Top Ten Tools for Learning 2014

Jane Hart is collecting her eighth annual list of top tools for learning. You can vote for your top tools until September 19, 2014. I haven’t done my list in a few years, but you can see my past lists from 20112009, 2008, and 2007.

My list is divided into personal learning and course design/development.

Gun Barrel Proof House, Banbury Street, Digbeth - 10 mph sign

Personal Learning

Feedly is my RSS reader of choice since the demise of Google Reader. I read on my smartphone much more in the past, and Feedly’s mobile app fits in my workflow.

Diigo is my social bookmarking option. Diigo automatically generates my ID and e-Learning bookmarks posts. People are sometimes amazed at how quickly I can find resources for various topics; Diigo is what lets me put my hands on links from my library in a hurry.

LinkedIn, especially LinkedIn groups, is a source for many useful conversations and resources.

Google Search is one of the first places I go when I need to learn something specific or am researching courses and clients.

WordPress is my blog host. Even when I’m sporadic in posting, WordPress is a great tool for personal reflection. I appreciate the active community and constant improvements to the platform. My business website and portfolio were also built with WordPress.

Course Design/Development

Microsoft Word isn’t exactly the most glamorous tool here, but it is a tool I use regularly for design documents, storyboards, and other projects for clients.

Microsoft PowerPoint isn’t particularly exciting either, but it’s still a tool I use for storyboard, mockups, simple graphics, flowcharts, and more. Once in a while I actually use it for presentations too.

Google Docs is where I keep track of my time spent on projects, create quick drafts, and other tasks.

Moodle is the LMS used by several of my clients. Although my primary freelance work is designing courses, I do some LMS consulting as well. Almost all of that is helping clients use Moodle more effectively. The active community for this open source tool and the numerous free tutorials and resources are a huge benefit for me when I’m working in Moodle or Totara (a corporate version of Moodle).

Skype is one of my primary tools for keeping in touch with clients. If I have a question for them or they have one for me, a quick message on Skype can often keep a project moving. I use video calls and screen sharing regularly as well.

Image Credit: Gun Barrel Proof House, Banbury Street, Digbeth – 10 mph sign by Elliott Brown

First Steps on My Instructional Design Journey

“What do you mean, there’s no textbook? What are we going to teach from?”

It was January of my first year teaching K-12 music and band. The questions came from the choir teacher, Cathy (not her real name).  Cathy had been hired mid-year to replace the previous choir teacher, who resigned over winter break. Cathy was in a state of disbelief. We taught parallel sections of a music appreciation course, but we needed to write the content ourselves. She simply couldn’t fathom it: how could the two of us create not just worksheets and tests, but reading assignments and projects too? How could we create an entire curriculum?

High School Music RoomI admit it; I’d been pretty nervous about it myself at the beginning of the school year. I loved the opportunity to stretch the band students with some music theory and history, but wasn’t quite sure how I’d manage with no textbooks, no curriculum materials, and no budget. This was a pilot course, so I had nothing from the previous teacher to build on either. The choir teacher also had a section of music appreciation, so at least I had someone to collaborate with. However, we needed to write everything from scratch.

Before the school year started, Betty (the first choir teacher–also not her real name) purchased some materials for a unit on rock history. It was too basic for high school students, but it gave us a six-week head start on pulling together more appropriate content for the rest of the year. For first semester, we alternated creating materials for units. I pulled out my jazz history notes from college and wrote an overview, timeline, and bios; Betty built a unit around musicals from her expertise. It consumed a lot of time, especially since we were researching and writing basically everything the students read. After all, we were effectively writing our own mini-textbook. But it was also a lot of fun.

Second semester came around. Betty was gone, and Cathy started teaching. For two weeks, she asked me nearly every day where the textbooks were. I suspect she imagined I was hiding them from her, playing some elaborate prank. Eventually, Cathy decided she wasn’t willing to put in the time to create content herself, even with my help. She purchased a collection of worksheets and taught from those in precise linear order for the rest of the year, never straying from the planned sequence.

