Archive for February, 2011

We’re thrilled to announce that Saffron Interactive and Heathrow Express have won a bronze award in the Learning Technology Solution of the Year category at the IT Training Awards 2011 for their successful fire awareness e-learning course.

The Learning Technologies Solution of the Year award is presented to an enterprise that has carried out a training project using one or more learning technologies that demonstrates high quality and innovation – in terms of both content and instructional techniques – and that has made demonstrable performance improvement for the client.

When Heathrow Express engaged Saffron to develop an e-learning course to train staff in fire awareness and track safety, it was a great opportunity to take a fresh look at compliance training. Sub-surface fire awareness is critical and, unlike some routine compliance training, it’s a matter of life and death. An animated 3D course map, complete with escalators and a moving train, and full screen 360 degree panoramic ‘spot the hazard’ interaction, are just some of the features that make this solution special. And with Heathrow Express experiencing a 50 per cent reduction in training time and a subsequent saving of £480,000 a year, it wasn’t difficult for the judges to recognise the positive impact that the course had on the organisation.

Chris Knapp, Head of Organisational Development at Heathrow Express, says: ‘This collaboration between Heathrow Express and Saffron Interactive has produced a premium quality learning experience for staff. Internally it has generated a buzz and developed a hunger for more e-learning.

‘The course has provided a cost effective and time efficient way of training our staff. Training is a vital part of every part of our business and it is important that we deliver the best possible training to ensure we continue to deliver a premium, best in class service.’

‘We’re delighted to see our client’s commitment to high quality e-learning rewarded in this way,’ says Nick Simons, CTO at Saffron Interactive. ‘Winning an award for their very first project will strengthen the case for the new approach to learning they are promoting.’

To find out more about the IT Training Awards, visit

For more information about Heathrow Express, visit

Someone came onto our stand at the Learning Technologies the other week and asked, ‘OK, so you people at Saffron know social learning. What about anti-social learning?’ That intriguingly sly question got me thinking about what our role is in facilitating learning in our customers’ organisations: what exactly is it that we be should aiming to design and implement?

Consider the best versus the worst experience of “instructor-led training” in the classroom. The worst is staring at the back of someone who’s facing his or her slides and reading out the bullet points in an emotionless monotone (while you’re reading them at a different speed). The best is being in a class with a trainer who engages you and everybody else in the room in a dialogue about the subject. For example, the trainer may ask you a question but, instead of telling you whether your answer is correct or incorrect, then asks other members of the class for their opinion of your response. All answers are good answers: it’s important to know whether you’re right or wrong but it’s just as important to know why.

Today e-learning is an essential part of the training blend, in order to meet both organisations’ and learners’ expectations of availability, cost and timeliness. At Saffron we design e-learning that aspires to the best classroom experience – e-learning that makes eye contact – as you’ll know if you’ve been following the Spicy Learning Blog. Within the constraints of the medium, we aim to hold a conversation with our learners, anticipating and answering their concerns. For all that, e-learning remains a solitary, self-paced, self-study experience and one that perhaps runs the risk of becoming anti-social learning.

Social learning acknowledges a well known but often ignored truth that people learn best when they’re motivated to teach themselves and others. Adding social learning to the training blend counters any anti-social bias in e-learning design and provides a powerful underpinning for an organisational change programme, where the aim is to explain, motivate and persuade and not just to instruct.

That brings me to my title. Musing on anti-social learning got me thinking about why I don’t like “instructional design” as a name for what we do. The term instruction reminds me too much of PE at school: Arms Up! Bend Knees! Stretch! Instruction, in that sense, is completely contrary to the tone of our courses (and yours too, I hope). What we actually aim to design is a complete programme: an enjoyable, engaging and effective experience that uses, in each case, an appropriate blend of instructor-led, self-study and social learning.

So here’s my suggestion. Why don’t we call ourselves learning experience designers rather than instructional designers? It applies, incidentally, as much to our graphic designers and programmers of interactions as it does to those of us who write the storyboards. In other words, let’s set ourselves the expectation that, collectively, we design learning experiences, not instruction!

Imagine that a group of people each have a box with something in it. Let’s call it a ‘beetle.’ No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says they know what a beetle is only by looking at their beetle. It would be possible that everyone has something different in their box. Maybe the box is even empty.

This is the same problem that we, as project leads, face every time we start a new project with a client: how do I know that I’ve understood what the client wants?

With some things it’s easy. How long do you want the course to last? 20 minutes. What data do you need the course to track? Completion status, name and job title. But questions such as ‘How faithfully should I follow the content provided?’ won’t necessarily get you a definitive answer. And force feeding these answers through the Jeremy Paxman quiz maker isn’t yet an option available to the contemporary e-learning designer.

For instance, how do you know whether your client understands the technical limitations of rapid development tools when they opt to use them to build their company’s e-learning? Maybe you thought you’d explained it to them during the kick off meeting, and they made all the outward visible signs of understanding, but when you sent them the end product they asked you to add in a flashing button.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes a project lead can make is to make assumptions about what a client knows. You don’t have to err too far on the side of caution and assume that your client knows nothing. But you do need to know whether your client’s understanding of ‘highly animation based’ is simply your default Flash course or an ultra hi-tech, multimedia-intensive learning extravaganza.

So, how do we solve this ‘Beetle in the box’ problem?

Improve your communications pattern.

If you’re concerned that you may not be able to deliver what a client has asked for, then it might be worth spending a bit more time liaising with your client. What clients expect at the beginning of a project may be radically different from what they expect mid-way through or even towards the end of the project life cycle. This is particularly true if your client is new to e-learning. After a couple of storyboard and interim releases, their understanding of the possibilities grow and so too can their demands for the course. You can then find yourself having to manage the expectations of an overzealous client.

Have regular conversations with your client. We find it helps to hold weekly teleconferences with project stakeholders to plot the project’s progress against the evolving expectations of our clients. Taking meeting and call notes helps because it gives your client the opportunity to confirm your understanding and ensure that you’re on the right track.

Meet your client’s needs and manage their expectations.

Not all projects that fail to meet client expectations do so because of a breakdown in communications. Sometimes a client may be unrealistic with their own expectations; they ask for their course to be built using a rapid development tool, fully aware of its limitations, but on seeing the end product change their minds. Ultimately, this client had something else in their box. And it’s our responsibility to make sure we manage expectations.

Sometimes, it’s necessary to focus more on what you believe an organisation needs. After all, we’re e-learning consultants as well as service providers.  Expectations are sometimes based on personal opinions rather than on what the course needs to achieve; so whilst I may not be able to visualise the look and feel that my client has printed in their head, I can recognise that if my client wants his staff to comply with the UK Bribery Act then they’re going to have to be taught how to complete an expenses form.

We’re always looking for ways to become better at identifying what our clients expect of the learning solutions we design for them. Understanding a client’s expectations will help to minimise those last minute change requests that can throw a whole project off schedule, and it will also help to ensure that you deliver high quality products that meet the needs of the company and its learners. A course that cannot meet its learner’s needs really is no better than an empty box.

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