E-Mosaics: agile learning for the workplace

The following post was first published on the Brightwave website.

Brightwave’s recently published green paper, E-Mosaics: agile learning for the workplace, provides a fresh take on blended learning and emphasises the importance of high-impact communications, bite-sized e-learning, social media and user-generated content.

We ran a seminar on E-mosaics at the Learning Technologies conference in January which generated lots of great questions and discussion. One of our audience members asked: ‘Why do you think so many people are self-directed learners at home but not at work?’ This question really hit the nail on the head. Most of us are active learners at home, whether it’s doing quick research on Google/Wikipedia or going to YouTube for ‘how to’ videos on DIY, cooking, sports, video games, playing a musical instrument – or whatever your hobby or interest might be. But something changes when people return to work.

Obviously motivation and incentives are a factor (and cumbersome Learning Management Systems can be a barrier!) but I think the culture of many organisations, sometimes unwittingly, discourages people from taking learning into their own hands. The traditional command and control structure of the corporate world results in many people equating ‘learning’ exclusively with ‘training’ i.e. something that is done to them, rather than something they can do for themselves. Hopefully the E-Mosaics concept and the work that Clive Shepherd, Jane Hart and others are doing will help organisations improve how they support work-based learning and development.

E-Mosaics green paper: E-Mosaics: agile learning for the workplace

E-Mosaics seminar slides: E-mosaics: agile learning for the workplace in 2012

Top 10 e-learning agencies: web ranking vs. turnover

Nowcomms.com published the Top 100 ranking websites in eLearning and learning technology earlier this week. The list was calculated by crunching together individual rankings from Google PageRank, Moz Rank, Alexa, Hubspot‘s Web grader and Compete, so provides a good indication of each company’s presence on the Web. I thought it might be interesting to see how the list of top 10 UK e-learning companies in terms of web ranking compares with the top 10 revenue-wise (based on the last published list I’ve seen)…

Top 10 bespoke e-learning companies: web ranking

1. Kineo
2. Epic
3. Learningpool
4. Tata Interactive
5. Saffron Interactive
6. Edvantage Group
7. Brightwave
8. Line Communications
9. Caspian Learning
10. Redtray

Top 10 bespoke e-learning companies: revenue

1. Line Communications
2. Kineo
3. Epic
4. CM Group
5. Cognitive Arts
6. Redtray
7. Brightwave
8. Saffron Interactive
9. Assima
10. IMC

The real outlier here is Line Communications who are top of the pile in terms of revenue but only number 7 by web ranking in the UK (and a humble 74 in the full Nowcomms.com list; while Kineo, their nearest rivals in terms of revenue, make the global top 10). Time to invest in some SEO advice, guys?! I guess the other conclusion to be drawn is that well established e-learning companies in the UK can enjoy strong turnover without having an equivalent web presence, as most revenues are derived from their status as approved suppliers for FTSE100 companies. However, if these companies want to grow they’ll need to win business from both overseas and new companies in the UK, so higher web rankings and brand recognition will be a real advantage in the long term. Kineo’s franchises in the USA (combined with their unique name) have clearly given them the edge in terms of Google ranking.

Also, it’s important to remember that web ranking and turnover are just two measures of success and give no indication of  quality, customer satisfaction, growth potential, profitability, etc. As we all know, biggest isn’t always best!

Case Study: free e-learning for start-ups

http://www.businesslink.gov.uk hired me to manage the design, development and delivery of their new online learning services for start-up businesses, which went live at the end of 2011. I wrote this case study about the project for E-learning Age magazine. 

Starting a business can be one of life’s most exciting, liberating and rewarding experiences. But working for yourself can also be nerve-wracking, as you need to learn quickly how to promote your business, manage your finances, keep customers happy and meet your tax obligations.

My New Business provides start-ups with the core educational support they’ll need to succeed in the first 18 months of trading. With over 200 specially commissioned videos and e-learning courses on a wide range of start-up topics (including business planning, finance, marketing and tax), My New Business is one of the biggest government-backed online learning initiatives of the last 10 years. In this article I’ll outline the high-level project objectives and describe how the videos and e-learning were designed to meet the needs of the target audience.

