Friday, January 27, 2017

Instructional Designers Can’t Handle Virtual Reality

Each time I scroll through my social media feeds, I come across numerous posts about virtual reality in training. “Is the hardware too expensive?” “Do learners get nauseated?” and the ubiquitous-but-missing-the-point, “Is it better than Augmented Reality?”

The answers to these questions don’t matter. They are moot. That’s because the vast majority of instructional designers don’t have the skills to build effective 3D immersive training content. It’s not their fault. For most of their careers they’ve worked in the linear 2D world of PowerPoint slides and eLearning authoring tools.

When IDs find themselves trying to create compelling scenarios, build interactions, and guide discovery in 3D immersive environments, they quickly learn that the difficulty of development and testing increases exponentially. Obviously, the time for the project increases dramatically too, and spare time is something no one has.

I know firsthand just how tough it is; I did it every day for nearly 3 years as the Head of Instructional Design at Caspian Learning, a company in the UK that specializes in 3D immersive learning. The team at Caspian (artists, PMs, IDs, coders) created award-winning 3D virtual reality. But here’s the thing: we had to dedicate ourselves 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. IDs can’t dip in and out of virtual reality development while juggling other projects – VR development requires focus.

But let’s say you’re determined to develop a virtual reality experience for training. Here's my high-level advice for IDs:

1.    Choose a scenario that is dangerous or costly to recreate in real life. VR provides a risk-free place for trainees to experiment and practice. If the scenario is not dangerous or costly, there’s probably a more cost-effective way to train.
2.    Choose a scenario that depends on the environment and objects, not on discussions with people. For example, “That building is on fire! Perform the tasks that will eliminate the danger to the school next door.”
3.    Prepare for disappointment. It takes millions and millions of dollars to make 3D video games like Call of Duty.
4.    Realize that training time will increase significantly as compared to 2D elearning. In a 3D environment, trainees have to explore much more to absorb the same amount of training content.
5.    Play 3D video games and note how the game guides your journey. Do characters tell you where to go? Do markers show what objects you must interact with? How does the game stop you from walking off into infinity?
6.    Determine how the game gives you feedback for correct and incorrect actions. Do you score points? Do you hear sounds? Do you get new objects? Become an expert in gaming elements.
7.    Drop trainees directly into the scenario – into the deep end. Avoid your natural ID inclination to offer tons of information up front. Virtual reality is great for letting learners experiment to find out what works and what doesn’t. The learning is much more effective this way.
8.    Get your head around the fact that learners will never do what you expect them to do. You will have to create barriers for every possibility. (Ouch.)
9.    Pilot. Pilot. Pilot. At each phase of development, have people try your scenario. Watch where they get stuck. Make changes. Note that this increases development time, but it’s so worthwhile.

I have a lot more advice about creating 3D training, but I’ll stop here.  Virtual reality can be very engaging and effective. But it’s A LOT of work. So don’t get caught up in the hype. Make sure you’re prepared for the realities of development – they are not virtual. They’re very real.

Friday, June 14, 2013

5 Steps to Informal Learning, Content Curation & Knowledge Hustling

Instructional design, training, and e-learning courses should be dead. And my job should be in the grave next to them. The numbers tell us why: 

  • The average office worker spends less than 2% of his or her time in formal training. 
  • Less than 20% of formal learning transfers to the job (Cromwell & Kolb, 2004).
  • A Google search of “e-learning sucks” offers 2,690,000 results. 

After all, I’ve been an instructional designer focused on e-learning for more than 17 years. And, I’ve been very skeptical of the power of informal learning; I assumed it was a fad, difficult to control, and nearly impossible to connect to bottom-line business results.

Well today I'm rising from the dead, pulling myself out of the grave, kicking over the tombstone that says Instructional Designer 1995 – 2012, and declaring myself to be a “Community Manager”… 

Actually, I think I want to go with something a bit more provocative and descriptive like “Knowledge Hustler.”

A Community Manager or Knowledge Hustler is someone who (1) identifies all the sources of information relevant to the organization (both internal and external) – whether they be blogs, discussion boards, job aids, chats, wikis, videos, formal courses, Twitter, etc.; (2)  shares high-quality information through an easy-to-use tool; (3) publicizes the tool and encourages everyone to use it; (4) monitors the usage data to find out what works best and continually improve the user experience. 

