Hey, it's lockdown week four, here in the UK at least, but don't let it get you down. Here we are, your friends at the Good Practice podcast from Emerald Works, bringing you our weekly show about work performance and learning. I'm Ross Garner, and this week we're chatting the promise of e-learning, where has it succeeded, where has it gone wrong? And with authoring tools now giving anyone the ability to create e-learning, might the problem be us? Here to discuss, I'm joined long anticipated special guest, I don't know why we haven't had you on before, Clive Shepherd, e-learning specialist, author, and consultant. Hello, Clive
Thanks for joining us.
Well, it's an absolute pleasure. I'm absolutely boiling here because it's the day before Good Friday, and it's due to be about 24 degrees today. And the sun's absolutely pouring in my window, but I can't the window otherwise you'll be bombarded with traffic noise. Or will you, actually
Yes, we're all looking forward to Easter weekend, sat inside watching the sun. And of course we're joined by regular contributor, Owen Ferguson. Hello, Owen
Hello, Ross. I am feeling quite jealous of Clive being boiling, because for context, it is currently eight degrees in Edinburgh, so I am not sweltering. I've actually got the heating on
The Scottish reaction to April. Clive, do you want to kick us off? Starting to talk about terms first of all, what do we mean when we talk about e-learning? Because I think the way that you talk about it is often not what the fashionable cool kids try to talk about it
Are you saying I'm not a fashionable cool kid?
I'm saying there's been an attempt to reclaim the word e-learning from other things.
Yeah. Well, I mean, it is actually a very good question and a very important question because it underpins most of the arguments I have here, is that what is regarded as e-learning in the corporate world, and I think that's true across the world, is a subset of what the term might originally have implied. Because the term was created about 1997, around the time of the .com boom and all those sorts of things. But all it was, really, was a rebranding of the computer based training that had been there for about 20 years before that, so I think we're really talking about from late 70s. And that computer based training was essentially a form of slide driven, I suppose, is the best way of looking at it, so you move horizontally from slide to slide through a sequence of screens, and those screens would contain typically graphics and texts and interactions of some sort
The underpinning methodology that went with that was derived very heavily from the military research going back to World War II and the instructional systems design methodologies, which were created, to be honest, primarily by the American military. And to enable a sort of mass production of learning content, not in a computer form, but they conceived it as for producing anything from classroom courses to work books to anything else, but it was translated into a computer based training. And then the difference why it got called e-learning was because we now were going to put these same things exactly.... They were on, originally, just on computer hard drive, then they were on CD-ROMs and video discs, then they were on, in 1997, the internet
So on a web browser, you would see slide based interactive courseware, as they might've called it, and that is what most people, in a corporate context call e-learning. What cemented that for me is that I used to run a workshop years ago, and I probably ran this workshop about 60 times, and it was a workshop for new trainers. I used to come in on the last day when they'd had four days of learning how to do classroom training, I used to come in on the last day and talk about technology because the person who ran the rest of the course was too afraid to do that. So I came in, in the worst possible time when everybody was basically looking forward to going home and I had to try and get them interested in technology
And I would ask them what their experience of e-learning was, and they always talked about the same thing. They didn't talk about, oh, virtual classrooms or videos or collaboration, or anything like that. They talked about lessons that taught them about health and safety and anti money laundering and all sorts of heavily knowledge-based topics in what they thought was a horribly tedious fashion. And then I had to spend the rest of the day trying to convert them to the fact that actually there's a bigger picture than that, and that the concept of online learning, or whatever you want to call it, virtual learning, digital learning, is much broader and it's something that actually they should engage with, and probably are engaging with in their personal lives already
So if you move on to where we are now, where online learning is absolutely everywhere, although people don't perceive it necessarily as online learning because it's just a normal way of living. And right at the moment in this lockdown situation, it's all around us too, because everyone's reinventing themselves as an online teacher. Now it's completely ubiquitous, but still, if you ask people about, do they like, e-learning they say, ""Uh, no, that's that horrible stuff I get at work."" Whereas they wouldn't regard going to YouTube to find out how to maintain an engine or how to play a guitar piece, or they wouldn't regard Duolingo teaching them how to learn a language, or all these sort of things, they wouldn't regard that as, as e-learning, they're two separate things
