Thursday, June 30, 2011

When things that shouldn't teach teach!

My Experience with English Writing

I started reading English novels when I was a tween. Once I started, I was insatiable. Every book in the house was read from cover to cover, regardless of its contents. I read a lot of good stuff, classics, and a lot of stuff that perhaps I could have done without at that age.

But I had a tough time expressing myself in writing. I would be like a block of wood faced with English writing assignments. Part of the reason was that English was my second language- we did not speak in English either at home or at school. Whenever we would get English writing assignments, I would beg my mother to help. She, a busy doctor teacher, almost always obliged. I don't remember her ever saying that I should do them myself. It was perhaps because I asked for very little else. I was always surprised to see how quickly and effortlessly she would write out the essay or paragraph, as we used to call it.

One day when I was in the Seventh grade, we got an assignment to write a story in the present tense. A story! In present tense! This block of wood suddenly becomes a block of stone! :)

Once again I turned to mummy. She sat with me that evening and dictated a story about a boy in a desolate house in the wilderness, who senses something or someone entering his house and giving him company. The present tense in the story made it most magical and sad. It touched something deep inside me and I read the story many times, wondering how so much beauty could be created by words strung together by this wonderful woman. I looked at her with awe and adoration. The next day, my(!) story was selected as the best story and I won a prize. Although elated, I was ashamed at claiming it to be mine when it was my mother who had written it. But I felt flushed with pride too because I had never gotten so much attention from the English teacher I used to adore.

That was the last time I asked my mother for help in writing anything. The mixture of the first-hand view of a story being created, my intense appreciation of it, my awe for the writer, the attention I received, and the guilt I felt had done its trick and melted the block of wood into wax! I have been writing effortlessly since then. Having someone else write your assignment for you and taking credit for it shouldn't have triggered learning a skill, but it did!

Atreya's Experience with Hindi Numbers

Another example of an unusual trigger for learning happened with my son Atreya. He studies in the Singapore educational system, which insists on everyone learning their mother tongue. For Atreya it meant learning Hindi. Although he understood Hindi quite well and spoke a little too, learning Hindi as a subject was very tough for him. In his case, living in Singapore, Hindi was less his mother tongue and more his second language.

One of the toughest things about Hindi is the numbers. Unlike English, every single number from 1 to 100 in Hindi has a unique word for it. You can't just combine two words in a logical way to form a number as in English (e.g 36 in English is a combination of two known words: Thirty and Six) ; instead you have to remember 100 unique words, one for each number. So, there is almost nothing in common between any two numbers, say 51 and 61, and it is impossible to extrapolate like you can in English. It's a mind boggling thing to learn these words for 100 numbers when you never use them in your daily life. Atreya struggled. I know because I tried to work with him and help him see the oblique logic and similarity between words, but to no avail.

One Saturday, during his weekly Hindi school class test, he was tested on these numbers and did very well. When he told me about it during our nightly high-point low-point chats, he confessed that he had copied the answers from his book. He also said that since the book was under the table and inside his bag, copying the answers without getting caught was a lot of hard work. For every number, he had to struggle to find the page in the book, glance quickly at the word, remember it firmly for there was no chance of a second glance, and then write it out on the answer sheet from memory. In the process, he also figured out that there was indeed some similarity between the alien-sounding words and a logic.

Wonder of wonders, Atreya never forgot the hindi words for numbers after that day! The act of copying answers shouldn't have helped him learn them, right? But it did!

Strange how things that seem to be the opposite of good learning practices can become triggers for effective and life-long learning!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Aloka loves to conspire against her grandma. Her eyes start twinkling at the thought of troubling her nani ma!

Click to view the video.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Design Fatigue: A Deadly Problem in E-Learning Design

What is Design Fatigue?

I recently had the opportunity to go through an online course on an advanced finance-related subject matter. I took out my designer hat (pun unintended) for this task- I couldn't comment on it as a learner because I was not the right audience profile.

As I started going through the course, I was impressed. There were some good design elements, such as a reflection quiz to start each topic, explanatory diagrams and charts at places, good quizzes interspersed in between complex sounding concepts, easy to read and uncluttered pages, interactive presentations, and video interviews with experts on the latest events in the financial world. Someone has spent time and effort in designing this program...I said to myself.

