There is a growing problem in the e-learning industry. Tools are increasingly being used to enable users with little or no instructional design experience to create large amounts of e-learning.
More and more, tools are being released into the market that enable anyone to design and develop e-learning courseware. The tools are being marketed as extremely user friendly with no programming, graphic design, or writing experience required to use them. The promise: Simply put the tools in the hands of subject matter experts and set them free to create e-learning for your organization. The impact these tools have in the wrong hands is the creation of poor e-learning content and the subsequent decline of positive e-learning outcomes.
Tools are not skills
Word processors don’t transform bad writers into good ones. AutoCAD will not enable you to design skyscrapers. A quick look at the web design industry provides many other examples of this. When the Internet gained notoriety, companies produced web editing tools to help with the development of web-based products. Several schools dedicated to fast tracking students into multimedia designers blossomed. A whole generation of web designers that had no fundamental grounding in usability, typography, color theory, taxonomy, information architecture, and so forth was born.
What became evident in a short period of time was that people who had talent and a true understanding of design principles through education and/or experience were really the only ones who could properly design websites. Tools were very powerful to these people, enabling them to work faster and more efficiently, but only in so far as the user could effectively wield the tool.
Fast forward to the current e-learning environment. Once again, organizations are selling design and development tools targeted to e-learning. Many of the big learning management system (LMS) suppliers created a new breed of LMS, the LCMS or learning content management system. The LCMS promises to allow organizations to build courseware that can be run on most proprietary LMS systems and even some SCORM-compliant LMS. The LCMS has drag and drop features, tools to manage content, tools for storyboarding, tools to create graphics, and so on. But where is the instructional design?
What are the symptoms
Let’s focus our attention on the emerging distance education market for a second. There is no denying the success of online universities in their ability to produce revenues and attract students. Does it mean, however, that they’re successfully producing effective e-learning?
Most online universities rely on instructors that have written classroom material and taught in a traditional classroom to design and develop online courses. (And online courses refers to both synchronous and asynchronous online delivery.) These instructors, who are really in essence subject matter experts, become responsible for making decisions on how a course looks, how it behaves, and how content is broken down and linked together, as well as what sorts of media elements best support the learning. Not all are able to translate their traditional classroom skills to an online environment, though.
So, what are the symptoms that these instructors are producing poor e-learning?
- Inconsistency in instructional design from course to course and instructor to instructor.
- Lots of reading for the learner, followed by such low-level interactive exercises as multiple-choice assessments.
- No rhyme or reason in the use of media elements.
- Counter-intuitive layout and navigation.
Tools don’t produce consistency in instructional design between developers, let alone the same developer across multiple courses. Consistency in design ensures that a student knows what to expect from a course and how to use it effectively. Consistency in design is also a sign that the developer has a plan and knows how to execute on it.
Tools don’t make decisions on the flow of a course. It is not uncommon for developers who are adept at writing books and classroom-based courses to transfer their skills to an online environment. This means that there is a whole lot of text, followed by a “test” to check whether the learner understood the content. The online environment offers the ability to transform the learner from passive observer to an aggressive learner.
Tools don’t dictate what media should be used to support content. More often than not, decisions to include a picture or other media elements are made to break up the monotony of text. In the online environment, the use of media should be based on its contribution to learning and not on its ability to distract a learner from the onslaught of text.
Some tools offer developers pre-arranged layouts. Some tools offer the flexibility in creating a custom layout. In both cases, the tool never considers how instructional design should affect a layout. While layout is only the face of the conceptual design of a course, it needs to consider the overall architecture of the course, the activities in the course, and facilitate the interaction between the student and the course.
Herein lies the myth: the tool can make decisions based on some form of built-in expertise. Although at first this seems too harsh, how else can we explain providing an authoring tool to a math teacher and ask them to create an online course on algebra? Other than math, what knowledge does the teacher possess about building online courses? If we believe that the teacher in this case makes the decision on course layout, then why do we allow somebody who knows nothing about designing an interface execute that task? The only reason why we would do that, is because we believe that the tool somehow provides the expertise to the teacher in creating the interface. The companies marketing these tools have consistently delivered the message that their tool can substitute and accommodate expertise otherwise not found.
Getting to the heart of the problem
E-learning is multidisciplinary. E-learning is about learning theory and it is also about technology. To create an e-learning program you must be able to create content that is consistent with the academia, literature, and best practices around learning theories. You must also be able to create a piece of technology that is consistent with the literature, academia, and best practices around electronic communications.
Within each of these spheres there are additional layers of expertise which require professional training, commitment, and practice. There are entire post graduate degrees focused on instructional design or distance learning. People spend upwards of two years in school simply to master one layer. It may then take five years on-the-job to learn best practices and absorb the practical application of theory in the workplace.
As budgets grow for e-learning projects, the stakes for succeeding in providing positive educational outcomes increase. If tools are ineffective and e-learning professionals are too few or too expensive than where do we go from here?
Instructional designers are not the only members of a modern e-learning development team. A modern e-learning team consists of more than an instructional designer. The team consists of project managers, technical writers, graphic designers, illustrators, senior programmers, implementation specialists, quality assurance personnel, and subject matter experts.
The notion sold to consumers that a tool in itself can compensate for missing members of an e-learning team is illusory. The skills possessed by the members of an e-learning team are complimentary to each other, and through an effectively designed process, they will work together. Tools have the potential to facilitate the communication between people and skills but will never replace them.
Empower the right people with the right tools. There are models emerging within the e-learning industry, such as the Structured Content Development Model that are promoting a team based approach to e-learning and countering any notions of a miracle tool. The SCDM does not rule out the use of tools, but rather promotes putting the right tools into the right people’s hand. Asking an instructional designer to make decisions about how a course looks and providing them with an easy to use graphic design tool is not right. Asking a subject matter expert to decide how a course should navigate is a mistake.
The Structured Content Development Model is about distributing the various levels of expertise required for a successful e-learning program into the hands of the experts. It is a design and development process that allows the different levels to build on one another and ensure consistency throughout a course. Put the tools into the hands of the people who can use them to gain efficiency, to create strong and reliable infrastructures and to design around reliable learning theories.
As a community member, I share the same concerns and desires of my peers to ensure our industry remains healthy and prosperous There is some very inspirational work being done within the e-learning industry that gives us a glimpse into the vast potential e-learning has to offer.
There seems to be a genuine interest between participants within the industry to create universal standards, create engaging content, adopt new technologies and work together to create positive e-learning experiences. Adopting the right processes, the right technologies, and the right tools are a big part of creating positive experiences. As with anything else, it’s going to take commitment and hard work.
Publsihed: June 2005