ID Lessons from “The Electric Company”

August 28, 2008

Back when I was a kid I loved watching the TV show “The Electric Company.” The show used funny skits and simple animation to teach elementary aged kids (those who were too old for Sesame Street) reading and writing skills. The show’s theme song promised to “turn it on (and) give you the power.” And they did. The show was highly creative, hip, and open-minded (mixed-race relations, for example). It was good stuff. Recently, being in a nostalgic mood, my wife and I took out a DVD copy of old Electric Company episodes from our local library.

I am in awe and now have a new set of instructional design heroes. Move over Gagne. Like a lot of childen’s education, the show does a great job at explaining complicated things in a simple, fun way that make sense and are easy to apply. A good example is their lesson on “silent e” of the English language.

Pretty cool, huh? Now read what some smart writer on wikipedia wrote about the same topic:

Silent E is a writing convention in English spelling. When reading, the silent letter e at the end of a word signals a specific pronunciation of the preceding vowel letter….

Yawn…..ughhh……OK, that really sucks. If you want to learn more about silent e’s orthographic pattern you can read more here. I’d rather scrape my head on hot Georgia asphalt.

Now, the writer at wikipedia probably wasn’t writing with creative or effective instructional design in mind. But an awful lot of adult educational material reads like that. IDs and other business writers tend to make things too complicated, too long, and too detailed. I guess deep inside, a lot of us secretly think that long explanations with plenty of big words make us sound smarter.

Instead, we need to apply these lessons that The Electric Company writers mastered long before e-learning even existed:

  1. Get to the point.
  2. Keep it simple: Leave out the theory and unnessary explanation.
  3. Show how to do something.
  4. Give lots of examples.
  5. Be light, engaging, and fun.
  6. Don’t be afraid to express yourself in the material. (Its OK to show some personality! Honestly.)

Is it possible to turn adult learners on and bring them the power of The Electric Company?

Yeah, yeah. I know. Adult learners are different. I studied the theory and know the rules. But are we that much different? Not so much. Sure, sometimes what we need to teach is complicated and dry by nature. But too often we tend to bore victims learners with text heavy e-learning. We can do better. We can be light, simple, engaging, fun, and still reach adult learners. Don’t believe me?

Check out this Common Craft video explaining what a wiki is:

Notice that the video embodies some of the same pointers I took from the Electric Company: to the point, fun, engaging, and simple. No long-winded explanations. Good stuff!

So, think about the last boring e-learning you sat though (or created!). How could you apply the Electric Company lessons to YOUR course? How can you make learning a bit more fun and expressive? It might be worth a gamble. Go ahead….turn ’em on. Give ’em the power!

Need some musical motivation? Get turned on with the groovy theme song.


Hooking learners with a simple story

August 16, 2008

Instead of just starting an e-learning course with a dry-as-sand list of objectives, I like to start with a “teaser” scenario. A teaser is designed to hook the user and give them a bit of motivation for taking the course.

Recently I have been working on a WBT about the A3 problem solving process and report writing (made famous by the process gurus at Toyota). The approach is very effective, yet amazingly simple: You follow a certain problem-solving process and, regardless of the complexity of the project, you write the report on a single A3 sized (11″ x 17″ piece of paper). The purpose of the WBT is to introduce people to the approach, which is becoming the company-wide standard at the client company.

Check out my A3 report writing teaser below. Click the Slideshare navigation arrows to go through the screens.

In this case, I wanted to give a sense of fun and simplicity to the subject matter. Hopefully people taking the course can relate to or hope to avoid the pain experienced by the charachter Joe and therefore want to take the lessons. So, the implicit objective is that in taking this course, you will avoid writing crappy, ineffective reports and, instead, create reports that your audience (e.g., your boss!) will understand and use.

Another thing I like about teaser scenarios like this one, is that it sets the groundwork for fun interactions later on. For example, the story can be continued with multiple choice questions and examples.

Following the teaser in my A3 course, users can select from several lessons. Joe appears throughout the course, sharing his lessons learned with the viewer. The viewer is able to help Joe make decisions via short vignettes and branching scenarios. When the learner makes a mistake, Athena (the Problem-Solving super hero) appears, sharing best practices for good report writing. Athena also shows up on summary screens between steps.

So what do you think? The audience is probably a bit like you. Most are smart folks and most have not heard of this approach to problem solving. Does an introductory story/scenario like this make you more likely to be interested? Or is it too goofy? I would also love to hear about any other low budget ideas for hooking learners up front.