However, into the 7th or the 8th module, I started noticing things that bothered me. The reflection quizzes at the start of the topics didn't seem very thought provoking. There were pages after pages of text only screens with no connection between concepts- it was almost like reading a PPT deck.There were hardly any visual elements. Even the tables looked fuzzy, as if they were made in Word and then imported as screenshots. The interactive presentations, few and far between, had loads of information crammed in them, requiring scrolling even inside cells. Even the videos became long winded and irrelevant. As if the whole course had become tired of itself! 

What happened? Was it just that I had gotten tired? Or was this really design fatigue? I am pretty sure it was the latter because I have been there and done that- I have seen design fatigue setting in front of my eyes in similar projects being handled by my teams.

So what is design fatigue and why does it occur? Since no formal definition exists (I googled it), here is how I define it. Design fatigue in e-learning courses is the gradual and progressive reduction in the instructional quality of a course that started out good.  Although it can set in any type of course, it is more pronounced in courses of duration exceeding 4 hours. :)

Why Design Fatigue?

Some of the reasons for design fatigue are obvious. Designers, both instructional and visual, get physically and mentally tired of doing the same thing and have no avenue for rejuvenation. Their passion to create great learning material dries up after months of working on the project. And there are several external reasons why the passion dries- the project no longer receives the attention it used to, the output of their hard work is buried under hundreds of screens, and no one really cares what the team is doing. 

There are other reasons too, such as QA fatigue. Even customers find it hard to maintain their passion to review and provide inputs modules after modules. Check any review report and you will see that the review comments for the first two modules far outnumber the remaining. Poorly managed projects also receive a lot of pressure to increase productivity at later stages of development. Shrunk production budgets, due to poor estimation, poor control or wasteful production, force Project Managers to push the team for higher productivity and cut corners on QA. Pressure to deliver the project earlier (due to own or customer priorities) also come into play.

The result- short cuts and lip service to great design done at the start of the project.

Can Design Fatigue be Avoided?

The days of long courses are over. More and more customers want shorter courses. And when a program of long duration does come along, there are ways to avoid designer fatigue. I will share examples from two projects where we avoided design fatigue. 

We once developed an 15-hour long online course on Six Sigma. It was divided into 5 sections, one each for Define, Measure, Analyze, Implement and Control. The subject matter was complex and statistical, requiring a lot of research, simplification, and inclusion of instructional activities to convert the base material into an effective self-paced course. We split the course into two main parts, each handled by a separate Senior ID (I was one of them). Work started on both parts simultaneously, so that the section on Define received the same amount of attention as the section on Analyze. To ensure that the two parts worked and looked similar, we encouraged designers to share their work in progress with each other. Even though the purpose was different, this inspired collaborative development and recognition of good work, which in turn kept the creative juices going. The PM managed the project financially from day one, keeping budgets and timeline in check from the start, so there was no last minute panic. Read any module in  this course, from the first to the 24th, and you will find the same high quality of learning experience. No sign of design fatigue here. 

In another case, to develop a 12-hour course for investment analysts, we had three IDs working under a Senior ID, who designed the prototype and set the design standards for the course. Except when continuity from one module to another was important, the three IDs were assigned alternate modules. The instructional and visuals teams shared design strategies and challenges with each other during frequent project huddles. When it was realized that the mind map designed at the prototype stage didn't work very well in some topics, changes were made to it to suit the requirements of the later modules. Instead of pulling along a design element just because it was thought up initially and therefore carved in stone, it was improved and adapted as required. And most importantly, development victories throughout the development phase were shared and celebrated with as much vigor as winning the deal had been. Once again, the course was a great example of consistent high quality of learning experience. No design fatigue here, even though the team was physically exhausted by this very demanding project.

In Conclusion

Design fatigue is a reality in e-learning courses of long duration. Although it is easy to understand why it occurs, allowing it to set in is the biggest disservice a designer can do to learners, who deserve to get the same amount of value from every part of the course, be it the beginning, the middle or the end. Being mindful of it from the start, and making efforts to avoid it, is what responsible development is all about.

U Mandara Ke

When everyone has gone to sleep
I enter the mystic garden
Tentatively, an empty basket in hand

And begin collecting the celestial flowers, Mandarava
Strewn on the grass
Even as more fall from the branches above

For hours I go on, but have nothing to show
For my basket is as bottomless
as my garden is abundant

My arms tiring
My eyes stinging
My breath fading

I go home three hours later
With an empty basket
...but fragrant hands!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Project Ponytail

The best part of being on sabbatical was the time I got to spend with Atreya and Aloka. And of that time, the most fun was everyday between 11:45 to 11:55am, just before Aloka left for her school. I spent those 10 minutes doing her hair! 

Major decision making had to happen everyday- which hairbands and hair clips will best match, shall we go for a single ponytail, two ponytails or a just clips, should the ponytails be high (like cows in Aloka's words) or placed low etc.

Here are some of the styles I made and captured on camera. Click each to see a larger view. 

Shame on you girls!

Atreya in his new T-shirt I got printed for him today. I had seen a guy wear something like this in one of B2R's centers in Uttarakhand and had been wanting to get it printed since then.

Seriously thinking of getting one printed for myself with "Shame on you guys. I am still single!". 

The journey to ...Chingus!

Mallika aunty--> Mallika nani --> Minga nani --> Minga --> Mingus --> Mingli --> Mingla --> Chingla--> Chingus

Yes, Chingus is the latest name by which Atreya calls Mallika nowadays.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Just because...

Just because I won't say
I can't live without you darling
Don't underestimate my pain.

Just because I proclaimed boldly
that I had all the answers
Don't dismiss my dilemmas.

Just because I followed
religiously a rule or two
Don't assume I have a storehouse of courage

Just because I chose this once
Self denial over self indulgence
Don't as yet wave my youth goodbye

Just because I bowed
Submissively, without resistance
Don't doubt the substance of my love

Just because you don't hear me say
I will die without you dearest
Don't overrule the possibility.

Monday, June 20, 2011

High Margins in Custom Content Development: An Oxymoron?


If you are in the business of developing custom e-learning content, then you know that high unpredictability and low profit margins are the banes of this business. The reason is simple: design is subjective, and customer expectations are implicit and hard to pin down, resulting in effort overruns and rework. If you serve the Asian market, these problems are further compounded by lower acceptance of e-learning as well as lower training budgets. And if, as a vendor, your business mission is to provide only the highest quality of learning experience to your customers, then you are doomed. Well, not always. 

In one of the companies I worked in, we started measuring project-level profitability only into our 3rd year of operations (c'mon we were a start up) and were shocked to find that our biggest value project was at -80% margin! A year later, we clocked an average of 20% margin. A few years later, the average margin had risen to 60% and very few projects were below the 40% mark. If I use six sigma terminology to describe this change, I would say that we successfully shifted the mean to the level desired and reduced the variation around that mean. No, we didn't achieve this by increasing our rates. In fact, prices dropped by as much as 15% over the last few years because of tough competition and recession-related budget reductions, while expenses all around went up. 

So how did we achieve this? If I were to describe every factor that came into play, I would need to write an entire book. Here I will just share a brief and high-level overview of four top factors that I think were responsible for this change. None of these are new or revolutionary by themselves, but used together in the right balance proved powerful and effective. 

1. Data Capture and the Right Amount of Data Analyses

As in most companies, it was an uphill task bringing about a cultural change towards data capture and data-driven decision making. Fortunately for us, we were a small company and many of us had learned first hand from previous experiences "how not to" do it. The champions of our change process were passionate, training interventions were powerful and the team overall was open minded. 

Knowing that getting to 100% data accuracy would take time and tools, we decided to start analyzing and using data as it was. The journey from individual Excel sheets to an online system with analytics was a long and arduous one, but data analyses began almost from day one. We focused on what was most urgently needed- effort breakdown and profit margins- leaving aside issues like defect and rework for later. 

