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An industry leader speaks out against boring, ineffective, costly e-learning and provides practical guidelines for creation of powerful, e-learning-based performance solutions.
e-Learning is emerging rapidly in schools, businesses, and at home. Millions are being invested in this new, widely available technology purported as the solution to learning challenges. Dr. Michael Allen, commonly considered the father of modern interactive learning, raises concerns about misuses of the technology, missed opportunities, and money wasted on boring, ineffective e-learning. The book offers specific, pragmatic, common-sense approaches to guide the development of successful technology-assisted learning. A free CD-ROM is packed with sample applications. Michael Allen's Guide to e-Learning enables business executives to become discerning e-learning investors and instructional designers to create meaningful performance solutions.
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About the Author
MICHAEL W. ALLEN is a recognized pioneer and leader in the design of interactive multimedia learning tools and applications. He is the founder and former chairman of Authorware, Inc. (now Macromedia, Inc.). He is currently Chairman and CEO of Allen Interactions Inc., which builds interactive learning systems, develops custom courseware, and provides multimedia consulting and training.
Read an Excerpt
Michael Allen's Guide to E-LearningBuilding Interactive, Fun, and Effective Learning Programs for Any Company
By Michael W. Allen
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-20302-5
Chapter OnePLAIN TALK
Success is getting people to do the right thing at the right time!
Did I shout loudly enough? e-Learning is about success, both individual and organizational. It's about behavioral change-again, both individual and organizational. It's also about inspiration, competency, and fun with technology. It's where I've lived for well over 30 years, and I invite you to join me in reviewing the state of e-learning from a very personal perspective.
I'd like to show you the often untapped potential I see in e-learning and share with you some lessons I've learned about how to make e-learning a valuable competitive investment for any success-oriented organization.
There is a reason for e-learning. Actually, there are many reasons for e-learning, ranging from practical to idealistic. Pundits note that in our information-based economy and society, e-learning may be the missing integration that will most dramatically change our lives. It will allow us to learn what, where, and when we want to learn. It will provide choices in how we learn. It will make hard things easy and fun to learn. It will wrestle our intellectual laziness to the ground while helping each of us use more of our untapped capabilities. Life will be grand. Sure. And, with knowledge and skillsreadily acquired when the spirit moves us, we will blissfully pursue alternate careers on a whim.
The e-Learning Myth
Organizations sit down to study their primary goals and performance needs. They look at the products and services they want to provide; the fidelity of service or manufacturing that will be competitive, marketable, and profitable; and their current abilities to provide them. If they are not already performing at a sufficient level, questions of staffing, process, and management are reviewed. (See Figure 1.1.)
A strategic program is put into place, which likely includes training as a cornerstone. With excellent results systematically achieved, those responsible for the training take an honored seat at the executive table to help plan the next strategic advancement.
Right. Wake me when the dream is over.
Who's Kidding Whom?
To me, a long-term (many would simply say old) proponent, researcher, observer, and developer of technology-based learning applications, this goose-bump-generating hyperbole brings frustration and impatience. It's very nice to hear of such confidence in the future of our field. It's a future I've believed in for some decades now. The possibilities keep opportunities alive and cash flowing.
My high blood pressure results from a personal realization that prognostications of learning technologies and their applications continue to lollygag as futuristic fantasies. It doesn't seem to matter how much technologies for the delivery of effective interactive instruction evolve or how much we have learned about effective instructional design.
Boring instruction is not effective instruction. Minds wander, attention wanes, learners muddle through, maybe. When learners are through, they're through-relieved it is over and ready to escape to something else as quickly as possible. Little is retained. Needed behaviors have not been established. Rich associations do not exist for learners to remember key points. It's a waste. It's bad.
What is happening today is a lot of boring stuff. Boring instruction is being developed for electronic distribution in ever-increasing quantities. It is getting to more and more people more and more efficiently every day. The applications may have been designed following structures validated by research on human learning (although probably not), and they may be totally correct from a content accuracy point of view. They may be totally proper in terms of graphic design, typography, and grammar. But they are boring. Boring is bad. (See Figure 1.2.)
"Oh," you're thinking. "Everyone knows boring instruction is bad!"
Do they? Would people deliberately put out bad instruction? No, but they would and do put out boring instruction, so they see some difference. Bad isn't acceptable, but boring is.
