Sunday, October 23, 2011

Personal Development Plan

(this is a required Walden University post. From the assignment: "Write your own personal development plan designed for you specifically and post it on your blog. Include the following components in your plan:
  • Four types of development (from this week’s Learning Resources) that you will advocate for your employer to provide you and/or that you will pursue on your own (for example, continuing your professional learning outside of the workplace)
  • A rationale for each of your development ideas")
Looking at myself, I see a budding instructional designer with a wealth of good ideas, some experience, a lot of excitement, and a need for practice. While there are many positive things Walden's MSIDT program provides, its curriculum is short on opportunities to practice and fully integrate the different areas of professional practice that instructional design includes. Some classes even feature projects whose requirements conflict with best practices taught in other classes, which is often frustrating. This leaves me with the feeling that my primary goal in professional development post-MS involves unification and synthesis of the different lessons I've been taught over the past two years.

Formal education
It may seem strange that my first area for professional development is "formal education" given that I'm about to complete a Master's degree. However, I've watched my skills and knowledge grow very quickly through the years I've been in graduate school, and I think part of the reason is that my mind works differently when I'm actively engaged in learning new things. I believe that, in my own case, learning is a habit as much as a skill, and graduate school instills and strengthens that habit. Put simply, I believe that I am a better employee when I am working to learn things: my mind is quicker, my writing is clearer, and my ideas flow more freely.

There are many areas of instructional design practice I would like to explore more fully, including
  • the role of multimedia in learning
  • the use of mobile devices for learning and electronic performance support
  • how to teach facilitation skills to novices
  • how to crystallize ID practice into easily-communicated chunks for laypeople
  • fostering far transfer of training into complex, high-level environments
  • statistical methods for analyzing instructional effectiveness
  • quantifying the effect of distraction on learning
  • teaching and promoting metacognitive strategies in learners
  • instructional methods analysis with focus on low implementation cost
  • collaboration around teaching basic video media production to instructional designers
  • the interaction between good instructional design and pre-fabricated curricula such as those for No Child Left Behind
  • development of effective coaching and mentoring systems
  • development of Training For Trainers (T4T) courses
  • development of low-cost higher-level evaluation measures for training courses
  • evaluating return on investment (ROI) for attitudinal training such as suicide awareness/intervention

Evaluation of work
My coursework included substantial segments about program evaluation and project management, and the courses on performance improvement definitely played into my fixation on results. That said, the old adage that "a man who proofs his own prose has a fool for an editor" holds true for instructional design work. I will need help evaluating my design work and holding it up to the light of analysis.

If past experience holds true, I will not lack for supporters and proponents; people generally think my work is excellent. Sometimes, I even agree with them! For example, a training program I created recently won the NSU Award for Outstanding Practice by a Graduate Student from the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. I'm (justifiably?) proud of this, because it tells me that I'm moving in the right direction in my work as a designer.

But too often, I've seen people laud my work simply because it was better than what came before. Often, I've been the first person to develop training around an issue, which makes my work de facto an improvement. But for true professional growth, I need colleagues who will help me see areas where my work needs to improve, not just those where it already excels. I don't think these colleagues must be instructional designers--I just think they need to be willing to ask questions, give suggestions, and examine data with me.

Assessment/performance appraisal
This relates to the previous set of professional development goals. On the face of it, this is a pretty obvious need, but there's a deeper level that requires a bit of explanation.

I am, among other things, a professional musician. (If you're interested in Celtic music, please check out my band, Frost and Fire! We have some new music that we're releasing on our Facebook page, too!) I love performing, and I've learned something over the last few decades of music: I play best when people are listening. I put the most energy into my performance, and I create music on a level that doesn't seem to happen when I'm just playing for myself. I work hardest when there's an audience.

Do you see how this connects to a need for performance appraisal and assessment? I don't mean that I want recognition for good performance, although that's always nice. I mean that knowing I'm going to be observed changes my performance. Whenever I'm working in a context where people assess my performance, I always seem to turn it up a notch, and I think that building in opportunities for assessment is important for my long-term professional growth. Again, I'm not looking for empty compliments and fulsome praise; I'm looking for honesty. (And I hope I'll remember that when the comments aren't favorable!)

This is where it all comes together. I am a fairly seasoned professional in the crisis hotline business, but a relatively new one in the world of instructional design. I don't know all the tricks yet, and I don't know all the right people. My network is small. I also worry that once I graduate and lose access to Walden's reference library, it will become harder and harder for me to stay in touch with new developments in the ID field (since academic research is hard to access for people outside academia).

Who will help me find new areas to explore? Who will pick me up and dust me off when the inevitable low points hit? Who will teach me how to mentor other new instructional designers? Who will ferret out my flaws as a designer and help me to correct them, while helping me to see my talents as well? Who will make sure that I'm a stronger instructional designer ten years from now, not just a more experienced one?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I wish I did. I'm used to seeking--and finding--mentors in unusual places, but I'm worried about this: I'm the first instructional designer a lot of people have ever met, and IDs are a bit thin on the ground in northern New York. Where do I go for mentoring? I have some leads already, and I have friends who respect me but also challenge me and demand evidence... is that what the mentor role looks like in the post-graduate world? I work in a business that's too small to provide formal mentoring on instructional design--I am the expert and mentor now. So where do I look for other mentors? That is, perhaps, my biggest long-term goal.


Noe, R. A. (2010). Employee training and development. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

High-Tech Training

(this is a required Walden post)

Five technologies that are changing the world of learning and performance:

Smartphones. Today's smartphones are powerful, networked computing devices whose capabilities dwarf those of many computers from a few years ago. As mobile technology becomes cheaper, smaller, and more pervasive, we can expect to see a continued focus on smartphones in learning, particularly in large-setting instruction. Smartphones can be used as classroom clickers, can provide learners with instant access to resources shown in class, and allow learners to remain connected to their productivity networks while in learning environments. I spent this week at a national conference for crisis center directors, and it was amazing to see how many people were using smartphones for business purposes during and between workshops. I used mine to supervise hotline volunteers back home, to view resources related to the presentations, and to discuss the presentations with fellow participants. I think we will continue to see smartphones being integrated into more and more aspects of learning.

Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSS). I had the privilege of visiting BHR (Behavioral Health Response) during this week's crisis hotline conference in St. Louis, MO. BHR operates dozens of different lines for a variety of contracts ranging from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to youth hotlines to after-hours support for patients in substance abuse programs. BHR's staff are expected to answer all calls in a professional and appropriate manner, which includes knowing which questions to ask of callers. They've built a truly impressive EPSS that ties in with their phone system and makes sure that all of their Masters-level counselors have support in working with callers. As soon as the phone rings, BHR workers see a screen displaying the required greeting and listing questions they'll need to ask. With hundreds of different protocols, it would be a practical impossibility to create this kind of service without an EPSS. As network connectivity continues to make memorized information into a less and less valued commodity, I expect EPSSes to shine: they offer appropriate support and guidance, as well as tailored information when needed. I would love to have access to BHR's EPSS for my hotline volunteers!

Interactive Voice Technology. Anyone who reads about technology probably heard this week's buzz about the new Apple iPhone 4S. Amid all the other features is a truly impressive speech recognition package called Siri. The idea is that Siri will allow iPhone users to talk to their phones in a fluid, natural language manner--and that Siri will answer back verbally. Although some of these technologies have been around a while, the addition of powerful mobile computing has made them a much more significant factor in the marketplace and learning world. There are lots of ways that Siri and similar technologies could affect learning; as an example, a student in a course about mental hygiene laws could whisper, "Siri: what is the law about involuntary hospitalization of the mentally ill in New York?" and quickly receive answers from Google.

Imaging. I teach Scottish music for part of my living, primarily on highland bagpipes. Since most of the Scottish repertoire consists of fairly short tunes, pipers tend to amass a great deal of sheet music. Recent advances in imaging technology should pay real dividends when it comes to acquiring, cataloguing, and storing sheet music. I look forward to the day when I can scan all my sheet music and search for it when I'm trying to remember how a particular tune goes. No more flipping through endless books of the wrong tunes!

Cloud Computing. Han (2010) offers a good, accessible introduction to the principles of cloud computing. If you've ever used Google Docs or Youtube, you probably have an innate sense of cloud computing's power. In brief, it uses economies of scale to shift computer power away from individually-owned clusters and into more massive collections--which are, collectively, referred to as the Cloud. The networked nature of cloud data has made it accessible from anywhere, and that has facilitated incredible collaboration between people working in separate countries. I think cloud computing will continue to affect learning as it becomes more prevalent--more and more services will move toward cloud-hosting solutions... so websites will be hosted in the cloud, photos will live there, etc. Through it all, we'll see a continuation and strengthening of the "work from anywhere" approach in cloud computing. The cloud will help a great deal in the project to eliminate physical distance as a factor involved in learning potential.


Han, Y. (2010). On the clouds: a new way of computing. Information Technology & Libraries, 29, 87-92.

Noe, R. A. (2010). Employee training and development (5th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Stolovitch, H. D., & Keeps, E. J. (2011). Telling ain’t training. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Needs Assessment for Southwest Airlines

(This is a required Walden post)

For this post, we're asked to discuss what kinds of factors might play into a needs assessment for training design at Southwest Airlines. Southwest is a budget airline carrier whose reputation for fun, customer service, and "LUV" is a watchword throughout the airline industry. I have many professional colleagues who will only fly Southwest, and I have found it intriguing to see the ways that staid, straight-laced professionals wax rhapsodic about the kooky antics of their Southwest air stewards.

We're asked to reflect on these questions:

  • What stakeholders would you want to make sure to get buy-in from?
  • What questions would you ask (and to whom would you address them) during the organizational, person, and task analysis phases?
  • What documents or records might you ask to see?
  • What techniques would you employ (see Table 3.2 on page 108 of the Noe text), and why?

Southwest is an airline. That means most of its training will likely pertain to aviation, logistics, customer service, or management. Aviation is already a heavily-regulated field, and as a licensed pilot I can say that aviation is pretty well covered from a training perspective. That brings us to logistics, customer service, and management. These are quite different domains, and they're likely to have highly different problems, different people, different techniques for managing problems, and thus different needs for training. In the absence of further guidance, it's hard to describe where to start with needs analysis.

Drawing on Stolovitch & Keeps's ideas about performance improvement, I don't hold with the belief that training is an automatic necessity--so I'm uncomfortable with the idea that Southwest needs training just because someone says so. I'd like to focus on the business needs first: what's happening now, what is the goal state, and how do those two things differ? What needs to be happening differently? That's a critical first step in needs assessment.

There are a number of stakeholders who need to buy into the training development if it's going to be a success. At a minimum, we need management support (from both lower- and upper-level management). We need to know that the project will be implemented if it is successful. Other important stakeholders include: the people to be trained; the shareholders in the company (depending on what kind of training we're talking about, and how extensive the new training is); and relevant regulators (again depending on the type of training). It would also be important to include Southwest's internal evaluation team, assuming it has one, so we can build evaluation into the training from the very beginning.

