Protagonists Should Be Like Your Learners

When you write a story for learning, you need a few essential elements such as a protagonist (the main character), the protagonist’s goal, and the challenges the protagonist faces. The protagonist should be someone your learners identify with. In workplace learning, that means the character has the same or a similar job as the learners. The learners should recognize the problems the character is dealing with and ideally share the protagonist’s goal. Learners should see a bit of themselves in the characters in your scenarios so they can picture themselves making the same kinds of decisions. When learners identify with your protagonist, they care about what happens to the character. They may be emotionally invested in seeing the protagonist succeed, especially in complex scenarios.

Joan is designing her first branching scenario

Example Protagonist Selection

Let’s review an example. Joan is an instructional designer working on a branching scenario. She has designed and developed many courses in the past, but this is the first time she has used a nonlinear format. She’s feeling a little nervous about getting it right. She’s creating training for front-line managers on how to handle requests for reasonable accommodations for disabilities. Which character should Joan use as the protagonist for her scenario?

  1. Mark, a technical writer with mobility issues who requires assistive technology
  2. Luisa, the VP of HR and an expert in accessibility issues
  3. Cindy, a manager with a team of 8 direct reports

Feedback on Your Choice

Mark would be a good choice for protagonist if this course were for employees to learn how to request reasonable accommodation. Someone like Luisa might be your SME for a course, but she has much more expertise than Joan’s learners. Cindy is a manager, which puts her in the same role as the learners. Joan will be able to put Cindy into situations similar to those managers might encounter. That will allow the learners to practice making the kinds of decisions they need to make in their jobs.

Other Characteristics

Joan might also be able to give Cindy other characteristics that make her similar to her learners. As part of her needs analysis, Joan interviewed two managers who had been through the process themselves. Both managers expressed reluctance to consult HR with questions about accommodations, even in situations where that was the best decision. Joan decides to create an option in the branching scenario where Cindy tries to handle the problem herself without HR but causes a costly misstep. Joan builds into the scenario the possibility of checking with HR before each decision and rewards that action with points in the final score.

Example compliance training with options to look up information

(This example scenario is also used in Motivating Learners to Look Up Compliance Policies Themselves.)

Joan3Stepping Back

At the risk of getting a little too meta, think back to Joan, the instructional designer. When you read that she was nervous about creating her first branching scenario, did that strike a chord with you? If you’re thinking about how to create your first scenario, that probably resonates. Even if you have created many branching scenarios in your career, you might still remember what it felt like to be unsure of yourself. If you’re an ID, you can probably envision yourself in this scenario. That gives you a connection to the character and helps engage you. You as the reader want to pick the right protagonist in the example so Joan’s course will be successful.

Characters in Cultural Context

Keep the culture of the workplace in mind as well. Your protagonist and other characters should reflect the organizational culture. In his report Using Culturally, Linguistically, and Situationally Relevant Scenarios, Dr. Will Thalheimer recommends:

In simulating workplace cues, consider the range of cues that your learners will pay attention to in their work, including background objects, people and their facial expressions, language cues, and cultural referents…

Utilize culturally-appropriate objects, backgrounds, actors, and narrators in creating your scenarios. Consider not just ethnicity, but the many aspects of culture, including such things as socio-economics, education, international experience, immersion in popular culture, age, etc.

Thalheimer’s recommendations from his research are also summarized on his blog.

How have you made your protagonists similar to your learners? Have you ever seen an attempt at scenario-based learning that was unsuccessful because the learners couldn’t identify with the main character?

Image credits

35+ ID & Elearning Blogs

One way I stay connected with the community and what’s happening in the field is by reading blogs by instructional designers, elearning professionals, and educators. I use Feedly for my RSS reader, but you can use other readers or subscribe via email.

If you don’t want to subscribe to all these blogs individually, check out eLearning Learning. This is my favorite blog aggregator in the field. You can sign up and choose your interests for a daily or weekly/monthly/yearly emails. You can also search the archives if you’re looking for something specific.

