Thursday, April 21, 2016

Adding Provocative Stories to Really Boring eLearning

Do you find it arduous and very challenging to identify stories that produce engaging content?
Have you heard the saying, “the answer is just under your nose?" Believe me, stories abound.

Abundance of Facts, Scarcity of Stories

Factual and data content are easy to find. They are abundantly spoonfed to us by SMEs (subject matter experts) or expert technical teams.  We are never short of data. There is an abundance of these. Remember the slide decks that our SMEs provided us? (Phew!). Unfortunately, many designers and writers find it gruelling to pinpoint thought-provoking stories to accompany the data or factual content. They say “they are scarce.” Not at all! The answer is really right under our noses.
Where do data and fact originate?

Data does not come from thin air. It does not come from computers churning them out into great infographics. I once saw this placard from a science lab:

Most content, if not all, come from events in our lives - nature, laboratories, situations - in or from living things. So any form of data, information or statistics reflect what is happening or what we observed in our environments.
I also call these organic items.

One might also argue that content is the form while stories are their substance.
Taking a closer look at your factual or data content, you’d be pleasantly surprised to find stories which are built-in or inseparable elements of said content. Stories are native and innate in the content.

How to Extract the Stories

To extricate the stories, we need to use “extraction tools” or “refining tools.” The tools are called Story Questions.

From the data on hand, you may derive real-life events, situations, narratives, stories, characters, emotions, conflicts, resolutions, anecdotes - the elements of the story.

  • Statistical anomalies: “What’s the cause of the anomalies? What brought about the incidents? What is the impact, negatively or positively? How is the anomaly easily described?
  • Deviations from targets: “What drove the deviations? Who and how was this received? How are people adjusting the strategies or actions to address deviations?
  • Disconnect in assumptions: “What are the differences in assumptions and their origins? What are the sentiments and feelings about the differences? How are these likely resolved and what happens if they are unresolved?

  • Fatal flaws: “What is the accident or error? What are the consequences? What was missed or omitted? What costs or benefits were derived?

  • Exemplar results: “Why was this unexpected? How was this inspiring others? What was the contrasting, below-par results and what was the value realized? Who benefited?

Go Beyond the Numbers

I learned this thought from a Harvard professor:



Remove the Sting of Compliance Courses: Make Them Short, Succinct, Easy to Learn

Provoking Learners with Story Questions

Employing Story Structure and Dynamics to Engage Different Learners

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Do Your Learners Value or Throw Away Your Lesson References?

I've been often asked in my workshops:

See more on must-learn and learn-on-need.

Read more about references.

Two Types of References: Must-Learn Support and Details

There are two types of references: (a) must-learn support and (b) detailed references.

Must-learn support contains information that enhances the learning of the must-learn content. Since the goal of the must-learn lesson is to make it short, succinct and focused, inserting the must-learn support references may interrupt the succinctness of the must-learn lesson. So, we move it on top as an optional link.
An illustration

Topic - Toxic Waste Drum Labeling
Must-Learn Lesson:

John says:

"I'm confused. This drum is intended for XXX waste. But I was told by Darren, that the content of the drum just came from YYY plant. Shouldn't we use the YYY label and not this drum for XXX waste? 

Mary responds:

"You have done this before. You can figure it out."  

Question to participant:

"How should John proceed? How can he really be sure which label and drum to use? Should he find the exact label code to ensure that XXX waste matches the YYY drum.

Must-Learn Support References:

If you position a list of "Guide to Drum Labels" on top of the screen, what is the likelihood of the participant clicking this link to learn more about drum labels? The probability is definitely high. Why? Because we added a Story Question in the must-learn, that prompts the learner to go and seek the answers.

Detailed References:

The detailed references is more of an over-all type of reference that may contain a long list of labels, resources for labels, how to procure and find them, etc. The must-learn references may also be part of this detailed reference.

