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.

Rapid Roadblocks: Too-little Content

July 21, 2008

When you want to develop an elearning course relatively rapidly, having plenty of reliable, semi-stable content helps. In most cases, the SME (subject matter expert) usually has too much content. Over at the Rapid Elearning Blog, Tom Kuhlman recently wrote some excellent tips for getting rid of some of the content when your SME has too much of it.  It does seem that on most all instructional design projects, SMEs and clients usually give you a lot more content than is needed for your course. Thinning out the content takes time and reduces the rapid meter. But this is a heck of a lot better than the opposite case: not having enough content. Have you ever had that happen?

That is exactly the case with my current not-so-rapid e-learning project. When I first started, all I had for content was a single PPT slide deck and an unresponsive SME. The PPT had some good key ideas in it, but they were not hashed out in any sort of detail. A lot of the slides didn’t make much sense or seemed incomplete outside the instructor-led course that it supported. Unfortunately, there were no slide-notes, handouts, white papers, instructor guides from previous courses or anything else. And the SME was not responding to specific content questions.

So what’s an ID to do when there is too-little content?

Make it up! As an instructional designer, one of the value adds that I bring to the table is the ability to research and benchmark externally and synthesize the results into internally revel ant content for my course. If the SME isn’t responding to requests for content, I can research and literally make up content myself, send that to the SME, and hope to get a response that way. Indeed, I’ve found that this approach usually works. It’s easier for many SMEs/clients to respond to someone else’s content-creation attempt than it is for them to create original content themselves. Don’t let the lack of content stop you.

Researching, benchmarking, and writing content outside your realm of expertise takes a LOT of time and drastically cuts into the rapid meter. And that’s OK…so long as it’s OK to stretch out the time-frame. The key is to figure this out up front during the content analysis phase (assuming there is one!). If there are content challenges (too much, too little, bad content, NO content, etc) then you need to note it as a significant risk and include additional time in your project plan.

Have you encountered similar problems with too-little content on any of your training projects? How did you handle it? I would love to hear any tips and tricks you have.

Rapid e-Learning Challenge: Day 1

June 25, 2008

One designer. One course. 48 hours.

Status: On target

Total time: 8 hours

I’m off to a pretty good start. My goal for these first few days is to consolidate my research notes and random ideas into a content outline and begin the storyboarding process. Today I reached a semi-final state of the content outline.

In the past I used MS Word to develop content outlines. This time around I decided to try out a mind mapping tool for developing the outline. Tom Kuhlman suggested a similar approach (different tool) in a comment last week, and he wrote about how he uses mind mapping here. And Michael Hanley describes using FreeMind for instructional design. I’m using the free tool at Mind Meister for now, but am open to better tools, especially if they’re free 🙂

What’s this course about, anyway?

The course is about writing my company’s version of A3 problem solving reports. An A3 is a tool that Toyota uses to propose and report on solutions to problems. The idea is to present all the essential information about a focused subject on a single 11″ x 17″ (A3 size) piece of paper. The report is divided into sections that follow specific data-driven problem-solving steps. This reporting approach forces clear, focused communication, and allows the reader to view a lot of information at a glance. It’s a brilliant process and forces clear, focused communication. I’ll write more about the A3 report and process and implications for instructional design in a separate post.

Here is a snapshot of my mind map/content outline.

Mind map and content outline for A3 Report Writing course.

This gives an idea of the high-level topics. I’m not showing the details due to internal privacy issues, but when I drill down into sub-topics, I also have initial screen treatment and activity ideas. I am able to insert notes, icons, links and even attachments. Links and attachments will be especially helpful by (hopefully) making it easier to locate source documents, web sites, etc.  So in a way it is a mini knowledge management system. A

But is it rapid?  Although I am early in the design and development process, I think the mind mapping approach is a great alternative to using Word to outline and document ideas. It looks like it will be a big time saver from my past way of flipping around, forgetting, and searching for those notes about my last great idea. The slow-down, of course, is that it takes at least a little time to install, learn, and integrate a new tool into your work. This slowed down the Rapid e-Learning Meter for now, but in future projects, I suspect a quicker start. 

My 48 Hour Rapid e-Learning Challenge

June 19, 2008

One person. One course. 48 hours.

Time to put rapid e-learning to the test. I recently got an assignment to create an e-learning course and it needs to be done fairly quickly. I need to get it done in a few weeks and I don’t want to spend more than 6 hours a day on it. On the downside, the course goals are a little fuzzy, there isn’t much existing content, and I am writing the content and developing the course on my own. On the positive side, I have a lot of autonomy to design what I want.