So I've tried to make this distinction really quite separate, so e-learning for me is that particular model of instruction. Even the word instruction is a horrible word, and it is essentially coming from the US, but we didn't use it in that context. And the idea of instructional designer is similarly restrained, horrible, and that comes from the same place, is all symptomatic of something we've just never been able to get past. And we can explore that today, why that might be
So in terms of differentiating e-learning from other online learning options, and would we say that e-learning is a guided experience, has a sense of beginning and end, usually there's some kind of assessment in there, whether that's formative or summative assessment, are those the components that would put it into one box or another? Or are we talking about something narrower or in terms of... because, I guess, even just within that fairly narrow definition, there are more positive or negative experience
Oh yeah. I think how I would describe it is interactive self study materials, so not watching a video or even looking at a PowerPoint deck, not reading an article on Wikipedia. It's interactive lessons, which are not real time, they're self paced, you use them when you want to use them. And of course, the irony of this is that there's nothing wrong with the idea of that as a format for delivering instruction, it's got the big advantage that the interactivity is built into it
Whereas most of the forms of online learning that people engage with, whether it's a virtual classroom or an online Pilates class or some sort of video based instruction, which most online learning is video based now, none of those have integral interactivity. If you're going to create forms of interactivity, it's usually a blend, so you have a mixture of things and the interactivity becomes a separate activity to the putting across of information. So there is something elegant about having it all in one place, and there's no
That creates problems too, though. Their ability to have interactivity encourages people to use interactivity for interactivity sake. And you mentioned that instruction and instructional design are problematic terms, I think that's part of it. Because I think what we've seen of what you describe is people weren't creating e-learning as a new thing, they were creating it as an extension of what had come before, so your classroom workshops that turned into webinars. And then for the model of the asynchronous e-learning that you're talking about, it's basically a textbook
So it wasn't like, here's this new technology, what we could do with it. It's here's this new technology, how could we move the thing that were existing, that we're already doing, and use this new format to deliver it? So it's interesting that the stuff that you're describing, that's not interactive, sounds better and more appealing because it's coming from the outside without someone that's got this kind of baggage of thinking they like an instructor
Yeah. I think there's a lot of truth in that. It's that sort of train of history that goes back, really, most of people's lives, you can trace this tutorial format back. And most of what people see that's been produced of that type, follows a format which they just copy, so it perpetuates itself. But there's absolutely
We get that from clients. Clients ask us for a click next e-learning with learning outcomes at the start and assessment at the end, and then we tend to push back on that normally. But some clients come to us with quite low expectations for what e-learning could be, they just want more of what they've seen
Absolutely. When we look at the constraints that designers face... Because it's not because designers are uncreative people or stupid people or they don't know what's possible, it's because they are rather trapped in the confines of the convention of what's gone before. And one of the reasons they are confined is because of their clients, as you describe
Oh, our clients are all very creative
Yeah, not your clients
They're very ambitious, lots of excellent ideas
Well, I think that we say that it's just carrying on from the classroom, but I actually think it's worse than that. Because in many respects, if I go back to the classroom as it was when I first was involved in L&D back in 70s, what we were doing in classrooms, it was incredibly adventurous and broadminded and imaginative, it would be regarded as very liberal and avant garde education. And I'm not saying that's what all classroom's like, because a lot of technical training was never like that. But in a classroom you had a big advantage over e-learning, in that you had some expression of personality. So what the teacher or trainer or instructor could be like behind closed doors, because they weren't being watched by the organization, was actually quite human in many cases, I'm not saying always, I'm sure there were some awful instructors, but they could show personality
And in many respects, they were leading the process and they interpreted the curriculum, just like a teacher in school interprets the curriculum, you have good teachers and you have bad teachers, but they're still working to the same curriculum. And you don't get that with e-learning, because it is completely and utterly sanitized by the fact that every stage of design goes through elaborate checks to make sure that any hint of a joke has been erased or
That's not inherently the case. It would be possible a piece of e-learning to exist that is full of personality and is funny and engaging.
But that's the frustration.
