Courting Disaster in an Online Learning Project

I was involved with a technical online learning program. The idea was to take technical content and create short modules so that sales representatives would be more versed in all the company’s products. That way sales reps would be more attuned to possible solutions to customer problems that were outside their scope of expertise. The process was as follows:

  1. The instructional designer interviewed the SMEs with a set of predefined questions. The phone interviews were recorded for easy transcription to ensure all answers were captured completely.
  2. The instructional designer synthesized the answers to the questions and created a high level design.
  3. The SME reviewed the high level design and adjusted the content as needed.
  4. The instructional designer created a storyboard based on the high level design.
  5. The SME reviewed the storyboard and once again changes were made as needed.
  6. The approved the storyboard.
  7. The storyboard was sent to the programmers who built a course using Articulate Storyboard.
  8. The course was sent to the instructional designer for review, changes, and approval.
  9. Once the instructional designer approved the course, it was sent to the SME for approval.
  10. Once the SME approved the course, it was considered complete.

This process worked well until the co-project manager stepped in and decided to use offshore programmers. This project manager was not familiar with online learning and he initiated new rules which prohibited creativity and made programming easier for his offshore group. I would send my storyboard to the programmers and I would get a module that looked nothing like my storyboard. The programmers obviously had no instructional design experience. They completely changed my screens. They had redundant wording and audio; the narrator was essentially reading the screen. These modules were supposed to be considered nearly completed except for a few adjustments.

I had to send feedback to the programmers that they must follow the storyboard. They would make minor changes and essentially send me the same module. I was so frustrated. I went to the other project manager and asked why I was even bothering to create a storyboard since the programmers didn’t follow it. The programmers were told to follow the storyboard. They had used up their allotted hours and wanted to charge for adjusting the modules. They were told they would not be paid for the incorrect modules. The situation was a mess. The modules were due and there was no time to find new programmers.

I spent twice as much time as I should have in reviewing the modules. I was one of six instructional designers. They, too, spent extra time reviewing their modules. The others faced the same programmer issues that I did. The scope didn’t just creep, the amount of work almost doubled because the programmers would not follow the storyboards and work had to be redone. The project was way over budget, the instructional designers were frustrated and the customer was not happy with the delay.

What could have been done differently? We had a good process and good programmers; why change? I would not have given the co-project manager so much leverage. Even though the current programmers were stretched, the work was getting done and quality modules were produced. I would not have added new programmers in the middle of a project. I would not have initiated new rules in the middle of a project. It would have been better to give the new programmers a trail period; if they didn’t work out, find other programmers. When so many variables are changed in the middle of a running project, nothing but problems ensue. There was no reason to change other than the co-project manager wanted to use his programmers. Perhaps there were politics going on of which I was unaware; regardless, it was a disaster.

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Project Management Insight for Instructional Designers

Elatewiki

http://www.elatewiki.org/index.php/Category:Course_Issues

The Electronic Learning and Teaching Exchange wiki is a free site created by Kansas State University to foster a public exchange of e-learning and teaching resources. The site is growing and it is hoped that it will attract long time users. There is a wealth of information available on the site. And, while it is not specifically a project management resource, there is a page devoted to course issues which provides a huge number of links on the topic. These links provide valuable insight into things one might not even have considered. For example, there are articles on branding or standards for student participation which should be considered when designing a project. Such articles give real examples of potential tasks that should be added to a project. For me, this will be a worthwhile site to follow.

Project Management for Instructional Designers

http://pm4id.org/

This book, which is available online, provides all sorts of information on project management for instructional design. The chapters in the book align with those in the Project Management Institute’s PMBOK guide. The information provided in the book, such as that discussed in the risk management section, give insight into considerations that should be made for risk.

eLearning

http://www.elearninglearning.com/

The current and appropriate articles available on this site are perfect for up to date project management considerations. A search for the term project management yields a wide variety of articles related to project management and instructional design. Articles include eLearning project managers, project management on a shoestring budget, tools timelines, tips and pitfalls. There is so much information available on this site that it requires frequent visits

Communicating Effectively

Communication is critical in business. The Internet is used extensively for email and the written word has become “the primary means of interpersonal communication” (Barron, 1998. pg 118). Further, hundreds of millions of people use Facebook and tweet daily (Schultz, Utz, & Göritz, 2011). The written word dominates communication. People tend to rely too heavily on email for important communication. Thus it becomes absolutely necessary to write clear, effective emails and recognize when a phone call or face to face meeting is the better option.

I thought the email presented in “The Art of Effective Communication” (n.d.) was well crafted. The request for the missing report was polite. It also included the reason for the request which should validate the request for the recipient. A slight revision might be to clarify “soon.” Since soon is vague, an exact date would give the recipient a better idea of exactly when the report is required.

