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It’s all about rich e-learning experiences

Here are my thoughts on the current discussion between focusing on tasks and focusing on information in an e-learning course. Amy Gahran points out that a task-oriented approach is more effective in most e-learning than an information oriented approach. My point is that a decision-making or an execution-based approach is even better. Decisions are what business organizations are about. The need to perform a task or to acquire information really depends on the decision you are trying to make. Thus, know-how is equally important as know-why or know-what, it really depends on the decision.

For example, if you are a research analyst looking into mergers and acquisitions, knowing what to look for is as important as knowing how to perform an analysis. The decision you as an analyst have to make is to figure out if there is compatibility in the two companies seeking to merge, for example.

This brings me to learning objectives. Amy mentions that a learning objective can clarify what kind of approach is needed. For example, if you have to use “know” or “understand” then an information-oriented approach is suggested, but if you use “list” or “order” or “assemble” then a task-oriented approach is suggested. This is true only for micro-level instructions. In business organizations, people demand the micro only when the macro is justified.

Too much e-learning is focused on the conditioning mindset – provide the cheese crumbs to the caged mouse and he will ‘learn’ to find his way to the exit. This is where the behaviourists have ruled for so long. The sanitizing and listing down of bullet-objectives with carefully selected words that make complete sense only to the instructional designer is the most visible indication of a behaviourist or a Fredrick Taylor-ian slant. So, what’s a better approach? Write a simple 1-2 paragraph blurb of how learning the content or the steps to a task will help you execute a decision in your practice. See how HotWired does it. Treat learners as humans and they will love you for it; treat them as cogs in a wheel and, well, they’ll just click the Close button!

Here's a simple story from Learning To Fly which describes British Petroleum’s knowledge management journey. Professor John Henderson of Boston University tells this story to senior BP managers.

I interviewed a colonel. Now this colonel was a colonel in the 82nd airborne, one of the more elite groups in the US Army. He got a call on Saturday morning at 8 o’clock reminding him that a hurricane had just hit.  He was told that the current administration had very strong ties to that particular part of the country that they did not believe that this should be left to the reserve group because they wanted no “screw-ups”.

So the orders to the colonel were very clear: go down there, provide any support necessary to the people after this hurricane and don’t screw up. Clear orders. The Army calls it intent – strategic intent. The strategic intent was clear.

This particular colonel was a very highly decorated combat soldier – he had never done this in his life. He had never actually commanded any type of civilian-related activity. He’d always been right on the front lines in hot action. It turns out as part of the executive education in the army he had been exposed to the ‘Centre for Army Lessons Learned’ as part of their executive education process.

So he got on his laptop computer he dialled into Army net, hooked into the Centre of Army Lessons Learned’ and asked the following question – ‘what does the Army know about hurricane cleanup?’

Within four hours he had:

Now, if we were to design an e-learning episode, or a knowledge asset as BP calls it, on hurricane clean-ups, how would we design it? Would we design based on tasks or information? Would we begin with a list of bullet-objectives? Here’s where I differentiate between designing an e-learning course and designing a rich e-learning experience, with all its real-life ambiguities. This is where the prospect of using e-learning as a narrative technique rocks. I'd love to hear your comments. E-mail me at maish-at-elearningpost.com.

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