35+ Instructional Design & Elearning Blogs

In (sort of) alphabetical order*:

  1. Always Learning is where Kim Cofino writes about her experiences as a technology coach in international schools.
  2. Ashley Chiasson is an instructional design and e-learning consultant. She writes about the experience of working independently and about creating e-learning in Storyline. Her “Terminology Tuesday” posts illuminate jargon in the field.
  3. Bozarthzone by Jane Bozarth isn’t updated as regularly as some others on this list, as Jane is more active on Twitter and writes a column for Learning Solutions Magazine. Her posts revolve around the practical realities of supporting learning–and that doesn’t mean just formal training courses.
  4. Cathy Moore is on a mission to “save the world from boring training.” Her action mapping model guides instructional designers to create engaging learning that focuses on what people need to DO rather than what they need to KNOW.
  5. chat2lrn is a regular Twitter chat. Prior to each chat, the discussion topic is explained in a blog post.
  6. Clients from Hell isn’t actually an instructional design or elearning blog, but any freelancer or consultant in the learning field will recognize the scenarios. If you need to chuckle about endless client requests for revisions, vague feedback, and communication failures, this is always good for a laugh.
  7. CogDogBlog is about educational technology, social media, Creative Commons, and a number of other topics that author Alan Levine finds interesting.
  8. Dave’s Educational Blog by Dave Cormier often focuses on his theory of rhizomatic learning. Cormier is the person (with George Siemens) who coined the term MOOC and has been involved in MOOCs literally since their very beginning in 2008.
  9. David Kelly (Misadventures in Learning) is best known for his curated backchannels for conferences. If you want to learn from a conference that you can’t attend in person, David’s blog and Twitter feed are the ones to follow. He also writes about curation and e-learning in general.
  10. The Edublogger is a team blog focused on blogging and educational technology with K-12 students.
  11. The eLearning Coach by Connie Malamed is full of useful tips on visual design and elearning design in general.
  12. The eLearning Leadership blog by Allen Interactions writes about e-learning as explained in Michael Allen’s books, including the SAM method and focusing on scenarios.
  13. On E-Learning Provocateur, Ryan Tracey writes about the future of L&D and the big trends in the field like curation, gamification, and augmented reality.
  14. E-Learning Uncovered posts about once a month about creating e-learning. This blog is published by the same group that writes the E-Learning Uncovered books (Diane Elkins, Tim Slade, et al).
  15. Ant Pugh’s eLearning Architect shares experiences from someone who is in the trenches every day working as an elearning consultant.
  16. The eLearning Guild’s TWIST blog shares highlights from their conferences and #GuildChat. They also provide curated content each week, a great way to find some new articles or authors you might otherwise have missed.
  17. Stephen Downes calls Half an Hour “a place to write, half an hour, every day, just for me.” Because Stephen’s interests and expertise are wide ranging, so are the topics of this blog–connectivism, philosophy, the future of learning, MOOCs, learning technology, research, etc. This blog tends towards longer posts and more theoretical content. Stephen is one of the originators of MOOCs and connectivism.
  18. Harold Jarche is a thought leader in personal knowledge mastery/management, leadership, and workplace learning.
  19. I Came, I Saw, I Learned by IconLogic: This is a group blog with multiple contributors on topics including tool tips (Captivate, Camtasia) and writing tips. When I’m troubleshooting Captivate, I often find myself referring to their old posts.
  20. In the Middle of the Curve by Wendy Wickham is a blog I have been reading for many years. In fact, her blog is one of the first ones I linked to and quoted way back in 2007. Wendy writes about the practical, real-life challenges she faces as a training and technology specialist and how she is working through them.
  21. Janet Clarey specializes in research on learning and performance.
  22. Kapp Notes is where Karl Kapp writes primarily about games for learning, including resources and notes from his many presentations.
  23. LearnDash is a WordPress LMS plugin, but the blog discusses many broader elearning topics, not just their own product.
  24. Learning in the Modern Workplace is Jane Hart’s blog on “modernising workplace learning” by moving beyond traditional training to supporting social and informal learning.
  25. Learning Solutions Magazine from the eLearning Guild is an edited online magazine rather than a blog. There are regular columnists, as well as contributions from practitioners in the field.
  26. Learning Technologies Blog is ATD’s blog on elearning and learning technology
  27. Learning Visions is written by Cammy Bean, author of The Accidental Instructional Designer. Many of her recent posts have shared what she’s learning at conferences, as well as sharing notes from her own presentations.
  28. Clark Quinn has been blogging at Learnlets for over 10 years. Quinn is a thought leader in workplace learning.
  29. OL Daily is where Stephen Downes has been curating daily and weekly collections of interesting links in the learning field for 15 years, since before “curation” was a hot trend. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the size of this list of blogs, subscribe to just eLearning Learning and OL Daily. That will give you a good cross section from a wide range of corporate and academic writing.
  30. The Rapid E-Learning Blog by Tom Kuhlmann is one of the most popular blogs in the field because it shares practical tips that even beginners can apply.
  31. Rapid eLearning Adobe Captivate is Adobe’s official blog on Captivate.
  32. The Science of Learning Blog is a place where ATD summarizing research on learning for practitioners.
  33. The New ID posts a comic every other week about “the joys of training.”
  34. Will At Work Learning by Will Thalheimer shares evidence and research about what actually works in learning.
  35. Will Richardson has been blogging for 15 years. In that time, he has helped countless teachers learn ways use technology and social media in their classrooms and to build their own personal learning networks. He writes often about how to improve education in the US. Will is the person who inspired me to start my blog in 2006 when he was the SME for a course I developed.
  36. Write Spot is about both technical writing and instructional design.

