Learning to Swim

At a recent workshop for instructors, one of the participants said something that struck home: “Anyone, even a novice, can make something sound complicated,” he said. “It takes real skill to make something easy to understand.”

I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly. Our students have enough to do to learn new concepts, especially in areas that are very unfamiliar. I believe we have a duty to them to avoid making their job any more difficult.

Consider this: There are some folks who think that the best way to teach someone to swim is to throw them in the deep end of the pool. Maybe there are some situations where “sink or swim” is the right approach. Maybe. I think most of us would prefer to start at the shallow end, wearing floaties and goggles.

So let’s look at some ways to get students swimming, without drowning them in the process.

  • Organization: I’ve worked with subject matter experts in numerous fields. Almost all of them have struggled to organize information. They often want to get deep into each topic as soon as it’s mentioned. This can be overwhelming for the novice. Often it works better to let learners know that we’re introducing them to a concept that we’ll return to in more depth later.
  • Language: If you’re deeply immersed in a topic, big words and complex sentences can convey meaning in a highly nuanced way. If you’re new to a topic, or simply not a great reader, you’re just not ready for nuance yet. Maybe we can use more accessible language to draw students in and give them the confidence to explore more deeply.
  • Visual aids: I don’t mean merely decorative stuff. I mean those images, charts, or animations that are worth a thousand words. You don’t have to be an artist. A quick web search will bring up dozens of free, easy-to-use tools for making informative graphics and animations.
  • Mnemonics: Is there a catchy phrase or acronym that might help your students remember something? Use it. It’s not a gimmick, it’s efficient and effective.  You can even ask students if they’ve invented their own, and let them share with the class.

Okay, that’s a start… do you have any “swimming lessons” to share? Post a comment below.

— by Rissa Karpoff






Confessions of a Nerd

(Apologies for my recent absence. We’ve been super busy of late.)

I admire star athletes. They embrace new challenges and push themselves to achieve their goals, sometimes despite enormous obstacles. They’re amazing, inspiring, exemplary.

And I have never, ever, wanted to follow in their footsteps.

The challenges I pursue tend to be more cerebral than physical. In other words, I’m pretty much a nerd.

Confession time: Back when I was a student, I actually referred to the syllabus once in a while. I studied every night. I read everything I was supposed to read, and I even occasionally searched for more information. I started my papers well in advance of the due-date. I loved to learn (most things) and I developed good study habits almost naturally. If something was a bit challenging, I just studied harder.

I suspect that most of my fellow educators could make similar confessions.

I’m grateful that I’ve found my tribe, but I also realize that our kinship presents a problem: when we’re surrounded by fellow nerds, it’s easy to forget that we’re in the minority. Just like champion athletes, we’re a small subset of humans who get immense satisfaction out of achieving something that most people don’t care about nearly as much.

I’d be miffed if folks expected me to become a jock. So I probably don’t have any business expecting every learner to become a nerd. Right?

Each one of my learners has a unique background, unique goals, and unique challenges. My course is probably not the most important thing in their lives right now. I’m not the star of their personal scripts.

So instead of lamenting how little of their attention they give me, maybe I should find ways to engage their attention. Maybe I should find ways to communicate essentials within their constraints of time and energy. Maybe I should respect their needs and try to teach to them, not at them.

Maybe I need to remember that I’m not here to teach subjects, I’m here to teach students.*

Who knows? If I try to meet them halfway, maybe they’ll be willing to respond in kind.

*I wish I could remember where I first saw that statement, so I could give proper credit.

(by Rissa Karpoff)

Edit Audio Like a Spy

Have you ever watched one of those detective shows on TV, where they’re able to isolate certain sounds in a recording? Or one of those movies where they take a recording and make it sound like the person said something they never said? Unlike many other “enhance that” sequences in movies and TV, these tricks are actually possible.

The following guide demonstrates using Adobe Audition, but many of the principles are the same regardless of the software you use. Just be glad we’re no longer in the days when you had to use a razor blade and blue tape to edit recordings. Continue reading

Power Tips for PowerPoint

We can’t get away from it. It doesn’t matter whether we’re designing for face-to-face or online: we’re going to have to use PowerPoint at least once in awhile.

I know, I said that like it’s a bad thing. And truly, it’s not that PowerPoint is that bad; it’s the way most people use it. GIANT SCREAMING BOLD HEADINGS. Five levels of bullets and walls of text. Gradients and shadows everywhere. Make it stop!