The problem with email is the lack of tone of voice or body language to aid the recipient in interpretation of the message. A slightly misworded sentence can be misinterpreted or a recipient can be in a wrong frame of mind to comprehend the message as intended. A person who has had a rough morning, a frustrating drive to work, a poor night’s sleep, is ill or any one of a number of other circumstances can decode a message completely different from that that was sent. Consequently, critical messages should be delivered at least via phone, if not in person.

Hearing the message via audio confirmed what I read in the written message. The voice talent who read the message did a good job of using tone and inflection to get the message across. I can’t see how anyone could misinterpret the polite request for the needed information. However, according to Duthler (2006), email allows a sender to create a more polite message than that left via voicemail. Email allows for corrections while voicemail does not.

Watching the message delivery in the video confirmed what I heard in the audio and read in the message. The person in the video had a laid back delivery with a pleasant facial expression. There should be no misinterpretation on the part of the receiver.

Messages should be delivered using the appropriate medium. If the message is really important, the sender should consider a face to face delivery, where discussion is possible. If email is used as the means of delivery, messages should be carefully written and proofed before being sent.

Resources

Baron, N. S. (1998). Letters by phone or speech by other means: The linguistics of email. Language & Communication, 18(2), 133-170.

Duthler, K. W. (2006). The politeness of requests made via email and voicemail: Support for the hyperpersonal model. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication, 11(2), 500-521.

Schultz, F., Utz, S., & Göritz, A. (2011). Is the medium the message? Perceptions of and reactions to crisis communication via twitter, blogs and traditional media. Public relations review, 37(1), 20-27.

“The Art of Effective Communication” retrieved from http://mym.cdn.laureate-media.com/2dett4d/Walden/EDUC/6145/03/mm/aoc/index.html 7/16/2015.

There are always lessons to be learned

In every project team members gain knowledge that can be used to improve future projects (Birk, Dingsøyr, & Stålhane, 2002). I was involved small eLearning project for a large international company. The goal was to create short eLearning modules on various topics in adult learning. The project was relatively straightforward and fun. I created several modules and things were going very well. I created some job aids for adult learning that were very popular and helpful. I still hand them out in my classes today.

On my last module I was paired with a SME who just didn’t get back to me. He did approve the storyboard I’d created and then he disappeared. I knew the SME and we’d had a good working relationship. I’d send him emails and leave voice messages and he just didn’t respond. The SME provided graphics and a rough idea of what he wanted. I tried to create the eLearning module based on what he’d given me but there were holes in the content and I needed more information. I was supposed to leave the country for 6 weeks for an international project and I wanted to have this last module completed before I left. The SME would not get back to me or schedule a time to meet with me. I had to submit the module to the project manager with the holes. The meeting was scheduled after I left the country. The project manager handled the meeting with the SME and he complained about everything when I wasn’t there to defend myself. He complained about the content when he approved the storyboard. He hated the graphics – the graphics he gave me. He complained about the holes in the content – when he wouldn’t respond to my questions. The project manager was furious and blamed me. I have to admit, it was my fault. If the SME didn’t respond I should have escalated the issue. Of course, who wants to run tattling to a manager? Because I was out of the country for such a long period someone else had to finish my module. I never even saw the completed project. It was a very bad end to what had been a fun and engaging project.

My lessons learned include:

  • Make sure the storyboard is approved. (Mine was approved and I will never continue without approval.)
  • Document communication – track emails and phone calls.
  • Track the number of requests for specific answers or additional information.
  • Escalate the issue when the SME doesn’t respond within a reasonable timeframe.
  • Attend the meeting when your module is reviewed so you can defend your design.
  • Make sure you finish the project you started.

I make sure I follow my list of lessons learned. I don’t want to go through an experience like that again. Lessons learned are vital to improved performance in future projects. “Lessons learned the hard way on past projects are, if nothing else, risks for future projects” (Collier, DeMarco, & Fearey, 1996).

Epilogue

I found out that the SME quit two weeks after my project was reviewed. He went to another company. We found out that there were many projects that he just left hanging. He knew he was leaving so he just didn’t care.

Resources

Birk, A., Dingsøyr, T., & Stålhane, T. (2002). Postmortem: Never leave a project without it. IEEE software, (3), 43-45.

Collier, B., DeMarco, T., & Fearey, P. (1996). A defined process for project post mortem review. Software, IEEE, 13(4), 65-72.

The Future of Distance Learning

In the future people will obtain degrees wholly online or through hybrid programs (Kennedy, n.d.). The International Organization for Distance Learning contends that lifelong learning will be a necessity for workers, traditional schools will collaborate to increase the diversity of offerings, distance learners will require increased technical skills as technology advances, and business will compete with schools at all levels to offer education. Already, for-profit universities, organizations such as Khan Academy, iTunes U and commercial lecture series providers are challenging traditional institutions due to their abilities to quickly provide online instruction (Anderson, Boyles, & Rainie, 2012). In the Pew Research Center’s survey of 1,021 experts, 39% felt that in 2020 education would be much the same while 60% felt that it would be very different (Anderson, Boyles, & Rainie, 2012). Even though the experts can’t agree on what the future holds, I believe that advancing technology will carry distance learning along with it. The future of distance learning is very bright.

