Monday, July 12, 2004

Creative use of existing technologies

There’s a real sense of elitist anti-powerpointism among people who think of themselves as e-learning professionals. But, really, if PowerPoint is considered good enough for 90% of ILT interventions, why have such disdain for that paradigm online? Just because you can do more in the way of multimedia and nonlinearity online doesn’t mean you should.

I have for years been advocating the use of simple, affordable, working, rapid-results familiar technologies in e-learning as a viable alternative to the “industry” dogma that if e-learning is not “produced” by instructional designers using proprietary tools it’s not good. Canned learning “products” may be appropriate for some subject matter, but for much of what people need to learn, there may be better, faster, cheaper ways to go.

Before qualified instructional designers get upset, I have no beef with that profession. But I suspect that many of the practices, if not some of the principles of ISD, as taught at any point in time, have a rather limited half-life in a field that is evolving as dynamically as the one we find ourselves in. In my view, e-learning has become a sort of self-sustaining pseudo-specialization, with barriers to entry built on sand by vendors and practitioners who really don’t want to have to perpetually reinvent themselves.

Quality learning is not about sophisticated tools, entertained learners, flashy production values, minutely mapped-out processes, or enhanced trainer job satisfaction. What matters is whether or not a learner achieves the desired improvement in performance as a result of the learning experience; and whether that experience was provided on time and within budget. Those last two items have often been major weaknesses in the concept of “e-learning as canned productions” – it can take months and tens of thousands of dollars to produce a single course. By the time it rolls out, the context has changed, the content is outdated, and you’ll never pump enough learners through it to justify the cost before you have to ditch it and start again.

If e-learning or blended learning is the right way to go in a particular instance, you can cut budgets and development times to negligible levels. Use established technologies like e-mail, PowerPoint, threaded discussions, chatrooms. Add to them relatively simple and free/cheap emerging tools like Web conferencing, online presentations, blogging, and social networking. Weave in people who are SMEs, expert practitioners, managers, or learner peers as mentors, facilitators, learning buddies, or devil’s advocates. Make learning part of the workplace and the workflow instead of some specialized activity that you have to escape from reality to engage in. Some tools that are useful are PowerPoint, Breeze (or its cheaper and instantly usable competitors like Aculearn), Spoke, Blogger, Moveable Type, iChat.

Without spending much time or money, you can create e-learning experiences and online learning environments that are cheap, rapidly developed, secure, highly targeted, always current, always relevant, and very effective. But to accomplish this you have to be willing to drop the notion that content and sculpted learning paths are king. And you have to be willing to yield to a less controlled learning process where “learning management” is less about micro-tracking learner activity and more about return on expectation, holistic and fuzzy as it may seem.

And vendors of products that produce and manage canned courses will not thank you for it :-)

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