Friday, May 04, 2007

Rapid e-Learning, Templates, & SMEs

There's been a lot of good talk lately about rapid e-learning tools and templates and the roles of SMEs vs. instructional designers. I think about this topic a lot. One of our main products is creating customized templates for our clients; "empowering non-programmers to build e-learning." Our tools still require the user to work in the Flash environment, but you really don't need to know Flash.

Up until recently , I've been thinking it's instructional designers who will be using our tools. Perhaps. But as I look around at who is actually doing instructional design out there (and look at me) I realize more and more that 'instructional designer' is an over-used title and does not necessarily mean that one knows a thing about it; perhaps it's just a role that someone evolved into. It certainly doesn't mean that the individual has a background in 'experience design' (to borrow from Patrick Dunn) or even in e-Learning. Instructional designers are often SMEs who have evolved into trainers. And then e-Learning fell onto their plate.

The folks at Kineo wrote a piece on the future of rapid e-learning tools, summarizing "our view is to give potential authors [SMEs] some easy to use but well structured templates which will give instructional integrity to how they develop their learning."

Barry Sampson responds,
[This approach] presupposes that the templates are instructionally sound in the first place: In reality I doubt that any templated approach is likely to be instructionally sound. For me this is is one of the key failings of traditional elearning content: fitting your learning need to pre-existing templates, whether that's SME built rapid content or something produced by an elearning provider. Templates are about keeping costs down, not standards up.

My response to Barry, hmmm....well I suppose I agree that a template, in and of itself, can not be instructionally sound. But what is a template? It's really a mental model. We all work from templates. Even when you've got a blank page in front of you and you start writing: paragraphs, commas, periods. We have some pre-existing notion in our heads of the structure we might want to follow.

From a rapid e-Learning perspective -- or just e-Learning in general -- templates and tools provide a starting point. They provide a mental model. They can save time; create a more efficient process. And hopefully, they are flexible enough that they can be altered as needed in order to create an effective learning experience.

Silke Fleischer of Adobe Captivate fame, in her post Update on eLearning Guild Conference , talks about the rapid e-learning panel of which she was a part, and the subject of SMEs and IDs:
Some instructional designers want SMEs to use rapid tools to create rapid eLearning, some would not want them near an authoring tool. For me it seems less a discussion between rapid eLearning that SMEs develop content or not, it's rather rapid eLearning developed by IDs (Instructional Designer) with the SMEs (SMEs start by capturing the knowledge, IDs add the ID) versus the informal learning SMEs like most of my coworkers produce using rapid eLearning tools - they don't call what they do "rapid development" nor "rapid eLearning".

I think this is a good vision. In fact, one of the sessions I attended at the Guild Event gave me a taste for this approach. In Rapid Project Management Techniques for e-Learning presented by Coates & Hill of Deloitte, they outlined their approach to creating a big enterprise-wide training program in an extremely aggressive timeframe. The project management stuff from the session was really basic, but the main point I took away was embedded into the program about 40 minutes in.

They described their War Room. The got the key SMEs together in a room with the instructional designers. The SMEs had to create the storyboards. Once the storyboard was created, the lead instructional designer reviewed it, fine-tuning things to create an "instructionally sound" experience. This approach saved them a ton of time, and resulted in an effective training program.

But before they even set the SMEs loose on the storyboarding process, they gave them a training in the basics of e-Learning and instructional design! Nothing long, nothing too deep, just the basics. And this was the seed that led to a conversation with Clive Shepherd that led to the 30-minute masters.

So we give SMEs access to these tools: because this is the wave of the future/the now, this IS what is required. We create templates and tools that provide some instructional approach. Perhaps we build wizards and guidance right into the tools themselves. We provide flexibility in the tools so that they are seen as a starting point.

More importantly, we educate the SMEs upfront. We provide mentoring and partnering between SMEs and instructional designers. If we set the SMEs -- AND the instructional designers -- loose with these tools, let's set them up for success.


Barry Sampson said...

"But what is a template? It's really a mental model. We all work from templates."

Yeah... I see what you're trying to say, but I think you're missing the point. Lets face it, as far as rapid content creation is concerned a template is nothing more than a form into which you drop content elements.

You could say that Shakespeare worked from 'templates', but just giving someone without the same creative talents a set of templates that say "Act 1, drop opening scene here" is not going to produce a great play.

"From a rapid e-Learning perspective -- or just e-Learning in general -- templates and tools provide a starting point. They provide a mental model."

They really do not provide a mental model. They restrict the designers thinking by providing a limited range of options.

"They can save time; create a more efficient process."

Absolutely, and there's nothing wrong with that, but let's not dress it up by pretending that they enable people to create great learning.

"And hopefully, they are flexible enough that they can be altered as needed in order to create an effective learning experience."

If you're providing SME's with the templates, I'm not sure they'll be altering them. I guess you've never had that conversation with an elearning producer that goes along the lines of "...but we can't do that because our templates aren't built to behave that way.."

I'm not saying there is no place for templates (honestly!), but let's at least acknowledge that they are about cost reduction and efficiency, not great learning design.

Cammy Bean said...

Alright, alright. Point taken. "Mental model" was a bad choice of words. It's not that at all.

And I agree with you that templates can restrict designers by providing a "limited range of options."

But what I mean as a starting point goes beyond this... If SMEs are working with instructional designers and developers -- they could use templates as a starting point -- similar to what the Deloitte team did in the storyboarding process I described.

The SME could use a template as a shell to get the content in, then pass it off to an instructional designer/developer who can add to the learning experiencing by modifying the templates, identifying areas for better/more interactivity, adjusting page design, etc.

I understand that not all rapid e-learning tools or template tools allow for customization or extension beyond the shrink-wrapped package. That's a severe limitation, for sure.

So what I'm saying is, we can work with SMEs -- use templates as a starting point -- and still hope to create good learning experiences. I don't think we have to sacrifice great learning design to the gods of cost reduction and efficiency.

Am I just too much of an optimist? Have I just been writing too much marketing and sales material lately?

Barry Sampson said...

I think it's worth bearing in mind that my original blog post was in response to Kineo's article, which in itself was a response to discussions about giving rapid content creation tools to SMEs.

I agree with the approach you're suggesting, but that is something very different to SMEs directly generating the content.

But if you're going to have the full team of SME, Instructional Designer and Developer, I think I'd rather just go the whole hog and let the ID craft the learning once they've extracted the necessary knowledge from the SME.

I still struggle with templates though. I mean, if you're going to have an ID come up with the treatment, why restrict them by dropping content into a template? Why not just create a bespoke solution?

The answer I believe, is cost, and as I've said before I don't have any problem with at all. Let's just be honest about that being their main benefit.

There's nothing wrong with being an optimist!

Cammy Bean said...

YES. The main reason for templates is cost and speed to market.

But I'd also make an argument for the whole notion of participatory culture -- web 2.0 -- allowing the users to create the content. There is power in that -- and an increasing call for user-created content.

As to crafting teams of SMEs, IDs and developers -- I suppose the biggest challenge is finding the talent. My sense is that well-trained instructional designers are hard to find. Many of us have just gotten here by experience. Organizations may have plenty of SMEs and just a few IDs, so putting the tools directly in the hands of the SMEs (as a starting point) can get things rolling -- create effiency -- save money -- maximize the resources that you do have.

Thanks for chiming in on this, Barry. I'm getting a lot out of the conversation.