I continued creating content on my own for my section of music appreciation. For one of my favorite projects from that course, students planned a virtual orchestra “concert,” including selecting music, determining the order, and writing program notes. The authentic assessment engaged the students more than any other project that year.

That work writing a mini-textbook helped me realize how much I enjoy creating curriculum. It’s similar to the work I do now as an instructional designer. I’m no longer the content expert as I was then; that’s what we have SMEs for. Writing for face-to-face teaching isn’t the same as writing for online, and writing content to teach yourself isn’t the same as writing content for someone else to teach or for self-paced e-learning.

Being forced to create all those learning resources from scratch was part of my journey to becoming an instructional designer, even though I’d never even heard of ID at the time. I’m still researching, writing, and creating, just like I was then, trying to craft great learning experiences. That is the essence of what I do as an instructional designer. And I still think it’s fun.

Image: High School Music Room from Rob Lee’s photostream

Time Estimates for E-Learning Development

One skill I’m constantly trying to improve is estimating how long it will take to complete a project. Because I work for myself, I have to create good estimates. If I don’t, I either bid low and lose money or bid high and lose a project.

The two sources I use for benchmarks are Bryan Chapman’s research and Karl Kapp’s ASTD research. Of the two, I usually go for Chapman’s data, since it’s broken down with more detail. I find it helpful to refer clients to these sources, especially if they think training development should take barely any time.

Time

I also track my own time for every project I create, so I can compare my actual numbers to the benchmarks. I use a time tracking template that lets me analyze my time on different tasks and projects. That’s the best situation, but I don’t have enough data for all types of projects. I also want to verify my personal numbers against the benchmarks.

For example, let’s say a client asks me to convert an existing full day training program to self-paced e-learning. This will be mostly linear with some interactivity and no branching scenarios. A “full day” or training in this case means 6 hours of actual content. The content itself is in pretty good shape; there’s slides, a participant guide, and a facilitator guide, and it’s all fairly complete. There’s no video, only limited animation (the kind I can build in Storyline or Captivate), and professional voice talent will be used.

I’m going to assume this can be compressed to about 3 hours of e-learning. That’s 50% of the original time, which is a standard estimate backed up by research. This project is on the low end of a Level 2 by Chapman’s study, so the ratio for development is 127:1 (that is, 1 hour of e-learning takes 127 hours to develop). For 3 hours, that’s 127 * 3 or 381 hours total work. That’s the work for everyone on the team, not just me.

Chapman’s study provides this breakdown of tasks and the percentage of time for each (see slide 18).

  • Front End Analysis: 9%
  • Instructional Design: 13%
  • Storyboarding: 11%
  • Graphic Production: 12%
  • Video Production: 6%
  • Audio Production: 6%
  • Authoring/Programming: 18%
  • QA Testing: 6%
  • Project Management: 6%
  • SME/Stakeholder Reviews: 6%
  • Pilot Test: 4%
  • Other: 1%

Thinking Through the Numbers

I always weigh different factors to tweak these benchmarks.

  • Front end analysis is 9% of 381 or about 34 hours. I’ll assume less than that because it’s a conversion and a lot of analysis has already been done with the face-to-face version. (Yes, I know that’s not always realistic. Just because someone already has a course doesn’t mean they actually did any needs analysis. Pretend with me that this client did, and I know the current course is meeting their needs.) I’ll call this analysis 20 hours.
  • Instructional design is 13% or about 50 hours. I’ll call this 45 hours for me, assuming the SME will need to spend some time reviewing.
  • Storyboarding is 11% or about 42 hours. I’ll estimate 40.
  • For graphics, my estimate depends on how much custom development I’m doing and how much will be provided by the client. If the client has a standard template and a large library of images for me to use, this might be 20 hours. If I’m creating a custom template and a lot of graphics, this should be 45. Let’s assume that although the content in the slides is good, the graphics are awful, and I’ll create a template myself. I’ll use 45 hours for this example.
  • Since there’s no video, I use 0 for that value. Audio will be created by someone else, so I won’t include that in my estimate either.
  • Authoring/Programming is 18% or 69 hours. That actually seems a little low for building in Captivate or Storyline, based on my experience, although I’m assuming for this example that the course relies heavily on templates. I would assume at least 75 hours, maybe more.
  • QA Testing is 6% or 23 hours.
  • Project Management is also 6% or 23 hours. Depending on the project, I do more or less project management. I’ll assume 10 hours for this example.
  • The Pilot Test is 4% or 15 hours. I assume other people will be involved in that test, so I’ll estimate 6 hours. Generally a review of a course takes me 2-3 times the length of the course.