As an instructional designer I want to keep abreast of new technology and new methods of imparting knowledge. Holography and 3-dimensional printing are two technologies that have huge potential for virtual learning. Mirza et al (2013) offer a review of the use of holography in anatomy education which could revolutionize medial instruction. Canessa, Fonda, & Zennaro (2013) suggest that promising uses of 3D printing technology include archaeological artifacts, complex mathematical surfaces, and medical prostheses to name a few. Using instructional design to combine such technologies for a distance environment would be fun and exciting.

I want to make my virtual courses as enticing as video games. I want kids to be excited to learn or perhaps even addicted to learning. It hurts to hear bright kids, such as my niece, say they hate physics or math. I believe technology has the potential to change such attitudes. Well-designed and engaging courses can overcome poor instructors.

My goal is to continue my investigation into learning and the development of virtual courses. I want to pursue a doctorate with the idea in mind to explore the practical applications of virtual learning and employ new technology to increase learning. I am convinced that the combination of virtual worlds, knowledge databases, technology, 3D printing, and holography can be combined to create learning simulations for any topic. Anyone would have the chance to learn anything at any time as long as they had a device with microprocessors to provide access to the virtual environment. The Star Trek Holodeck is absolutely possible.

Resources

Anderson, J. Q., Boyles, J. L., & Rainie, L. (2012). The Future Impact of the Internet on Higher Education: Experts Expect More Efficient Collaborative Environments and New Grading Schemes; They Worry about Massive Online Courses, the Shift Away from On-Campus Life. Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Canessa, E., Fonda, C., & Zennaro, M. (2013). Low-‐cost 3D Printing for Science, Education and Sustainable Development. LOW-COST 3D PRINTING, 11.

Kennedy, S. (n.d.). Future of Distance Learning. Retrieved from http://www.distancelearning.org/future-of-distance-learning/.

Mirza, K., Campos, P., Sugand, K., Lelos, N., Thrumurthy, S., & Bailey, C. (2013). HOLOGRAPHY IN CLINICAL ANATOMY EDUCATION: A SYSTEMATIC REVIEW. Medical Posters, 1(4).

What is the Future of Distance Learning? (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.iadl.org.uk/Article17.htm.

Converting to a Distance Learning Format

Judy Mason has been frustrated with the quality of communication among trainees in her face-to-face training sessions and wants to try something new. She plans to convert all current training modules to a blended learning format, which would provide trainees and trainers the opportunity to interact with each other and learn the material in both a face-to-face and online environment. In addition, she wants to put all her training materials on a server so that the trainees have access to resources and assignments at all times. This new approach should get trainees excited and participating once again.

Print

Judy researched the best approach to tackling this new blended course. You can read her assessment.  Wk7AssgnAllegrettiM.

She also created a checklist. F2F to Blended Tips

The Impact of Open Source

robot5

I want to write some apps for my Droid. There is no better way to get up to speed quickly than to take a MOOC class on just that topic. The course I started (and have to go back and finish after a quick review of Java) is Programming Mobile Applications for Android Handheld Systems: Part 1 offered by the University of Maryland through Coursera. This is a four week course of which I completed two weeks when I realized just how rusty my Java is.

The course is very well structured. All aspects of good instructional design for online learning are addressed on the course web page: organization of instruction, syllabus, learning exercises, explanation of instructional materials and methods, and support and contact information (Simonson, Smaldino, & Zvacek, 2015). The objectives are particularly clear; students know exactly what they should be able to do by the end of each week. And, there is even an FAQ with a variety of concerns answered.

The learning process is clearly laid out and only requires self-determination to complete. I say that because that because there were 350,000 students enrolled in my course and the instructor sent a message in week three to try and encourage people to complete the assignments. It would seem that apathy is an issue with free courses; students must be self-motivated to learn. Martin (2012) brings up a good point; MOOCs should be able to support both students who are struggling and those who easily master the content. Is that possible? Was there so much apathy in my class because people were struggling, or, like me, did they just need to brush up and then return?

The activities certainly maximized the learning and they were actually fun. Learning content is chunked into reasonable bites. Plus the course culminated with the creation of a complete app from scratch. The ability to create the app fosters students’ confidence in their ability and is important for student satisfaction in the online course (Shen, Cho, Tsai, & Marra, 2013). I can’t wait to get back to my course.

Resources

Programming Mobile Applications for Android Handheld Systems: Part 1. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.coursera.org/course/androidpart1/.

Martin, F. G. (2012). Will massive open online courses change how we teach?. Communications of the ACM, 55(8), 26-28.

Shen, D., Cho, M. H., Tsai, C. L., & Marra, R. (2013). Unpacking online learning experiences: Online learning self-efficacy and learning satisfaction. The Internet and Higher Education, 19, 10-17.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., & Zvacek, S. (2015). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (6th ed.) Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.