Thursday, November 26, 2015

Instructional Design and the Technical World

For majority of my career, I had the privilege of working on some amazing content. After eight years of experimenting with the boundaries of ID in the domain of soft skills, products, and process training, I was skeptical when I got a job opportunity from an IT company. My thoughts were:
  • Would technical training be as boring as I imagine?
  • Do I really want to try my hand at this to see if I can tackle this domain also?
  • Will creativity be restricted?
I reached out to my peers and received mixed opinions that left me more confused.  I finally spoke to one of my mentors, Rashmi Varma, who suggested that I should give it a go. My husband kept encouraging me to try something new. I then decided that I would attend the interview. The interview itself was very interesting. I was interviewed by a person who was quite paranoid about technical training. In what way, you ask? Well, he kept asking me if I have done any technical training and I kept replying no, I hadn't. He then started trying to convince me about how difficult and boring technical training is. After a while, I lost my patience and exclaimed 'I have the confidence to work with any type of content. Now, it is up to you to decide if you think I am suitable for this role.'

What is it about technical training that people are so scared about? I decided to take the offer and find out for myself. I went in with an open mind. I have now been designing technical training for one and half years and here are my observations:

Technical training is also about people:
Regardless of the topic/concept, if you are trying to train people, then there is a story to tell. If it is a software application, it is important to tell the story about who will be using it. And, the demystification of a software product gives me immense satisfaction. Most times, we get bogged down by focusing on the complexities of the topic. We should be focusing on understanding the human angle. How do people use it? Most times, even the people who design these products don't know the 'whole story'. Can you find it and tell them so that they do their work better?

If you are a good ID, the domain does not matter:
If you are a good ID, you should be able to design courses regardless of the domain. At the end of the day, we are here to ensure that we use effective learning strategies to teach. We need to be smart enough to understand 'how things work.' We should be able to ask the relevant questions and get the answers that help us build the story.

Technical Training also provides oppurtunity to think creatively:
My second project was about an abstract product. This product was very new and the concept was very abstract at the beginning. There was no case study to help as the product hand been launched yet. With the help of the SME, I created a detailed scenario that helped the learners understand the product better. Therefore, you can choose to be creative in any domain.

You can design detailed scenarios to help the learner understand how the product will work in the real world. The bottom line is there is no point blaming the content or the tools... we can create opportunities to make it creative.

The beauty is in simplification:
With most things, especially technical training, the beauty is in simplification. Can you understand the product enough to simplify the explanations you provide? Can you de-jargonize it and say it in a 'simple' fashion? Do not get overwhelmed by its complexities. There are always SMEs to help you understand things better. Ask them the right questions and do extensive research. Keep abreast with the products you work on. It prepares you for when the training does come your way.

To summarize, I thoroughly loved the first 8 years of my ID life, and I continue to do so. I do not regret working with technical content. I can now say that I have a complete portfolio! This experience has taught be to overlook biases and see things in a different light.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Child with a Learning Disability: Post 1

These are a series of posts about a boy full of life, a happy child who sees no differences in people. A boy who thinks each and every person out there is a friend. A boy who doesn't see that people are judging him because he is different. It is about a boy who faces the usual challenges of a boy his age and several more challenges than a boy his age. 


The teacher complained that this boy was hitting other children in class. He needed help with his work. He was not interested in doing his work. She said please teach him at home also.

The parents took the role of a teacher at home. But when the parent sat to teach, the child howled and cried and refused to learn. They dreaded opening the school diary to see complaints like 'your son is troubling children of 1st grade.' The son played really well with children in the building. The parents were confused why their child was different in school. 

The parents tried to ask questions to the teacher such as 'what caused the child to lash out?' 'how do you handle it?' 'does he target specific children?' The teacher was vague in her answers, insisting that he just lashes out. On further questioning, she shared that he was not recognizing alphabets and numbers. She advised that the parents should try harder. These things happen because of working parents who don't have time for their children. She advised that the parents should hang alphabets and numbers chart and not to worry about the decor of the house.