Adding it all up, it’s 264 hours. How much padding I add to that estimate depends on a number of factors. If I’ve worked with the client before and I know they’re always responsive and very clear with feedback, I might just round up to 265. If the client seems unclear about what they want or I suspect that reviews and revisions will be complicated, I’ll add more and probably call it 275 or more.

The above breakdown also helps me determine an estimate if I’m not creating the entire course. I often work in teams with other multimedia developers, so I might only be doing the analysis, design, storyboarding, and project management. It’s easy to take those components and come up with a rough estimate for my portion of the course.

Resources

These resources may help you with your own time estimates.

Image Credit: Time by Alan Cleaver, on Flickr

Learning the Language: Why IDs Don’t Need To Be SMEs

My daughter was born last May. “E” was in a hurry to meet us and arrived two months early. When my water broke, we rushed to Duke University Hospital. I quickly received a dose of betamethazone and a bolus of magnesium. E spent over a month in the NICU. My conversations were suddenly filled a whole new language: brady, desat, gavage, TPN, bili lights, central line, kangaroo care.

E at 5 days old

E at 5 days old. She was breathing on her own, without oxygen support, but still connected to a lot of wires and sensors. She was so small that even the preemie diapers were a little big.

My husband and I continued working while she was in the NICU. I had to finish up a few projects before my maternity leave could really start. I pumped every three hours, so I never got more than two hours of sleep at a stretch that whole month. We drove 40 minutes to Duke every afternoon to visit her in the hospital, while juggling work and getting the house ready for her to come home. The staff at Duke were wonderful and helpful, but I was completely exhausted.

As fatigued and stressed as I was, I quickly learned the language of the NICU. In the first week, five separate nurses or doctors at Duke asked me if I had a medical background. I seemed so familiar with the terminology that they assumed I had formal training. I always chuckled and explained that I have no medical background, but learning the language of different fields is part of what I do for a living. As an instructional designer, it’s my job to be able to work with experts in lots of different subjects. The fact that multiple healthcare practitioners were fooled into thinking I’m one of them is just a sign that I’m a competent ID.

A few years ago, I wrote a course on bulldozer safety. I’ve never even ridden on a track dozer, but working on that course expanded my vocabulary: tramming, trunnion, berm, FOPS, frog, grouser, windrow, ROPS. Every organization also has its own lingo. At Cisco, I’d ask people to “pass me the ball” during meetings so we could finish before our “hard stop” and discuss what’s changed in CSAP since the program was “put on pause.” Like any big organization, Cisco uses hundreds of acronyms, and the same acronym in one group can have a different meaning in another team.

Learning those acronyms and becoming familiar with the vocabulary of your organization and field is part of the job of an instructional designer. It’s actually one of my favorite aspects of being an ID; one of the reasons I enjoy freelance work is that I’m constantly learning new things from a variety of sources. Lifelong learning is a major perk of this career.

I’ve seen people argue that IDs should have content expertise in the fields where they develop courses. Usually it’s in job listings where a company requests something like “5-10 years experience in healthcare or pharmaceuticals.” I’ve even seen someone in the learning field argue that content expertise is an “essential” qualification for doing this job. Personally, I think that’s completely wrong. It’s not essential; it’s not always even beneficial.

