Blog Archives

Day Three at DevLearn 2013

The final day of DevLearn had me sitting in sessions led by Clark Quinn, Conrad Gottfredsson and Neil Lasher. Since there were so many overlapping concepts, I’ll just cover them based on the two overriding themes I saw rather than by session.

Start at “apply”

The problem that instructional design seems to face is that requestors bring us in to situations that don’t always require instruction. So instead of creating unnecessary instruction, start design by trying to understand what the end user needs to do to perform a behavior. If the design demands the introduction of new knowledge, introduce that knowledge within the relevant context, then provide the ability to apply that knowledge in practice and offer appropriate feedback. But if performing doesn’t require instruction, don’t force it. As Clark Quinn mentioned earlier in the panel discussion, “build knowledge into the world, not in the head.”

In terms of deciding what needs instruction and what doesn’t, Conrad Gottfredson presented a beautifully simple system for sorting it out. While performing your task analysis, determine the negative consequences your learners face should they fail and rate it on a scale of 1 to 7, 1 being no effect, 7 being catastrophic (I would probably add a level 8, just in case failure leads to a zombie apocalypse). Anything rated 5 or higher gets the most instructional attention, anything rated a 3 or lower gets mostly performance support. It’s so simple, but it’s a brilliant way to make sure our end users get the support and practice they need to perform (and not cause a zombie apocalypse).

I like the emphasis at this conference on building smaller bits of content as performance support instead of courses. I never went to school intending to become a technical writer, but somehow when I landed my current role as one, it seemed to be a pretty natural fit. I think if instructional designers better understood the things technical writers produce (help systems, job aids, documentation) and if technical writers understood the skills that instructional designers can leverage (user centered analysis and design, multimedia instruction) both professions would be in a better place.

I think since my department has a history of delivering on these things, most of our requestors are willing to be talked into performance support solutions, even if their initial inclination is to request training. There are other challenges, of course, namely how do we respond to requesters demanding a small forest’s worth of printed documentation (destined to go out of date almost as soon as the training ends)? And how do we optimize documentation so that it covers everything that needs to be covered while being attractive and not intimidating for the user?

Then there’s problem of managing and tying all of these things together, which leads us to…

Build an ecosystem

When it comes to supporting performance, elearning is just the start. As Art Kohn mentioned on the first day of DevLearn, nothing can be taught in one pass, as the learner will almost immediately forget it. Instead the goal should be to build an ecosystem of learning and support by using all of the tools at our disposal. This means EPSSs, job aids, pocket cards to support performance as well as mobile delivery and context to support instruction. Additionally, managing it requires content governance to ensure the most relevant things are easily discoverable and not lost beneath a mountain of outdated content.

Neil Lasher displayed a brilliant example that tied in some of the transmedia storytelling ideas in Lee Lindsey’s session on day one. He presented a simple scenario of a top sales employee at a retail outlet angrily tossing a customer out. You’re then presented with several options:

  • Verbal Warning
  • Written Warning
  • Suspension
  • Firing

Making the wrong choice (in this example, a written warning) causes the employee to storm out and quit. Later on, you’ll receive an email or SMS offering additional information and coaching. A couple days later you’ll get another SMS, saying there’s a situation developing with another one of your employees. It leads you into another scenario where you have to deal with an employee causing problems because they saw the other employee quit angrily a couple days ago.

It’s a real time scenario. Like Animal Crossing for new managers! 🙂

As more scenarios are developed and new content is required, more pieces to the ecosystem (both instructional and performance support) are added. It’s important to note that at no point is any “score” information provided, as simply receiving feedback from the scenario is enough. Score data is only used on the backend to calculate what the system should send the user to next.

Keynote: Talent Anarchy

Though I found the Talent Anarchy keynote on hacking to be a useful tool that I’ll be implementing on an almost daily basis, I don’t know how much I can add to the conversation around it. Instead, I defer to Bianca Woods and Cammy Bean who have posted excellent recaps from the session.

And that’s it!

I want to thank everyone for another great DevLearn where I learned new things, gained tons of inspiration and met people doing some very exciting work. Rather than being an end, DevLearn last year was a real kicking off point. Many of the things I’m only just putting into practice were inspired by those sessions, and I suspect it’ll be similar this year.

Day Two at DevLearn 2013


While Day One of a conference is a sudden, brilliant dose of energy, Day Two has me dragging a little.

OK, maybe a lot. I wasn’t quite as diligent about taking notes during sessions today, so things might be a little incomplete or remembered incorrectly.

Morning Buzz: Adam Weisblatt

My morning started out great when I managed to cut myself shaving. This has nothing to do with this session, but does explain why I was late and feeling not quite ready for the day (most likely due to blood loss and lack of caffeine). What part of the conversation I did catch dealt with the issues faced in managing technology and data within learning organizations. Often we have solutions (like an LMS) that have to plug in and talk to other solutions. A lot of the process can be simplified and automated by having APIs and ensuring IT is involved in the process.

One person made the point that you should never look to your LMS (or really, any technology solution) as a permanent fix. You always need to think about how you’re going to extract your data and content when you’ve outgrown the current solution.

Keynote: Eli Pariser

I honestly came into this keynote slightly skeptical, because quite frankly, I get great recommendations from services like Amazon.


As you can see, the algorithm really knows me.

Pariser started out by discussing his attempt to expand his worldview but was stymied by Facebook’s newsfeed filter. As one of the founders of, he obviously leans to the left politically, but befriends people with other mindsets to try and understand their perspective as well. Unfortunately Facebook’s algorithm filters out content from his conservative friends, because it knows he is less likely to hit “like” on articles posted by them (there was an audible gasp when his mockup news feed removed his conservative friends’ posts, which may or may not be an indicator of how many conservatives were in the audience).

