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Grand designs: How to be inventive with your learning design

May 12, 2016
  • The internetgrand designs
  • Television
  • The telephone
  • The bagless vacuum cleaner
  • The chocolate bar
  • The light bulb

The British are a nation of inventors – we like to tinker and try new things. For such a small island we have contributed more than our fair share of world-changing inventions. I’ve heard our infamous British weather be credited with encouraging our creativity – it’s rarely warm enough to spend time lounging on the beach, so instead we Brits have to find something else to do. We tinker.

In order to invent great things we need a number of traits:

  • Insight – we need to be able to see past the million compromises we blindly accept every day, to see a problem awaiting a solution.
  • Inspiration – we need a spark of an idea; a potential way to solve the problem that is new or different.
  • Determination – we need the quiet patience to keep going at the problem; failing hundreds, even thousands of times before getting our solution to work.

As learning designers it is easy to pigeon-hole our skills. For many, electronic learning = the SCORM elearning course – this is their only answer to any learning or performance problem. The issue is, this is a solution to a very specific learning or performance problem and increasingly looks rather past its sell-by date. Compounding this our audience have increasingly high expectations of how we, as learning professionals, support them. Apps, games, social platforms, just-in-time support – people use these every day in their personal lives and increasingly expect them at work.

For many years we have been helping organisations and learning designers broaden their design thinking and skills and it has been my great privilege to tutor hundreds of learning designers. Much of what they already know is transferable to other forms of media and delivery, however often they don’t see this.

It is my belief that great design underpins any form of creation. For example; writing this article is a form of design – the problem I am trying to solve is how to transfer ideas from my head into yours. My delivery method isn’t new (a blog article) but hopefully some of my message will be.

My challenge to you as a learning professional, is to broaden your understanding of design and look at the transferable traits and skills you have. To have the courage and determination to think beyond the paradigm of the SCORM elearning course to find a real solution to a real problem.





The risky business of learning design

April 12, 2016

At a party recently I had a flash of insight. A number of disparate ideas suddenly aligned in my head with an almost audible ‘clunk’, lubricated by prosecco and stimulating conversation.sailing

I was talking to a couple of friends about the sports I’m into and what I enjoy about them: sailing, skiing and mountain biking. In all three of these I’m not competitive. I’m not bothered about going fast or far. I don’t want to be the best. What I do enjoy are the more ‘technical’ aspects of the sports; in sailing I like close-quartered boat handling. In skiing – popping off the side of pistes and threading through the trees. In mountain biking I like the technical trails – the jumps, bumps and berms. In short I like to stretch my abilities take calculated risks. When you do – interesting things happen. Possibilities increase.

This made me think about the kinds of learning design projects I most enjoy. These tend to be the ones where we are exploring and pushing boundaries, where we’re trying to solve a problem, looking for a smarter more efficient solution. By definition we are often doing things for the first time; pushing technologies to work in new ways, approaching a problem from a different angle, being innovative in some small way. There is risk here. In trying something new you will almost always fail before you succeed – it’s a natural part of the process.

Many organisations want their people to be more innovative – it gives their company the edge over the competition. Innovation is a ‘sexy’ concept and something many people aspire to. However, to be innovative you need to be a risk-taker – to try something and fail, to get up, dust yourself off and try again – and to not feel bad about it.

How is failure viewed in your organisation? Think back to the last failure you witnessed or was a part of (gulp); were there high-fives all round, was the failure celebrated for the valuable lessons-gained? Or were those responsible shamed or reprimanded. Or worse, was the failure hidden?

I believe failure should be categorised and reacted to

  • Failing at something that you really should be able to do standing on your head – OK, yes, that’s bad. Pull your socks up!
  • Failing at something you are trying for the first time – this is a natural part of the learning process. It may be uncomfortable but an important part nonetheless.
  • Failing when trying to design something – this should be celebrated! You should thank the universe or this failure and glean every insight, every lesson that you can. You can bet you’ll remember them.

If you appreciate that failure is a vital part of the design process and welcome it, you will start to take risks. You will become more innovative and your designs will improve.

