what is a “good example”

12 06 2007

over on learning circuits blog, the big question for june is: “where are the examples of elearning?” thus far we’ve had some grThe Big Question logoeat posts with wonderful examples that demonstrate the variety
of solutions available through the use of digital media, the internet, organizational intranets, and the web 2.0 paradigm of participatory and communal content creation.

but as i sat down to type my response to this month’s question i realized i disagreed with tony’s assessment in the home post of the big question that good examples of elearning are difficult to find. my experience is that there are examples everywhere i turn. as i thought about why tony and i might have very different thoughts on this, it came to me that perhaps part of it is a matter of definitions. i think the problem may be that, in general, tony may be looking for “good examples” in the same old way we’ve always conceived of “good examples.” the old way is to look for that one seminal best-practice or the definitive exemplar. what is the answer?

the new reality is that there is no such thing as a definitive answer anymore. quality is situational. what might be a tremendous success for one organization could well turn out to lead another organization to insolvency and shutting down. an approach that enables one learner to internalize a process or remember information will leave another learner totally baffled.

but to be a “good example” it is also, by definition, necessary that the solution be applicable to other situations. otherwise, it’s a unique solution, not a good example.

so what is a “good example”? here’s a list of criteria i propose for determining quality of elearning tools today. on one level, these are criteria of solid instructional design. but i think they are a bit more specific to both elearning and to the role of web 2.0 – both in the nature of the applications now available and to the new pedagogical posibilities they enable. i’d love some feedback on these ideas.

  • solves a common problem – it should be applicable to many contexts. examples: new employee orientation, programming a website, learning a new language.
  • applicable to multiple specific situations – it should be transferable to situations that share similar functional and/or learning obstacles, processes, or goals. the nature of the content is likely to be similar while the context varies. examples: learning profession-based terminology, building active listening skills, acclimating to a new culture.
  • the how and why of the solution must be transparent – from the learner’s perspective, this means it shouldn’t “feel like learning.” it should be fun, enlightening. something that is done, not studied. from the instructor/manager’s perspective, (if there is a need for one) their role should be clear and simple. it should enable their completion of their strategic needs. from the instructional designer’s perspective, the structure and purpose should be visible and duplicable. whether these three roles occur in one person (jay cross’ free-range learner) or multiple people (traditional corporate ilt), all three components are necessary.
  • the learner must feel they have a choice – it must provide the learner with control over some, if not all, the variables of what to learn, when, how, with whom, etc. examples: providing optional learning paths, same content in multiple formats, allowing choice of roles in activities, deciding what to learn in any given moment, collaborative learning spaces, content databases, expertise profiles, etc.
  • no learning curve for the use of the technology – the solution should be programmed in a way that the learner will be focused on the target content of the activity, not the application used to deliver the solution. for basic, non-technical content, this may mean point-click, drag-drop, simple data entry. the very basic skills in computing. the same goes for professional content. for advanced level learning, appropriate combinations of technical and professional knowledge and skills may be included yet still meet this criterion.
  • clearly visible, multiple means of support – it will provide the learner with various ways to ask meta-learning questions about the activities. examples: faq, demonstration videos, glossary of terms, user forums, mouse-over hints, previous learner feedback/solutions, online tutors, email support, etc.
  • appropriate use of the technology it must deploy technology in a way that fits with the functionality and general use of the technology. because of their structure and their reputation for authentic sharing and feedback, blogs are powerful tools for openly sharing new ideas, but are less effective for presenting policies and procedures. it must also fit with the environment in which it is being implemented. implementing a social networking solution for learning in an environment that is anti-collaboration will be seen as alien and limit the crucial transfer of learning to the work situation. examples: post-training blog communities, customer forums, best-practices wikis, rss feeds of related new content, expertise portfolio databases etc.
  • it results in the desired learning – it should either have demonstrated success in achieving the desired learning results or the argument for why it should be successful is obvious and compelling. Obviously, demonstrated success is the preference. however, since the new applications are enabling new learning experiences, we need to apply what is known about learning in crafting these new experiences. example: learning simulations which place potential leaders in ambiguous situations, software that helps call center operators adaptively deal with emotional callers.

in my next post i’ll describe some of my favorite examples of good elearning.

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16 responses

12 06 2007
e e learning

[…] what is a “good example” […]

13 06 2007
Tony Karrer

Great post Dave.

18 06 2007
Stephen Lahanas

I’d like to extend your point to its next logical step…

The folks in this industry have been obsessed with subjective quality for as far back as I can remember. I refer to it as ‘subjective quality’ because ultimately there is not now, and probably never will be a truly accurate method to assess the effectiveness or appeal of learning content.

In the meantime, while our experts continue to dwell on whether perfection is attainable, the remainder of the planet is moving forward with the avalanche of imperfect content. Knowledge and our ability to project it does not have to be perfect; it needs to be available – that is the key to reducing content production costs and democratizing education.

I like to use the analogy of the shy language student (let’s say they’re studying Spanish); the shy student is so concerned over her pronounciation that she seldom practices and thus never becomes fluent. A more extroverted student who doesn’t have a full grasp of the grammar on the other hand goes out and expresses himself, perhaps sounding foolish at first but eventually becomes fluent. Learning happens from exposure and by doing.

By definition, all content has value and good. If we make it easier to produce the relative sophistication of the producers will improve.

20 06 2007
dave Lee


great response stephen. you definitely got me thinking. i’ll go you a bit further in that learning is controlled by the learner, no matter what illusion of organizational or institutional control we may place over that fact. in the classroom, if a learner doesn’t care to learn what the teacher says to learn they might tune out and accept a lower grade or they may “play along” and do what is needed to get the “A.” but in the end they haven’t learned what it was the teacher wanted the to learn. i believe i have this aspect covered in the criteria that the learner must feel they are in control. i say “must feel” verses “must be” because another key component of learning from others is giving up some control over to the teacher or expert or peer we hope to learn from.

your final statement rings back to the old adage that if you put enough monkeys with typewriters in a room for long enough, they’d eventually write the next great american novel. There is much more to quality content than the mere words on a page or computer screen. most people don’t know how to teach what they know. i don’t feel you need a graduate degree to teach something to others. but that doesn’t imply that everyone can share what they know in a way that’s compelling enough for another to learn it.

in context of The Big Question, we’re discussing exemplars. by definition an exemplar isn’t very common. a solution that meets the criteria to be considered an exemplar is special. something that can be striven for. but, to your point, it doesn’t necessarily have to be achieved in every instance.

Thanks for the comment Stephen. i’ve got more ideas that you’ve sparked that i’ll be including in a post in the near future. (and that’s what blogging is all about!)

9 01 2009
Robert Long

You want me to take e-learning advice from someone who can’t use their shift key? I think not.

9 01 2009
Dave Lee

well, i hope you will judge my opinions by the words i use and not the quality of my typing. besides, the all lower-case presentation is an intentional homage to e e cummings. (see why e e learning? for details.)

13 02 2009
missing the transfer « e e learning

[…] of my recent related posts what is a “good example” learning is risky business presenting about […]

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