Saturday, April 24, 2010

Thursday, January 7, 2010

It's Not My Course - It's My Learners' Course

Our learners are mostly adults - adults with a lot of learning; learning accumulated by way of their own personal experience, learning they picked on their way, ideas gathered from their own thoughts and analysis, and so on. For all those reasons, handling an adult learner can be tricky. The role of an ID in such a scene moves away from that of a teacher to that of a facilitator. No more can you push your learning. Rather, you let the learners decide what they want to learn. The ID can then structure the course and content around the learner's requirements. This is pretty much what Malcom Knowles meant when he said that adult learners are self-directed, goal-oriented, relevancy-oriented, and practical.

One of my recent projects was to create a training program on a tool. My SME was very sure that all of the content on the PPT file that he passed on should reach the learner. Fair enough, I thought. But was it fair to the learner? How do I cater to the learners right from the beginning of my course?

I decided to create a pre-course questionnaire. This questionnaire will contain a set of questions addressed to the learners. It is largely intended to understand the learner's awareness of the course topic. Apart from these, I also wanted to encourage the learners list what they expected to learn from the course. Additionally, was there something specific that they want to learn about the topic?

I prepared this questionnaire and finalized it with my SME. I conducted a learner survey with a few sample learners. The results were amazing. The content that the SME wanted to push to the learners were already known to them! My additional questions on what more they wanted to learn brought in a whole new perspective to the existing content. There was much more that the learner wanted to know.

My SME modified the content to cover what the learners expected to learn. The storyboarding is yet to be done. But I already know that the learners are motivated to take the course. It is their content - they chose what they wanted to learn.

I want to share my experience on preparing this pre-course questionnaire and what it contained. I started off with the main objectives. What will the learners get to learn at the end of the course? I was able to gather these after discussions with the SME.

For example, my course is on a specific tool. By learning this tool, learners will know about the best code practices and about the relevance of .NET technology in code development.

How do you prepare a precourse questionnaire around this? Questions such as "Are you aware of the best practices in coding" or "Do you use .NET technology while coding" are very broad and vague to ask. The responses to both could be a Yes or a No and it stops there. This will not give you a clear picture on the knowledge level of the learner in these two aspects. I wanted preferably measurable responses - what is their extent of knowledge? What more should I ask to guage whether they actually use .NET technology, and so on. To take another example, a question like "how do you rate your level of awareness of depreciated methods in .NET" takes the learner to a deeper aspect of the .NET technology. (Not that I knew anything about the .NET technology. But this is where the SME helps :) )

My questions were very specific. My SME guided me on such specific points that a learner ought to know. I gathered such data and framed questions around that.

When my survey was completed, I got a clear picture on what I should cover in the course. I analyzed whether the content covered all of these, filled the gaps, and then, I was ready to go.

In short:
  • Start off with the main objectives
  • Drill down to the specific tasks
  • Frame questions around these tasks
  • Ensure to frame your questions in such a way that the learner gives maximum information through the answer
  • Verify with your SME and add/modify questions accordingly
 Do you always conduct pre-course interviews before you start on your courses? Do you have more suggestions for a learner-driven course? Please do share them.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Handling SMEs? Not to worry!

I recently attended a conference of Technical Writers here in Bangalore. One of the key sessions was on Handling SMEs. I was, in a way, amused to note that a lot of the participants raised concerns about handling SMEs. It seemed to be a key challenge to them.

I have had challenges with SMEs too. But over the years, I have devised ways to handle this challenge and make the relationship much better between me and my SME. Here are my thoughts:

1. Be sensitive: SMEs have their own set of assignments too. As much as your e-learning course or documentation matters to you, so is it with SMEs when it comes to their set of deliverables. The content support they give us is just one of the many tasks on their list. So, Rule No: 1: Be sensitive to their tasks and schedule.

2. Educate them on the e-learning process so that they know why you might have to constantly contact them. This gives them clarity on why they might have to spare time for you. I suggest you have a proper project plan in place and identify the times when you might need SME support. Share the plan with the SME and remind them atleast two days in advance about their involvement - involvement in the form of reviews or discussions.

3. Record sessions with the SME. Whenver I go for SME discussion, even if it is for a 5 minute discussion, I switch on SoundForge, an audio editing device, that also enables me to record sound. I inform the SME that I would be recording the discussion so that I dont have to go back to him each time I have a doubt about any of the points discussed. This always helps and serves us both a great deal of time.
A word of caution: Remember to inform the SME that the discussion would be recorded. Some SMEs might not be comfortable with it. Do respect it, in case they raise an alarm.

4. Try and depend less on them - Research, research, research. SMEs help those who help themselves! When a content is new to you, rather than expecting the SME to completely back you up, do your bit of homework too. Try and research on the content as much as you can. In the end, verify what you researched with the SME. It takes the burden off the SME to a great extent. It helps you too, because you will have gathered so much about the content yourself.