*This is the order I have them listed in Feedly, which is sometimes by the blog title, sometimes by the author name. There’s not a lot of consistency because I have changed my system over the years. I’m actually subscribed to about 100 more blogs than are listed here, but I filtered this list for more active blogs.

More Blogs

What other blogs do you find valuable that I should add to my list? (This is your opportunity to shamelessly promote your own blog too!) Share in the comments what blogs you read and why you appreciate them.

Motivating Learners to Look Up Compliance Policies Themselves

In my last post, I explained how starting compliance training with a worst-case scenario can engage learners right from the start. Setting the course up with a scenario helps learners understand why the policies matter. In this post, I’ll explain a technique for keeping learners engaged throughout the course. Instead of being so boring that employees just want to click through a course as quickly as possible, this strategy gives learners a reason to actively seek out policy information and better understand it.

Let’s say you’re creating training for managers on providing reasonable accommodations for disabilities. A typical elearning compliance course on reasonable accommodations would start with a history of the ADA, ADAAA, Civil Rights Act, etc. (Readers outside the US, substitute your own laws about disabilities.) You might compare how the laws have evolved over time, define the terminology, and list some common reasonable accommodations you could provide. All of that is “pushing” content to learners. The learners are passive receptacles for content. You as the instructional designer control what content is delivered, in what order, and how quickly. The learners don’t make any decisions, and they don’t have any reason to dig deeper into the content.

You could flip the whole course around though, so instead of pushing content to learners, you let them “pull” what they need. The trick is that you have to give them a reason to need the information. In this example, Simon asks his manager, Cindy, for time off after a surgery. This is a plausible situation managers might find themselves in where the right answer might not be obvious. The managers have to make a decision: to grant the time off or not.

In this scenario, you could just offer the two choices: grant the time off or not. I’m putting them in this situation to give them a reason to look up the policy though, so I have two more choices below: “Ask HR” and “Review Policy.” The “Ask HR” option leads to a conversation with an HR specialist explaining the policy and providing advice.

