No Image Available


Read more from TrainingZone

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Elearning debate: Does rapid development mean dumbing down?


Dumbing downTechnology editor John Stokdyk reports from the eLearning Network debate, which asked if the traditions of training design are under threat from rapid development software tools.

The theme of the eLearning Network's recent meeting in London was: "Rapid eLearning: dumbing down or gearing up?" and featured a debate in which Phil Green of Optimum Learning and Richard Naish of QI Concepts spoke in favour of the motion: "We believe that rapid design and development processes represent as much a threat to the elearning community as they do an opportunity".

Opposing the motion were two representatives from software companies - Steve Rayson of Kineo and Atlantic Link's Mike Alcock. eLearning Network chairman Clive Shepherd, who thought up the idea of an old-fashioned, confrontational debate, admitted that it required the two sides to adopt more strident positions than they really believed, but felt the exchanges would help illuminate a persistent source of friction within the training world.

Phil Green opened for the 'For' side.

"I am not against tools, I use Captivate, PowerPoint [and several other tools] and I use them rapidly in pursuit of my craft," he said. "But I am wary of people in soft shoes and shiny suits who spread misinformation." The elearning sales myths he itemised included: it's easy to develop interactive materials; it's fast; and it's an antidote to paralysis by analysis.

"It's not easy to learn," he continued, adding that the myth reminded him of Bob Newhart's comedy routine about an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters, in which one of them comes up with the line: "To be or not to be - that is thegrrdnm zsplkt".

"I am not against tools... but I am wary of people in soft shoes and shiny suits who spread misinformation."

Phil Green, Optimum Learning

And as for subject matter experts (SMEs) being the best people to create content, Green argued: "No they aren't - they're the worst people to create learner-based learning".

Drawing on previous presentations at the event of how rapid elearning tools are being used, Green criticised "the panoply of templates and patterns of learning that lead us into over elaboration". He continued: "Where we should say a word, we say a sentence. When we should say a sentence, we create a richly interactive experience."

Like his debating partner Green, QI's Richard Naish started with a few points in favour of rapid elearning development. "SMEs can author things directly rather than through the prism of the instructional designer," he admitted. "Sometimes 'alright for now' is better than an epic masterpiece. It's easy to sell and easy to buy."

When confronted with the choice of quick or cheap, many clients wanted both - as long as it's good enough.

But the speed and convenience offered by rapid development processes carried threats, which Naish categorised in five areas:

  1. Linear, template-based elearning will not engage digital natives. "The problem is that the people designing elearning are digital immigrants and adaptives. We are going to be teaching people who want a different style of learning. Rapid elearning tools encourage people to create linear learning for a non-linear world," he said.
  2. Experts do not make the best teachers. In their hands, the tools will become an expert information delivery mechanism, rather than elearning.
  3. Rapid elearning creates "look learning" that leads to low engagement levels. "Rapid elearning will look all the same, and that will be a big turn off," said Naish.
  4. While rapid development is supposed to save costs, if you include in-house costs such as salaries and pensions, computers and the like, "Sometimes it's cheaper to outsource it".
  5. The underlying danger that the elearning industry will shoot itself in the foot. If practitioners were not careful, he warned, "Elearning tools will flood the market and create the impression that it's not effective".

Kineo's Steve Rayson led the counter-arguments and took a pragmatic approach. "What have we done with rapid elearning tools?" he asked. "We've empowered subject experts and liberated them from the tyranny of expensive learning experts. What we've done is get rid of the £30,000 development project and brought average prices down to the £1,000-£3,000 level."

"We've empowered subject experts and liberated them from the tyranny of expensive learning experts."

Steve Rayson, Kineo

By way of examples, he mentioned that BT had reduced its dependency on outside suppliers, and cut costs by 66% and now produces hundreds of courses a month in-house. Another corporate customer, the Max Spielmann retail photographic chain, went in-house when faced with quotes for £600,000 to deliver a course and saved £470,000. The resulting course helped to improve camera sales by 200% in the first week, Rayson claimed.

Then he turned to the question of whether rapid development helps you create good instructional learning: "Lots of the tools come with quite good instructional design templates and fabulous graphics. It's easy, you can learn it fast and you can put as much interactive in as you can. SMEs are the right people to create courses. If you are on, go buy the best elearning tool you can get," he argued.

Atlantic Link's Mike Alcock approached the subject from the philosophical high ground, arguing that the motion "sums up the problem of the UK elearning industry". Saying that rapid development was a threat was like saying a website is a threat, he argued.

"The UK learning market has got a lamentable record. How many companies don't become international brands because they're insular? Businesses fail because they don't keep pace with the marketplace. A lot of people won't keep up with the market and will go out of business."

Meeting customer needs

For Alcock, rapid development was about meeting customer needs. "If customers say need it in four weeks, it's irrelevant if we say 10 weeks. Our customers say 70% of the content they need is time sensitive. We have to meet their business needs or we're irrelevant."

While he accepted that SMEs could not do it all on their own, he didn't believe in all the memos and documentation so beloved by instructional designers. "The world of software development is rapid prototyping - you can see what a prototype is going to look like."

Digital natives wanted to see results fast, so Atlantic Link will often do a Skype session with a prototype and put it on a website for the client to review. "In the world we work in, there is a need for rapid elearning content and companies that don't adopt it will disappear."

The comments about instructional design memos triggered a swift rebuke from Phil Green who challenged the "ugly myth" of over-documentation. "Where did this myth come from that you need a huge proposal and a great tome for the outline specification?", he asked. "One advantage of instructional design is that it's entirely performance focused - it will go straight to quick-fix solutions."

Mark Alcock responded that the future was rapid and it was online, and people were already doing it. "The future tools are already Web 2.0 tools. You can't know everything, so let's train people how to do things when they need to do them."

In a quick aside, Green quipped, "Let's give the project to an SME who doesn't know Flash and ask them to do it...".

From the floor, PricewaterhouseCoopers training manager Ben Short added: "Throwing tools at people isn't the right way to do it. You've got to wrap processes and support around it".

After more tit-for-tat exchanges, chairman Clive Shepherd stepped forward and observed: "There's still ambiguity, but we have to have a vote. Like this week's Champion's League final, we have two very even sides, but someone has to miss the penalty."

The motion was defeated by roughly 14 votes to 7, with several abstentions among the 40+ audience.


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.

Thank you!