Objectives

Business Link produced the content for the My New Business site in partnership with two of the UK’s bespoke educational video and e-learning specialists, Thomson Reuters and Epic. The high-level objectives for the content development teams were to:

  • Provide educational support in a variety of formats to meet the learning and media preferences of a diverse audience
  • Attract and retain new users to http://www.businesslink.gov.uk and encourage registration
  • Encourage early adoption of good business and compliance habits, with potential benefits for users and government
  • Increase effective use of business tools and government online services e.g. Online Incorporation, Self Assessment and VAT
  • Syndicate to partner sites to maximise content views and reach the target audience via multiple channels
  • Provide clear and relevant links to deeper content on http://www.businesslink.gov.uk for those that need further information

User requirements

My New Business has an extremely diverse target audience – all UK-based pre-starts and start-ups – and the Business Link site as a whole receives over 20 million visits each year, so the potential audience for the new online learning content is huge. To ensure the content was tailored to user needs, ­we took the following action:

  • Data analysis. We identified the most popular start-up topics on the site by analysing existing http://www.businesslink.gov.uk usage data, including page views, search terms, common queries to the helpline and suggestions for improvements.
  • User testing. We conducted four rounds of user testing at key stages of project development to gain feedback on e-learning and video prototypes and refined the content in light of customer requirements. A focus group (with a representative mix of Business Link users, including trades people, shop owners, hairdressers, child minders and freelance professionals) was used to select video presenters and narrators to ensure the ‘faces and voices’ of My New Business are appealing and engaging.
  • Content workshops. We facilitated content workshops with key stakeholders from the Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC). At these sessions, sample user personas were used to prioritise learning content and keep government stakeholders focused on customer needs.

After reviewing the data, user feedback and workshop materials, Epic and Thomson Reuters produced a detailed consultancy report which scoped the overall learning requirements and made recommendations for change.  The report also provided a comprehensive description of the project lifecycle, including programme governance, project structure for each content area, standardised development/approval processes across all content areas, and change control procedures.

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are the most important people in any online learning project team. There’s no point creating a course with the production values of a Hollywood blockbuster if the core content isn’t focussed on delivering learning objectives, crammed full of valuable information and factually accurate. As SMEs can make or break an online learning project, it’s vital to select the right people and manage them carefully. Business Link’s Web Content Managers worked closely with over 90 business and tax experts from across the UK to gather relevant source materials and provide Epic and Thomson Reuters with detailed feedback on video and e-learning scripts and prototypes. In order to share work-in-progress e-learning materials with our geographically dispersed SMEs quickly, we used a cloud-based file sharing service, Huddle, to host videos and e-learning prior to site launch.

Treatment types

http://www.businesslink.gov.uk has long been recognised as a comprehensive and trusted knowledge base for all things business-related and has a large and loyal audience in the UK and abroad. However, during our initial customer engagement sessions, we found that many users felt that the site was too ‘text-heavy’ and key start-up information was difficult to find.  We took this feedback onboard and made the decision to present start-up information in a variety of formats, including a range of video and e-learning object types, as well as plain text, in order to broaden the appeal of the website. All start-up content on Business Link is now accessible fast, via three main access points – the Starting Up Theme page, the personalised ‘Recommended Start-up Tasks’ tool, and the Learning Directory.

Video and e-learning treatments on the revamped Business Link site include:

  • Presenter and expert-led videos that humanise the online learning experience. This was an important consideration when helping start-ups transition from face-to-face support to online services
  • Case study videos which are designed to inspire, build confidence and communicate ‘lessons learned’ from successful entrepreneurs
  • High-impact animations which introduce topics in an attention-grabbing and memorable way
  • Self-paced e-learning tutorials which guide users through key start-up activities
  • Myth Buster activities which challenge common business myths
  • Diagnostic tools which prompt users to reflect on what they know already and identify gaps in their knowledge
  • Useful start-up documents and templates (e.g. Business Plan) so that users can put newly acquired knowledge into action
  • Text-only versions of all videos and e-learning, which meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 3.0) and are optimised for assistive technologies such as screen readers and magnifiers

Delivery platforms

A robust technical infrastructure is critical to the delivery of high volumes of media-rich learning content over the Internet. All videos on the My New Business are distributed through Brightcove, the world’s leading cloud-based video platform. Brightcove smart players automatically detect the user’s device and bandwidth, and then output video in the most appropriate file size and format. This means that videos on the My New Business site are truly cross-platform compatible and can be played on PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone and Android mobile devices by users with both high and low bandwidth connections. All Flash-based e-learning objects on the site are launched and tracked through the Xtensis SCORM content management system, which has previously been used by the National Learning Network (NLN) to successfully deliver one of the most substantial and wide-ranging collections of e-learning materials in the UK to over 10,000 registered users in the higher education sector. Both Brightcove and Xtensis provide powerful reporting tools which will allow Business Link to closely monitor video and e-learning usage on a daily basis.