Soon, the child got very restless at home also. He came back home and said 'Children say I don't know ABCs; I don't know how to talk; I don't know anything.' The distressed parents spoke to the pediatrician and special educator. They were both supportive and insisted we wait a few more months. An assessment was conducted after six months. The child was diagnosed as being at risk of a learning disability.

The parents shared the information with the teacher. The teacher hinted that these children do well in special schools. The parents had arranged a meeting with the Principal. The teacher calls the parent and says 'Ma'am, can you please tell the Principal that I helped you identify the problem? We are never given credit for anything. Also, the management is pro-parents and therefore insists that we say only nice things to the parents.' Needless to say, the parent already extremely emotional and stressed politely told the teacher to get lost.

The Principal was very supportive and the special educator worked her magic with the child. But things worsened in the classroom. Complaints kept coming in steadily from the class teacher. Her way of 'handling' him was to give simple tasks and then send him out to play. The communication between the teacher and the special educator was extremely poor due to the teacher's ego. The parents requested the teacher to become more sensitive and understand how to handle the child from the special educator. But resistance was evident. 'Why should I focus on one child when I have 29 others?' Every other day, the child would come and tell the parent that he was punished. One day, the child came back and said 'I don't like my teacher. She asked me to get out of the school.' The parents, who had been very patient so far, met the Principal, gave feedback and removed the child from the school. The Principal explained that they are not equipped to handle these children (and by this I guess she meant, we also don't plan to be) and washed her hands off.

What do we expect from the teachers?
  • We expect them to be impartial. Treat all children alike.
  • We expect them to encourage children and provide them a positive environment to learn. 
  • We expect them to have the student's interests at heart. 
  • What is the point in focusing on the so called 'bright' children?
  • We do look for professional behavior. 
Where do we take our children if the school that claims to be inclusive is really not? During a telephonic conversation, the teacher tells the parent 'I am a software engineer, I came into this line after my son was born. I wanted to be with children.' Is this reason enough to hire a teacher? Most schools may think kindergarten is not so critical. But it is equally critical as children that young have mouldable personalities and hearts. The child, in this case especially, has a fragile ego and imagine what kind of risk we are putting him in by exposing him to insensitive and untrained teachers.

The teacher must not judge the child or their parents. Parents always want to do the best for their child. This particular teacher must remember that she is a working mother too. And must understand what causes learning disabilities before making statements that only prove her ignorance in the matter.

Coming back to the boy.... he was sent to The Deens Academy, where the Special Educator has a group of trained teaches, a classroom setting and good infrastructure to support children with mild to moderate difficulties. The Principal, the special ed staff, headmistress and the teacher in the class are all aware of the child's individual plan. The communication is open and therefore, the child is not treated wrongly. The teacher seeks out the special ed teacher incase she wants inputs on how a tantrum or a behavior can be corrected. Where would parents take their children if such schools didn't exist? Scary....  

If your child has a learning disability, ensure that you put him or her in the right environment. These children are very intelligent and learn differently. Put them in a positive environment where teachers and the school actually do the job they are meant to do --- tap the child's potential.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Trainers and Instructional Design

A few months ago, I got an opportunity to interact with learning professionals from behavioral and technical domains in a reputed company. Given below are a few things I noticed:

1) All domains require instructional design to ensure that the sessions are interactive and engaging. 
Most of the technical training is handled in-house because it is vital to the business. When I spoke to the learning professionals in technical domain, I realized that they were plagued with concerns about boredom, dropouts, retention of information, design of presentations, and so on. It was essential for the employees to sit through these technical programs to prepare them for their roles. But, this was not motivation enough for the employees to attend or sit through these sessions.

Lot of people assume that training-directly related to work will automatically have higher levels of motivation. While this may be true, any motivation is killed by drab trainings. All trainings need instructional designe to ensure motivational levels are high throughout.

2) Most trainers have no clue what instructional design is and the role it plays in designing effective learning. 
My husband is also a trainer and therefore, through my work and his, I get to meet a lot of trainers. What strikes me is? All trainers think ID is synonymous with content development. They believe that ID is all about content creation. During an interaction, a trainer asked me what my role was. I explained that I am an instructional designer. Her immediate response was 'You create content all the time. Don't you get bored.' She also went on to say how dry instructional design as a topic was. Needless to say, my jaw touched the floor and I was ready to beat this person up. thankfully, I put on my professional face and explained what ID really was.

