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

8 January 2015

Maybe it is rocket science!

Clark @ 8:10 AM

As I’ve been working with the Foundation over the past 6 months I’ve had the occasion to review a wide variety of elearning, more specifically in the vocational and education space, but my experience mirrors that from the corporate space: most of it isn’t very good.  I realize that’s a harsh pronouncement, but I fear that it’s all too true; most of the elearning I see will have very little impact.  And I’m becoming ever more convinced that what I’ve quipped in the past is true:

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

And here’s the thing: I’m beginning to think that this is not just a problem with the vendors, tools, etc., but that it’s more fundamental.  Let me elaborate.

There’s a continual problem of bad elearning, and yet I hear people lauding certain examples, awards are granted, tools are touted, and processes promoted.  Yet what I see really isn’t that good. Sure, there are exceptions, but that’s the problem, they’re exceptions!  And while I (and others, including the instigators of the Serious eLearning Manifesto) try to raise the bar, it seems to be an uphill fight.

Good learning design is rigorous. There’re some significant effort just getting the right objectives, e.g. finding the right SME, working with them and not taking what they say verbatim, etc.  Then working to establish the right model and communicating it, making meaningful practice, using media correctly.  At the same time, successfully fending off the forces of fable (learning styles, generations, etc).

So, when it comes to the standard tradeoff  – fast, cheap, or good, pick two – we’re ignoring ‘good’.  And I think a fundamental problem is  that everyone ‘knows’ what learning is, and they’re not being astute consumers.  If it looks good, presents content, has some interaction, and some assessment, it’s learning, right?  NOT!  But stakeholders don’t know, we don’t worry enough about quality in our metrics (quantity per time is not a quality metric), and we don’t invest enough in learning.

I’m reminded of a thesis that says medicos reengineered their status in society consciously.  They went from being thought of ‘quacks’ and ‘sawbones’ to an almost reverential status today by a process of making the process of becoming a doctor quite rigorous.  I’m tempted to suggest that we need to do the same thing.

Good learning design is complex.  People don’t have predictable properties as does concrete.  Understanding the necessary distinctions to do the right things is complex.  Executing the processes to successfully design, refine, and deliver a learning experience that leads to an outcome is a complicated engineering endeavor.  Maybe we do have to treat it like rocket science.

Creating learning should be considered a highly valuable outcome: you are helping people achieve their goals.  But if you really aren’t, you’re perpetrating malpractice!  I’m getting stroppy, I realize, but it’s only because I care and I’m concerned.  We have got to raise our game, and I’m seriously concerned with the perception of our work, our own knowledge, and our associated processes.

If you agree, (and if you don’t, please do let me know in the comments), here’s my very serious question because I’m running out of ideas: how do we get awareness of the nuances of good learning design out there?



  1. I think we face two problems in proselytizing the good news of proper instructional design. One is with those of us in the industry, and another is with the business sponsors/partners who would work with us.

    To address the problem of those in the industry not understanding what is and is not good instructional design, my recommendation is for those who would do the work to pursue a certificate or degree in the field. Reading blogs and whitepapers, attending conferences, etc. – all of that is great, but it doesn’t ground someone in the field the way a formal education does. Earning a certificate or a degree confers other benefits on those who pursue them as well, but the primary goal should be to answer the question – Just what the heck am I supposed to be doing as an instructional designer anyway? A lot of people think they know, but they actually take a subject-matter expert approach to the job, and that almost always fails to impact performance or drive innovation.

    To the second problem, with the business side not realizing what is and isn’t good instructional design, we need to first ensure they realize that instructional design is, in fact, a profession. It’s not a matter of promoting a SME to Training Manager, or something a person does part-time along with the other work, the way medieval medicos were barbers first and surgeons second. Once business is made to understand the full range of skills and competencies (as outlined by ibstpi, ISTE, ATD, etc.) instructional design incorporates, and they accept that our work requires a dedication to a career (if not a vocation), then it should be all the more clear that it takes time to create good content that can make a difference to the bottom line or achieving the company’s strategic goals. In the same way Accounting isn’t rushed to calculate a P&L statement, or Marketing isn’t forced go with the first tagline that pops into someone’s head, so too should L&D be given the time to do our work the right way the first time.

    Comment by Chad L — 8 January 2015 @ 9:02 AM

  2. I constantly struggle with the fact that I am in the eLearning industry and should be promoting the use of technology when it comes to education but have seen so many examples of poor training. There is a push towards mobile, but I don’t see the justification. While I use my mobile device to surf the internet and look up information, I only use it for things I really need right away. For anything else, it can wait until I am sitting in front of a computer.

    The example I like to use for mobile training is a course on auto maintenance. I would use a quick tutorial on how to jump start my car or change the headlights on my phone while I am standing by my car. But for a general course on cars, I would rather be at a computer, unless the hands on exploration of the car is really needed.

    Comment by Mike Becvar — 9 January 2015 @ 6:56 AM

  3. Yes, Clark, it’s clear from much of what we’re both seeing and reading that there are fundamental problems with the current world of training-teaching-learning–something that is well documented in sources including “The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning” and numerous other first-rate resources. And yes, we do need to “get awareness of the nuances of good learning design [and delivery] out there.” My own efforts mirror what I see you doing: promoting effective practices, participating in tremendous communities of learning (including #lrnchat), and spending at least a small bit of time every day I can to provide the sort of learning opportunities that appear to produce positive, far-reaching results. Glad you continue taking the time required to stoke the fires on this one; thanks.

