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

12 January 2012

Stop creating, selling, and buying garbage!

Clark @ 5:41 AM

I was thinking today (on my plod around the neighborhood) about how come we’re still seeing so much garbage elearning (and frankly, I had a stronger term in mind).  And it occurred to me that their are multitudinous explanations, but it’s got to stop.

One of the causes is unenlightened designers. There are lots of them, for lots of reasons: trainers converted, lack of degree, old-style instruction, myths, templates, the list goes on. You know, it’s not like one dreams of being an instructional designer as a kid.  This is not to touch on their commitment, but even if they did have courses, they’d likely still not be exposed to much about the emotional side, for instance. Good learning design is not something you pick up in a one week course, sadly.  There are heuristics (Cat Moore’s Action mapping, Julie Dirksen’s new book), but the necessary understanding of the importance of the learning design isn’t understood and valued.  And the pressures they face are overwhelming if they did try to change things.

Because their organizations largely view learning as a commodity. It’s seen as a nice to have, not as critical to the business.  It’s about keeping the cost down, instead of looking at the value of improving the organization.  I hear tell of managers telling the learning unit “just do that thing you do” to avoid a conversation about actually looking at whether a course is the right solution, when they do try!  They don’t know how to hire the talent they really need, it’s thin on the ground, and given it’s a commodity, they’re unlikely to be willing to really develop the necessary competencies (even if they knew what they are).

The vendors don’t help. They’ve optimized to develop courses cost-effectively, since that’s what the market wants. When they try to do what really works, they can’t compete on cost with those who are selling nice looking content, with mindless learning design.  They’re in a commodity market, which means that they have to be efficiency oriented.  Few can stake out the ground on learning outcomes, other than an Allen Interactions perhaps (and they’re considered ‘expensive’).

The tools are similarly focused on optimizing the efficiency of translating PDFs and Powerpoints into content with a quiz. It’s tarted up, but there’s little guidance for quality.  When it is, it’s old school: you must have a Bloom’s objective, and you must match the assessment to the objective. That’s fine as far as it goes, but who’s pushing the objectives to line up with business goals?  Who’s supporting aligning the story with the learner? That’s the designer’s job, but they’re not equipped.  And tarted up quiz show templates aren’t the answer.

Finally, the folks buying the learning are equally complicit. Again, they don’t know the important distinctions, so they’re told it’s soundly instructionally designed, and it looks professional, and they buy the cheapest that meets the criteria.  But so much is coming from broken objectives, rote understanding of design, and other ways it can go off the rails, that most of it is a waste of money.

Frankly, the whole design part is commoditized.  If you’re competing on the basis of hourly cost to design, you’re missing the point. Design is critical, and the differences between effective learning and clicky-clicky-bling-bling are subtle.  Everyone gets paying for technology development, but not the learning design.  And it’s wrong.  Look, Apple’s products are fantastic technologically, but they get the premium placing by the quality of the experience, and that’s coming from the design.  It’s the experience and outcome that matters, yet no one’s investing in learning on this basis.

It’s all understandable of course (sort of like the situation with our schools), but it’s not tolerable.  The costs are high:meaningless  jobs, money spent for no impact, it’s just a waste.  And that’s just for courses; how about the times the analysis isn’t done that might indicate some other approach?  Courses cure all ills, right?

I’m not sure what the solution is, other than calling it out, and trying to get a discussion going about what really matters, and how to raise the game. Frankly, the great examples are all too few. As I’ve already pointed out in a previously referred post, the awards really aren’t discriminatory. I think folks like the eLearning Guild are doing a good job with their DevLearn showcase, but it’s finger-in-the-dike stuff.

Ok, I’m on a tear, and usually I’m a genial malcontent.   But maybe it’s time to take off the diplomatic gloves, and start calling out garbage when we see it.  I’m open to other ideas, but I reckon it’s time to do something.


  1. Is there a lack of will to change also? The (natural) tendency that we have to “if it worked before let us tweak it and use it again” idea (am guilty of that). But it soon gets out of date, starts to look jaded. As teachers we tend to repeat our resources. Unforgivable.
    I learned about this when I recorded myself for an online course. What I had done f2f for several years I now saw and heard. Horrible. I spent many hours on that video but the feedback I got was invaluable.

