Ping Pong with Brooks: Clarifying that Challenges != Death

PING– In response to my post, Call for Whitepapers on SCORM- Do SOMETHING please Brooks Andrus wrote a blog post titled, The Elearning Industry Is Dead. [That is a provocative statement that might leave one feeling a bit conflicted if one possessed 10 years experience with multimedia, Flash and elearning, and worked for TechSmith, makers of Camtasia Studio, a software product to: Train. Present. Persuade.] Kidding aside, I’m glad one of the 250+ subscribers of this feed thought enough to follow-up

I’m always ready to throw a few stones at learning and training, yet also ready to come to the aid of an industry that has comfortably paid the bills for me. [I’m a bit conflicted myself, but it is an industry that has provided cost-effective, mission critical training to sales associates, fighter pilots, jet mechanics, commercial aviation mechanics, construction managers, accountants, law enforcement personnel, healthcare professionals, and even software developers.]

PONG– So I wrote a comment to Brooks’ post, feebly defending the industry that is my patron. [Dang, I want to drive a Boxster again.] Seriously though, if the point is to raise awareness to improve things– I am all for it. Allow me a brief aside on criticism.

People have found fault with elearning, computer-based training and its precursors since the days of TICCIT and PLATO. It might just be endemic to any form of compulsory knowledge transfer; few text books or training films ever become a NY Times Bestseller or a box office smash.

All along the way the criticism has generally raised the capabilities, quality and effectiveness while lowering the costs. Expectations rise too. Things change. Cutting edge and high quality always has a price, but those expectations are a moving target. The green screen training that had text-based role plays, probably took as many development hours as a similar Flash-based piece with a digital avatar today. BUT it only played on the corporate or campus mainframe, and you were quite lucky if it did more than show text and beep.

So, Hail to the critics, they have challenged the industry and industry has responded. Likewise, Condemnation to shameful designers, they besmirch our trade with discouraging and unimaginative content. While I’ve been bored during presentations anchored with snazzy multimedia PowerPoint, I’ve been wrapt with fascination by compelling speakers with simple Kodachrome slides.

Thus my point, great content transcends technology. Great technology enables. Clever designers focus on the content first, and make good use what the technology enables. Was Shakespeare held back by the lack of Microsoft Office for Windows Vista or empowered by a simple quill? [Personally I think he would have used a Mac though.]

As I heard Dr. Michael Allen say earlier this year, “It is a poor craftsman who blames his tool.” And I might add, it is a poor industry that never improves its tools.

PING– Brooks posts again, Why Elearning Is Dead. And I respond here, to the problems he cites. With a veritable volley to each point. Hang on.

PONG– First point from Brooks.

  • Reusable content, the raison d’être of SCORM / AICCC [sic]…

PING– Actually, the AICC exists to…

  • Promote the economic and effective implementation of computer-based training (CBT) media.
  • Develop guidelines to enable interoperability.
  • Provide an open forum for the discussion of CBT (and other) training technologies

Quoted from the AICC FAQ page. As I recall, driving factors TWENTY YEARS AGO when the AICC formed, were economics and interoperability issues. Issues were things like the fact that there wasn’t a widely adopted digital audio file format (WAV didn’t exist). The CMI (Computer Managed Instruction, aka Learning Management System) specification work started a few years later, and focused on interoperability. At that time the desired level of re-use was the LMS itself. Believe me, it was NOT better when each set of training materials came with its own proprietary LMS silo capable only of running the corresponding proprietary content developed in that vendor’s proprietary authoring tool.

As for SCORM, a few of us remember when the “R” stood for Repository. I don’t know the back-story of why it was changed or by who. I like to speculate that it was partially a marketing maneuver to secure political support and funding.

PONG– Later in that point, he continues.

…reuse just falls flat on its face. I’ve found it to be near impossible to achieve reuse across departments within a single organization

PING– I’ll generally agree. I recall having conversations with Phillip Dodds about my desire for a disposable content object model. Meaning content object wrappers so cheap and easy, they became to consistent quality learning what the disposable cup is to the Starbucks latte.

PONG– Next point.

  • Testing (SCORM + LMS) has been a failure. Despite all the fancy API features you still can’t reliably certify results. Physical environments and instructors are still required for anything needing mission critical result certification. We might as well be using simple survey tools rather than bloated standards.