2. Impeccable Pre-sales Solutioning and Estimation

We took proposals very seriously. Every proposal was developed by one or two senior members of the team, who were experts in designing solutions, extracting customer requirements, and effort estimation. The data we had collected (point 1) formed the basis of effort estimation. In addition to the solution description, each proposal contained a list of all types of assumptions made, and supporting each proposal was an internal document consisting of a bottom-up pricing sheet with detailed effort breakdowns, which would later serve as the project budget sheet.

This upfront clarity and accountability reduced the chances of unexpected requirements coming up later in the development cycle and went a long way in making projects more predictable. Having this clarity also helped in managing the customer later in the project cycle (see point 4). 

3. Reuse at Project Level

How do you reap the benefits of reuse when you are committed to design innovation in every project you handle? How do you train the team for productivity when there are no standards to be followed across projects? After struggling with high production costs for a long time because of what we stood for, we figured out that the solution lay in doing both reuse and standardization cleverly and on smaller scales.

For this to happen, top designers in the team were engaged to build prototypes. They were given freedom and encouraged to come up with different and better designs each time. This served two purposes: it fulfilled the creative urges of the creative team and made the customers very happy. Each prototype contained enough representative screens for the production team to use as a guide. For larger projects, we created visual standards based on the prototype and wrote/marked storyboards accordingly, encouraging both reuse and standardization at project level. This addtional effort made at the start had a great impact on the overall productivity of the project teams.

4. Customer Management 

When I moved from an internal focused role to customer management many years ago, the biggest challenge I faced was in telling customers that they had messed up, while maintaining a positive relationship with them. The solution lay in being transparent and open with customers about effort and budget overruns when they happened (or were about to happen) and not waiting until it was too late to sound alarm bells.

To facilitate this, we started at the very beginning of the cycle with the proposal (point 2) laying out all assumptions in as clear terms as possible. These assumptions were not buried in the proposal only- they would also be highlighted in project kick-off meetings. Once the project was kicked off, bi-weekly health check on projects (point 1) brought possible problems to surface and gave Project Managers tools to deal with the customer. When I say tools, I include the softer aspects of discipline, confidence, vocabulary, tone and urgency. Of course exceptions were made for some customers, but they were few and well thought through. 

In Conclusion

These four factors in no way define a comprehensive list of factors that were responsible for the turnaround in profitability numbers. Many other factors came into play, such as team composition, team skilling, productivity tools etc. A point to note is that all the four factors described above worked towards shifting the onus of project success to earlier parts of the development cycle, namely proposal making and prototyping. I believe that by bringing about this shift, we successfully brought down the variability and uncertainty in the later and more effort intensive parts of the cycle and achieved consistent high margins in all custom engagements. 

When She Left

When she left
She left behind these...

A dozen or so Buddhist figurines that I bought for her from China Town,
The enlarged and framed picture of the monkey relief I shot at Borobudur,
Files full of documents from projects she had managed so well...
And 10 years of my love and appreciation.

When she left
She took with her these...

Her kids' pictures, a poem about a tree, a portrait of Gandhi with a quote,
All the touristy gifts that office folks had brought her from their journeys abroad,
Laughter, chatter, sunshine...
And 10 years of anger against me.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Feeling the Pinch in the Learner's Shoes!

I first heard the phrase "in the learner's shoes" over 15 years ago when I began my career as an Instructional Designer. Since then, I have used it and heard it being used countless times. But it's one thing to imagine yourself in these proverbial shoes and another to actually step into them, with all your callouses and corns!  

For the past few weeks, I have been preparing for a Buddhist study exam. Formal learning and examination being rare occasions at this phase in my life, I decided to observe myself learn and prepare for the exam, focusing on myself as a learner, not as a learning designer. Here are some of my observations about my learning process, the techniques I used, and the type of learning aids that worked for me. 

1. I studied the study material seriously only on two occasions, the first when I bought the material a month ago, and the second yesterday, two days before the exam. Urgency made me a lot more productive and focused. 

2. I started my studies by going through the sample test paper first, expecting to ace it. Discovering that I knew little about quite a few topics didn't feel good at all but brought out my competitive spirit. I decided to conquer the material and beat the test. 