The thing is, there’s a lot to get my head around to become a world-class Knowledge Hustler. So here are the first steps I’m gonna take:

  1. Divorce my LMS and get cozy with an LRS. A Learning Record Store (LRS) keeps track of everything people are looking at for information. For example, if someone reads a pdf I’ve put on the company intranet, the LRS records that information. Or if someone uses a mobile app to share a video, the LRS records that too. In other words, the LRS can record pretty much anything anyone does to learn something, so I probably won’t need a Learning Management System (LMS) anymore. In getting cozy with the LRS, I’ll find out what information people use most and give them more.
  2. Get intimate with Tin Can and HashTags. The Tin Can API captures the data that’s sent to the LRS. So I must get comfortable using it to “tag” everything I expect people to look at. Similarly, I have to get in the habit of hashtagging information religiously because “Hashtags provide a means of grouping such messages, since one can search for the hashtag and get the set of messages that contain it.”
  3. Woo SMEs to be Content Curators. A Content Curator sorts through the vast amounts of content on the web or intranet and presents it in a meaningful and organized way around a specific theme. But only subject matter experts (SMEs) know what information is worthwhile in their field. Without them, my informal learning community would perish instantly because it would lack credibility. The thing is, SMEs rarely have time on their hands, and content curation takes about an hour per day. So I have to create an incentive plan that will keep them going. In fact, I also have to create an incentive/marketing plan to get everyone to use the community (could my gamifaction experience help here?) because lively discussion and sharing is the best motivator.
  4. Bring sexy back to the company Intranet. I’ll make sure it’s mobile-friendly.  The search feature will bring up useable, relevant results. @mentions will get people’s attention. Anyone will be able to easily post content – blogs, videos, threads, you name it. I will make the Intranet stop one when someone wants to get job-related information – not YouTube or Google.
  5. Play the field. I’ll constantly explore and experiment with technology and information to make the community stronger. I’ll use Storyfy, Twitter, Flipboard, Pearltrees, Summify, Themefy, Pocket, Alltop, YouTube, BuzzFeed, Reddit, Evernote, BagTheWeb, etc. and borrow ideas from them. 

I have to admit, I already feel more alive in my Knowledge Hustler role. It’s current. It moves instructional design into the realm of true performance improvement. It embraces all information, not just formal training events. I learn new things every day. Everyone in the company stays current, but avoids information overload.

I’m all in. You?


Cromwell, S. E., & Kolb, J. A. (2004). An examination of work-environment support factors affecting transfer of supervisory skills training in the workplace. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 15, 449–471.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

4 Steps to Microlearning Mastery

Is it cheating if you read the Cliffs Notes version of War and Peace instead of Tolstoy’s? Or is it resourceful?

Your answer probably depends on why you’re reading it and how much time you have; whether you’re in school or business; and whether you’re a kid or an adult.

As an instructional designer in the corporate world, I always assume that learners want to gain a business edge in the shortest amount of time. To me, the Cliffs Notes’ microlearning model is, therefore, not cheating. 
The dilemma though is that microlearning is extremely difficult to build. It requires instructional designers (IDs) to be minimalists with their words and interactions, but virtuosos at user-friendly delivery methods. As E.F. Schumacher, author of A Guide for the Perplexed and Small is Beautiful, said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” 

So how does your team get into the microlearning mindset and then use its power?

  1. Tattoo a rectangle the size of an index card on your forearm.
    Just kidding, of course. But an index card is about the size of typical mobile phone screen, and you need to be very cognizant of how much information you can fit on it. Practice boiling down your PowerPoint decks to this size; offer one learning point at a time and try to limit the deck to 5 slides. Then start thinking about media that could substitute for words but fit in the same space…video, for example.

  2. Research examples of microlearning.
    Microlearning isn’t just phone-sized bits of information. Check these sites out for ideas like Google’s post-a-lesson-on-the-back-of-the-toilet-door:
  3. Dump the “Tell me, show me, let me” model of instructional design.
    Jump directly to the “Let me” portion of the learning. Give your learners a problem, let them try to solve it, and give them feedback. Microlearning requires you to cut to the chase, and adult learners are ready for it.

