Saturday, January 28, 2006

e-Learning rules

Thanks in large part to our colleague Sara Jalali, here is what we had been using as a "bible" for our writers and developers for e-learning:

1. Text should be the standard delivery format. (People have to read the stuff.) A manuscript should always be accompanied by a breakdown of core concepts and processes to be learned.

2. Writing style should be friendly and suited to the small screen. Write sparely for scan-reading, but don't over use bullets. Training should be fun, engaging, not boring. Use "voice" and the vernacular wherever possible.

3. Visual media (Illustrations/diagrams/animations and action video clips) should be employed to support and enhance text. Visuals are crucial instructional aids and not just pretty pictures. Illustrations can provide examples and modeling of key behaviors. “Story” clips can convey key emotional content.

4. We should design backwards from the desired outcomes -- The goal of all training is to improve performance. Each course should have clear organizational goals stated as outcomes. Then learning objectives should be written in behavioral terms (such as "plan a den meeting using all seven steps," rather than "know the parts of a den meeting.") The objectives should be stated at the beginning of the course and/or the beginning of each section or module and reviewed at the end (Safe Swim). Everything in the course should be closely related to learning objectives, especially all interactions and test questions.

5. Adopt a "semi-linear" course structure to provide learner choices and personalize the experience. Offer a clear path that the user will follow if he/she just uses the "next" button to progress through the course. But also offer a menu the learner can use to step off the path to find information quickly for reference.

6. We should provide interactions -- Each course should include frequent, meaningful interactions that require at least a little thought. Interactions should not be fancy "next" buttons. Much of the learning that takes place in the course happens through interactions -- as in the old adage, people remember most what they do. But interactions should respect the intelligence of adult learners and should help them practice and apply crucial information. They should reflect real-world context and help learners approximate what they will need to do in their jobs. Interactions should use visual analogies and illustrations whenever possible rather than just text (see Visual Analogies and Illustrations below).

7. We should use Stories wherever possible. A storyline can run throughout the course to tie all the elements together, provides real-world context and modeling, while adding interest. A story brings the information out of the abstract world of principles and procedures and allows users to identify with characters in situations they can relate to.

- A variant of this idea is the use of scenarios one of our earlier courses starts out with a scenario of Scouts on a hike who jump into a river to swim and cool off. The user is asked to identify the most important principles that are being violated before those principles are presented. This allows the user to make a prediction, think about what he/she is going to learn, and creates a sense of suspense about the course material. At the end of the course, the same scenario can be revisited with a different outcome. A scenario at the beginning of a course is a good way to draw users in immediately.

-Another variant of this is the "Guiding Character -- Safe Swim uses a tongue-in-cheek guiding character called Qualified Supervisor. He guides the user through the course and fits with the light tone of the course. A guiding character also serves to pull the user into the course and adds interest.

8. Use Humor -- The Safe Swim course uses light humor throughout and a cartoon visual style, although the course is clearly aimed at adults. This combination allows for a fun course experience and helps with retention while respecting adult learners.

9. Use visual analogies -- Both VFS and Safe Swim use visual analogies, such as the kayak scene in VFS to illustrate Venturing Methods, and the desk scene with steps of organizing a Venturing crew. Safe Swim uses a sandwich metaphor for the safety principles. These visual analogies are used both to present information and then in exercises and games. Visual analogies help with retention and add interest to what can otherwise be dry lists of principles or policies.

10. Provide performance support tools -- If it is feasible and applicable, it's great to provide useful tools for users, such as the PCI survey tool and the program planning calendar in VFS. This not only helps users practice crucial skills within the course but gives them tools that they can take away and use to help them later in their jobs.

Following my exposure to Dave Allen in his very fine ASTD certification for E-learning, I think I have a better understanding of e-learning. Here's what I'm playing around with now:

E-learning is not about presentations, but about interactions.
These are media objects that are responsive, that change when acted upon and can be played with by the user open-endedly. An interaction is not an assertion, but a problem. It relates to a didactic concept called "active learning" or "problem-based learning" commonly used in more progressive elementary/secondary education. The defining characteristics of PBL are:
(a) learning is driven by open-ended problems,
(b) students work in small collaborative groups, and
(c) 'teachers' per se are not required, as the process places them backstage as 'facilitators' of learning. In e-learning, the role of the teacher is the design of the object.
Advocates of PBL claim it can be used to enhance content knowledge and foster the development of communication, problem-solving, and self-directed learning skill. This is all cousin to constructivism which views learning as a process in which one actively constructs or builds new ideas or concepts based upon current and past knowledge. Constructivist learning is a very personal endeavor, whereby internalized concepts, rules, and general principles may consequently be applied in a practical real-world context.