Instructional design is understanding the learner's psyche, their needs and motivations and identifying the most effective way to teach.

3) Trainers in the behavioral department identify training sessions based on their interests. 
Is it just me or does anybody else see a big flaw in this? Like I mentioned, there was one person who thought ID was very boring and I just love this topic. See how people have different interests. What interests me may not interest you. Why would people sit through a session that interests you? The biggest flaw is that you assume that if I like it, people will love it. This is not necessarily true.

A trainer told me how they wanted to do sessions on emotional quotients and a great book that he had read. But what they fail to realize is:
  • This may not be important or necessary for the learners.
  • Even if people opt to attend a training out of genuine love for learning (rarely happens!), people always want to see what is relevant for in their workspace. 
  • Only trainers and IDs love learning, others don't have the patience or time for it at work.
Learner's time is precious, give it the respect it deserved. Session topics must be decided based on learning needs only. Else, they may be redundant and absolutely irrelevant. 

4) Trainers are content-centric rather than learner-centric.

Like most SMEs, trainers love the content and therefore, somewhere along the way they forget to answer the most important question 'What's in it for the learner?' Learners look for real life examples, processes/tips/learning that they can immediately use and apply. Trainers do not understand the importance or need to customize learning for a specific audience. I know trainers who pick up case studies and content off the Internet. They forget that they are dealing with an Indian audience with a very specific need.

Keep it real. Do learner analysis to understand your learners and their realities. This will help you build case studies and write examples. No one wants to read theories. 

5) Trainers struggle with identifying proper ID approaches. 

Not many trainers think of 'How can I teach this best? How do people learn?' There was a trainer who taught through stories. I found this very interesting till I realized, every slide has a new story. Overkill, don't you think? Even a really interesting ID approach can die a fatal death because it is executed poorly.

Trainers also struggle with designing scenarios, examples and case studies. These people have access to real experiences but don't know how to use them to teach effectively.

Trainers seem to be stuck up about experiential learning. While this is a great approach, there are several more. And I don't whether experiential learning is really possible or necessary for all types of situations/content/learners/outcomes.    

Understand the different ID approaches that you can use and select the most effective one.

I don't mean to generalize there are several trainers who are good IDs as well and IDs who are bad IDs. Some trainers use their instinct and design good programs. While trained IDs continue to design horrible courses. Having said that trainers must take the time out to understand instructional design better.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Storyboarding at Kern

Recently, we had a client request us to storyboard on Microsoft Word. Whenever I hear this request, I cringe as I recollect my previous experiences of storyboard on Word. Why?
  • Word is a 'text-centered' tool. Word encourages me to write long descriptions of what will happen in each screen. Using drawing tools in Word is a pain. I am a more visual person (or so I have been told). While storyboarding, I have to see:
    • how my screen looks
    • where are the elements placed
    • what is the sequence of animation 
    • what is the visual hierarchy and how will the eye move 
  • Do you know how painful it is to work on tables in Word? Typically, Word storyboards have tables with screen number, OST, Audio, graphic description, and so on. The first time, it acts perfect. By the second review, the text and/or images will start disappearing. I can't tell you how frustrating it is. 
  • Word storyboards leave the course characterless and there is a huge dependency on visual designers to bring life into the course. 
  • Scanning across pages becomes a tedious affair because pages are top-down scroll. It requires a lot of concentration to identify what you are looking for. 
I am going to share a few examples of how we used different Microsoft Office tools to storyboard at Kern Learning Solutions.

When do We use Word for Storyboarding?

I remember using Word well for storyboarding, when the instructional approach was simple branching stories. 
Why did we use Word? We used it because we did not want to focus on visualization just then. We had the more important task of ensuring that the content flow was right and that there were no loose ends. Every option had a consequence and therefore, we used the hyperlink feature to keep track of how the stories end.

When do We use Excel for Storyboarding? 

We used Excel for simple, branching MCQ.

