3 Lessons I Learned from a (Lousy) 4th Grade Teacher

I’ll just come out and say it: my son’s 4th grade teacher was lousy and by “lousy” I mean that she was, amongst many other things:

  • Powerless: Every challenge was met with a shoulder shrug and, “…well, there’ nothing I can do, because that’s a District policy…”
  • A Word Pusher: Lessons were frequently delivered from HER perspective – most often as a lecture – with little participation from the children.
  • Overly Punitive: Drew a few army men on the back of your math homework? Big mistake. Now you’ve been assigned additional homework as punishment.

It’s probably easy to see why my husband and I were left feeling annoyed, aggravated, and alienated.

Fresh for my latest skirmish with the teacher, I decided to participate in one of David Anderson‘s eLearning design challenges, in part to channel my frustration into something more productive. The result is the learning geek equivalent of a “Burn Book.” It’s raw. It’s sarcastic. It’s take no prisoners.


I hesitated to share this post and this project with the world since it is SO filled with snarkasm (albeit without exaggerating or embellishing upon our experience). And I want to be VERY clear on this point, it’s not my intention to cast a negative light on teachers or teaching. I’m very fortunate to count many friends and family as teachers, and it is their high-standards that have served to inspire my own love for learning. I think it’s fair to say that almost every teacher I know is skilled, open-minded, hard-working, and dedicated to bettering their students lives – a fact I believe to be true of most folks who enter such a challenging profession.

That being said, the reason I decided to share this experience and my sarcastic response, is that I see a lot of the same lousy behaviors in many of the L&D organizations I serve: powerlessness (learned helplessness), word pushing (lecture), and a tendency towards positioning learning as a form of punishment. It’s no surprise since a traditional “school” model of students in chairs, studying and taking tests is how so many of us contextualize “learning.” In the corporate world, we spend a good deal of our time butting heads with executives and SMEs who seem to think that people only learn when they’ve been “taught.” So given what we’re up against, how do we avoid being lousy teachers?

My Lessons Learned

1. Powerless. Is there another department in a typical corporate setting that’s more often seen, by itself and others, as “powerless” then the Training Department? (Okay, maybe the Facilities folks get less love than we do, but it’s a close call…).

When I think of a typical corporate L&D organization, I think about how we often exist in complicated dotted-line reporting relationships to other units such as OD and HR, or how we work directly for specific lines of business (e.g., Sales, Marketing, etc.), for whom training is a necessary evil – a costly means to an end. Such complex arrangements may deprive us of the organizational clout needed to make sweeping changes. Over time, our lack of clout leads us to present ourselves to business partners as victims of the corporate machine: “We’re only allowed to use the branded template” or “We have to include a quiz because that’s the way all of our eLearning is done.” Words like that don’t inspire much confidence, do they?

Assuming your workplace isn’t an entirely toxic environment, you may have more opportunities to influence change. Okay, so influence isn’t as satisfying as being a “change maker” – but it’s a lot better than stewing in your own juices! Where to start? When it comes to reclaiming some power, sometimes you’ve got to fake it until you make it:

  • Think like a learning expert.
  • Talk about benefits to the business (i.e. use more consultative language).
  • Do more prototyping of your ideas to build buy-in with your SMEs.
  • Use more showing and less telling.
  • Present evidence and gather examples from other industries that support your assertions and recommendations.

These are simple ways of projecting a more professional and positive persona, and they can potentially help to boost your credibility. By chipping away at the big changes using smaller changes like ditching the mandatory quiz, writing in a more relaxed/conversation tone, using graphics or creative treatments that are accessible and beautiful, you can help you exert a little more influence over the method – if not set the stage for better results. And over time, a few small wins can add up to greater influence and, maybe eventually, the power you need to be a more effective and valued business partner.

2. A Word Pusher. Imagine I’m a SME and I’ve told you that one of my requirements for our project is that every word of my content must be read by the learner. Disable the next button, I say. FORCE the learner to sit on that screen for at least 2 minutes before they can advance. Add more quiz questions. Make it so they have to pass the quiz with an 80% or higher before they can get credit for the course. If you’re groaning right about now, it’s probably because you can sense the uphill battle looming. If you’re feeling powerless (see above) it might seem easier to just meet my demands and move on, right?

