Archive for June, 2011


That’s English composer Cornelius Cardew’s title, not mine. It’s also the title of a Confucian text, as translated by Ezra Pound, the first chapter of which Cardew uses within his composition of the same name. It begins as follows:

What The Great Learning teaches is – to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence.

A couple of weeks ago the Bath Music Festival devoted a day to Cardew’s music; he would have been 75 in May this year. Andrew Clements of the Guardian gave the day 4 stars in his review. I’m glad I was there and not just because my friend Miles was one of the Oxford Improvisers performing Paragraph 5.

Cardew was a joint founder of the Scratch Orchestra in 1969. As this Wikipedia article puts it: “The Orchestra reflected Cardew’s musical philosophy at that time. This meant that anyone could join, graphic scores were used (rather than traditional sheet music), and there was an emphasis on improvisation.” The Great Learning, dedicated to the Scratch Orchestra, was written about the same time and expresses the same ideas: for example, Paragraphs 6 and 7 are written for any number of ‘untrained musicians’ and ‘untrained voices’ respectively. The score for Paragraph 5 is mostly graphical rather than conventional music notation – aside from the optional ‘Ode Machines which may also be performed separately’. One of the most interesting aspects of Cardew’s work is that it leads us to reconsider, if not challenge, our conventional views of score, musicianship and – most important of all – performance.

I think it’s fair to say that Cardew was more interested in the performance of music by people who enjoyed performing and improvising whatever their musical ability, rather than in an audience listening to music performed by trained musicians. Of course a traditional score doesn’t completely determine how a musical work will sound or there would be no point in multiple performances of the same work. But what seems to matter more to Cardew is that the performers take inspiration from the score rather than are instructed by it; he trusts in their passion and judgement.

At this point I want to make a segue to the world of technology-based learning, great or otherwise. I’m well aware of the risk at this point of sounding like a trendy vicar, as in Alan Bennett’s classic ‘Life is rather like opening a tin of sardines; we’re all of us looking for the key’, mercifully preserved here on YouTube, about five and a half minutes in. But with that risk in mind, I’ll continue anyway.

Instructional design, as I’ve blogged here before seems to me a poor description (and a poor aspiration) for what we should be doing when creating a learning experience. Craig Taylor has made a similar point in his blog. And yet, so much online courseware reads like the most prescriptive ‘score’ imaginable, allowing little or no room for initiative or improvisation. In the worst cases (obviously not your work or mine), it’s written by experts to be read by experts. So there should be little wonder when there’s no engagement with, or enthusiasm from, the real target audience.

My suggestion, then, is that we should think about how we could rise to Cardew’s challenge and benefit from the equivalent of committed ‘untrained’ performance. So, if we want to ‘rest in the highest excellence’, let’s take a tip from the improvisers and put more trust in our learners.

PS: Here’s a 30-second taster, if you want to find out more about Cardew’s music: Cornelius Cardew’s Great Learning in Leytonstone Woolies


Inspiration can come from the strangest places. Personally, I think that Jeff Wayne’s musical masterpiece War of the Worlds is a perfect model for effective e-learning. Bear with me on this one…

Most people who work in instructional design agree that learning should be an enjoyable experience. The problem is that we sometimes try to make it too enjoyable, by adding too many characters, storylines, complex interactions and the like, which can have the opposite effect of bewildering the user and losing their attention. War of the Worlds balances music and narration perfectly to immerse the listener in a terrifying world of alien invasion, without once trying to pack too much in and losing sight of the overall goal of telling a story. Sure, plenty of things happen, but they do so in a logical order – aliens blowing up Horsell Common isn’t dropped over the top of the pivotal guitar solo, allowing the listener to enjoy each aspect independently.

So why would we try to use an interaction on every screen whilst five characters vie for our attention? Or have an elaborate background that, whilst being impressive, distracts the user from the content? I’m not saying that we should go back to the image-and-text formula on every page, but that design elements are more effective when they stand out.

I recently saw a ‘learning game’ that had an overload of on-screen features, meaning that my attention was dragged all over the place and I couldn’t properly engage with any of them. Between the flashing boxes, the videos and the perky course guides, I didn’t take in any of the information it was trying to convey. Instead of this, I suggest these guidelines to producing engaging but not overwhelming content:

  • Why is that element there? I don’t mean that every colour needs a justification, but if you are putting in a Flash asset, take a moment to think about what it is going to achieve. Does it support the content, or smother it?
  • Pick and choose: Don’t be tempted to throw all of your tricks at one screen. Space them out a bit and the user will appreciate them more.
  • Have an overarching theme: Make sure that your design elements tie in with one another, so that the result looks clean and stylish.