To e-learning, it's the way it's been designed
Exactly, and that's why it's such a mistake to blame the tool, it's not a problem of e-learning. And your sort of underlying hypothesis for this podcast that this is a human problem is absolutely right, it's the same thing that people say, oh, presentations are boring, PowerPoint is an evil, PowerPoint was designed by the default. PowerPoint is the most amazing tool you could possibly imagine, it can do absolutely anything. But that is not the problem of PowerPoint. What people doing presentations is not a problem of PowerPoint, it's a problem of the person using the PowerPoint, and it's exactly the same with authoring tools. If you were to take a commonly used authoring tool, like Storyline for example, but there are lots of others, it's capable of doing the most unbelievably amazing stuff and was conceived to make amazing stuff possible. And of course, some people do make some fantastic stuff
And that's what's so frustrating, is that the expectations are too low, and a lot of very creative designers, I think, start to feel constrained by this weight of what's been there in the past, rather than actually opening up and saying, ""Look, what we're really trying to do here is to take advantage of what computers can do as a format."" So it's not like just streaming something, like we're doing now, which is essentially just using the internet and the computers as a way of passing sound and pictures between us. Because if that's all we wanted to do is just to transmit stuff, the computer hardly has to wake up to do that, it's an absolutely trivial thing
If you take the other end of the extreme, when do computers really work hard and when do we really think they are amazing creatures, it's when they do things like run 3D games or they allow you to edit videos. There are things that are highly, highly interactive, which are things that only can be done on a computer. Now, there are examples of that in training, of course, simulators and games and so on, but that's a very high end and not a very commonly used aspect of what computers are capable of. What I'm saying is that we hardly use any intelligence from the computer in e-learning, which is unbelievably crazy after all these years, because intelligence doesn't... you don't even have to have powerful computers
We could have done intelligent things with computers back in 1980, because we don't even do, in many cases, such simple things as find out what people already know, and only present them stuff they need to know beyond that. You don't need a powerful computer to do that, you could have done that in 1980, but we don't do it. Actually, most of us
Because everyone needs to know everything.
Well, absolutely. It's a human
If you just tell them absolutely everything, then they'll remember it and then that is- an e-learning course, it would be the traditional model
Life would be so simple if all the learner had to do was turn on, press the record button, and you at the other end press play, and all of this information passed over to them. That is the understanding of learning that most ordinary people have, they don't have no conception. And that's not saying ordinary people are stupid, it's not their profession, it's not what they're supposed to know about, just like they're not supposed to know about how viruses work and things like that. We're learning because we have to now, but we wouldn't normally need to know those things
But people don't actually need to know about the problems involved in teaching and learning, that's why they have us because we are the equivalent of the doctors who stand up next to Boris Johnson and try and give the evidence for how things actually are, rather than what the politicians would like it to be. So in a way it's a failure, I think, of assertiveness of the L&D generally, and I think it equally applies to the servants of L&D, people who do the work that we do, that we haven't been assertive enough in representing our expertise and saying to people, actually, although that might seem on face value a good idea, we shouldn't be doing it
So when Trump says we should be using antimalarial drugs to combat coronavirus, you would expect the scientists in the US to say, ""Hold on just a minute, but actually not probably good idea, at this point at least."" And that's what we haven't said strongly enough
We caveat that in case it turns out that was a great idea.
It might just. I really hope it doesn't turn out to be a great idea because that will get Trump reelected.