Evaluation

So how will the overall impact of My New Business be measured? Ultimately the site will be judged on its ability to provide effective and practical educational support to new businesses which helps them to succeed. While it’s far too early to draw any firm conclusions, the initial usage reports from Brightcove and Xtensis are encouraging and show a strong uptake of e-learning and video materials by Business Link customers, with content on generating business ideas, choosing the right legal structure and business planning proving to be especially popular. Feedback via Business Link’s social media channels in the first few weeks since launch has also been very positive, with users praising the engaging and easy to use nature of the new content. Business Link will conduct a detailed user engagement survey in 2012 which will capture customers’ reactions to the My New Business site, including questions on how the new learning content has helped change behaviours, in terms of fostering good business and compliance habits. Syndication of content through partner sites will extend the reach of the materials and provide additional sources of feedback. HMRC is also intending to commission an independent evaluation of all its education channels in 2012, including My New Business videos and e-learning tutorials.

My New Business is one of the biggest free repositories of online learning content in the UK, so the results of these evaluation activities will be instructive for the e-learning industry as a whole. Wide-scale and free-to-access online learning initiatives are rare in our industry so it will be fascinating to see how the general public responds to this kind of resource.

Game-based simulations

Recent evidence-based research (Sitzmann T: “A Meta-Analytic Examination Of The Instructional Effectiveness Of Computer-Based Simulation Games”, Personnel Psychology 2011) provides compelling reasons for using game-based simulations in adult training. After analysing 65 studies and data from 6,476 train­ees, Traci Sitzmann found that trainees who used simulations gained the following performance improvements over a comparison group who were trained with other forms of instruction (e.g. lectures and assignments):

  • 20% higher confidence levels
  • 14% higher skill-based knowledge
  • 11% higher factual knowledge levels
  • 9% higher retention levels

These findings chime with my own experience of using simulations in a wide range of training interventions over the last 14 years. Learners respond enthusiastically to game-based simulations because they provide an authentic but risk-free environment where you can practise skills, and also feature motivational devices (exploration, challenge, feedback, rewards and virtual coaches) which makes learning fun and addictive. Game-based simulations can also help overcome ‘e-learning fatigue’ in organisations where learners have become tired of clicking through linear tutorials. But to maximise the business impact of game-based simulations, it’s important to deliver them within a blended learning model which provides learners with the opportunity to discuss how newly acquired knowledge and skills can be applied in the real-world. As Traci Sitzman notes: “Games are beneficial for practicing work-related skills, but trainees must first learn work-related knowledge to apply it during game play. Furthermore, a debriefing ses­sion after game play is beneficial for ensuring that trainees realize how their experience in the game is applicable to the work environment.

While playing the computer game LA Noire (where you take on the role of a detective investigating a series of crimes in 1940s Los Angeles), I was reminded of a fraud investigation simulation I produced several years ago.  As part of your detective work in LA Noire you must interview ‘persons of interest’, ask them the right questions, and decide if they’re telling the truth.

LA Noire

Still from LA Noire, produced by Rockstar Games.

The fraud investigation sim I worked on featured a similar interactive approach. We filmed actors talking straight to camera to mimic the experience of being in a tense, face-to-face interview situation. Depending on your choice of questions, the characters under investigation would react accordingly (sometimes with explosive results!). Similarly to LA Noire, the goal was to challenge learners to ask the right questions and get to the truth.

Realism and authentic practice activities like this are key to effective game-based simulations. As Ruth Clark (“E-learning & the Science of Instruction”) makes clear: The surest road to learning is to engineer overt interactions…Rather than asking learners to ‘click on the guidelines for a good client response’ design a simulation in which they will respond to the client and see the client’s reactions.”

Evidence-based research conducted by academics such as Traci Sitzman is starting to validate what many training practitioners have known for years: game-based simulations can provide some of the most effective, motivational and memorable learning experiences the e-learning industry has to offer.

My top 10 e-learning experiences. What are yours?