  4. Don’t push learning.
     Let learners pull it when they want or need it ( To evolve from a “push” to “pull” organization, your team must become adept at marketing; learners must know where to get the information just when they need it, so you have to burn it into their brains.
With that, this “Cliffs Notes” version of Getting Started in Microlearning is complete.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Top Tips to Avoid Ineffective Virtual Classrooms

“Experts” of the virtual classroom recommend limiting sessions to less than an hour. So what do you do if you have to make a four-week face-to-face (f2f) training program virtual? Is it possible? Definitely.

Six years ago, my learning & development (L&D) team and I tackled this challenge numerous times for clients who wanted to create at-home call centers.  We had to on-board and establish skills for agents all over the world without relying on in-person classrooms or travel. And we had to achieve improved on-the-job performance in comparison to bricks-and-mortar call center agents.

Can you imagine being a student in a virtual classroom for four weeks though?  I’d rather suck the hairspray out of Donald Trump's comb-over.

To make a long story short, we did it. Through ruthless respect for adult learners, constructivism, and adherence to the “flipped classroom” model, we created a wildly efficacious training program that was significantly shorter than the original. 

What steps did we take to success?

  1. Cut the fluff. We went through the original f2f facilitator guide and identified all “icebreakers,” games, and other non-essential training activities. Instead of using training time for these, we posted them as messages on a social network like Google Groups. Learners controlled the discussions. By doing so, we reduced the time required for instructional designers to create interactions, as well as the trainer’s time to deliver them, and the learners’ time to suffer through them.
  2. Turn lectures into YouTube videos. Instead of listening to the trainer drone on in the virtual classroom over PowerPoint slides, learners watched shortened lectures on their schedule and used Rewind if they needed to. While we didn’t reduce instructional design time because we had to create the videos, we reduced classroom time. (We could have created self-paced elearning to cover the lecture materials, but in most cases this was overkill.)
  3. Create a non-graded workbook of activities. After learners finished watching each lecture video, they tackled workbook activities related to the material. They did it on their own and they often found they had to go beyond the video lecture, Googling to go in depth, or returning to the social network to ask questions of their colleagues. Trainers didn’t need to grade the workbooks – they could tell who was doing the work when the learners came into the virtual classroom.
  4. Use the virtual classroom to practice skills. After learners watched the lecture videos and attempted the workbook activities, they came into the classroom to ask specific questions, role-play, and practice job-specific skills such as searching the electronic performance support system. The trainer merely introduced the activities. Learners guided each other through, creating an atmosphere of camaraderie and collaboration.
  5. Build a targeted performance support system. The L&D team used its saved time to create a user-friendly, smart knowledgebase for agents to find answers quickly when they were on the job. As a result, the training program didn’t require learners to memorize tomes of information. It was like Google, only specific to the job. 

The results speak for themselves:

  • Training time for each program was cut in half.
  • On-the-job performance improved by 20%.
  • First-month attrition dropped by 50%.

While L&D can’t take full credit for these results (older, more educated agents, for example, had something to do with it), we definitely contributed. When it’s time for you to contribute too, take the virtual classroom “experts” with a grain of salt. Don’t just do a straight conversion from f2f classroom to virtual classroom. Rethink the whole program.


Brian Bishop, PhD, is virtualwirks’ Practice Leader for Workforce Performance. He harnesses the power of emerging technologies to launch global training programs that improve employee, organizational and industry-wide success.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Learning tech dies. We don't have to.

Rest in peace QR codes. You had great potential for informal and on-the-spot learning, but you’re no longer needed. And you’re ugly. You’ve been rendered moot by mobile browsers like Layar[1] and Aurasma[2] that recognize the item itself; no “barcode” necessary.

Typically, learning technologies perish not because they’re ugly like QR codes, but because they require too much work for too little performance or monetary return. Serious games, immersive learning simulations, gamification, learning content management systems (LCMSs), virtual worlds, virtual reality, haptics, and even custom Flash interactions get heavy scrutiny from learning & development managers interested in ROI; the payback often isn’t there.

Another cause of death for learning technologies is the realization that formal learning is, quite literally, “old school”. (Isn’t it ironic that serious games and virtual worlds might be considered old school?) In other words, learning researchers and practitioners[3] are confirming the notion that most learning – as much as 90% – is informal; talking to people, heading out to YouTube, Googling, etc. 

