design-focused columns—an extension of the popular DevLearn “Ukulele Learning” sessions—was an exploration of using music as a design element rather than a cosmetic add-on. Used strategically, rather than as something akin to auditory wallpaper, music and sound can influence attitude, persistence, and motivation; can support a sense of forward motion and an urge to take action; and can affect attention and prediction.
A couple of columns spoke to professional development, for ourselves and for others. In my world I see an awful lot of “cargo cult training,” in which the classroom instructor replicates what he saw school teachers do (like showing slides and lecturing), capturing the artifacts of instruction without understanding what’s underneath. Online? Same: Pick a template, load text onto slides, add a “next” button, and call it “eLearning.” Throw in a Jeopardy!—type board to support recall of content, and claim you’ve “gamified” a course. But without an understanding of instructional design, or of the basics of game mechanics, or of how people learn, all this is just a display of artifacts the creator has seen elsewhere. It’s adherence to form without regard to content. Knowing that well-intentioned people often copy what they believe is good practice, it’s on us to help put forth better examples for them to copy. And some of that can come from developing a deeper relationship with the industry’s research base. It’ll help you in conversations with subject matter experts and stakeholders, where you may need to articulate rationale for a decision; it’ll help you add something new or different to conversations and shore up your credibility with other practitioners. It will help you start fewer sentences with “Well, I think…” and more with “Well, evidence shows…” It will help you, as John Seely Brown says, “expand your surface area.”
Working out loud, positive deviance, and social learning
My most recent book is Show Your Work: The Payoffs and How-To’s of Working Out Loud, so I’m always interested in talking about that. There’s a lot of talk about this lately, and as much of the focus is on the individual performer, I thought I’d go in another direction and discuss some of the benefits working out loud can bring to the employer. Organizations supporting working out loud will see increased efficiencies, reduce the space between leaders and others, improve public perception of the company, and better preserve institutional knowledge.
2016 also brought tips for being a positive deviant—getting more done despite having no more resources than anyone else, and working with communities to surface existing solutions—and ruminations on Pokémon Go as a reminder that we don’t “do” social learning. It happens organically, around us, everywhere, all the time.
I try to end columns with some ideas for solutions, or improvement, or a reference to check, or actions to be taken. If anything here caught your eye, please do go back and visit the topics that interest you. And note that all the columns back to 2010 can be found here.
And happy new year! Bring it, 2017!