Organizational questions:

  • What business goals are we trying to support? (Managers)
  • Are all the stakeholders on board? (All stakeholders)
  • What gaps in performance do we see? (All stakeholders)
  • What other solutions have been tried for fixing these gaps? (Managers)
  • Do we have subject matter experts to help with developing training? (All stakeholders)
  • What is the goal behavior? (Managers)
  • What resources are available for solving this problem? (Managers)
  • How soon does the problem need to be fixed? (Managers)
  • How shall we measure our success? (All stakeholders)
Person analysis:
  • What are the characteristics of the trainees? (All stakeholders)
  • What are the gaps in performance? (All stakeholders)
  • How important are those gaps, relative to each other? (Managers)
  • What assets and skills do the prospective trainees have? (All stakeholders)
  • What do the trainees see as important? (Workers)
  • What are the motivational aspects of this situation? (Workers and managers)
  • What previous training have the trainees undergone? (Workers and managers)
  • (without knowing which people we're doing needs assessment on, it's hard to come up with more specific questions)
Task analysis:
  • What standards for performance exist? (Managers)
  • How are those standards communicated and enforced? (Managers and workers)
  • Are there best practices for whatever we're training people to do? (Managers)
  • What are workers doing now? (Managers and workers)
  • What should workers be doing? (Managers)
  • Where do mistakes occur? (Managers and workers)
  • Why do mistakes occur? (Managers and workers)
  • How much tolerance for variation is there within the task requirements? (Managers and workers)
Data sources:

(Again, this is hard because I don't know what kind of training we're being asked to develop.) For behaviors, I would probably want to observe the poor behavior with an SME at my side to explain what was happening. Once I was grounded in the situation, I would want to see the pre-existing training materials, any written standards, information about how feedback is communicated to the workers, data about how often the undesirable behaviors happen and how much they cost the company, etc. I would be interested to see how other airlines train their workers, but I doubt that Southwest would be able to provide that information. 

Techniques used:

As I said, I would use some interviews, some documentation review, some observation, and some focus groups. Depending on the training needs, some of these might not be necessary, and other methods might be more cost-effective; but it's hard to know in the general case.

I have a strong personal bias in favor of doing a really good front-end analysis and needs assessment, to the point where I think it's worth spending a larger chunk of the total budget on analysis. Solving the right problem is important, and I would rather know for sure what's happening and what causes it before we go developing solutions. To be clear, I would also plan to run an iterative model that periodically re-evaluates the initial assumptions... but I think it's important to think clearly and critically at the beginning, too. 

Training that Supports Learning

(This is a required Walden post with an elevator speech about the value of training in a corporate environment).

Training is a tool for helping all our employees to perform their best, and it's a cost-effective way of making sure that our company is competitive today and stays that way tomorrow.

Training can be a lot of different things--people often think of it as just learning new information, but training can also help people to work better together. Aside from just giving people new knowledge, we can help them develop skills like working effectively in groups, communicating concisely and clearly, managing other workers effectively, giving and receiving appropriate feedback... the sky is the limit. If you're tired of sitting in long meetings, you might find it useful if we offered management some training on how to run meetings and keep
them short and on-task. Training might help managers to see why giving their workers adequate
time on breaks is critical for productivity, and it might help workers to feel more connected
to each other and to their work here.

Lots of people dislike training, and I think that's partly because they've never experienced
*good* training. Training, at its best, helps people. It helps them do things they care about
doing well, it teaches them how to do new things, and it opens their minds to new ideas that
matter. It's an important part of building for the future--our company's sustainability depends
on quickly training people to fill the shoes of employees who retire. Good training makes that
process much faster, which saves us money.

Anyone can "do" training, but like many other things, it improves with time and attention--and
that's why it's worth having a training department. Since we study training development, we can
build courses that are efficient, and that saves time for everyone. Our job is to make sure
every part of the company performs at a high level, which is important because it helps us all
stay competitive... and that's how *we* contribute to the company's bottom line.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Learning to exist in the world (as an instructional designer)

When I enrolled in a program to get an MS in Instructional Design, a friend told me something. She was my predecessor in my current job, and she left our office to pursue her own graduate studies--in instructional design. Thanks to distance learning, I can keep my job and study at the same time. Anyway.

She told me, "Watch out--it's going to ruin training for you." What she meant was that, when you start learning to design effective instruction, you become attuned to the things that make learning work. More to the point, you start to notice when those things are conspicuously absent in training programs, textbooks, instruction manuals, menus, websites, memoranda, ... you get the idea.

There's a corollary that's probably familiar to anyone who has gotten really excited about some new thing, whether it's religion, a new baby, dieting, exercise, World of Warcraft, a new kitten, whatever: other people may not share your excitement. They may not wish to receive the benefit of your new-found knowledge, however obsessively researched it may be. They may not want it. And so there's a time-honored tradition of not pointing out all the flaws we see, so as to exist in the world without being strung up by our thumbs.

And yet we're supposed to be making the world a better place. There's stuff in our codes of ethics about using our powers for good, and it seems unreasonable to withhold useful knowledge from people who clearly need it. I imagine that doctors struggle with this all the time, seeing people socially whose health problems will soon get much worse--and choosing to remain silent. But where's the dividing line?

Now that I'm studying performance improvement in addition to instructional design, the quandary is worse. When a friend's business is in danger from (what seem to be) fairly clear performance issues, should you speak up? If you live by the creed of "first, do no harm", what do you do when it's no longer clear which choice harms people more? This is the kind of situation ethics my grandfather studied at Oxford, and I wish he were still alive to talk about it.

For myself, I mostly stay quiet. But I'm not happy with that, because I feel that I've been given this knowledge and these skills... almost in trust, I guess you could say. It doesn't seem right to hoard them. But how to share appropriately? That's a skill my textbooks don't cover, and I'm still working on learning.

If any of these questions resonate for you, how do you answer them in your own life?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Scope Creep

(another Walden required blog post)

I haven't been part of too many projects that suffered from scope creep--that sin, at least, I've mostly managed to avoid--but I do recall one series of Training Weekends for my employer that drifted noticeably outside their intended scope. We do a Training Weekend at the beginning of each academic semester as part of our initial training for new crisis hotline volunteers, and it typically introduces the new recruits to a wide range of hotline-related topics ranging from listening skills through suicide intervention.

We often had outside speakers from other organizations during our Training Weekends, too: presenters from the domestic violence organization, folks talking about Alcoholics Anonymous, people talking about what it was like to grow up gay in our rural, often conservative area. Our volunteers got a real charge out of these presentations, and we found that they learned a lot from them. So, as time went on, more and more organizations found out that we were offering training and started sending us their public speakers for presentations. Since we work closely with all of these agencies, we found it hard--even impossible--to say no.