    Comment by Paul Signorelli — 9 January 2015 @ 1:15 PM

  4. I think that your observations are true about many of the professions: software that opens the “trade” to untrained (in the fundamentals, such as philosophy of xx and historical roots of xxx) computer savvy non-professionals has degraded the “excellence” that used to be a trademark of professionally designed of learning, graphics arts, creative writing, etc. to a battle between fast and cheap. I fear we have lost even the discernment to know what is good, or better, or even best. When every Tom, Dick, and Suzie can upload a learning program to the company LMS, who would value good learning enough to pay extra for it (or even have a real learning professional on staff anyway)!

    You have pushed my button on this one, and I — like you — do not know how to turn this around: in our profession or any of the myriads of professions that have been vulgarized by computerization.

    Comment by Les — 9 January 2015 @ 1:18 PM

  5. Ditto. The missing link is involving learners in the design and development process from beginning to end. Adding design thinking to the elearning designer toolkit helps designers connect with the learners they support.

    For more, take a look at http://ctdelearning.blogspot.com/2015/01/design-thinking.html.

    Comment by urbie delgado — 10 January 2015 @ 9:32 AM

  6. I agree that the informally-trained practitioner is more rule that exception in our field, but there are more than a few well-trained L&D folks who are engaging in the very practices of which you speak.

    I see trends like #showyourwork as an opportunity to get under the hood of some of these clicky-bling solutions and start asking some critical questions about the design (as opposed to the development). We should also start showcasing more of the failed solutions and get some real dialogue going on what went wrong and what was learned from the experience. Tool vendors, I feel, are equally implicit (as Les alluded to) because now the clicky-bling can get to market that much faster. I maintain that certain vendors (and they know who they are) need to have the curtain pulled aside (a la The Wizard) so that practitioners can see that all the tips, tricks, and shortcuts they offer are nothing more than ways to improve product sales and NOT ways to advance the practice of L&D.

    Things like DemoFest should be limited to practitioners, not vendors….but I dunno how to do that without pissing off the very sponsors these conferences need to survive.

    Comment by Mark Sheppard — 12 January 2015 @ 11:17 AM

  7. Thanks for all the feedback! Clearly touched a nerve ;). Chad, I’m not fussed about degrees per se, but having that formal background in learning is key. And yes, the stakeholders don’t get it yet, and we need to start talking impact metrics to get credibility. Mike, I think you’re saying that we’re misusing the tech, and I agree. But most people may not need a course on a car, just the quick tutorial! Thanks, Paul, and keep up the good work. Les, I don’t have a problem with user-generated content, but when formal learning is needed, we should be using real learning design. Urbie, not sure I agree that design thinking is sufficient. Necessary, perhaps, but maybe not sufficient. And Mark, I like DemoFest, but we need to perhaps show the good and bad of each too. Maybe dissections or postmortems by experts? But who’s willing to be publicly eviscerated?

    Comment by Clark — 12 January 2015 @ 11:42 AM

  8. I think that part of the lure of a demofest-type critique should be the willingness to be judged. Perhaps consider a blind judging or peer feedback mechanism? That way, there’s a higher level of rigour attached to any award. To me, some of these kinds of events seem like a conflict of interest. For example, if I work for a contest sponsor, I cannot be eligible for a prize. So, why would vendor-affiliated folks be eligible for awards in a showcase?

    As a parallel thought, perhaps we can be more specific about what’s required for conference presentations and include things that are less-than-successful. My would-be DevLearn talk for ’14 was going to be about something that went really, really wrong, in spite of our best efforts. I think we need to hear more stories like that (obvious bias declared).

    I also want to add that I share Urbie’s recommendation for exploring design thinking as a means for stronger solutions, but I agree that we should not limit ourselves to just that framework.

    Comment by Mark Sheppard — 12 January 2015 @ 12:15 PM

  9. […] “As I’ve been working with the Foundation over the past 6 months I’ve had the occasion to review a wide variety of elearning, more specifically in the vocational and education space, but my experience mirrors that from the corporate space: most of it isn’t very good.  I realize that’s a harsh pronouncement, but I fear that it’s all too true; most of the elearning I see will have very little impact.” – Clark Quinn […]

    Pingback by 9 ways to improve workplace learning — 14 January 2015 @ 12:30 AM

  10. Clark – your post will ring true for many people. eLearning as a field is growing exponentially, many of us (including me!) get excited by new creative tools – but there are fundamental principles that must be agreed before we decide on how to provide a learning experience. At work I observe wildly differing views of what learning means in a workplace, and even more diversity in beliefs about how people learn. There are also differences in how learning itself is valued, even amongst those working in learning and development roles. When we discuss these issues first, then we can make better decisions about design and development.

    Comment by Rae Jobst — 16 January 2015 @ 6:05 AM

  11. […] Maybe it is rocket science! CLARK QUINN  |  THURSDAY, JANUARY 8, 2015 […]

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