Diverse Characters In Learning Scenarios

In response to my post on Name Generators for Learning Scenarios, someone asked,

“Does it really matter if we choose John instead of Bob?”

Christina, a graduate student who critiqued my blog post said she wished that post went deeper and listed some unanswered questions.

“For example does the name have to be of a certain neutrality or a certain ethnicity? What about gender? What are the latest trends and best practices in regards to gender roles in instructional design materials?”

I would argue that the diversity of our characters and visuals should reflect the diversity of our audience. When in doubt, I tend to err on the side of being more diverse in my representation rather than more homogeneous. I’d rather show an aspiration of diversity, even if organizations haven’t reached that goal of diverse representation in real life yet.

Names have power. Different names have different implications of age, race, background, etc. If you only ever call your characters Bob and John, you never represent women or anyone that isn’t a white, middle-aged, middle class man. If your audience is mostly 20-something and Latino, they’re going to have a harder time identifying with your characters.

Being part of a diverse team makes us smarter and more innovative. Diversity is good for business and for society as a whole. As instructional designers, I think we have a social responsibility to support diversity in the learning experiences we create.

Diversity Mask

Image Credit: Diversity Mask by George A Spiva Center for the Arts. CC-By


For most learning scenarios, I aim for a roughly 50/50 split of women and men because that’s what the world population looks like. Your workplace might actually be closer to 60/40, but in general, an even split is a good goal.

In some industries, an even split isn’t realistic. Firefighters, for example, are overwhelmingly male. I wouldn’t try to create a 50/50 split if I was designing a course for firefighters. I would, however, try to have at least one or two female characters.

Women should also be represented as managers, mentors, and leaders. I create a fair number of courses with two narrators like my coaching and mentoring course. In those courses, one character is a mentor explaining content to someone less experienced. I try to alternate male/female for the role of the mentor, especially if I create multiple courses for the same client.

Race and Images

An informal poll in a LinkedIn group showed that most IDs and eLearning developers are already trying to represent diversity in race in the images in their courses. This can be a challenge with stock photos. Trina Rimmer provides excellent suggestions for how to work around the lack of diversity in her recent article The Lack of Diversity in Stock Images Hurts Your eLearning—and What to Do About It. Her ideas include taking your own images, altering stock photos, and using illustrations that don’t obviously show race. I’ve also seen silhouettes used for that same purpose.

I often use stock images for mini-scenarios. If I need multiple images of the same character, I usually use cutout characters from the eLearning Brothers library. Especially for business people, their library has diversity of gender, race, age, ability, and body type. Not everyone in their library is a skinny model; it’s more realistic.

I adjust the racial diversity of my characters and examples depending on the audience. For example, I wrote a course on improving educational outcomes for Native Americans. Native Americans make up about 1% of the US population, but they make up less than 1% of the models on stock photo sites. Stock photos of Native Americans often show exactly the kinds of stereotypes we were trying to combat in that course. It took some creativity and diligent filtering to find the right images.

As I explained in my previous post, I use name generators to help me create more authentic names of Latino or Asian characters. For the Native American course, the SME provided the name of one major character, and I researched common names for another character.

Any Exceptions?

Are there exceptions to aiming for diversity in characters? Overall, it depends on your audience. The person who asked why it matters if we call characters Bob or John lives and works in an Eastern European country with a fairly homogeneous population. He says he doesn’t use diverse examples, and he uses traditional names in his country. That may be the best choice for his audience (although I’d still argue for gender diversity in images and characters).

In the US, most organizations expect some diversity in the images for their courses. My experience with global companies has shown the same to be true in those settings, perhaps more so.

What Do You Do?

If you create characters for learning scenarios, are you conscious of the diversity of those characters? How do you reflect your audience in your examples? I’m especially interested in hearing about people outside the US; I wonder if the cultural standards differ in other countries.


Name Generators for Learning Scenarios

Because I create lots of scenarios and stories for learning, I create lots of characters. Some of these characters are only mentioned for a sentence or two, while others drive the progress in extended narratives. All of those characters have one thing in common: they need names.Name Generators for Learning Scenarios

I usually avoid using generic characters in my stories. Part of the value of scenarios for learning is that they make abstract concepts concrete.

