A Plea for Some eLearning Help

A few years ago the design of eLearning seemed so obvious to me — align a systematic process, a team, and a technology platform to create courses to support resident or distance education. So much has happened in the online space the last couple of years that has shattered my thinking as it relates to the technology platform choice … I still think any project must be supported by the strategic alignment of factors (you know, something like people, process, and tools), but the notion of selecting a single eLearning design and development environment seems very difficult and confusing.

Friday, several colleagues and I spent close to two hours in our conference room talking about all of this. We were getting together to explore those three elements and discuss how we should move forward to support our new eLearning efforts. When I was the Director of the Solutions Institute we created a four-tier instructional design model that was supported by our Digital Design Document tool set that our team would use to manage the creation of eLearning. In the world of the web back then, it seemed OK to build courses that were page turners — really just textbooks on the web with a few interactive (Flash) activities thrown in. Today that just seems wrong and the team on Friday came to that conclusion. If we are going to really build a model for eLearning that we are proud of then we are going to have to think very differently about how we go about doing this. Over the last two years we’ve worked really hard to bring new tools to our campus to support digital expression — we came around to the notion that to do this right we should be promoting and leveraging those platforms in new ways.

What I struggle with is the idea of what is a really good eLearning environment these days? In my mind, a handful of pages of content that link and embed objects that drive student and faculty to engage in conversations (on or off line) seems to be the goal. With that said, why not design those content pages in a blog so students and faculty (and maybe people from the outside) can have conversations in context? Why are we still struggling with what the right eLearning tool set looks like when we are sitting in a world with dozens of content creation tools? The model we are trying to avoid consists of tons of static text pages that prompt students to leave the content and jump into a discussion forum to interact — I’ve never liked that, but now the technology supports what I am after … the opportunity for conversation at every level of a course experience.

So, at the start of our meeting we were exploring an eLearning design, development, and delivery tool … it is a powerful web-based environment, but it just didn’t seem to fit where our thinking was taking us. The group started by saying we should adopt and adapt it, but as the conversation grew we came around to a different conclusion — that what we needed was an environment to create and save the design information of the course (you know, a digital design document) and an easy way to connect content that is created in blogs, as podcasts, digital movies, or whatever else. We need a project management and communication environment that can be used to support a distributed team and a collection of content management tools to deliver the results from. This is all new thinking, but I am trying to piece together in my mind a path towards aligning the people, process, and the new set of technology tools we’ll need to get to the next level of eLearning design strategy.

I would love to hear from those of you out there who design courses and what works for you … what are the right tools and approaches? Think of a design environment that a team (with specific roles) is asked to create scalable eLearning materials … what are some examples of people ditching the all in one design/development environments to create courses that are made up of small pieces? Can we legitimately ask our faculty to work with us to select and deliver killer learning environments using the platforms we constantly talk about? Any thoughts for me?

Transparent Design

After my post over the weekend about designing learning experiences in wikis I spent some more time thinking about the whole thing. Much of it seemed to crystallize yesterday as I sat and talked with Chris and Scott over a pint. I thought I would try to capture a little of what is playing in my head at the moment about this …

Let’s start with an assumption or two as they relate to the learning design process … first of all I am assuming a team approach to design and development. That means there are people like instructional designers (maybe more than one), subject matter experts (maybe faculty), graphics and media developers, Q & A people, copyright folks, and so on. What this means is that the learning experience should be a rich media tool that enables students to gain a real appreciation for the content through appropriately designed learning activities and exceptional contextual examples. I am also assuming that a majority of the course readings, activities, and assessments happen via the web. This does not assume a distance learning model. In fact it could be a standard 15 week lecture-based course with the real difference being that the core materials have been designed specifically for the course. The course could be delivered completely at a distance, but that isn’t my bag.

OK, on to the thoughts that are driving me crazy and begging me to put a team together to investigate them. First a screen shot of the D3 interface that only the design team got to see … the output was much different and in my mind’s eye, much less engaging then the screen below.


D3: Content, Context, and Design Specifications

Again I will return to the Digital Design Document example from the other day … my wife was our Manager of Instructional Design back at the Solutions Institute and she had this crazy idea to release the entire CMS content basis as the learning environment, not just the polished html output of the course content. In other words, she wanted to let students and faculty to see not only the content, but all the instructional design and media notes that we managed along side the content in the repository. At the time I thought it was interesting, but crazy. I was always saying to the design team that great ePages consisted of content, context, and activity … we spent thousands of hours making sure as many screens in courses contained those three elements. It was obviously not always possible and now that I think back on it, exposing more of the design and the conversation that went into the design would have gotten us closer to that goal.