Over time, the list grew, and near the end we had this grouping at our training: Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Al-Anon, our county's mental health clinic, domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, gay support, and a student support group. Out of our total 22 hours of instruction, we were spending 8 of them on outside groups. These outside presenters were often very busy, which meant that scheduling them was a nightmare--and forced us to throw our internal presentations in wherever there was a slot. Certainly not an ideal instructional sequencing plan! I remember finding that I spent more hours on scheduling and coordinating the outside speakers than on all other preparatory tasks combined.

Something needed to change, and we met as a training team to discuss it. We'd been seeing problems among our trainees for several semesters: they weren't strong enough at some of the basics, and they were often quite confused about the outside organizations that had come to present. After a lot of discussion, we concluded that the outside presentations were often perplexing to our new trainees, and that we needed to give them a more coherent training that focused on basics. We changed the schedule, and the new (now-current) Training Weekend was born.

Some things that were pretty important in the process: having an open, honest meeting with all the stakeholders (our staff, volunteers, and trainees). Greer (2010) talks about this kind of meeting being important, and it really was, since it helped us to see where the problem was starting. Portny et al (2009) talk about the value of formal change of scope documents, and we didn't have those--although they might have helped us to recognize this problem before it got so far out of hand, because each additional presenter would have required separate thought and approval. Our organization is typically quite relaxed about the scheduling of trainings, and while that's valuable, it also contributed to this problem.

We're asked to reflect on what we could have done to fix the problems if we had been in charge of the project. Well, I was in charge of the project. However, I was very new in my job, and much younger than the rest of the staff and most of the outside presenters. I don't think I was sufficiently confident in my authority to make major changes at first--I needed some "seasoning" time. It might have helped to have a slightly more formal delegation of responsibility and authority for the training program, since I think our leadership team was a bit unsure about who was in charge of what.

In the end, we cut out most of the outside speakers, reduced the scope of our training, and found that our trainees showed a marked improvement in their ability to do the basic tasks of a hotline worker. We attribute this change to our new practice of spending a lot of time on a fairly small set of skills and knowledge, which gives the group time to form, learn, and start to perform.


Greer, M. (2010). The Project Management Minimalist: Just Enough PM to Rock Your Projects! Baltimore Laureate Education, Inc. Retrieved from

Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Estimating Costs and Allocating Resources

Instructional designers are often asked to estimate the cost of training projects, whether through a formal bidding process or a casual discussion. As a newer designer, it can be pretty intimidating to try to assess the cost of the instructional design methods we've learned. Here are some resources to help:

Greer, M. (2009). Estimating instructional development (ID) time. Retrieved from .
Greer's excellent Project Management Minimalist book is one of the texts for our class, and I've found his writing to be clear and thought-provoking. This page is one of many from Greer's site, and two pieces of advice stuck out for me:
  1. Be careful with rules of thumb. It's common to hear shorthand rules like 300:1 or 15:1 for development time, usually representing the idea that it takes 300 hours of development to produce 1 hour of a particular kind of instruction. Greer feels that rules of thumb aren't especially useful because they're so variable as to produce meaningless estimates.
  2. Pay close attention to the "non-writing" portions of the project. Most of us became instructional designers because we're interested in developing instruction, so we leap right toward estimating the costs of the instructional design time. In our excited rush, we may miss the huge amount of time spent in communications, document preparation, etc., and vastly underestimate the total cost of the project.
Clark, D. (2010). Estimating costs and time in instructional design. Retrieved from . 
I've often returned to Don Clark's website during my ID program. His writing is direct but also comfortable, as if I'm an apprentice learning from an experienced master. He has an excellent page about estimating costs that provides a variety of ballpark estimates for different instructional design tasks, which gives a useful baseline for estimation. While his approach does use ratios, he qualifies them heavily to make it clear which ratios are likely to be appropriate. Clark also includes links to a bunch of other resources like free stock photos and cost estimation spreadsheets.

Cook, J. (2010). How to estimate training time and costs. Retrieved from .
I wasn't familiar with Jenice Cook's writing until this assignment, and I've now added it to my collection of RSS feeds. Her post stands as an excellent annotated bibliography of ID cost estimation writing from some prominent members of the field. She also advocates a slightly different approach with first-time clients: working on an hourly rate as the project progresses, so that everyone has a constant sense of where things stand.

Defelice, R., & Kapp, K. (2009). Time to develop one hour of training. Retrieved from
If nothing else, the fact that this is published by ASTD should draw our attention. Defelice & Kapp surveyed a number of experienced IDs to find out how much time it takes to build training programs in a variety of different categories. The report also contrasts 2009 data with data from 2003. This provides a really valuable look at how expectations within the ID field are changing, and it's a strong data source for discussion with clients. In addition, the authors include several recommendations for increasing the speed of projects and keeping them from getting bogged down.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Communication modalities

(This post is for a Walden assignment: to consider a particular set of words sequentially as written text, as audio, and as video, and to reflect on the different perceptions I had of the text each time. The text is not available outside our course site, however--sorry for those who are reading from outside Walden)

  • How did your interpretation of the message change from one modality to the next?
  • What factors influenced how you perceived the message?
  • Which form of communication best conveyed the true meaning and intent of the message?
  • What are the implications of what you learned from this exercise for communicating effectively with members of a project team?
Text only:
This seems like a brief, fairly businesslike email from an antsy co-worker who's asking for data. She follows a fairly standard metaphorical template for acknowledging the reasons why Mark may not have been able to get the work done, but it doesn't sound sincere--and it's overshadowed by the rest of her communication. Jane (the writer) uses an informal tone in her email, with some grammatical errors that catch my eye.

From a text design perspective, her email has a single very long paragraph followed by a one-line paragraph, which makes it look unbalanced and rushed. Her closing "I really appreciate your help" feels insincere, too.

I think we've all gotten emails like this; in my experience, without knowing the person, it's hard to know whether it's an urgent plea or a simple reminder.

Jane's voice sounds a little bit strained to me, but that could be projection. Her affect is relatively flat in the recorded voicemail, which leads me to believe that she's fairly frustrated--most people I know tend to have more animated inflection when they're having a non-frustrated conversation.