    Comment by George Hobson — 12 January 2012 @ 8:17 AM

  2. As long as we’re taking the gloves off, I think there are a number of problems. Here are three:

    1. Tool fixation. We rely too much on tools, as if they are what build training that is measurably successful (LMS, LCMS, authoring tools such as Captivate, and so on), not the actual instructional designer. Then we get stuck with one or two solution options and try to make those fit for all training needs.
    2. Fear. I worry that as an industry, L&D professionals are hyper-sensitive and overly worried that we’ll be blamed, or at least be cut, when businesses start to fail and that triggers a cycle of overly critical self-evaluation and over-complicated results reporting to clients. Those efforts then appear disingenuous to the client, who then loses trust in the training department.
    3. Hype. I think we make the mistake too often of over-promising and under-delivering. We seem to promise what could be done in a perfect world (a world with unlimited time and resources). We forget that we work in timeline driven environments with limited resources, so what we promise often ends up either being late, or not as grand as promised, or totally misses the identified gap.

    Comment by Brian Austin — 12 January 2012 @ 9:21 AM

  3. Amen!

    I think we should stop thinking of people as learners and just think of them as do-ers (more eloquently, performers). Approaching issues in this manner, we stop thinking of “what do they need to learn”, it’s “how do I help them perform”? If learning is part, great. Often, it isn’t. And, when it is, too often we only focus on initial acquisition (ST mindset) instead of the long game (not just transfer, but ongoing, sustained support, spacing effect, etc…)

    And, your comment on the designs (most of them are “bore and score”), is spot on. Too often, it’s deliver info, quiz on content (content- not skill!).

    One other theme I see in training- big catalogs, more info, etc… being perceived as “value” to the organization (after all, if the L&D group doesn’t “manage” all these resources and continue to extend more….). Quite the opposite is true. Learners need focused resources to help them. Something with saturated value- not a deluge of information (all you could know about…) which often doesn’t apply to supporting them in their work/context.

    Why Cathy’s Action Mapping is such a powerful tool to help folks with the discussion. Focuses people in a very understandable way to get to “all the performance with none of the fluff”. Somewhat of a streamlined Pareto analysis. The only addition I would add (I know Cathy knows this, but it isn’t explicitly in the presentation)- slice and dice the resources for reuse in the contexts it will be most needed/consumable. Not just the initial training, but in the right size chunks during task performance (I am starting to sound like Rueben).

    2012 is the time for this- so much about the industry is in flux- if you don’t clearly align on value for your organization…

    Comment by David Glow — 12 January 2012 @ 10:40 AM

  4. I like this part of your post, and I quote:

    “…you must have a Bloom’s objective, and you must match the assessment to the objective. That’s fine as far as it goes, but who’s pushing the objectives to line up with business goals? Who’s supporting aligning the story with the learner? That’s the designer’s job, but they’re not equipped.”

    Most of us are equipped, Clark. But, Most of my experience has been with CLOs still “fighting” to be heard at the C-level. As a result, the business units got what they wanted, and not what was best for the learners and improving their performance in alignment with the organization’s goals.

    However, recently I’ve been on projects where the Chairman and the CEO have given the CLO (and downstream L&D team) the green light to do what learning professionals dream of doing, and I pinch myself that I’m witnessing the transformation in the organization!

    Like you, Clark, I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know it still begins at the C-level and with the Board of Directors. And then, it trickles down to the line employees. Training journals have written about this for years.

    Maybe it just takes time? I know it’s hard to be patient, but I think the air craft carrier is beginning to turn into the right direction. It just takes a long time for such a huge vessel (corporat entity) to change course. :)

    Maybe 2012 is not the “apocalypse” but rather the year we begin to see your “rant” and wishes become reality in organizations? I am hoping so. I’m seeing glimmers of hope at one organization.

    Comment by Jenise Cook — 13 January 2012 @ 10:11 PM

  5. While working as the Instructional Technology Manager for a large learning professional services company several years ago, I made the mistake of actually reading the content we were producing and commented to my boss that there were significant grammatical and visual errors. As a reward for this, he asked me to mark up some of the issues and put together a plan for addressing the problem. The more I dug into it, the worse it got, and I realized after speaking with a number of our instructional designers that they had little or no real writing experience. What? You are an instructional designer with a Master’s Degree abd have little or no background in writing?

    This was a marketed contrast to when I first started in the business over twenty-five years ago. At that time, interactive video was the rage, and communicating the subject matter also involved telling a story of sorts. We hired former copywiters and video journalists to produce our learning materials because they knew how to conduct an interview and then convey the material in a way that their audience needed to consume it. Eventually we went as far as to bring Sony Interactive in to train them on basic ISD skills, but for the most part these communication professionals already understood what they needed to do to provide good learning content.

