Enough With Being Selfish

Ethan Edwards of Allen Interactions recently wrote “Improving Your e-Learning Design: What\’s Good Advice?“. I agree with much of what Ethan writes, especially regarding the recent onslaught of gimmicky articles pushing Clicky Clicky Bling Bling to improve elearning.

Here are my thoughts on some key quotes from his article:

“We have switched the focus to something that helps us feel good about ourselves, forgetting that we don\’t really matter all that much—it\’s what new skills the learner walks away with that matter.”

The wild success of rapid elearning tools is all the proof you need. We’re lazy. We’re so far removed from good instructional design that we don’t even remember what it looked like. When we moved from true instruction into more presentation design and information mapping with the first PowerPoint-to-Flash tools, there was still some value in the knowledge transfer. But now we’ve all gone nuts and are causing more harm (and frustration) than good. How many of you would rather just read a three-page PDF than take a modern elearning course? I know I would.

Enough with being selfish. It’s not about you. Let’s stop with the “how to fly your bullet points from off the screen into an avatar dog’s mouth” bullshit animations and get back to the real reason we’re here – helping people learn.

“But the point is, we didn\’t start out with a layout looking for a place to apply it; rather we identified the requirements of a particular interaction and then applied this visual approach because it satisfied those demands better than the alternatives.”

Using a template to develop elearning is a cop-out. It’s weak. Don’t do it. And don’t blame PowerPoint or the rapid tool vendors (though they don’t get a free pass here, either). Blame yourself. Blame me. Blame leadership if you want. Truth is, we’re all to blame for letting this happen. We’re also to blame for letting it become the standard. We’ve all had our marching orders from the top. I get that. But I don’t think we’ve put up enough of a fight.

At least we can do something about it.

“Tools that don\’t support variables in some way and tools that restrict the graphical elements and placement of responses in the interactions are unlikely to be successful tools in the long run.”

Authorware and Flash were the two tools I learned when I started designing and developing elearning. One of the reasons they were so successful and so effective was variables. Now that tools like Storyline are making variables easier, there’s some hope for the accidental instructional designers. But the more traditional IDs, those of us who fell into the rapid trap and let ourselves be limited by the first generation of rapid development tools, we need to get our mojo back and push these new tools to their limits, and demand even more from the vendors.

Because they’re worth it. The learners, I mean.

mLearnCon 2012 Report

In June, I attended, and presented at, mLearnCon 2012, a mobile learning conference put on by The eLearning Guild. There are plenty of posts that cover sessions and keynotes. You can find them all on David Kelly’s great website.

I’m going to focus this post on what the week meant to me.

Mobile First

I recently attended the Penn State Web Conference, which had a heavy focus on accessibility and mobile design. My takeaway from that conference was a shift in my thinking and design from mobile-accessible or mobile-friendly to mobile-first. mLearnCon cemented this shift.

It will be a long time before most organizations move to a mobile-first strategy, but I want to support the people inside. The ones who want to learn. The ones who want to improve. The ones who matter. They’re bringing their own devices to work and I want them to have more access to more relevant information so they can learn and perform.

Rick Zanotti recently posted that “mLearning May Ultimately Be Irrelevant”. I respectfully disagree. Some of the hype may be around rapid tools for conversion, and many people believe every “course” must be available on a phone or tablet. I believe the real hype is the anticipation and excitement around the possibilities; around the idea that we can learn and teach anywhere, on any device, from and to anyone.

Sure, many will dismiss this notion. But the numbers don’t lie. More people than ever are accessing the web from mobile devices instead of traditional computers. A large number of people are ONLY accessing the web from mobile devices. What was the future is now becoming reality. The devices have improved, and access to devices has improved. Because of this, mobile is, and should be, the new default.

Now, mLearning isn’t new. It’s been around a while. Consider what’s been done in Africa with feature phones and SMS. Don’t limit your thinking of mLearning to smart phones or tablets. Think about your audience, what devices they’re using, and how you can create valuable learning experiences on those devices.

So, mobile first. How many people do you know who bring their personal devices to work? I bring my personal iPhone an iPad to work all the time. My company designs training primarily for the desktop. I take the required courses, but I’m not interested in the rest of the content my company is developing and pushing out. I care about what all of you are creating. I have more access than ever before to smart people and their creations. I’m usually not accessing that content from my work computer. I’m accessing it from my personal devices.

As for the organizations, they better wake up and pay a little more attention to their people. And I’m not talking about silly workplace surveys. I’m talking about finding top performers and working with them to find out how and what they are learning, and what support they need and want from the organization. This is a win-win situation, because employees are getting what they need, and the organization is finding out how and what its top performers learned. How valuable is that?

Tin Can API

The big announcement at the conference was Project Tin Can, which Judy and I spoke about with Aaron Silvers on The ToolBar a few weeks ago.

“The Tin Can API is a brand new learning technology specification that opens up an entire world of experiences (online and offline).” [Read More].