(Clearly Jane-in-the-video is not the same person as Jane-in-the-voicemail). Jane's posture and demeanor seem relaxed here, and the fact that she's leaning over a cubicle wall (with arms crossed atop it) rather than entering the cubicle lends credence to the idea that this she's making a request, not expressing frustration or serious urgency. She blinks an awful lot at the beginning of the video (while expressing compassion for Mark's tribulations), which makes me question her sincerity again.

One of the discussion questions asks which form of communication best conveyed the true meaning and intent of the message. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say "I don't know". I think all forms of communication leave their marks and shadings on the message, and since I'm not Jane, I'm not sure quite what the "true" meaning and intent was. I definitely took somewhat different messages from each form of communication, and that has relevance for us in the project management context.

I think it's worth considering the order of messages, too. I think I would take a different sense of Jane's meaning if I first saw the video (relaxed, fairly friendly, focused) and then read the email (which would then confirm the specific things she needs) rather than in the opposite order (where the email sets an urgent, somewhat snippy tone and then the video undercuts that message). My own sense as a supervisor is that when you have problems with coworkers or employees, it's best to convey that information in a face-to-face meeting whenever possible--following up with written documentation. Otherwise, people frequently mistake the seriousness of the incident or infer things that aren't true. Portny et al (2008) might call this the distinction between formal and informal communications.

Part of the point of this exercise is to talk about the strengths of different kinds of communication. We tend to use a lot of email and text these days, and one of the strengths of written communication is that it's fast, it's efficient, it's clear, and it's permanent. We can share a lot of data pretty quickly, and it's easy to skim or scan to find what we're looking for. The downside of skimming is that people often skim right over the important bits--and, although it's easy to convey data through text, it's much harder to convey emotion and tone. If it were easier to write emotions convincingly, novels would cost a lot less!

Voice communication is cheap these days, and it has the benefit of being synchronous. When there are misunderstandings, both parties are free to clarify things immediately. It's also much easier to convey non-verbal things like tone and certainty through voice. A drawn-out pause means a lot in a phone conversation; in an email, it doesn't register. Voice communication is slow, though, and it isn't possible to skim. With voicemail and other vocal recording technologies, voice communication can create a permanent record, which is useful.

Face-to-face contact is the gold standard for clear communication about emotions. It's often less efficient for data-driven communication, but it has clear benefits for interpersonal relations. It's often more satisfying to be in the same room than to be on the phone or exchanging email, but there are costs to arranging face-to-face time (says the guy who's driving for three hours to see his girlfriend every other weekend). Without video cameras, face-to-face communications don't usually have permanent records, which means that we want to document conversations in written form.

I think we need to look at what we're trying to convey before we can really choose the best medium. If the message is intended to specify requirements, an email is great. If it's supposed to convey urgency or an emotional appeal, voice or face-to-face may be better. For delivering hard news or discipline, I think face-to-face communication is the way to go.


Portny, S. E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). Project management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Learning From A Project "Post-Mortem"

(this is a required post for my MS at Walden University. We were asked to reflect on a project from our personal or professional history that was unsuccessful or didn't reach the desired outcomes and, after reflecting, analyze the project's success or failure and discuss how project management could have helped.)

Since this is a public blog, I am uncomfortable talking about the failure of past projects--it seems like a good way to expose myself to liability. I don't really want to start my career as an instructional designer by being indiscreet! But since the assignment is a mandatory one, I've chosen a project from my personal life that, while not a failure, did not achieve my desired ends. There are other examples of projects that went poorly, but none that I feel it's appropriate to discuss in public.

Setting the stage
I live in a somewhat isolated rural community near the Canadian border in New York. I grew up here and, like most of the smart young people raised here, I moved away. I moved back after my post-college year in Scotland (studying bagpipes on a prestigious Watson Fellowship) because it wasn't possible to apply for jobs from Glasgow, and I needed some temporary work while I was figuring out where to go for my Ph. D. in Robotics and Machine Learning. As such, I'm in the real minority of local young people who had the opportunity to "get out"... and didn't.

Potsdam has four universities within eleven miles, so it's hardly a provincial backwater, but most of the young folks graduate and move immediately away, diplomas and brain cells in tow. There aren't too many jobs available here; there's also a strong perception that this is a bad place to be a young professional person. No youth culture, no dating scene, no social life, no nothing. Ain't nothin' here but the bars and the churches. (As with most broad-brush statements, this one is inaccurate... but widely held.) It seemed like there was a real desire to have a wider menu of social opportunities for smart, educated young people.

A few years ago, a number of us decided to do something about it, and we created an organization for young professionals. We collaborated with the county's chamber of commerce and a variety of other employers, we worked together to find interested stakeholders, and there were some meetings about what needed to happen. We planned our first real "meetings" to happen as "happy hour mixers" at local restaurants and taverns, and sketched a plan that involved slowly accumulating members and gaining critical mass as time went on.

The issues
We did a great job at achieving our main objectives: we got lots of young professionals to come out to the mixers. The organization stands, today, in pretty good shape: the monthly get-togethers are well attended, and there's a central core of people who keep the ball rolling. In summer months, there's often a potluck picnic with beer and wine, or a cocktail hour on the porch of a local restaurant, or similar events.

But for me, the project was a failure, and I no longer participate--or even really consider myself a member. I think project management habits of mind would have really helped here, because we would have clarified everyone's expectations at the beginning of the process. We did a great job of working together to create something, but it turned out that the "something" wasn't what I had been looking for. You see, we created an organization that primarily succeeds at getting interesting young people to hang out with each other at bars. That's great, and many people love it--because going to bars is something they enjoy. They viewed the role of the organization as helping them to find more people to hang out with at the bars, with some light professional networking on the side... so for them, the project was successful.

My take is different. I wanted an alternative to the alcohol-centered social scene, and it never really materialized--and after a while, it became clear that most people simply weren't interested in that. I thought we had been working together on the same project, but it turned out that some important assumptions about the goal had been left without clarification, and that meant the project failed for me.