Build Curiosity and Continuation of the Story Lesson

In the Story-Based eLearning Design, we use stories to deliver the must-learn content. To make it natural and engaging for learners, the must-learn lesson and the must-learn support references should continue the flow of the story. What prompts the learner to open the references is the conflict and challenge to answer the questions posed in the story.

Learners do not think of the references as readings. They look at the references as a continuation of the story.

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

How to Design Unobtrusive Test Questions

Have you experienced turbulence during your most recent air travel? Or when was the last time you drove into a city street where the speed bumps were so horrendous you had to have your car in full stop to avoid damage to it?          

This is how it feels like psychologically, when your learners have to take a memory test or knowledge check. It is jarring. It is utterly annoying. Most of all, it often does not help in learning.

What Stops Frictionless Learning

Most designers and learning specialists would agree that we are seeing the need for more “frictionless” learning - unimpeded and fast learning and access to knowledge and information. Learners are learning while going through their workflow and yet, are constantly in search mode. So, the closer we bring the learning to application, the better the ideas are immediately applied.

What stops “frictionless” learning experiences are checkpoints or control points we call “tests.” The goal of testing is to help learners learn and ascertain their retention and application of ideas. This is well and good. However, we see more complaints from learners that tests are mere “CYA” actions in compliance courses and “just-to-make-sure-you-covered” the content type of tests. In these situations the tests become hazards to better learning.
Differentiate Administrative Control Tests from Learning Tests

Many courses and elearning are designed to show proof of compliance. Usually, they protect the interests of the company in the event there are legal challenges and certain evidences are required by the courts. In this case, we need to call these tests “administrative controls.” It is best not to confuse these tests with learning tests, where learners go to through questions to apply ideas.

The dangers of not differentiating administrative types of tests from learning tests is that we may make the mistake of swapping them or regarding them as one and the same. The risk is that while we do our best to train people, our tests sabotage their “frictionless” experience.

Setting up Design for Unobtrusive Tests with Real-Life Events

A premise to make tests unobtrusive is to add real-life events as examples and references in your lessons. These are anchors that learners can relate to. Content devoid of real-life illustrations, ends up as mere factual information. This is what memorization tests deal with - just  factual content. Without real-life events, our tests will end up being just about memorizing facts.

Examples of Unobtrusive Tests

Tests become unobtrusive when they are relevant, useful, based on real life and applicable to the learners’ work. In short, it helps them understand the content in real-life context.

Let us say that the content is about ethics in purchasing:
When John arrived home he was greeted with a huge package which contained expensive gifts. Upon checking the card, it was obvious to him that Peter, his favorite vendor, sent the gifts. John has seen his bosses accept gifts even if a policy exists to the contrary.

If you were John, how would you respond?
  • Application Question: “What should John do?”
  • Reflection Question: “Should John return or accept the gift? What are the risks?”
  • Interpretation Question: “What parts of the policy allow accepting gifts and what aspects prohibit accepting gifts?”
  • Interactive Question: ”Should John go and check his personal liability and that of the company in relation to this policy?”
  • Process Question: “At what point should John call the attention of his boss and report about the gifts?”
  • Problem-solving Question: “What should John do if Peter insists that he should keep the gifts?”
Obtrusive tests are found in many elearning courses. They are like speed bumps or turbulences. But we have plenty of opportunities to remove these stumbling blocks.


Remove the Sting of Compliance Courses: Make Them Short, Succinct, Easy to Learn

Weaving Stories and Factual Content for Seamless Lessons

Kill Boring eLearning with Story-Based Lessons

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

Monday, April 4, 2016

Expertise: Why The Odds are Stacked Against Novices

A Harvard Business Review article “What’s Lost When Experts Retire” reminded me about the dire need to rethink our roles as learning professionals and leaders:


My sense is that our current of definitions and understanding of expertise may be at odds and stacked against helping novices to become experts.  These are some ideas I have pondered on. I continue to plow the literature on expertise and find it most exhilarating and inspiring.

Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours to be an Expert - No Short Cuts

In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. His study reported cases on how mastery requires practice and dedication. Furthermore, Gladwell discovered that no “naturally gifted” performers emerged as experts. So there are no short cuts. 

I subscribe to Gladwell’s conclusions that mastery requires thousands of hours. However, this outlook is the far-end spectrum of what expertise is. If we look at expertise as an final end result of capability and mastery, then we may be stuck. Experts are rare and hard to find and expensive to recruit and retain in organizations.

How Developers Stop Learning: Rise of the Expert Beginner

Erik Dietrich, a software architect has studied programmers and he observed the phenomenon of the “Beginner-Expert.” In How Developers Stop Learning: Rise of the Expert Beginner software developers are in high demand and the rapid phase of movement in organizations creates the new type of “Beginner-Expert.” These are perceived experts in very narrow skill areas who appear to have earned the reputation of being “experts.”  However, they have only been a few years on the job and have not advanced in their proficiency levels, yet, have entrenched themselves in silos of expertise areas. Dietrich believes this presents a problem because it leads to some form of incompetence, referred to in Dreyfus model of skill acquisition.  I shall continue to digest Dietrich’s observations and reports.

What is interesting to me is to review Dreyfus’ model of skill acquisition. The model is a stage or linear growth model of competency. The novice is “rule-based” and “have no exercise of discretionary judgement” while the expert “transcends reliance on rules and guidelines.”

    The Dreyfus Model

The Dreyfus model is a good foundational model. It is a static way to capture competency. When compared to today’s rapid phase of change and technologically abundant environments, the model could lead to a restrictive understanding  about how we can leverage the knowledge of novices, advanced beginners and those who may not be experts, as defined by Dreyfus. My view is that there must be a way for organizations to further cultivate and maximize the knowledge of novices and experts alike. 
See more.

Periodic Table of Expertise

Harry Collins and Rob Evans from Cardiff University espouse “Interactional Expertise.”

Collins and Evans’ “Periodic Table of Expertise”
Essentially, as an oversimplified explanation, the Periodic Table of Expertise shows:

  • Dispositions - expertise comes from constant self-reflection and assessments of one’s
     scientific findings and discoveries. Experts persistently subject their thinking to 
     those of others, hence, the need for interaction with other experts and further
     scientific discoveries.

  • Ubiquitous Tacit Knowledge - is expertise knowledge derived from simplified 
     understanding, narrow meanings and access to the primary source of the knowledge.

  • Specialist Tacit Knowledge - is expertise that is developed through rigor and depth of
    understanding of scientific findings with the capacity to present contradictions and
    limitations of expert knowledge.

  • Meta-Expertises - suggest the different roles of experts

  • Meta-Criteria - suggests the ways expertise is developed and qualified


The model suggests that the value of expertise may occur at different levels depending on one’s current competencies. It allows a far broader consideration of the different values of knowledge and contributions. What drew my attention is the idea that different ways people developed expertise is a product of how much they contribute and interact with others and allow modifications and refinements of individual expertise. Critically, it requires that we must always know the limits and contradictions of our own expertise and the ability to clearly articulate these limits.


I understand this to mean, that we all have some level of expertise knowledge. However, we have to constantly test it and subject it to other unknowns.  In so doing, the value of our contributions are applied by others with the accompanying unknowns.

A good illustration would be this. Many bloggers or reporters of knowledge oversimplify, underestimate and only represent one side of a viewpoint or a scientific finding. They fail to inform their audience about the limits and unknowns. 

Collins and Evans propose this in their book:

Expertise Based on “What We Know and Can Do Now” - a Contributions Approach
I propose that expertise is not a destination, but rather a momentary state of our value and ability to contribute. By keeping this thought, we may have an opportunity to train and assist learners and workers to look into their current competencies and knowledge while reflecting  on how they may add further value. We can also call this the Contributor-Expert” or “Inverted Expertise Model.” What is paramount is that we as learners  must constantly subject our knowledge to the unknowns and limitations so the recipients of such knowledge may be aware of both the value and the limitations. I will continue to study, reflect and report to you my progress. Until then, let me know what you think.

