The ooh versus the ah: tools, authoring, and learning

Joe Ganci, a prolific and generous e-learning consultant, just published a column in Learning Solutions Magazine: The State of Authoring Tools: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going.

I think it’s worth reading in full, especially since Ganci’s experience is deeper and far more recent than my own. His reflections on the origins of e-learning triggered a number of thoughts for me, and this post is a sort of extended comment on Joe’s article.

CC-licensed image by Patrick Finnegan
Oh, boy, we’ve got learning NOW!
(CC-licensed image by Patrick Finnegan)

He mentioned two of the ancestors of modern elearning: PLATO and TICCIT, both of which began in the 1960s. I first encountered mainframe-based computer-based training (as elearning was called then) in 1978 via the IBM Interactive Instructional System, and two years later was the head of a team developing training for Amtrak’s new reservation system, using a competing product, Boeing’s Scholar/Teach 3.

It’s telling that I couldn’t find a worthwhile link for either of these last two.

I also remember a long-ago conference where someone asked, “How many of you have seen PLATO?” Nearly every hand went up. “How many of your organizations use PLATO?” Not a one.

In 1979 I was put in charge of developing CBT for Amtrak’s new reservation system–to new it was still under development as we learned the authoring system and started designing the courses. Our IT department got the CBT software up and running, but we were left on our own when it came to using it. So I had to teach myself and then my team quasi-programming concepts like using variables to track progress, record quiz results, and control paths within a course.

I clearly recall the next stage of elearning, a proliferation of chip-laden devices rolling through trade shows like the Bandwagon Express. When Joe mentioned the two Authorware camps — icon-draggers and codeheads — I recalled a set of definitions that’s served me well for years:

Easy to learn: hard to use.
Ease to use: hard to learn.
Easy to learn and easy to use: won’t do what you want.

The reality is that the people who buy elearning systems (as with much other organizational technology) are not the people who have to use them, either as developers or, alas, as learners. Hence my agreement with this passage in Joe’s article:

Very often we hear vendors say that we no longer need instructional designers because the tools are so easy to use that Harry the Engineer can create the engineering course himself, or Susan the Physicist can build that physics lesson herself. The bean-counters in those organizations buying those tools are psyched at all the money they can save by not hiring or contracting instructional designers (and of course programmers) to fill their learning needs.

They don’t know, of course, that the resulting lessons are often at the very least anemic and at the worst nothing more than boring text and images punctuated with a Jeopardy game and quizzes. Learners end up expecting their eLearning to be onerous and are resigned to getting through it as quickly as possible and in some cases cheating if they can.

Some of those people may have taken a course I once worked on, aimed at supervisors. The client insisted that a lesson take two hours to complete–because that was the standard required by the state of California for the topic at hand.

This approach and similar ones have nudged corporate elearning ever closer to to the status of Death By PowerPoint, only with voiceover. And the inevitable Jeopardy review.

Formal training in organizations has always struggled between flashy features (the ooh!and effective learning (the ah!). Far too often, the ooh wins — so you’ve got terabytes of animated demos of corporate systems, with the apparently mandatory click-click imitation typing, yet almost never a way for people at work to practice safely in the actual systems (such as via a robust training mode built into the system).

I admire Joe Ganci’s optimism, and I couldn’t agree more with this opinion:

If you ask yourself, “What will my tool allow me to do for this audience and this content?” then you’re asking the wrong question. The real question should be, “What is the best approach to have this audience learn and so what interactions should I build?”



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