We're not political in this show, lots of our listeners have different political persuasions
We are today. No, but I think it's an interesting parallel, because if we get too far away from the science, we get to do crazy things based on emotional, not just intuition, hunch, and that's not good enough because most people's hunch would be that if I tell you something, you'll know it. So after listening to this podcast, all of the arguments that are being put across, you could easily repeat them in a week's time and you would have been transformed in some way. But in fact, we don't know that we know that, in fact, some things out of this podcast, if it's a successful one, and I hope it is, is that some things, some of the stories, some of the ideas, would have triggered something different in every person, but triggered something which makes somebody think and they might go away with something which makes it worth their while spending three quarts of an hour doing it
I'm sure that's true, but it isn't that they've listened for 45 minutes and absorbed 45 minutes worth of stuff, because we know that's not true. But we know it, but it isn't what our clients or the people that we are responsible to, the managers in the organization, it's not what they think because that's not their area of expertise
I wonder how far we've got away with that, though, because there's... We were talking earlier on about like YouTube and Duolingo and these sorts of things, now they exist in a competitive marketplace. So the YouTube, like their most popular videos are the ones that rise to the top and then that increases their popularity, whereas internally we can get away with quite a lot because there isn't any competition. Like if say a vendor comes in and takes so long then, if you're going to create e-learning from scratch, you're not going to bring in three different vendors and have them all do it and see which one turns out the best. You slog your way through it, and then if it goes okay you might use them again. So there's a lack of accountability, I think, for a lot of what we're doing, because there's often no alternative
No, no, so that's a very good point
Yeah, there's lack of accountability, but also there are other constraints. I mean, Clive mentioned something earlier on I thought was particularly interesting, was what you could to do in a classroom. And actually some of the things that are really cheap to do in a face-to-face setting, like quite often when I was delivering face-to-face training and I was delivering a workshop, and it was a fairly standard workshop but you would kind of get to a break point and think, ""This isn't quite working. I'm going to need to switch this up a bit."" And you could mix things around, you could introduce additional elements just on the fly, based on your read of the room
Now, to introduce that level of adaptive learning, even if you build out all the other assets, actually to do that really simply is relatively straightforward, to do that in a really effective way, that's much harder and much more expensive. So it's interesting that when we're designing an online asset, part of the challenge is that you're not able to make those quick changes once it's out there. Or at least the tools make it, or the business model of creating the e-learning
Yeah, I think it's the business model more than the tool, because it is possible
Yeah, it doesn't allow for that. Yeah
Just time consuming and expensive.
And then you mentioned the tool, one of the things that Clive said is that it's not right, you wouldn't necessarily bring the tool, it's the people. But there is one aspect of the tools that I think they do make it very easy to do very boring things. PowerPoint is an amazing tool, but it makes it really easy to create a list of bullet points on a slide, as opposed to doing something that's a bit more effective. So I am fascinated by the additional constraints that exist, and how much..
I mean, this is a particularly interesting time, we're seeing a lot of investment on the learning technology side. I would imagine that we'll probably start to see quite a bit more of this once we come out of whatever economic impact this whole situation has. But I think that the tools as good they are, aren't at the same level as the tools that are available to people who are working in marketing, for example
We created a project management course a few years ago, on Storyline, which Clive mentioned, so it's basically like... Storyline wouldn't appreciate this, but it's a fancy PowerPoint. But we set it up in such a way with variables and triggers that rather than presenting the project management, like here's how you do a work breakdown structure, and here's how you do a cost breakdown structure, you had to build a work breakdown structure, and then you could cost individual elements using your budget. And you had to make decisions, make tradeoffs, and where you could spend more and spend less
And then depending on what you did, that affected the quality of the output and how long it spent. You'd then get like a Gaant chart and you had to move things around to balance up the constraints. If you're three designers, that cost more than two designers, but you could get stuff done faster, all that kind of stuff. But it was really time consuming to put together, much more expensive than it would have been to just present information on project management in a linear fashion, because you had to have so many different outcomes and you have to prepare for each of those outcomes
Absolutely. I think one of the big problems now that online learning is so ubiquitous outside the workplace, is that the economies of scale that they have... or if you take something like Duolingo, which has massive amount of resource put into it and a definite AI angle to it and all these sorts of things, it, they are talking about hundreds of millions of users. And similarly, if you talk about even something like the Khan Academy, which is much more a video based resource, but nevertheless has a huge amount of investment and AI in terms of its interface and everything, it's talking again about hundreds of millions of people
Even the Wikipedia and YouTube have billions of users, and therefore the arguments for investing in intelligence, and the benefits as you were talking about of competition, so you can have a hundred different videos on YouTube teaching you how to play Stairway to Heaven on the electric guitar. And one of them will get 80% of the eyeballs eventually, because everybody will discover that that's the best one. As you say, we don't have that
Although, I do know that if you go back 15 years, and again, this sounds like NHS basher, which is exactly what I'm not doing, but the NHS did have 80 different e-learning courses, teaching people about how to avoid MRSA when that was a problem. That was as about as bizarre as you could get, but it also pinpoints one of the other problems about e-learning in organizations, is that most classroom teaching, whether it's in education or in the workplace, is very decentralized, and it's very much left to the individual teacher. That's a very, very inefficient way to design content, your content is best centralized
That's presumable what the NHS did, when they ended up with 80 different
Well, that's right, it was incredibly decentralized. So everybody locally said, ""Oh, we need to produce a decentralized course on MRSA,"" because they weren't aware of anybody else doing one. And anyway, it wouldn't be a good as my one. But sometimes you need to pool resources and get the very, very best people and the very best expertise around producing something. Which is where you can invest more and do the things you were talking about doing on your project management course, which is to make something which actually feels like you are getting a one-to-one experience, which is better than a classroom experience. In other words, it actually feels like I'm being taught by an individual
And I think that is... The potential of AI is not to make something seem like it was designed by a robot, but to make it seem like it's designed by a human being for you, and that is potentially quite promising. But of course, AI is only what you put into it, in other words, it can only do what you tell it to do, if you like. And so what we don't want is an AI, which just churns out verbiage, accompanied by clip art, it's got to
What if we could automate the production of crap e-learning?