As you’ll see, I’ve used e-learning in its very broadest sense in this list i.e. learning via electronic means. These are entirely personal choices (I’m sure someone else could put together a more ‘verifiable’ list based on awards won, measurable impact etc.) and on another day I’m sure I could come up with a completely different top 10. I’d be fascinated to see what other people’s best e-learning experiences have been, so please comment with your own favourites. So here they are in reverse order: my top 10. What are yours?

10. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas 

On my first visit to Los Angeles I had the most profound sense of déjà vu while driving from the airport to my friends’ house in Culver City. Why? Because I’d done the drive before, in the simulated world of GTA: San Andreas. It’s no wonder that airlines, oil companies and the military invest so heavily in simulators when they provide such powerful and memorable learning experiences.

9. Business Link: My New Business  

Ok, forgive me for name-checking a project I worked on recently but I learned something in one of the tax modules which has resulted in lasting behavioural change for me, at least. What exactly? How to use the % button on a calculator! For years this had been a mystery to me. Why weren’t we shown how to use it at school?

8. Captivate tutorials

Although Captivate can be a mind-bendingly frustrating experience (Aaarrrggghhh, it’s crashed *again*!), Adobe’s tutorials for this software (both in-built and on their website) are clear, easy to follow and got me producing professional looking Captivate demos and simulations for clients in no time at all.

7. BBC Languages

Need to brush up on some basic French or Spanish before going on holiday? Then visit the BBC’s fantastic Languages site which features a range of videos, audio clips and interactive materials to get you ready for your trip.

6. Web Monkey

When I managed to blag my way into the multimedia industry in the late 90s (after leaving University with an English Literature degree and zero practical skills) Web Monkey was a revelation. This site gave me a solid grounding in HTML and JavaScript which has been invaluable over the last 14 years of design, development and consulting.

5. Allen Interactions & IGN Game walkthroughs 

In joint place because I couldn’t choose between them (and didn’t want to do a ‘top 11’)…Michael Allen is an instructional design hero of mine and the case studies and demos on his company’s site are a great source of inspiration for how corporate e-learning can be done with imagination and flair. IGN’s game walkthroughs are great, not only for helping me through some tricky levels in Zelda, COD and Half-Life 2 but by giving me a deeper insight into game mechanics which has informed my own approach to instructional design.

4. Inside Disaster.com  

This interactive documentary allows you to experience the Haiti earthquake as a survivor, journalist or aid worker. Compelling content, high quality videos and branching scenarios which make you an active participant in the story…this is a brilliant example of what e-learning at its very best can achieve.

An obvious but undeniable choice. People whinge about the odd inaccuracy here and there (as well as the blatant mischief-making, which is part of the fun!) but as a first-stop reference tool, Wikipedia is unbeatable.

2.  Mavis Beacon typing

Ah Mavis, where would I be without you? Ok, I’d probably be right here right now but jabbing at the keyboard 20wpm slower than I am currently. When I graduated and joined the massed ranks of the unemployed during the last recession, I was lucky to be living in an area which provided subsidised computer classes for the jobless, including access to the Mavis Beacon typing course. I’ve no idea what this software is like now but back in the 90s it featured a car racing game with a simple but brilliant motivational device: the faster you type correctly, the quicker the car travels; every time you hit a wrong key, a fly splats on your windscreen and the car slows down. I was hooked and have been happily touch-typing ever since.

1. YouTube

YouTube is the Godhead of online learning. After years of puzzling over the greatest guitar riff of the 1980s (‘This Charming Man’ by The Smiths, just in case you were wondering) I mastered it in an hour after watching a guy on YouTube do a tutorial in four easy steps. As a Photoshop dabbler, YouTube has been a tried and trusted friend for every aspect of this powerful but utterly counter-intuitive piece of software. A wealth of searchable, relevant content – generated by real enthusiasts – is the key. This is what the corporate world needs to take note of. The YouTube learning model has immense practical application in the workplace: we need to capture the skills, knowledge and experiences of our best people and share them online. And if your company’s internal network doesn’t have the bandwidth to deliver video, why not set up your own YouTube channel?

Sadly, I fear many people’s favourite e-learning moment might well be…‘Switching It Off!’ That’s because too many e-learning courses are boring, over long and delivered via cumbersome Learning Management Systems. But, as hopefully this list goes to show, e-learning doesn’t always have to be like that.