A contributions approach has many advantages and will likely reinforce what efforts we invest in training and learning.

These are a few of the ideas to consider.

  • Learners can think of themselves as immediate contributors and add value
  • Opportunities allow them to have self confidence
  • They think about immediate applications of what they know because they are
     expected to contribute
  • Learning is accelerated because they practice, show, preach and share what they know
  • Learners must subject their knowledge to limits and unknowns.


What’s Lost When Experts Retire”, Dorothy Leonard, Walter Swap.Gavin Barton-Harvard Business Review (December 02, 2014)

Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell (June 7, 2011)

How Developers Stop Learning: Rise of the Expert Beginner, Erik Dietrich ( 2013)

Periodic Table of Expertises
 Harry Collins and Robert Evans (March 6,2013)

Dreyfus Model for Skill Acquisition

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The SMEs' Fault - They Think That All Content Is Important

When I asked leaders and instructional designers why their courses and eLearning are long, extensive and take hours to complete, they decry, “the SMEs say all content are important.”

There are a number of reasons why we, as designers and leaders, seem unable to reshape the conversation with SMEs. Although our businesses demand that learning must be shorter, more useful, easier and affordable, we consider ourselves helpless. We succumb to producing long courses (sometimes never deviating) from the SMEs’ PowerPoint slide decks.

Far Removed from the Realities of Content

When a designer receives a PowerPoint from an SME, he/she usually has no experience relevant to the content. The designer immediately faces a wall. This makes him/her feel incapacitated if the goal is to rewrite the materials into instructional courses.

On the other hand, if there is an immediate recognition that the subject is “foreign” to us and our goal is to use a process to make the content useful, shorter, relevant and easy to deliver, our focus shifts from merely converting content to making it immediately useful.

When thinking of converting content, we often fall back upon our traditional role and knowledge.  We tend to  organize content into a linear presentation with learning objectives, expounding points and testing learners for retention. The need for immediate content accessibility and usefulness oftentimes, runs counter to the linear teaching mode.

Designers’ Thinking and Questioning Minds

By reshaping the conversations with SMEs, we have an opportunity to extract the value from the content into a useful lesson or course. Admittedly, some SMEs are inaccessible and rigid, but many are earnest in making their expert content add value to the learners.

I often use the following set of questions. 

  1. Let’s review the PowerPoint deck and review the modules and lessons. 
  2. What is the lesson trying to solve or improve? Where and how are the impacts in the business? (Ask for specific records from company data and also for anecdotal information, e.g. high rejects, high risk in lawsuits, high injuries, high customer complaints, etc.)
  3. If you were to rank the most important to the least important content in terms of impact on solving and improving the item, how would you rank them? (This is finding the must-learn)
  4. What are the key or essential knowledge and skills that the learners must learn to avoid this problem or improve this item? (Cite the specific problem or concern. Drill down to the details.) 
  5. What example, story or real-life event may help the learner understand this content faster? (This is adding stories.)
  6. What parts of the content will learners likely learn or refer to while on the job? This will be provided as reference and nice-to-learn later on the job. (This is finding the learn-on-need)
Reshaping the Conversations with SMEs Means Refocusing Your Purpose

It is my contention that in certain instances, we missed making our content useful, short and easy to use because we provide SMEs with no alternatives away from or to improve linear content presentation. When we shift the conversation to the business impacts, the discussion changes from the courses per se to helping learners do their jobs faster and better. This goal, SMEs and all of us can agree on.

Our purpose should change and so should our mindset and questions too.


Tip 61: Case Study- Reducing eLearning Cost to 50% by Using Must-Learn Lessons and Micro-Learning

Tip 82: Role of Stories in Learning - A Map

Tip 52: Are Your Learners as Intelligent as They Can Be?

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"