This is OK: “A manager is having trouble with an employee who’s late all the time.”

But this is better: “Tom is a new manager. He’s having trouble with one of his employees, Abbi, who has been late to work 3 times in the last 2 weeks.”

See how much more concrete the situation is in the second example? This isn’t just any manager and employee; this is Tom and Abbi. I added a few more specifics too (Tom isn’t just any manager, he’s a new manager; we know how often Abbi has been late).

The book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath explains why some ideas “stick” and are memorable while others are quickly forgotten. One of the characteristics of “sticky” ideas is that they’re concrete. Giving characters names is the kind of detail that makes those characters and their situation more realistic and memorable.

But how do you come up with character names, especially if you have a large cast of characters?

I use a variety of name generators for my scenarios. Different tools may be better for different situations.

  • Fake Name Generator: This is my go-to site for generating names. It creates an entire profile for you at the click of a button–not just first and last names, but birthday, age, address, job, height and weight, car, and more. You can choose the gender, age range, name set, and country. Choosing the “name set” gives you names from different nationalities, making it easy to create diverse character names. (Bonus tip: If some website requires you to enter a bunch of information and you don’t feel like creating a fake profile yourself, just copy and paste one from here.)
  • The Name Generator: If you need something quick and easy, this has a simple interface. Click Generate Name repeatedly until you find a name you like. The power of this site comes when you expand the options. You can set the minimum and maximum characters for the name, as well as what letter each name should start or begin with. If you want an alliterative name, you can have Mary McCune or Dylan Daugherty.
  • Social Security Administration Names: This site is most helpful if you need popular names from a specific time period. For example, if your character is a new baby, Madison might be a good choice. For a 60-year-old woman, perhaps Donna or Janet would be better. Choose Popular Names by Birth Year and enter a year to see popular names for babies born that year. (h/t to Desiree Pinder, who I learned this tip from.)
  • Behind the Name: This site lets you choose the background or nationality for your names. Some of the choices are perhaps less useful for corporate training scenarios and more useful for role-playing games (fairy or Xalaxxi names, anyone?). You can get some great diverse names here from other nationalities though.
  • Just for fun specialty name generators: There are random name generators for all sorts of topics. Most of these are more for entertainment (or perhaps novel writing), but a quick search online turns up some fun options. You can use the Dickens Name Generator to create that perfect name for your Victorian novel. Perhaps Harry Potter is more your style? Try this one or that one. Maybe you need a pirate name or a futuristic name.

How do you create names for the characters in your scenarios? Do you have a favorite name generator site? Share your suggestions in the comments.


ID Badges: My Experience with TIfPI’s Certification

Last month, I earned my badge for Instructional Design: Goal- or Problem-Based Scenarios [ID(GPS+)] from The Institute for Performance Improvement (TIfPI). The “plus” and gold color signify that this is an outstanding level badge, meaning I received an outstanding rating on at least 7 of the 9 standards.

Certified GPS PlusHow It Works

TIfPI uses 9 standards to measure and rate ID work samples. Each of these standards is mapped to performance behaviors, detailed in a Word document.

  • Addresses Sustainability: Considers the best usage of resources (time, money, materials, staffing, technologies, etc.) now and in the future.
  • Aligns Solution: To create or change relationships among parts of the solution (internal to the solution) or between the solution and its parent organization or sponsors (external to the solution).
  • Assesses Performance: Evaluate what the learner does within the learning environment using a specific set of criteria as the measure or standard for the learner’s progress.
  • Collaborates and Partners: Works jointly with sponsors and other members of the solution development team to develop the solution.
  • Elicits Performance “Practice”: Ensures that the learning environment and practice opportunities reflect the actual environment in which the performance will occur.
  • Engages Learner: Captures and keeps the participant’s attention and interest through active participation, practice opportunities, feedback, and reflection.
  • Enhances Retention and Transfer: Ensures that the learning environment creates and measures recall, recognition, and replication of desired outcomes.
  • Ensures Context Sensitivity: Considers the conditions and circumstances that are relevant to the learning content, event, process, and outcomes.
  • Ensures Relevance: Creates content and activities that address the learner’s background and work experiences.