Pushing content (words) at people is one approach to communication, but is it effective? Largely it’s not. But busy SMEs and executives don’t know that. They spend a great deal of their time attempting to control chaos, minimize risk, and strengthen the bottom line. Clear, highly detailed communication is seen as an enabler of performance and the foundation for how they’re measured. The good news? Understanding that is your “in” to stopping the vicious cycle of lecture as “learning.”

Along with applying the techniques I just reviewed for addressing powerlessness, here are some of my favorite resources:

3. Overly Punitive. Ever been forced to go to a training class you thought was a waste of time? You may have heard things from fellow participants like, “My boss sent me” or “I have other things I should be doing.” Invariably people sit with arms crossed, blank expressions, texting on their phones, maybe even answering emails on their laptops.

When people fail to perform, I’ve found that sending them to training is probably one of the least helpful things you can do. It’s not usually a lack of practice, knowledge, understanding, nor an inability to appreciate the importance of their actions. In short, almost none of the things that one could meaningfully address with a typical training intervention.

More often it’s a case of employees not equipped with adequate tools and resources, or who are encumbered with a process that’s heavy with exception-handling and dynamic decision-making and an operating environment that refuses to recognize those realities. Assigning training is not only ineffective, but also demoralizing, humiliating (since it often dismisses their existing level of expertise), and doesn’t fundamentally address the barriers that stand in the way of performance.


And last but not least, whether you’re stuck in a power vacuum, overwhelmed by words, or battling the organizational view of learning as a cure-all/punishment, this experience taught me that finding an outlet for your frustration is cathartic. Write about your challenges in a blog, share helpful links on Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn, attend conferences, webinars, luncheons – whatever it takes to connect with and learn from your peers…and maybe, if you’re up for it, use the tools of your trade to make things better…and not just snarkier. (wink, wink)


Repeat After Me: eLearning is a Technology Solution

Dear clients,

In my 3+ years as a freelancer, I’ve worked with many different types of companies and organizations – everything from huge Fortune 500s with a global audience to small, local businesses with less than 20 employees. Helping small businesses gives me an opportunity to collaborate and design affordable, scalable learning solutions and lay a foundation of good practices. Working with my larger clients generally gives me access to more resources and budget, but usually with more creative restrictions. Two ends of the client spectrum, each with their own rewards and drawbacks.

Whether large or small, global or local, profit or non-profit, the one thing I’ve run into over and over again is the fundamental misunderstanding of the skills, details, time, and costs involved in designing, developing, testing, implementing, and maintaining eLearning. And the more complex, engaging, and sophisticated you want your eLearning to be, the more time and resources (and budget) your eLearning vendor (me) may need to achieve your objectives.

So, in the interest of helping you become a more educated consumer, allow me to share some free consulting advice as follows:

1. Spend money on good design.

A designer is not just someone with a nice looking portfolio full of snazzy graphics and sleek animations. A designer is equal parts analytic and creative, a necessity for helping you to identify potential barriers to achieving your goals AND to help design creative solutions to overcome those barriers (solutions that may or may not involve snazzy graphics and sleek animations).

Many clients approach me saying that they don’t need me to design anything; they only want my assistance as an eLearning developer. I’ve learned that this is usually code for “take my PowerPoint and turn it into eLearning through the magic of rapid authoring tools”.

Here’s the deal: in 99% of cases, the source material you’ve given me hasn’t been “designed for learning” – it’s too technical, wordy, passive, or all informational with no practical application. If I merely dumped your content into an authoring tool and published it out, you’d probably assess the results on a scale of unimpressed to deep hatred.

What you really need is a designer to ask tons of questions, to help you define the requirements and the desired outcomes, and to make some informed recommendations within those constraints. You really need someone who, when eLearning is an appropriate solution, is given the time and budget to re-structure, edit, and otherwise transform your content guided by specific instructional intent and not just a budget and a deadline. The visual design elements (i.e. UI, graphics, branding, etc.) are only one layer of the larger design process and on their own can’t give you what you’re looking for.

Bottom line: When you pay for good design you’re buying more than just good looks. You’re paying for the expertise of someone who knows what to ask and how to ask you all of the hard questions so you’ll actually SAVE time, money and agony in the long run.

2. Rush job? Expect rushed results.

Whenever I’m in a gathering of fellow eLearning designers, inevitably the conversation turns to the fact that you, the client, have no idea (or appreciation for) how much time it takes us to design, develop, and launch a decent eLearning course. So let’s just get this out of the way up front: it’s not going to happen in a week or even two. That’s not to say that it’s not possible, but when you make time the primary driver of the project, it forces us to scale back appropriately – meaning minimal complexity and minimal review cycles. In some cases, that’s a decent trade-off, but in others it’s a recipe for a waste of time and money.