Microlearning – what the devil is it and 5 things it’s good for

March 31, 2016

The limitations of human memory are an eternal conundrum for learning designers – how exactly do you create meaningful learning experiences for learners who have a shorter attention span than a goldfish? Or who are only able to retain 7 items in their short term memory1? Perhaps microlearning is the answer?Goldfish

There are certainly a wide variety of definitions of microlearning. I went to a talk on the subject at a conference recently, where the learning interventions they were discussing were up to an hour long(!) – not quite my definition of micro.

So what does microlearning look like in our world? Microlearning is short, bite-sized chunks of learning tightly focussed on essential skills or knowledge. These might be in the form of videos, blogs, games quizzes or even simulations. More often than not, they’ll be delivered to a mobile phone. With 75% of adults in the UK owning a smartphone, the majority of learners have the ability to access learning in their pockets whenever and wherever they need it.

So what is it good for?…

  1. Performance support

Microlearning was made for performance support. We already know that we humans struggle to retain a lot of information – having concise help available at the point of need makes a lot of sense.

  1. Breaking larger learning objectives down into manageable chunks

The accusation of the learning being reactive, rather than proactive is often levelled at microlearning. In terms of longer-term behaviour change, microlearning can have a role to play. Just because the learning is organised into small chunks doesn’t mean that they cannot serve a larger learning objective. Resources can be tagged and organised into learning tracks which allow the learner to gradually build up skills. Learners can also skip content that they already know. Breaking the learning down in this way makes it more convenient for learners to access it on-the-go at their own convenience.

  1. Agility

Because microlearning is, by definition small. It’s quick and cost-effective to produce. This enables the business to be very agile in learning delivery and to respond to rapidly changing business environments effectively.

  1. Spaced repetition

Learners can be sent notifications to go back and repeat chunks of learning. As they’re short and focussed, learners know that this won’t take up much of their time, so may be more willing to access the learning in a spare moment.

  1. Gamification

Game mechanics can be incorporated very effectively into microlearning, particularly in terms of levelling up, gaining badges, encouraging daily use or competing against other learners. Just like those apps that kids love that tell them to feed their dragons every day to get coins to buy a really cool exclusive dragon, it’s possible to make those chunks fun and addictive.

In our experience, at the moment, microlearning is rarely the answer on its own. It tends to be most effective when used in a blend, as a reinforcement or performance support tool, with other more in-depth forms of learning. Every project is different though, and it’s important not to discount it as effective in its own right.  Constant improvements in personal technology mean that increasingly sophisticated learning experiences can be delivered in this way, allowing the line between work and learning to further blur. We haven’t seen the pinnacle of microlearning yet.


1Miller, G. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The psychological review, 63, 81-97.

Learning Design : What can we learn from creativity in the arts

March 7, 2016

by Tess Robinson, Director, LAS

I am trying to teach myself to paint with acrylics at the moment. I have a definite idea in my head of what my paintings should look like, but with no painting experience, they don’t exactly come out like that when translated to canvas. It’s very frustratinpaint brushesg!

As with many things, I turned to You Tube for help and found the rather wonderful Will Kemp from Will Kemp Art School. His tips have really helped me improve, although I still have a very long way to go before we’ll be hanging any of my creations on the wall. Whilst going through the tutorials, it got me thinking about how some artistic techniques can be equally applied to designing learning in order to help us see creative solutions and formulate a ‘well-composed’ intervention.

Will advises that to improve your drawing – a key pre-requisite of painting – you should narrow your eyes and really look at areas of light and shade. You need to temporarily hold off judgement and try not to second guess what you think the thing should look like, as oppose to what it actually looks like. This a great metaphorical technique for the research phase of any digital learning project. In getting to know your audience and accurately assessing the business need, you really need to be able to put your own assumptions and prejudices to one side and really look at the shape of what is there.

This suspension of judgement is prevalent in other arts as well and is often seen as vital to the creative process. With David Bowie’s recent death, much has been written about creativity in music. In an interview with Livewire in 2002, Bowie said:

‘I try to put judgement on hold for as long as possible. Then, when I need to listen to something critically, I put myself in a place that has nothing to do with the industrialized process we’re going through, being in a studio and all that. I’ll pretend that I’m on a ship, say, and I’m looking out to sea and there’s a distant fog on the horizon. I will listen to the piece of music from that place and see what it does to me. I use those kind of tricks all the time. It amazes me sometimes that even intelligent people will analyze a situation or make a judgement after only recognizing the standard or traditional structure of a piece. They will then confront the whole thing with a standard reaction and a standard reaction will not allow for deviancies. It’s the kiss of death in creating something’.