PING– At first, I thought he meant the LMS certification test. I’d consider this point a “FOL” as I’ve seen in called some bug bases– a Fact Of Life, not a criticism of SCORM or AICC. Unattended remote testing for high stakes certifications (lives or livelihoods at risk) generally doesn’t make sense. If you must do medium or high stakes testing to do electronically there is just one way to go in my opinion, Questionmark. A great product, a company filled with people of great integrity, and they can more than manage low stakes testing, assessments and surveys too.

PONG– Next point on costs [or salesmanship].

  • The cost of developing lean forward elearning experiences is at least an order of magnitude greater than its pitched at. In fact elearning is pitched as a cost saver when in reality its usually a net loss. Most elearning is PPT based because the cost of creating a compelling experience from an SME’s physical course is so high (at least that’s been my experience).

PING– Almost too easy to rebute. We’ve all seen things oversold, maybe even been reluctant participants in some way. As a developer/consultant, I had to backpedal on sales promises made at more than one previous employer.

I’d feel sad and try to avoid projects where my work is (un)recognized as a net loss. As for PPT versus costs– not every piece of elearning replaces a SME’s course. And in many cases a great blended design might shorten the overall length of a classroom course, and allow the instructor to convey better/richer material. In such cases the elearning serves the role of individualized instructor allowing each student to slow down only when they need to do so. This as opposed to an instructor slowing down a whole class of 25 for the one student challenged at the current moment. This works great for classes where students may speak different languages. Likewise, a shorter footprint for classes can be real savings when you have high volumes of students to train or training must span the globe. Sending students or instructors across oceans isn’t cheap, and you’ll need classrooms and hotel rooms too.

PONG– Next point on failures [or bad situations].

  • Every LMS / LCMS vendor I’ve worked with gets a FAIL. They’re bloated, difficult to administer and use, and often require organizations to wrap their infrastructure around them (which just doesn’t happen too much). Again these tools are pitched as cost savers, but typically require full-time administrators and the large vendors have notoriously bad service track records.

PING Sigh. More sadness. I know it happens. I guess I’ve been fortunate, working with some wonderful customers and vendors. I’ve been tremendously impressed with Accenture, American Airlines, Boeing, Herman Miller and others. They all faced challenges with partners and vendors, and both sides dealt with it well.

PONG– On to more failures, such as discoverability.

  • Distributed content / repositories reign supreme whether on the Web or across organizations. Again the LMS / LCMS get a FAIL and SCORM SCOs have had little tangible value.

PING– Remember when the “R” stood for repository. Now I sigh for myself. I thought CORDRA was supposed to move things forward on this. It has not. Time for some good thoughts to be shared and popularized to solve this. [See original call for LETSI white papers]

As far as SCO’s having little tangible value, I think a few million Korean parents might disagree regarding the SCORM-based elearning their children receive. I believe Chrysler also has some hard numbers on savings they achieved with SCO’s, you can find it via this Google search.

PONG– Home stretch now, second last point is on community and standards.

  • A real infrastructure and community never really developed, at least not on the scale we should reasonably expect. Actually you could say the Web raced ahead and that search (GOOGLE), Wikipedia, Creative Commons, etc. form the backbone of real elearning. Adding community features doesn’t mean your going to build a great community and standardization here might hurt more than it helps.

PING– I’m personally amazed that the little presentations I saw in 1996 and 1997 led to something the size, diversity and adoption level of SCORM. I don’t know what scale Brooks was expecting. It’s bigger than I ever expected when I helped form a tiny company to build an early standards-based CMI/LMS in 1993. Back then we had to explain what learning management was, it was all just content. The typical training management decision was build-versus-buy. The tools skills an CBT/elearning designer, developer or consultant had with one system had very little applicability to another

PING– Last point, on a failure to change the classroom paradigm (I’ll add, that is something that I never thought AICC or SCORM set out to do).

  • The elearning industry failed to fundamentally improve the old classroom led paradigm. Big institutions still employ SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) as course developers and instructors. The elearning movement as we know it has largely failed to create tools that can effectively allow SMEs to create elearning courseware. This meant the introduction of a new class employees–IDs (Instructional Designers) and Courseware Developers. In most cases we’re talking about new hires under different managers and even departments. There’s a huge level of distrust between these groups based on paranoia, ego and organizational allegiance. All of this results in increased operational overhead (financial and development).