Here’s the plan:

I will use the Articulate suite to build the course (a tool I have used for one previous course). Because of the tight timeline, I will rely mostly on relatively simple approaches but (hopefully) engaging instructional strategies that a single, non-programmer/action scripter can do alone. To that end, I’m drawing a lot of inspiration lately from blogs like Cathy Moore (e.g. how to add emotional impact ; dump the drone), Tom Kuhmlan’s Rapid E-Learning Blog, and Jane Bozart (especially her Better Than PPT book).

Goal: A fully functioning course in 21 days (and no more than 48 hours). By “fully functioning” I mean ready for beta testing, not necessarily final release.

  • Days 1-5: content outline, design/strategy, storyboard in PPT, document my processes.
  • Days 6-10: finalize storyboard, write screen content and script, identify graphic/media
  • Days 11 – 15: Build all course screens and interactions
  • Days 16 – 20: Record audio, test, release beta for review
  • Day 21: Kaizen (improvement) – Review process for what worked, what didn’t. Look for areas of waste and inefficiencies, Improve and document process for next project.

Along the way:

In addition to developing the course, there are a few other things I will do:

  • Document lessons learned and best practices.
  • Track metrics and track data to help with future improvement projects.
  • Develop project management and process documents that can be replicated.
  • Update this blog minimum three days per week: include discoveries, general experience, review of software, etc.
  • Search out other blogs, product support site for help, and post questions as needed.

That’s it….ready, set…..

Do you have any ideas for getting set up and started on a WBT rapidly? War stories, best practices or things to avoid….any comments are appreciated. Comment here or e-mail me.

Who Has Time for a Second Life?

June 14, 2008

This month’s Big Question at Learning Circuits is really three different questions around virtual world sensation Second Life.

I really couldn’t get past the first question: “In what situations, do you believe it makes sense to develop a learning experience that will be delivered within Second Life?”

My own knee jerk response to this is: “Second Life?  Hell, I barely have time and money for first life learning!” Sure, there are some interesting possibilities for SL, especially along the lines of the Plymouth example Tony Karrer describes. While SL has some awesome potential and applications, it is too time-consuming to figure how to design for it, and even more challenging for technically unsavvy audiences like the one I design for.

When I evaluate the right tool for e-learning, I think about where it fits in with a model similar to the one Clive Shepard recently posted about. He describes a model for delivering e-learning in three tiers, develped by Nick Shackleton-Jones.


At the top is high-end content that, due to it’s complexity, is expensive and often sponsored by top management (due to its expense and development time). At the bottom is user-generated content, social learning stuff. In the middle is the typical e-learning projects like tutorial, software sims, e-presentations, and the like.

So, in this model, it seems that SL kinda fits in at all three levels, depending on the design. But it’s complexity and steep learning curve (i.e., expensive!) puts it at smack at the top (I think). I don’t see how to reconcile this. I work for a huge company with a small learning group, and an even smaller e-learning team: ME!!!! I have to think hard about finding a big bang for my limited buck.

Right now, I am spending most of my time creating middle-tier e-learning. I’d like to move toward more user generated content. I can vision a much greater return on selling the power of blogs and wikis than I can virtual world tools like Second Life. Someday, maybe. Not today.

For now, I’m putting Second LIfe on hold and getting back to Real Life: A cold brew has my name on it at my favorite Seattle brew pub, where I will plan my next real life NW hike here:

Sign on Dungeness Spit, Olympic Peninsula, WA

Pushing the envelope: Requiring blogging for learning

May 16, 2008

Tony Karrer asked an interesting question earlier this week: Should blogging be mandatory (in contexts such as attending conferences, formal learning setting, and sustained learning activities). The post generated a great discussion and a lot of points were raised. Not surprisingly, most of us in the conversation seem to object to anything “mandatory.” But now I am wondering if maybe some form of mandatory blogging isn’t a bad idea. After all, there are a lot of mandatory things in the learning world. Examples from my own career:

  • Taking training courses, I have had to complete certain assignments, often involving some sort of report
  • In various projects, I often have had to report out to colleagues on problem-solving results, project status, lessons learned, etc.
  • For personal development goals (such as reading educational books, attending lectures or conferences) I have had to write a report and email it to the team, or give a presentation.

All of these were “mandatory,” although that word may not have been used. They were required because there is some understanding of the importance of sharing knowledge. We all benefit from sharing lessons learned and knowledge newly acquired.

So, isn’t blogging the same thing? It is just another tool for doing what people have always done: connect and share. But blogging has some new benefits for learning organizations: Being on-line and storable, they potentially become a powerful way of storing tribal knowledge and having it searchable and retrievable by others now and in the future. And unlike Word reports sent via email, blogs are much better for creating conversation and further learning from one another….and those conversations, too, becomes storable and searchable.

How cool is that?

So maybe we should require blogging in certain contexts. It’s a powerful tool for learning. And as learning professionals, we really should be pushing the envelope with new technologies and helping our organizations become flexible, strong, learning organizations. We need to push the power of “We learning.”