Penny’s Thoughts Category

Friday, June 17th, 2011

Dream eLearning: No Constraints

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Earlier this week I received an inquiry about eLearning design.  This gentleman said he was interested in how I would convert his paper-based training to online training, without the constraints of any particular application.  Hmmm…. 

I thought about hanging up on this obvious crank caller.  “Everything is constrained”, I thought!  Then I remembered a video that hit the training circuit many years ago.  It documented the process used by Ideo in the design of a new style of shopping cart for stores such as Whole Foods.  Constraints were not part of that process; quite the opposite.  (Like just about everyone else who has watched that video, I think this would be the coolest place in the world to work). 

So…what would be my no-holds-barred, dream design for eLearning?  If I were approached by someone who asked me what I wanted, I would say: 

  • Interaction in meaningful ways.  I like to write, but not everyone does.  I like to joke around and get to know people, but some people can do that only in person.  I’d like to be able to communicate with them in some way that worked for all of us, even if we were continents apart. 
  • Memorable lessons.  I learn best by experience and when the topic is of interest to me.  I can remember a first-grade lesson in how to use serial commas.  The exercise used Santa’s reindeer.  What child could forget that?  Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen…  If the exercise had been about fruit – apples, pears, and bananas – I would not have been nearly as interested in getting it right. 
  • Field trips.  I like to go places and see things.  I like to put learning into context.  In grade school, we took a trip to Sturbridge Village to learn about silversmithing (among other things). There is nothing quite as convincing as seeing a silver spoon come out of a mold with only a drop of silver going in.  That lesson was so much more effective than a formula depicting the yield of pure silver. 
  • Variety.  Another lesson I remember is from ninth-grade science class.  We went outside during the afternoon – when the schoolyard was empty – to measure relative humidity.  We could have performed an experiment inside, but we did that all the time.  The mere act of walking through the quiet hallways and out those forbidden doors made the experiment memorable. 
  • Blood flow.  I know that most learning takes place between the synapses.  But my brain doesn’t fire very well if my feet and butt are still.  I like to get up, walk around, ponder, dream…

How can eLearning do all these things?

Well, it can’t completely.  At least not with old paradigms.  But it can do all those things in a new way… 

  • Every course should have multiple methods of sharing, so that every student has a chance to communicate in his own way. Include forums, chats, and if you’re using Moodle, the blocks for “online users” and “participants”; enable messaging.
  • Lessons should use examples that are meaningful to the audience.  A colleague of mine mentored young girls who saw little value in learning about math. Their interest was piqued, however, when they realized that math would enable them to get the most from their shopping dollars.  Which was a better deal: A sale offering one third off the price of one pair or a 2-for-1 special?
  • Field trips can be virtual or not.  I try to build my Moodle courses with “field trips for the mind” by including links to relevant external sites.  Whenever possible, build in actual field trips.  For a class in biology, create an assignment that takes students to a nearby lake or river, have them gather plants, take pictures or videos, and post them as their assignments along with whatever written information you’d like them to include.
  • Mix it up with videos, games, flash, and reading materials.  Add a Prezi or two. Pop in some fun quizzes or puzzles along the way.  Engage a guest speaker (live or on-demand) for some of the lessons.
  • Break up the lessons into smaller chunks so that students can get up without leaving in the middle of a topic.  At the end of each section, have a note pop up that says “time to take a break”.  This is a good place to work in your field trips (the actual kind). 

Once you’ve designed these elements into your training, find the software and experts to create them.  Don’t start with software and force your design to its abilities.  For authoring tools and ideas for using various features in your eLearning courses, check out these earlier posts: 

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Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Form or Function: What do people really want in eLearning?

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I’ve long envied those women (mostly fictional) who float effortlessly amongst their dinner guests, all of whom are sipping drinks, laughing, and having the perfect time.  Perhaps it’s just the way these things are displayed on TV and in food magazines, but it seems as though the mix of guests, the quality of the food and the comfort of the seating matter more than the exact shade of the flowers or whether the tea cups match. 

Could it be that what makes a good party also makes a good learning experience? 