Instead of providing a single broad certification covering all aspects of instructional design, TIfPI decided to create microcredentials or badges. Currently, the badges are all based on different types of deliverables: asynchronous e-learning, instructor-led training, coaching, job aids, community of practice, mobile learning, etc. They plan to add additional badges in the future.

To earn a badge, you complete an application form explaining how you met all of the standards in a project. You provide samples of content (screenshots, a page from a storyboard, planning documents, a short video, etc.) to demonstrate what you say you did.

Your application receives a double blind review by two peers in the field. These reviewers use a rubric to determine how many of the performance behaviors for each standard you demonstrated. For each standard, you can receive an Outstanding, Acceptable, or Insufficient rating. If you get at least 7 Outstanding ratings, your badge is gold instead of blue, and your designation has a plus sign. For example, a normal badge for asynchronous e-learning would be ID(AEL); an outstanding badge would be ID(AEL+).

There’s a few other pieces of paperwork too: an attestation from a supervisor or client saying you did the work you said you did, a code of ethics, etc. The badge is valid for three years, after which it must be renewed by either doing professional development or earning a badge in another area. The badge costs $295.

My Process

To start, I attended a webinar explaining the process. I spent time reviewing the handbook and all the standards. I had a project in mind for the certification. This was an e-learning course which included a branching scenario and a job aid. I debated between going for the Asynchronous E-learning (AEL) badge and the Goal- or Problem-Based Scenario (GPS) badge. I think I could have done both badges with this course. Initially, I wasn’t sure if this would really meet the requirements for the scenario badge. The branching scenario is a 10-minute activity within a 60-minute course. I’m focusing my business on scenario-based learning though, and I wanted the more specific credential to match my specialization. After some discussion with Sharon Gander at TIfPI,  I decided to go for the GPS badge and really concentrate on the branching scenario within the context of the larger course.

The application took me about 10 hours to complete, and I did the entire process from webinar to application in about a month. In comparison to the CPLP, which takes 120+ hours and a year to complete, this seemed quite reasonable. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I chose this certification.

After submitting the application, I found out in about two weeks that I not only earned the badge, but earned it at the outstanding level. I added the badge to my website, LinkedIn profile, and the About page of my blog. The badge includes verification so you can click a link or image to check that it’s authentic.

Why I Chose This Certification

In the field of ID, we perennially debate whether everyone needs a degree in instructional design or not. I don’t have one (I have a bachelor’s of music education), so you can guess which side of the debate I’m on. I first posted about this back in 2008, and I’ve periodically joined this discussion since then. I’ve argued that although master’s degrees are valuable, that shouldn’t be the only path to this field. There are lots of “accidental instructional designers” who didn’t set out to be IDs, but found their way to this field, usually switching from another career. Although I don’t think a master’s degree should be mandatory, the industry would benefit from a way to differentiate between IDs who are deliberate and reflective in their practice and those who aren’t working to improve. Seven years ago, I argued that if we had an evidence-based certification, that could be one tool for people who came to ID from an alternate path.

The ID Badges are an evidence-based certification; it’s based on a real work product that you created. I didn’t want to do something with an exam; I wanted this to be about the work I actually do. Although I have some other certifications from previous jobs (CTT+ and Expert Synchronous Producer), I didn’t have anything formal saying I knew how to do instructional design. The market for IDs can be crowded at times. A certification is one way to differentiate myself; I can show prospective clients how my work has been reviewed by my peers and deemed “outstanding.”

Realistically, I didn’t want to spend $800 or $1000 on a CPLP, not to mention the time commitment. The CPLP is a bigger certification that measures more, and it’s certainly more well-known (at least in the US). TIfPI’s ID Badges are a relatively new certification program. They don’t have the name recognition of ATD and the CPLP, although I hope in time the ID Badges will become more recognized.

Even without wide recognition, I wanted that double blind peer review of my work. I wanted to see what someone thinks of my work when they don’t know my blog or my online brand. I wanted to validate that what I’m doing is on the right track. This certification gives me that personal validation.

Your Thoughts?

Have you considered a certification? What was your experience? Does it help you get more work or justify the work you do? If you hire IDs, do you look at certifications when making decisions? Tell me in the comments.