Now after several years and looking at how the tools have transformed the way we think about publishing, managing, and controlling content my mind has moved to the extreme notion that a course would be a hell of a lot more powerful if it were exposed from the ground up. In other words, share the original manuscript for the learning objective, expose the notes that the design team pushed back and forth from one another as they debated how best to meet the objective with the appropriate instructional strategies, show off the story boards the media team uses when creating an embeded interactive exercise, and so on. Then imagine that as a page with multiple semesters of faculty and student notes attached to it as comments. It would reveal quite a bit about what is really going on with the content. For the right fields it would make the ultimate incidental learning tool. Think of how something like that would work for an Instructional Design course … sort of like Dick & Carey for the new millennium.

I am sure this is a rambling mess, but I think that future textbooks would be well served to include not only footnotes for citations, but comments made by readers. This can happen in the online world … I am still figuring this out, but I can see a very rich learning environment emerging from this type of activity that would really alter the notion of eLearning materials. Does this make any sense? Would it be an interesting design experiment? I know I will be working to come up with a way to expose the design for a new course I am working on. Any thoughts?

eLearning Design: Methodology & Tools

I have always believed that the design process is a highly collaborative one that should integrate all team members and subject matter experts. When teams of talented people come together the outcomes are almost always stronger. I am of the philosophy that instructional designers should work very hard at being very good designers — instead of the traditional view that designers do everything. I think it is critical to place all sorts of diverse talent together and let them focus on what they do best. In this way, all team members contribute to the piece of the puzzle that they are strongest at.

When I came to the Solutions Institute I had experience designing both eLearning and commercial training applications … coming from the small company I was with in the corporate world taught me the value of methodologies to support huge project loads on tight timelines and budgets. I have also worked in higher education settings where the process followed is the “no process” model. In this sense, you are left on your own to create a course without the support of a team, a process, or a standard toolset. That doesn’t scale and it often leads to failure. Out of these experiences I have made it a priority to put process, tools, and teams first when designing instruction. This is the real reason why I have worked so hard at putting these methods and tools together.

The Methodology

In the systematic design of instruction it is critical to utilize a solid methodology. To this end, when I was brought in to start the Solutions Institute, I laid the foundation for the four-tier methodology. This customized method relies heavily on traditional ID processes, but simplifes the approach. It also takes advantage of a very collaborative tier — the Instructional Media Plot to bring all members of the team together in a series of active brainstorming sessions to collaborativly design courses. It is in this tier that I really wanted to differintiate our approach from traditional methologies.

This process relies on four phases, or tiers, and is built on a revision foundation. The tiers of this process consist of:

ID3 Process

By tying project management strategies to our methodology, I can ensure that the project will be completed on time, within scope, and on budget. Furthermore this makes it very simple to gain huge efficiencies by overlapping teams and individuals on multiple projects.

Tools and Methods Work Together

The foundations of this methodology are built on my custom design and development toolset, the D3 System. This is a distinguishing characteristic of the process; the tools support the methodology and vice versa. That is a critical piece to the overall puzzle of designing, growing, and maintaining a scalable eLearning initiative. I have always believed that typical CMS tools lack the critical pieces that make an eLearning toolset viable — content management, instructional strategy guidance, team communication, and project management. These are the components that have made D3 such a successful toolset for creating and maintaing large bodies of eLearning content.

The tools and the methodologies were implemented in tandem so they support one another throughout the courseware creation process. The tools, when separated from the methodologies are not nearly as powerful. This is not to say that the D3 toolset is not a powerful authoring environment, but rather it is the core technology that supports a team as they move through the methodology. D3 handles tasks, scheduling, and course publishing to enable a very streamlined design, development, and revision cycle.

Delivery Options

I have always been a firm believer of keeping content separate from presentation … this isn’t a new thought, it is the underlying principle behind D3. This led me to build an authoring system that let’s you manage your content that isn’t bound by any one delivery toolset. In this way, people aren’t tied to ANGEL, WebCT, BlackBoard, or any other integrated LMS. Course materials are published as stand alone objects and are integrated (or linked) into the LMS. This isn’t rocket science, but eight years ago, lots of people scratched their heads when I’d discuss it with them.

I feel as though it is just as true today — although I am really starting to wonder how it would work inside a multi-user blogging system to support collaboration. At the moment I push using the Edison Services tools we created at the Institute as the delivery toolset that binds a course together. I know I’ve posted about the concept of the syllabus as the hub to the eClassroom … it has worked well for me, but I could just as easily drop my D3 generated content into an LMS and go.

As we move towards stronger standards in the object space I think we’ll see smaller pieces more loosely joined to create classroom experiences. Things like text (html, pdf, etc) coupled with podcasts, audio books, interactive exercises, and other objects loosely pulled together by an application like Edison. At any rate the idea that you can generate your content — no matter what form its in — separate from your delivery toolset is going to be ever-increasingly important.

I’m sure at some point I’ll revisit some of this, but I just thought it was time to write down some of the ancient history of myself … more as a sign-post to let me know where I’ve been and to remind myself why I think the way I do. Let me know what you think.