In other words, Tin Can is plumbing. What I learned at mLearnCon was how Tin Can enables two-way communication. Never before have we had the ability to track and log so much activity, and, at the same time, retrieve that activity as data. This is all I really care about. I want data. I want to know what people are accessing; how they are accessing it; what they’re doing while they’re accessing it; what they do before and after; and whether or not the learning activity affected performance.

Tin Can enables this kind of retrievable data, if, and that’s a big IF, the tools and systems are built on top of it and are able to communicate. I’m not a Tin Can expert. I’m not a developer. I’m not sure it will be successful. But, I do know it’s one of the few things I’ve been excited about in this field in years. So, go learn about it. Get involved. Build something that takes advantage of the technology. It’s not perfect. It’s not the thing. But it could enable you to build that thing.

The Future

Finally, last week was about people. People who genuinely want to change the world and make it a better place. Brilliant people who build things that help other people. Think about that for a minute. These are some of the brightest people, not only in our field, but in the world. And they’re using that brilliance to help people. That’s pretty bad ass. You should appreciate them, learn from them, and help them.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what the next six months bring. I want to work with smart people to make change happen, to help people, and make things that matter.

Chad Lockhart asked me the other night, what did the word “future” mean to me. I responded, “the future is the unknown; it’s opportunity.” I look forward to opportunity. Like my friend Patrick Scullin, I’m excited about the unknown.

Thanks to the Guild, the brilliant folks at Problem Solutions and Rustici, all the presenters and early adopters of Tin Can. I’m really freaking excited about the future, which, apparently, is already here. Take advantage.

ASTD Houston Tech Conference

I wrapped up a crazy June on Friday with a presentation at the ASTD Houston Technology Conference. I enjoyed having a discussion about usability and accessibility with about 30 training folks, centered around my Remember The User presentation:

While it was rewarding to learn I opened some eyes to simple things like user testing and color blindness, it was a fair — and sad — representation of the state of the learning field that no one in the room was doing any true user testing or knew much about their audience(s). We’re a rapid-course-building industry, unfortunately, but I’m continuing to raise awareness, and there’s hope.

I spoke with a few folks after the session that seemed genuinely interested in their learners’ experiences. I hope to continue those discussions, and I encourage others to get in touch with me to discuss what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and what successes or failures they’ve encountered.

I was also encouraged by a presentation on social learning that, admittedly, I had very low expectations for. But it was not a sales pitch, nor was it just about jumping on the social bandwagon. This presentation was more about how humans learn socially, and how we can and should not only encourage, but leverage that inside organizations. Kudos to Chip Wilson for a dynamic after-lunch presentation.

I’m looking forward to a relatively quiet rest of the summer, as far as travel and conferences go. I’m ready to start building and improving things. I’m also looking forward to writing and publishing more.

Penn State Web Conference

I had a wonderful opportunity a few weeks ago. I spoke at the Penn State Web Conference. I had no idea how much fun I would have, and how much I would learn. The planning committee put together a great program that exceeded my expectations.


The highlights of the conference for me were the two keynotes. Luke W (@lukew) and Ethan Marcotte (@beep) are web design icons, and they both had great presentations on Mobile First and Responsive Web Design, respectively.

Luke’s keynote, in particular, had an immediate impact. I knew things were trending to mobile, but I had never given much consideration to mobile-first design except in specific instances. Luke completely changed my mind. He backed up his case with remarkable statistics about how people are accessing the web. I’ll never design anything again without giving hard consideration to mobile first.

Ethan’s presentation had a personal touch, which I thought was a nice change. I’ve been a fan of responsive design for a while, but seeing what Ethan (and crew) did with the Boston Globe redesign was enlightening. The amount of effort and thought that went into this redesign is awesome, and the user experience is much improved for it.


I had the opportunity to co-present with two colleagues and friends, Stevie Rocco (@stevier) and Reuben Tozman (@reubentozman). On day one, Reuben and I spoke about Intelligent Content (presentation). On day two, Stevie and I spoke about Copyright and Creative Commons.

The Lighter Side

As with any conference, I not only go to learn, but to network and, hopefully, have an experience. This trip didn’t let me down. I flew into Pittsburgh (my first visit to the Steel City) and attended a Pirates game with Kris Rockwell. I also paid a quick visit to the Hybrid Learning offices. What a cool place to work! I also had the pleasure of meeting Ron de las Alas for the first time in person.

During the conference, the reception was a blast, mainly due to Velveeta, a “cheesy 80s” cover band. These guys rocked. I only hope they bring them out for more than two hours next year. Emily hopes they learn how to play some Warrant.

Finally, on the return trip to Pittsburgh, I had time to meet Kris for lunch, and we went to the Church Brew Works. I have never seen anything like it. Incredible. I hope I get to return soon and try the pierogi pizza.

Thanks to Kris for the Pittsburgh hospitality, and Stevie and Robin and crew for the State College hospitality. You all helped make it a great experience.

Check it out

If you create anything online, you should check out this conference next year. They’re making an effort to make it less about EduWeb and more about the modern web. I enjoyed myself, and learned a lot in the process.