    My point, if not clear already, is that the content is critical. The writing must convey the objectives, not distract from them because of poor execution. There must be continuity across the course, not just a bunch of slides developed in isolation to address specific objectives instead of the course as a whole. And, quality control is vital to the success of your product. That a course ever goes out with poor grammar or bad visuals affects everyone in our industry, especially the learners.

    Comment by Ken Hubbell — 14 January 2012 @ 6:50 AM

  6. I agree with Clark’s insights. It’s good to see I’m not the only one who thinks some of these things. I believe that one reason for the quality of elearning you’re talking about is that the business is not willing to spend the money on developing the learning and on letting staff take the appropriate time needed to take part in good quality learning solutions and this is because there is no demonstrable ROI for the quality learning solutions. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any ROIs done by training management during my career over the last 20 years. I know it’s not an easy task, however, if L&D can’t demonstrate the value of good quality learning to the business and compete with other departments who can demonstrate how they add value then we have little hope in obtaining funding for good quality learning solutions.

    Comment by ilianna munro — 15 January 2012 @ 5:03 PM

  7. Follow the money. Develop a free educational seminar/video whatever and push it out to big business. Show them the irrefutable value proposition of good eLearning and how to spot it when you see it. Hopefully they will demand it from vendors and vendors will be forced to change. Sounds simple;)

    Comment by eLearning Consultant — 15 January 2012 @ 8:46 PM

  8. […] Stop creating, selling, and buying garbage! – […]

    Pingback by L2A Links for January 17th | Learn to Adapt — 17 January 2012 @ 3:52 PM

  9. Ken, hear-hear to your comments. As a professional writer with a long career in workplace learning (as an instructor and an instructional designer), but without an advanced degree in ID, I agree. Good design is essential. But it’s in the writing that design comes to life for the learner.

    Things one learns to do as a writer — putting yourself in the reader’s shoes, finding and telling the story, coming up with a theme or compelling lead – all require creativity. The best writers take an imaginative leap into their readers’ heads, the better to engage them. No, not just “engage” – sometimes charm, seduce, intrigue, or just downright grab them by the collar & pull them into the story. (Okay, so I’m talking copywriters, PR writers, journalists here, maybe not tech writers…)

    Even in multimedia projects, where sound, visuals, & animation engage interest & convey content as much as words do, I find that writers still “get it” in a way that those in other professional disciplines do not.

    When it comes to their readers, the best writers know how to hook ‘em and keep ‘em hooked. Insert “learners” for “readers” and the same approach applies.

    Comment by Kit Behling — 18 January 2012 @ 9:45 AM

  10. Clark,

    You are absolutely correct and so in line with published works from performance and management consultants who espouse that successful businesses and leaders need to focus on brand not commoditization of solutions, focus on the why first and let the what and how follow, etc.

    I’m watching along to see what ideas pop up. This ship has gone so far off course, I think it is going to take quite a storm or superior navigation to get us all back on course. We are too often at the mercy of the paying customer and our internal sales goals to right the course by ourselves. (I do like the idea of the webinar – or maybe a webinar series – to get the change started or at least pronounce our desired intentions.)

    Thanks for starting the discussion!

    Comment by Sydney Smith — 19 January 2012 @ 6:22 AM

  11. Great post. I deal with all the things you mentioned in your post, plus the never-ending politics and bureaucracy that goes on in the non-profit world. I have a rather large number of “resources” made of poorly conceptualized and designed “e-learning” tools.

    As for solutions, well, we are after all educators and training professionals, so education should start at home. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s possible to gain ground in the right direction.

    Comment by Ulises M — 19 January 2012 @ 7:58 AM

  12. […] Stop Creating, Selling, and Buying Garbage, Clark Quinn, January 12, 2012 I was thinking today (on my plod around the neighbourhood) about how […]

    Pingback by 10 Must-Read Articles from January « « DediCommDediComm — 27 February 2012 @ 1:26 AM

  13. […] Stop creating, selling, and buying garbage! CLARK QUINN  |  THURSDAY, JANUARY 12, 2012 […]

    Pingback by Internet Time Blog : 50 best articles on Working Smarter for the first half of 2012 — 2 July 2012 @ 2:24 PM

  14. […] Stop creating, selling, and buying garbage! CLARK QUINN  |  THURSDAY, JANUARY 12, 2012 […]

    Pingback by Internet Time Alliance | Top 50 articles on Working Smarter — 2 July 2012 @ 2:28 PM

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress