I have now been working as an independent consultant for over 5 years. These are the tools I use to run my business and work with clients. I’m a one-person business, so I need tools that let me manage the business side of things efficiently. This list is constantly evolving, and I have a list of solutions I need as well.
Collaboration and Communication
- Zoom: Zoom is my preferred platform for video conferencing. I have used all the other major tools (WebEx, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc.), but Zoom works with the fewest technical challenges. It also includes the option for calling in on a phone rather than just VOIP, so you can get better quality audio. For $150/year, I can host unlimited high quality group video calls with up to 50 people.
- Google Voice: I use Google Voice for my business phone number. This is a free service I can forward to my mobile and landline phones. I schedule my Google Voice number to go directly to voicemail outside of business hours .
- Dropbox and Google Drive: I use both Dropbox and Google Drive to share files with clients, depending on the clients’ preference.
- Graphic Stock: Graphic Stock is the source for many images for my blog posts and presentations. I use it sometimes for courses, depending on the content. It’s $99/year for unlimited downloads. I love it for backgrounds and basic images where I don’t have terribly specific needs.
- Can Stock Photo: When I need more specific images for courses (e.g., a non-white male teacher talking to a female elementary student), I mostly use Can Stock Photo. Credits are fairly reasonably priced, and subscriptions are also an option.
- Google Sheets: I use Google Spreadsheets to track my time, collect review feedback, and do light project management.
- Remember The Milk: I manage my daily to-do list with Remember The Milk.
- WordPress: This blog is on a free WordPress.com site; my business website and portfolio were built with WordPress and hosted by Dreamhost.
- Amazon: I use Amazon Affiliate links for my book reviews. I don’t make much income this way, but $250 a year is better than nothing.
What I Need
I have a few needs for software currently. If you have found a great solution for these, let me know in the comments.
- Basic Accounting: I have been using QuickBooks Self-Employed for tracking expenses. I like how it automatically syncs with my accounts and makes it easy to categorize transactions. Unfortunately, the program repeatedly and spontaneously insists on adding my personal accounts as well. They also recently broke their mobile app so I can no longer categorize transactions on my phone. I’ve had enough glitches in the last few months that I don’t quite trust it anymore.
Wave is the first one on my list to evaluate because it’s free. If I can do what I need with that, I don’t need to pay for something else. Several people have recommended Freshbooks, but it’s more expensive and I don’t think I’d use many of the features. Xero and FreeAgent have also been recommended. If you have experience with any of these, I’d love to hear about it.
- Project Management: I currently manage projects in Google Sheets. It’s fast and simple to set up, and it shares perfectly with clients. This works OK for basic projects and small teams. It’s hard to visualize what’s happening though, and I’m starting to hit the limits of what I can really do. I’m starting to investigate other options now. I used Easy Projects with a past client, and that might work. I’ve heard positive reviews for MavenLink. There are some other free and low-cost options as well.
What are your must-have tools? Any suggestions for accounting or project management?
As mentioned above, I use affiliate links on my blog. Several of the links above are affiliate or referral links. If you make a purchase after clicking these links, I get a small payment. Some of these links (including the Graphic Stock and Dreamhost links) also give you a discount.
When someone mentions scenario-based learning, do you automatically think of complex branching scenarios? While that’s one way to implement scenarios (and a very effective one!), I don’t think it’s the only option. A range of options are available, from passive to active. Even if you can’t convince your organization to invest in full-blown branching, you can find less intensive alternatives to incorporate scenarios and storytelling. Some of these options can work for both elearning and instructor-led training. In fact, you may already be using some of these methods.
When I take instructor-led courses, often the most valuable part of the training is the stories the trainer tells. The stories are often about how a real person applied this training in their jobs or about how a failure to apply principles caused problems. Stories with examples make the abstract concrete. It’s one thing to talk about customizing footers in Word; it’s another to tell the story of a past student who manually typed in page numbers for a 400+ page document because she didn’t know how to make it work. (That is a real example from my software training days. In her defense, it wasn’t straightforward numbering. Do you know how to add chapter numbers and how to exclude the first page from the count?)
Examples are the most passive method of using scenarios and storytelling, but they still work. They can be used both in classroom training and elearning. Examples can make concepts relevant, show why a topic is important, or show how others have solved problems.
Mini-scenarios, or one-question scenario assessments, are slightly more active than just listening to an example. Set up a short scenario and ask learners a multiple choice question. I frequently use this technique with clients who are just dipping their toes in scenario-based learning but aren’t ready to jump into full-blown branching or simulations. You can use this technique for practice or assessment, even in a linear elearning course. In ILT, use a scenario to pose a question to the class. Ask which choice they would make with a show of hands.
Here’s an example:
Andrew is a sales manager who has been struggling to motivate his team. He sent his team to a workshop where they learned about sharing stories about previous happy customers to improve sales. A few salespeople really like using this technique, but he wants everyone to start using it more. In the long term, he wants to change their attitudes about the technique.
What should Andrew do to encourage his team?
