Friday, March 21, 2008

E-Learning Project Reality: Guerrilla Instructional Design

I'll define it in one word: grueling.

Since November, I have been working on a big project for a brand-name institution: 29 self-paced eLearning courses.

Mostly software training, with bits of process and product information thrown in for good measure.

Courses range from 15-30 minutes each and are geared towards my client's external clients. No assessments or formal testing. Lots of software interactivity.

Most of these courses already exist as online, instructor-led experiences. I've got the PowerPoints and Word docs to prove it.

Relentless schedule. The lifecycle of an ideal course, on paper, is about 40 days. That's from initial content kickoff to final live courses.

It goes a little something like this:

Content Gathering

The first step is the contact kick off meeting. This includes myself, the instructional designers at the client company who manage things on their end, and any subject matter experts that they can assemble for the meeting.

We go through any existing classroom notes. We talk about the performance objectives. We review the content at a high level.

Generally, within a couple of days of the kickoff, I have a second meeting with the SME or course trainer. If possible, I sit in on a live training session. Schedules don't always work out, so more often this is a one-on-one tour of the software and the content notes with the trainer. Here we attempt to get into all the detail

Thankfully, I type really fast, so I've got a lot of good material to work with when I get to the next stage.

Story Boarding

If the stars are aligned, I immediately begin story boarding. Depending on the length and complexity of the course, this takes anywhere from 1 day to 5 days. Of course, this varies greatly depending upon how accessible the subject matter expert are to me.

Client Review

This is the single longest phase of this project.

Each course goes through an extensive review process on the client side, starting with the client's ID team and their SME team. The document is sent out to everyone, then the whole team gathers in a conference call and walks through the story board together.

Ideally, the team has reviewed the document beforehand and has all of their comments, but more often than not, this is their first look at it. I capture all of their comments, make revisions, and send out an updated version.

The client ID team wrangles the SMEs and gets more comments until we have a SME approved script.

Next, the story board goes to the client's editing department for copy editing. Have we dotted the right letters? Have we adhered to corporate guidelines?

From there, onward for a legal review to make sure all the trademarks are in the correct places and no false promises are being made.

This is where things get delayed and backed up: the SMEs and the legal department.


Once we have a final, legally approved document we can begin building the course.

The client takes all the screen captures because we can't have access to the software.

I prep the script and send it off for audio production (we've been working with an excellent independent guy with his own studio who can churn this stuff out!)

My development team builds the sucker. We've got this down to a lean and mean 5-7 days, which includes internal QA. We use a fairly templated approach, so at this point there aren't many bugs to discover.

Course Review

We post the course for the client team to review. Usually, this is another online walkthrough. Sometimes the SMEs have looked at it beforehand and have their comments all lined up, sometimes this is their first look at the thing. You never know.

We revise and fix. Sometimes have to record new audio. Occasionally have had to rewrite big chunks and send a story board back to editing and eReview because the right SMEs weren't initially included in the review cycle...or someone just didn't get that they really needed to review the story board...or....or. But that hasn't happened too many times.

Course Goes Live

We post the final course. The client IT team downloads all the files and puts it on their servers and the thing is live.


Instructional Design: When the Schedule Dictates What You Can Actually Do

So how much time do you think we have here for real creative instructional design? Not much.

This is the harsh reality of eLearning in the trenches. When great just can't get in the way of good enough.

This is what I've started calling guerilla instructional design. Get in and out as fast as you can with the fewest casualties.

But the client is delighted with what we've been producing. Initial feedback from actual end-users has been really positive. Something's working here.

Is That A Light At The End of The Tunnel?

  • This morning I sent off a first draft of story board #22.
  • About six courses have actually gone live.
  • Another four courses have been built and are in revision purgatory.
  • Another ten plus story boards have been written and are somewhere in the vast client review process.

The great irony is that the projected due date for the final course is May 21st, which also happens to be the due date of the real baby that is currently kicking around inside of me.

My client hopes I go late.

Photo credits:


Kiosco Salo ConcepciĆ³n said...
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Wendy said...

Yup - sounds like my life these days. Oh, except I'm the developer and audio engineer too. And I'm "lucky" enough to have access to the software.

Good luck on your other, more important project too! Hang in there!!!!

Cammy Bean said...

Thanks, Wendy. It's fun, right?

lmentz said...

I concur with Wendy. I get to be one of those builder/designers too :). I had an interesting discussion with someone about doing the macro of ID (big picture, planning) versus the micro (building as well). I much prefer the macro.

Just out of curiosity, what do you use to storyboard your stuff? Depending on what it is, I might do mockups in Word or even build mini prototypes. I'm wondering if there's anything better out there.

eB said...

Your guerilla approach is something that is so rarely addressed. Whenever it comes up it's done in a very negative way. I was beginning to wonder if I was in some sort of alternate training reality. Most of the learning blogs speak of out of hte box immersive simulations. Something that won't fit in a templated format. I don't suppose you have any online samples? The balance i'm trying to strike right now is to create something engaging and more interactive while remaining agile enough to deliver within a timeline clients will pay for.

Dave Ferguson said...

...The client takes all the screen captures because we can't have access to the software...

Try and imagine programmers who don't have access to the client computer, auditors who don't have access to the company's books, salespeople who don't have access to the companies products...

(I've been in this same situation, but like the appeal of Judge Judge, the logic of it escapes me.)

Damien DeBarra said...

You just described my working life. The horror, the horror...

Cammy Bean said...

What a chord this has struck with my fellow practitioners!

@ Lisa (lmentz)...I've been storyboarding in Word for years and it continues to work for me. My "storyboard" is just the words and the descriptions of the graphics. Haven't found a better, more flexible tool yet. I've done some wireframes in PPT, but I keep coming back to Word.

@ eB...It's a really hard balance to strike. Rapid eLearning on a tight budget/timeframe, but as the ID you want to do something different and better -- more engaging, more memorable. Keep reading the blogs that share practical tips, that's all I can say. (Cathy Moore, Tom Kuhlman, Clive Shepherd write about creating better questions, layouts, etc.)

I wish I could share samples at this point, but everything proprietary to my client... :(

@ Dave...the logic behind NOT providing the vendor with access to the software astounds me too. But it's oh so common for these big corporate-types.

@ Damien...perhaps we should start a support group! My self-help strategy is limited these days to sugar and an occasional walk outside for fresh air.

Jeffrey Keefer said...


Thank you for sharing this process. I am sure many people find this process useful to understand what you do all day.

Two questions:
1. When you storyboard in Word, have you created your own one-page template?
2. What does your team develop the eLearning in for this project at that speed?

Thank you.

Cammy Bean said...

Jeffrey...glad this was helpful to you.

I'm in the midst of writing another one of these, so am very happy for the distraction :)

Answers to your questions:

1) Yep. I created a word template with the aim of trying to look somewhat like the finished page (lamely so), since so many SMEs were going to be involved in the review process. My word "template" consists of a few tables with color coding for audio, or software demos, etc. Audio corresponds to steps in the software with specific interactivity and feedback spelled out. Each frame/page of the word template corresponds to a frame/page of the course itself.

2) Depending on the length of the course and the amount of interactivity, my team can turn one of these around in 5-10 days. We use Flash for our development efforts, with a lot of templated, reusable components to speed up development time.

So how 'bout that?

Jeffrey Keefer said...


I have been wondering why there has not been a standard storyboarding template. Why do you think this is the case?