Why did we use excel? The ideas was to show a negative consequence immediately and ask the learner to reconsider. It was important for us to keep an eye on all the consequences. We had to ensure that all options were extremely plausible and there was no repetition.

When do We use PPT?

We extensively use PPT as a storyboarding tool.

In this case, we created a wireframe in PPT. The learner had access to different resources. He/she had to glance through before making a decision. The complexity of questions increased as we went along. The hyper-linking ensured a close to real experience. The PPT also helped us give a visual feel.

Again, we designed a visual storyboard. Where information was displayed in a easy to read and interesting format.

What are the advantages of this:
  • The ID thinks through where things are placed on his/her screen. 
  • The essence of the storyboard is communicated not only to the visual designers but also to the client. It is easier to show people outside the industry how it will work. 
  • It helps give a base for the visual designers and really good visual designers add further value by giving it the right finish and adding their own touches.
  • This helps minimize text on screen. The ID constantly thinks 'How can I display information in a easy to read and interesting fashion?'
  • We don't use templates in PPT, but use grids and guidelines in a disciplined fashion. The storyboard communicated uniformity and consistency.
What are your experiences working with Microsoft tools for storyboarding? How have you used them best?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Power of Learner Analysis

When I starting writing this blog, I posted 'Why I like doing what I do'. Every other juncture in my life, I continue to reflect on why I like doing what I do and surprising my list only grows longer.

Understanding the inner workings for the learner
I think the importance of learner analysis is understated. There is so much we can learn by talking to the people we are designing the training for. The more obvious results are training needs, but what interests me more is the psyche of the learner. When you meet 'real' people with 'real ideologies and beliefs', you know before hand what will work and what won't.

I recently conducted face-to-face interviews with learners from an automobile research and development company. The management knew that they wanted training on time management. Now, when I heard time management, I thought of a noisy company with overworked staff who are continuously missing deadlines. I was in for a pleasant surprise. After I spoke to 5 people, I began to see a trend. This organization had a dream work culture and ideal work timings. Being a European company, working late was frowned upon and working over weekends was a sure no. As I walked through the office to reach the cafeteria during the lunch break, I was stunned by the hushed tones and the 'quiet'. I remember thinking to myself, the biggest distraction at work must be the silence. :) So, why did they need a session on time management? Well, as I spoke to people I realized that while the work culture and timelines was relaxed, they still missed deadlines. Therefore, it was important for the people to understand the value of time and how they can manage their self better.

If my trainer had gone into the training program without knowing this, we may have delivered a canned training program with the 4 quadrants and prioritizing theories. It is important to understand what makes the learners tick and then build a program that will be effective.

Strategies for any training are thought of as a result of learner analysis. Understand the people, the need and then device the solution. We designed a product training for sales force of an MNC. The product was meant to help smokers quit smoking.We realized that the learners had to empathize with the smokers to understand why people were addicted and then how the product works. We designed a case study approach where we introduced a couple and helped learners understand that while a smoker may want to quit, it is not an easy task. But, how can we help him? This made the problem of smoking very real and therefore, learning of how the product works was very useful.

This is why I love doing what I do. Every project I work on is different from the other. A client of ours once fell love with a course we had designed for another client. They told us you can follow the same style. But, did we? No! It is easy right, follow the same strategy, don't use your brains too much. After all, CLIENT requested it. After we spoke to the learners, the strategy, automatically fell in place. It was not only visually different, but also in terms of the instructional strategy used. The instructional strategy is dependent on the work culture, the people, and the learning objective. Work culture plays an extremely crucial role and it would help to understand this well enough before you storyboard. In this organization, the hierarchy was very clear. If I am the manager, you listen. Knowing this helped us design really good scenarios that people could relate to.  

During lunch break of the time management training session, two really sweet participants kept me company. During small talk, they wanted to know what I do. I explained that I was an instructional designer and so on. One of them asked me, 'How do you decide which session should be elearning and which ILTs?' Now, the real answer to this (as it happens in most organizations) is the client decides based on their own logic and budgets. Some of the weirdest reasons I have heard are:
  • 'Learning is effective only when it is face-to-face. There has to be a human contact.'
  • 'People don't take onus of learning and therefore, have to be put in a classroom.'
  • 'Complicated topics have to be tackled by experts face-to-face.'
I have designed strategies for both eLearning and ILTs and have immense respect for both. What should be the deciding factors?