I read that and thought, wow, we do that. When we design learning we often take time out for a walk, a quick bike ride or a spot of meditation. Removing ourselves from the task in hand, allows fresh ideas to bubble to the fore and helps us to gain other perspectives – not dissimilar to Bowie’s method.

In researching creativity in the arts further, to see if there was anything else we, as learning designers, could learn from it, I stumbled across this article on the Guardian website from 2012. They asked a number of artists from a range of disciplines how they find creative inspiration. The one that resonated most for me in terms of its application to learning design was from Sunand Prasad, a renowed architect. He said:

  • Keep asking: “What is really going on here?” – like a detective.
  • Immerse yourself in the worlds of the people who will use and encounter the building or place.
  • Forget the building for a while. Focus totally on what people will be doing in the spaces and places you are designing – next year, in five years, in 20.
  • Ask off-piste questions. What if this library were a garden? If this facade could speak, would it be cooing, swearing, silent, erudite?
  • Gather inquisitive and reflective people around you. The rapid bouncing back and forth of an idea can generate compelling concepts at amazing speed.
  • Once there’s an idea, turn it upside down and take it seriously for a moment – even if it seems silly.
  • We all have a sense of the sublime – use it to test your propositions as rigorously as logic and functionality.

If you replace the building references with learning ones, everything above can be equally applied to learning design. It seems that artistic creativity and creativity in terms of learning design are not so far removed.

As for me and my painting, well, as Picasso said ‘I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it’. One day, I will have something wall-worthy!



How to be an elearning visionary

January 28, 2016

by Tess Robinson, Director, LAS

Our MD recently won an Outstanding Contribution award and was named as one of the Top 10 eLearning Movers and Shakers in the UK for 2016. The award was given partly because of all the voluntary work he has done to support the elearning industry but also because he’s seen as somewhat of a thought-leader in digital learning. Here’s what I have learnt from him:Visionary

  1. Listen (and hear the things that people don’t say)

Getting to the crux of a customer’s business problem often means not taking things at face value. If you’re really going to create digital learning that really makes an impact and measurably improves the performance of the business, you need to be able to accurately define what it is that the customer wants to change. Identifying the business goal is a key tenet of action mapping – a method that is ingrained in most of the learning we produce.

  1. Ask the right questions and ask lots of them

You can never ask enough questions, particularly at the outset of a project. Really understanding the customer is vital to being able to come up with the right solution. We have a standard list of questions that we always ask and then many, many more that will come up in the course of the research phase.

  1. Don’t be afraid to be outlandish

Fighting zombies or taking off in rockets to dance with aliens might not be the right learning solutions for everyone, but don’t be afraid to put wild ideas out there. They may not be what you end up with in terms of the solution, but thinking as widely as possible will inevitably lead you to be more creative and help you to find the most memorable solution for your audience.

  1. The creative process is collaborative and social – not just an individual thing

You can certainly be a creative, ‘ideas’ person as an individual – someone who inspires – but the true power of the creative process comes from the team, including users, customer and other stakeholders as well as the vendor team, and from ensuring that all the elements of a solution fit together and work. Kaspar Tang Vangkilde wrote an interesting theses on the social process of creativity at Hugo Boss, which backs up the idea that creativity is a team effort.

  1. Put yourself out there

Share stuff, learn from others, bounce ideas off people. Take an active part in the elearning community and aim to really raise the bar – rewarding in so many ways.

  1. Make time for mindfulness

OK, so it’s a bit of a trendy thing at the moment, but it’s not just a load of ‘hippy crap’. Various studies, including those done by Harvard and University of California, have found that meditation enhances creativity and improves focus. Being in a relaxed state of mind encourages divergent thinking and makes space for those ‘eureka’ moments. Working life can be very hectic. Taking time out to do nothing – just 20 minutes every other day will do – from being bombarded by texts, emails, phone calls, Skype messages and so on has been proved to have real results.

