Monthly Archives: October 2010

15 tips for energising your e-learning

Every so often I come across something I wish I’d written or been involved in. ‘Don’t be tone deaf! Creating tone of voice in eLearning’, a webinar run by Cammy Bean and Kirstie Greany of Kineo, is one such thing.

I didn’t attend the webinar itself but the slides struck a chord with me. Perhaps it’s because I come to instructional design from a ‘wordy’ background rather than an IT or psychology background, but tone of voice is something I’m pretty passionate about.

Cammy and Kirstie set out a great five rule framework for writing ‘engaging, exciting and yawn proof content’, plus three bonus tips. Take a look at the slideshow to find out what they are.

In addition to those eight rules, here are my own top tips (in no particular order) for energising your e-learning:

  1. Write the way you talk. An e-learning course is not an academic paper, a business report, a legal document or an instruction manual. So don’t emulate any of those. Instead, emulate the tone of voice, pace and language used by a great classroom instructor.
  2. Have a conversation. Just because you can’t see your learners doesn’t mean you’re excused from talking to them as people. Ask questions, tap into their experiences, make references to their world. Make them feel that you’re engaging with them, not lecturing at them.
  3. Break the rules. Yes, an e-learning course should be free of typos and grammatical errors. But I do think that rules are there to be broken. As long as it doesn’t make it hard to understand, what’s the harm in using contractions or starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’?
  4. Take the ‘breath test’. Online text can be hard to read, so limit the amount of text on a screen, watch the line length and keep sentences short and sweet. Read it aloud and give it the ‘breath test’: can you get to the end of your sentence without running out of breath?
  5. Stay focused. Don’t assume that all the ‘must have’ information provided by subject matter experts and stakeholders really is ‘must have’. Flex your editor’s elbow and be firm: if it doesn’t directly contribute to the learning outcomes, put it somewhere else.
  6. Get a second opinion. Want to check your course is easy to read, without cutting out too much? Use the ‘gist test’. Give it to someone who doesn’t know the subject (friend, neighbour, colleague…) and check they get the key messages without having to reach for a dictionary.
  7. Don’t go overboard. As always, it’s a question of balance. Don’t undermine your content with too many colloquialisms, puns or witticisms. Yes, it’s got to be engaging, interesting and easy to read, but it’s also got to do its job.

I expand on these tips and give some examples in an article I wrote last year called ‘Writing for the reader’ and Cathy Moore’s also big on this. I’ve linked before to her ‘Dump the drone’ slideshow, but I’m linking to it again because it really is a great resource and, if you haven’t looked at it already, you should.

So there you go – 15 quick tips to help you breathe a little life into your e-learning!

Image: Salvatore Vuono /

Something for the weekend: kinetic typography video

Despite having the best intentions of posting something new this week, it’s now 5.30 on Friday and I’ve not been able to squeeze in any blogging time so far. I promise to do better next week! In the meantime, I thought I’d share my favourite thing I saw this week. Anyone who loves language and wonders at words will enjoy this fast-paced, engaging ‘kinetic typography’ video set against Stephen Fry’s essay on language – well worth watching. Enjoy!

Image: jscreationzs /

Do fact checks and trivia games have a place in e-learning?

Last week I extolled the virtues of Cathy’s Moore Action Mapping™ approach (take a look at my summary or, if you have a bit more time, Cathy’s slideshow). In his workshop at Training 2010 Rob Hubbard did the same, but he briefly commented on one point in Cathy’s explanation that he’s not completely convinced by. Cathy advises to avoid fact checks and trivia games, as they don’t happen in the real world. But I’m with Rob – I think these types of activity can have a place in e-learning (or any kind of learning, for that matter).

For instance, I’ve often used a ‘myth or reality’ type of interaction (essentially a trivia game) at the beginning of a course or section. I think that a well designed activity of this kind can offer a few important benefits. For instance, it can get the learner thinking about what they do and don’t know, thereby increasing their motivation. Carefully selected trivia, which is both relevant and surprising, can pique their interest and get them wanting to know more. I guess for me it’s a way of showing them that there is something they can learn from the course rather than just telling them what it’s going to cover. (Of course, a well crafted scenario can achieve this too, but might be more appropriate slightly further into the course.) Check out this post from the Spicy Learning Blog for more about the virtues of the myth and reality interaction.

I agree with Cathy that fact checks and trivia games after the learning rarely add value, but I think they can be used to great effect to drive (rather than recap) the learning – getting the learner thinking, testing and gauging their existing knowledge, grabbing their attention and interest and so on. They can also help to embed the learning. For example, dispelling a commonly held belief as a myth can give the learner a ‘hook’ and help to make the learning stick in their memory beyond the course itself.