Some people call it the 70/20/10 learning model[4]. Some people don’t believe such a model exists[5]. But whether the model exists is inconsequential. We all know that informal learning outweighs formal learning through empirical evidence. Think about your own job – do you spend more than 10% of your time in formal training events? Probably not. But you do learn things – probably every day. Therefore, if you’re an instructional designer, media developer, or learning & development manager spending most of your time building formal training, you’re wasting quite a bit of that time.

So what learning technologies do I think offer a good payback in terms of time, money and informality? 1. Augmented Reality, 2. Video, and 3. Performance Support Systems (PSSs) that are easily searchable and deliver mobile-friendly information. Notice that I didn’t include company-wide social networks; they’re very tough to search.

Augmented Reality (AR)
AR offers information on the spot through your phone or tablet. It puts the information in context perfectly. And, right now, it’s free to build using Hoppala[6]. It’s also fast to build as long as the content you want to link to already exists. You might link to Wikipedia, YouTube, or your PSS. Once you’ve built it, deliver your AR through Layar, Junaio, or Aurasma. I’ve built AR “apps” in half a day.

The trouble with AR is that we L&D folks might end up sending it to its grave if we try to get too fancy with it. We have a tendency to do that: “The learner needs to be more engaged.” “We need to include more interactivity.” When you utter these phrases, ask yourself, “Am I just trying to show off, or does the learner really need it?”

Video is potent for learning; plus, it can be very quick and cost effective. I made the argument here:

But, again, the danger is if we get too fancy. Are you seeing a pattern here?

Performance Support Systems (PSSs)
This is where I spend most of my working day – putting more content into the PSS and making sure it’s easy to find –.pdf files, Word documents, instructions, FAQs, or anything that will help people on the job. You can use your LMS for this as long as it’s easy to search and delivers mobile-friendly content. If that’s not an option, start your research into a PSS here:

The point is that L&D won’t go the way of the QR code as long as we:
  1. Pay attention to shifts in technology that change the way learners learn.
  2. Spend most of our time on the projects that give us the most bang for our buck.
  3. Don’t get too fancy. 


Brian is the Practice Leader of Workforce Performance at virtualwirks. email him at if you want to: 
  • Roll out a virtual workforce, but your internal training department is not familiar with multi-week virtual training programs
  • Create a more efficient internal training department
  • Implement training programs that exceed performance goals in minimum time
  • Meet or exceed predicted L&D ROI

[3] Godwin-Jones, R. (June 2009). Emerging technologies personal learning environments. Language, Learning & Technology, 13(2).
Levenberg, A. & Caspi, A. (2010). Comparing perceived formal and informal learning in face-to-face versus online environments. Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, 6.
Manganello, F., Falsetti, C., Spalazzi, L., & Leo, T. (January 2013). PKS: An ontology-based learning construct for lifelong learners. Educational Technology & Society, 16(1).
[5]Howe, N.J. (May 2010). Let’s kill a few learning holy cows – 70:20:10 is dead (or at least seriously ill). Retrieved April 3, 2013 from

Monday, April 1, 2013

eLearning cuts costs? Should I care?

I’m a big believer in the power of eLearning, but I get tired of hearing that eLearning cuts costs in comparison to face-to-face instructor-led training (ILT). Put quite simply, that’s not a reason to use it. Heck, you can cut costs by 100% if you eliminate training completely.  So it’s important to establish that the eLearning you deliver is at least as effective as the ILT it replaces. Only then can you use cost savings as a benefit of eLearning.
Can you honestly say your eLearning is at least as effective as your ILT? How do you know?

Start by collecting performance data on the people who went through the ILT. Then, pilot the eLearning. Check the performance data from the pilot group. Compare the two sets of data.

Is there a statistically significant difference?*

If there is no significant difference between the two sets of performance data, your eLearning is just as good as the ILT (or your learners aren’t paying attention to either the ILT or the eLearning). The cost savings you’ve achieved should be added to your salary.