If you stick to these simple ideas, you should be able to avoid overcrowding your screen and losing out on effect. The learner will be able to engage with each on-screen element separately, and will get much more out of the experience than if they were spending half their time being distracted by neon backgrounds. Plus, you will be able to devote more of your time and energy to creating each section, which should result in a better end product and less time spent rushing to cram one more interaction in. Have fun! And listen to War of the Worlds. It will blow your mind.


By the end of this blog you will:

  • Know what a learning objective is and why you need to write them.
  • Understand why it’s so important to write learning objectives.
  • Be able to write good learning objectives.

I’ve gone mad with learning objectives recently. Yes, there is something cheesy about learning objectives. If learning objectives could talk they’d probably say: ‘Before you can plan your journey you must first know where you want to go.’

But they’re also very useful for those of us designing training. Before you can design your training you need to know what the learners need to learn. The intended outcome should always determine what goes into your course. Why?

  • Keeping the end in sight will also help you to select the content that you choose to include in your programme much more wisely. For example, you’ll be less likely to add in token ‘background’ information to provide ‘context’ – if you’re writing a course on the Bribery Act for the entire staff base of an organisation, they don’t need to know that the UK Bribery Act 2010 was legislated in order to bring UK law into line with European law. Remember, you’re not training people how to be lawyers.
  • Once you’ve agreed on your learning objectives it will help you persuade your SME that you don’t need to include that drop down menu with all of the Bribery Act’s clauses.
  • Most importantly, it will help you keep focused on behavioural change. As the old Saffron saying goes, it doesn’t matter what you know but rather what you can do.

Consider the following learning objectives, which I’ve just put together for a fictional anti-bribery course.

By the end of this course users will:

  • Know what the Bribery Act is and what it prohibits.
  • Understand why it’s so important to behave in line with the Bribery Act.
  • Understand what the Bribery Act stops them from doing in their role.
  • Be able to take the right actions when someone offers them a bribe.
  • Be able to get on with their day to day duties without breaking the Bribery Act.

What do you think of them? Okay, so we can eliminate the first one. As you will have thought the moment you read it: people don’t need to know what the Bribery Act prohibits, they need to be able to do their job without breaking it. It’s not a knowledge thing, it’s a behaviour thing. With a learning objective like this, the only thing you’ll be sure of is that by the end of the course users won’t be able to get on with their day to day duties without breaching the Bribery Act.

But what about the second one? Or the third? Well, there’s nothing wrong with motivating employees to contemplate the consequences of breaking the law. Someone who’s thought about the consequences of breaking the law is probably more likely to behave in a way that does not break the law. But if all you want is for your employees to behave in line with the law then why not miss out this understanding step? There’s no need to enshrine understanding within a learning objective when teaching someone how to behave in line with the Bribery Act will involve teaching them why it’s important to do so. Unlike in Maths, there’s no need to ‘show your working’ – just keep it simple.

So that takes us to the fourth one: ‘At the end of this course users will be able to take the right actions when someone offers them a bribe.’

This is more like it. It focuses on a specific behavioural change and a good one at that. If an employee is to avoid breaking the law they’re going to have to take the right actions in those difficult situations in which they feel that they might be being offered a bribe. But doesn’t being able to avoid accepting a bribe just fall under the wider umbrella objective of being ‘able to get on with their day to day duties without breaking the Bribery Act’ (our last learning objective above)? So why bother with it?

Perhaps I’ve taken this a bit too far. After all, the reason we want to keep the fourth learning objective is that it helps us, as trainers, tailor our training so that it teaches people how to do the things that they need to do in their jobs. The last one, although behaviour focused, is too general. Of course an anti-bribery course should teach users how to avoid breaking bribery laws. But how will it do that? Well, firstly, by teaching them how to behave when confronted with someone who is offering them a bribe.

But what of that tendency that trainers have of informing users of their learning objectives for the course? Many a time I have seen an e-learning course, for instance, that begins with a bullet pointed list of what the learner can be expected to have learnt by the time 60 minutes has elapsed in front of their PC. In fact, I do this in my own courses.

