What is broken with eLearning?

Posted by on 9 February 2017

An interview with Matt Smith from Pure Learning about some of the issues facing eLearning professionals today.

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Transcript

Robin:
Matt, thank you for joining me today on the Learning While Working podcast.

Matt:
Thanks for having me. I'm very excited to be on it.

Robin:
Cool. I'll start with a really big picture question, which is really the theme for this particular podcast. Why do you think eLearning is broken, Matt?

Matt:
That is a great question. I think at the root of it, I think it's why a lot of bad training exists really, it's probably the perception and the approach to training. I think a lot of people, probably the majority of people see training as just the communication of information. What that does is it just creates the focus of eLearning to be about making things pretty or just putting things on page and then asking a quiz at the end. It creates the most boring, ineffective learning, whereas really we should see training as building skills and building performance. There should be some really rigorous instructional analysis beforehand and some great instructional design.

I've seen a lot of courses where you look at it and it's very clear there's no actual training goals or learning objectives to find in the instructional process before someone's created it. So they've basically just gone in with a bunch of source material and tried to work out "Where does this material go?" and kind of build it from there. Whereas the proper approach would be to actually go in, understand what the actual business objective is, what's the reason why the training exists. Then working out who's the audience, what are their needs, what's the demographics, what do they care about and then looking at the actual objectives of the training and what are the actual skills we're trying to build here.

Really focusing on what people really need to do versus just throwing out a lot of information. It's very clear. You can tell, if you've been in eLearning for a while, if you see a course you can tell if someone's put that effort in up front. But because this perception that training's just communicating information you'll see that lot of L&D departments or even companies will just produce this 'content', which is a word I really hate when people talk about eLearning.

Robin:
It's actually interesting, I think the word "learning content" gets really in the way of what we are actually trying to do in terms of building learning experiences and active things. Just drill a little bit into that sort of -I call it one of the great confusions of learning and development, is about content, not about skills or behaviours. I'm trying think through, how did we end up in this spot where we've got that confusion?

Matt:
Yeah, I think about this a lot. I think back to when I was in school and the way that school has been for quite some time now. School's very much about sitting down, listening to someone talk, then kind of doing tests here and there. I think that exposure to school - over the years we start to think about training, education, all of it being just about disseminating information. So someone knows something you don't and they just talk at you or present it in some way and that's it. Whereas learning is a very active process. The best teachers that I've ever had, I can think back to how they taught and they knew that deep down, whether it was conscious or unconscious, they were very much including us in a very active learning process. They were challenging our thinking, they were questioning us, they were developing skills and making us really involved in the process - versus the classes you'd hate where you'd just sit there and it's just someone with a whiteboard or a blackboard kind of going through things.

I think that's a bit of a factor. I've got kids and my daughter kind of feels that way, that she just turns up and school and you know, I'm there from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and people tell me stuff and then I walk away and I know more things. Whereas really we should be encouraging students just like staff to really kind of go into school and really be active and start learning. I think from fairly early on a lot of us are kind of pushed into thinking that and then it's a kind of a snowball effect. If some people start thinking that and you're L&D department is thinking that, the parts of the business thinking that, it just kind of becomes this vicious cycle of people creating information and content and just pushing it out.

I think in terms of financially it's probably a lot easier for companies to sell content versus going in and trying to solve a problem for a business. Both on the external contractor and company side of things, but also from an LMS vendor side of things as well. You'll quite often hear them talk about content as well. It's quite easy to talk about just putting chunks of information into a learning management system versus complicated instructional design in solving business problems. I think those are some of the factors.

Robin:
Yes. I think with that sort of education process what happens is, we mirror what we know. If we haven't seen really active learning experiences that build reflection and the sort of things you're talking about that come from really good analysis work, you just keep on copying what you see. Because we don't so much - schooling and universities are still content based. Not all of them. I think there's a real shift starting to happen in the education sector. In actual fact the workplace learning sector needs to sort of watch because essentially millennials are coming onto the job market, quite often with a very different university experience. I know my son actually shifted two universities. One that was very academic based and one that was very project based, they did radical things like actually did activities during lectures. One he was - didn't go too well, and one he really succeeded. Then he's got particular expectations about how learning will be in the workforce because of that and he's not expecting it to be these content dumps.