For instance, let’s say you have an audience of experienced sales reps with lots of product knowledge but with flat sales numbers. With no design time, all I can reasonably do is take your source content (and your word that you know your audience well), and then use eLearning as a vehicle for giving your audience some basic pointers, maybe a few examples, and minimal practice. But you and I both know that connecting with an audience of experienced sales people is challenging on its own, and even more so when we’re trying to convey techniques to address a nuanced, delicate sales rep/client interaction.

Honing a skill requires practice and an appropriate solution probably needs to be more complex than an eLearning course with some pointers. By letting a timeline drive the project you’re inevitably sacrificing efficacy for the sake of expediency. And I doubt that’s a point you’ll want to use in your defense when next month’s sales numbers still haven’t hit the target and your boss is grilling you about all that money you just spent on eLearning.

Bottom line: Designing and developing an effective learning solution – which may or may not encompass eLearning – takes time. One industry guideline many of us consult is a study from the Chapman Alliance which states that it generally takes 49 hrs to develop every 1 hr of basic, click & read eLearning. That’s just a guideline of course. Your goals may require the use of complex simulations or branching scenarios that push that timeline out, or your interests may be best served by developing another solution entirely. The only way to know is to heed my #1 advice and, by doing so, hopefully avoid stepping into #2.

3. eLearning is a technology solution.

Question: Would you trust a realtor with no prior architecture or carpentry experience, or knowledge, to design and build your entire house by hand? Before you answer that, you should know that this realtor is knowledgeable about selling houses, he’s selected the lot to build your house on for you (it’s a stable lot with good word of mouth that anyone can build on), and he does have access to a tool that is SO powerful and easy to use, it requires no training, experience, or other tools to build dazzling homes. Okay, think that over.

Next question: It’s move-in day and you go to plug in your new refrigerator. As you struggle to push the plug into the new electrical outlet, the entire wall gives way. It’s a load-bearing wall. You call your realtor/builder in a panic and ask him what went wrong. How likely is it that he’ll be able to troubleshoot the source of the problem or fix it since his knowledge is limited to using only that one tool?

Designing, developing, and implementing eLearning is, plain and simple, a technology solution. That means it comes with all the complexities that accompany any other technology including software, websites, custom apps, or new systems. The details that go into designing, developing and delivering a technology solution are mind-boggling. Things such as browser settings, device settings, image and text resolution, individual hardware and software configurations, associated tools and software you’ll need to realize the full benefits of the core software, the use of audio and video, changes to internal processes and workflows to support successful product launch, back-end systems to host your solution – and then, of course, there are always a few users who will fail to recognize the gigantic flashing arrow button on the bottom of their screen is the means of navigating the course. All of these things and more will bedevil even the most well-funded, well-staffed, and thoroughly trained team. In time and with some support, these challenges are usually overcome, but the costs (financial and otherwise) of getting through that process are substantial and not to be taken lightly.

Bottom line: eLearning is a technology solution and you need to be prepared for the substantial cost and work that goes into designing, developing, testing, deploying, and maintaining that solution. If you or your team are uncomfortable with technology, don’t force yourselves to become eLearning experts. Instead, invest some time and money into becoming better informed in the long-term, and in the short-term, outsource the design and development to experts who can coach you through the process.

There is no magic rapid authoring tool that can “design” great eLearning for you. Authoring tools are just that – tools. Some tools are better and easier to use than others. It’s the designer/developer’s skills and years of experience that allow them to make recommendations about how to build a solution that maximizes the use of their tools while minimizing potential problems for you down the road.

There is no design smart enough to outwit stupid. (You can quote me on that.)

There is no LMS that offers 100% up time with an interface so intuitive that a halfwit goat could use and administer it while blindfolded. (If there is, please send photos.)

Take my candor for what’s it worth – free advice from someone who’s been doing this eLearning thing for quite a while now. And whatever path you take, I hope my perspective gives you and yours some food for thought.