5. Be polite in mails/chats. This is very important. I once had a discussion on mail about one of my projects. Halfway down the mail chain, I felt that the my SME was being rude. Thankfully, the SME was in the same location as mine. I walked up to his desk and politely asked if something was wrong. Nothing was, infact. Just that his choice of words made it sound rude. But it helped to have a straightforward discussion. The moment you sense that something is wrong, it is always better to iron things out immediately.

6. Keep the SME posted on learner feedback. Afterall, he is a stakeholder in your project too. It is only fair to let him know what the learners think about the course. Remember to give the SME due credits for his contribution to the project.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Wiser After My First Rapid E-learning Course

My first rapid e-learning course was a great experience. The sheer development phase itself was thrilling in spite of the tight deadline breathing down my neck. After I rolled it out, my managers were delighted. However, I was still skeptical about how good it is. I decided to get some feedback.
Here comes the feedback and my learning from them:
Feedback 1: The course is not non linear: An oft-quoted concept. But how many of us ensure that our courses are non linear? I started off my course (I swear to God!) with the intension of making it non linear. But alas! Did I did not see the trees for the forest? Each of my chapters indicated that there was some previous information provided prior to that. It sounded linked – not independent.

A linear course has a fixed learning path – the learners are guided through the content page-by-page. A non linear course is where learners can choose their own learning path. To ensure that your courses are non linear, each topic/chapter/module should stand independent.

For example, if I were to make my course non linear, I would not have references to the previous topics. The learner should be able to start on a new topic afresh without having to rely on previous discussions or content. In e-learning parlance, we call it “modular topics”. Modularity ensures that each topic/chapter/lesson is an independent unit by itself. It does not require a background to make its content clear.

Here is an interesting blog post on linear courses by Rupa: What is a Linear E-learning Course?
Also refer Tom Kuhlman’s: Are Your E-Learning Courses Pushed or Pulled?

Feedback 2: Concept Introduction: My course was on FxCop, a Microsoft tool. The feedback suggested that it would be great if the course can start off with a case study or a real life scenario on why a learner would want to learn the course at all.
This brings the Relevance aspect of Keller’s ARCS model. One of the key factors that ensure learner motivation is relevance. The moment a learner can relate to something relevant to her, the urge to learn becomes natural. Learning no longer becomes a chore.

Feedback 3: Descriptive v/s Diagrammatic: I had a section in the course that explained a workflow that pertains to a set of sequential processes within the tool. To explain this, I had a brief discussion about the work flow, complemented by a flow diagram. The feedback suggested that I show the process on the tool itself, as a demonstration. The flow chart can then be provided as an extra reference. Great tip, I thought. However, I was not allowed to invest on any tool such as Camtasia or Captivate that would have enabled me to capture product demos. All I was allowed to touch was PowerPoint. So, I had to resort to the flow chart. As I reflect on it now, I could have probably captured the screen shots of each step of the flow chart and depicted them as a better instructional strategy.

Apart from these comments, when I reflected on the course again, I found something that totally lost its relevance: Avatar! I had an avatar in the course - called Sergeant Mac. Since FxCop is a tool that monitors flaws in code, the character that came to my mind was that of a cop. So I created Sergeant Mac and I loved him instantly!

However, halfway through the course, Mac is completely ignored and forgotten (ouch!). When I look at the course now, I wonder why I had him there at all in the first place. Had I used Flash to develop the course, maybe I could animate Mac and utilize him a lot more. But yes – it is a flaw - never use an avatar if you don’t intend to do much with it. The course would have gone fine even if Mac was not there to run it.

The flip side of it is my learners seem to remember Mac quite a lot. He has stayed on their minds. Probably it was a learner’s delight because it added a touch of informality.
But then why exactly would we want to use avatars in courses? If they don’t add value, they'd better not be used in the first place.

In all, it was a great learning. I feel post mortem helps…it’s all learning – not content resting in peace!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Rapid E-learning: Some Learning

I experienced my first rapid e-learning! And I feel a great sense of accomplishment.

Before I pen down my experience, I am eternally thankful to Tom Kuhlman for his inputs on his blog. At anytime during my work, one would find me literally glued to Tom’s blog posts, experimenting with all that he has taught on rapid e-learning with PowerPoint. Thanks to Tom for turning around my impressions about PPT. Long Live PowerPoint! Long live Tom!

My assignment was to create a short e-learning course on a Microsoft tool, FxCop. This is a tool that “polices” rule violations in code. With the help of this tool, programmers will be able to make flawless pieces of code and also ensure its maintainability and consistency.

I would like to share how I went about creating it and the lessons I learnt during the process and thereafter.

Customer requirement: To create an e-learning course on FxCop. The course had to be rolled out within a time frame of 3 weeks and not more.

Audience: Developers whose nature of work involved coding.