3.  I discovered that I still like to make notes, by handWhen I was a student, I was the "notes queen", my notes being sought after by many. My hand writing is terrible now, but the confidence that comes from scribbling notes hasn't changed. 

4. Looking at my notes, I realize that I like to break down and number things. I used headers, bullet lists and numbers for almost everything. 

5. My notes were full of arrows and connectors between concepts. Sometimes, I would go back to earlier notes and make annotations about their connection with other concepts.

6. I also made some tables with related information, such as the Sutra chapter number, the key message in it and who it was spoken to. In the study material, the easiest page to understand also had a table. I gravitated towards it- it felt like an oasis in a desert of words. 

7. My favorite part of the learning material was parables. I could read and digest them very quickly. Obviously I like stories. Luckily, Shakyamuni understood that about people like me 2500 years ago and taught a lot of concepts using parables. 

8. I read and reread concepts that confused me and didn't stop till I had figured them out. Having spent that extra time and effort in being immersed in the tougher concepts, I did have a greater sense of achievement after mastering them. Although the parables were fun to read and easy to understand, immersion and the satisfaction of immersion came only from the quest to understand the tougher concepts. 

9. I did a little Google search to clarify some concepts, but knowing that the test would be based on the study material and that I had very little time left helped shorten and focus my Internet strolls.

10From my past experience with a similar exam, I know that only the final result, passed or not, will be revealed. But I really want to know how much I scored and how I fared as compared to others. 

So what does it all mean as a learning designer? I have drawn some lessons from these observations and validated some of the design principles I use when designing learning, such as the power of pre-assessments and feedback to set the context for learning, the need for frequent summaries and checks, and the benefits of infographics as learning tools. 

But it has also thrown up some disturbing questions, like how much simplification is a designer's responsibility and how much learning should be the learner's own personal quest
. Had the material been organized and presented better, with tables and infographics like in my notes, would I have learned as much? Or was my learning a direct result of the act of my scribbling notes? Had the difficult concepts been explained more clearly in the study material, would I have immersed myself in the content and derived the satisfaction and sense of achievement that I did? 

I am left wondering if by spending all the effort that I do in making learners' life simpler actually limits the opportunities of immersion and growth for them! Am I actually robbing them of a great learning experience by trying too hard to provide a great learning experience to them?

These learner's shoes sure pinch! 

Monday, June 13, 2011

As if in Love!

Shelly wrote
As if to me.
Across the yellowing crumbling pages of the old poetry book,
I heard his voice whisper sweet endearments.
And I sat-
As if in love!

The Little Fish, the Big Lake and the Small Pond

Once there was a fish who lived in a big wide lake. She loved her life, frolicking in the water with her friends all day. She was one happy fish!

Then one day, someone picked her up from the lake and put her in a small pond. The little fish was distraught. She missed her lake and her friends sorely. And there wasn't enough water in the small pond. It was drying up, becoming smaller every day.

One night, the little fish was overwhelmed by sadness and anger. She cried out loud- "Why me? Why did you take me away from the lake I loved? Why must I live alone and in such a small pond? How long before this pond dries up and I die?". 

To her surprise, a voice answered- "Little fish, I took you out because the big lake was toxic. It had been so for some time and was growing day by day but you were unaware of it. Had you stayed in the lake, you would be dead by now, choked by the poison."

The little fish realized that what the voice said was true. The water in the small pond was indeed clearer than the lake water. Her eyes could see far and her scales were shinier than ever before. She hadn't noticed this because she was so busy feeling lonely and scared. Having heard the truth, her anger and sadness disappeared. She felt grateful for what she was given- a second chance to live! 

The next day, it rained heavily and continued to rain for a whole week. The little pond filled up until it was almost as big as the lake.  
The little fish could swim for a long time before she would reach the shore. And she was no longer alone- there were other colorful fish swimming in the pond!

The little fish was happy once again, happier than she had ever been before. 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Public Transport

(What an unromantic title for a poem!)