As I look back on the best class I ever took, and several others that I really enjoyed (despite being in subjects such as thermodynamics), I can see several analogies between the perfect class and the perfect dinner party: 

  • The host (teacher) really likes her guests (students)
  • The host really likes giving dinner parties (teaching)
  • She trusts her guests to choose their own seating and food (view the content in a manner the student finds conducive to learning)
  • She trusts her guests not to break or steal anything (make the course interesting and students will be more likely to do their assignments than cheat)
  • She cares more about the food (function) than the flower arrangements (form)
  • Her # 1 priority is making sure her guests have a good time (learn something); nice place settings (lots of whiz-bang stuff) is nice if it doesn’t get in the way of having a good time. 

When you’re designing your e-Learning – whether it’s for adults in business training or kids in school – ask yourself what type of host (teacher) you’d rather be.  Do you want to be Ina Garten or the one who serves the salmon mousse?

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Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Greening your business with eLearning

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Green Your Business with eLearningOne of my lifelong passions has been the sustainability of the planet.  Yes, LIFELONG, and I was born in 1959!  My parents subscribed to the Rodale Press publication Organic Gardening when I was a toddler.  We read food labels in the 1960s, we grew most of our own food (vegetable and animal); none of it had systemic pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides, antibiotics, growth hormones, or artificial coloring.  (The one exception to this was the small jar of Maraschino cherries my mother let me hide at the back of a shelf in the pantry.  So far, I have no apparent side effects from the Red Dye #40.)  There was quite a long period of time where the dirtiest four-letter word I knew was S-A-L-T.

Luckily, I grew up in a very small and rural town, where everyone was odd and there was no “normal” to be compared against.  Sure, we may have been the only family around that didn’t eat Hamburger Helper or Cool Whip, but there weren’t enough of those who did to poke fun of us.  We intentionally composted our kitchen scraps, but I imagine a lot of folks threw their garbage out in the back field for the sake of convenience.  Maybe they knew way back then that landfills would become a problem…

I’ve walked the fine line between re-using and hoarding my whole life.  My mother and I still do battle over just how many cardboard boxes she should keep on hand.  She can’t stand to throw out perfectly good cardboard!  (She doesn’t actually throw it away; she burns it in the furnace that heats her house each winter).  About two years ago, we had an epiphany about our 50 years of reduce-reuse-recycle behavior:  We’re almost  mainstream! In fact, we’re cutting edge “cool”.  (Thanks to another Rodale Press publication, An Inconvenient Truth.)  We already have reusable grocery bags (for about 20 years now), we already turn off the lights (obsessively), we could go for days and weeks without driving, and we delight in catching rain water to save for a drier day.

The one thing I have done for the environment that Mom hasn’t had a chance to do is what I get more and more excited about each day: e-Learning.  In 2005 I began promoting it as “Green Learning”.  I was met with vacuous stares from my friends and colleagues.  In 2007 I created this super cool eWheel; it represents the footprint (mostly carbon) savings of eLearning over the corporate training I did for 20 years.  Now, I’m developing a website dedicated to this very topic.  It will show how I derived the values, what I learned in the process, and things that you might want to consider when implementing “green” training and travel policies for your businesses.

eLearning is not a way to reduce personal interaction or teach on the cheap.  It’s about making the world a better, cleaner, and more knowledgeable place for everyone to live.  Come on, jump on the bandwagon with me!

Earth Day 2011 update: My site dedicated to Green Training is LeaveALegacyNotAFootprint is up and running, if not totally complete.  Currently, there are several WordPress plugins dedicated to sustainable living and business practices, links to sites that will help you with your own business, and steps for calculating your own footprint.  Check it out!

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Monday, June 7th, 2010

As it turns out, you can have too many tarps.

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Last month, my husband and I took our two (very large) dogs camping.  Not just camping, but tent camping on the beach in the Florida Keys.  I had no idea what to expect (other than the obvious mosquitoes, no-see-ums, sand, intense humidity, and blistering heat).  I carefully planned for months what to take.  Living in a hurricane zone, we have plenty of emergency supplies that would be good for camping – such as tarps.  At the last minute, I tossed a pile of tarps in the car, saying “you can’t have too many tarps”.

When we broke camp, it was pouring rain.  It was one of those Florida spring rains that are accompanied by gusting wind and lightning.  Needless to say, we didn’t pack the car as tightly as we did at the beginning of our journey, so things weren’t fitting as nicely as they had.  Plus, they were wet and covered with sand.  As it turns out, a pile of tarps takes up a lot of space!