Ultimately, learning is not a relpication of an idea, but a personal and novel effort to cope with the universe. According to Jerome Bruner and other constructivists, the teacher acts as a facilitator who encourages students to discover principles for themselves and to construct knowledge by working to solve realistic problems, usually in collaboration with others. This collaboration is also known as knowledge construction as a social process. Collaboration is what the more progressive schools (and all successful creative endeavors) do. In E-learning, however, at least as we define it today we are still stuck with the single-user computer interface paradigm which leaves the user alone with the learning object. As we develop haptic and gestural interfaces for the PC, we may see collaboration finally arrive on the scene for e-learning too.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Documentary Rules

Two basic rules come flooding back into my memory, both from my mentor on film-making, Tom Doades:

1. Know your footage!
He was right. Don't just set aside time for the shoot---but an equal amount of time after the shoot to review and take notes on the footage. If you shoot 3 days, take 3 days in post-production just to know what you have--only then will something begin to take shape organically.

2. Mess with it a lot before settling on a cutting plan (edit).
There are many tropes. Here's one very usable one:
Build a piece with Interrogative structure: Find the implicit question. Set it as a hook. Open with that big question based on an impressive fact, or incident; set up the rest with questions you'd want answered, then knock them down with actual answers, embodied in actualities.

A few more specific notes from this HDV project:

When shooting on a long form project, make sure to use sequential time code hours for every roll across locations and shooters. HDV has problems with this, or at least today's cameras do.

16 x 9 is a beautiful format, but it can't be crowded. When acquiring in HD but using in SD, closeups can be, um, scary. Too much!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Understanding Genres

We encounter genre throughout the arts. It pops up in everything from Elvis' velvet paintings, to the cross-dressing conceits Shakespeare used in his comedies, to the action-scene-every seven-minutes formula currently dominating Hollywood movies.

One wonders why.

A guess: Fundamentally, humans like patterns. For us, some level of predictability is good, even though we readily tire of exact repetition. Maybe pattern-finding worked, somewhere in the archaic struggle for survival. Our evolving brains glommed on to marginally efficient sorting routines for any environmental clues leading to safe food, likely sex, or just another day away of escape from being eaten .

Art, another survival strategy, probably balanced novelty with the familiar from the get-go. Evolutionary theorists say that art (singing, dancing, making interesting smears on the cave wall) was a sexual strategy, a means of differentiating oneself from the others. You got the girls (or the guys) by getting a little bit more attention. But pure novelty was never enough. There had to be, in any artistic gesture, enough that was familiar for the others in the clan to know what you were up to. "Ok, what Grogg is doing over there is a song, not just some random warbling", or "I get it, he's
showing us what that mammoth looked like, not just making muddy streaks on the wall".

So it was that our brains evolved with a taste for art. And so it is that were are all on a sliding scale of just how much novelty we can tolerate. The lovers of Elvis paintings or re-runs of Gilligan's Island are only marginally different from the avant-garde. We have to know "it's a painting", or "it's a comedy" before we can appreciate the stuff that's different in it.

Genre boils down to rules.

Rule-finding, and rule-bending then, become the deliberate pastimes of the producer.

The rule/pattern finding below is related to the "media map", but is more contemporary and focuses on current mass media tropes (for instance, medieval mystery plays are not included, but "Lost" is).

(see article)

Multipart Documenary (This American Life)
Set-Chat (The Tonight Show) var.: Sofa Chat(Good Morning Am)
Sketch comedy (SNL)
Newsroom/Anchor Desk/standup field report
Music Video
Drama (sub-genres: limbo studio, 3-wall, cinematic, on location)
Ernie Kovacs (unique)
2-Camera Sitcom(Honeymooners)
3-Camera Sitcom (All In The Family)
"Diary" driven drama
Self-contained drama
(ascendant genres)
Multi-Threaded Drama
1 on 1 interview (Charlie Rose)
Spectator Sport(sub generes/tropes: the stadium booth, the locker room intrerview, the sideline standup, play-by-play and color announcers, etc.)
Set Game
Staged sport (Gong Show, Fear Factor)
Reality (Real Life, Survivor)


Standalone audio
Radio Documentary (see film documentary)
Studio Chat (Stern)
Interview w/POV (Open Source)
Essay (ThisAmLfe)

Challenge to corporate producers: why not make use of more than just a few of these to package our messages and gain audience attention? ....the "Jeopardy" set game to teach employees about benefit options?....the "Tonight" show set to interview the big boss? This does not mean making a self-conscious knock-off of an existing show, nor should it mean trying to meet the creative finish or production values of a broadcast original. The tropes work for some deeper reason. Understanding the working device and applying it, is where we as the producers come in. Our job is to engage latent audience curiosity to make use of the talent and messages available. As we rake among the leaves of successful and unsuccessful mass media vehicles, we can find prototypes to adapt to our purposes.