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.”

A New Year Filled With Magic

I came across this quote from Neil Gaiman, originally from 2001 but it’s made the rounds several time since then.

May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.

What we do as instructional designers is part science, part art. We can create those “flow” experiences that are so good that people lose track of the fact they’re learning.  I hope this year you create something so magical that you surprise even yourself.

Nature's magic

Image Credit: Nature’s Magic by photophilde

Best and Worst ID Projects

What are your most successful and least successful ID projects? Two graduate students have asked me this in interviews, and it’s a good question for reflection.

Most Successful

One of my favorite courses was an online graduate course on cultural competence for K-12 teachers. The evaluation for that course asked if it was a “transformative” experience for students. I knew I was setting a high bar when I wrote the evaluation, and I expected that most students would say that they learned from the course but that it didn’t really transform their teaching. However, about two thirds of the students said this course was truly transformative; it made them completely rethink their approach to teaching.

It was a challenging course, and it really pushed people out of their comfort zones. That’s where the real learning happens regarding diversity though. We used storytelling successfully in that course to bring the theory to life and help people make emotional connections. Students also told many of their own stories and shared experiences in the discussion forums. I consider this one of my most successful projects because it really inspired people to change.

Screenshot from the diversity course

Part of a story used to teach identity development in the cultural competence course

Least Successful

One of my very first freelance projects was not successful, although it was an excellent learning experience for me. I made a number of mistakes that I now know to avoid. It was a subcontracted project, but I didn’t have a detailed Statement of Work (Mistake #1). I briefly discussed a scenario-based approach with the owner of the contracting company, and I thought he understood what I planned (Mistake #2). The client reviewed and approved the storyboard, but the owner never looked at anything until I had the full Captivate course completed. I didn’t make sure I got sign-offs from the owner at each stage (Mistake #3).

He was aghast that I hadn’t created a traditional “click next” page turner course and demanded (in all caps) that I scrap everything and completely recreate the whole course over a weekend. Since I couldn’t complete that amount of work in his time frame, I offered to either do a smaller revision over the weekend or a full revision in two weeks. He wouldn’t accept that his demand was impossible, so I didn’t get paid for the rest of the project. I know now to have better agreements in place, especially regarding reviews and revisions. If the owner had reviewed the course at the storyboard stage or we’d had a better definition of the course in the agreement, I’m sure we could have come up with a solution that worked for everyone.

Your Best and Worst?

What are your best and worst ID projects? What have you learned from those experiences?

Creating Visual Stories That Resonate

These are my live blogged notes from the webinar Training Online: Creating Visual Stories That Resonate by Nancy Duarte. My side comments are in italics. Any errors, typos, and incomplete thoughts are mine, not Nancy’s. Check out Cammy Bean’s notes too.

She started with her personal story, told mostly with old photos on the slides and very little text

Story: likeable hero, encounters roadblocks, emerges transformed

Why are so many presentations bad? We use presentations to create reports–dense “slide-uments”

When you need to persuade, use a story

Every story should have a beginning, middle, and end, with a turning point to move between sections

The presenter is not the hero of the story: the audience is the hero. They are the ones who have the power and must decide to take action. You are the mentor (she showed Yoda on Luke’s back while talking about mentors)

Joseph Campbell story structure

  • Ordinary world
  • Call to adventure
  • Refusal of call
  • Meeting with the mentor–this is a turning point

Freytag’s dramatic story structure; has a shape.

She wondered if great presentations had a shape like this

  • What is
  • What could be (the gap between this and what is is the “call to adventure”)
  • Keep going back and forth between these two

An image of this shape is found in this summary of Duarte’s book

This shape can be used as an analysis tool She analyzed a 90-minute speech by Steve Jobs, who kept the audience riveted, laughing or clapping about every 30 seconds.

Jobs was passionate about his product and constantly marveled at it during the speech

STAR moment: Something They’ll Always Remember

Same kind of analysis for the I Have a Dream speech. Lots of pauses, more like poetry than a traditional speech. King had a rhythm to his speech.  Color coded analysis for the words: repetition; metaphor, visual words; familiar songs, scripture, literature; political references. He moved back and forth between what is and what could be at the phrase level at “I have a dream”; makes more excitement. Familiar references touch something that already resonates within the audience.

The stakes are higher now. It used to be that you could get away with crappy presentations because everyone else is crappy too. Now, there are books and best practices, and TED presentations set the bar higher. Twitter also sets the bar higher; the audience no longer has to suffer alone. They have a back channel and can revolt against a presenter. The audience can say cruel things. (example tweets from the disastrous #heweb09 keynote). Back channel can be good too; people may move to a good presentation they hear about on a back channel at a conference.

Don’t stay trapped in the roadblocks section of your own story. Push through and emerge transformed.

We need to find what we are passionate about to change the world.

Question: What do you do when you’re not fighting for human rights or a product that can’t be marveled at like the iphone?

Answer: some people really need to have passion and some don’t. Everyone needs to be passionate about something, but it may not be work related. People won’t invest in their communication skills if they aren’t passionate.

Question: How much time do we need to invest in our communication?

Answer: If you are given something you need to present in 3 days, it’s probably not high stakes. Categorize what is really important and what isn’t, and fight for the ones that are important. When you are launching your new 5-year vision, or making a big sale, you need to put a lot of time in.

Question: Going back to your “present in person” idea from the beginning, what about globally dispersed teams that don’t meet in person?

Answer: Plan and prepare. She stood up in front of pictures of people to practice so she would talk more like face to face in this online format. Your biggest competitor with virtual presentations is their inbox; if you aren’t more interesting than their inbox, they’ll be reading email. Think about getting their attention back. Break it into very small “Halloween candy size” bites to keep them engaged.

