When I’m not teaching class, I work as a freelance instructional designer (ID). This year, I’ve been working most often as a contract ID for a San Francisco instructional design firm. Two weeks ago, I gave a presentation to the senior executives of this firm. I had just wrapped work on a classroom-based 1.5-day training course. The client was a large biotech company. Since the project successfully deployed a range of innovative activities, including an interesting serious games design, I was asked to present to the ID firm that managed the project.
I opened my talk with a few slides on Michael Allen’s criticisms of traditional “tell and test” learning. These criticisms are primarily that content-driven courses tend to be boring, and that the meaningful tasks aren’t usually covered until the course is almost over. Then I showed how Allen suggests fixing those problems by starting the course with a challenge that asks the learner to perform the final or near-final task that the course is teaching, while providing the “tell” portions of the course as supporting materials to help the learner master this challenge. By converting the “tell” portions of the course to subordinate material, Allen’s approach gives the learner a lot more motivation to process the course content than is typical in a more traditional content-centric course. I explained that it was with these ideas in mind that I approached the challenge of creating a highly activity-centric course for the biotech client.
At the end of my talk I listed a few resources my audience could check out if they wanted to learn more about this activity-centric approach. One of the links was to a then-upcoming webinar by Michael Allen. At that point, the Senior Director of Project Management turned to me and said, jokingly, “You should get a commission!”
I tell you this so you will know my bias—I’m a huge Michael Allen fan. The three books on e-learning that he’s written so far have been, by far, the most practical and interesting such books I have read. His latest, Designing Successful E-Learning, and his first, Michael Allen’s Guide to E-Learning, are particularly great. If, like me, you’ve spent the last several years designing corporate e-learning, these books will likely change your view about what good e-learning should strive to do and how it should go about accomplishing its goals. Allen’s principles, like “Put the learner at risk” or “Don’t start at the beginning” or “Test before telling” run counter to much ingrained practice in the industry. But radical though they are, the principles he lays out are, I think, exactly what is needed to shake e-learning out of its doledrums and take it to the next level where it can be of genuine value to the learner. Read these books and you’ll never want to design e-learning the “old” way ever again. And even though his focus is on e-learning, I find the core ideas in his books translate well to the design of highly interactive classroom courses too.
Last week, I attended Allen’s webinar. Now it’s online as an archive (see: Context, Challenge, Activity, Feedback). Check it out. It’s excellent, and the demo he shows is compelling. It doesn’t depend on fancy 3D animation or first-person shooter-style immersive graphics. It’s mainly constructed out of static photos and some clever recontextualization of simple multiple-choice questions. The power is in the instructional approach, not the delivery technology per se.
If you enjoy this webinar, you might like to view the archive of Allen’s earlier webinar on Stages of Change.