eLearning – how hard can it be?

Vintage drawing of journalist hack in an office.I was recently in a conversation with a training manager in another organisation about whether eLearning design is a specialism or whether, given ‘rapid’ content creation tools, it’s something anyone (in his case designers of face to face training) can do. After all we’ve probably all learned from videos on YouTube created by people with no training whatsoever. How hard can it be?  Never mind YouTube, this is nothing new. I had a similar conversation with a training manager in my first Computer-Based Training job in 1987! “The trainers all use word processing now, they should be able to handle whatever they need for building this stuff.” (No they didn’t, no they weren’t and it was TenCore – a line-by-line programming language!) Judging by recent restructures at my place of business, this lame dog of a story isn’t dead yet.

You’re in a dungeon cell. You know there’s a group of people in the next cell. You’ve been in that cell before and escaped. That’s why you’re here. If you could explain to them how to escape they could free themselves and free you. You’re gagged but you have a pad of paper and a pen, and there’s a hole in the wall so you can show them instructions. If they get it wrong, they’ll be caught and killed, and your only hope disappears. Using only words and pictures, how do you ensure that they can escape? Welcome to the world of the eLearning designer.

The training designer, putting together a face to face course, is in a partnership with the trainer. She gives the trainer structures, words and media. The trainer brings them to life. If the material isn’t quite right, the trainer can improvise and make it relevant to the audience. In music terms, the designer provides the bass and drums for the trainer to solo over. The eLearning designer doesn’t have that luxury. She’s the bass, drums, guitar, keyboards, voice, engineer and producer, with only one chance to get it into the charts.

Clive Shepherd describes the ideal eLearning designer as someone who
• likes making things
• can write clearly
• is well organised
• (most important) can devote serious blocks of uninterrupted time to the task.

Elsewhere he says that to be excellent, the designer needs tools, talent, training and, above all, time. I’d add another one he doesn’t (probably because it doesn’t begin with ‘t’): feedback. And I don’t mean from an internal QA process but from learners themselves.  The designer’s skills are more akin to writing advertising copy than creating course notes or PowerPoint presentations and we know how much user testing goes on in advertising.

Plus there’s all the tech to contend with! Clive says they need to be organised, but that takes on a whole different meaning when managing multiple media, file formats types, sizes etc.  They need a dogged determination to problem-solve, because we all know technology doesn’t always work as expected.  Most people’s eyes glaze over at such challenges, whereas the eLearning specialist refuses to be beaten and gets the logic on which such problem solving is usually based.

What about the YouTube videos?  eLearning is just one part of the wide field of online learning, and there is scope for all sorts of people with all sorts of skills and interests to contribute to online learning. But I maintain that eLearning – the creation of structured learning in tutorial, scenario or assessment formats for a specific business aim – is very definitely a specialism, a career specialism.

Now get out of that dungeon!

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