Monday, June 4, 2012

I, Learner!

Since my first day at work, I had been hearing about this dreaded Excel worksheet (let's call it b5z) that people in my role need to use when preparing budget. In the very first week of my starting work, I saw a colleague working this sheet diligently. I recall being in meetings where his sheet was the topic of heated discussions and questions by the Finance team. I didn't understand the half of it, although the inputs to it were mostly provided by me. All this confirmed my fear of the sheet and the skills needed to use it.

Later, I looked up an online course on the topic, which was basically a recording of an expert talking as he navigated a very complicated-looking b5z. I watched it for five minutes and then gave up, even more convinced that this stuff was beyond me.

Last month, I once again came face-to-face with b5z, but now I was expected to work on it and own it. The same colleague was asked to teach me how to use it. It took me about a couple of hours with him, spread over 2-3 sessions, to get confident about using it. I spent another 8-10 hours tweaking my entries and by the end of it, I was buzzing with a high that comes from learning new things and overcoming one's fears.

Being a learning designer, I am used to analyzing what helps people learn, so here is an analysis of what worked for me in the process of learning this new skill. 

Urgency of a Real Problem
I had an urgency to learn because there was a real live problem to solve. Learning was critical to my success. This made me focus and absorb everything I was being told. I was fully attentive and the topic couldn't be more relevant.

A Coach
I had an experienced practitioner walking me through the sheet, highlighting portions that would be most relevant to me. He was aware of the simple self-constructed Excel sheet that I had been using the past few months and could relate that sheet with b5z (constructivism!). He used language I understood and shared his own lessons learned along the way. Having him around took away my fear of trying and gave me confidence that I could succeed.

Tips and Tricks
The coach not only walked me through the sheet, he also shared some tips and tricks he had picked up over the last few months, like how to do a "goal match" every time I did a major change to the sheet, how to look for problem notifications and the most important of all, when to know that a problem was not fixable and the sheet needed to be trashed and started all over again!

Quick Feedback and Success
Lastly, it was knowledge of success that egged me on. I mentioned the simpler sheet I was using earlier. Having that open in another window and seeing numbers more or less matching was a great boost to my confidence. Of course, the correctness of my entries was confirmed later as several people reviewed it, but that came later in the process.

Now to the hard part of this article. Since I am from that world, how would I teach someone to use this sheet in an online virtual environment? How would I make that experience as effective as mine had been? Here are my thoughts based on my experience as a learner, not as a designer. (There is a big difference between the two. The designer in me just wants to dip her hands into her repertoire of tools and techniques and prescribe what is best for this type of content because she knows best, whereas the learner in me questions every overused technique and seeks real value from it.)

Provide an Introduction
I would provide an introduction, but instead of a long-drawn soliloquy extolling the virtues of this mother-of-all worksheets, it would be short and direct, focusing on these three messages only.
  • Why this process? This would be presented in the simplest of words, avoiding all jargon. 
  • What if it wasn't there? A short story of how things were before this sheet was standardized would be powerful here.  
  • What is the scope of activities you can perform using this sheet?
Nothing more, nothing less.

Teach According to Need
The b5z sheet is complex because it caters to the most complex of situations. However, not every user uses all the features of the sheet because not every situation calls for it. I had perhaps used only 25% of the features the first time I used it. There may be situations in future when I would need to use more features, but for my current need, I didn't need to know it all.

Building upon this personal experience, I would design the online experience based on increasing levels of difficulty. There would be several scenarios, from simplest to the most complex, that learners would be able to choose based on their current needs.

Break Down the Process 
I would break down the whole process into key things one does when using the sheet, such as calculating direct and indirect costs, overheads and depreciation. Every concept and activity that follows would be tied neatly to these activities.

Show Them How To
Seeing someone do the task is a great confidence builder, as I experienced first hand with my coach. So I would certainly show them how it's done. But instead of running a mindless "do this do that" demo animation, I would make the most use of each screen, highlight why I am doing what I am doing and the consequences of mistakes. 

I spent some time thinking if a series of clearly-labeled screenshots would be better than an animated demo in this situation. I finally concluded that an animated one would be useful only because learners need to jump between several worksheets in order to accomplish one task. This might be lost in stills. And yes, I would have simple narration supporting this animated demo.

Practice Practice Practice
I would make the learners practice every task using two different ways. The first would be via a simulated sheet, which would be like the "Let me Try" mode of a Captivate simulation. Although this mode allows for some practice in a safe environment, it is too restrictive to provide the kind of experience I had.

To provide a richer experience, I would include practicing using a real b5z sheet. Since it's Excel we are talking about, everyone would have easy access to the software. In each practice session, learners would have to fill in the data in their sheet and compare the results with the sample solution available in the learning material. This would serve as "quick feedback and success" of my own learning experience.

This is where I struggled. Do I really need to test these learners on the skills needed? Aren't the practice exercises enough? Would some quiz questions really help this learner? The answer to this was, once again, based on my own experience as a learner. While I would not like to be tested on my knowledge and skills, it would be good to know what experts consider as most critical to success skills/concepts while using this sheet. Answering these, and getting feedback on them, would certainly enrich me.

So, I would include some highly valuable questions here and there to highlight key facts and mistakes. For example, I could show an error message and ask learners to identify what could have gone wrong. Each question would be well researched and thought-through to add value to the learners' learning experience.

Finally, this experience and thought experiment left me with some annoying questions. These are not new and have been voiced by others in the past too, but they are very real in the context of this experience. Perhaps another post is needed to delve into them, but here they are in brief. 

Most e-learning courses are an outcome of collaboration between a content-agnostic ID and a content expert or SME. However, the course strategies I have described above would never have come about had I not been in the learner's shoes myself. 

Can IDs really be in learners' shoes when designing a course? Aren't they too caught up in their techniques and strategies to deeply think about what a learner really really needs? Are SME's the best people to support learning program development? Aren't they too caught up in their knowledge to even understand those who don't? Mind you, the person who coached me is a practitioner, not an SME. (I dread to think how an SME would have taught me!)

Is there a missing role or roles in the design and development process? 


  1. Great post. Long but not long-winded! grin!


  2. So true about missing roles. In the tug of war between margins, deadlines and real value to users, we all know who wins and who loses.


  3. I like the way you highlighted the difference between being a learner and being an ID. As a learner, I don't take a like a lot of stuff that I routinely pass to my customers as good ol' ID. Double standards?