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March 24, 2009

Vetting (or filtering) information

I stumbled on this great piece from the Bottom-Line Performance blog that I think is worth sharing (and it's certainly something I focus on a lot in my training librarian workshops):

"The challenge for instructional designers is no longer finding some relevant information on an obscure topic. Wikipedia does that for us. The challenge becomes identifying the most important content, the facts and information that will best support the performance the organization needs to drive business results. Ruth Clark tells us that people learn more from a short description of how something works than from a longer description of how something works. Learning professionals can weed through the nice to haves and create a program that best meets the needs of the business and the learner."

The irony here is that we've been talking about this for a long time in libraries (that our worth in libraries going forward will be more on what we exclude, what we filter out, than what we include).* Here it is again, but in the context of instructional design. I'm definitely in that camp - that to remain relevant we need to make this paradigmatic leap - both as librarians and as instructors/instructional designers. Less IS best!

* I was first exposed to this idea in John Sealy Brown and Paul Duguid's book. Well worth a look:

July 9, 2008

Getting rid of some of your content

One of my favorite blogs has a great entry about weeding through content and figuring out what are your need-to- knows.

The entry is geared towards instructional designers creating e-learning, but applicable to in-person delivery as well.

Check it out: Build Better E-Learning Courses By Getting Rid of Some of the Content

March 5, 2007

How much responsibility for learning will you take?

Last entry in the "do's and don'ts" for good design I mentioned a "do" that said, "Take responsibility for your learners meeting your objectives." It seems to me that this one, in particular, merits more discussion. As teachers we all are faced with a decision - how much of our content are we going to take responsibility for our learners to actually learn it, and how much will we depend on the learner to take responsibility for learning on their own?

To answer this question, ask yourself who you are being in a certain situation. Are you a teacher, are you a lecturer, or are you an orientation leader?

The last two roles – lecturer and orientation leader – probably give the learner more responsibility to handle the content on their own. But the first role – teacher – places you with a greater responsibility to ensure that learning is taking place.

When I give my train the library teacher workshops to other librarians, this topic usually comes up after the design teams have brainstormed pages and pages of content and are now attempting to figure out what content is really crucial and what is less so. Inevitably, someone in the groups will say, "Well, we're just going to mention that item, we're not really going to teach it."

Now remember – we’re not designing orientations and we’re not designing lectures – we’re designing workshops. So, I have a pretty strong reaction to this. What I remind folks is that “mentioning? content comes at a cost to the learner. Learners only have so much cognitive ability to absorb and make sense of your content. In fact, when it comes to short term memory, the rule of thumb is that a person can only take in about 5 to 9 pieces of information before their capacity to take in information is reached. At that point the learner has to do something with that knowledge – apply it, synthesize it, process it – in order for it move into long term memory. So every time you mention something (“Oh, and you can order this through Interlibrary Loan. That’s a service where you… blah blah blah?) you’re tipping the learner towards or over the 5 to 9 mark. The problem is that when you do get to something that you actually want them to learn, you’ve used up your ration, and have to move directly into the “doing something? part of your lesson plan instead of covering more content/teaching points. But chances are, you wouldn't have designed this fast detour into "doing something" and so your handouts and exercises wouldn't work. If you're not fast on your feet, guess what - it probably means you’ve just messed up your essential need-to-know content with a bunch of "nice to know," yet less essential information. Yikes!

There’s a fabulous book out there called Telling Ain’t Training. This should be essential reading for all of us librarian enamored with our content and information. The single most important thing we can probably do is to lose our infatuation with sharing EVERYTHING that should be known and focus solely on the most essential items that must be known.

May 15, 2006

Are your learners drowning in content?

IMHO, learner overload is probably one of the most interesting challenges we face as library instructional designers and teachers. This is because for most of us we might never see this particular group of learners ever again. All we probably have is the 50-minute, the 1 hour, or the 90 minute timeslot with them total. Of course we panic. There is SO MUCH we want to pass onto our learners. There is so much important content, so many important lessons, so many tips and tricks and survival skills and just-in-cases and pearls of wisdom. And all that in a few measly minutes! These poor learners. They deserve days of workshops, they deserve a semester, a 3-credit course, a minor! But all they get is a few measly minutes with us.

I think that the step in the process for filter content (step 4) may well be the most important step in the entire process. It takes an enormous amount of willpower to keep the perils of cognitive overload front and center in our minds, and pick, pick, pick away at the content until we get to the kernels – the most important, critical pieces of content. My advice is to take this step very seriously. Keep asking yourself for everything you want to include in the workshop, is this item critical for learner success? Will they learn it on their own or somewhere else? Are you certain that it’s critical? But most importantly, if you do include it, does that mean that other things you’ve included in the workshop get diluted?

Think about it this way – the human brain has limited capacity to take in new content. There are lots of methods to address this capacity problem (some which I address in the book), but as many clever ways that you as a designer and teacher address this capacity problem, you’re still going to hit a wall at some point.

If there’s only one thing that you take away from the instructional design process, it’s that if you can’t manage the volume of your content and integrate methods to help your learners process that content, they’re dead in the water. Are you sure you're doing all you can to keep them afloat?

In order to help your learners process new information and move it into the long term memory, you have got to be serious about integrating frequent opportunities for learners to DO SOMETHING with the content. You can't expect them to take it all in by just sitting there in your classroom and watching you lecture and do a demo, and then in the last 10 minutes jumping on the computer and doing some searching. Instead, modularize your content into small enough segments so that every 8-12 minutes (or even sooner, after 7+or-2 information items) they have to DO SOMETHING with the content. You doing something - you doing a demo or asking a question and having one person respond - is not the same as your learners doing something. Get them in action, get them practicing and applying every 10 minutes or so, and you’ll be doing them an enormous service. Sure, it means that you have to cut back even more on your need-to-knows, but you can feel confident that at least the ones you have left will be learned and not just immediately dumped out of the other ear or in the trashcan as your learners exit your workshop.

If you are intrigued by this whole concept and want to read more beyond what I've got in chapter 4, I highly recommend reading Ruth Colvin Clark’s work. She’s got some great articles out there in the training and education field, but check out her books too. One that I recommend came out a few years ago and is called Building Expertise. She’s got a new one out that I haven’t gotten to read but it looks great - called Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. So, if you’re inspired, please do take a look at her work. There’s so much there we can take into the library world of instruction!