Best wishes,



In Praise of the Humble Click & Read

Let’s face it: a lot of us have a huge guilt complex where eLearning design is concerned. I’ve noticed that whenever you put a bunch of designers into a room, someone eventually admits that they’re not doing “interactive” eLearning. This confession is typically elicited during the swapping of war stories about managers, business leaders or SMEs who “don’t get it” – as in “I only have time to churn out linear click & read courses because so-and-so doesn’t get it”. It only takes one confession to unleash a tidal wave of sympathizers all with their similarly bleak tales of design frustration.

In fairness, I’m usually an enthusiastic participant in these kinds of purge sessions. After all, design frustration is a fairly common condition in the world of L&D. And when I’m not contributing my own stories to the mix, you’ll often find me playing armchair therapist to my fellow designers, discussing strategies for communicating ideas or ways to build a portfolio to showcase your more sophisticated or high-concept designs.

But now I’d like to assume a more radical position. I’m going to stop playing design therapist or frustrated fellow designer. Instead, I’m going stand up for an even more down-trodden, cliched, and under-appreciated character  - the humble click & read eLearning course.

Okay, so I realize that the Design Gods may strike me down for rising to the defense of such an unloveable character as the click & read. The click & read with its lack of bells and whistles and its matter-of-fact content often bullet-riddled and half-heartedly structured, can be hard to get behind. If anything, we like to think of the click & read as that clumsy, awkward kid at the school dance sporting ill-fitting clothes and Coke bottle glasses – an encounter of last resort for some poor, unfortunate soul who couldn’t manage a more suitable partner.

But here’s the thing: love ‘em or hate ‘em sometimes that click & read – despite its flaws – is a pretty darn good dance partner. 

Case in point,  I’m working with a client who has a catalog of click & read refresher courses for technicians required to  maintain their CEUs by passing a series of exams. The courses are very short, to the point, and purely informational since the associated state exams test for knowledge rather than application. Access to the courses is sold at a low cost and in a very competitive marketplace where profit margins are extremely narrow. In other words, there’s really no incentive to invest tons of design and development dollars on making these courses sexier or more performance-oriented; there’s no demand for it and no cost justification for it. Furthermore, the client doesn’t have a technology infrastructure that’s robust enough to support a lot of technical troubleshooting. This means that adding the elements we designers love to use to add interactivity and foster engagement such as audio, video, and animation just isn’t practical when you  consider the need to keep ongoing support and maintenance costs to a minimum. And, then there’s the accessibility factor. To make information accessible to a broad array of learners – all with different technology platforms and environments – ease of access will always trump design because if the learner can’t get to the content, what’s the point?

So does that mean I think my client should just hand their users a .pdf and email them a link to the exam? Well, one could make a good argument for that approach. It certainly meets the same needs without imposing a potentially unnecessary information vehicle on the user. But on the other hand, a well-designed click & read can deliver a level of engagement that’s hard to replicate with a static .pdf. With screens that rely on visuals to do more of the heavy lifting than text alone, a decent linear click & read eLearning course can actually be an informative AND effective communication vehicle under the right circumstances.

Does that mean I think we should all stop trying to develop stronger design skills? Or maybe we should stop pushing our clueless SMEs or managers to embrace our more ambitious ideas? Of course not. I just think that the click & read, like any other approach in our design bag o’ tricks, has gotten a bad rap – and we designers have all spent WAY too much time feeling guilty and ashamed about dancing (or even going steady) with the good ‘ole reliable click & read.

3 Big Ideas: Mashing-up Substance with Style

Big Idea #1: Repurpose the Substance

I love to write. Over the past few years my blog has given me a convenient, creative outlet for sharing my ideas, exploring the potential of other people’s ideas applied to my own challenges, and poking fun at the little ironies that make up this “industry” we call Learning and Development. But as much as I love writing, blogs kind of suck at being a quick resource for finding information to address a specific need. There’s still too much culling through the muck with keywords and skimming and scrolling to find exactly what you’re looking for.

Big Idea #2: Refresh the Style

I also love reading digital magazines – especially about design. Late at night, while the rest of the country watches Dancing with the American X-Factor Boo-Boo (or whatever the heck it is that people watch on TV these days…), you’ll either find me working, writing, or gleefully consuming interactive content on my iPad.  In particular, I am endlessly inspired by the vivid color palettes, creative typography, and vibrant imagery that digital magazine designers use to bring what was once static content to life by wrapping it in context. Want to see how the photographer staged that shot? Click the link and watch a video of the photo shoot. Want to get step-by-step instructions on how to makeover a room in your house? Click on the before & after photos for tips. Brilliant!

