Sunday, October 09, 2005

Myths About E-Learning Outsourcing

Get it done cheaper: If you are looking for a cheap solution, be ready to sacrifice quality. If a cheap solution is really what you want, get a bunch of summer trainees to do the job. DO NOT expect a vendor to deliver what your team of experts delivers, at one-tenth the cost. Or, the next best solution—outsource to Uganda or Mogadishu, at least the conversion rate will make more sense.

Get it done quicker: If you think you are crunched for time and you want to outsource, chances are your project will be screwed. Outsourcing needs planning. More planning because there are two sets of plans—one at your level and another plan at the outsourcer's level. If you are crunched for time, you will not have time to transfer information, plan reviews, and monitor quality. Outsourcing works if you are crunched for resource, but not when you are crunched for time.

Provide selective information: Transparency works! Your vendors need to see the big picture to appreciate the constraints or put in extra effort for you. When you plan your timelines and review cycles, plan in tandem. Push vendors to take up anything that you don’t want to: This does not work. If you don’t want to do something, yet want a share of the pie, you have bought yourself a ticket to the heart of one unhappy customer! Your vendors are not your bunch of slaves, nor are they your second rung employees. Treat them like partners and both will benefit mutually.

Flexible payment time: Be prompt with your payments. Nothing worsens a relationship more than misunderstandings about money. If you are getting paid for the project that you are doing, respect the fact that your vendor is doing the same work for a payment. So, make you payments on time and as promised.

Save project management costs: Not really! You need to invest time into building a relationship. Set up a system of communication protocol between your team and the vendor's team. If your client is no where in the picture, it is all the more important to ensure that there is clear and transparent communication in terms of standards, requirements, and deadlines.

Remember that it is not a robot that you have outsourced your work to; it is a team of human beings that are alive and performing. Treat them as you would treat your partners. They are the ones who are helping you deliver.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Usability in Elearning

Kern offers two kinds of services -- usability and elearning. Often our clients inquire about this holy matrimony of usability and elearning. I think usability lends itself naturally to any elearning solution. This got us into an interesting discussion about how usability impacts learning solutions.

Geeta: How do we apply the learning from usability to our elearning projects?

Ripul: Usability is a measurable attribute where we measure the usefulness of a product. We can apply the same concepts to elearning where we measure the learning ability or "learnability" of learners. The basic premise of usability is to make something easy and useful. At times, things may be easy to use, but may not be useful for the user. So, applying the same principle to elearning, we can make things easy to access as well as more learnable for learners.

Geeta: That's right. But often usability is limited to UI issues where the focus is more on the "ease to use" of elearning. For example, the focus is more on making the interface student-friendly, make navigation simpler, and reduction in download time. Whereas, usability in the real sense should focus on the "learnability" aspect of the courseware. So, how do you think usability can enhance "learnability"?

Ripul: Learnability can be enhanced by designing a courseware based on learners' needs, goals, and aspirations. To do this, first, we need to have a clear understanding of the learner; analyze their demographic and psychographic profile; understand their needs and motivations; and then come up with a design that best suits them. elearning organizations can adopt user research processes and techniques like contextual inquiry and observation to understand the learners, their learning goals, learning motivations, and the current learning patterns. This will also help organizations understand how learners use learning while working.

Geeta: This is exactly what must be done in the analysis phase of traditional elearning. Sadly, in a real world elearning scenario, the analysis phase is a mere formality, more so when content development is outsourced (will blog this sometime). In such a situation, the client is God and the subject matter expert (lovingly known as SME) is demi-god! They drive the requirements, provide the learner details, and define what strategies to follow. Amidst all this, we forget the plight of the poor learners who are left with no choice but to wear sweaters in summer! More often than not, instructional design is decided based on: - the engine capabilities - standard successful strategies - client's preference - budgetary constraints, and - SME's diktats

Ripul: That's precisely where the problems come up regarding the effectiveness of learning. The course has to be designed as per the learner and not based on client requirements alone. Business stakeholders play an important role in the process, however they should not drive the design. We must design for our learners. There can be no "one size fits all" in instructional design. Gagne's nine events are not the holy grail of instructional design -- all learning challenges cannot have a single solution.

Geeta: To get back to our discussion, we can apply our learning from usability optimally. We can offer good UI solutions, make navigation intuitive, simpler, and reduce dependence on secondary instructions. We can use contextual inquiry process to derive learner requirements to complement stakeholder requirements. We no longer need to hide behind "interpassivity" to engage learners, we can ensure that the learner really learns. But tell me how do you measure actual learning?