In most cases there will be significant differences. That’s because ILT has its advantages, eLearning has other advantages. In other words, learners might absorb specific pieces of knowledge better in the classroom; other pieces of knowledge might best be delivered via eLearning.
So what do you do if there are significant differences in several performance statistics?
  1. Label the positive differences as either ILT or eLearning.
  2. Rank the differences in order of importance to the company’s strategy. For example, ILT might result in speedier troubleshooting, but the company gets paid by the hour. As a result, speed might not be high on the list of priorities.
  3. Determine which delivery method accounts for greatest number of differences in the top five according to your ranking.
If eLearning wins, you’re doing great because you’re getting better on-the-job performance out of your learners and you’re saving money. Your next step is to make the eLearning even better by improving it in the performance areas where ILT won the battle.

If ILT wins, your eLearning cost savings argument is moot.

*If you need to brush up on your business statistics, start here:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Training Development Under the Microscope

When I help training departments become more efficient and effective at what they do, they often ask how long it should take to develop an hour of training. The answer begins with a look at the data supplied by Karl Kapp, Robyn Defelice, and ASTD at

Then I tell my clients it should take half that.

If they say, “Great! We already achieve half,” we make sure that their training contributes to the company’s strategic objectives. If not, the training represents wasted time and money. In such as case, what’s usually happening is the training department receives its training development requests from line managers, not from executives.  A flip of the model is probably in order. But we don’t want to jump to any conclusions – that’s a recipe for disaster. So, we look at their process systemically and systematically (described below) to get the full picture.

If, however, my clients say it's impossible to achieve half the training development time listed in the ASTD study, the training development process immediately goes under the microscope.

I recommend taking several days every six months to examine your training development process to find out where you can tighten it up. Here are the steps we typically follow. (You’ll see many similarities to the Analyze phase of the ADDIE process): 

1. Talk to your customers to find out what they want from your training.
You have several “customers” to take into account: customers, learners, executives, and your department.

2. Clarify – in specific numbers – your training development goals. 
For each of the training products you produce – ILT, vILT, eLearning, Blended, Performance Support, etc. – answer the following questions:
  • How much will we impact strategic company goals?
  • How well will learners perform on the job? 
  • What will the level of learner satisfaction be?
  • How much will an hour of training take to develop?
  • How much will an hour of training cost to develop?
3. Commit to collecting the numbers to answer each question.
Create a plan to do it.

4. Based on the “voice of the customer” and the strategic goals of the company, prioritize the desired performances.
Which desired performance is most important? Maybe your company’s most important goal is speed-to-market, therefore you must get learning out very quickly. Or maybe it’s to increase customer satisfaction, so your training must offer great depth. Whatever it might be, it becomes the focus when scrutinizing your training development process.

5. Map the current training development process. 
For each of your department’s products (ILT, eLearning, etc.) create a development process map. Be thorough. Be honest. Don’t skip any steps. 

6. Carefully dissect the process map. Find the flaws. 
First, identify the parts of the process that distract your training development team from focusing on your top customer and company priorities. Then, find the parts of the process that are slowing you down or costing too much. Do you receive too much content from the SMEs? Are SMEs not giving you enough time? Are reviews taking too long? 

7. Determine the root causes of the flaws. 
“The Five Whys” is probably the easiest tool for this task ( Pay particular attention to the root causes that have a ripple effect on each other.

8. Identify the fixes for the root causes. 
Maybe you need to put SMEs at the core of development (, or adopt rapid prototyping (, or something else... Or a combination.

9. Draw a new process map that includes the new interventions.

10. Now, start from scratch. 
Draw another process map, specific to your department, based on the 70/20/10 model ( for training.

11. Compare your revamped process to the 70/20/10 process map.
Which one better helps you hit your desired performance goals?

12. Whichever process you choose, identify those areas of the process that contribute most to your desired performance goals.
These will be the areas of change that you’ll work on the most vigorously.

13. Implement the changes to your process using proven change management techniques ( 

14. Measure the results with the completion of each new project.
  • Ask team members to comment on new process
  • Get feedback from customers
  • Collect learner performance data
  • Collect business results data
15. Go back to step 1.
Continually improve. 

See if you can make your training so efficient and effective that you never have to ask how long it takes to develop an hour of training. Instead, you simply ask, “What do we need to achieve?”
Brian is the Practice Leader of Workforce Performance at virtualwirks. He applies the efficiencies of virtualization to training and human performance programs for global clients.