What do you think? Do fact checks and trivia games have a place in e-learning, or are they superfluous activities that don’t add much value?.

Is there a ‘right’ way to blog? Reflections three months in

Three things have prompted this blog post.

First, three months into my solo-blogging venture, I’ve been thinking a lot about whether I approach the process in the ‘right’ way.

Second, in a recent LSG webinar there was a lively discussion in the chat pane about whether or not a blog constitutes ‘creative writing’.

And third, I stumbled across this post from Pushing Social about what ‘quality content’ is.

When Good To Great was just a gleam in my eye, I brainstormed potential blog post ideas to make sure that I had enough to say and that my blog wouldn’t simply dry up after a couple of weeks. I’m not really too worried about what Stanford calls ‘the thought leader myth’ or ‘the genius writer illusion’ – I follow blogs not because I expect revolutionary thinking every day, but because I enjoy finding ideas, questions or comments that get me thinking or looking at something in a new way. So that’s the goal I set myself; if I can provoke a little discussion or give someone a useful idea, I’m happy.

But I also assumed that by brainstorming my ideas I was creating a list of topics to write on. I saw myself turning to it each week when blogging-day came around, selecting the next topic and churning out my post. I was, probably unsurprisingly, a little misguided in that assumption. My mindmap is still tucked in the back of my notebook but more often than not my posts are (like this one) prompted by previous posts, reader comments, or articles and events that have got me thinking.

And rather than quickly ‘churning out’ posts, I’ve fallen into a pattern of drafting redrafting a post over the course of a week or so. Whenever inspiration strikes, I create a new document and note down whatever’s in my head. When I next have a spare fifteen minutes or so at lunchtime or in the evening, I open up one of my drafts and spend a little more time crafting the full post. Usually I won’t publish it right away, because I’ll probably have another couple of drafts previously polished up and ready to go. When I’m ready to post, I’ll cast my eye over it one last time, make any final edits, and publish it online.

Maybe as time goes on I’ll spend less time on each post. And I suppose one downside is the lack of immediacy: if I want to pick up on something I’ve read, the sheer speed with which things spread online means that unless I get round to it quickly my response could become a little outdated.

But for now I’m enjoying taking this approach. I’ve always loved writing – be it for professional, academic or personal purposes – and I enjoy going back and reviewing something I’ve previously written, tweaking it here and there until I’m happy. I know I won’t always have this luxury, and indeed I often don’t when I’m writing at work, which is another reason why I enjoy being able to do it for my blog. Yes, it’s related to what I do professionally, but for me Good To Great is a slightly indulgent creative outlet.

So, fellow bloggers, what do you do? Do you type your posts directly into WordPress or Blogger and then hit ‘publish’ right away? Or do you draft, redraft and polish your post a couple of times before putting it online? I’d love to know – is there a ‘right’ way to blog?

The secret of good design: action-mapping not information-dumping

I’ve long been a fan of Cathy Moore so was excited to find that one of the workshops at Training 2010 was focusing on putting Cathy’s excellent Action Mapping™ approach into action. Rob Hubbard, who now swears by this approach, opened the workshop by asking the group ‘what is good design?’ The key words that came up were: efficient, relevant, engaging, timely, concise and results-focused (encouragingly similar to my own thoughts about good e-learning). Action Mapping™ helps to achieve most, if not all, of these goals.

The idea is simple, and makes complete sense. One of my guiding principles of instructional design is focusing on what people need to do, not just what they need to know. For instance, when designing learning outcomes I avoid verbs like ‘describe’ or ‘understand’, and instead choose action verbs. Cathy’s technique is a great way to put this principle into practice and deliver learning content that really hits the mark.

Rather than starting with an information dump, start with a blank sheet of paper. And then work through this sequence of questions:

  1. What business goal do you want to achieve?
  2. What actions do people need to take to achieve that?
  3. What activities do people need to complete each required action? What practice activity can you design for each action?
  4. What information is absolutely necessary to allow them to complete each practice activity?

That information – and only that information – is what needs to go into your course. The challenge then is to design a thread or story to pull it all together in a way that will enable learners to easily and effectively carry out the same activities and actions in real life. This in turn will contribute to the business goal identified at the start of the process. (That was a fairly basic, paraphrased explanation of Action Mapping™. Be sure to take a look at Cathy’s slideshow for the real thing.)

So, going back to the key characteristics of good design that we brainstormed at the start of the workshop:

  • Only the most useful information makes it into the course, keeping it relevant and results-focused
  • Superfluous information is cut out or stored elsewhere, keeping it concise and efficient
  • A realistic, thought-provoking thread focuses on what people need to do, keeping it engaging

Timeliness can’t really be achieved through Action Mapping™ alone, but five out of six isn’t bad!