I don't think that is a difficult challenge, to be honest, because in many respects that's how it's done, and I think it's done in a very robotic way. But actually if you can create... Let's give you an example, if you had 10,000 people in your organization that needed to know about project management, but they work in very different contexts. So some people are in IT project, some people are doing big construction projects, some people perhaps work in a production environment like a factory. And some people are doing at the senior level, some people doing it a very junior level, is that because you can know those simple almost demographic things about the student, that actually when you give examples or when you tell stories or when you ask questions in the e-learning, it's shaped around the person that is in front of it
So it feels like it's personalized, and we know, I mean, there's good research to show that it only takes most simple bits of humanity in an online medium for people to think that the computer is a human being. And not because people are stupid, but because that's instinctive. So if the e-learning program is nice to people, then people will like the learning program. It seems bizarre, but humanity is what we're looking for
There's something about not over relying, or not necessarily trying to compete with consumer production values. And by that I mean, one of the best games that I've played recently, an app based games was a simple text adventure. It was so brilliantly scripted, it really was quite engrossing
I bet you were into text adventures when you were a teenager, that seems like something that'd be up your street
This is true.
But I think there's an element of sometimes we're too quick to jump to visuals, multimedia, et cetera, without necessarily thinking about the quality of the script. Is this compelling in and of itself? If you were to turn some kind of interactivity into a text based version of it, would it still be interesting and compelling? I think there's something interesting there about getting those fundamentals right, and then leading up, I mean, this is what CGI animators tend to do, they work out their storyboards, low fidelity, they don't go straight to creating the stunning animations that you can now see. Does it work on that lower level, and then apply it the amount of polish that you need to off the back of that. But I think there's opportunities with genuine creativity applied in a more simple setting to create stuff that adds value, you don't need to have the AAA style computer game graphics to make something compelling
No, absolutely. I think that's exactly true. In anyway, in the corporate setting, if something's too glossy, I think people think what are the organization doing wasting all this money on? I think we're quite prepared to accept that some parts of our life are very Hollywood, video games, films, box sets, they are at a level which is never ever been as good as they are now, and we appreciate that and we understand that it takes tens of millions to do that. We don't expect or want our corporate communications to be like that, we want them to respect us as individuals, to look like someone's taken the trouble to do a good job, we don't want to think that they're trying to sell something to us
Because I think there's always a danger that in a corporate environment, if something becomes glossy, people think it's an advert, and if it's an advert, you ignore it and wait for the adverts to go. And I think, as you say, it's never going to engage anybody, and it's always been a myth that you engage people through multimedia, you don't, it's nonsense. Engagement through challenges and stories and things that irrelevant to their lives, and if you've got a solution to something that they're struggling with in their life, they will eat your hand off to get it from you, in text form, straight audio form or anything else. A podcast is a great example, couldn't be much simpler, it's just like radio
Well, on that flattering point, let's say wrap up the conversation there. So humans are an obstacle to e-learning, but they're not an insurmountable obstacle. Can work with people and demonstrate our expertise and look for an effective solution. Right, let's move on to our regular feature of what I learned this week, where we each share something we've picked up over the past seven days. Owen, do you want to go first
Sure thing. Well, actually this kind of follows on from ours, we've chatted about text based adventures. Some listeners might be
On which topic? We'll put a link to your game in the show notes, won't we, just in case anyone's wondering what game you're talking about, we're going to link to it. Sorry, go on