One of the challenges this filtering causes is what danah boyd calls “psychological obesity.” We have both an impulsive self and an aspirational self, but the content most likely to be fed to us by algorithms are things that appeal to our impulsive selves. In this way, we’re only getting the candy and junk food (Justin Bieber and lolcats) instead of intense things that might be difficult (investigative journalism and stories on Afghanistan).

The problem for educators is that education IS challenge. He referenced a quote from Siva Vaidhyanathan that learning is “by definition an encounter with what you don’t know, what you haven’t thought of, what you couldn’t conceive.” By filtering out the challenging things, how will we ever grow and learn?

While I’m still not entirely convinced by Pariser, I think the points he makes are worth considering. But when content on the internet grows more in two days than all of human history prior to 2010, how can human curators possibly sift through it all? We need the algorithms to bring things to the surface, because there’s a level of personalization algorithms offer that no human curator can possibly reach.

The solutions Pariser offers also seem rather simplistic. Teach “filter literacy” by opening up a separate tab in incognito mode to compare the results? You’ll still see content filtered by your location, browser or computer (Pariser himself mentioned that there are 57 different signals Google can use to personalize results, even on a brand new computer). I think filter literacy needs to be part of a broader discussion about how people perceive media online. Simply because we use filtered systems to find media doesn’t stop us from reaching out to people or consuming content from curated resources. Most likely we use both equally without even thinking about it.

Session: Is elearning broken? Panel discussion

Attention grabbing and provocative title! I’m not a fan of such things generally but went into this session knowing that many of the panel participants would have insights that would prove valuable. I didn’t take notes (it’s hard to type while you’re standing), so there’s not many specifics that I took from this session. If nothing else, it only reiterates the need for people in this industry to continue to innovate and fight the urge to simply go along with a request for training or build a context free page turner. Instead of attempting to recreate the analog world of the classroom in an elearning project, why not use some of the affordances of the technology? Why attempt to put knowledge into the learners’ heads (through a knowledge dump) when it is far easier to put knowledge into the world (a performance support solution)?

Session: Comics for Learning with Bianca Woods

After such a heady and theoretical start to the day, it’s great to step into a session about the actual act of building things. An excellent case can be made for long-form comics to tell extremely powerful stories or take complex ideas and make them more digestible. Best practice design in comics forces learning designers to move towards better instructional practices – clearer and more dynamic visuals, minimal text, and better stories.

As I wandered through DemoFest later that night, I couldn’t help but think about how much of elearning design has already pulled from comics. All you need to do is look at any project created with Storyline using the bundled characters and their accompanying dialogue surrounded by speech bubbles.


And then you can vomit, because they are absolutely disgusting. Why does anyone use them? I have a feeling they get used because they came free with the program and most instructional designers don’t have the time, money, or the desire to make anything better. If we’re going to take inspiration from things in other industries (like comics), why do we accept these half-measures?

I can’t stop thinking about the comment from Ian Bogost about deepening the experience of work and making our creations move towards this goal. If we’re going to invest all this time in building extensive elearning interventions, why can’t they approach the level of experience we get from a great graphic novel or short film or documentary?

Let’s Screw Up

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought lately to the nature of what it is I do. This is spurred in some part by recent posts by Reuben Tozman and Clark Quinn, two leaders in the L&D field who have quite eloquently expressed some weariness with the state of things. Their sentiments seem to echo a lot of the things I heard six months ago when I attended my first professional conference, Devlearn. Many of the speakers there brought the same points up: elearning courses need to be more than just page-turning PowerPoint presentations, and an instructional designer’s toolbox needs to include more than just courses.

Yet when I look at what the companies developing our tools, all I see are tools that make prettier info dumps with loads of text on a page with next buttons. Somehow an avatar looking you in the eye lessens the blow?

So why the dissonance? Why do the leaders in our field preach change and innovation, while the developers we depend on try to sell us on pre-built characters and “programming-free” development? Why are they trying to force us down the well-worn path that we know isn’t good enough?

Probably because that’s what we’re asking for.

A lot of times, when I’ve shown people my work, they’ve remarked “Oh, I could never do anything like that because I’m not an x.” X being a graphic designer, a voice actor, a sound editor, a programmer, a game designer, a creative writer, a whatever. The truth is I’ve never been any of these things either (unless you count my brief, illustrious career designing yellow page ads and junk mail). More often than not, I decided I wanted to do something, then I messed around with stuff until I got what I wanted.

I think the reason companies give us these kinds of tools is they understand that many of us are stuck in a fixed mindset, where we have simply accepted who we are and believe there’s very little we can do to change it.

I’m too busy, I don’t have time to be creative! Just let me crank out the same thing I’ve been cranking out for the past dozen years!

To be fair, I don’t blame people for saying this. Large organizations and profit-seeking enterprises tend to not care for messing around and playing with new stuff. You gotta hit your numbers and pump out those widgets under budget, etc.

Let’s consider some of the ideas that came out of Daniel Coyle’s keynote at Learning Solutions. Instead of treating instructional design like a job (where we do what we’re told and go home at the end of the day), let’s think about it like a craft where we continually strive to make more awesome stuff. We don’t need an elearning tool making all the decisions for us and holding our hand through the process. Let’s do something new, even if it means doing something unconnected with your 9 to 5, and even if it means doing something terrible once in a while. Let’s not hate on beginners and people experimenting outside their comfort zone. Let’s screw up without fear.