Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Avatar can teach us about creativity in L & D

Last night we watched Avatar, and I must say I was absolutely blown away by the 3D production, the special effects and the overall, gripping storyline. If you haven't watched Avatar yet, I strongly recommend that you do so, for the absolute entertainment value that this James Cameron epic provides.

While watching Avatar I suddenly had a brainwave for a blogpost. The movie had triggered a few thoughts in my head about Learning and Development. Let me share them with you.

Creativity is often about 'Synthesis'

With all the 'oohs' and 'aahs' about Avatar set aside, if you look hard, you'll realise that the movie is essentially very similar to two other previous Hollywood hits -- The Last Samurai and The Matrix. Essentially, if you combine the storylines of those two movies and give them a space twist, then you end up with Avatar. No, I'm not trying to say that James Cameron plagiarised those two stories (though it would be quite smart if he did), all I'm saying is that the movie indeed seems like a synthesis of those two great movie ideas.
Often creativity isn't necessarily a brand new idea. It can even be a brand new idea from the combination of other great ideas.

Synthesis can transform your classroom

So, taking that thought about synthesis ahead, there's a case for us to think about how synthesis can transform your classroom. At DevLearn, Erika and Julia from Google demonstrated a few simple ideas of how they are combining technology with good old classroom facilitation to make the learning experience more engaging. Here are some ideas I really liked:
  • Are you teaching people how to write well? Ask them to write a blog post and ensure that every student posts comments about what they liked and what they didn't. As a teacher, post your comments as well.
  • Are you teaching people how to code? Use Google Code Labs to provide them code snippets that they can collectively iterate from. Use the revision histories/ comments to provide feedback and to correct coding patterns.
  • Are you trying to share instructional resources? Create a Google Wave and embed it into your class homepage. People can discuss the problem amongst themselves, but at the same time make a private submission to the instructor if this was an assignment, test, etc.
  • Are you preparing for a sesion where you don't know what to expect? Use Google Moderator to crowdsource questions and discussion points for the event. That way you can ensure that you deliver only what people want to learn
There are other exciting ways to enliven your classroom. One of my favourite blogposts of 2009 was the one Tom Kulhmann wrote about how empowering your learners. Tom gave out 3 ideas to creatively use technology in your classroom, which included giving your students a social media project. Tom put together a quick demo of what such a project could look like, using Vuvox (see below)

You don't need to do everything within eLearning

The concept of synthesis needs to stretch into the domain of online, and technology assisted learning as well. No, I'm not saying that this isn't a creative field -- it's perhaps one of the most creative aspects of modern L&D. That said, I still see the huge tendency with instructional designers to try and do everything from within elearning. Its important to remember that the end goal is not to create a really flashy elearning course. Its not even to try and craft an exquisite learning experience. The end goal is to enhance workplace performance. I remember reading an article by Jay Cross where he said:

"As we attempt to do things in an instructionally sound manner we can get TOO focused on doing things in an instructionally sound manner…and lose sight of what the business needs. Often what the business needs is 'good enough' and 'enough so that someone can continue to do his/her job.'"

Social Media and other emerging technologies allow you do what's 'good enough' and do it just-in-time. There's very rarely a need to do everything within flash-based elearning. Here are a few ideas you can use, to complement your elearning to create a rich, effective, learning experience (to eventually enhance workplace performance).
  • Leverage your Learning Management System: If you're using an LMS, in particular Moodle then why not create bite-sized elearning modules and let your LMS provide an exploratory interface to your content? That way, you save the effort in creating complex branching across sub-modules. Also, LMS's such as Moodle provide an excellent set of social and interactive tools to make your course engaging. Patrick Malley has written an excellent article about how you can use Moodle in a game changing fashion.
  • Combine different tools to achieve the right impact: Just because you need one interactive activity in your course, doesn't mean you need to break the bank by employing a dozen Flash programmers. Pull custom Flash based elements into your rapid-elearning course if you need to. Take a look at the demo below (Articulate skin by Kineo), where I've pulled a Flash activity inside Powerpoint. If you're suffering from a common cold, then you need a tablet not a dozen vaccinations! You can even bring the web into your course, as Tom says here and here.
  • Can you really solve the problem with eLearning alone? Often the solution to a performance problem could be an elearning course plus some follow up coaching. Consider what it'll take to really enhance workplace performance. If necessary provide the manager with some training within industry style support so they can actively coach their people.

