If I Had A Hammer…

By Phil La Duke

Last week one of my LinkedIn contacts posted a discussion regarding eLearning. Long before I started in the field of instructional design (when people still called it training—I remember being admonished by a fellow trainer who look at me disdainfully and said, “You TRAIN a dog, you educate people” without missing a beat I shot back with “you may not mind your fifth grade daughter getting sex education, but you probably don’t want her getting sex training”) companies and vendors have been pushing technology-assisted training. First it was video, than laser discs, then video conferencing, and so on. Based on the discussion it was easy to see that the principle advocates for eLearning remain the people who sell it and the people who have to pay for it.

If (as I firmly believe) training is about teaching someone skills, that is, to DO something, and education is about teaching information, that is, ABOUT something, then the limitations of eLearning become immediately obvious. For the builders of eLearning there is no down side, they are selling the figurative hammer and every opportunity looks all the world like a nail. They will make absurd arguments about the value of replacing almost all training with eLearning. On the other hand, professional instructors will argue that the best training is always an instructor.

The problem is that both groups are both right and wrong. eLearning can and should play an important part in any blended learning curriculum (where multiple techniques are used to train workers) and there is a simple rule for determining when each is appropriate: am I building skills or am I building knowledge.  The easiest example is Right To Know training, I mean the word “know” is actually in the course title.  Unfortunately, OSHA’s requirements for live instructions or onerous proctoring requirements make it too easy to say “the hell with it” and do it via live instruction.  The same is true with Hazard Communication (which is typically rolled into the same class) but regulations get in the way of common sense.  OSHA’s issue seems to be “how can a company be sure that the employee (and not someone else) took the course?  I say “who cares?”  As one of the discussion participants pointed out, at some point personal responsibility comes into play.  If you knowingly and willingly violate the law and company policy by cheating in an eLearning (or any training) course you should be fired for ethical violations and for putting yourself and others at risk.  These and other courses that are little more than a data dump should be presented using technology.

Another good use for eLearning is testing. People should be allowed to test out of training that they don’t need. The government, trainers, and even some executives I’ve met have taken the view of “what can it hurt to train everyone?” Well for starters, training the entire organization is costly and time consuming (and if you want to get the most out of training PAY people to go to training). Additionally, bored learners don’t learn and often can be disruptive preventing the people who need training from getting it.

Course evaluations should be done on-line—there is scarce little value in keeping people after class to complete the forms; you will get a more candid response by having them complete a time-sensitive course evaluation sheet.

A lot of eLearning is gawd-awful—the so-called interactions are trite and do little to advance the learner experience. Why? Because building good interactions cost money (not a lot actually, but money nonetheless) and the cheap bastards who are buying it typically don’t care if it’s of sufficient quality.  There are some people doing truly leading edge things with eLearning (usually around ensuring that the correct person is completing the course). Improv Driving immediately springs to mind. Better than half of driving is knowledge of the rules and laws governing traffic and Improv Driving hit upon the idea (which is based in strong scientific foundations) that learning is easier when people are laughing while they learn.  People even have been known to watch a course multiple times simple for the entertainment value, and yet the course integrity is very strong.  Now this alone isn’t sufficient to send a neophyte driver onto the road, but it provides a solid foundation.  This company has even used technology discovered in the development of the enigma code breaking in World War II to use the unique typing characteristics to verify identity. There are lots of good eLearning providers, but there are also a lot of real and true hacks out there that know as much about what constitutes a good training course as I do about heart surgery; what’s worse is they don’t even know how bad their courses are. The lion’s share of eLearning are what’s known in the trade as “page turners”. In a page turner if you’re lucky a narrator (and I’m not joking many don’t even bother with that) literally reads a page to you  and then you are eventually asked to complete a quiz (or in the nerdy parlance of the trade a “knowledge check”) which is typically a matching exercise or similarly lack luster and amateurish activity.  Some eLearning providers brag that you can’t just skip to the end—that you have to sit and listen to the garbage narration before taking the (usually poorly written) test. eLearning of this sort is a waste of time and money and yet it is far and away the most prevalent.

I was in charge of procuring training for a large (one of the largest in fact) hospital system when it moved from the coding system of International Coding for Diseases (ICD-9) to ICD-10 This involved training 85000 people in less than six months.  Instructor lead training alone was impossible so we selected a company that not only had exceptional on-line training, but included games designed to teach anatomy and physiology, basic coding structure, and several other topics.  The idea was that after completing the on-line training learners would play the games to retain the knowledge.  This knowledge was an essential prerequisite to the instructor led training that only a fraction needed. After the instructor led training, coders were put into a computer “sand box” where they could practice coding without fear of screwing up a patient’s file.  It was expensive, to the tune of about $3 million, but divide that by the number of learners and the overall effectiveness and it was an outstanding value.  But let’s face it, most eLearning sucks.

This is not to say that Instructor-Led Training (ILT) is all that great shakes. I have been subjected to some horrific ILT, particularly in college.  Were it up to me, most if not all, college would be on-line; think about it, name four college courses that taught you how to actually do something. Most are a professor spending 2 hours lecturing about crap that you could have learned on line.  What’s worse is that much of the safety training out there isn’t designed by instructional designers.  Trainers don’t want the liability of developing safety training, and most safety folks (while having years of experience conducting ILT) would know good training design (or even facilitation for that matter). So when it comes to safety training, arguably the most important training one can have, we have a preponderance of quacks and hacks selling inferior products at inflated prices to customers who either don’t care or don’t know any better.

To be sure, training, particularly custom training, is expensive, but—and this is especially true in worker safety—consider the price of poor training. And if we don’t care then why do we waste so much time and money on it.