Even though one tarp is highly valuable if you need emergency shelter from rain, several tarps have diminishing returns.  At some point, they become a liability rather than an asset.

As always, I see analogies between life and learning and on the long (rainy) ride home, I got to thinking about how information is like a tarp.  And how too much stuff – in training – can become a liability, just like too many tarps.  Just like with camping, too much stuff can detract from the experience.  So this brings us full circle (at least the way my mind works) to earlier posts:

  • Who is our audience and what do they want out of this experience?  The camping audience was two people and two dogs.  What we wanted was to relax and spend time together.  We did get plenty of the latter… In an eLearning course, the audience most likely wants to learn something.  They don’t want to be subjected to overload.  One tarp is good; five is too many.
  • Why are we doing this?  What do we want to get out of it?  If we’re planning a camping trip or an eLearning curriculum, our goals are similar:  we want the campers – or the students – to have a positive experience worth remembering.
  • What can we reasonably accomplish without undo risk or hardship?  What are our constraints?  Is it possible to have a really fun camping trip with just one tarp as a back-up?  Yes.  Is it possible to deliver a really great eLearning course without including every imaginable detail, idea, point of view, or feature?  Yes.

If you need help in deciding how many tarps to bring or how to design your eLearning so that it is a good balance of features and content for your situation, hire a course designer.  It will be worth it when you’re standing in the rain, wondering how you’re going to fit it all in.

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Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Protecting your eLearning content – Is this something to worry about?

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I get a lot of questions about how to keep eLearning content safe from being copied, stolen, and/or plagiarized. My response is always “the only way to stop people from using your ideas is to keep them to yourself“. Both copyright and patent laws protect the owners of ideas, concepts, and designs from being copied outright in their original format. But you can’t stop someone from taking your ideas and making them better or combining them with the ideas of others for yet another way to look at things. Having others build on your ideas (and even copy some of them) is a true measure of how good your ideas really are.

Let’s be honest, how many of us have created some new process, program, or graphical layout that is totally from scratch? I haven’t. Everything I have ever taught, written, and/or created is a compilation of what I read in text books, what my teachers taught me, and what I’ve seen and otherwise experienced. What makes my training, coaching, and consulting valuable is ME. My training content is really an example of my skill as a teacher and subject matter expert. Yours should be, too.

Ask yourself:

  • Can anyone else do a better job teaching my content than I can?
  • Have I been able to capture everything I know on paper? Is that all there is to it?
  • Of all the text books, magazine articles, online copy, examples, etc., that I’ve ever written, read, or taught, how much of it was “stolen”? Isn’t it true that almost everything is built upon something else?

Throughout my 25 year consulting career, I watched in amazement as my training material – and that of my mentors and colleagues – showed up in the “work of others”, sometimes as part of very large training programs. Plagiarism is one thing; it’s illegal and unethical, but it’s hard to stop. When I was less wise than I am today, I was enraged by this. Then I realized that even though my chart might be in someone else’s course content, I was still the one getting the rave teacher reviews. “They were coming to see ME”.

The only thing you can do is to stay ahead of those who would steal your content to sell it as their own. While they’re peddling last month’s idea, you’re launching this month’s better idea. And you’re doing it better because you’re the one who can teach it best.

If you’re concerned about one person printing off your eLearning content and giving it to everyone else – thus cutting into your revenues, this can be easily prevented by making your online version worth spending the money on and harder than blazes to copy. Make people want the original recording…not a scratchy copy with background noise (metaphorically speaking). (Click here to read my previous post on what makes eLearning GREAT).

If you have the best jelly recipe on the planet, give away peanut butter to entice people to buy the jelly. Even better, give away the jelly recipe to prove that the real secret is the way it’s made! If you are a wonderful teacher with an effective way of teaching, let everyone know how good you are; let them know this content is yours and that if they want to learn more, they’ll have to come to YOU. Let others try to copy it! Michael Port gives away a book chapter to show people how good the book is. Williams-Sonoma gives away recipes (both in stores and online) to show how much they know about cooking (and to get you to buy the equipment). In The Martha Rules, Ms. Stewart tells readers to “Profit by giving information away”. These people are onto something…

If you want to teach something or you want to sell your ideas, you have to be willing to accept that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. [Charles Caleb Colton] However, no one is as good as the original – YOU. Spend your time, energy, and money making your content great and leave the worrying about theft to diamond dealers and fine art museums.

