Tuesday, March 31, 2015

What Did You Learn Today?

I occasionally participate in the weekly #lrnchat and this is how the moderators open the chat. This deceptively simple question is perhaps the most challenging question to answer. It is a question that makes me think and forces me to reflect on the day. 
It has taken me some time but this question has now become a habit and is an important aspect of my daily reflection ritual. It is a way of figuring out how the previous day went for me and whether any of the activities I did and the interactions I had with people made it to my 'learned' list. I also use this question as a way to filter the most and the least effective activities in my previous day and prioritize my energy for the current day. 

When you start asking this question to yourself, initially, you may only be able to list the big learning moments. For example, conscious learning activities like learning a new software, reading an article and learning some new fact about wines, or learning how to fix a toaster might make it to your list. Gradually, you will be able to see many smaller learning events that surround you and are a part of your daily activities at work and at home. Some of these events may be unplanned and almost seem accidental. They may not be very obvious but are extremely useful. For example, troubleshooting some issue with your laptop or having an interaction with a co-worker only to find out that they know how to fix that exact problem in your laptop! After I started asking myself this question consciously, I was quite surprised at the kind of learning experiences I went through in a single day. I would say that there are as many opportunities to learn as the number of minutes you are awake! 

But knowing what you learned today is not enough. The idea is to be able to reflect on the learning process and identify what made you learn or why did you learn, how did you learn, what helped you learn, and how you can apply the learning in the future. We all are continuously learning in one way or another. But the difference between people who are more effective at what they do is that they utilize reflective practices to identify their learning and know how to apply and implement the learning in other situations. 

As a learning designer, I can't overemphasize the importance of reflection when designing adult learning (more about my tips on designing reflective practices in a learning intervention in another blog post). On a personal level, I have often used this question with my daughter to hear more about what she learned at school. I have noticed a big difference in her responses when I ask 'How was school today?' versus 'What did you learn today?'. I have tried this experiment several times and have received qualitatively different responses for these two questions. The answer to the 'how' question mostly ends up in monosyllables - good, ok, usual, etc. Then, I have to ask several probing questions to get some information. The 'what' question always brings forth interesting details about what she did in class and what she really learned. Give it a try. 

Final thoughts: you need not be taught for you to learn and not all teaching leads to learning! So, what did you learn today?

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Instructional Problem: What would I do in this situation?

In my twitter feed, I saw a question for the #lrnchat community. The question was 'What would you do in this situation?  To read about the situation, click here.
From the post on Quora, here is a summary of the situation:
-Problematic course that needs to be fixed
-11 modules each of around 40-60 slides
-All of the imagery is inappropriate
-All the interactions are meaningless
-Source materials from the SME are extremely vague and rambling
-Learning objectives are all poorly defined
-Course took 12 months to create with an ID working full time
-Extreme time-pressure to fix the course with very limited budgets

This problem is as real as it gets. It is not a unique, course-specific, client-specific, SME-specific, ID-specific issue. Infact, this situation correctly defines the problem being faced by many reflective instructional designers, educated clients and smart learners. 

I don’t know the complete situation and by no means do I claim to be the expert here. However, this question did make me think. 
So, here are some of things that I would do in such a situation:
  • Analyse: Spend some time doing analysis before jumping into 'fixing' the course. Reconfirm the need for the course, why it is important, how it will be used, who will use it, etc. Be sure that the 'course' is the right way to close the learning gap. If not, step away from the job and don't create the course or fix the existing course.
  • Talk to learners: Talk to the learners to identify how the course is relevant to them and how they plan to use the information from the course. Be sure to understand the learning context.
  • Focus on the vital: Use the 80/20 Pareto principle and identify the vital few, the most critical learning objectives. Draft these learning objectives. These will be the 20% that make the most difference and are directly tied into 80% of the real-world performance tasks.
  • Focus on what learners need to do: Use the 20% objectives to focus on what the learners need to 'do' and using that filter, remove what learners need to 'know' or things that are 'nice to know'.
  • Revise content and media: For this 20% course content (which is now roughly down to 2 modules), revise the existing content or rewrite new content, if required. Create suitable media as required. Relevant content is the best way to ensure interactivity and engagement.
  • Think outside the PPT: Remind yourself that using PPT slides is not the only way to deliver the training. Think about other interactive and engaging methods to deliver the training with not too much content writing yet ensuring maximum impact. For example, leverage SME time to build scenarios or role-plays that can be used during the course so that learners get to practice their new skills and receive feedback from experts.
  • Use blended learning: Work with the client to build sessions by guest speakers or experts within the organization who can share stories or anecdotes related to the content area and how it is applied on-the-job. Make the course 'blended' so that learners can engage with both the content and the delivery media.
  • Make learners pull content: Create a course where the learners can 'pull' more content when they need it. Don't write everything they should read or they should know. Create a framework for learning and support it by providing references, additional reading material, books, videos, etc. If they have a question, learners should know where to go or whom to speak to.
So, that’s what I would like to do in such a situation. I do realize that projects and clients don't always go the way we would like to. However, as long as we are committed to designing and developing the best learning for our learners, we know that we are doing our bit to solve the problem. 

For some great advice on what makes quality instruction and valuable learning experiences, visit Serious eLearning Manifesto. If you agree, show your support!

Friday, January 30, 2015

The 'Perfect' Subject Matter Expert (SME) - Myth or Reality?

The term, 'Subject Matter Experts' or SMEs typically brings to our mind the faces of 'content experts' that have contributed their expertise to our instructional design projects. Along with these faces, some of us are reminded of the challenges and frustrations that we have felt along the way. But is there a Perfect SME or is it an illusion? Is the perfect SME a mythical character from far, far away or can we find one on this planet? Is it a myth or a reality

Well, the 'perfect SME' is an illusion or an enigma just like a 'perfect instructional designer' or a 'perfect human being'. However, you can learn to partner with SMEs and make the relationship work for you and the project. But before you venture out and attempt to partner with SMEs, it is important to understand three things. These may not be true in all projects but in most cases, these are valid:

1) Most SMEs are typically not deeply interested in developing the training material/manual/course or whatever else is that you are interested in developing because - it's not their job. They are not instructional designers. > Their interest and engagement varies. 

2) Most SMEs are low on time and always in demand. They would prefer to use their time and expertise in their area of chosen work. In most cases, they did not choose to work with you on the instructional design project; someone asked them to do it. > Their availability is always a challenge.

3) Some SMEs may not be 'experts' but were asked to contribute to the project. And there are many good reasons why. They might have been 'experts' in the area a few years ago and since then have moved into other areas of work or they were doing the job the longest or they were available. > Their expertise may not be at the level you expected.

Once you appreciate and truly understand these realities, it is easier to partner with SMEs. Remember the word 'partner' and not 'work with or manage'. Working on instructional design projects with other contributors including project managers, programmers, graphic artists and content SMEs is all about cooperation, communication and partnership. Infact, each of us is an SME in our area of work. If we look at a project with this lens, no one is an outsider and no contribution is less or more. Everyone is required and their expertise is valuable.

The bottom line is that no one is perfect. In a project, we all have to work with each other and learn to capitalize on the given competencies and overcome any limitations. Good work happens when we focus on both the task and the relationship.