Stephen Anderson – From Paths to Sandboxes

Sat in on Karl Fast and Stephen Anderson‘s Design for Understanding workshop at the IA Summit last week, and it was double-plus-good.

Here are Stephen’s slides from his IA Summit presentation.  Excellent stuff relating to autonomy in learning environments, and multitudes more:

Where do you get new ideas?

Design inspiration can sometimes be in short supply in Instructional Design, so it can be really helpful to get inspiration from other fields (lots more to say about the shortage of design in ID, but that’s a rant for another day).

I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about being inspired by game design with sites like gamasutra or extra credits, but here are a few others that are giving me a nice buzz of ideas these days.


This is a series of podcasts about storytelling (for fiction writing, mostly).  Even though I’m not doing any fiction writing, I’m really enjoying these, and it’s giving me lots of lovely ideas about writing learning scenarios, and for non-fiction writing.

I’ve written loads of learning scenarios over the years, but now I’m going to think about things like a 3-act structure, or a protagonist/antagonist relationship, or inciting events when I write them in the future.

And they are just fun to listen to (I bumped into these via the Popcorn Dialogues, which are also hugely fun).

The Big Think

I can spend hours following links around on this website (and I have spent hours sometimes — warning: huge timesuck ahead), but it’s fantastic and worthwhile and inspiring.

It’s like TED talks, but in shorter chunks, so it’s easier to float around following a stream of ideas.  I particularly like the series that are organized around a theme or idea –

Where do you get your inspiration?  What other disciplines (sites, books, other media) do you hang out with when you need new ideas?

The Learner’s Journey

So I just bumped into Amy Jo Kim’s Gamification Workshop 2010 slides (via Sebastian Deterding).  Amy Jo Kim is another of my professional crushes (she’s awesome), and there’s loads of goodness in the slides, but my favorite bit was based on this image about the Player’s Journey:

(Image from Amy Jo Kim’s book “Community Building on the Web“).

She talks about how each of the different levels has different needs from a gaming system:

  • Novices need onboarding – welcome, goals and process
  • Experts need fresh content, activities and people
  • Masters need exclusive activities, access and unlocks

This is possibly the most useful thing I’ve ever seen about social media for learning. E-Learning tends to be a one-off experience.  Little time or money goes to the progression of the experience because the experience begins and ends in one chunk.

Hoping they don’t hate us

In my experience, most e-Learning also tends to be aimed at novices, and we sort of just hope that experts don’t hate us too much as they are compelled through the material. That’s about as much fun as being the experienced flyer standing in the TSA security line with your laptop out, liquids in a bag, shoes off and carry-on ready to go, trapped behind what appears to be a Grandma who hasn’t flown since 1972 and an entire daycare of small children with all the associated paraphenalia*.

But as (hopefully) we are slowing wrenching ourselves out of that model, and moving towards more integrated learning resource systems, we’ll have to take into account the differing needs of our learners, and how to engage them and meet their needs.

I’m in the process of thinking through ways to steer away from one-size-fits-all-ism for learning applications (yes, scenario-based learning is *great*, but it’s not the answer to all learning needs).  I read another post this morning on why Gagne’s 9 Rules of Instruction are dead, which describes why those rules are entirely inappropriate for just-in-time learning.  The writer is absolutely correct in those circumstances (Gagne’s 9 Events still have their uses for other things, but that’s another blog post).

So what have you seen?

What kinds of resources / systems / models are you aware of that give specific recommendations based on the circumstances or learner charactistics?  I’m on a hunt and would be eternally grateful for anything you could point me to.

A few resources:

  • Simon Bostock reminded me the other day of the Cynefin Framework for looking at different systems.

Here are the complete slides for Amy Jo Kim’s presentation:

*I’m not hating on parents who travel with small children.  I think they are the bravest people I know.