When budgets are tight (and when aren't they?), an unwitting experiment ensues. Training has to get by on less. It isn't likely to become less boring on a reduced budget. So, if any development is done, more boring stuff is produced.
"Guess what?" one executive says to another. "Training did just fine with their reduced budget. I don't see any difference, really. Of course, they're complaining that they didn't have enough resources to do it right, but it seems we're getting by just as well as before. Maybe we can cut training a little more! It doesn't seem to matter."
Entertaining Doesn't Mean Good
Of course, avoidance of boredom doesn't equate to good instruction either. In fact, many instructor-led training events get outstanding "smile-sheet" ratings because trainees have a great time. They enjoy lots of laughs and take home some little-known facts that are great for image enhancement, but nothing significantly changes behaviors, improves processes, or otherwise enhances functionality.
Providing a lively experience is a worthy goal. Boring is bad in the instruction business. Bored learners don't learn. Boring and effective are mutually exclusive attributes in learning. You can't be effective if your training is boring.
Effective versus Boring-Pick a Circle
Nobody consciously opts for Circle 2, the failure cycle (Figure 1.2), but if initial efforts at e-learning produce no meaningful, observable results of value, it's easy to believe that there are no good options here-that Circle 1, the success cycle (Figure 1.1), is a fantasy or is suited only to the very rich. At that point, Circle 2 becomes the functional road map and an entrapment that is difficult to break free from.
The failure of so many e-learning applications to produce recognized results (beyond the rapture of their developers) has led to some very wrong conclusions about e-learning. Some popular but misleading conclusions are:
e-Learning is boring by nature. The only interesting e-learning is that developed by a few creative people with generous funding and loose timelines.
e-Learning can't be developed quickly or responsively.
e-Learning can't be cost-justified.
This Just In: Good e-Learning Is Possible and Practical
Even if you haven't yet seen it done well, you need to know that e-learning can provide extraordinary performance enhancements. It can be cost-effective and very popular among learners. e-Learning can address some of the innumerable performance problems organizations face, while it can work at an individual level to help us all achieve more of our potential and a better quality of life. It doesn't do this often enough, of course, but it's possible.
Some of the things we know about good e-learning are very impressive, as noted in Table 1.1. Of course, not all e-learning has all of these attributes, as not all e-learning is alike and not all of it is good. In fact, too much of it is deplorably bad-needlessly bad, as is discussed throughout this book. But look again at the list of attainable e-learning attributes and benefits. It's an honest and impressive list.
While there is an undeniable upfront investment, the positive return on this investment can make e-learning one of the least expensive means of accomplishing critical organizational performance. With the right process, tools, and models, it can even be developed with amazing speed. It is the intent of this book, in fact, to reveal some of the secrets of accomplishing all these goals.
Ineffective Training Is Costly
Ineffective training is bad for more than just the obvious reasons. You may be thinking, "Of course it's bad. Who doesn't know that?" Well, a lot of ineffective training is being offered. Either managers don't think ineffective training is a problem, or they don't recognize bad training when they have it. Somewhere along the line, if people thought bad training was truly bad, wouldn't someone terminate those projects or at least prevent ongoing dissemination and use of poor learning applications? Instead, organizations become trapped in a downward spiral, dying within Circle 2.
I must point out that the business cost of ineffective e-learning goes far beyond simply losing all the money spent on it. The total cost can be many, many times the direct cost of e-learning and may easily soar to multiples of the combined costs of the poor e-learning and on-the-job training fix being provided. The final bill is a sizeable sum comprised of these tangible costs, plus all the costs of poor performance and missed opportunities.
What You Don't Know Can Kill Your e-Learning
One cause of the frequent failures is that the real reasons for undertaking e-learning projects are not defined, are not relayed, get lost, or become misinterpreted. Instead of guiding projects through to the end, the success-related goals of enabling new behaviors are cashed in for the pragmatic goals of simply putting in place something that appears to be a training program. Because executives are not sufficiently attuned to the criteria against which their e-learning solutions should be evaluated, the focus of development teams turns to what will be assessed: mastering the technology, overcoming production hurdles, and just getting something that looks good up and running-within budget and on schedule, of course. The budget and schedule become much more the focus than the original goals.