(Exhale) Now that I’ve got that out of my system, here are some tricks to bend PowerPoint to your will. Or at least avoid some of the most tedious and vexing issues. Continue reading

Wish List 2016

Instead of posting a review of 2015 or predictions for 2016, I thought I’d do a wish list. Because, really. Did things change all that much last year? Are they likely to change dramatically this year? Exactly. Still, hope springs eternal and all that.

Here are my top ten wishes. I know some of us are already doing some of them. I wish that some day they’ll come true for all (does that make eleven wishes?).

10. A True Learning Management System – Most LMSs are great at supporting administrative tasks (managing enrollment, grading, and such) but I wish they were just as good at supporting learning. I wish there was an LMS that would help learners manage their time, mark their progress, and get answers when they’re confused. Continue reading

You Have 6 Seconds…

We’ve been developing some safety training for folks who work around high-voltage electrical systems. It’s a good feeling, knowing that this course might actually save lives.

I looked at one of the key graphics the other day, and it just wasn’t communicating clearly. You had to think about it a bit to figure it out. It was on screen for only 6 seconds, though, and during that time there was also narration going on.

I started thinking that instructional design has a lot in common with billboard design. We need to get the idea across as clearly as possible, as quickly as possible. We want people to remember our message, not struggle to figure it out. We can’t count on their undivided attention, and we have only a few seconds before we lose their attention altogether. Continue reading

Information? Or Instruction?

I recently began work on a new course-development project. The goal of the course is to prepare workers for a highly technical job in the petrochemical industry.

Like many courses, this one will be founded on a textbook selected by the project’s subject matter experts.

The textbook is a great resource, filled with tons of important information for the work these folks will do. At the same time, it’s pretty much useless. See, it’s a terrific reference manual – if you’re already familiar with the job and you just need to look something up. But for a novice? It’s just one, big, insurmountable wall of… stuff.

The problem is the way the book is organized. There’s a chapter for each type of process and each category of mechanism. But this structure doesn’t relate at all to the way a new technician will encounter these processes and mechanisms. Sure it tells them what they need to know, but it doesn’t tell them why or when. Continue reading

Cheat Sheet: Make your Video Shine

I often think that being an instructional designer is a lot like being a reporter. We spend tons of time interviewing our subject matter experts and then boiling things down for our audiences. And just like in reporting, it’s sometimes more effective to include a direct quote. One of the best ways to do that, of course, is with video.

Way back in the olden days when I started as an eLearning designer, video was a rarity.  Cameras, lights, and editing stations were so expensive, and the skills so arcane, we had to hire teams of professionals. Cost was a huge barrier. So was bandwidth. And processor speed. (Anyone else remember 240 by 180?)

Today’s inexpensive equipment and software make video far less cost-prohibitive. It’s even possible for many of us to bypass the pros and do it ourselves. But sometimes we get back to the office and discover that our shoot didn’t turn out as well as we hoped. The audio is buried in background noise. The video looks grainy or flat. Our interviewees stumble on their words, but editing makes them look like they’re twitching. Turns out there’s a bit of an art to it. Continue reading

6 Instructional Design Tips from Abe Lincoln

Pop quiz! Who is this guy and what prompted him to write this statement?

Edward Everett

“I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

No guesses? Okay, I’ll tell you his name: Edward Everett.

Still no guesses? Here’s another hint: He was president of Harvard University from 1846 to 1848, and Acting U.S. Secretary of State from 1852 to 1853.

Ah, I see some of you Civil War historians out there raising your hands. That’s correct! Edward Everett was a highly respected public speaker during the Civil War era. In fact, he was the featured speaker at the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, the same event at which President Abraham Lincoln made his brief and famous speech. Continue reading

4 Ways to Hack Your LMS

In an earlier post, I compared instructional design to training a marathon runner. When training a runner, I said, we would never make her stop in the middle of a run and read a map in order to figure out where to run next.

We’d have a route planned in advance. We’d probably take her somewhere she’s already been, or maybe we’d run along and lead the way. We’d probably have her run the same route over and over. After all, the purpose of the training is for her to become a better runner, not a better navigator.

If only LMS designers understood that.

Let’s be honest: the typical learning management system is about as easy to navigate as King Minos’ labyrinth—complete with Minotaur. I’m kind of a techno-geek, but I still find most LMSs incredibly frustrating to use. I can only imagine how hard it is for folks who don’t share my peculiar fondness for computers. Sure, students can find their way around if they search hard enough, but unless “dogged perseverance” is actually the topic of your course, it’s a colossal waste of their mental effort. Continue reading