Best e-Learning Blog that isn’t an e-Learning Blog

I follow a whole lot of e-Learning blogs, and they typically cover topics like web 2.0, social media for learning, e-Learning technology, the state of the industry, etc.  Once in a while, they do tackle interesting, chewy e-Learning design questions (but not as often as I could wish for).

Where I do consistently find conversations about interesting, chewy e-Learning design questions is on Gamasutra – a gaming industry blog.  Few, if any, of those articles are actually about e-Learning (and, according to Patrick Dunn, they are on the other side from e-Learning, separated by a huge and uncrossable chasm.”).

Gamasutra does also cover topics like the industry, tools, etc., but they also have amazing things to say about e-Learning design.  Here are some of the best examples:

  • Funativity: Want to learn about how to motivate learners to engage with your e-Learning?
  • Persuasive Games: And you should read pretty much all of Ian Bogost’s columns on persuasive games. Really.

Frequently, Gamasutra does deal explicitly with games for learning, and it’s a beautiful thing:

(This more or less goes with my previous post about the Acagamic – another great site about e-Learning that isn’t about e-Learning.  Go there too).

How CarTalk can save your e-Learning

Thanks to xkcd for his generous usage policy

From *

So a recent twitter lrnchat was about working with SMEs (Subject Matter Experts), and here are some of the responses to the first question “Q1) What are the challenges working with subject matter experts?”:

  • JaneBozarth: Q1: Helping them focus on critical/must know, not everything-there-is-to-know
  • philharriman_ek: Q1 SMEs can be so deep into their subject that it can take real effort to find the learner context.
  • Quinnovator: Q1: SME’s don’t know how they do what they do (cognitively compiled), so have to work to get the right focus
  • tmiket: Challenge to get SMEs to think like a novice. They’ve forgotten how much they’ve learned along the way
  • PearlFlipper: Q1 One of the challenge is they want to include EVERYTHING?!

At the risk of indulging in SME-bashing (not my intention – I’m exactly the same way in my areas of expertise), I would agree that it’s really difficult to be an expert and forget all those hard-won knowledge details of your field that comprise your expertise (it’s all about closets, really).

The Instructional Design View:

Here’s how this goes sometimes:  You are a well-intentioned instructional designer, concerned about making sure the learner’s cognitive load is managed, and that your novice learners have a lean, focused, first exposure to difficult content that doesn’t overwhelm them, and allows them to start tentatively constructing their understanding of the material. You want to keep it as simple as possible, but no simpler. Your motto: Less is More.


The Subject Matter Expert View:

Your SME has a herculean task akin to giving someone directions from downtown Manhattan to Bloomington IN, and is worried that unless she spells out every right turn, every likely detour, and every place the route is confusing, then the poor learner could get lost and it would be the SME’s fault. Additionally, she’s driven the route hundreds of times, and knows the best places to get gas, where you definitely DON’T want to eat, and what the best times are to avoid traffic in each city.

This is hard-won knowledge, too.  She suffered through a lot to accumulate all those details – wrong turns, traffic jams, extra miles, food poisoning – and she really wants to save those learners from having to learn it the hard way. Her motto: My Pain is Your Gain.


So who’s right?

You, as the instructional designer, are starting to panic — you know that you have limited time and resources to create this training, and the more content you put in, the less you are able to do with it.  If it’s e-Learning, it will turn into the Dreaded Page-Turner, because you just don’t have time to create the 17 different problem-based scenarios to account for all of the different exceptions she’s describing. It turns into a battle, where you keep trying to cut things, and she keeps saying “but they need to know this!”

So who’s right?  Well, you both are, depending on your perspective.

But here’s the good news — I have a tool for you. It’s one of my favorites in my instructional design toolbox, although I don’t get to use it as often as I like.

First, let me tell you a story.

