Sunday, July 09, 2006

Can Technology Companies Deliver eLearning?

In the last one week, I received calls from at least four companies looking for instructional design (ID) support, ID training, or simply instructional designers. There is nothing strange about these queries, except that these companies are eLearning companies who do not have instructional designers in their team.

Can you imagine this scenario eLearning companies with NO instructional designers? This is like a construction company with NO architects! Today, many technology and software companies are moving into the eLearning market. These companies have sound technical skills but no instructional design skills. They can construct a course, provide features and functionalities, and add jazz if needed. However, they ignore the most important component – learning.

Consequently, the courseware developed is a rehashed version of either a book or web content. It is cheap, fast, but completely “unlearnable”. It is like the houses built with unqualified or no architects – the houses have no light, no ventilation, just pillars and walls!

The poor quality of learning is camouflaged by technology supplements such as features and unwanted functionality. These companies are doing a disservice to eLearning. They are driving down the quality of eLearning. Today, the market is flooded with dumb-blonde courseware. They have pretty graphics, good videos, nice audios, but no concern for learners, their needs, wants, and motivations. Ultimately, learning takes a back seat.

Chaos prevails in a course that is “constructed” but not “designed.” The learner has no clue about the purpose of the course. The content in the course is either a dump of information or a screen decorated with graphics with no clue about whether the visual information helps the learner learn concepts better. The interactivities often look like the Bollywood movie song-and-dance sequences, meant for cigarette breaks and not designed for reinforcement or retention!

In the absence of an instructional designer, the biggest casualty is learning. The quality of such courseware is poor as they do not conform to prevalent eLearning standards. Due to the poor quality of eLearning, organizations are increasingly losing faith in eLearning as an effective learning solution. Corporations do not take eLearning as a serious alternative to corporate training. They still rely on the age old classroom mode as a reliable means of training.

Recently, I reviewed a course from one such company. The first thought that struck me was am I reading someone’s classroom notes? There were fancy buttons on the interface, nice photographs, and lots of audio! Yes, I noticed all this because I was bored of the content, it drawled on and one with “no brainer” MCQs sprinkled in between.

Such courses make eLearning very uninspiring. While technology can supplement eLearning, it cannot be the sole factor driving it. You can have state-of-the-art classrooms but the students will not learn if you have a bad teacher and a badly designed curriculum.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Understand Training Needs First, Propose Solutions Later!

We do not prescribe “e-learning”! We provide learning solutions! And this is what all learning companies must do. Help the client find a solution by understanding the problem. Many a times, clients realize that “elearning” is not the “only” solution. Clients may also realize that “training” is also not the solution. That’s perfectly fine because only then is the solution most effective.

Today, most corporate is bitten by the “train-the-shit-out-of-people” syndrome. While this helps the corporate use its training budget, this also ensures that they have scared the learners enough to keep them away from “genuine” training programs. Most often, organizations believe that training is the solution to all HR, skills, productivity, performance, personnel problems, or even cultural problems. They either fail or do not want to analyze the training needs of the people.

I sincerely believe that before recommending a solution, a learning company must undertake “Training Needs Analysis” (TNA). Companies who provide learning solutions should encourage clients to first analyze the need for training and then opt for the right training approach.

Sometime back I met a client who is in the medical transcription business. It’s a good business to be in! But as with all business, they had trouble finding the right kind of people. And, if at all they found the right kind of people, they had problem getting them to deliver the kind of quality they wanted. And, if they managed to get them to deliver good quality, they had problem retaining those people. This is because this work required consistent quality day-in day-out with limited scope for variation in the nature of work.

This client, let me call them Medic, concluded that they wanted an LMS. Therefore, they started talking to elearning companies who could collate their training material on the LMS. Since they were very sure of their internal process and quality training, they were not willing to reconsider an introspection of their training process. All they wanted was to ensure that each employee had access to all training material at all times.

We decided to take the bull by the horn. Since we have the unique combination of usability and elearning, we sent them a proposal to analyze the training need of the employees. In our initial discussions with Medic, we could see several problems.


  1. They could not afford to release a resource for training beyond a particular training duration. If they could not afford this, how can they expect employees to take time out to train themselves?
  2. They had employees of average intelligence. Medic conducted small quiz and test sessions to reinforce memory. Medic assumed was that since employees were trained, they had the skills. However, most these employees (with average intelligence) had actually not learned in the initial training sessions. Remembering thousands of medical terms by rote was no mean achievement. They had a 500-page book with 1000s of medical terms and terminology that they were trying to memorize!! The initial training aimed at helping employees memorize the book; not the best of ways to train someone.

In view of the above problems, we submitted a proposal to Medic. An extract from the proposal follows. This proposal outlines the initial stages of TNA.


Proposal to Medic

Analyze the need of the learners: The first challenge is to understand the learners: their needs, their desires, and their approach to work and learning. Work and learning becomes so habitual to the people who do it that they often have difficulty articulating exactly what they do and why they do it.

Methods Proposed

Gathering data through Contextual Observation and Inquiry: This method uncovers who the learners really are and how they work and learn on a day-to-day basis. We conduct one-on-one field interviews with learners in their workplace. We observe people as they work and inquire into actions as they unfold to understand their motivations, strategies, and learning styles. The interviewer and learner, through discussion, develop a shared interpretation of the work and learning.

Contextual Observation and Inquiry is a specific type of field data gathering method from learners. It is usually done with one observer and one subject at a time. Subjects are observed and then interviewed in their context, when doing their tasks, with as little interference from the interviewer as possible. In contextual inquiry, it is actually much easier, because the main part of the interview consists of watching users do their work and interacting with colleagues, which doesn't steal much time from the users.

Shadowing: This is another method of gathering data. It is specifically designed to collect data from learners who are learning offsite. In this technique, the interviewer shadows the subject during and after office hours where the learner is expected to learn. In shadowing, the interviewer actually observes the learner while they try to learn without much interaction.


The various stages of the process are as follows:

1. Identification of learner groups

2. Identification of subjects according to demographics

3. Scheduling and preparing for the observation

4. Observation, inquiry, and shadowing

5. Assimilation of data

6. Analysis of data

7. Presentation of understanding

Benefits to Medic

Contextual Observation and Inquiry results would help Medic understand the problems and subsequently design the training such that the training ensures better quality of learning. This had major benefits:

1. Costs: Save training costs

2. Quality: Fewer errors in the delivered material

3. Satisfaction: Higher employee satisfaction


1. Preparation and Contextual Inquiry – One week

2. Report Preparation – One week

Problem Findings

1. A Word document that explains the observations, problems with explanation, and design directions. This document will have problems rated on learning severity.

2. A PowerPoint presentation that explains the problems faced by the learners in learning and instructional issues.


The findings would be submitted in the form of a Word document providing a brief outline of the possible solutions. Apropos Contextual Observation and Inquiry, Kern would work together with Medic to analyze good solutions for further implementation.