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Friday, March 26th, 2010

The trouble with eLearning is…

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This is how my husband began a sentence the other night when I was telling him about this cats-pyjamas post.  Being someone who will avoid getting in the car, driving, parking, and anything to do with crowds or standing in line, I totally get the “imposition” part.  So when I heard “the trouble with eLearning is…” I couldn’t believe my ears.

He had begun with “elearning will catch on some day and is the future and yadiya…” but that “the trouble with elearning is taking the time to actually work through it”.  He went on to say that he had downloaded some Harvard physics lectures (just videos, not even eLearning!) from iTunes and hadn’t viewed them, either. 

 “Well…”, I positioned my response.  “The trouble is you”.  OK, I should’ve said “the trouble is life”, but…he’s used to hearing that it’s his fault so he didn’t even notice. While eLearning can be a stand-alone, work at your own pace physics lecture, it can also be a highly interactive experience with students and teachers in a virtual “campus” setting.  It can be anything in between. 

I pointed out that I had just read a book, Words Fail Me, that I had ordered from Amazon six years ago.  Along with others in that same delivery, that book had sat on the shelf, untouched, all that time.  Just like his physics lectures.  Just like the eLearning courses I’ve enrolled people in who said they wanted to learn about the topic; but they never logged in.  This is not “the trouble with eLearning”.  This is the trouble with life getting in the way of learning.

If I had been taking a campus course in writing, if Words Fail Me had been required reading in that course, and if I had to stand up in front of the class and recite my thoughts on chapter 13, I would’ve read it sooner.  The same is true if I’d been taking an eLearning course in writing and had an assignment due next week.  I would’ve read at least chapter 13!  If I had seen in the help forum that another student was having trouble with misplaced modifiers, I would’ve replied, referencing the appropriate section in the book.  The difference is that in the eLearning course, I would have had time to read the book because I wouldn’t have to drive, find a parking space, find a seat…and my fellow students might be from far away places, enriching my experience even further.

 No, the trouble with eLearning is not

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Friday, March 19th, 2010

Social Media isn’t new; it’s just faster.

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I’ve been thinking…

Before there was Facebook, there was The Family Letter

My grandmother had nine children. They grew up, got married, and gave her 36 grandchildren. Great-grandchildren arrived before the grandkids stopping arriving. Most of those great-grandchildren had two parents, one belonging to Grandma’s offspring and one joining the family by marriage. By the mid-1960’s, there was quite a large group to keep track of. Born of necessity was The Family Letter.

There was a process to The Letter: Write a note; essentially “What’s Happening”. (It could be more than 140 characters, though). If there were any good pictures, say of Christmas or the spring school pics of the kids, put them in the envelope with the note. If the pictures were intended to be kept by the recipients, add the name of the recipient to the names of the people in the picture and the date it was taken. If my mother wanted my picture to go to each of her siblings, she would include eight photos.

For 20 years, The Letter circulated the US, each person adding his/her own note, newspaper clippings, and photos and removing the note written (two months ago) by the next person in line. It was OK that it took two months for The Letter to complete the circuit because the objective was to “keep in touch”. Imagine what our family’s Facebook site would’ve looked like if we’d had that as an option!

Twitter has nothing on The Echo when it comes to “minutia”

David Letterman has been talking about Twitter all this week. He sent his first tweet and one of his guests has over a million followers. He asked her to confirm that tweets were “just minutia”. While many tweets are “just minutia”, Twitter is also connecting us with others who are professionally or personally involved in things we’re also interested in. As more and more of us work from home and have less opportunity to meet and greet potential colleagues, mentors, and experts, Twitter has proven itself a highly effective tool.

As for that claim of “minutia”…Twitter didn’t invent it. My hometown paper, The Echo, had a social section like most newspapers. For 40 years I’ve gotten a chuckle out of this entry: “Anna and Mabel Smith spent Sunday with their sister in Castleton, where they enjoyed coffee and homemade crumb cake”.  I remember asking my mother “who cares about this stuff?” She replied that she certainly did not…but clearly someone did.  Not only did Anna and Mabel care enough about it to share with all of us, but our weekend visitors from New York City loved that part of the paper. If Anna and Mabel were still with us they would be tweeting with a vengeance!

Social media has enabled us to do what we would’ve done otherwise, but faster and with greater purpose.

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