Two Useful Visual Communication Tools

August 9, 2008

I’m always happy to find tools that aren’t just cool, but actually improve my productivity or ability to communicate more effectively. Here are two tools I discovered just this week.


From the folks that brought you Camtasia and Snagit comes Jing– a very nifty screen capture application that has me salivating. Techsmith describes it as “an always ready program that instantly captures and shares images and video..from your computer to anywhere.”  Videos or images taken of your desktop can be uploaded to screencast.comand linked to from your blog or wherever. You can also save files locally or send it out immediately via email or instant messenger. Sweet.

In terms of It’s raw functionality, Jing is a bit like a scaled down version of SnagIt and Camtasia. But the value-add here is how it improves your workflow. As the FAQ puts it, Jing is designed to be “fast visual communication shared with others in a variety of locations.” So while I wouldn’t use it for for a technical writing or software training project, it is an awesome way to quickly take a picture or video that I want to share with a colleague, the IT help desk, or my Aunt Virginia. You can also annotate the images with text, highlighting, arrows, and other nifty things. All in a manner of seconds. Extra sweet. That’s just the kind of scrappy, seamless workflow I want.

I often question the “ease of use”  and speed that software companies brag about in marketing spin. So I’m gonna test out how easy it is to quickly add a insert on this page a screen capture of my current desktop, along with a simple annotation. OK…here I go….

Yup. That was pretty easy! I was able to snap a picture of a custom region, annotate it, upload it, and paste the embed URL (which was saved automatically to the clipboard) — all in about 2 minutes. Nice.

PowerPoint’s Slide Show Pointer Tool – Great for Storyboard Sketches

When I’m doing instructional design, I storyboard a lot in PPT. Usually I’ll mockup a screen layout and make some attempt at describing an image that I want an artist to create for me. Wouldn’t it be easier if I could just draw a crude stick person, instead of searching for lame clip art? Yes it would! Well, now I know how to do that right in PPT. I don’t even need to switch to another application. Here’s how:

  1. Switch to Slide Show mode.
  2. Go to the slide you want to design.
  3. Right click.
  4. Point to Pointer Options.
  5. Select a style (I like Felt Tip Pen).
  6. Use your mouse and cursor to sketch your image.

Now exit out of slide show mode.

You will be asked if you want to save the ink annotations. You do.

Voila! The slide now has a nice, simple sketch that you can use to communicate your idea with your artist, programmer, or whomever. Below is a sketch I did in just a few seconds. A big benefit of this approach is that I don’t have to switch to another application. I also don’t have to save the image to a folder somewhere and then insert it. It is saved automatically right in PPT. That’s a big time saver. In the example below, I want to convey to the media guy that I want an image indicating that a badly written report is not useful to the audience and ends up as total waste. For our team, a simple picture tells a story easier than describing it in text.

Another benefit is that a sketch like this could be used in a rapid prototype to share with a client. They’ll get the idea better than they would with just text-based storyboard, and you potentially save cash by not wasting expensive graphics time in case they don’t like the storyboard.

Rapid E-learning Challenge: Back in the Saddle

August 3, 2008

I haven’t posted much about my Rapid e-Learning Challenge in awhile. That’s because the project suffered a few roadblocks and set-backs. All of them were related to things like poorly defined project goals, lack of agreed-on specs, and non-responsive SME/sponsor. It wasn’t my fault, the sponsor’s fault, or the janitor’s fault. It was a process issue. My learning team had not defined and agreed on a process for initiating this type of project. Starting an e-learning project without such a process is a bit like reading the flight manual after the plane is mid-air.

AT ANY RATE….after a bit of floundering and false starts, the storyboarding is complete. I’m back in the saddle and the project’s moving forward. Yay!  The other good news is that now I have a graphic artist to help with the look and feel and original illustrations where needed. We do have a good process for actual course development. With the planning obstacles out of the way, I’m looking forward to the really fun part of development. We go full-tilt with this tomorrow, and plan to be finished with a beta release in a few short weeks.

All that said, I still want to “test out” just how “rapid” rapid e-learning tools are (in my case, Articulate). As the project plows ahead, I will jot down things I like, things I don’t like, new discoveries (tools, ideas, etc), and lessons learned. I’ll also post any challenges and requests for help here. Blogging is a great way to reach out and get feedback or help from the larger community “out there.”

Rapid Lesson Learned: Don’t move forward with a project if you don’t have clearly defined and agreed upon goals, as well as SME and sponsor buy-in.