I hate travelling by train
Being forced to see unhappy people
Up close

So many people are unhappy,
Trying to lose themselves in their phones, or books
Or arrogance

I often scan the compartment
Seeking one kind face
Not one kind face on some days

I prefer buses
Although they take forever
And drivers drive badly

But at least I can breathe 
And look at the outside world
Greener than the one inside

Of course
I like taxis the best
Alone, safe, with my loneliness

(PS: I live in Singapore, which has the best public transport system in the world. Like many Singaporeans and expats living here, I don't even own a car.)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Pei Du Mama

Having grown up in India and seen abject poverty at its worst, I am not easily swayed to pitying anyone in an affluent country like Singapore. After all, even the poorest people here have a house to live in and food on their plates three times a day. But something changed yesterday.

There is a Korean woman who lives opposite, a floor below ours. I can see the back work-area of her apartment whenever I go to mine to dry clothes or to feed Anakin. Having spent a lot of time at home in these last three months, I have had a chance to observe her and her family. The first time she caught my attention was when I heard a woman shouting in an unfamiliar language and in an almost guttural manner. I was quick to peek out of the kitchen window and noticed that a thin small-built woman was in the work-area shouting at a young boy. This repeated a few times over the next few days. Shouting of any kind disturbs me a lot, and I took an instant dislike to the woman. 

Suddenly this woman was everywhere- in the lift as I was taking Aloka out for a walk, in the lobby when I was waiting for a taxi, in the condo bus going to the train station, and in 711 buying provisions. Perhaps it was just the "yellow car" syndrome at play here- she had been doing the same things all along, but I had only recently become aware of her and so I found her everywhere. 

It took me a while to understand that she was a "pei du mama" or "study mother", a term for mothers who accompany their kids to Singapore so that they can study in Singapore schools. Their husbands stay back in their countries to earn. These mothers are typically from Korea or China. This woman's whole life revolved around taking care of the physical needs of her two children, sending them to school, receiving them when they returned, sitting with them to do homework, taking them to tuition classes, bringing them back and then making sure they studied some more. The shouting was part of the ritual of doing homework. The older daughter was obedient but the younger boy was hard to control- thus the shouting. To this, I had my usual snobbish reaction to mothers who can't control their kids- disdain!

Yesterday, as I was leaving for my dance class, I slowed down to fix my shoes. I saw the same woman sitting on the bench in the lobby. She looked lost in her thoughts, sad thoughts I am sure, because her whole body looked defeated. Her skin was pale, she wore no makeup, her clothes looked washed out, and she was alone, perhaps waiting for her kids to return from tuition. I suddenly realized that I had never seen her smiling or having fun with her kids. Not once. Even when the kids were being kids and horsing around in the clubhouse a few days back, she had looked haggard and harassed. 

What was her life like? What was it about? Did she do anything for herself? Was she anything to anyone, other than a mother to those kids?  Was all that maniacal shouting an expression of her sadness and fear? Was there a guarantee that all her hard work will pay back and her kids will grow up to be successful, whatever that may mean? And even if they did, would they ever be grateful to this woman who sacrificed her whole life for them? 

I was suddenly moved to pity for this woman, who shares so much with me- both of us have two kids, both live in a foreign land, and both are single parents in our own ways- and yet is a world apart. 

The F word!

For 45 years, I never used the word. Up until 10 years ago, I even flinched when someone used it in a conversation. I prohibited its use in my home. Atreya knew he would be thrown out if he ever used it at home. 

The first time he used it in front of me was in Mongolia, when we had just arrived at a freezing mountain resort after spending 7 days in blistering Gobi desert. He begged me to allow him to use it and because I was in a holiday mood, I did. He used it say "It's f***ing cold". Mom was shocked but it was so cold that we all agreed with the sentiment and giggled. The closest I got to using the word was when I made "whuck" a part of my vocabulary, thanks to Tina Fey in 30 rock. 

Then, a switch as if got flipped in February this year around the time I was about to leave my job. Suddenly the word became the best, and sometimes the only, way to express a number of emotions in a number of ways. It became a favorite adjective, a noun and a verb too. The floodgates had been opened and never closed after that. 