I'm sure there are dozens of other ideas to creatively enhance your courses using the concept of synthesis. And of course, you don't want to break the bank! What ideas have you tried in order to make craft effective learning experiences? Post your ideas and suggestions in the comments section. I'd love to hear more.

Monday, December 28, 2009

These 5 tools can help your team collaboration scale a new high

'Collaboration' seems to be the new buzzword in organisations today. In fact, Andrew McAfee suggest that instead of saying social software we use the term 'collaborative'. So yeah, technology is fast changing the way we collaborate in the enterprise, but how can we use technology to collaborate better in our teams? Of course there's always the question of culture that we need to address first, but once that's done we need tools to facilitate collaboration. Here are a few tools that I find really useful for in team collaboration.

Google Wave

Blame me for jumping on the Wave bandwagon, but really it's a really useful tool. As the creators of Wave would say, email was invented before the internet. If email were invented today, it'd perhaps be similar to Google Wave! The fact is that email is fast becoming really unsuitable for collaborative fast paced discussions. Every email that's gone back and forth more than 5 times and has had people added progressively, starts to become really difficult to comprehend. This is where Wave, with its synchronous communication model fits in. If you're working on a document with someone and simultaneously facilitating a discussion on what the document should contain, use Wave. If you want to have an online planning session, try Wave. Google Wave will soon have a number of Gadgets that'll make collaboration so much more interesting and productive. Take a look at this list of wave gadgets to know what I mean. Most importantly, Google Wave integrates and plays really well with the rest of the Google Applications stack. For $50 a year, you can replace your collaboration suite with that of Google's and get Gmail, Google Documents, Google Sites, Google Videos, Google Groups and Google Calendar for your own domain. To know more about Wave take a look at these 15 features of Google Wave and then refer the complete Wave guide for more information. Don't have a Google Wave account? Email me, and I can send you an invite.


Okay, okay I work for ThoughtWorks. That said, Mingle doesn't need you to be a ThoughtWorker to be a fan. Mingle is a project Management and Collaboration tool. Its a part of our Adaptive Life Cycle Management suite. "Adaptive" is the keyword here. While every other project management tool under the sun, imposes or "prescribes" a structure on you, Mingle allows you as the team to define the structure that works best for you. Mingle's interface mimics the Agile card-wall which fosters collective ownership and real time visibility across the team and all stakeholders. Mingle also has an in built wiki, for in-project documents and information. The latest version of this tool captures your informal conversation using its new functionality called Murmurs. Murmurs integrates with the Jabber IM platform, to centralise and capture all project communication. Add to that Mingle's ability to integrate with 3rd party collaboration tools such as Google Documents, Google Calendar, etc and you have a truly Web 2.0 project collaboration tool. And yeah, it integrates with Google Wave as well! Mingle is free for 5 users for a period of 1 year. So feel free to download and have a play around. If you want to know more about Mingle, attend one of our webinars or contact us for a demo.


Campfire is a web-based group chat tool that lets you set up password-protected chat rooms in just seconds. Campfire goes a step beyond Instant messaging which is super for 1-o-1 chats, but hopeless for large groups. Then again, working with different services is a pain. AOL don't talk MSN, don't talk Google, don't talk Yahoo. Campfire is network-agnostic, so regardless of which network you prefer, you can continue to collaborate with your team using Campfire. So, for distributed teams Campfire provides a great platform for synchronous communication.


