ABOUT JOE GANCI (President, eLearningJoe, LLC)

Joseph Ganci is President of eLearningJoe, LLC, a custom learning company located outside Washington. D.C. Since 1983, he has been involved in every aspect of multimedia and learning development. Joe holds a degree in Computer Science, and writes books and articles about eLearning. He is widely considered a guru for his expertise in eLearning development, and consults with clients worldwide. Joe is also a frequent teacher and presenter at industry conferences and at client sites, especially on the subject of eLearning development tools. His tool reviews appear each month and he is the recipient of several awards for his work in eLearning, including a Lifetime Achievement Award way back in 1999. His mission is to improve the quality of eLearning with practical approaches that work. He loves to help others achieve their goals.

ABOUT THIS INTERVIEW SERIES:

Crystal Balling with Learnnovators’ is a thought-provoking interview series that attempts to gaze into the future of e-learning. It comprises stimulating discussions with industry experts and product evangelists on emerging trends in the learning landscape.

Join us on this exciting journey as we engage with thought leaders and learning innovators to see what the future of our industry looks like.

THE INTERVIEW:

1. Learnnovators: You are considered a ‘guru’ for your expertise in e-learning development. It is great to see you on an inspiring journey to improve the quality of e-learning with ‘practical approaches that work’. For decades, you have been helping learning designers with your design approaches and your expert advice on the use of development tools. You also have been assisting:

a. Organizations that are just getting started, by helping them avoid costly mistakes
b. Organizations that have been creating e-learning for a long time, to improve their processes

How has your journey been so far?

Joe: My journey has been overall very fulfilling, though of course there have been some frustrations along the way. While my main area of expertise over the last 32 years has been in the best use of development tools, of course I’ve also learned which forms of instructional design work and which do not. My frustration stems in part from the fact that as eLearning development tools have become more powerful, and in other cases weaker, eLearning design has suffered on the altar of creating learning faster and cheaper. I dare say that 75% or more of the eLearning that I have seen in the last few years has been nothing better than slightly warmed over PowerPoint presentations, usually with a quiz attached at the end. While cheap to create, not once has this form of “eLearning” been proven to change behavior or to improve the company bottom line. As such, a lot of money and time are being wasted on creating inferior eLearning. It also has led some organizations to swear off eLearning as ineffective based on their own experience of applying it poorly.

I also am frustrated because so many new tools in the market offer little more than what others have for years, even some that are no longer in production. What’s the point of putting out a development tool that has the same features, or fewer, than those of a product already on the market? I would encourage all tool vendors to take a good hard look at the products they sell and ensure that they are offering something unique and useful.

2. Learnnovators: It is a well-known fact that you cannot use yesterday’s tools to solve today’s problems. This gains more significance in today’s scenario where there is a major shift in thinking about leveraging the power of emerging technologies for workplace learning and performance support. What, as a veteran developer and reviewer of authoring tools, are your learnings over the years? How encouraging is the new learning landscape with the kind of possibilities thrown open by new learning technologies (such as mobile learning, wearable techs, and learning analytics)? How do you visualize the authoring tools evolving to meet the demands of today’s ‘smart learners’ equipped with ‘smart devices’? What is the future?

Joe: Tool vendors have been more reactive than proactive in many ways. They react to changes in technology, both software and hardware, so that they can stay relevant, rather than take chances on technologies that may not yet have proven themselves. They react to what their competitors are doing. They react to customer demands. This is understandable in corporations that are risk-averse and that have to deliver in the short term to their investors, but it’s a shame because in many ways we are missing the mark. Larger companies, like Adobe, are able to bring many more resources to bear and so have an advantage in the market with their product offerings. Smaller companies sometimes cannot break in easily but they also are able to survive on less revenue, so they sometimes have an advantage in being able to take more risks, though they may take longer to bring new products to market.

As an example, HTML5 was added to most development tools only after it was clear that Flash was on its way out and as it became evident that more people were browsing the web on their mobile devices than on their desktop computers. At the moment, Adobe Captivate has the clear lead in delivering responsive design learning, that which adapts itself to the device accessing the learning. It also allows for gestures on mobile devices. Other tools are starting to offer similar options, but at a slower rate. They offer different avenues to mobile delivery, such as having free mobile players for different devices.

I am excited about some of the newer tools that are beginning to show distinction in what they are offering, especially those that are focused on making case-based scenario eLearning easier to design and develop. Time will tell how popular these tools become, but I am encouraged by their recent presence in the marketplace.

3. Learnnovators: Today’s workforce learns more from workplace (on-the-job) learning experiences and social sharing than from formal training interventions. It is exciting to see a growing realization that people learn primarily through ‘doing’ rather than ‘knowing’. Formal learning (that includes e-learning) constitutes only a tiny part of the spectrum. In this context, how do you think the existing ‘design model’ of the e-learning authoring tools need to evolve to adapt to these changes?

