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

4 October 2010

Quip: Quality

Clark @ 6:41 AM

I had the (dubious) pleasure of picking up an award for a client at an eLearning awards ceremony a number of years back. There’s been some apt criticism of the whole awards industry thing overall, but it did give me a chance to see what was passing as award-winning content.  And I was dismayed.  One memorable example had traditional HR policy drill-and-kill tarted up into a ‘country fair’ theme. It was, frankly, quite well produced and visually attractive.  And complete dreck, instructionally.  Yet, it had won an award!

My client typically fights the good fight when they can (hey, they use me ;), but sometimes they can’t convince the client or know not to bother. In another instance, I actually took on the design for a project, and at the end the client’s manager asked what was so special. After I walked him through it, he was singing the hallelujah chorus, but there’s an important point here.  I’ve heard this tale from many of my colleagues as well, and it indicates a problem.

Quality design is hard to distinguish from well-produced but under-designed content.

To the layperson, or even perhaps the ordinary instructional designer, the nuances of good content aren’t obvious. If the learning objective is focused on knowledge, it’s because that’s what the SME told us was important. So what if the emotional engagement is extrinsic, not intrinsic, it’s still engaging, right?  We cover the content, show an example, and then ensure they know it.  That’s what we do.

SO not.  Frankly, if you don’t really understand the underlying important elements that constitute the components of learning, if you can’t distinguish good from ordinary, you’re wasting your time and money.  If that were the only consequence,well, shame on the buyer.  But if there’s a Great eLearning Garbage Patch, it gets harder to pitch quality.  If you don’t care that it ‘sticks’ and leads to meaningful behavior change in the workplace, you shouldn’t even start. If you do care, then you have to do more.

Hey, low production values aren’t what make the learning occur, it’s just to minimize barriers (“ooh, this is so ugly”).  Learning is really a probability game (you can’t make a learner learn), and every element you under-design knocks something like 10-50% off the likelihood it’ll lead to change.  Several of those combined and you’ve dropped your odds to darn near zero (ending up working only for those who’ll figure it out no matter what you do to them).

And the problem is,  your client, your audience, doesn’t know.  So you can lose out to someone who shows flashy content but knows bugger all about learning.  You see it everywhere.

So, we have to do more.  We have to educate our clients, partners, and the audience.  It’s not easy, but if we don’t, we’ll continue to be awash in garbage content. We’ll be wasting time and money, and our effort will be unappreciated.

If you’re a designer, get on top of it, and get good at explaining it. If you’re a customer, ask them to explain how their content actually achieves learning outcomes.  Or get some independent evaluation.  There are still vulnerabilities, but it’s a push in the right direction.  We need more better learning!


  1. My soapbox as well, but in a compliance training setting. One of the challenges at present is to be able to explain the benefits (that it DOES matter) and some solid tips to peers (they CAN do it) to accelerate their pace because they’re faced with a learning curve, time constriants, plus a client who doesn’t know the difference – only the compliance tick-mark. Any suggestions? Perhaps a future blog? Thanks.

    Comment by Stephanie Fillman — 5 October 2010 @ 5:29 AM

  2. […] Clark Quinn has a great blog post about his experiences in this area, which also examines the difficulty in teaching others the difference between what has true quality and what is really just whitewashing a dead, boring lesson to make it look (as we say in Texas) purty. […]

    Pingback by EduGeek Journal » Blog Archive » Style vs. Substance in Instructional Design — 5 October 2010 @ 12:33 PM

  3. I responded in a link post to this article. We need to discuss this more over adult beverages in San Francisco. It’s like a lot of other things in our industry, there are not enough people pushing back. For those of us who are, we need more information/leverage/ammunition to support our efforts.

    Comment by Brian — 5 October 2010 @ 2:35 PM

  4. […] response to this insightful article from Clark Quinn. Quality design is hard to distinguish from well-produced but under-designed […]

    Pingback by Quality is a Subtle Distinction — 1 November 2011 @ 4:21 PM

  5. […] late, I’ve been both reviewing eLearning, and designing processes & templates. As I’ve said before, the nuances between well-designed and well produced eLearning are subtle, but important. Reading […]

    Pingback by Internet Time Alliance | Levels of eLearning Quality — 31 July 2012 @ 8:51 AM

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