  • If you want to discuss personal issues such as workplace violence, sexual harassment, conflict management, personal hygiene and so on, eLearning is possible your solution. Why? Because learners may not come out and discuss these topics. With eLearning, they can reflect on these in their own space and be honest to themselves.
  • If you want to the people in the office to mix with each other and (like most companies in India) do not have social media support, you can arrange an ILT. People come and share their experience and learn from each other as well as from the session. It helps for them to understand that there are people who experience similar things. 
  • If you want a refresher, eLearning works like a dream. The content can be really crisp and always available for people as they work.
  • When you want sustainability of learning, it has to be a blended approach. Learning is most effective when it is holistic. 
  • Finally, I think both work extremely well, if designed right. 
 All the effort we put into learner analysis pays off when we sit behind our learners and watch them take our course during learner testing. We always get inputs and value ads, but till date we have never been off our mark. Recently, we got a rating of 6.5 out of 7 for our course and it was reason enough for all of us to rejoice. If learners like it, we have understood them well and designed for them. The satisfaction you feel for doing your job right is incomparable. So, do you understand the inner workings of your learner?    

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Little Professionalism Please?

Is professionalism going extinct? The more I interact with people outside my organization, the more I realize that professionalism is becoming the thing of the past. For those of you who are professional, the following list may seem very obvious. But, trust me, the people who are not need to read this:  

1) It is not OK to take credit for another person's work. Whether you are a vendor, a senior, a junior, a stakeholder, SME, client, you have no right to take away credit from hard work done. In today's age of collaboration, it is very unprofessional to steal the limelight to look good in front of others. Always give credit where it's due. If you see good work/manners/attitude, appreciate it openly. You can do the same with anyone regardless of your age or position. It is becoming more and more common for people to say "I am putting in far more effort than I was required to." Why do you feel this way?
  • You didn't understand the effort involved right at the beginning. You probably went wrong in your time/effort estimation. No point blaming anyone else. 
  • You are not working efficiently enough. You keep thinking of new things to add or do or you work in a very unstructured fashion. 
  • You are probably doing a million other things and therefore, feel stretched. You may not be putting in extra effort, but feel over-worked. 
  • You are not the only one working hard. It is important to acknowledge that it is a team effort. Respect other people's time and effort. They have brains too you know. 
SMEs especially think they are doing 'too much'. It was always their job to provide and check content. Therefore, if the review cycles are longer its mostly because they are adding content and making changes at a later stage. Let us NOT expect anybody else to do our job please. 

2) It is not OK to dangle the carrot in front of people till you get what you want. Please say no and people will appreciate far more than adding a list of ridiculous conditions. If you are not the decision-maker, do not arrange meetings where decision making is required. If you have doubts, voice them out loudly. Do not push people in the corner and expect them to do their job well. Do not get so well entrenched in the work and then make demands because it may be tough to replace you. This is just not the way it is done.

I actually had to sit through a call where two stakeholders discussed what working was not coming to me. This is the heights! Please carry out all internal meetings before your call with the consultant. Then, share what is coming to her.

3) It is not OK to lash out. This is extremely common. You raise a point of concern and the other party lashes back with a list of things you have done wrong. Let us understand we are all human and trying to work as efficiently as is possible. Let us also stop the blame game, we are not children any more. Let us please think before we write out an email. Respond with our heads and not react emotionally. Here's what you can do:
  • Use facts and figures to make your case. 
  • Do not be judgmental and assume that the other party is useless. Respect the people you work with. 
  • If you are upset about a mail, do not respond back immediately. Take a break. Come back to it when you have thought it through calmly. Seek a second opinion when in doubt. 
  • Always be honest to yourself and those you work with. If it is your fault, accept it. 
  • Understand what happened from all parties before you respond. There are managers who blindly respond without having all the information. Be informed. 
If people are lashing out, don't take it lying down. Some really unfair things come out when people are lashing out and it is important to make your point. But do so in a professional manner. Other can rant as much as they want. You be in control. 