While telecommuting is becoming more common each day, organisations still aren't handing out phones with huge calling balances to employees. How do you telecommute without busting the bank with your telephone bills? With better internet connectivity and fast improving tools, VOIP is here to stay. My favourite VOIP tool is Skype. Its free for computer to computer calls and costs very little for computer to phone calls. It allows me not only to call 1-o-1, but also to do conferences and to share my screen with the person on the other side. I look at it as Telephony 2.0. If you've used Skype, you perhaps know what I mean. If you haven't, I strongly recommend that you tie it into your project collaboration stack.


Often, a conference call isn't enough to collaborate effectively. You often need to conduct a meeting with whiteboards, presentations, synchronous communication and what not. Here's where a web-conferencing tool can come in handy. DimDim, in my opinion is the easiest web-conferencing tool for your team, especially since its free for upto 20 people in a room! Take a look at the video above to see how cool DimDim really is and feel free to try it out -- it costs you nothing!
Now this is definitely not an exhaustive list of tools that help collaboration in teams. What tools do you use? I'd love to hear from you, so please post your ideas and suggestions in the comments section. It'll be nice to know how you're using some of these tools, so I can get my hands dirty with them as well! Again, if you want a Google Wave account, email me, or drop a comment for this post and I can send you an invite.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The tools shouldn't matter - use your creativity

I've tried my best this year to average at least a post a week. In the last few weeks however, my vacation has thrown me off my blogging schedule. Backpacking through Sri Lanka with limited access to the internet has meant that I couldn't be very prolific with my blogging. But now I'm back, so hopefully I'll be back on track in weeks to come.

At DevLearn, I was in a discussion with a few other e-learning industry colleagues and a lot of them seemed to believe that they were limited by the tools they were using. While for some edge cases this is true, I refuse to believe that tools should limit our ability to create effective elearning. The fact is, that today you can do a lot of what experienced developers do in Flash based elearning, using rapid tools. In this post, I want to show you how in less than 2 hours, I was able to take a flash-based course and deconstruct it to create a rapid-elearning version.

The course in question

Kineo, a renowned provider of elearning solutions in the UK recently showcased one of the courses they did for the Great Ormond Street Hospital. Amongst other things, the course sits on Moodle and it's a great example of how to stretch an open-source LMS. I've decided however to focus solely on the elearning course they've created. I must clarify that I'm not trying to suggest that one approach is better than another; nor am I trying to advocate Kineo's design. This is a purely academic effort at trying to replicate a flash based course using a simpler tool. Also, to defend myself a bit, I must also say that I may actually try something different if I actually did the module myself. For a couple of hours work, I guess this is a reasonable output to start iterating from.

The course template

One of the things that makes custom flash standout, is the ability to create a custom, branded interface for elearning. A less known fact is that you can do similar stuff for rapid elearning tools as well. There are two ways to do this:

Modify the flash-based player/skin for your rapid-elearning

There are scores of examples for custom interfaces with rapid-elearning tools. Articulate seems to lend itself to this pretty easily. A couple of examples from Kineo are the SSC HIPAA course and the one for O2. If you need a custom interface for your course you can contact them or e-mersion. If you just want to get away from the default Articulate look, then you can even try buying a skin from the e-Mersion store. Very recently Dave Mozealous from Articulate wrote about how you can obtain or create custom skins for your courses.

Use Powerpoint to create your interface and manage your navigation

While I haven't used this in the version I created, I realise that Kineo created their course with a teenage audience in mind and they wanted to create an interface that would appeal to this demographic. If you notice the look and feel of the course and the Moodle page, it's pretty obvious who they're targeting. I tried my hand at doing something from within Powerpoint. Take a look at the example navigation above. This is done solely from Powerpoint and uses nothing but Powerpoint elements. Here's the template for you to muck around with. For people who'd like to delve into this further, here's a wonderful article by Tom Kulhmann on How to design custom templates for elearning. Tom gives away 8 free templates in this article, so its well worth the read.