Atreya couldn't be happier with this change in me- he looks at me with a sort of awe and appreciation whenever I use the word. I do take care not to use it in front of Aloka, who is like a sponge and picks up words and expressions from me every day. 

For someone who never used it before, wouldn't you agree that it is a f***ing amazing transformation?

(P.S. Sorry mom!)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Portrait of an Instructional Designer

One of my consulting assignments involves helping clients identify vendors with the right Instructional Design (ID) talent. It got me thinking about my own experience with Instructional Designers in the last 15 years in the industry. Who were the best Instructional Designers I worked with? What was special about them? What did they do to stand out? When did I realize they were exceptional?

In this article, I try to answer these questions but not by describing the skillsets or competencies of Instructional Designers. There are many good sources of that. Instead, I will share stories about my experiences working with an exceptional Instructional Designer. After all, this is an article about ID and isn’t storytelling one of the most powerful instruments for learning?   

At the Start
The year was 2003. We had recently won a large deal to develop courseware for an online MBA program. I had been closely involved in producing the prototype and was exhausted after weeks of an intensive design, review and redesign cycle. The project was now with the production team and a new Instructional Designer, Myra, had been assigned the task of developing the first course. A week or so into the project, I received a rather frantic message from Myra saying she needed help with the course. My heart sank. I had too much on my plate. How much of this project will I have to take on from the newbie?

Myra and I had a call in which she shared the challenges she was facing when developing case studies on the subject of New Enterprises. The content she had been given was academic and conceptual. She just didn’t know how to start writing a case study using that. She was also new to this type of content and had never written a case study before. I gave her some spiel about thinking about a real-life situation in which the concept being taught would be applicable and then ensuring that the story remains realistic while conveying the learning point. I followed it by an email with an idea of a telecom company using their existing customer base to push a new product. The idea was very vague and would take a lot of research to ensure it was appropriate and then some creative writing to make it effective. The truth is that although I spent half an hour or so advising her, I knew it was too much to expect and was mentally preparing myself for months of hands-on hard work on the project.

Two days later, I receive an email from Myra requesting me to review the case study she had written. It contained a believable scenario about the telecom company, followed by an intelligent quiz about the learning point and a summary. The case was realistic, detailed to the right depth, and pitched correctly to the intended audience.  The entire piece was eloquently written and obviously well-researched. There was none of the stilted awkwardness that is the bane of scenarios. For someone who had never done this before, it must have taken a huge amount of hard work and a leap of faith to come up with this. I had been proven wrong, and what a way to be proven wrong. To top it, Myra had the humility to thank me for this product of her hard work!

The Next Few Years…
Over the next few years, we won the contract to develop 10 more titles for the same customer and the team was expanded to increase capacity. Myra became the resident expert, gaining the trust of her team, her customers and the subject matter experts (SMEs) alike. The last was not an easy task, since the SMEs were academicians and Myra didn’t have any background in business studies.  It was only later I discovered her secret. In addition to reading a lot of material on the subject, she used her extended network of friends and family members to learn more about the subjects she was working on. She cross-checked everything she wrote using multiple sources and ensured integrity of her work.

Then came along a course that needed something quite different from what was usually expected from her- creating fake content! The idea was to teach students that not everything you see on the Internet is true or correct, even though it might look authentic. This time, I sought Myra's help and requested her to help me develop content for a webpage that might look real at first glance, but had subtle authenticity problems visible only upon close scrutiny.

She responded by writing a fantastic piece about extra-sensory perception (ESP) in dogs. She concocted data showing that dogs behaved peculiarly at the very moment their masters left their offices for home and quoted serious-sounding experts on other theories and experiments on dog ESP. She also added pictures of her dog and mine at relevant places in the article to give it that extra punch. Although the premise of the article was ridiculous, she made it believable, totally readable and very funny. Somehow I knew that our super picky client would accept it in its original form. They did. Call it my ESP!  

I believe that Myra's voracious appetite for reading, and of course her sense of humor, had a big role to play in her coming up and executing on this idea. 