I agree with Connie Malamed: Instructional designers are content neutral. Connie explains some strategies for gaining knowledge when you’re not a mini-SME: preexisting content, instructional analysis, task analysis, research, and interviews. Even without the motivation of being responsible for the well-being of a teeny tiny human being, you can do the research and learn enough about a field to ask SMEs intelligent questions. That’s often the real key: do you have the right language to ask the right questions? We don’t need to be SMEs; that’s why we have a SME on our team. Our role is to be experts in learning, not on the content. We do have to learn about the field so we can collaborate with SMEs and develop content, but we don’t need the true depth of expertise of a SME. As long as we can learn the language, we can ask the right questions and explain our ideas in a way that others can understand them. We don’t need to be SMEs; we need to know how to talk to SMEs.

E is now 10 months old and doing great. Her language skills right now are focused mostly on blowing raspberries and saying ba-ba-ba-ba, but that’s a fun language for us to play with together.

E at 9 months

E at 9 months. She’s getting so big! You can’t quite read it, but her top says, “This is my little black dress.”

Tips for Storytelling in Learning

These are my live blogged notes from the InSync Training Byte session “Once Upon a Time, Storytelling WAS Learning” by Tom Campbell and Karin Rex. My side comments and thoughts in italics. Any errors, typos, or awkward phrasing are mine, not Tom and Karin’s. You can watch the recording here.

Tom started with a story about how he visualized his presentation. What tool did he use for the animated drawing of figures and captions? Bought on Shutterstock? Self deprecating humor, good specifics to help us visualize the setting with him.

Why don’t we just give learners a book and command them to read and learn? We need to make the material come alive by adding context through teachable stories.

Why are we more engaged when we hear a narrative? Brains switch off when we see a slide full of bullet points. Our brains are active for language processing but nothing else. When we hear stories, our brains light up all over–we experience a story as if we were part of it. Our brains are wired to learn from stories.

Why do stories work? It’s a narrative about cause and effect. We’re constantly making up little stories about our lives and how things happen.

How do we come up with stories to make content come alive?

  • Ask SMEs for real examples
  • Reimagine classic stories and retell them

Example classic story: are you laying bricks or building a cathedral? Retold for instructional designers on focusing on the big picture and business impact rather than getting lost in the details of “order taking” for developing courses.

The Story Arc, as drawn by a Learning 2.010 Workshop Participant

Story Arc

Story Arc (table adapted from “Once Upon a Keyboard” by Karen Scott)

  • Introduction
  • Conflict/problem
  • Complication, rising action
  • Climax
  • Resolution, conclusion

TED Talks Storytelling Techniques by Akash Karia: Great TED Talks include great storytelling to share a message without the audience feeling like they’re being lectured or preached to

  • Get off to a good start. Don’t start with the presenter intro. Start with a story.
  • Add a surprising element. Conflict–two strong opposing forces where the outcome isn’t certain.
  • Be detail oriented, craft mental movies. Give sensory information. Show don’t tell. Engaging the senses helps learners remember the story. Specific details add internal credibility to the story.
  • Stay positive. The hero should succeed (usually). More motivational and inspiring to action, doesn’t leave learners on an emotional low.
  • Spark the right key takeaway. What do you want to change?

Psychological Learning Process. Make things stick.

  • Support attention
  • Activate prior knowledge
  • Manage cognitive load
  • Promote rehearsal and encoding
  • Practice retrieval

Stories help us activate prior knowledge, minimize cognitive load so more brain power focused on learning transfer.

3 tips for presenters: Stand up! Speak up! Sit down while they still like you!

Questions and Answers

Q: If not using bullet points in a PPT presentation, what do you use to display stories?
A: Full bleed photos are good when you can. Visuals to match the stories

Q: If you have hours of material to cover, how many stories?
A: Think about one story for every major objective

Q: Story-based e-learning with no audio
A: Use closed captioning. Just having the picture of a character and having that thread increases retention (cited Karl Kapp citing research saying 80% increase–I need to verify this stat)

Resources:

Image Credit: The Story Arc by Wes Fryer