Surely operational success is the primary reason most e-learning projects are undertaken. Success comes from more responsive customer service, increased throughput, reduced accidents and errors, better-engineered designs, and consistent sales. It comes from good decision making, careful listening, skillful performance. Remember: Success for organizations and individuals alike requires doing the right things at the right times.
How do things run amok so easily? Two reasons: counterfeit successes (a.k.a. to-do list projects) and undercover operations (a.k.a. on-the-job training [OJT]).
To-Do List Projects
Unfortunately, many e-learning projects are to-do list projects. The typical scenario: People aren't doing what they need to be doing. Someone in the organization is given the assignment to get training in place. A budget is set (based on what, who knows?), and the clock starts ticking down to the target rollout date. The objective is set: Get something done-and, by all means, get it done on time and within budget. Announce the availability of training, cross the assignment off the to-do list, and move on to something else. Goal accomplished.
For the project manager given the assignment, the real reason for implementing e-learning easily transforms from the instigating business need of getting people to do the right things at the right times to the pressing challenge of getting the training project done. Since expenditures for training development and delivery are calculated easily, but training effectiveness is not quantified easily and rarely is measured, the project manager knows how the success of the project will be assessed. It will be measured by timeliness and cost control and probably also by whether learners like it and report positive things about it. It will be measured by how good it looks, how quickly it performs, and whether it's easy enough to use. Complaints aren't good, so safeguards are taken to make sure the training isn't too challenging and doesn't generate a lot of extra work for administrative staff or others. The absence of complaints is a win.
Again, the original, purposeful goal of the project is no longer the operating goal. The project quickly becomes somebody's assignment to get done (a to-do list project), and it will be a success-a "success," however, that will most likely fail to contribute significantly to the organization.
Indeed, many of the e-learning developers I know commiserate that no assessment of behavior change is likely to be assessed seriously and no assessment of the return on investment (ROI) is likely to be performed. In one recent study, for example (Bonk 2002), nearly 60 percent of more than 200 survey respondents noted that their organizations did not conduct formal evaluations of their e-learning. It would be very surprising if even 10 percent of organizations using e-learning actually conducted well-structured and executed evaluations. Most organizations use any training funds they can earmark for training for the development of additional courseware, rather than for evaluation of completed programs.
The Real Project
What does this say about the real reason the project is being done? You have to wonder: If people think it's so unlikely that any training program is going to be effective, perhaps the learning outcomes aren't the real reasons for offering them. Unspoken, covert, and perhaps subliminal rationales may include thoughts that some sort of formal training, regardless of its effectiveness, will be better than nothing. That is, the real reason for implementing the training program might actually be to have the appearance of providing training. Otherwise, employees would complain and even have cause to do so. By offering a training program-any training program-the burden shifts to the employee.
"What? You don't know how? Didn't you learn anything in the class we sent you to? You must not have been paying attention. We go to all the expense of providing you training and you're still not getting it? Better get on board fast!"
The likelihood of hearing such a comment may be low in actuality, because an employee would have to be caught not knowing what to do or voluntarily admit not knowing what to do even after taking the training provided. There are many reasons for employees to avoid such exposure, of course. So instead of speaking up, admitting lack of readiness, and enduring the consequences, they duck observation, quietly observe others, and, if experimentation and all else fails, surreptitiously interrupt coworkers to learn what's necessary-just enough, at least, to get by and avoid censure.
Unplanned On-the-Job Training: A Toxic Elixir for Poor Training
Formal training is delivered, observation suggests employees are able to perform, and no one is complaining. Success! Or maybe not. What's working may actually be unplanned on-the-job training, not the gratuitous, impotent, and probably boring e-learning that's been put in place primarily to demonstrate the company's recognition of techno trends.
Who's more anxious to learn than people trying to perform a skill, finding they can't do it, and fearing exposure? Nobody.
Excerpted from Michael Allen's Guide to E-Learning by Michael W. Allen Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Gloria Gery.
PART 1: THE BUSINESS PERSPECTIVE.
Chapter 1. Plain Talk.
Chapter 2. Context—The Possibility of Success.
Chapter 3. The Essence of Good Design.
Chapter 4. Getting There through Successive Approximation.
PART 2: DESIGN.
Chapter 5. Learner Motivation.
Chapter 6. Navigation.
Chapter 7. Instructional Interactivity.
About the Author.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Best book I've bought regarding e-learning development. A lot of very good information and his writing style is perfect for the material.