Why They Call Me An “Instructional Designer”


I wear a lot of hats in the work I do. Teacher, trainer, writer, coach, cheerleader, critic, speaker, listener, expert, dumb guy, resource, questioner, confidant… But the one that I like best (and I really think defines my skill set most clearly) is “Instructional Designer”.

Unfortunately, most of the folks I work with (and for) don’t really get that part. They see ID work as mostly taking the brain dump of every single thing their experts know about the subject and just pouring it into the muffin tins of a course outline. (I’m reminded of those videos of the uniformed men on the Tokyo subways who push and strain to jam just one more passenger onto the cars before the doors close.)

subway_pusherThe goal of many of my clients is to jam in just one more fact, procedure or policy so that they can claim to have presented it to the learners during the day or training. Then they’re confident that every single possible important item has been covered, and the job is complete. Whew!

And with this model, there really isn’t much need for any “design” — just keep that muffin tin as level as you can, and when it slops over the edge keep pouring and pouring and pouring. It will all fit in, somehow.

I’m currently working on a course where I’m actually contributing quite a bit of Instructional Design skill — and it we’re having a great time actually developing some learning materials that will drive the content into the pointy little heads of the students rather than just parade slide after slide past their glazed little eyeballs.

Why? Because we started with the basics: Who are these people? What do they need? How do they learn? How will we provide it for them? Where can we engage them in learning? What resources do they need? Who do they respect to learn from? What activities will engage them and get them to actually participate?

Would it have been easier to just put together two days of PowerPoint slides with loverly animations and color washes? You bet. But I always feel a little guilty as I stand in the back of the room, listening to the heads hit the chests as they doze off.

The Smartest Guy In The Room

Nappy time

Warning: Contains Educational Theory Content. This could cause nausea, drowsiness, snoring, or extreme boredom.

I’ve done some kind of technical teaching or training for all of my adult life. Like most trainers, when I first started, my goal was to get an evaluation from the students that I “knew everything and could answer every question.” (This required, of course, hours and hours of study so that I could answer every question. I call this model of teaching “The Shell Answer Man.”) It really meant that I’d done a good job if I knew what every button, dropdown menu, shiny lever and hidden easter egg was for.

One day, I realized that I was bored to be answering the same ten questions over and over. I began to think about whether the people in my classes actually learned anything. (I hadn’t had any education about education — I was a talented amateur doing things to see if they worked.) So I started giving a little quiz now and then, doing a review at the end of the session, and other types of very basic assessment. The results were frightening.

Most of the information that I thought I was giving these people by speaking in a clear, loud voice wasn’t filtering in to their skulls. I tried harder — speaking slowly, enunciating clearly, repeating things several times. No real difference. (I considered just giving up on the “assessment” thing, as all it did was make me feel ineffective.)

Turns out that those “educational theory” guys knew this already — and had for years and years. (These are the same folks, of course, who lecture for a full hour in their college courses — and are highly paid and respected.)

I did hear that some things would increase the retention of information — having the student repeat the concepts out loud, draw pictures of them, teach them to a partner, use flash cards, chisel them in stone, build replicas out of mashed potatoes…

closeBut I found that what I used to be able to “teach” in an hour now took all day. Before, I could just shout out the facts and move on. Now my boss was really pissed at me. All the other trainers could finish that five day course in five days. Oh oh.

My students were ecstatic. They actually took real skills away, that they could use on their jobs. Instead of boring lectures, they got to build and do and draw and talk — much more fun than listening to me drone on and on. I taught Word by having them write and format letters of resignation to their boss. I taught Excel by having them create the books for a Mafia hit man. (“Bullets, May. $5″)

But I still had a problem. Some of the students could complete the tasks quickly, some not so quickly, and some would never be able to do it. I tried teaching at all three levels, having the quick ones work with the slower ones, and other desperate measures.

I finally realized (well, during the process of finishing a Master’s Degree in Education) that not all students are headed for mastery. Indeed, probably well under half of my students had a goal of learning how every single button worked. I’d managed to confuse MY goals with their goals. In my addled little type-A brain, it was a failure if they couldn’t do a complicated merge-purge without ever referring to a help screen.