It's interesting about the vendor push-pull thing around content as well. You're right, as a vendor it is really easy for someone to turn up, to sit there and say "We want a piece of content on such and such" and you get into this spot where you're sort of sitting there saying "Yeah, you've asked for this but that actually isn't going to get your business outcomes." There's a real tension we see in the early stages of conversation between what people want and what they actually probably need. I sometimes sit there and say "You actually probably needed to start talking to lots of other people before your decision about what your solution was".

Matt:
Yep. Absolutely. I see the start of a lot of our eLearning projects when we go in and we've run a workshop with the client and they're kind of taken aback because they're really expecting "How's it going to look? How's it going to move around? What are the cool interactions going to be?" But we're asking questions like "What is the reason this training exists? What is the business objective? Why do people actually know this?" Let's really think about that. What do people actually need to be able to do on the job to achieve this business objective? Let's have a look at the source material a bit later on, let's not just take that and kind of make it pretty. But let's actually really understand, like how is this going to improve your business? Is this training actually needed?

I think that's the question that any decent instructional designer should really be asking is "Is training the best way to solve this problem?" initially, you know? Don't just make the assumption that: someone's told me we need training. Because it is very easy for anyone in any business to say "This is a training problem. Let's create some information around it. Let's spend $60,000 on this big training programme and build out all this material that people can refer to." Generally that might not be the right solution, it might a change in process, it might be a different system, it could be a lot of different things. Training is a very easy solution to kind of jump to straight away. We're not doing well at this so let's do more training. I think that's a bit of a problem as well.

Robin:
Yeah. The thing we're starting to see and we're starting to work with, which I think is very similar to the workshop thing you're talking about, is essentially doing an upfront diagnostic and sitting there saying "We need to actually work through and really diagnose what the problem is before we can think through what the complete solution is". It's interesting because essentially during that sort of process you uncover what the real problem is but you can also scope what the actual solution is properly. Rather than picking out pie-in-the-sky ideas and scopes.

Matt:
Yes. I think that is the really appealing idea of content. If it is just seen as chunks of information, you can say this is one or two eLearning courses or a video and we have these levels of interaction. Would you like it to be low interaction, medium interaction, high interaction, tick a box? Do you want some drag and drops, et cetera. That's kind of how some companies will present things and I can understand that from a financial point of view. It's a much easier sales conversation to have with a client. From a client's point of view it's probably a much easier conversation for them as well, because it's just like buying a product. But then having to go in and do what we're doing and actually trying to solve a business problem, it's a much harder thing to kind of get your head around in that discussion.

I think that, I'm not saying that everyone's going out and trying to make lots of money but I think as instructional designers we need to think a lot about behaviour and how we're unconsciously affected. Of course things like getting more work and getting more money or working with procedures, companies, they kind of factor into it kind of subconsciously. It does just kind of push things along that way. I'm sure you've experienced as well, we make a lot of work for ourselves by actually going in and running these workshops. It probably would be a lot easier to go in and say "Give me your source material. We'll make it really pretty and we'll come up with some cool ideas to make it fun", and away we go.

Robin:
I occasionally sat there and thought about that. Actually if you were just in it for the money you probably would just go along with the flow. Work with the levels, just produce content, not challenge. In actual fact we've looked at a couple of different projects at times and realised that by sorting things into those sort of different types of interactive levels actually doesn't help. Sometimes it's easier to do something that's highly interactive, it's just a series of questions and activities. Which is possibly something that should, in that model, be more expensive.

Matt:
Yes.

Robin:
It's more about doing good instructional design work than doing good content presentation as well.

Matt:
Yes, absolutely. I think one of the problems with eLearning being broken is that there is this kind of obsession with interactivity, that everything must be interactive. To the point where you get a lot of pointless activities where you're just clicking on things to reveal information or dragging and dropping things that don't really make sense. You see that quite a lot, especially it's a mistake that a novice eLearning builder will make and I've done that in the past as well, in my journey kind of progressing. But it is very tempting to think that interactivity is king and let's build stuff out but it's more about having purposeful interactivity and if it doesn't have a purpose then what's the point?

It's not working towards the goals that you've defined in that analysis phase then why would you include that in there? I think that whole model of the different levels of interactivity just promotes these really big bloated courses with lots of interactivity that might kind of create some engagement at the start but by the end of it most people are thinking "Oh my god. Can you just send me some text and I'll just skip through it really quickly. This is so boring just doing all these pointless activities. I've got better things to do with my time."