How could project management have helped?
I think there's real value in the kind of focusing discussion that happens in the planning and evaluation phases of project management. If we had been thinking in those terms, we might have thought to talk about what everyone's real goals were--and how we would know when we had reached them. That would have helped us to make clearer plans about who would do what, which would have prevented a lot of frustration. I think those discussions would have also helped us all to talk about our frustrations with the way work and decisions were happening, and clearing the air would have made it a lot easier for us to work together. While this wasn't really a formal project, I think it could have profited from project management.

As it was, I felt like we made tremendous progress as a team on "building a road through the jungle"... only, at the end of the project, I learned that we had been building in the wrong jungle. Our road didn't lead anywhere I wanted to go.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Impact of Open Source

(this post is submitted as a (late) assignment for a Walden University course, asking that we evaluate a distance course provided by an open course site. We are directed to comment on the course's planned attention to distance learning, its attention to DL recommendations, and its use of activities to maximize learning.)

I chose to examine a course on Lighting Design for the Theatre, provided by MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative. I picked the class because I took a very similar course during my sophomore year at Swarthmore, and I thought my experience would allow me to compare and contrast the distance and face-to-face approaches.

Does the course appear to be carefully pre-planned and designed for a distance learning environment? If so, how? If not, in what ways?

In short, the course does not seem to have been designed in any way for a distance learning environment. At best, we might say that the course provides the shell for a web-facilitated course where most instruction was planned for face-to-face classroom meetings. All direct instruction occurs either in face-to-face classes or through readings from textbooks that are not cited by name--leaving distance learners without any means of securing information about the content. There is a course calendar, but it does not contain either dates or ways of finding out specific assignments for most tasks.

The course is delivered through a flat, text-based website using static HTML; as such, it lacks such LMS features as discussion boards, chat rooms, etc. Most pages are simple text, although there are a few images included either in the pages or in linked PDFs. There is no way for learners to contact a professor to ask for help, although in a free open course that hardly seems surprising.

Does the course follow the recommendations for online instruction as listed in your course textbook? Which does it follow? In what ways? Which does it not follow?

Unsurprisingly, the course follows relatively few of the recommendations in our text book, at least insofar as those recommendations pertain specifically to distant learning. The first guideline, "Avoid 'dumping a face-to-face course onto the web (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009, p. 248)", is almost humorous, since this course seems to epitomize dumping materials onto a website and calling it a distant course. It seems to lack visible organization, and its syllabus is unclear by distance education standards. I don't see any evidence of a means for staying in contact with students, nor does the course integrate many web-based materials. The course materials are heavily focused on textbooks rather than independent readings, and the course offers no training on how to use the (minimal) website. To the extent that those recommendations are "best practices" for distance learning, the course does a poor job.

Where the course does stand up is in its attention to the recommendations for thinking about course outcomes and testing applications rather than rote memorization (Simonson et al., 2009). The course appears to be carefully designed to help students develop both a theoretical understanding of theatrical lighting design and a strong familiarity with the actual practice of working lighting designers. I don't see any evidence that the course focuses on memorization at all, and the example assignments all involve original work solving real-world problems in an authentic context--a very constructivist approach.

Did the course designer implement course activities that maximize active learning for the students?” If yes, in what ways? If not, how is it deficient?

I believe the course designer did implement course activities that maximize active learning. Many of the assignments involve detailed, interesting thought that would force learners to elaborate on new knowledge. Many of the assignments require learners to translate words (or emotional ideas) into visual expressions, either through the use of lighting instruments or by finding images that represent a particular lighting idea. I imagine that classroom debates would focus on the merits of different choices, and I have found that style of learning to be highly effective with artistic topics. The assignments show a deliberate sequencing from easier tasks to more complex ones, and they seem to shepherd learners from simple, guided tasks into independent work.

It might be fair to ask, "can a lighting design class really be taught online?" Yes, I believe it can. There are strong software packages that allow users to simulate different lighting plots on their home computers, without need for a theater. Sites like Youtube make it easy to view videos of theatrical lighting, concerts, and other examples of lighting design--without the constraints of physical proximity. There are certainly some aspects of lighting design that require practical, face-to-face instruction: electrical safety involves developing deeply-ingrained habits, and ultimately learners need to demonstrate their mastery using real lighting instruments. But much of the class seems like a strong candidate for blended learning.

I would encourage MIT to revisit its lighting design class, incorporating a learning management system for student engagement, shifting from textbooks to PDF-based journal articles or resources, using simulation software to enable students to work with lighting problems at home, and linking to videos depicting different kinds of lighting topics. I would recommend that they keep their excellent exercises largely intact, altering them only so as to help them fit in a distance context.


Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

Reflecting on Distance Learning

This post is submitted for my Walden University class on distance learning. I was asked to respond to three questions: What do you think the perceptions of distance learning will be in the future (in 5–10 years; 10–20 years)? How can you as an instructional designer be a proponent for improving societal perceptions of distance learning? How will you be a positive force for continuous improvement in the field of distance education?

In the next 5-10 years, I think distance learning will continue to gain traction and respect in academic circles as well as corporate ones, since entire generations of distance-trained students will have moved into decision-making roles in education, business, and government. I don't see this as a hostile takeover or a diplomatic coup; I see it as continued adaptation to new demands and needs. I imagine distance education as an ivy vine that will slowly infiltrate even the bastions of the Ivy League, weaving itself into the fibers of our educational institutions across the board.

Twenty years from now, in 2031, I doubt that the term "distance learning" will continue to hold its present meaning--I expect "distance learning" to become subsumed into our definition of "learning". Traditional instructors will continue to adopt portions of the technology available to them, and "pure" face-to-face classes will become Web-facilitated, then blended... and will, gradually, join with whatever technology replaces the Web in twenty years. I think most educators are already on this road. Will traditional institutions still exist? Absolutely! They might even retain as many students as they have now. But I expect the overall market for education to grow as more and more people gain access to high-quality teaching at a distance, and I think education that incorporates distance will hold a much larger portion of the market than it does today.

