A debate broke out amongst some colleagues the other day about the desirable level of polish in our elearning. One colleague was adamant that we were undermining our position by using low quality production. There was a lot of agreement. I had a slightly different view. Even after finding out he was talking more about external-facing content than internal, I still have some differences. After weighing in, I thought it required a longer response, and of course it has to go here.
So, the main complaint was that so much elearning looks dated and incomplete. And I agree! And others chimed in that this doesn’t have to be, while all agreed that it doesn’t need to approach game quality in effect. Then, in my mind, the question switches to “what is good enough?” And I think we do need an answer to that. And, it turns out, to also answer “and what does it take?”
What is good enough?
So, my first concern is the quality of the design. My mantra on design states that it has to be right first. Then you can implement it. If it isn’t right from the get-go, it doesn’t matter how you implement it. And the conversation took some time to sort this out. But let’s assume that the design’s right. Then, how much production values do you need?
The original complaint was that we’re looking slack by comparison. When you look at what’s being done in other, related, fields, our production values look last decade, if not last century! And I couldn’t agree more. But does that matter? And that’s where we start getting into nuances. My bottom line question is: “what’s the business case?”
So, I suggest that the investment in production values is based upon how important the ‘experience’ is. If it’s internal, and it’s a critical skill, the production values should be only enough to ensure that learners can identify the situation and perform appropriately (or get feedback). It needs a minimum level of professionalism, and that’s it. If you’re selling it to high-end customers and want to charge a premium price, you’ll need much more, of course.
The issue was that we’re losing credibility if we don’t approach a minimal level of competency. There were many arguments about the locus: fear of going out of bounds, managers oppression, low level tools, lack of skills, and more. And these all have validity. We should stipulate a minimal level. Perhaps the serious eLearning Design Manifesto? :) We can do better.
What does it take?
This was the other issue. It was pointed out that design teams in other disciplines work in layers: from concept to realization. Jesse James Garrett has a lovely diagram that represents this for information architecture. And others pointed out that there are multiple skills involved, from dialog writing, through media production and interface design (they’re conceptually separate), and the quality of the programming and more. The more you need polish, the more you need to invest in the appropriate skill sets. This again is a matter of marshaling the appropriate resources against the business case.
I think one of the issues is that we overuse courses when other solutions are more effective and efficient. Thus, we don’t have and properly allocate the resources to do the job right when it does positively absolutely has to be in the head. Thus, we do have a lot of boring, information dump courses. And we could be doing more with engaging practice, and less content presentation. That’s a design issue to begin, and then a presentation one.
Ultimately, I agree that bad elearning undermines our credibility. I do think, however, that we don’t need unnecessary polish. Gilded bad design is still bad design. But then we should align our investment with the professional reception we need. And if we have trouble doing that, we need to rethink our approaches. The right level of investment for the context is the right response; we need the right live of polish. But the assessment the context is complex. We shouldn’t treat is simplistically, but instead systemically. If we get that right, we have a chance to impress folks with our astute sense of doing the right thing with the right resources. Less than that is a path to irrelevancy, and doing more is a path to redundancy. Where do you want to go?