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What I Know for Sure
Thursday, September 12, 2013
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In August, ISD instructor Jeanette Campos, asked me to be part of UMBC’s “eLearning Experts” interview series that she was organizing for #EDUC689, her structured course on instructional systems design for informal learning. I leapt at the opportunity—intrigued by the setup and really just curious to know what people wanted to know about what we do.

I went into the experience expecting some sort of Skype or Google Hangout-style event with a mix of recent grads and time-juggling secondary school teachers. Rather, I ended up participating in an asynchronous, moderated interview experience that used Google Moderator. (Have you used this technology yet? I hadn’t. It’s a sleeper and something Google should better publicize.)

Anyway, over the space of two weeks or so, I answered about 16 questions from a group of pharmacology educators, IT expats, history teachers, and data analysts. I even managed to ask a few questions, myself. You can read the interview here.

I learned a lot, and probably got more out of the experience than the cohort. (I’ll confess that I especially enjoyed jabbing at the idea of learning styles and hearing what the students had to say about them.)

However, maybe because of the character limits per answer, or maybe because my responses to most questions prompted (logical) follow-up questions from the class, I left the experience feeling as though I hadn’t given the class complete answers to everything they asked.

So, for the rest of this post I’m talking to you, #EDUC689. Here are few things that I didn’t get a chance to share.

Engage the research

Livia quoted me as having said that catering to learning styles is something we should probably stop discussing. To that, I plead “guilty” as charged. Patrick and Cat, I totally appreciate your initial skepticism when I flat out said that learning styles—visual, auditory, kinaesthetic (VAK)—don’t exist. It’s pretty provocative when you first hear it.

What I didn’t tell you is that for me, early on in my own career, I took VAK to be a given. More importantly, I thought they were something that would always work in my favor as I tried to craft training solutions. When they didn’t work, I thought that maybe I was in the wrong field.  

That sounds really weird, I know. And it’s a little embarrassing to write even today. But the reason I’m even bothering to talk about this now is that after reading more research I learned me that learning style denial was real for some—and that I was going to be okay.  

This is an important lesson that I don’t think is adequately addressed these days. We have unprecedented access to all kinds of actual scientific research that absolutely affects what we do. As our learning experience designs become more integrated and multimodal, studies in nutrition, anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, and the learning sciences will perhaps be more useful than ever before.

I promise that you will find it worth your while to stay on top of this stuff, and it has the distinct advantage of making you ready for things that you can’t predict. If you’re like me and are finding less and less time for serendipity, I highly recommend finding an exploration proxy.

Cultivate your PLNs

Admittedly, we got on this subject after I asked about how everyone was doing with their personal learning networks (PLNs). I loved hearing that you were new to the concept. I’m going to guess from the group’s interview with Jane Bozarth that she mentioned the value of PLNs, so I’ll leave that alone. However, Lynn asked me how I began mine, so here’s the truth: I’m not afraid to take people to lunch.

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That’s a literal truth. While I appreciate working virtually, I think I know when being in someone’s presence is necessary. What I want you to remember is that you have access through so many channels to so many interesting people that the only difficult part of cultivating a PLN is proper gardening.

Yet, I know smart, interesting people I know in our field that don’t garden nearly enough, or don’t see fit to seed at all. If you find someone interesting, don’t be afraid to establish a professional relationship or blogstalk them—whichever tactic seems more fruitful. Perhaps the best thing about this moment in time is that people are both remote and accessible, which is perfect for professional holstering.

The last thing I’ll say about this issue is that there’s still value in having a small number of contacts that grew with you. I think it’s great that many of you are maintaining contact with each other after the class itself has ended; please don’t take that for granted.

Focus on improving performance

Daniel asked me to share my best advice for working with clients. I felt like this question was a shark fin—pretty straightforward but there was a lot riding underneath.

I told the class that the best advice I ever received on the subject was to focus on being a business partner rather than a provider of learning solutions, especially when the “client” has preconceived notions about what the learning solution should be.

What I failed to include in that answer is that your entire focus in any organization should be about improving performance. This simple rule engenders a whole host of activities, such as

  • preemptively learning as much as you can about the business you work for
  • shadowing your co-workers
  • ask questions even though you think you already have the answers (either you’re right and can help solve something, or you’ll learn something)
  • find out what “learning” and “training” mean to your organization. Sometimes internal business partners are wedded to a particular type of solution, and they don’t always value what they think you offer.

Know the obstacles

When Patrick asked me what I thought the biggest obstacles were for new e-learning developers, I replied:

  • Getting a handle on the array of e-learning development options that exist
  • Understanding the best output(s) for streaming video and audio (especially where mobile is concerned)
  • Understanding poorly rendered storyboards (or lack of storyboards) from indecisive ISDs or SMEs
  • Determining how to scope costs and effort according to the vision of your design counterparts.

But I also said that the obstacles for an e-learning designer/developer (in other words, a one-stop shop) make a different list. But then, I didn’t write that list. My bad. Here is that list of obstacles:

  • Surrendering to the idea that a tool will make your life/work easier. If you are really designing, a tool will only allow you to see what more you can do, not how easily you can do less.
  • Finding a storyboarding system that works for you and your stakeholders. You will be tempted to go it without documentation; you might even be tempted to start working straight in your authoring tool so as to figure it out as you go. Don’t do this. Find a storyboarding system that can help you plan and express your intentions to yourself and to your stakeholders.
  • Knowing how to be your own project manager. You won’t always have a project manager at your disposal, and you will need to account for time, materials, expenses, and so forth in order to make projections and to reconcile work produced with resources consumed. And it’s always good to have a Gantt chart of cascading deadlines and milestones in your head—even if you plan to drive right through them,
  • Knowing when you need help before you actually need it. I think your class also spoke to Cammy Bean, who told you about the quadrants of e-learning. You would be a rare, rare bird to be equally proficient in all four. Know when you’re going to need someone to be your creative slice.

There’s more I could say. There’s always more to say, right?  For instance, Cat had a comment about tools, which may launch a future blog post. But those are the highlights.

So, to #EDUC689 (and everyone else reading), I’m looking forward to seeing you online, in print, and in conversation. Most importantly, I’m eager to continue learning through you—and I’ll try to keep holding up my end of the exchange.

All for now…

About the Author

Craig Wiggins has been helping people create and manage learning experiences for the past 10 years. He is the community manager for the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiatives. Craig holds a BA in anthropology and an MEd in curriculum development, and spends a lot of time thinking about how to sneak usability, accessibility, and proper task analysis into the mix. In his natural habitat, he is usually storyboarding on wall-sized whiteboards or pontificating on Twitter or Google+.

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