10 lessons from Design Thinking that can be applied to digital learning

January 13, 2016

By Tess Robinson, Director, LAS

A few weeks ago I attended a fabulous workshop by Sally Spinksdesign thinking from Ideo. If you haven’t heard of them before, they are a design consultancy headquartered in California but with offices throughout the world. They use the design thinking methodology to design products, services, environments, and digital experiences. We have a bit of an organisational crush on them if we’re honest.

Here are my top 10 takeaways:

  1. Start with the human need – get into your learner’s space, put yourself in their shoes. Don’t just look at what they say and think but also what they do and feel, as these things can be quite different.
  2. Look outside – find analogous situations to inspire solutions. If you’re looking to get learners to share, think of situations where sharing happens well, for example a nursery or a group counselling meeting. Approaches from these do not have to be exactly replicated but you may find that there is some concept or methodology that can be translated to your project.
  3. Hook into what people are already doing – there may not always be a need to reinvent the wheel, it may be that small adaptations are all that’s needed to produce the desired behaviours.
  4. Prototype – this one is really important. Prototype early and at low cost to mitigate risk and to build your business case.
  5. Talk to your people as humans. Give people permission to be themselves, rather than corporate robots. You will be rewarded for it.
  6. Design not for people but with them. Engage your learners in innovation and they will become supporters.
  7. Look for patterns in behaviour or actions that will help you gain insights and spot opportunities.
  8. Brainstorming is a great tool but certain rules must apply – defer judgement, encourage wild ideas, build on the ideas of others but always stay focussed on the topic.
  9. Celebrate failure. As my husband said to my little boy when he was upset by making a mistake in his homework – ‘if everyone gave up when they failed, we would all still be living in caves’. Don’t be afraid to get things wrong as that is how we progress. Failure should be allowed and even encouraged.
  10. Evolution becomes inevitable when you use a design thinking approach.

The LAS blog is now available at

6 ways to convince your organisation to embrace digital learning

December 10, 2015

by Tess Robinson, Director, LAS

The latest Towards Maturity benchmark report makes rather depressing reading. Despite being consistently able to show that those organisations who embrace learning technologies perform better, be it through increasing revenue, improving productivity or job performance,Convince blog the overall situation remains relatively static in terms of budget committed to digital learning or the range of technology used.

So how can you convince your organisation that investing digital learning is a good thing?

  1. Embed the learning in your wider organisational strategy. What is the business problem you are trying to solve and what effect will this have on your organisation’s mission as a whole? Learning should not take place in a silo, it should be clearly linked to the organisation’s success.
  2. Measure the potential impact of the learning – this might be in terms of money saved if you were to do the training face-to-face, performance improvements, strengthening of in-house skills and reduction of reliance on external consultants, increases in sales – choose whatever measures are relevant to your organisation’s strategy as a whole.
  3. Don’t allow your organisation to stick to an outdated view of elearning. Make sure you are well-versed in the latest thinking – join a professional association (eLearning Network, ATD etc..), visit industry conferences and exhibitions, subscribe to the blogs of those who are at the fore-front of digital learning thinking, attend webinars (LSG ones are great) or join LinkedIn groups. Learning from each other and sharing best practice is key to moving digital learning on from dull click-next-to-continue stuff to really impactful, engaging interventions.
  4. Today’s technology makes digital learning more agile, relevant and immediate than ever before. With huge improvements in mobile technology, job aids can be delivered into your learner’s pockets. Social and collaborative learning is also attracting a lot of interest, if not yet being actually translated much into the work environment. In our private lives we learn socially – through Facebook, YouTube, TripAdvisor etc… If your organisation is reluctant to try these new things – pilot them, produce prototypes – allow them to see and experience the benefits before committing funding.
  5. If cost is an issue, often your existing technology can be adapted to accommodate new ways of learning. Always start with what you already have – it may surprise you.
  6. Check out award winners’ projects for inspiration and ammunition, they are often profiled online following awards ceremonies. Awards criteria usually stipulate that a project must show considerable impact – this can be in a number of ways, not just financial. If you can go to your organisation with concrete proof of the way digital learning can have a substantially positive effect on overall business performance, that’s a very powerful argument.

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