In the last couple of years of our association, Myra got involved in another very interesting project. The subject matter was ethics, the audience was staff of Fortune 500 companies and the presentation style was completely scenario-based. I had developed the first few courses in the series myself, so was deeply aware of the challenges involved. First, the entire course was dialog driven. Dialog had to be authentic for American audience. Second, situations had to be relevant to employees in corporate America. Third, the messages were not always black and white or prescriptive. Fourth, original content needed to be created. This was not a conversion project.

Myra used the first few courses as the building block for the next set, reusing and extending the main storyline, redeploying the interactive templates, adapting presentation and interactive strategies from other courses being developed around her, and working with the media team to make incremental changes to the existing visual style. And as always, she prepared herself for the project- she got her head into the ethical issues faced by corporate America by reading and researching about them.

One of the first topics she worked on was diversity. How to write a scenario on diversity without sounding condescending and preachy was, in my opinion, a big challenge. Myra developed a simple realistic story about a Manager agnonizing over his team composition for a Japanese client. Her story dealt with issues of stereotyping and generalizing in a polished manner, without making the Manager look like a bigot. In fact, she succeeded in creating a character that came across as a regular person with perceptions and concerns that most people have. In ID terminology, she made the protagonist relevant to the audience, thereby reducing barriers to learning this type of content. The dialog she wrote was smooth and polished, and real. It was no surprise that yet again, the customer loved her work! We won the contract to create 15 courses for the client over a period of two years.

In Conclusion
While I have decided to leave the task of deconstructing Myra's skillset to the readers, I would like to highlight a few core attributes of her, more like life skills, which were instrumental in her success as an Instructional Designer. These are resourcefulness, right amount of confidence, lots of guts, sufficient diffidence and self-doubt to know when to ask for help, wide exposure, willingness to learn, intelligence, humility, and absolutely no fear of hard work.

Friday, June 3, 2011

On Becoming a Person

Today, while cooking Aloo Paranthas for the family. I was suddenly taken back 27 years. The year was 1984. I was 19, almost the same age as Atreya today. I was newly married and recently introduced to that space in the house called the kitchen. During my last visit home, I had learned from mom, verbally, how to make Aloo Paranthas. And here I was, proudly making paranthas for my new non-Punjabi family- a doting husband, an equally doting father-in-law, a little cautious with her feelings yet supportive mother-in-law (or mama as we called her), and an indifferent brother-in-law.

I recall feeling horridly hot and sweaty in the kitchen but very proud of my crispy great smelling paranthas. The secret was in the amount of ghee each was getting soaked in. It was criminal (ghee was expensive and a health risk, there was shortage of money, and mama was a health freak) but I was totally unaware that I was doing anything remotely wrong. I didn't care because I didn't know. I remember seeing mama's face looking a little concerned, but she did not say anything. Perhaps she was afraid of being the proverbial critical mother-in-law or perhaps I was too happy and unaware to see through her expressions. The dinner was a smashing hit, with the family devouring over 30 paranthas, which had in turn devoured a whole can of ghee!

This incident is more than just a random memory. It illustrates my personality in the first few years of my marriage and my relationship with mama, my mother-in-law. When I first got married, I was too young to have strong opinions and boundaries. I accepted mama as a person to be respected and listened to. I was blind to her reservations about me and her criticism of me and even if someone had told me that she had valid reasons of disliking the girl who married her young son too early, I wouldn't have understood. In any case, no one told me. She, in turn, warmed up to my simplicity and became kinder to me than was her nature. We were truly close and fond of each other and things remained like that for the first 4 or 5 years of my marriage.

It was the change in my relationship with her that first signalled to me that I had finally grown up into a person with a specific identity. It is sad that my becoming a person robbed both of us of the simple trusting and kind relationship we shared with each other.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Almost Inspired!

I recently noticed my newfound interest in inspirational quotes. Earlier, I couldn't be bothered about them. It then occurred to me that the value of inspirational quotes is only to those who are "almost there". To others, they are nothing more than clever words. But when you are on the fence, looking across to the other side in terror and worrying yourself sick about the correctness of your decision, then these clever words suddenly assume a strange power, the power to nudge you over to the other side.

What would we, the almost inspired, be without inspirational quotes? But more importantly, what would inspiring quotes be without us?