Is eLearning as easy as everything else now?

Ease of use ought to be a hygiene factor. No producer should be permitted to provide unless they have met this basic standard. Without getting the basics right permission to do the sophisticated stuff should not be granted. “Have you washed your hands?” is an almost ubiquitous command because it is always sound, relevant advice. Well raised children know all about this. Not all of our hands are clean, however.

It is easy to be frustrated by users’ lack of patience and attention deficit. No matter how tempting it is to blame human error, remember that our users are always right (just like the fabled customer). If they find something hard, it probably is hard (or, at least, not as simple as it should be). Who is to argue anyway when the standard for simplicity was set by that brutal Google search box at the tail end of the millennium.

Many technology tools are guilty of being too clever by half and losing sight of their hygiene standards. The temptation to pack in functionality and features is powerful but also dangerous (have another look iTunes for a fine example of bloatware). The best tools tend to do one job very well and focus on that. If another job needs to be done, maybe another tool is a good option.

For once, I am not making this point as a critique of corporate technologies and their poor usability record. The rights of the long suffering learner will, I hope, be championed elsewhere. There is another important user group on whose behalf to lobby, though. That is the poor content producer (or instructional designer maybe). These folks (of whom there are a rapidly growing number) are consistently poorly served by authoring tools, and content management systems that are vexing, complex and counter-intuitive. They make what should be the simple task of preparing and publishing content hard enough to require training. In 2015, a product that needs an instruction manual is probably not quite ready. Making and distributing content really should be a straightforward affair.

To me, the benchmark for usability in content production and publishing was always WordPress (upon which this blog is created). With more than 74 million sites powered by it, this is a product that is clearly doing things right. Few, if any, other content production tools can reach this standard of simplicity, reliability and consistency. Despite being over 1o years old, it is still a market leader. Content authoring services should hold WordPress as their standard. In particular, eLearning authoring tools (which have a habit of baffling many not raised in the authoring world) should emulate and copy this example and make it as easy as possible to create and publish. Or so I thought…

But, the eLearning world tends to have a business to business mindset. Vendors sell to corporate buyers who, attempt to, represent their staff needs. In these circumstances, user or learner needs tend to be translated into the language of the systems landscape of the organisation. The phrasebooks of those translations are edited by L&D folks. Learner needs are met indirectly and the authoring tools and the LMS substitute the role of the WordPress website. Whilst I believe that there is much room for improvement to help L&D teams quickly and simply create the right content for their learners, I think the current digital landscape now leapfrogs all of this.

The new standard for content creation and publishing simplicity is not WordPress or its’ kind. It is the raft of social tools we all use as publishing methods without really thinking about it (which is the true hallmark of simplicity). The combination of Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, YuoTube, Vine, Periscope etc. have conquered the digital world and demystified image editing, broadcasting, video editing, publishing and the gathering of feedback. They have become media channels and the means to populate the channels. None of them have a user manual, although plenty of excellent tutorials exist on all of them. Couple this with the ability to search, browse and recommend the best content and the role of the traditional L&D effort is open to interrogation. What kind of specialist expertise is required to create learning content?

The expertise needed to answer questions, instruct and train is connecting directly with those who want to learn these days. As with so many areas the intermediary role needs to prove its worth. The connections are made by tools that are cheap, if not free, of very good quality, reliable and easy to use. Cataloguing and discovery is automated as a by product of the platforms they are produced on.  When learning and training are becoming this simple intermediaries need to be very careful to make a valuable contribution. There is little now in the way of the subject matter experts positioning themselves as teachers with the tools of that trade readily available in the palm of their hand.

Strange stories need new formats

Despite its’ relative youth (wiser readers than I will let me know the true age), eLearning has a traditional content format: the online course. There are many routes to the creation of a course but the final destination is pretty predictable: a pop-up window filled with linear content and often some rich video of some kind (a Flash kind very frequently, even now). The training industry has fed happily on this staple diet for many years. Whilst, the challenges of the LMS and the shortcomings of the content formats that SCORM supports are well documented, the fact that the public web has not seen the need to create a similar format is revealing. That content format and experience has had little if any utility value outside of corporate learning despite the constant experimentation in digital publishing over many years. I think this may be starting to change however, but not due to a rush of public interest in training modules.

As with many sectors, innovation in the L&D industry is rarely accomplished by incumbents. Interesting things are happening, however. New forms of storytelling are exploring different ways of treating complex topics and helping web users explore subjects that require more depth than a simple (yet very powerful) ‘how to video’ or a long form article. Journalism as a profession is making some interesting headway in the seemingly endless quest for new story formats.

Film makers are also circling this area in the hunt for new approaches. One such format is offered by Interlude. This tool was used by some colleagues at the BBC Academy who were interested in a new way of sharing the learning from the production of a recent TV drama Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The production itself was something of a departure and a typical video format (a series of interviews, perhaps) did not properly lend itself to the narrative or the broadcast result. Interlude looked like an interesting tool to use, allowing the video content to speak for itself and users to explore the content in their own way at their own pace. All within one web based video player.

Take a look at the result here and see what you think.

There are some clear merits I believe. The video is available on a web page, discoverable by search and browsing. The page can offer context and introductory information without boating the video itself. As a web page, social activity is natural and straightforward. The navigation is pretty simple and quite elegant. It reminded me of a ‘module’ without being cast into the LMS vaults or invading my browser by pop-up.

This is a new format however, and is not yet supported on iOS and Android, so mobile use is unavailable as yet. Embedding the content takes a little technical know-how but not a prohibitive amount. There is buffering to contend with too.

As with every tool, it does not solve every problem. It does, though, point in an interesting direction for exploring more complex topics and for helping us to learn how to tackle them.