But why do I do this? Does it really help the learner to learn? Let’s reconsider the learning objectives that I gave you at the beginning of this blog.

By the end of this blog you will:

  • Know what a learning objective is and why you need to write them.
  • Understand why it’s so important to write learning objectives.
  • Be able to write good learning objectives.

I think you’ll agree that the first two aren’t particularly good. But putting aside the issue of what makes a good learning objective, do you feel that having these objectives helped you gain something valuable from this blog? Put another way, did my telling you that ‘by the end of this blog you will be able to write good learning objectives’ make it easier for you to learn how to write good learning objectives? If my blog is helpful then surely it would be because it contains useful information or guidance and not because I warned you ahead of time what I intended, or hoped, you would take from it?

If you agree, then perhaps people don’t need to be that self-reflective about their learning. After all, we’re providing training, not therapy. Shouldn’t we allow our courses to speak for themselves?


e-Learning, and the discussions around it, tends to polarise people. Nobody really sits on the fence – broadly speaking, they are for it (normally, those with a keen sense of the cost of training) or they are against it (those who believe in traditional pedagogy).

Those in favour of e-learning, therefore, often tend to come up with arguments along the lines of ‘it’s cheaper, and if we can demonstrate that learners have completed and passed the course, we’ve accomplished the same as much more expensive and time-consuming classroom based training may have done.’

Those against will argue that ‘e-learning might tick all the boxes, but there is no replacement for an instructor-led training session.’ It is ‘impersonal’, ‘un-engaging’ and ‘removed from the learner.’

But which of these perspectives is right? The short answer, I believe, is neither of them.

Let me explain why I think this is. All of the arguments above could just as well apply to an instructor-led session. Cheaper training is always an option, especially with web conferencing and virtual classrooms so readily available. And how many times have you been bored by an instructor or a teacher? Or felt that the content or delivery of training fell short of your expectations?

Writing great e-learning courses is not about emulating the presence of an instructor. The function e-learning should perform is to bridge the gap between learning materials and student. As one might prepare materials for an instructor to deliver to a student, so too must an e-learning course deliver its content – avoiding the same pitfalls that bad instructors fall into: being boring, un-engaging or impersonal.

Harry Calhoun, writing for CEdMA Europe, shows how Anil Mammen mentions four key points for good e-learning that help you bridge this gap:

  1. Help the learner ‘internalise’ the content
    A learner, whether at a computer or in a classroom, cannot be forced to absorb content. However, you can encourage them. Make your course intellectually challenging, fun and relevant, and they will internalise the course content much more readily.
  2. Make the learner pause and think about the concepts and principles illustrated there
    Just like in a schoolroom, learners need time to absorb information, which they may do in a plenary or a group exercise. While this luxury is not readily available in e-learning, you should still design courses to have natural pauses for reflection. At Saffron, we use a ‘test then tell’ approach to get learners to think about another topic using their intuition, experience or previous learning (as opposed to the traditional ‘tell-and-test’ approach, which asks the learner to read a lot of information and then tests their memory recall of that information).
  3. Make the learner experience the situations presented in the program
    My speciality is systems simulation, but even those courses that are far removed from systems simulations need to engage the learner on a relevant and realistic level. Doing some ‘boring’ compliance training? Why not ask the learner some difficult scenario-based questions? Putting them on the spot tests their behaviour as well as their knowledge, much like an instructor would.
  4. Provide the learner with opportunities to solve problems and interact with ideas
    The problem of interactivity is an interesting one. Too much, and you risk the learner getting ‘click-fatigue’. Too little, and the course can feel dry. Make sure that the interactions are relevant, and present plausible and engaging problems to the learner. I remember, for example, the puzzle about the farmer who has to get his chicken, a bag of corn and a fox across the river, taking two at a time with him, but not leaving the chicken alone with the fox or the bag of corn (although it can be argued that it is unrealistic, because no farmer would ever try to give a fox a helping hand across a watercourse). Still – it’s a well-thought-out mind-game. Like a great teacher, a good interaction will provoke thought for hours to come.

Why not bear these four points above in mind when you are writing your next e-learning course? You might find yourself naturally writing courses that not only bridge the gap between material and student, but make them wonder why an instructor was ever needed in the first place.




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