  •  Short time frame: 3 weeks
  • Non availability of any rapid e-learning tools
  • SME availability: Quite limited almost NIL
In short, no tools, no budget, no time, no guidance (I am the sole instructional designer in the organization.)

My Approach

As soon as the content PPT was passed on to me, I arranged for a quick discussion with the SME. To save his time and mine, I recorded the discussion we had on the content, his expectations, and all other details about the project. To record this, I used Audacity. It proved beneficial. Each time I had a doubt, all I had to do was play back our conversation. I would highly recommend this approach for all such SME discussions.

Following this, I quickly checked the content for gaps and flow. In discussion with the SME, these were addressed. One suggestion I have for any budding instructional designer is to never rely on SME completely for support on content. It is advisable to remember that to a SME, the course is only one part of his “KRAs”. Expecting him/her to support you on a full-time basis is going to disappoint you. As a best practice, it is always better to collate all your queries to your SME and discuss them in one shot. Remember to record these sessions too. Saves time, big time! This way, you don’t have to worry about taking notes too.

In addition to these SME discussions, I also constantly researched on the topic on the Web. This helped me understand the tool better. Some of the forums on the tool had discussion threads on some challenges that developers face and how the tool helps. I converted these snippets of information to “Did you knows”. These were nuggets of information – I would say “nice-to-know-information” – about the tool.

This was a value addition to the course. I hear that learners were delighted with such information apart from the main content. Following discussion threads in a forum will also help you draft assessment questions. You can make a case study of the problem being discussed and pose that as a question to your learner. Of course, as always, consult the SME before you publish these questions.

With able guidance from Tom Kuhlman’s blogs, I also created some pop ups and quiz pages. It was sheer delight learning them and applying them.

Due to the limited time and lack of any guidance in terms of reviews (on instructional designing), I published the course in a shape that appealed well to my SME and other stakeholders. I managed to meet the time frame of three weeks.

However, I was keen to get comments from e-learning experts. I got some great relevant comments. I shall share them in my next post.

How was your first rapid e-learning experience? Do share them.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Web 2.0 -Making the World Smaller

I was just observing a video that Tom Kuhlman had posted sometime back in his blog. The video was created by Common Craft. Simple video, great concept covered in simple terms. I loved it.

However, my thoughts went in a different direction. As the world grows larger in terms of technology, opportunities, innovations, this concept of Web 2.0 is actually bringing all of us closer. The tone is more about collaboration, about being inclusive. There is an urge to share knowledge. Help and Be Helped seems to be the undertone. For example, I have a way to share whatever I bookmark. At the same time, I get to see others' bookmarks too. I read some blogs. My blogroll tells others what other blogs I follow. In turn, I also get to connect to blogs of another set of goes on. Isn't it amazing!

Need information on where you can find the best of books on e-learning? Try tweeting and lo! in no time, you end up with more than what you asked for in the form of tweets from various followers.
Web 2.0 has truly changed the way we function. The world is certainly getting to be a better place than what it was before. We are getting connected, getting closer. For those who stand aside and watch the world pass by, I would say that what they miss is larger than what they can imagine. Just step in and be part of this amazing, collaborative, helpful world of Web 2.0!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

My To-do List

My post for today is inspired by Ellen Wagner’s post: Why It Matters What They Call Us
I am more intrigued by what she has mentioned towards the end of her post.
She says: We have a while before the new economy picks up speed, so there is still time to get smart about working smarter, using our networks and letting technology mediate experience. We'll need to be ready. Sort of like training for a race. Or maybe even an ID-cathelon.

I was thinking what kind of training I should go through to get ready for the “race”. Surely, when the economy picks up and the industry gathers speed, I don’t want to be left behind. How do I gear up for the race and ensure that am on track and on par with everyone else…or even get better at that? I decided that I have a to-do list that I ought to draw up. Here are my thoughts:
  • Get technology-oriented: By being technology-oriented, I do not mean learning new programming skills or learning about some new technology that’s not going to add value to my ID skills. I mean learning new technologies that will enable a better learning experience. Learning new technologies that will help me be less dependent on others to get my course up. New technologies that will enable faster, quality learning experience.
  • Get better at meta learning: Really! Am so lost in this myriad of knowledge and sources of knowledge. Where do I start? How do I keep pace? Do I know that I don’t know? What more should I catch up on? How do I learn??? For this, I need to get better at all avenues of social learning. And I want to know how I can be up-to-date.
  • A presentation at IDCI: Am working on this. Want to present some topic at any of our IDCI sessions.
  • Learn Rapid e-learning: Tom Kuhlman is my inspiration. I want to develop at least one rapid e-learning course using any tool. So that also means I need to learn some new tool.
  • Become a pro at Project estimation! Numbers confound me!
  • Create at least one game-based e-learning course.
    I could come up with more. But for now, I think I need to do all of these before this year ends! And as we go further with the year, I know my list will expand. But for now, this is what I am focusing on.

Do you have a to-do list ? Would love to read them too.