The course contents

Here's the link to my version of the course. The course wasn't very difficult to reproduce from within Powerpoint and Articulate. Most of the course is fairly linear and most interactions were easy to reproduce within Engage or Powerpoint itself. Some fancy rollovers were difficult to reproduce in a short time, but you can definitely achieve that as well using minimal Flash skills. Take a look at Tom's blogpost that answers how to achieve the rollover effect. And here's Dave Anderson's tutorial on the same topic. The key is that I don't have the time or the inclination to go any further than this, but because you can produce stuff so quickly using rapid elearning, you have the ability to quickly create a prototype that you can then iterate from.

The answers are not in the tool

The fact is that these days, with so much interactive content available for free and the number of modes you have to create synchronisation and interactivity, the tools should never be a blocker. What still remains important is the skill of sound instructional design. Think about action mapping to make your elearning livelier. There's great information available about scenario based learning - use that to lend interactivity to your courses. Elearning is not about rollovers and animations, so your limitation should only be creativity and not technology.
How did you like my blogpost today? Please let me know by posting in the comments section or by emailing me. If you want the source files for the course I put together, email me and I'll be happy to send them to you.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

A few musings on Elearning Design Principles

I'm going to have to ask you to pardon me for not making this a typical visual post. I'm using the Bangalore Airport internet, which is excruciatingly slow, so I hope you understand. My friend Krishnan has been pestering me to come up with a few guidelines for producing elearning. The fact is that I'm not an expert to come up with such a list, but I can speak from my experience as a not-so-great instructional designer and a consumer of some such content. I want to point out that there are other resources that I'm aggregating from and some of the best, practical tips I've found are from: Of course, there are some other great resources on the web as well. Google should be able to help you find a lot more in this area. I've written a few posts as well, on elearning and for instructional designers, which you may also find useful.

Here's some of the wisdom I've been able to distil down from these sources.

General Guiding Principles

Instructional Design Principles

  • People don't have the time or the patience for long drawn courses. Think of dividing your huge course into little coursels (like morsels), each of which focus on "how-to" do something. That way even if people look at your learning during a 10 minute break, they'll get something out of it. Also, if they search for "How to ____", they're more likely to find the learning they need. Tom Kulhman has written about coursels here and I've written about them too in this post.
  • Use the Star Trek Model for simulation design
  • Consider multiple modes to deploy the learning. Remember, we're in the age of social media, synchronous learning and enterprise 2.0. I daresay its foolish to try and do everything from within your elearning.
  • Follow an action mapping approach. I can't emphasise this enough, but I'll let Cathy Moore do the talking.
  • Last but certainly not the least, don't forget to leverage your SME to develop your elearning. Using a Powerpoint deck to source materials for your elearning is a cardinal error of elearning. Nothing substitutes collaborating with a person who knows the subject well.
  • Write in plain English please. No one understands gobbledygook.

Multimedia Usage Principles

    Some of the multimedia principles Ruth Clark mentions from Richard Mayer's research, is really useful in case of elearning. Here's Cammy's recap of Ruth's session from DevLearn 2009.
  • Use audio judiciously in elearning. Please, please, please avoid narrating exactly the same thing that users see on screen. There's considerable debate in elearning circles about the use of audio in elearning. I look to wise people such as Cammy Bean, Tom Kulhmann or Cathy Moore for best practices.
  • Use Skype or your SME's to record for your courses if possible. Sometimes rough around the edges is better.
  • Use powerful, full screen images instead of those in separate frames of their own. Here are the various places you can find images from. The Presentation Zen blog is a great resource for ideas on presenting information visually.
  • Use videos when you can, especially to depict emotional impact or to teach soft skills or to quickly demonstrate a task through a screencast. Remember too much video and on-screen conversation or talking heads can bore the hell out of people. Think "authenticity" and try a guerilla style with your videos.

I've tried my best to try and share some of my thoughts without being too prescriptive about each implementation detail. What ideas do you have? Please comment and let me know. Thanks!
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