Thursday, August 12, 2010

What makes a good learning "tool"?

Even though I'm attending through the Twitter stream, ADL's Implementation Fest #ifest is getting me fired up about some learning technology industry issues that just can't be explored in 140 characters. For example, yesterday there was some lively conversation around the usefulness of learning tools.

And I, in a rash statement, said that most learning tools suck.

But let me clarify, because there can be a broad definition of what a learning tool is.

For me, a learning tool is not what I use to design learning experiences (those things might include pen and paper, whiteboard, PowerPoint, Visio, etc.). A learning tool is NOT a reference tool like Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an information portal where you can go, read, and maybe learn something new...but it was not designed as a learning experience. It does not facilitate learning, even though it can enable it. Can you learn from a reference tool? Sure! But good reference tools have good user experience design, not instructional design, making it a reference tool and not a learning tool. There IS a difference.

A learning tool, to me, is something that you use to develop a learning experience. In other words, a tool that allows you to "design" a learning experience and output it into "Voila!" a learning experience. Input = content, output = training. And here's why I think most learning tools suck.

Most tools limit what you can design intrinsically in their functionality. Let's take PowerPoint. What you're going to get is slides. Pretty didactic. Maybe a little video embedded, some nifty animations...but you're not going to get much in the way of learner interaction.

But now I'm going to ask you a question...have you ever learned in a workshop that was guided by a PowerPoint slide? Have you ever been in a learning environment where PowerPoint was the primary learning tool, but the content, activity, discussion actually taught you something? I'm going to guess yes. Maybe you've even been lucky enough to be in a session guided by PowerPoint that made you do something differently when you left. You know what that is? GOOD DESIGN. It's not the tool. Its how you design learning experiences that facilitates learning, not the tool that you use.

So what makes a learning tool "good"? Openness. Flexibility. Interoperability with other learning tools and reference tools.

What makes a tool bad? One that dictates design. I could list some specific examples, but I'm betting you know what they are. Online learning development tools would be a great place to start.

One of my favorite quotes from yesterday's Twitter discussion was from John Campbell @jpcampbell :
what's ur expected output from tools? Learning Content? Why ask the architect to output a house?

Which is my point exactly. Instructional design and learning technology development are two different skill sets. Instructional designers are the architects and technology developers are the builders. You shouldn't build a house without an architectural plan, nor should you expect your architect to go ahead and put hammer to nail to bring his plan to life. There's an essential relationship here that too many organizations neglect to recognize, instead hiring IDs to build their training content using some rapid development tool. Most organizations are guilty of this in someway..."Put together a PowerPoint - led workshop!" "Import our workshop content into a virtual classroom!" "Create an Articulate module!" "Make video clips accessible from a smart phone!" This isn't a fault of the tools, its a lack of awareness of the importance of design. As an industry, we should NOT be designing learning experiences dictated by what tool you have (if you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail) but by the appropriate format to support the goal, supported by the appropriate design for that format. Instructor-led, game-based, online, mobile, print...they are ALL good formats when they are appropriate for the content, designed appropriately, and appropriate tools are used to develop them.

And that's why I think most learning tools suck...because they neglect to recognize the difference between design and development, and the default tends to be development at the expense of design.


  1. I get that no good tools exist. What I have yet to see is someone really define the tool they want. I'm sure smart techs (myself included) would love to provide tools for an industry clamoring to use (and pay for) them.

  2. Actually, I think lots of good tools exist...but none that replace design. Its the tools that intend to replace the design process that are the "bad" tools, not because they are intrinsically bad, but because they are most often used to work around the hard work of designing effective and appropriate learning and developing to that design.

    And I'd happily talk more about some tools I'd love to see :)

  3. I agree with your points, but am curious to hear more about what you feel constitutes/defines a good tool. What does a good tool do or look like? I ask myself the same question when I have my anti-[insert tool name here] moments, and it isn't an easy question to answer.

  4. Anyone who thinks a tool can replace design is foolish. They already tried to replace tech with tools and now we have a sea of page-turners that aren't interoperable or engaging.