Bates (in Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009, p. 147) advanced a set of "golden rules" to guide instructional designers in developing technology-based instruction, including such ideas as "Good teaching matters", "There is no 'super-technology'", and "New technologies are not necessarily better than old ones". Simonson's version of Bates's final point is worth quoting here: "Technology is not the issue. How and what we want the learners to learn is the issue and technology is a tool (p. 147)." So too with distance learning. I think our responsibility for helping to improve both the image and the substance of distance learning is the same as our duty in any instructional design context: to ask the right questions, to think carefully, and to develop training that is efficient, responsive, and effective at meeting the needs of our learners. Delivering great training is a far better advertisement than any Super Bowl ad or direct mailing scheme.

More directly, what can we do to improve societal perceptions today? My personal commitment is to speak out, frequently, about my experiences as a distant learner with an unimpeachable undergraduate pedigree. I went to one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the United States, and I find my distance Masters program valuable and challenging. I don't whitewash over the problems I see, but neither do I withhold praise where Walden earns it. So I think we can change a lot by offering appropriate personal testimonials. Speaking as an instructional designer, I think an important way to improve perceptions is to make sure that we only propose particular delivery methods with sound reasoning and design to accompany them. If face-to-face instruction is the right choice for a particular topic, we should not hesitate to use it--and we should not agree to "slip by" using distance learning. But similarly, if a topic can be served by distant methods, we should boldly embrace them--and be prepared to explain our reasoning.

As far as being a positive force for pushing distance learning in new directions, I think the best I can say is that I will try. I will try new ideas. I will try to find ways to reach my future learners through technological means, whether that means offering bagpipe lessons at a distance, helping to develop distance-based education for new hikers, pulling Reachout's training toward including more online resources and communication methods, teaching New York's suicide intervention trainers through distant media... or whatever new opportunities arise. I will try. I will try, and I will look unflinchingly at the results. George Piskurich (2006) talks about rapid instructional design not as a one-time process but as a continuous spiral of improvement and analysis--like the successive approximation I learned in physics--and I take that as my model. I will improve distance learning by trying new things, by looking at the results, and by trying again until we reach the goal. That's my plan.


Piskurich, G. M. (2006). Rapid instructional design: Learning ID fast and right (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Converting courses to blended instruction

As part of my MS, I've been asked to prepare a short checklist of ideas and tips for a trainer who's thinking of migrating a face-to-face training program to a blended instructional delivery model. The scenario is pretty free-form, and the only other information is that the trainer wants to make the change because of poor learner communication in the face-to-face class.

I broke my guidelines into four basic areas:
  • Things to consider before starting the transition
  • Areas where distance education can be of benefit
  • Changes to the trainer role
  • Ways to help facilitate communication among the learners
Within these categories, I proposed a variety of thought experiences intended to help the course designer focus on important questions related to instructional design.

In an ideal world, my hypothetical trainer would follow all of my instructions. In the real world, he might do a few of them--possibly saving his learners from an excruciating videotape-the-lecture snorefest.

Here's the list of guidelines! Click to view.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The 'Myth' of eLearning? A reply

 Posted in reply to Trent Batson's article, "The Myth of eLearning: There Is No 'There' There". I found Batson's article (and a worthy discussion about it) from Eric Tremblay's excellent blog, E-Learning Acupuncture

Many of Batson's claims about exciting new classroom prospects--coordinating learning done elsewhere, the use of portfolios, focus on written communication and collaboration, authentic learning and assessment--are hallmarks of the distance learning approach. That's intriguing given his flat claim that "distance education is an oxymoron". I wonder if he's reading the same research I am--or whether his claim is based in evidence. I'd love to hear.

The first page of his article seems to devote itself to carving out turf: "distance education is not, and should never be considered, a replacement of traditional on-the-ground learning". The irony is that most distance learning folks aren't interested in _replacing_ F2F universities; the focus is more on providing complementary alternatives, and much of the distance education literature focuses on blended approaches that incorporate both distant and face-to-face contexts.

I agree wholeheartedly with his assertion that employers want people who write well, collaborate well, and are skilled at assessing and handling complicated, difficult problems. I think he's wrong about the idea that in-situ universities are automatically the best way to reach these goals simply by dint of their physical presence.

As a check of concept, if his ideas are correct about the importance of being in a physical community with lots of other learners doing authentic tasks, we should expect that homeschoolers would have significantly poorer assessments than people who went to high schools--after all, the difference between a high school senior and a college freshman is quite small, and homeschoolers don't get a huge physical community with lots of other learners. But we don't see that difference in performance.

Some of Batson's points are excellent. But claiming them as a mandate for campus-based education and a rebuke of distance learning is a rhetorical device, not an evidential one, and it doesn't work for me.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Selecting Distance Learning Technologies

(for a Walden University assignment: to identify distance learning technologies that would be appropriate for the given situation)

The problem: "In an effort to improve its poor safety record, a biodiesel manufacturing plant needs a series of safety training modules. These stand-alone modules must illustrate best practices on how to safely operate the many pieces of heavy machinery on the plant floor. The modules should involve step-by-step processes and the method of delivery needs to be available to all shifts at the plant. As well, the shift supervisors want to be sure the employees are engaged and can demonstrate their learning from the modules."

 To me, the key here is the last sentence: "demonstrate their learning from the modules". Given that we're talking about safety issues, I want to make sure that we don't advocate a strictly online learning format: safety is too important to allow people to "demonstrate" their safety skills solely within the confines of a computer. As such, I want to make sure that floor personnel are invested in the safety factors and willing to participate in an in-person assessment during the training course.

In terms of teaching the information, I like the idea of combining several distance learning concepts: training videos, podcasts, and social media. With training videos, we can show learners exactly how to do the specific tasks associated with biodiesel safety in situ--that is, in the actual factory environment. By breaking the training videos into manageable chunks, we can build them into podcasts that the factory employees can carry with them--either to learn the material at home or, even better, to take it on a portable device and learn the safety concepts while standing on the factory floor. This offers the kind of situated, context-based learning that constructivist theory holds to be valuable.