Course Review Tracking Template

How do you track revision comments in your e-learning or online courses? Most of the time, I use a spreadsheet based on the revision tracking template below.

Review Tracking Template

My spreadsheet includes a formula to automatically add the page title once reviewers enter the module and page number. That makes it easier for reviewers. However, if I don’t have visible page numbers (either directly on the slide or in a table of contents), I remove the formula and ask reviewers to type the page title or description.

Depending on your reviewers, you may want to protect the sheet and lock down the page title column to keep them from overwriting the formula. If you use continuous numbering throughout the course, you can also probably use a simpler formula than this template.

The spreadsheet has three hidden columns. I keep these hidden when I initially send it to reviewers so they can focus on just their part. After I have gotten the feedback, I make the columns visible to add my comments and questions.

I use Google Docs when I can for reviews because multiple reviewers can all see each others comments. They can avoid duplicating feedback. Everything is all in one file and doesn’t need combining later. However, if Google Docs isn’t allowed in an organization or it’s important to get independent feedback from each reviewer, I use Excel instead.

Feel free to copy this spreadsheet and adapt it for your own use. You can also download it for Excel.

How do you track feedback on your courses? Do you use a spreadsheet like this, or do you use a custom-built tool like ReviewMyElearning or OQAR? If you have your own cool spreadsheet, I’d love to see it. I’m constantly tweaking this form to improve it, and I might learn something from your version.

Learning Experience Design: A Better Title Than Instructional Design?

How many times have you told people, “I’m an instructional designer,” only to be met with a blank stare? How many people are thoroughly confused about what we do for a living?

Last month, Connie Malamed proposed a new name for the field of instructional design: Learning Experience Design or LX Design. This moves the focus away from “instruction” and more to learning. Instead of focusing on the instruction or the materials, our starting point is thinking about the learners and how they will experience what we design. Connie argues this may help us focus more on learning science as well as being deliberate about designing valuable experiences.

Calling ourselves Learning Experience Designers acknowledges that we design, enable or facilitate experiences rather than courses. This gives us a broad license to empower people with the tools and information they need to do their jobs, regardless of the chosen format.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Back in 2007, I wrote What Does An Instructional Designer Do? In that post, I used this as my definition:

What does an instructional designer do?: Design and develop learning experiences

I’m emphasizing “experiences” here deliberately, even though that isn’t always how others would describe the job. I think one of the crucial things instructional designers can (and should!) do is make sure that students have opportunities to actively practice what they are learning.

This is still the most popular post on my blog, averaging about 100 views a day. Based on the traffic, it seems there are a lot of people confused about the title instructional designer. It doesn’t immediately convey meaning. While I think learning experience design would still require explanation, I suspect that more people have an immediate positive association for the word “learning” rather than “instructional.”

Learning Experience Design or Instructional Design

Change Is Hard

Realistically, changing this in the field as a whole would be challenging, if not impossible. “Learning Architect” has a lot of advantages over “Instructional Designer,” but it never really caught on. And although we use instructional design as a generic term, actual titles in the field are quite varied. James Tyer collected a list of over 65 L&D job titles. Although that list includes training and other jobs, many of those could apply to instructional designers/LX designers too.

Besides the general challenge of rebranding a whole industry (as if that wasn’t enough), we have the added challenge of being quite varied in what we actually do for our work. Instructional design is used as an umbrella term for a wide range of skills. People who just tweak PowerPoint slides, wizards at rapid development tools with no writing skills, and fabulous designers and writers who rely on research to guide their decisions, and those who do a little of everything are all lumped into the same category. That’s another whole topic (and perhaps a post in the future), but a new title might help differentiate people who work on the entire learning experience from start to finish from those who focus solely on development. I think the field has become so varied that one title can’t cover everything, so LX Design won’t be the only solution; we need to talk about e-learning developers, multimedia developers, or other titles too.

Your Thoughts?

This topic generated some great discussion on LinkedIn, so I’m hoping for more thoughtful comments here. What do you think of this title? Would you use it? Would you recommend something else instead? Do you think we should stick with instructional design and try to reclaim the title?