At lunch today, I was talking to a friend about my experiences a few years ago as I began the process of getting a private pilot’s license. My instructor, an earnest young man with 1000+ hours of flying in his logbook, defined success as doing everything 100% right. Mine was doing enough things right that I didn’t die, break the airplane, or cause too much grief to other people in the sky.

So even when I managed to plant the damn Cessna down on the end of the runway with three bounces, we mostly focused on what I’d done wrong. And then had me do it again — and focus on the stuff I’d done wrong. I stopped taking lessons — ostensibly because of financial issues — but also because it just isn’t much fun to pay $150/hr to be told you’re dumb.

Back to education — the lesson here, if there is one, is that we all start our learning in a different place. We all are headed to a different definition of “completion”. And each and every one of those is valid. When I listen to a podcast while I’m reading mail, I probably only hear 25% of it. But that’s ok — it’s more than I’d get otherwise, because I don’t have a spare hour.

When I buy a Big Thick Book about a new software product, sometimes I only use it twice — looking in the index to answer a specific question. That’s ok, too.

I’m still working on mastery in a few areas — husband, friend, doggie daddy — but in many others it’s now ok to only learn what I need right now. It’s important to remember that when you think about designing any kind of learning materials.

Download My New Free e-Book!


Want the free book? I’ll trade you your e-mail address for the link. That way I can add you to the list of people who get to hear about new stuff that happens around here.

We don’t sell or give away your name to any varmints, scoundrels or bushwackers (did you see the little “cat” in the western getup?) so don’t worry. And you can always “unsubscribe” down on the bottom of any mailing.

UPDATE: Now available in e-Pulp version as well, for cash money. Knock yourselves out!

Still not sure?  Read the entire introduction right here!

catl_coverI’m known as a risk-taker. When the herd is headed one way, I gallop off in a completely different direction. This often annoys management and confuses the audience. And it’s happened again.

Some of my older readers may remember a content form known as the book. First written by bald men in brown robes, these heavy objects were write-once read-many devices that had virtually unlimited storage. Updating was cheap and easy, and rights management was only a padlock away.

I’ve written a book. Sort of. You can now download a free digital version of something called Creating Amazing Technical Learning — a collection of topics that I’ve written on over the last three years, and (eventually) you’ll even be able to purchase it in the above ink-on-paper format (what I like to think of as i-Pulp) for your reading pleasure.

You’ll even get some cute little doodles that I’ve done exclusively for the book, on scented cocktail napkins, that are appropriate for framing and display in nearly any type of decor. Not to mention an introduction (copy of which can be reviewed below) which has complete sentences and actual punctuation.



I feel obligated to warn you that by reading this book you’re likely to put your job in peril. For years I’ve managed to piss people off, lose contracts and generally get in trouble because I keep asking “why” and carving big juicy roasts out of sacred learning cows. So it might be best to take advantage of the 100% money-back guarantee and order one of those AIDA books that gives you a time-tested template for creating tidy little templates of training.

Do I have all the answers? Hell no! I just tend to accumulate more and more questions, the longer I do this work. I’ve found that the introduction of humans into any neat and tidy system tends to screw things up completely, and so it’s really hard to predict what’s going to happen to your favorite learning theory. I spent thousands of hours (not to mention thousands of dollars) learning all that stuff, got to put “M.Ed.” after my name, and ultimately have come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t mean much.

First Heading: You’ve Skipped To Here, Anyway

Nobody reads the text anyway, anymore, so I’ll just give you some bullets to look at:

  • The content of this little book are posts from my blog, TechHerding.com – revised a bit for the book, but not much – I try to do as little as I can to get by
  • I’m assuming that you work in the training field – if you’re a newbie or some kind of middle manager, ask for the refund
  • Please disagree, argue, or get red in the face – I often tend to go a bit outside the envelope to make a point or get your attention.

Second Heading: Have You Read Any Of The Text, At All?

There really is no flow here – you old-timers are going to be horrified – because in our learning world of today there isn’t really much flow anymore, anyway. We click and search our way to comprehension (well, what we do comprehend) and I’m fine with that. Look at the table of content, flip pages, or scroll through the electronic version. Or be really contrary and start at the first page and go through to the end.

Since I just pretty much cut and pasted content from the blog, and there’s no flow there, it seemed silly to try to make something up here.

