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Monday, September 25, 2006

Is Gagne Relevant for eLearning Courseware Design?

There's an interesting discussion sparked by Donald Clark's - Gagne's Nine Dull Commandments. His basic point is that Gagne's:

  1. Gaining attention
  2. Stating the objective
  3. Stimulating recall of prior learning
  4. Presenting the stimulus
  5. Providing learning guidance
  6. Eliciting performance
  7. Providing feedback
  8. Assessing performance
  9. Enhancing retention and transfer to other contexts

is in his words ...

an instructional ladder that leads straight to Dullsville

His examples unfortunately hit a little too close to the mark for many of the courses that are built out there:

1 Gaining attention

Normally an over long Flash animation or corporate intro, rarely an engaging interactive event.

2 Stating the objective

Now bore the learner stupid with a list of learning objectives (really trainerspeak). Give the plot away and remind them of how really boring this course is going to be.

3 Stimulating recall of prior learning

Can you think of the last time you sexually harassed someone?

4 Presenting the stimulus

Is this a behaviourist I see before me?

5 Providing learning guidance

We've finally got to some content.

6 Eliciting performance

Multiple-choice questions each with at least one really stupid option.

7 Providing feedback

Yes/no, right/wrong, correct/incorrect try again.

8 Assessing performance

Use your short-term memory to choose options in the multiple-choice quiz.

9 Enhancing retention and transfer to other contexts

Never happens! The course ends here, you're on your own mate.

I completely understand his point about the misapplication of this model and the fact that applying it without some creativity leads to boring courseware. But, let's not throw this away as irrelevant quite so quickly.

I personally am a big fan of a model where you accomplish 1-3 by challenging the learner with an example that leads to the primary questions you are trying to answer with the course. Let's take his example: Sexual Harassment Training...

The example would be something that is a borderline behavior (someone talking about the Janet Jackson superbowl incident, a joke being discussed between colleagues, dating a co-worker when its not boss/subordinate) that should be seen as true to life, the characters should be sympathetic (not an obvious harasser) and it should lead us right to the key questions: Is this inappropriate? How do you determine that? What should you do if you have a question? What is the impact on you if you are involved? What is the impact on you even if you aren't involved?

Generally, this accomplishes 1-3 and hopefully you can lead the person through the example to all of the key questions (objectives) through the example. Sometimes you need to embellish this. Note: I personally try to avoid putting the learning objectives straight into the course. The language of learning objectives and the language you use when interacting with a student is different.

Okay, continuing the example, let's be a little creative about how to present the content. We don't just want to present a bunch of information and have them read it. Let's continue the example that we set up and have the person in the story learn (along with us) how they should handle the situation. Have them find out (maybe in discussion with someone from HR) what the four factors are that can be used to determine harassment. It's going to cover the exact same thing, but you are doing it via a story and just changing language. Sometimes you need to stretch a bit or take the learner out of the story with some notes to cover additional material, but they are at least engaged.

Now for testing - unfortunately for a topic like the four factors that determine harassment, you are probably going to want to use a multiple choice question. I would argue that asking that via multiple-choice is going to be fine for the learner in this case (especially since you didn't hit them over the head with "learn this" in the first place). Definitely you should be able to set up scenarios and allow them to try-out different answers and see the result. Or test the user via a multiple-choice - what should you do in this scenario. Of course with a compliance topic, you are often limited on how gray you can make the examples - especially during testing.

Finally, as for follow-up, we have so much more opportunity these days. With sexual harassment as the topic, it may be a bit harder to do follow-up because you are trying to get people not to do something. I prefer to check in and see if they are doing something. But, wait, maybe we can convince the compliance office to allow us to ask learners if they've noticed any questionable behavior (which is actually one of the goals of more enlightened compliance programs - they do want reporting of possible incidents)? How about a nice short follow-up storyline-based piece that you can remind the user of the importance of the topic and maybe teach them something more? Even a reminder email from the compliance office is better than nothing. Sure, all the user may do is delete it - but give it a good subject line that at least puts the thought in their head for about two seconds. We certainly will provide additional content via eLearning in another year or two to help follow-up on it. Normally I also want to try to engage with managers who are involved in the overall performance initiative, but with the topic of sexual harassment, I'm worried that they would blow it off completely (what's in it for them).

What's my point with all of this? As instructional designers, we need to use models like Gange, but we also need to be creative. It takes me five seconds to add a little extra cheese and garlic salt to my kids Kraft Mac-n-Cheese, but man does the extra stuff make all the difference in the experience.

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