Ripul: Learning can be easily measured using usability testing methods. However, I feel, these methods need to be adapted for learnability testing. Current usability testing methods are highly skewed towards correct navigation and completion of tasks, which is not the main focus while learning. The usability protocols must be designed to measure effectiveness of learning.

Geeta: The effectiveness of learning is in achieving the learning objectives that the learner has set out to achieve in the first place. Therefore, learnability testing should ensure that there is a one-on-one mapping with the learning objectives at the learners' workplace and not just in a laboratory setup.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Workflow Learning - A Real-life Case Study

The latest buzz word in the learning circles is workflow learning. While so much is written about workflow learning, I would like to take you through the workflow learning experience at our workplace.

Kern was all set to hive off its editing services. This was six months back. Today, six months later, editing is the “gas” that keeps the machine running. What changed in these six months? Anu joined Kern!

Anu had no clue about editing. She came from a BPO background; she had excellent communication skills and fluent spoken English skills (read American English). However, she could not care less if there was a missing comma after an introductory clause or a missing period at the end of a complete sentence! Today, she manages edits for two big clients. She is on her way to becoming an expert editor. And, most importantly, editing services is generating a steady income, which is always welcome by any organization!

I credit this change to Anu’s editing skills. But how did she acquire the skills? Kern is a small company. We do not have the luxury of making people go through days of classroom training or self-paced training. Anu had to hit the work floor on day 3 of joining Kern.

What worked here is workflow learning. I pushed all the handouts and study material to her. She thumbed through some “How to Edit?” books for a day - am not sure how much she learned from these apart from being awed by the vast expanse of the editing field. Initially, she checked the documents edited by others for 3-4 critical slips or misses. Gradually, she started editing the documents herself and I audited them. I made her sit by my side while I audited her documents. She jotted down critical misses and put some up in yellow post-its all around her monitor. She audited other editors’ work, discussed doubts with me, and sent them feedback. After a month of doing this, I had a stand-up edit training session for 2 hours. She could immediately relate to all the guidelines that she had referred earlier, clarified more doubts (she asks a lot of questions, I must warn you!), and bingo! the editing rules strengthened the synapse!

I would call this a classic case of workflow learning. Let’s draw a parallel between the critical elements of workflow learning and the learning that Anu had.

1. Anu has access to,, our 5-page internal style guide, a bunch of yellow post-its around her monitor, and a tattered notepad with all the rules, styles, and guidelines jotted in it. These tools are more relevant and useful than the expensive tools provided by a content management system! These tools are built-into the environment that she works, and deliver the same information that any sophisticated content management portal can provide through web, wireless, and mobile technologies. Now, she is in the process of documenting her daily learning. While Anu has access to the tools that deliver and collect relevant information in the right context at the right time, she also has a very secure system of knowledge capture. The knowledge that she captures is used immediately.

2. There are times when Anu turns back to clarify a doubt. “I just yell back, open the MSTP and search for it” or I simply type out the explanation on the messenger and send her. There are also times when I come across some information that I think will be valuable for her and either mail it across or share it verbally. Often Anu notes them down in her tattered notepad. Well, we are talking about information nuggets assisting her while at work!

3. Every time Anu asks a question, I resist from giving out the answer or solving her problem. Gradually, she has inculcated the habit of searching for information online or in books. While is one of her clear favorites, there are numerous other links that she has bookmarked that are useful to answer a client query or investigate an Am/Brit clarification. Today, Anu has access to most knowledge repositories that a person can possibly have at the workplace.

4. Anu has access to her mentor every time. Also, there is a solid system of feedback capture in place. She can just turn back and check with me, she can call me to clarify, and of course we spend a lot of time outside office editing menu cards, hoardings, or newspaper articles. While there is real-time collaboration with an expert, there is also a solid system of feedback and information exchange in place.

5. These days, I audit sporadically. I audit documents that come from new clients or a different domain. We discuss client feedback and document them. She discusses edit issues with other editors and communicates the changing standards or styles. The system of mentoring and peer collaboration has strengthened her learning to a great extent.

I am sure, the size of the organization does have an impact on learning and management of learning (will capture this in another blog). However, the effectiveness of this model can be replicated with no additional cost or inconvenience. Now, we are expanding our team of editors. Soon Anu has to move on to the role of a mentor in the workflow learning environment.