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😱🤯 4 moments of learning-design danger 🗓️⚾
Stealing some thoughts from Steal These Thoughts!
For this week’s edition of the Dispatch, I’m going to steal some thoughts from a recent newsletter by our friend Ross Stevenson.
As you might have gathered, we like Rosses here at Mind Tools. And while I normally wouldn’t advocate pinching another writer’s ideas, the name of Ross’s newsletter is literally ‘Steal These Thoughts!’.
So I’m going to accept Ross’s kind invitation and do exactly that… while adding a few thoughts of my own.
Last week, Ross S wrote a piece titled ‘💡 Fix These 4 Learning Design Mistakes’, which I liked for a number of reasons:
It had an emoji in the title, and emojis are cool. (I may have gone overboard this week.)
It highlights four of the most common issues we encounter when discussing new projects with clients.
It’s actually a little broader in scope than its title suggests, touching not only on learning-design pitfalls, but challenges in the way L&D manages and markets its products.
Rather than simply regurgitating the four mistakes Ross S identifies in his article, I want to explore them through the key moments in a typical project lifecycle. I’ll then explain how we help our clients navigate these moments, where their interventions are at the greatest risk of going off the rails.
😱 ‘We need some training!’
As Ross S points out in his newsletter, many L&D projects are driven by direct requests from the business. Usually, these requests are based on an assumption that training is the answer, even when it’s not entirely clear what the question is.
This is the first opportunity for things to go awry.
If L&D simply fulfills orders without taking the time to clarify needs or engage with end users, they’re essentially throwing training at the wall and hoping something will stick. Ross refers to this as the ‘spray and pray’ tactic.
By the time a project reaches our team at Mind Tools, someone has usually already decided that training is the solution. Instead of accepting this and ploughing ahead in blind faith, we like to position ourselves as ‘usefully ignorant’. This typically involves asking lots of questions (including ‘What would be the consequence of doing nothing?’ and ‘How might we make things worse?’). The answers to these questions might lead us to conclude that training is the solution, but we never assume that’s the case at the outset.
🤯 ‘People need to know this!’
Of course, what we’re trying to get at through these questions is a clear understanding of the business outcome the client is hoping to achieve. One of the four mistakes Ross highlights in his newsletter is ‘Not solving a real problem’ and, to me, this is the big one.
My favorite example of a ‘fake’ problem is usually formulated as something like ‘people just need to know this’. And maybe they genuinely do, but ‘people need to know this’ isn’t a problem statement.
To get to the heart of the real problem, we want to clarify: i) why people need to know this; ii) what behavior or action this knowledge is supposed to enable; iii) why people aren’t performing these behaviors or actions already. This final piece allows us to explore other, non-knowledge ‘gaps’ (to borrow a phrase from Julie Dirksen), like skills, motivation, habits, environment and communication.
With a clearer understanding of the problem in mind, we then look to establish success metrics for our intervention - if this is the problem we’re solving, how will we know if we’ve solved it?
🗓️ ‘See you in six months!’
Now that we’ve taken the time to identify the right solution to the right problem, we’re pretty much out of the woods, right? Well, not quite.
Whether you’re designing e-learning, simulations, or workshops, creating learning experiences takes time. And in that time, there’s a risk that the need you’re serving may become less relevant, particularly if you’re not regularly consulting with the business. Ross refers to this as ‘building in silo’.
To avoid this pitfall, we take an iterative approach to content development, hosting weekly check-ins with the project team to review progress, share feedback, and adapt our approach as new information emerges or needs change.
⚾ ‘Build it and they will come!’
L&D has a slightly weird relationship with engagement. On the one hand, we’re obsessed with measuring it, even when it doesn’t tell us anything useful about the impact of our interventions. At the same time, we don’t always think about how we’re going to generate it in the first place. As Ross puts it, we ‘launch the best thing since sliced bread but tell no one about it. Only to bemoan why no one is using it.’
Ideally, if you’re solving a real problem that you know learners care about, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get them to engage with it. But that doesn’t mean it will happen by magic, or that you can simply ‘build it and they will come’. This isn’t Field of Dreams.
If you’re struggling with any of these moments of learning-design danger and need some help, then contact email@example.com or reply to this newsletter from your inbox.
🎧 On the podcast
Have you ever found a learning technology that you were convinced was going to transform your organization, only to have your IT team act as a blocker? Maybe they were being difficult, but maybe you just hadn't involved them early enough?
In this week’s episode of The Mind Tools L&D Podcast, Jon Baxter, founder of Baxter Thompson Associates, joined Ross Garner and Owen to share the benefits of strategic partnering with IT.
You can hear the full episode here 👇🏼
📖 Deep dive
For various reasons, we’ve been experimenting with digital badges here at Mind Tools. So a recent study from researchers at Purdue University and the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa caught my eye.
In the study, the team explored the self-reported attitudes of graduate students in an online instructional design Master’s program. 211 of those students responded to a course improvement survey, and 122 of those - like us - work in corporate learning. The team also conducted 14 interviews.
What was interesting about the study is that digital badges were used to create an ePortfolio, demonstrating professional competency across up to 16 areas. In effect, these badges broke down the formal qualification (a Master’s degree) into a series of more discrete achievements: helping students not just gather credit but to leave the program with a demonstrable set of skills.
As one participant noted:
‘I like to be able to kind of see like, here’s my learning pathway even, and here’s the progress I’m making.... And so, it really helps me feel like, here’s this benchmark that I’m meeting along the way, here’s the progress I’m making, here’s how far I have to go. It just kind of pushes and motivates me...’
On the other hand, even though participants were instructional designers, their awareness of badges prior to the program was often limited. They found the process of gaining badges frustrating, and had concerns about implementing badges in workplaces that might consider them ‘juvenile’, difficult to administer and lacking in value.
We’ll report back on our own experiments with badging in due course.
Watson, S. L., Watson, W. R., Huang, W., Janakiraman, S., & Dufault, K. H. (2023). Student Attitudes Toward Digital Badges for Instructional Design Competency-Based Education. Social Education Research, 307-326.
👹 Missing links
For years, our pal Owen has been discussing the ‘replication crisis’ in social science: a process whereby a charismatic researcher finds a startling discovery, captures the imagination of millions with a TED talk, and is then criticized when no one can replicate their original finding. In this post, Tim Harford discusses the next chapter in this scandal, as big names on both sides of the debate become involved in a defamation case.
Our friend Will Thalheimer is working on a new book. In the book, Will writes as if he’s addressing a CEO, telling them how they can manage their learning function to get a competitive advantage. In this article, Will attempts to turn the tables by prompting ChatGPT to act as a CEO, and asking the AI to provide advice for L&D professionals. The conversation makes for interesting reading, not just for the suggestions ChatGPT makes, but for the way it responds to the prompts Will gives it.
Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has been investigating what makes people flourish. The answer? Good relationships that are nurtured over time. While this might sound straight forward, the trappings of modern life can make it difficult to carve out time for those we love. In 2018, for example, the average American dedicated 11 hours a day to solitary activities, such as watching television or listening to the radio. So, if there’s someone in your life whom you cherish and wish you could see more often, this is your prompt to pick up the phone and give them a call.
👋 And finally…
We often wonder how our end users feel about our workplace learning content, so use focus groups, interviews, surveys and observations to find out.
Or we could just check Instagram:
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