- Threaten punishment for anyone not using storytelling
- Offer a small reward for using storytelling
- Offer a large reward for using storytelling
Two Narrators with Decisions
Rather than using a single narrator for elearning voice over, you can use two narrators having a conversation to deliver content. Set up a story where one character has a problem to solve, and a more experienced character mentors and trains the first character how to improve. This is still mostly passive delivery, but it’s more engaging than traditional elearning. Adding a few questions where learners help the narrator solve a problem makes it more active and lets learners practice in a realistic context.
Case Study with Practice
If a case study is just read, it’s a passive example. If you use the case study as a prompt for practice, it’s more active. Case studies are used in both ILT and elearning. They can be used to start discussions (either in person or online) or for group work.
Branching scenarios are one of the most active methods of using scenarios for learning, short of simulations and serious games. Branching lets learners make choices and see the consequences of their actions. It gives them a safe space to fail and learn from mistakes.
Role Play or Simulation
Role play exercises and simulations are some of the most active ways to use storytelling. Simulations and role plays are more immersive and open-ended. Learners must make multiple decisions, and feedback comes in the forms of consequences and may be delayed. Role play exercises require skilled facilitation to keep everything running smoothly and to debrief afterwards. Simulations require more intensive development and resources. Both of these tools can be very effective at practicing skills to improve job performance.
What did I forget from my list? How are you using storytelling in your courses? Which of these methods do you find works best for your audience?
A reader asked a great question about the role of scenario-based learning in higher education. I’ve seen a number of good examples of storytelling and scenarios in university courses.
My first ID job was with an online university targeting nontraditional students. They focused on “authentic assessment”; Rather than traditional academic essays and exams, we used simulated work products for assessment. After all, if you’re getting a marketing degree, what’s more valuable–knowing how to write an essay or how to create a PowerPoint presentation? Those assignments used a scenario to provide context for the work students were doing. In some courses, all the written assignments had a single related scenario threaded through the whole course.
For example, in this social psychology course, students were placed in the role of Director of Operations. Through the course, they helped various departments and teams address specific challenges related to a concept of social psychology. Here’s one of the assignments for that course. Instead of writing an essay on cognitive dissonance, students wrote an article for an internal newsletter. While it’s not completely realistic, it does help connect
You’ve been asked by the Marketing Department to give them feedback from your customer service area about customer complaints and issues concerning their new product – an “All-In-One” coffee maker, toaster oven, and microwave.
Although your department has collected specific information concerning likes and dislikes of customers (as called in on your customer service toll-free number), you recognize that many of these calls could be reduced in time – or eliminated – if you helped the marketing department understand the concept called “Cognitive Dissonance.”
You’ve been asked to provide this feedback as an article for their departmental Weekly Update, and you busily begin this project. In your article for the Marketing Department, be sure to include the following information:
- In one paragraph, provide an overview of what you’ve been asked to do.
- Next, define the term “Cognitive Dissonance” and explain how it relates to customer purchases. (In business, cognitive dissonance is often referred to as “Buyer’s Remorse.”)
- Provide two or three customer examples of how Cognitive Dissonance affects customers and the types of reactions they have to your product.
- Finally, suggest some changes that can be made to the marketing materials to help reduce this effect on your customers and create and maintain long-term customer loyalty.
I have done some limited branching scenarios for higher ed courses, similar to what I do for corporate learning. One example was a course on how to teach online where students practiced handling student objections. The student reacts differently depending on how the instructor responds to their complaint.
Scenario-Based Discussion Questions
Short scenarios can make for more valuable discussion questions. Give students a scenario (or a few to choose from) and ask them how they’d respond. Scenario prompts for discussions often generate deeper conversations than simple questions. Providing a choice of multiple scenarios makes the discussion less repetitive (a plus for grading as well as for students).
I’ve used scenarios with group work too. For example, in one of my older courses for teachers, each group had a different scenario problem to solve related to privacy and social media. One scenario involved high school Spanish students who posted videos of their work on YouTube but received a rude comment. Another scenario involved middle school students who received a request from a teacher in another state to use part of a presentation they posted online. Each group worked together to create a plan of how to respond to the scenario. Scenarios like this can work especially well if your audience has different goals or needs. High school teachers can be grouped together for a high school scenario, while elementary teachers are grouped together for a separate scenario. In a business course, you might have different scenarios for managers and non-managers.
One really interesting idea was having students write stories themselves. This was used in a course on psychological development over a lifetime. Each week of the course focused on a different time of life, starting from before birth and continuing through aging and death. Every week, the students wrote part of a profile of an imaginary person for that development time, explaining how different factors affected their development (e.g., if their person’s mother drank while pregnant, that affected brain development; if the child had poor nutrition, that affected development). A number of the students resisted that assignment, which really pushed them out of their comfort zones. They said they “weren’t creative writers” or didn’t know how to tell stories. By the end of the course, the feedback was very positive though.
Tell me your story
Tell me your own story. Have you seen storytelling used in higher education? Do you have a great example of using technology for digital storytelling, or even of a low-tech story in a classroom? Let me know in the comments.
This is the recording of a presentation I gave to the Online Network of Learning and Development Professionals on September 28, 2016. The presentation covers:
- Why scenario-based learning works
- A range of options for using scenarios in elearning and classroom training
- When scenario-based learning is a good choice
- Tips for writing scenarios with the 4 Cs
- Examples of mini-scenarios and a two-narrator course
Interested in more? Check out all of my posts on storytelling and scenario-based learning.