4) Use some tact and discretion while sharing information. If your association with me is at a business level, I would appreciate if you don't cross certain boundaries. I do not want to hear a word against my organization or my colleagues. Being friendly, does not amount to listening to anything and everything that you may have to say. I am not your counselor. Use discretion when sharing information with people outside as they are bound to use it against you or your company at some instance. Taking feedback is fine, but if people are not tactful, you have all rights to get offended. Everyone thinks that the vendor/client is out to cheat them. Trust people and see before you tarnish their image. Be sensitive to others feelings. If you are writing a blunt mail, do not cc the world on it. It makes it more difficult for the person to see your point.

5) Do not look for a scapegoat to make yourself look good. Some people believe that there are here to make a big difference. Which is great and long as you don't think the way to do that is to whip those around you. Be collaborative and this will be more fruitful than breathing down a person's neck.

I have sat through uncomfortable meetings where the manager questions an employee's actions. I am an outsider, why make your own employee feel uncomfortable. Isn't common sense that you put a common front to me? These kind of managers are always looking to pass on the blame. They will lash out saying 'This is not what I expected!' You point out that these were the expectations and they immediately turn to find another scapegoat. If you are managing the project, every flaw in the product is as much yours as it is your employees. You need to be aware of what is happening. It is not cool to wash your hands of everything. I have seen how great managers take criticism for the work that their subordinates have done. I have admired them and learnt from them. I wish it were more obvious to some other people.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Respect for Age - An overrated concept

Have you ever come across a situation where you are not taken seriously because of your age? Have you had to throw in a line about your child to ensure that you are seen as a responsible person? Just take a minute and look around you, you will find several people who either look younger than their age or those who strive to look younger than their age. Noone is trying to look old. But I got this bizarre request from a client that has me thinking will this change soon?

Coming to the request, here's the conversation:
Client: Can you please share profiles of trainers who are older and have some grey hair?
Me: Sure, but they charge a bomb because they are thought leaders.
Client: Oh ok. Actually, I don't need older trainers but trainers who look old.

Hmm. Here I am thinking whether I need to plan a new selection process for the trainer. How many wrinkles does he/she have? How many greys does he/she have? I do understand where they are coming from. In our culture, age is given a lot of respect. Therefore, the idea that the trainer will command respect through age and therefore, will have more control over learning. While I do respect older people, I also respect people who know what they are talking about. Regardless of the age, position, or gender, I am willing to listen to someone if what they have to say is worthwhile. A small example is when I conducted a session on LMS for Kern. I am an instructional designer and not a developer. But I have been involved in the LionSher LMS development process at Kern. People at the conference heard me out and enjoyed the session because I spoke their language (layman's), I believed in what I was saying, I had done my research, and the session was extremely interactive.

A trainer I know keeps telling me 'I am going to color my hair grey next time. I am not as young as I look.' This had me thinking, does age really matter. I have seen an 'older' trainer command respect and unfortunately instill fear in the participants. I have seen good trainers facilitate great learning regardless of their age and background. What I look for in a trainer is:
  1. Does he/she match Kern's way of thinking? 
  2. Does he/she put the learner in the center?
  3. Is he/she reliable? (It is totally uncool to cancel at the last minute unless you are dying.)
  4. Will the person have the energy required to carry off a session in a lively fashion?
  5. Is he/she collaborative in nature? 
If the answers are yes, then age really doesn't matter.  

Have you also come across a situation where your boss makes you the point of contact and similarly the point of contact at the client's end also changes? Why? Is it because they want people at similar levels to talk to each other? Why are some companies so hierarchical? Why do they fail to understand that the handover has taken place because of a specialization and not because it is not important enough for the boss to handle the project? I am grateful enough to say that clients have thought they can walk all over me, but have finally realized that I know what I am talking about (atleast where learning is concerned). Now, they seek my opinion and wish to work with me on their projects. See, age doesn't matter.

Have you faced similar situations? Do share. Would love to know that it not just me. :)