Monday, June 22, 2009

The Agile Elearning Design Manual - Think Small (Iterations, Action Maps, Storyboards, and Mini-Modules)

We explored the waterfall approach towards elearning development in a prior post of this series. As you will notice in the above representation of the model, the issues are:
  • Too much time gets spent in upfront design and planning when all of this is quite likely to change.
  • Customers get to see working elearning pretty late in the process - as a consequence we run the risk of an endless cycle of amendments.
  • Actual deployment takes months from actual initiation of the project - this delays learner feedback, which is key to evolving the training content and increasing effectiveness.
Can we reduce flab in our analysis and design phase? Can we create more opportunities for customer feedback? Can we release working elearning quicker, to harness learner feedback sooner than later? I believe the answer is a resounding "Yes!"

Run Shorter Sprints - Be Iterative

Please refer the diagram above. If you take a look, you'll notice a few things are different:
  • We conduct an Elearning Inception to begin the project. We'll discuss the process and outputs of this exercise in a bit
  • We are working in shorter cycles of Design, Develop and Deployment -- what I call the D-cube iterations! This replaces the traditional ADDIE marathon.
  • The end of an iteration marks the opportunity to showcase working elearning to the customer, seek feedback and to potentially release the module(s) to learners.
  • We're always just one iteration away from being able to incorporate learner and customer feedback. This makes our development process truly involved.
  • This process continues until you have a complete elearning course developed
The questions that may arise are:
  1. What happened to the Training Analysis phase?
  2. What's the Inception?
  3. What kind of design are you doing in each iteration?

The next section will answer the first two questions.

The Elearning Inception

The Elearning Inception is a visioning exercise cum training analysis phase. This said the outputs of an Elearning Inception should be limited. Here's what you should look at getting out of your inception:
  • The Business Vision - what business goals will your elearning support?
  • Learner Personas - who are the people you're targetting? What's their role, experience, work environment like? What are their wants and desires?
  • How many training modules does your client/ internal customer want this project to span?
  • What's the framework you'll use to build your modules? Rapid Elearning? Bespoke Flash? Server based elearning?
  • Prototypes that create shared understanding about the project framework and help establish a style guide for your modules.
The most important outputs from an Inception however are your Action Maps.As I've mentioned earlier, I am a devotee of Cathy Moore's Action Mapping approach. If you are an Elearning designer, it doesnt matter how experienced you think you are - I strongly recommend that you subscribe to Cathy's Elearning Blueprint for access to some of the most refined thinking about Elearning Design.

The Action Map replaces your lengthy design document and outline with a non linear, modularized plan. Each Action on the map can effectively answer a "How do I..." question and be a learning object in its own right. This gives you tremendouse benefit and flexibility as you'll see in a bit. Most importantly, it breaks down your big learning problem/ solution into small manageable pieces of work and it replaces lengthy training analysis with an artifact that lends itself easily to change.


Storyboarding - Simple, Lightweight design

The index card is my favorite design tool. Once we've established our Action Map, we move into fixed length iterations. Depending on the size of the "how-to's" we schedule one or more such modules for completion within these iterations which are typically one or two weeks. We now need to break the Actions, Activities and Information into elearning screens. The best way that I've discovered to do this, is by laying out index cards with lo-fi sketches in a storyboard. I'm sorry I don't have a picture of this, but Garrey Reynolds writes most eloquently about this technique. The rules I follow for this exercise are as follows:
  • Each index card represents an elearning screen.
  • Use post its to simulate elements that are part of click and reveal interactions.
  • Try to get at least your rough text onto the card -- this ensures that you know what you need to write in your module.
  • Showcase this lo-fi prototype to your customer to seek feedback and to modify your design if necessary.
This is the design work you and your team undertake during the iteration. The key is that everyone's involved - the builder, the designer and the graphic artist. This creates shared ownership about the design and the content and everyone knows what they're trying to achieve. As a consequence, they're empowered to make a trade-off if they see that a certain screen is difficult to build or not feasible or just doesn't provide enough value. The design isn't set in stone with a document. Its just represented by a card, which really is a placeholder for conversation. The card's easy to rip up and move around, so there's very little ego attached as well!

Know your Learning Management System

The last thing I want to touch upon for this blog post, is your Learning Management System (LMS). A common problem that in-house learning teams and consultants face, is that they have no control over how the elearning will be deployed. I feel this should change. As a consultant, you should demand access to the LMS and so should internal learning teams. An LMS hosts your content and can give you great flexibility in deploying your learning. Your LMS can often reduce your work considerably as well. You don't necessarily need to place everything in Elearning! Can something be covered off by a YouTube/ Vimeo video or a Slideshare deck or a Scribd document? Do you have an interview that people can listen to?
The LMS also allows you to deploy as many SCORM files as necessary for your course. So you could deploy a few elearning modules in Iteration 1 and a few in Iteration 2, and a few in Iteration 3. With a little internal marketing, you could even create anticipation in the organization for your next installment of online learning. See the example above to see how different elements make up a non-linear course. Most importantly this reduces a huge overhead of developing course navigation. The LMS now takes care of that. You can now deploy discrete pieces of learning, job aids, templates and what have you and not worry about how your elearning tool will handle all these artifacts. By delegating these concerns to your LMS, you also treat your learners as adults. Does everyone need to go through 2 hours of elearning? Could people just get answers to questions that they have doubts about? The modularized approach allows you to target people at varying experience levels and also helps you develop iteratively.

Your problem does get compounded if you don't have an LMS. You could try creating a simple website with DreamWeaver or RapidWeaver if you like, or work with IT to deploy a Free LMS like Moodle. Moodle is the world's favourite LMS with thousands of registered installations. Most importantly, it can be made to look the way you want and is extensible. So if you feel innovative, nothing stops you from looking under the hood to change how Moodle behaves. Also, Moodle can generate pretty decent reports and if you have a reasonable knowledge of databases, you can generate just about any report you want!


The above practices are the few basics to take care of when developing on an Iterative, Agile approach. In the next post I will introduce a few other practices that will help you rapidly deliver lively elearning.

16 comments:

Patrick said...

Exciting stuff. Is any of it released yet? Really tested in the field yet? This is the ultimate feedback from users...

Sumeet Moghe said...

A lot of this is tested in the field. At ThoughtWorks our challenge has been the inavailability of an LMS to start with. We are just getting the Learning Management System set up, to start deploying elearning to the rest of the TW universe. That said we've been doing F2F reviews within a smaller group in India and that's been working great!

Catherine said...

I really like how you've tied the Action Mapping Process to an Agile design process. I'd created a similar model for our department, though I represent it in a circular visual - the main idea being that the learning is reviewed and visited during each showcase following an iteration or group of iterations. I had not, however, included such a well defined eLearning Inception. Thank you for the great insites - keep it coming!

Dana said...

Hello - do you have any experience developing training/eLearning as part of an agile software development team? So for example, a software product is being developed using the agile methodology, and the instructional designer is a member of that agile team and creating training for the product as the product is being developed. Do you have any recommendations for doing instructional design successfully in that type of project team? Typically training is created for products once they are implemented, or at least in a beta period. Any insight you can offer would be appreciated! Thanks.

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A lot of this is to test field. In the last the part we challenge has been the beginning of inavailability LMS. We just learning management system set up and began to deploy network learning the rest of the TW universe. This means that we have to do in a smaller group F2F comments in India, has been working too good!

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