Example compliance training with options to look up information

You might choose to only have one option for explaining the policy, either just reading it or asking another character for advice. If you only have the option of reading the policy, it’s helpful to include an explanation, especially if the original is written in very formal or legal language. You can provide the original and the explanation side-by-side, or you might just provide the explanation. If you will provide a job aid about the policy, use that in the course so learners practice with that tool. If in the real situation they won’t have a job aid but you want them to consult HR or another person, build that into the scenario. As much as possible, make the way learners access policy information in your course similar to how they will access it on the job.

I first saw this technique many years ago in an example by Allen Interactions. The training is described as “learner-centric” in Michael Allen’s Guide to E-Learning. You can see a short preview on Google Books with screenshots of the training. I’m sure the second edition of the book (to be published this summer) will have an updated example, but the strategy from that original example is still excellent. In that example, learners could talk to their manager, coworkers, HR or the Employee Assistance Program manager to learn more. This was an elaborate, multi-step example where learners earned points each time they asked for advice, so they were rewarded for seeking out information.

Although Cathy Moore’s Connect with Haji Kamal isn’t compliance training, it also demonstrates the technique of having characters ask for advice. Learners need to “pull” information and actively seek it out rather than passively waiting for the course to “push” it to them.

Even if you used mini-scenarios instead of complex branching scenarios, you could still use this technique to motivate your learners to look up the policies themselves. If they have a reason to seek out and immediately apply the information, they’re more likely to remember those policies when similar situations happen on the job.

Have you ever used this technique in your training? Do you see possibilities for improving your compliance training? Tell me about your experiences in the comments.

Image credits

This course example is also used in Protagonists Should Be Like Your Learners.

Make Learners Care about Compliance Training

Compliance training is a common use for elearning. All those policies and regulations that affect our businesses need to be trained. Unfortunately, compliance training is often just a content dump with a narrator basically reading the policy, followed by some multiple choice questions to see if learners remember what they heard 5 minutes earlier. This training can be so boring that organizations have to offer bribes (you’ll be entered in a drawing!) or threats (failure to complete this training may result in termination) to cajole employees into completing the courses.  In many cases, companies don’t even really seem to care if employees’ behavior changes due to the training. They just want to check a box that says, “we provided training” to cover themselves legally.

What if you could create compliance training that learners actually wanted to complete? What if you could create courses that did more than check a box, that actually increased the odds that employees would follow the policy? What if you could create compliance training that engaged employees so much that they would actually seek out policy information themselves, rather than just waiting for it to be spoon fed to them?

Worst Case Scenario

If you’re training food production workers on personal hygiene policies, you could simply list the rules. However, just telling people the rules isn’t always enough to convince people to follow them. Have you ever driven faster than the speed limit—even when you knew what the limit was? Instead of focusing on just the policies and regulation in abstract, engaging compliance training focuses on when employees need to follow those policies and why they matter. Start with an example of what can happen if they don’t follow the policies. In the case of food safety, it’s easy to imagine a worst case scenario with a nationwide food recall.

Fictional Headline: Nationwide Food Recall Affects Thousands

With ethics training, that worst case scenario might be a scandal that causes a company’s stock to drop. With safety training, it could be an injury. For security training, it could be a breach that results in data loss and all the ramifications from that. For any compliance training topic, there’s a consequence if the policy isn’t followed. That consequence can be your opening scenario that draws your learners into the story and gets them emotionally involved.

A great example of this technique is The Lab: Avoiding Research Misconduct. This is an interactive video you can play from the perspective of different characters. The story starts with “a very bad day,” where news reporters are interviewing a supervisor about misconduct. Right from the start, you see the consequences of poor decisions. As a learner, you get the opportunity to go back in time to see how those decisions were made and try to avert disaster.

You might not have the resources to hire actors and film scenarios in multiple locations like this, but you could still provide this kind of setup. It’s easy to mock up a newspaper headline like the one above or a fake website screenshot with trending news. If your worst case scenario would be internal, like an employee losing sales or being placed on a performance improvement plan, even a photo of an unhappy manager with voice over or text explaining the consequences can be effective.

