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The E-Learning Pie

Why do so many different skills get lumped under one basic job title? It really speaks to the complexity of the discipline that is online learning in the corporate world. To dive more deeply into this, let’s talk about pie. E-learning pie, that is.

While preparing for our “New Skills for Instructional Designers” session, Ellen Wagner turned me on to her schema for the e-learning profession. She said that well-rounded e-learning professionals need to be versant in some very different areas if they’re going to be successful in this business. There are four slices in a big pie, with each piece representing a critical part of the profession—learning, creativity, technology, and business.

Learning. The first piece is all about learning and pedagogy or andragogy—how we learn and how we assess whether or not people have learned. It’s about adult learning theory, instructional design, learning objectives, and behavioral and performance change. These are the teachers, instructional designers, and people who get very excited about assessments. They think about how to help people learn better, and they want to understand how humans think, act, and behave.

Creativity. Next is the creative slice. These are the writers, graphic artists, video producers, film directors, and game designers (although game designers could also fit into the learning section). These people make beautiful e-learning material that pulls you in. They tell compelling stories that make people want to stick around and learn. The truth is, without creative talent in e-learning, we might just end up with lists of really boring learning objectives.

Technology. The third piece is technology. Electronic media is what put the “e” in e-learning after all. Where would we be without the programmers, developers, builders, authoring tool users, LMS creators, and people who know about SCORM and data analytics? Technology pulls it all together, and without it, well, it’s not technology-based learning, is it? Not all designers are technicians, but you need to know what you’re working with and how far you can take it. You at least need to speak the language, understand the terms, and know when you’re in over your head and need to contact an expert.

Business. Whether you’re in academia or on the corporate side of the industry, there’salways the business piece of the pie to consider. This is where you need to understand business needs, strategic goals and vision, consultancy, return-on-investment and measurement, project management, and client management. Understanding the business piece ensures that you’re delivering a commercially sound project that meets your business needs, is on time, and on budget.

The whole pie

Ever felt a little schizophrenic as an instructional designer? Now you know why. These four slices of pie represent different skill sets and interests. However, each one is integral to a successful e-learning initiative; failure to focus on one of these pieces may cause your program to fall flat.

The e-learning pie in practice

I feel pretty lucky that my e-learning career has always been on the supplier side of the business, working for companies that design and develop e-learning for other companies. Because we’re the experts, we have dedicated people who focus on what they’re uniquely good at—graphic artists who design beautiful layouts; instructional designers who do needs analysis and define learning objectives; salespeople and account managers who map it all back to the organization’s business needs; writers who pull off the perfect scripts; project managers who make it all run like clockwork—on time and on budget; developers who know the tools, speak the SCORM,and take care of the things that make me want to stick my fingers in my ears and sing “lalala.”

Those of you who work as a one-person e-learning shop, either on your own as a freelancer or within an organization, have a bit of a challenge—somehow you need to represent all of these pie slices. If you can do that all really well, you’re some kind of superhero. If not, then you may be falling flat in some way or you’re getting help from outside your organization to fill in your gaps.

The truth is, a lot of e-learning projects just represent a few parts of the pie. Have you ever seen an e-learning program that’s full of learning and technology, but nothing else? It’s instructionally sound and filled with learning objectives that begin with all the proper verbs. It makes great use of technology that brilliantly passes seat time and final test results back to the learning management system. But, man, oh, man is it boring. And so the initiative fails because it’s missing the creative touch and a clear connection back to business objectives.

Some projects might just showcase the creative and technology pieces of the pie and try to pass it off as e-learning—but then it’s something else entirely. Some might call it pure entertainment.

The most successful e-learning initiatives pull all these pieces together. They have a clear vision of what the audience needs to learn and how to best achieve that outcome; a creative design that looks enticing, creates interest,and sustains attention; the right technology that stands up to the delivery needs; and a solid connection back to the overall goals and objectives of the organization.

But that kind of project is typically the work of a well-balanced team. Because, frankly, that’s a lot of hats for one person to wear.

Note: This article is excerpted from The Accidental Instructional Designer by Cammy Bean.

© 2014 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Cammy Bean is the VP of Learning Design for Kineo, a global organization specializing in elearning solutions. Cammy Bean has worked as an eLearning instructional designer since the mid-90's (way back in the olden days, before we even called it e-learning!) In addition to the occasional novel, she likes to read books on instructional design and learning theory.

Mom to three kids, five fish, and one lizard, Cammy lives in Massachusetts. You can contact her on Twitter @cammybean or through her blog Learning Visions
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