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Best Training Practices
Will Kenny
3927 York Ave N
Robbinsdale, MN 55422

Developing On-line Training Yourself? Here We Go Again . . .

lessons from word processing for DIY online course development

Have you ever taken a course on-line? You probably used your usual web browser to navigate topics, read material, listen to and view media, and even take a quiz on what you learned.

These days anyone with rudimentary familiarity with computers and a web browser can create and upload courses just like that. Vendors of these "Do-It-Yourself" (DIY) on-line course creation tools boast about how quickly you can have a course on the web, available to any students who have browsers. (In fact, speed seems to be almost all they talk about.)

And many people seem to assume that any on-line course has to be better than any "old-fashioned" course delivered in, say, a classroom (gasp!). (But see this reprint on customer service training at Kinko's.) To the convenience and speed of development, they have added an assumption of quality.

Been there, done that . . .

Let Me Tell You a Story of Long Ago . . .

Maybe you're not old enough to have ever operated a typewriter. Word processing made it much easier to revise text, to replace things and move them around, so documents would have fewer mistakes, and those that did occur could be corrected quickly. This might not seem amazing if that's the only way you've ever written and printed a document, but making significant changes once required doing the whole thing over again.

Expected benefits of widely available word processing went way beyond just eliminating spelling mistakes. One of the great assumptions that came along with word-processing tools was that they would make us -- and I mean pretty much all of us -- better writers.

Many, many people believed that as we wrote memos and policies and all sorts of communications, we would draft a document and then look through it and find ways to improve it. We'd all hone our memos and other documents into masterpieces of communication.

So That's Why All the Memos You Read Are So Clear, Concise, and Informative!

Yeah, right. Word-processing tools did not turn poor writers into good ones. They did, however, make some people better.

Or perhaps a better way to put it is that some people produced better writing when word-processing became available, namely, people who already were better writers. In other words, word processing enhanced the quality of the product only when used by people who were already producing superior quality communication.

Why? Because they were better at revising, at seeing where they could improve the clarity or brevity (or both) of a passage. They had the skills to take advantage of what these new tools offered. They were better at the "thinking about writing" part of the job, which has much more to do with structure and the flow of information than it has to do with picking just the right word.

It is Not About Speed and Shortcuts

In the same way, new tools that allow you to quickly create an on-line course will not, by themselves, invest any quality in that course. If you don't know how to make an effective live seminar or to produce change through meetings and presentations, you aren't going to do any better on-line.

And there's a good chance you'll do worse.

On-line course development tools are valuable to the extent that they allow you to do something you might not have done before, for reasons of time, cost, or accessibility to your employees. As with word processing, they provide good training developers with tools that allow them to create, and revise, course materials more quickly, and deliver them to their audiences more efficiently.

They also allow you to throw something together that is no better than a first draft, something that looks like that rough typed version, without any of the later word-processing revisions, and to immediately expose hundreds or thousands of employees, prospects, or customers to a poorly designed experience that will do much more to frustrate than to educate.

The Analogy Breaks Down

Word-processing software didn't make things much worse. True, sometimes you get documents that are so over-formatted they are hard to read, but in general, you're getting the same quality of communication from most of your colleagues that you would have anyway, except for those few who have the skills to really apply these tools.

On-line course development, however, is perhaps more likely to make things worse. I can't discuss all the factors involved in the space I have here, but one key is that an on-line course differs from a live class in immediacy of feedback about course content and structure.

In a live course, the instructor or facilitator knows right away when things aren't working and, hopefully, makes notes about how to change things for the next offering. Questions are asked that the course developers didn't anticipate, but course leaders can often answer those on the fly, or get the answers quickly -- again, adding that content to the next offering of the course.

A really well-designed on-line course anticipates the questions and needs of the students, and provides resources to address them. But it is almost impossible to anticipate everything, even in a patiently developed, professionally designed course. In "quick as you can" course creation, thrown up on an intranet or web site in record time, it is highly likely that there will be some confusions and gaps in the learner's experience.

And feedback trickles in slowly. Sure, the course administrator (or mentor, or developer, or other expert) can respond to e-mails. Rest assured that most people will not even bother to give you their feedback. They'll just "get through the course" and put it behind them, because 1) e-mailing is a separate step, requiring more effort than raising your hand in class and asking a question, and 2) they probably don't get a response quickly, if at all, so they aren't reinforced for providing you with information about how to improve the course.

Patience, Thoroughness,
Commitment, Investment

New development tools for creating on-line courses make the technology easier, but they don't make creating truly effective training and employee communication easier. Now you can get new topics up on your intranet, or available to customers, more quickly than ever before . . . and you can get mediocre training and communications up there especially quickly!

Don't be in a hurry to short circuit the development process. Know your audience and their training needs thoroughly, commit to design, draft, piloting and revision phases. Just as with the word processor, figure out what to say, and how to say it well, first, and then worry about formatting when you've got the message right. When thinking about offering an "on-line course", invest your time and money in the course first, and in the on-line aspect second.

It can be hard to wait, when you have new toys to play with. And making things look pretty is more fun, and less work, than thinking. But rushing to produce training that doesn't work is just a "diminishing returns" game.

It could be the fastest way to damage your reputation with your audience . . . and to ensure that they will pay even less attention to your next on-line course.

© 2007 Best Training Practices -- Will Kenny

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