Third Heading: At Least You Read The Headings, I Guess

If you’d like to see more of this stuff, or something more recent, head off to the blog. If you think I’m a total idiot (there’s probably a Yahoo group forming as I write this) feel free to comment on a specifically lame post, or show up when I speak and take me to task.


Send your thoughts to dick@TechHerding.com

Using YouTube For Learning: 287,906 Times In Two Days

Many people don’t think of YouTube as a great place for learning. What with the sneezing pandas, dancing ninjas, and the off-key singers — it’s got somewhat of a rep as a place you should try to keep your kids away from. (Us grown-ups, on the other hand, can watch that little bear over and over with no real damage.)

But if you’d like to explain what caused the mortgage crisis to a bunch of high-schoolers, this ten minute video is a stunning example of using current viral video techniques to communicate. The sheer amount of information and references included would have taken most of a day in Mrs. Summers’ eighth grade social studies class. And I’d have been snoozing.

(Disclaimer: Yes, this is being told from a specific point-of-view to support a political candidate. Get over it. I’m using the example as one of learning and communication.)

So take a look, and tell me what you could do with ten minutes like this for your sales force — or your lathe operators — or your phone bank operators. Wheeeeeeee!

Asking Questions At Presentations Just Got Easier


Google has just released one of their internal tools — called Google Moderator — that allows listeners at a talk to enter a question they’d like answered. Other attendees can then vote up or down on the question, and this gives guidance on which questions are of interest to the largest number of people.

This could have some very interesting implications for in-person talks — but it’s something I already do in synchronous presentations, sort of. I have people enter anything they want in the “chat” section of the window — thoughts, questions, complaints, etc. Once they loosen up a little, it’s a great window into their heads to see if I’m hitting their needs or if I sound like a complete idiot.

LiveBar: Social Networking On Every Page


In the spirit of The Long Tail, you’ll now be able to add social networking to every page on your web site.  LiveWorld.com is introducing “LiveBar” — a tiny little one-line-high text bar you can tack at the bottom of your web page, that allows a mini social community to build itself right there.

“LiveBar brings this dynamic seamlessly and directly to a site’s content web pages. Much easier to use than typical social network tools, LiveBar drops the barriers between a site’s content and community sections by making them one in the same. This breakthrough brings community alive on every web page, where the users are and when they are there.”

It has three elements — Conversations are essentially lightweight forum threads where users can post messages and solicit responses. Soapboxes are akin to blog posts and Shouts are like tweets in that they’re restricted to 140 characters.

My Office Has Coffee — Lots And Lots Of Coffee

After really enjoying the calm warm cocoon of my home office for months now, I’m sitting in a coffee shop working on the laptop for the second time this week. (It’s a Tulley’s — not really because I don’t prefer Starbuck’s, but Tulley’s gives me free wireless.)

It’s chaotic, lots of noise, people going in and out. I’m perched on a high table, my wireless mouse is hard to use, and this tiny keyboard is really hard to type on. Yet I’m really enjoying it, and when my battery runs out (my self-imposed limit) I’m not looking forward to heading home to keep working. I do miss the pugs, and my loud music, but the interaction and noise is kind of soothing.

What does your office look like? For years, we told learners that they needed a study area that was neat and tidy. Sharpened pencils (#2, of course) and lots of erasers. Good lighting. The proper height desk. No distractions.

What happened? Why is it now much more common to work in noisy cubes, with people dropping in (I just can’t call them “drive-bys”) at any moment, noise in the air, and a huge mess around us. I’ve always got 10 windows open, paper spread around, a couple of abandoned drinks and lots of toys from shows I attend. My favorite, lately, is a squeeze-ball model of the human brain.

Are you comfortable with chaos in learning? Is it ok with you when people go from back to front, or from the middle out? Can your learners make their own choices without feeling like they’re breaking the rules?

Don’t worry about me. I’ll finish my cookie and head home to peace and quiet. And probably not produce anything else all day.

Sheraton Sucks. . .

Don't Be Evil

I feel terrible about writing that headline — I actually really like Sheraton Hotels (and Starwood in general) but I’m trying to make a point.  When I speak about the power of web 2.0 and the need for companies to understand the effects of the changes that have happened in how information is communicated, I have a favorite example I use.