Big Idea #3: Rejoice in the Mash-Up

One night as I poured over a home design ‘makeover’ magazine, I  couldn’t help but wonder: “Wouldn’t it be more fun and engaging to learn and explore other types of content like this? What if I had more tools that were attractive, targeted, and chock full’o good information that I could explore at my leisure (and from my iPad)?”

Thus, with a copy of Articulate Storyline, an archive of handy ‘how-to’ blog posts full of Screenrs from many fellow designers, and the goal of presenting this great information in a fresh way that helps new and experienced designers address specific visual design challenges. the idea of creating a sleek, digital magazine inspired eLearning mash-up was born.

Not sure if you have the appetite for design risk-taking? Take my quiz and get a temperature check and some recommendations.

Want to get some pointers on using emphasis to strengthen your visual designs? Or how about some tips on dealing with dull visuals? The Rapid e-learning Visual Design Makeover Manual can help with that too.


I hope sharing this work gives you some fresh ideas for the new year ahead and serves to remind all of us that our designs are only limited by our imaginations. In the new year, let’s try to take some calculated design risks and have a little fun along the way.

A very big thanks to @elearningart, @elearning (aka David Anderson of Articulate), Tracy Parish, @lindalor, @joe_deegan, @tomkuhlmann, and @LearnNuggets (aka Kevin Thorn) for sharing their knowledge with the world and for offering their invaluable input on how to execute my substance-meets-style magazine mash-up.


You might be misguided if…

2012 was an “interesting” year (yes, with air quotes). In my 2nd year as a freelance instructional designer, I learned a lot about myself and my industry. While I see great promise in technology and, a good deal of momentum for change in how we foster and measure learning and performance in the workplace, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Between debunked learning theories that resurface with zombie-like persistence (hello learning styles!) and the tool-obsessed eLearning economy that insists on claiming that it can magically convert PowerPoint presos into “eLearning”, there’s a lot of misguided thinking out there.

For instance, you might be misguided if:

  • You think you can turn your SMEs into eLearning designers by sending them to Captivate/Lectora/Storyline training. It’s like sending someone to a Black & Decker workshop on how to use a miter saw, and expecting them to emerge with the skills of an architect.
  • Your solution for creating learner “engagement” is to add more things that “fly onto the screen”. Flash, bang, and sizzle are sexy, but more often then not, they’re used to not-so-cleverly mask a lack of well-written, purposeful content. Instead of wasting more time on sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads, provide high-quality, authentic, purposeful information, or even better, opportunities for people to define, create, and share THEIR own amazing content.
  • Your “performance” objective for a compliance course is that people click an Acknowledgment button. Okay, I’m just going to say it: sometimes, paper isn’t the enemy. Sometimes, paper can be used for good and computers for evil. So, let’s all do our co-workers a favor by not forgetting the ease of use of our ole’ pal paper – especially when it comes to certain check-the-box activities.
  • You’ve tried to win over a SME or manager by saying, “I’m no expert…”. STOP undermining your credibility! You can be heard and offer valuable insight and perspective as a learning professional. Not knowing everything your SMEs know isn’t anything to apologize for. In fact, that lack of knowledge puts you in a better position to design learning content, because you’re in a the same boat as the target audience. Do yourself and your org a favor and START owning and nurturing your expertise.
  • You’ve been reduced to being an eLearning/PowerPoint monkeyFeel like you’re on an eLearning treadmill – churning out one click & read after another with no hope of designing anything that actually engages an audience and fosters some learning? You’re not alone.Unfortunately, the reality may be that you end up  designing what the boss wants, instead of what’s needed. BUT if you’ve got a pretty good handle on how far you can safely push the envelope, here’s my two-cents: Gather some data and some supporting arguments to help you build a case for doing the right thing. Sometimes, what the boss wants is limited by their experience of what’s worked before. Let’s face it, we all like to repeat success and it’s the safest path, particularly in a time crunch. Rather than “selling” your boss on design ideas they may not fully understand or appreciate, consider all the factors and then seize upon small opportunities to help him or her focus on new ways to leverage some of your past successes in new ways. Remember: you can be an ally to yourself, your training audience and your boss – or you can choose to remain a ‘victim’. It really is up to you.

Of course these are just a few of the most memorably misguided moments I happened upon in 2012. What were yours? Drop me a line or leave me a comment.