Question: You mentioned investing time in improving communications. What are ways people can invest in their skills?

Answer: Be a consumer of good information. You also need to practice it. They have workshops, other people do too–toastmasters

Question: Is there a time limit on keeping interest?

Answer: Depends on the speaker. Some can hold it for much longer. Emotionally charged content can engage people for longer.

Question: Who is your favorite storyteller?

Answer: Several favorites: Cheryl Sandberg (COO Facebook) is one

Question: Are there differences between people in how interested they are in stories? Are women more interested in stories than men?

Answer: Women may have a higher capacity for emotional content. There are stories as little anecdotes, overall themes, or story structure. You need to know your audience. Emotionally charged content may not work with biochemists. Everyone is human though, and everyone responds to story if it applies.

Question: How many slides should you use?

Answer: It depends. Keep one idea on a slide. If you have 5 ideas on a slide, the audience will read ahead and think you are slow. Slide count doesn’t really affect presentation length; if you click fast, you may have a lot of slides. This was about 75 slides for about 35 minutes of presentation.

Question: What do you do with SMEs who want to include everything in their presentation? How do you help them chunk content into smaller bits?

Answer: Slides are free. It’s not like you’re printing and more slides is more money to print. Sometimes a slide does need more information. They usually do printouts for dense information so they walk away with it rather than trying to cram it on a slide. Put a picture of the handout on the screen and tell people to look at the handout instead of looking at dense text on a slide.

Question: What is the greatest lesson you have learned from a webinar that didn’t go well?

Answer: Technology glitches. She had 25 people in the room, 200 online. It was distracting. She didn’t do a technical walkthrough first. Energy is really hard when you are the speaker and everyone else is muted. You have to keep your own energy very high.

Question: Back to the sailing analogy: how do we use the wind resistance idea to catch the audience’s attention?

Answer: The best way is to grab a few coworkers or the potential audience members. Let them think about ways people might resist. Get people who are comfortable being honest about resistance and reactions.

Question: How do your in person presentations differ from what you do in a webinar?

Answer: She really feeds on audience energy, but she tries to not have much gap. She describes things more visually when presenting online to make up for physical presence.

Question: How do you build this in written materials? Can we use this storytelling in emails or other communication?

Answer: Yes, this can work in other forms of persuasion. Her book resonate follows this form on every page, and then the book follows the form.

Question: Best practices for hybrid live/virtual audiences?

Answer: Make sure the technology works. Acknowledge that people who are calling in are humans too to make them not feel like they are outside looking in.

Revisiting Learning Styles

As part of David Kelly’s Learning Styles Awareness Day, I’m revisiting the idea of learning styles. I admit that when I was taught learning styles in my education program, I didn’t question it. It made intuitive sense, and I’d never heard a real criticism of the theory. When I started digging into the research though, I realized that the research support for learning styles is pretty flimsy.

rhythm on a whiteboardIf I think back to the way learning styles were taught to me though, it was never applied the way that the theory is “officially” supposed to work. The most common idea is that people have some sort of style, and if you match that style they will learn better. That’s what Will Thalheimer’s still-unanswered research challenge asks for: something where individuals receive training matched to their style. If you’re a visual learner, you would only receive learning via visual methods; if you’re an auditory learner, you’d listen to everything you learn, etc.

That was never how it was applied in the classroom though. For K-12 classroom applications, learning styles were really about providing multiple methods of learning for everyone in the class. In a physical classroom, you didn’t have the option of individualizing everything, so you tended to look for ways to hit the visual and auditory at the same time or for multiple activities to reinforce the same content.

As a music teacher, that might mean something like teaching rhythms through multiple channels. I’d start by having students listen to me chant and clap a rhythm (auditory), then have them echo that rhythm back (auditory and kinesthetic). After several minutes of echoing rhythms with a specific type of pattern, I’d draw a rhythm on the chalkboard (yes, actual chalk) and connect how it looks to how it sounds (visual and auditory). Then we’d practice reading some rhythms with similar patterns, with them looking, chanting, and clapping all together.

If I was teaching music today, I’d do that same kind of lesson, just not because of learning styles. That’s all based on the Kodály method, which does have research support (at least as far as I know; I haven’t dug into it since I rarely teach music anymore). But the idea of approaching concepts from multiple angles with different methods and media still makes sense. It isn’t because I’m matching to a particular style; it’s because I’m helping everyone learn through multiple channels. This might be what Tom Stafford from Mind Hacks is getting at when he says “Having thought about learning styles helps teachers improve their teaching and also helps increase their confidence and motivation.” I really wish he provided a citation for the idea that thinking about learning styles helps teachers improve their teaching though; I’d like to know whether that’s just his opinion or something with data to support it.

So what does this mean for me as an instructional designer today, rather than a K-12 music and band teacher? As an instructional designer, I basically ignore learning styles. I do think about presenting information with both visuals and audio, but that’s more based on cognitive load theory than learning styles. I’m also working to do better at visual presentation with graphics and not just words, because that is supported by research. As Judy Unrein noted “…humans are such overwhelmingly visual creatures that if we simply catered better to that one sense, we could improve the vast majority of our designs.”

Judy’s idea of focusing on interaction preferences is an interesting one. People do have different preferences, and those preferences can change based on the context (and the type of content, I would add). Giving learners some control over how they interact with the training does seem beneficial. If we don’t lock down the navigation, they can choose which parts they really need. In spite of the research, I personally find audio in e-learning to be generally obnoxious, so if I can turn it off and read the captions instead, I almost always will do that instead. I can read much faster that you can read to me, thank you very much, so I’m annoyed if you don’t give me the option of reading.

What about you? Is there anything in learning styles that you find useful in your own practice, or is it something you’ve abandoned in favor of other ideas?

Image credit: rhythm by billaday