I tell the suits to go back to their offices and type “NAME OF MY COMPANY” “SUCKS” in a Google search and see what comes back.  I suggest that they just might be surprised to see that someone was pretty unhappy with them and shared the experience with the world.  Just like I am, here.  This morning I’m in the Sheraton Crystal City in Virginia — and asked at the bell desk if there was a Starbucks nearby.  “Oh, no — long way.  Only coffee here in shop.”  So I paid $5.75 for an awful cup of hotel drip.

At lunch, I walked a block down the street and found a lovely Starbucks — and then another.  The cynical part of me assumes the Sheraton staff was told to lie, to keep business in house.  The warm, supportive part of me assumes they’re just dumb or poorly trained.

But the key learning for hotel management here is that one annoyed guest has now shared out his opinion that their hotel is sub-par, and somewhere around 1,000 people per day have the opportunity to hear about it.  People who search on “sheraton” “virginia” “crystal city” “special” “suite” “discount”  “low price” “suite” “vacations” “pentagon” “quantico” “bargain” “cheap” “last minute” “great time” “honeymoon” or other key words will hear all about it.

Here’s the slide I use in my presentations.  I wonder if anyone from Sheraton has a Google Alert running for “Sheraton Sucks” — what do you think?

Remember -- don't be evil

SALT Interactive Technologies Conference


I’ll be presenting a session at the Society for Applied Learning Technologies (SALT) Interactive Technologies Conference in Virginia this month. It’s a group that I’ve enjoyed both speaking to and attending to before — lots of higher ed and government types, the sorts of folks that I don’t get to spend much time with.

I’m actually a higher ed escapee (six years on staff at a big university as I did a couple of degrees) and so it’s fun to mingle with the eggheads. The government types are interesting, as well. Not nearly as stuffy as you’d think, and some are doing some really amazing stuff — like the IRS, the DOD, and some other three-letter groups that you read about in the papers.

I’ll be doing a variation on my “Ring! Ring! Your Learners Are On The Phone!” session slanted specifically towards this audience, and I’m eager to see what they’ve been doing in the mLearning space. My presentations have been moving more to a “workshop” model lately, where I start the session off but usually end up getting lots of good information and feedback from people in the room who are already building tools and solutions.

This is much, much more interesting for me than just giving a speech for 60 minutes. And it really seems to be more intersting for the audience as well, if my sat scores can be believed.

There’s still time to register. And Arlington is lovely in August. If you’re a fried egg.

Using Outlook Voting Buttons To Rate Content

One of the great new models of content evaluation is to allow the consumers of the content to tell others what they think. You’ve see this on Amazon, VirtualTourist, and ePinions. But I often hear that doing something like this on your internal content requires lots of programming or special software.

Pish-tosh. Outlook has a neat little feature called “voting buttons” where you can send out a simple email and ask people to reply with their answer. It can be as simple as “yes-no” or you can get very fancy with multiple choices. (Sorry — if you use Novell’s Groupwise there isn’t a feature like this. But you could try a free online service like SurveyMonkey and that would work just fine.)

Here, thanks to my wonderful network tech wife Diane, is exactly how to do it:


Insert Voting Buttons

1. With the message open, click on Options
2. Select Use voting buttons
3. Click the voting button names you want to us

To create your own voting button names, delete the default button names, and then type any text you want. Separate the button names with semicolons.

4. Under Delivery options, select check box for Save sent message to
5. By default, it’s saved to the Sent Items folder
6. To choose a different folder, use Browse
7. Click Close and then Send

Voting buttons are only visible when you open the e-mail. They are not visible in the Preview pane.

View Voting Responses

1. Open the original message you are tracking.

This message is the one you sent, so is either in the Sent Items folder or whichever one you designated.

2. Click the Tracking tab.

Note: By default, responses that do not contain comments are recorded in the original message, and responses that contain comments are kept in the Inbox. You can choose for Outlook to automatically delete blank responses.

Copy Voting Results to Excel

1. Select the responses you want to copy.
2. Use one of the following methods:

  • To select ALL rows: Click the first row, hold down SHIFT, and then click the last row.
  • To select non-adjacent rows: Click the first row, hold down CTRL, and then click additional rows.

3. Once the desired responses are selected, do Edit, Copy
4. Switch to Microsoft Excel and do Edit, Paste.