Finally, we'll use social media concepts to encourage learners to comment on the podcasts with things they've learned from the shop floor. This will help to scaffold new learners, may help us to update or improve the training in future, and also demonstrates that we value the wisdom of experienced workers--which is important for motivation reasons as well as fostering the kind of engagement our clients want to promote. Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek (2009, p. 244) write that collective knowledge, networking, and collaborative combination of wisdom are critically important in developing Web 2.0 learning tools, and I think our training program should take this approach.

Heilesen (2010) completed a literature review of the academic value of podcasting and concluded that, although the evidence supporting academic podcasting is currently weak, there is reason to believe it will improve in future. In particular, he suggests that podcasting may help to shorten completion times and aid retention of material. Schlairet (2010) examined the efficacy of podcasting with regard to retention and learner understanding in a nursing school. She found that podcasting aided both motivation and understanding of technological issues, which makes her findings highly relevant for our proposed safety training in a biodiesel plant.


Heilesen, S. B. (2010). What is the academic efficiency of podcasting? Computers & Education, 55(3), 1063-1068. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2010.05.002 

Schlairet, M. C. (2010). Efficacy of podcasting: use in undergraduate and graduate programs in a college of nursing. Journal of Nursing Education, 49(9), 529-533. doi:10.3928/01484834-20100524-08 

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Defining Distance Learning

(this post is submitted for an assignment in my Walden University course on distance learning. since it is a blog post, I have adopted a less formal tone than I would normally take in academic prose.)

From my early childhood as a computer-savvy youngster (exploring the internet through now-forgotten tools like gopher, Usenet, and Unix talk) to my online Master's program, I have labored long in the vineyards of distance learning. I remember blended distance learning during my time at Swarthmore, when some of my computer science classes with Lisa Meeden used Doug Blank's open source LMS (edventure) and other classes began using Blackboard for readings and discussions. A few years ago, I became a certified Wilderness First Responder through a blended distance program with the Wilderness Medicine Training Center. My sense of distance learning springs from these experiences, which were varied in scope, format, and style. I suppose I reflexively thought of distance learning as, well, what we do here at Walden: I sign into a website, read some texts, write some words, and press 'Send'. But if I had stopped to think--as I now have--I would have remembered all these different experiences of distance learning. In the course of reading my texts for the week, I was surprised by how much space in the literature (e.g., Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009) seems devoted to arguing about what, specifically, constitutes distance learning. Why is this an important question? For me, distance learning is a moving target: it's a way to use available technology to meet the specific needs of people who aren't always in the same room as their teachers.

I learned from Huett et al (2008) that distance learning is making inroads into K-12 environs, where I would have expected socialization to be of such paramount importance that distance education wouldn't be accepted. Of course, I hated a lot of the social aspects of K-12, so it might not be a bad idea! Although the idea that distance learning is asocial still seems to hold a lot of traction, I think the lack of social interaction in distance education is largely a problem of technology rather than orientation, as I'll explain later.

I'm not sure I believe in the assertion Huett et al (2008) make that we're at a crux point for distance learning, where it will either be accepted or relegated to the dustbin of history. Since our assignment asks what will happen as distance learning continues to evolve, I'll use the language of evolutionary science and say that natural selection will weed out poorer distance learning options, but there isn't reason to believe that the world will select against effective distance learning programs on an evolutionary basis. If we build great distance learning programs now, that's wonderful... but if our first efforts fail, the set of needs that prompted distance learning in the first place--busy people with jobs, families, and wide geographic spread--will still exist. As long as those needs exist, people will continue inventing new methods for serving them, and distance learning will continue.

New forms of distance learning needn't be mutually exclusive. If enough learners want asynchronous online classes, someone will create courses and sell them to meet the need. If enough learners want synchronous online classes conducted by video, someone will build those classes. The pool is big enough for many kinds of swimmers, and I can only see one reason why particular forms of distance learning will disappear: people will lose interest in paying for them. This might happen because those models cost too much to deliver, or because newer technologies supplant them, or because political and social pressure makes them unattractive... but in the end, it all comes back to market value. The global nature of the internet makes it pretty likely that someone, somewhere in the world, will supply whatever form of education people want to buy.

I wonder whether we'll see a return to traditional classroom style teaching, mediated by technology. It's clear that technology has facilitated the rise of distance learning over the past 160 years, but we could also say that available technology has capped distance learning throughout its history. In the days of correspondence courses, the postman represented the apex of communications technology, enabling learners to touch distant points on the globe. But the limitations of the postal system (considered here as a technology) also hindered the development of new forms of distance learning: there was no capacity for real-time distance learning. Fast forward to 2011, and you'll find that technology still plays this dual facilitation/interference role. Thanks to cheap international data transmission and a rise of new profit-making business models, it's possible to video chat with people anywhere on the globe, and we're seeing distance learning models that use this capacity. But the computer systems and data networks aren't yet strong enough to support video chats with 30 other people--so we haven't seen that yet. When the technology advances to that point, perhaps we'll start to see digital classrooms that meet at specified times with 30 students all listening to their instructors via video chat, with concurrent opportunities for live debate and discussion where everyone sees and hears everyone else. Available technology will define the playing field, and it will be up to us to use it.

I hope I've lent the impression that I think of distance learning as a process or a category rather than a specific set of ideas, constructs, or methods. Just as we now enjoy a multitude of options for learning at a distance, the future will offer a plethora of choices--perhaps including some of the formats we use today. I believe that the advent of new technologies will continue to enable ever-changing forms of distance learning, and that the learners themselves will tell us which choices hold value.

Concept map - Click to view full-size


Huett, J., Moller, L., Foshay, W., & Coleman, C. (2008). The evolution of distance education: implications for instructional design on the potential of the web (Part 3: K12). TechTrends, 52(5), 63–67.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.