PING– In my experiences, when big institutions change it is either almost imperceptible slowly or relatively quickly due to major disruption or catastrophe. The good news is that for big institutions, elearning has not been a major disruption or catastrophe. Lots of big organizations get lots of content out quick, almost too quick. I’d now argue for more filters, and shorter content, and less content, as much as better content (which I think such filters would also bring).

Even better, for small and medium institutions, elearning been a huge improvement. It allows them to time-shift training with self-paced e-learning, span geography with virtual classrooms, and keep training far more current than classroom approaches and scheduling would ever allow. It makes it worthwhile to send out 5, 10 or 30 minutes of training. Far below the threshold of the duration we might expect for a class (hours or days) to take.

We shake hands after a game well played. Finally, the denouement.

All this said, there are some really fantastic people in the elearning world–maybe they’re going to kick some ass and surprise me with SCORM 2.0. :-P

I hope so Brooks. I hope you’re surprised, and I hope you’re one of those fantastic people.

4 thoughts on “Ping Pong with Brooks: Clarifying that Challenges != Death

  1. Thank you. Especially for taking the high road. I felt myself edging into blogger’s remorse, concerned my post might not be taken as intended.

    Likewise, well played. Glad to find another David Wiley fan, a new blog for me to follow (yours), and glad to have a reason to make a longer more thoughtful post.

  2. while the volleys have been interesting and informative for an elearning noob like myself (thanks for the history Tom, i didn’t know that the ‘r’ stood for repository at one time), i thought the last ping and pong were worth commenting on:

    i myself have had my frustrations with elearning implementations but it was an important realization for me to understand that elearning itself is not intended to remove the classroom experience, in fact it is to maximize it when it is needed and minimize/remove it when it is not needed (as is the case with the ’10-minute trainers’ at my company).
    i would certainly loathe going to a meeting for a training session that i would much rather fit into my own schedule – even if it _is_ located in my building.

    perhaps there is a middle ground here not discussed? what technology can provide in the coming years is anyone’s guess but in most cases i have found that people not only come up with new ideas but also improve on old ones as well. and in some cases those improvements are better than the new ideas.

    that being said, i also believe any rant on any technology should also have a suggestion on how to replace/improve/change that technology.

    thank you Brooks and Tom for an interesting volley, and if all else, David Wiley may have a new reader ;)

  3. Wow – great discussion points from both camps!

    I’d agree with points made on both sides because I too have had a full range of experience with the good, the bad, and the ugly.

    But there’s no one group that can be fingered with the blame for a less than perfect evolution.

    Shareable content – why not? In some cases people think they need something new, more culturally precise, or a closer visual match to their organization brand, worker population, etc.. I can’t say that they are wrong.

    Not to mention that each LMS operates as a silo – in many cases there are multiple silo’s within the organization. Since the CORM dictates containment, there is already a strong force raging against shareable content.

    I’ve long argued that the most valuable shareable element is the design. I’m not sure why we haven’t come up with a design document interchange standard – it seems logical to me that this would also make maintenance and version to version updates MUCH easier.

    Its easy to pin the problems with elearning on the technology, or the perspective. I’m hesitant to criticize eLearning as a solution when I know that education and training solutions that predate it are far from perfect (easy to bring the glimmer of the old when criticising the new).

    I’d also like to throw this out there. SCORM ain’t perfect, but it does work if you put enough effort / sweat / tears into it. It really shouldn’t be that hard. Vendors aren’t held blameless either. Designers are using old models and they are doing this at times because the customer expects / demands it. Section 508 has influenced how we design and develop content (defeating the purpose of a powerful media platform in some cases). So we are all to blame for the current situation. I think that the call for SCORM 2.0 papers can’t hurt, but we can’t do things the way we have been doing them and expect things to change.

    An engineering standard can’t drive the model… And we all gotta wake up and educate our peers and customers how to do it better.

  4. Awesome post, the style is ingenious, Ping Pong!! Great. Regarding the content: It´s very good that you have talked about it;)

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