The worst case scenario gets learners attention because it shows them why the policy or regulation matters. Instead of the compliance training being just a box to check off, it’s teaching them how to be a hero and prevent a disaster. It’s important to show these consequences and not just tell them. Simply telling people, “Failure to comply with personal hygiene policies could result in a food recall,” doesn’t have the same emotional impact as showing them a fake headline about a recall for contamination.

Starting with a worst case scenario is the “why” for a policy. In my next post, I’ll explain how to focus on the “when” in your compliance training so employees recognize situations in which the policies apply.

Book Review: Training Design Basics by Saul Carliner

Saul Carliner’s second edition of Training Design Basics is written for people who are brand new to the field and are creating their first training program. This is a great book for those who are just getting started with training. People switching careers into training or instructional design from another field would also find a wealth of information. Training managers who don’t come from a training background but want to understand it better would benefit, as would project managers who are looking for what to include in their task lists and how to estimate time and cost.

This book is heavy on the practical, day-to-day considerations of creating training. It’s filled with little notes on the details that you might not think about if you’ve never done this before: what to include on title slides and prefaces, how to choose fonts and font sizes for online and printed content, leaving larger margins on one side of the page for printing bound materials, and marketing your course. The tips all feel very authentic and based on lessons learned by actual practitioner. For example, there’s a suggestion to put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door of a conference room when you’re recording audio. Carliner also recommends waiting a day before responding to reviewer feedback so you have time to plan and “an opportunity to calm down should any comment raise your blood pressure.” I know some more experienced instructional designers who might do well to follow that last bit of advice.

The book is organized to clearly follow the process of creating a training program from start to finish:

  1. Basics of Design (including ADDIE and adult learning principles)
  2. Planning (including estimating schedule and cost)
  3. Analysis (what he calls “Information Needed to Start a Project”)
  4. Objectives
  5. Organizing Content
  6. Choosing an Instructional Strategy
  7. Developing Materials
  8. Preparing and Producing Materials
  9. Quality Checks
  10. Administration

Every chapter ends with a worksheet or checklist you can complete to apply the content of that chapter. Most of the time, the process described in detail is for a “platinum” project with high complexity and impact (and correspondingly high resource investment). When you’re working on lower level “silver” and “bronze” projects, Carliner explains how to adapt the process and what shortcuts you can take.

The first edition of this book focused on classroom training. One of the major updates in this second edition is the addition of elearning, both self-paced (which he calls “self-study”) and virtual instructor-led training. There were times where I felt a little like the elearning material was “tacked on” as an afterthought, but the foundations of everything are fairly solid. Because this is a book on basics, the underlying assumption seems to be that elearning is mostly linear and generally suited for lower level training. If you’re just getting started with elearning, this is a good place to begin, but don’t stop here. There’s a whole world of more immersive and engaging elearning out there, so plan to keep reading more books and recognize that this is just a launching point.

If you’re completely focused on elearning and don’t do any classroom training, you’ll be able to skip some sections of this book that aren’t relevant (or vice versa if you only do classroom training). Likewise, if you’ve been working as a training specialist or instructional designer for many years, you’ll find that much of this is review for you. Even with my 10+ years of experience both in classroom training and instructional design, I still picked up a few new things though. For example, I will be using Carliner’s calculations of “fudge factor” or contingency for time estimates based on the level of uncertainty. This is a good book for filling in the gaps in your skills if you are an accidental instructional designer or trainer who doesn’t have formal education in training design. This isn’t the book if you want the theory and research behind all these decisions; it’s a step-by-step how-to guide for creating your first training.

I was interested in reading this book because I know many readers of my blog are new to instructional design or are hoping to make a career change. If you’re one of those readers, this book is an excellent choice for practical tips on Training Design Basics.