Too Much Information:

A few years ago, I was working on a massive training project for new hires.  Basically, these poor newbies had to learn EVERYTHING, and in a hurry.  To give you a sense of what their job entailed, they needed to know chemical compositions, electrical troubleshooting, customer service, vehicle safety, basic business and territory management, mechanical repair, plumbing, machine installation, programming several kinds of large commercial machines, parts and inventory management, and first, foremost, and above all, sales procedures and skills. We were creating a really interactive course for them, and trying very hard to keep text density low.

And, I had the greatest SMEs — these guys had decades in the field, and had more stories than you could imagine — if they didn’t know the answer, they’d make one up and still be right.

But the magnitude of the material and the sheer scope of their knowledge meant that we were quickly getting into the push/pull kind of situation I described above. Even though they knew better, they’d wind up firehosing content because they just knew so darn much.

But wait:

I was job-shadowing them one day (always, always, always do this if you can), and, I was listening to them tell stories over lunch.  As I was listening to them, it occurred to me…

“…these guys sound just like the Car Talk guys.”

If you don’t know what Car Talk is, then head on over to the NPR site, and give them a listen.  It’s a radio show with Click and Clack, a/k/a the Tappet Brothers, and they take listener calls, talk about cars, and laugh pretty continuously at their own jokes.  But all sorts of people (who don’t care about cars at all) listen pretty regularly.



We created our own version of Car Talk for the course.  Basically, it was a page, with a graphic of the two of them, and a dialogue conversation between the two.  We were dealing with pretty stiff bandwidth constraints, so audio wasn’t an option, but if I was doing it now, I’d just plunk a cheap digital recorder down in front of them and grab it as it comes.

It was a pretty simple format that we could re-use over and over:


(my mock up of the template style, not the actual version)

So, um, what’s the big deal about that?

So, now, you are probably thinking that “whoa – you’ve totally oversold what basically amounts to an okay-ish e-Learning page template.”

But this relatively minor design element paid off hugely, in a number of different ways:

  • It took exceptions out of the main course flow: The biggest benefit was that doing this took all that “yes, it is a one-off exception/more detail/but they have to know it” information out of the main course flow.  Instead, we tucked “Want to know more about? ” links into the corner of the interface, that the user could choose to pursue then (if they were interested), or access later.


  • It was the magic word: Whenever the content threatened to overwhelm the course material, we could just say “Oh, we’ll make that a TechTalk.” It eliminated the vast majority of the content wrangling that I described above.  In fact, the client said “Oh, that can be a TechTalk” more than we did.
  • It was a way of managing scope: TechTalks were the SME’s responsbility to write (which may or may not work in your world), and very low cost for us to implement.
  • It made heroes of the SMEs: We had our artist do caricatures of the SMEs and used them as the experts (photos would work just as well). But this was a really great opportunity to provide some recognition of their contribution to the whole course.

But here’s the real trick

All of that was pretty good, but here’s the real trick if you do this:

Take it out of the e-Learning altogether.

Use one of those nifty other ways to communicate it later, one tip at a time:

Intranet, Job Aid, Podcast, Blog, Reference Materials, Wiki

Intranet, Job Aid, Podcast, Blog, Reference Materials, Wiki

Because it doesn’t matter how good a job we do managing the cognitive load of our new learners, they still aren’t going to want to know this stuff until they’ve been on the job a few months (or in this case, years), and they’ve had opportunities to bump into the relevant situations (and this buys also buys you all sorts of advantages, like time-distributed learning, multiple exposures to the material, and a knowledge management base).

You want the learner reaction to be “Oooh, that’s how that works” instead of the “what, huh, what?”

* Thanks to for the generous usage policy

It’s a Process, not an Event…


I really like this idea of using email as a tool for orienting new employees:

When I was doing e-Learning consulting, new hire orientation projects always made me nuts.  Basically, there were no behavioral objectives, and it was always tempting to firehose the information.   Just like you aren’t going to remember the names of those dozens of people you meet in the first couple of days, you aren’t going to absorb all that new information, particularly as so much of it was of dubious relevance.

But aside from new hire orientation, the idea that an intervention should be time-distributed is so rare and yet so valuable.