Robin:
We've sometimes used an approach where we sit there and build an online print or mobile handbook that's actually just information, produced by a technical writer. We sit there and go, well that's information. That's fascinating to see how different - it gives learners a different choice. Sometimes the people who want something that's more interactive, they'll dive into the interactive experience but sometimes people sit there and go, "I just want to read the whole lot to start with to get me the overview".

Matt:
Yes. That's great.

Robin:
It's just been really simple because essentially you can also shuffle a lot of the content discussion into that handbook area as well. That's interesting because sometimes people have had this whole thing that you want to get rid of those sorts of things. Sometimes in actual fact they can be a valuable scaffolding as well.

Matt:
Yes. Fantastic.

Robin:
You've talked a little bit about the solution to eLearning being broken which is doing different different types of analysis work. Is that what you really think the key is to actually fixing the problem?

Matt:
I think the real key is actually changing everyone's perception of what training is and then it will flow on so that we do put more time into the analysis side of things. The funny thing is that the analysis side of things actually saves you time and money later on down the track, in terms of developing and creating it but also down the track  because you've got effective training. You're not wasting money on something that's not going to work or kind of going to half work. It's something that's actually going to improve the business. I think if we can somehow change people's perception of learning and letting people realise that learning isn't something that you just do in a singular event when the training department takes you aside and puts in a classroom or gives you eLearning. It's something that you do consistently on your job in every single way. Everything you're doing, you're getting feedback and you're learning. You might be getting coaching from your manager or feedback from your peers, sharing information, and even having lunch and having a chat through work. At work you're learning about your job.

I think people need to understand about the different ways we learn. That's why the push towards things like 70:20:10 and social learning, informal learning has been quite good because starting to get people thinking about that. But what we need to do now is really show people about active learning, that's it's not just this passive thing where information kind of comes at you and hopefully some of it sticks, but it's something where you actually get really actively involved in it. On both sides of the coin, learning development department and learning companies or anyone in the learning industry really need to be stepping up the game and letting everyone know what training really is.

Then on the other side, if you are someone who isn't directly involved in creating learning material but you're hearing this or reading something else online about it and you've got a good sense of what training is, you should be really be pushing for it in your organisation. Really pushing for really good quality training and really purposeful training.

Robin:
Yeah. I think it's thing what you're talking about which is that sort of shifting people's perceptions. I think you're right. Learning companies, L&D areas are really starting to make that and have quite often made that shift that learning needs to be active. I think the adoption of 70:20:10 in Australia is this really deep and complex. We've probably got the best adoption in the world based on the Towards Maturity benchmarks. There's actually quite often the end audience, that people who come to L&D teams who sit there with a training problem, and come as a training problem rather than as a performance problem. That's where that shift needs to happen, possibly. So we need to get better at getting that message out as an industry that's not about content.

Matt:
Absolutely. I see that as a main role of a learning function in a business. The L&D department or capability department really should be promoting just the concept of continuous learning and a culture of learning. They should be really encouraging that in any way possible. Too often L&D departments are kind of relegated to the people that just create training. But I have seen a few organisations now working on really making them an important part of the business, not seeing it as just kind of another cost. Just some sort of necessary evil that we have to have that the guys that make the support material and the classroom training that we do. They should be the real champions of learning and really showing the business different opportunities to learn on the job. How to be active in learning, how to share information, how to create really good training as well.

Robin:
I think that's the thing we need, to not make too many broad generalisations about as well. I think there is real shift starting to happen in the industry now, around this sort of thinking about continuous learning. I think it's happened in the L&D teams in organisations and some companies, but it needs to go out further. I think what you're talking about with the continuous learning environment. I think Jay Cross' beautiful line is "It's the natural way to learn". People don't always realise that they're learning while that's happening as well. I think there's some work to do around acknowledging that sort of informal learning to make people realise what they're really doing in that spot.

Matt:
Absolutely. Yes. That's why I love the name of this podcast, when I first saw the name I was very happy with it.

Robin:
Yes, and particularly thinking through ways to integrate all those things together is one of my real passions around this.

Matt:
Fantastic.

Robin:
Cool. Thank you, Matt, today for joining me.

Matt:
Thank you. It's been fun.

Robin:
It's been a really interesting discussion and it's really interesting for me. We keep on being in a spot where discussions end up being around analysis and analysis being the key important bit in learning projects to be able to really make that difference. It's really nice to return to that theme today. Thank you.

Matt:
No, thank you for having me on. It's been a great time. Keep doing what you're doing.

Robin:
Thank you.

Matt:
Thanks.


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