If you’re like me, your computer monitor and workspace is plastered with Post-it™ notes, quick reference cards, and other job aids filled with tips and reminders.
Last week, I posted on doing a simple needs analysis, Cathy Moore made an excellent point that looking at your learner’s Post-it™ notes and other self-made reference aids can help you decide what information should be included in a course.
Why do people use Post-it™ notes, cheat sheets, and other job-aids to help them do their jobs? And, how does this relate to elearning?
Why Do We Create Cheat Sheets?
I think the widespread use of Post-it™ notes and cheat sheets reveals a lot about the way people learn and how they apply that knowledge to their jobs.
A few years ago, I worked on an IT elearning project that took months to build. By the time we were ready to roll it out, we found that some of the machine operators had already created a bunch of "cheat sheets" and passed them out to everybody on the floor.
Sure enough, instead of our course’s "certificate of completion" beautifully framed and displayed at their workspaces, all of these people had crude looking cheat sheets taped to their monitors. It really was quite shocking.
Who do these people think they are? None of these sheet cheaters knew a thing about adult learning principles and diverse learning styles. I’m sure that they’d never heard of ADDIE or Bloom. And to make matters worse, they used the nemesis font of all instructional designers, Comic Sans MS!
Yet, despite their obvious ignorance of things related to sound instructional design, they accomplished in a couple of hours what our team had spent months doing, albeit with much less detail. And that, I believe, is the crux of our problem. As instructional designers, sometimes it’s hard to step away from the detail.
Cheat sheets are a way for people to hone in on the key points that are relevant to what they do. By creating cheat sheets, the learners are filtering a lot of the detail and bringing to focus what they find to be the most important information. Plus, if they ever really do need more detail, they can always blow the dust off of one of their training manuals, look online, or call the training group.
How Do Cheat Sheets Relate to E-Learning?
If we wanted to, we could start all of our elearning at Genesis 1:1 and then move on from there. However, we recognize that that level of detail is more than necessary. So we decide to reel it in and instead start at the history of whatever it is we are teaching. Let me give you an example how this might look.
I’ve done a lot of elearning courses for financial institutions. As you can imagine, they are heavily regulated and require a lot of training. The employee needs to learn how to fill out a document. If she asked her co-worker for help she’d get a quick walk-through of the process. She’d make some notes and then paste them on her monitor. This could be done in a few minutes.
On the other hand, an elearning course will start by teaching her the history of the lending profession and how the nation of Yap used stone money. However, since we use paper and not stone, we need various regulations to manage our industry. Then she gets to learn about every detail of the regulations: what instigated them, what year they were created, and how her organization is responding to the regulations.
Somewhere near the end of this process, she’ll eventually see the form she needs to complete as part of her job. The entire course will take 60 minutes to teach what her co-worker could have taught her in about five. To make matters worse, she’ll be forced to play a Jeopardy-style game to reinforce her ability to answers questions about this or that lending regulation and yet never be assessed on her ability to actually complete the form.
While some of this is slightly exaggerated, the main point is that a lot of elearning tends to have more information than is necessary to learn the task. As Cathy suggests in her comment, there’s something to be learned by reviewing the notes that the learners create for themselves. And it is this information we can apply to how we design our courses.
Do You Want to Win at Trivial Pursuit or Do Your Job Well?
The ultimate goal of elearning is to change behaviors. So, to be successful, focus on the behaviors you need to change. Consider my example above. I’m not saying that the regulations and contextual information isn’t important. Instead, what I’m suggesting is that perhaps it isn’t important to be covered in the elearning course itself.
Learners filter out a lot of the detail because it’s not critical to them getting the job done. Take a close look at what the learner is writing on her notes. Is she listing all of the "What do I need to know" information? Or, is it more like, "What do I need to do?" My guess is that the learner is making notes based on what has to be done rather than what needs to be known.
In the same respect, you need to do this when designing your elearning courses. As you go through the reams of paper and subject matter expertise, you’re job is to:
- Determine the objectives
- Select the information that will help meet them
- Organize it in a manner that makes sense to the learner
- Create a learning experience for the learner to practice using it
- Provide feedback to the learner
Where does the contextual detail fit into that list? An old mentor of mine used to say, "Imagine you only get one piece of paper for your course content. Carefully decide what makes it on that page and still lets you meet your goals."
This wasn’t a steadfast rule, but as an exercise, it forced us to carefully go through the information and think about how to present it in our elearning courses. We learned to weed out the excess.
The good thing with rapid elearning tools is that you can have the best of both worlds. You can create elearning courses that are concise, media rich, and to the point while still adding links or attachments to more detailed information. And, if you create job aids or "cheat sheets" for your courses, you can include those as well.
What do you do to create practical, relevant courses and avoid making them just information dumps? Feel free to share in the comments section.
Upcoming E-Learning Events
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- Mar 20 (Orlando). Want to learn to build courses with the right look & feel? Join David Anderson at his all day workshop on Graphic Design Essentials for Non-Graphic eLearning Designers.
- Mar 22-23 (Orlando). Come by the booth at Learning Solutions and say hello.
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- April 13 (Minneapolis). Articulate User Meet Up. Details coming soon.
- April 14 (Minneapolis). PACT Meeting: Facing Today's Instructional Design Challenges.
Free E-Learning Resources
Want to learn more? Check out these articles and free resources in the community.
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Lots of cool elearning examples to check out and find inspiration.