Listeners may be familiar with Cards Against Humanity, it is a card game, it's kind of like a blankety blank. You get a series of statements with a blank and then the idea is that from a set of cards that you hold, you try and come up with the funniest thing to fill the blank in with, in a way. It is for adults, it is a game for adults, it can be quite offensive or risque, or it's definitely lacks a degree of political correctness
However, they have created a new version, Cards Against Humanity family edition, and they have made it available for free. So there is a public beta available, you can download and print off the cards and play it at home. And so I just thought I would flag that for those who are locked down and are looking for something to play, it's great fun. I've not played the family edition yet, but if it is anything like as much fun as the adult version, it'll be well worth it
We played a lot of the adult version when I was at uni, and then we played it so often we got a bit bored of it and so we started using the cards for charades instead, which is very not safe for work. Clive, what have you learned this week
Yeah, well I think it's very relevant to what we're talking about, because I think watching the television, how they've reshaped a lot of conventional television shows to have people doing what we're doing now, which is essentially calling in from home, must be frightening the production crews at the BBC and other places to death. Which is how we're perfectly happy to engage with people coming in on webcams, and sometimes they're the most awful quality. In fact, some ways as we were saying before, we prefer it because we can see the people's homes, which is quite nice
But I think it showed us that actually good communication is about what people say, it's not about the production values that are applied to it. And that is a real lesson for us, I think, in terms of online learning is that it isn't about the gloss, it's about having something relevant to say, which will help people. And there'll be very, very pleased to participate in what you've got to offer, if you've got something that's going to help them
You say it's not about the gloss, but my 'What I Learned' this week is kind of related to what you just said, because my wife has been doing some online yoga classes. And she did the first one using an external webcam and then she would demonstrate it, it was a little bit fuzzy, kind of dark, jutted a few times. So she did her second one last night, just with me, and we used her mobile phone to broadcast rather than a webcam. Oh my goodness me, the quality of the phone camera over Zoom, it was like watching TV, it was so much better than using a webcam
We're just starting to look at all sorts of ways that we can film talking heads videos online, because now we can't travel to go and film people anymore. We will not be using webcams, we will be having everyone speak to us via their mobile phone because it just looks incredible. So no, I agree, Clive, love TV, interviews do look rubbish and quality is poor, we can get away with it but it'd be a little better if they were really sharp, filmed on a mobile phone
Yeah, it's like the arms race and mobile phones, a lot of the attention that's been focused on improving the cameras. And goodness me, can you tell the difference? Seems like every generation, there's a series of amazing improvements
It does seem like billions of pounds spent on all the... It's not so much the optics, although they are amazing for the size, it's the amount of software being put into transforming the image in the camera. It's amazing what a few billion pounds worth of effort can actually achieve
Yeah, that's it. And that is the lesson all e-learning designers should take from this, is throw a few billion pounds at the problem, it will result in remarkable increases in performance
That's it. That's all from us. If you'd like to get in touch with us about anything we've said on this show, you can tweet me @rossgarnergp. You can tweet Owen..
And you can get in touch with Clive...
Yeah, @cliveshepherd on Twitter
For more from us, including access to our back catalog of podcasts, visit emeraldworks.com. There you'll also find details of our award winning performance support toolkit, our off the shelf e-learning, which is great, our custom work and our learning management system. Or you can send me and Owen a tweet and we can chat to you about such things. Clive, where can people find out more about you
Yep. Well, they can look at my blog, which is Clive on Learning, which you'll find quite easily through Google, or through my company which is called skillsjourney.com
Great. There'll be links to all of that in the show notes as well. And that's it, if you've enjoyed the show, please leave us a review. Nicola is back next week, asking if part-time workers are second to your employees. Until then, bye for now