Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

20 February 2009

The ‘Least Assistance’ Principle

Clark @ 9:55 AM

While I agree vehemently with most of a post by Lars Hyland, he said one thing I slightly disagree with, and I want to elaborate on it.  He was disagreeing with  “buying rapid development tools to bash out ill formed ‘e-learning’ to an audience that will not only be unimpressed but also none the wiser – or more productive”, a point I want to nuance.  I agree with not using rapid elearning to create courses for novices, but there is a role for bashing out courses for another audience, the practitioner.  And there’s something deeper here to tease out.

I want to bring up John Carroll’s minimalist instruction, and highly recommend it to you. He focused on a) meaningful tasks, b) active learning quickly, c) including error recogition & recovery, and d) making learning activities self-contained (a lot like games, actually).  In The Nurnberg Funnel, he documented how this design led to 25 cards, 1 per learning goal, that beat a 94 page traditionally designed manual hands-down in outcomes.

Another way to think about it is something Jim Spohrer mentioned to me once. Now, Jim’s been an Apple Fellow, and is leading research at IBM’s Almaden Research Center.  He really cares and likes to help people, but he’s very busy.  So he adopted a ‘least assistance’ principle, where he would ask himself what’s the least he can do to get this person going, because there was more to do and more people to help than he was able to keep up with.  And I think it is a useful way to think about supporting learning.

This sounds a lot like performance support, and that’s definitely a mind-set we need to adopt. When Harold Jarche and Jay Cross talk about the death of the training department, they’re talking about not focusing on courses, and instead taking a broader, performance perspective.  Obviously, we want to talk about portals of resources, but we also need to recognize that there are formal learning situations that don’t require the full formality.

We develop full courses to incorporate motivation, practice, all the things non-self-directed learners need.  But there are times when we need to provide new information and skills to self-directed learners.  When we’re talking to practitioners who are good at their job, know what they’re doing and why, and know that they need to know this information and how they’ll apply it, we can strip away a lot of the window dressing. We can just provide support to a SME so that their talk presents the relevant bits  in a streamlined and effective way, and let them loose.   That, to me, is the role of rapid elearning.

It’s not for novices, but it’s effective, and more efficient.  In this economic climate, we don’t have the luxury of full development of courses for every need.  Moreover, in any climate, we shouldn’t give people what they don’t need, instead we need to focus on what the ‘least assistance’ we can give them is.

In many cases, the least assistance we can give is self-help, which is why I believe social learning tools are one of the best investments that can be made.  The answer may well be ‘out there’, and rather than for learning designers to try to track it down and capture it, the learner can send out the need  and there’s a good chance an answer will come back!  There’s a lot to making such an environment work; it’s not the case that ‘if you build it, they will learn’, but it’s still going to fill a sweet spot in the performance ecosystem that may not be being hit as of now.

Don’t look for everything you can do in one situation, unless you’re flush with too much time and resources (in which case, watch out!), instead look for the least you can do that will get the job done so you can do more for everybody. It’s likely that’s more to their taste, anyway. And that’s enough from me on that!


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  2. Wow! This discussion is so cogent and timely. We have been having the EXACT conversations within our workgroup. We reallize that something isn’t right with our current models, some of us have recognized this for quite some time.

    The ideas that Lars and yourself are talking about are things I’ve been attempting (often unsuccessfully and unskillfully:)) to articulate to every organization that I’ve been a part of.

    There are a lot of reasons why I think that alternative delivery methods fail to live up to potential:

    1. They are often thought of as isolated interventions. This makes me a sad panda and goes back to the ‘spray and pray’ solution mentality. This is a tough nut to crack with so many stakeholders and owners (each with an expectation of traditional packaging.)

    2. We support the product assembly with an array of theories. The ‘pick what you want, flavor of the day’ theory support makes it pretty difficult for us to self diagnose what’s wrong with the typical package. Try to bring a pragmatic argument to the table and you are met with ‘but, so and so says’. I don’t care as much about what so and so says as I do about meeting the needs of my peeps. Truth is a solution is about more than what a slew of theories ‘can’ support. It’s about doing what you can when you can to deliver the right solution. Minimalist ideas fit the bill.

    3. Our design folks often get hung up on what’s been done before. We are model driven and breaking out of a pattern of packaging is a really difficult task. Changing that expectation with exemplory cases and following that up with comparative studies is likely the only way we are going to win the expectations battle.

    4. When something new comes along (rapid eLearning, for example) decision makers tend not to fully qualify it for what ‘part’ of the need it will meet and how it will meet that need. Ooh, a new paintbrush. Order a bunch of these and we’ll have everyone paint everything with this brush. It’s far too easy for folks with a limited imagination to evaluate a solution path for what it is instead of listening to bits of pundit around the table and concluding with narrow focus.

    5. Our design folks are limited in their skillsets by many years of learning what we think they need to know to DO what they need to do. The traditional education focuses a tremendous amount of energy on theory and practice to support the theory. As a result, it’s a little unfair to expect most designers to be able to fill multitude of skill roles that it takes to make a successful product. Knowing how to write is a rare skill. Of those that know how to write, even fewer can write well for their audience. I’ve seen far too much of what I call androidgogy. Programmed instruction…

    6. We bend to the will of the SME. We bend to the will of the designer. We bend to the will of the stakeholders. We bend to the will of the developer. So many wills. The SME wants to fill it with his passion. The designer wants to do everything they can to apply each theory appropriately (structuring the product by these rules). The stakeholders want their piece, often adjusting the design during development as they see what can be done or ask others what they think since ‘this stuff isn’t their business’. The developer wants to contribute, this often results in overcomplication of the solution. We need less forces of will. Particularly when we try to keep these forces equal.

    So we have come to a point where we now expect that we can toss aside our developers and one-stop-shop a soup to nuts product with a small staff of designers. Unless we change what our folks know, we are destined to experience the same level of fail we have been for quite some time.

    Comment by sflowers — 23 February 2009 @ 4:16 AM

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  4. Steve, you point out some real issues that I suspect many will resonate with. I will immodestly point you to my Monday Broken ID series of blog posts which tries to point out some underlying principles that cross theories, argues that you can’t bend to the will of the SMEs, etc. More to come. I wish you the best of luck!

    Comment by Clark — 23 February 2009 @ 7:01 AM

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