Joe: I’m a firm believer that both formal and informal learning are necessary. The formal learning, whether classroom-based or eLearning-based, helps to set a foundation for further learning. It helps to jump start the learning process. However, when one finishes a formal course, one is not yet an expert. One has simply graduated. It may take days, weeks, months or years to reach a level of expertise afterward, depending on a number of factors, including the difficulty level of the material, the amount of time the learner can dedicate and the perceived importance of the material. In the past, for instance, college graduates had to rely mainly on internships or be teamed with mentors to help them get up to speed for a period of time, then continue to learn on their own. Not too many would trust someone who has just graduated from medical school and has not yet practiced medicine in the real world to perform surgery on them. While this continues to be true today, we now have so many more resources available to us, including social learning forums and online materials. More importantly, distance learning and robotics have become much easier so that a doctor can manipulate robot arms from across the globe, both for practice and in actual surgeries.

Tool vendors that allow for social collaboration to be built into eLearning lessons, thereby giving learners the ability to converse with each other, build teams, and collaborate on projects, help to establish a lifelong pattern of continuous learning. It doesn’t matter even if you suffer from severe physical disabilities and cannot leave your home: there are now avenues to learning that in the past did not exist.

4. Learnnovators: You say “The tools you were using two years ago may no longer be the tools you are using now, and the tools you’re currently using may be history two years from now.” What would be your advice on determining to choose the best tools for your current and future needs?

Joe: Some common sense would be in order here. Be sure to know the company behind the tool. Has it established a proper track record? Are there training classes available, either from the tool vendor or from third parties? Is there already an established user base or is there one starting to grow? How are the company’s financials (when it’s possible to know)? How good is their customer support? Are there manuals and on-line resources available to help you get up to speed faster?

However, aside from the business factors, the choice of a tool that will stand the test of time is dependent on a number of other considerations. How often is the tool updated? Does it allow for growth? Does it address the needs of today’s mobile learning, even if at the moment you’re not considering delivering to mobile devices?

How powerful is the tool? Is it able to accommodate your ever-increasing instructional design needs? While you can write a business report in both Notepad and in Microsoft Word, clearly Word will match your needs as they grow much more so than Notepad will. The same is true of development tools. Ask a lot of questions to the tool vendor and also to users of the tool. Find out what they like and don’t like about it. Make sure you don’t outgrow your tool before you even have started using it.

Tools fall into three categories: PowerPoint add-in tools, tools you install (outside of PowerPoint) and cloud-based tools. Cloud-based tools have a more frequent update schedule due to their very nature. While installed tools sometimes see a year or more between major updates, cloud-based tools tend to have many smaller updates throughout the year.

5. Learnnovators: You have conducted many reviews to evaluate the effectiveness of various e-learning authoring tools. One of the most unique aspects of your reviews is your consideration for tools that are ‘unknown’ (but with their own strengths and unique characteristics) or those that are not reviewed by others. What are three most significant questions to ask/consider when choosing authoring tools?

Joe: Every tool vendor struggles between making their tool both easy to use and powerful. Power means giving instructional designers all or most of the features they need to accommodate their designs. The more powerful a tool, the less easy it becomes to use, even if it’s just because there is a longer learning curve.

The questions to ask really depend on what your needs are, though remember your needs will grow with time. When teaching surgery, drag-and-drop exercises and video may be very important. Make sure the tool allows for those features. You may want to ensure that learner progress is able to be tracked in great detail. Does the tool allow for that? Are you teaching accounting principles? You may need a tool that lets you perform complex calculations. In general, I would start with these three questions:

a. What are the most important features of your tool?
b. Where is your tool lacking (and be honest, I’ll be asking users of your tool too and you don’t want to lose credibility)?
c. How does your tool address mobile learning needs?

 6. Learnnovators: Like many out there in our community, we too are a signatory of the Serious eLearning Manifesto. As we know, it is an attempt to raise the quality of e-Learning; and we do support this wonderful initiative and all the 22 principles that the manifesto contains. However, like many others, we are of the opinion that this initiative shouldn’t be limited to only ‘e-learning’ and should encompass all forms of workplace learning. As one of the trustees of this inspiring initiative, what are your thoughts? Would you suggest a ‘recommended addition’ to the manifesto principles on the nature of the authoring tools that we employ?

Joe: The important thing is to get started. The list is nothing more than words if we don’t apply them to how we are designing and developing our learning. They can be applied to any learning situation, not just eLearning. In fact, the second Principle makes us ask whether eLearning is the right solution, because sometimes it is not.

I believe that if we take the Manifesto seriously, and we must, then the choice of the eLearning tools we use becomes clearer. We must use tools that are powerful, that allow us to create the kind of instructional design that the Principles manifest. Of course there are times when a less powerful tool can meet our needs, especially when our needs are immediate and the results will have a short shelf life, for the same reason we use Notepad rather than Word sometimes. However, we need to flip the percentage by which we use easy tools with that with which we are using powerful tools and then take advantage of their power. The truth is, you can use a powerful tool to create bad eLearning too, just as you can create a plain vanilla document in Word that could have been written in Notepad. Don’t waste your money. Buy a powerful tool, take the time to learn it, and then make sure you use its features as much as possible to create the best learning you can.

It amazes me how often people consider themselves experts in a tool and yet don’t know about some of the key features of that tool. As one of my students told me in a tool class I was teaching, “Not only did I not have doors opened to me, I didn’t even know those doors were there!”

7. Learnnovators: Instructional designers today must know one or more development tools, but for most people it isn’t possible to be both a great instructional designer and an excellent developer, resulting in more poor examples of e-learning. Where do you think instructional designers stand with respect to their skills in designing learning experiences for today’s workforce? What would be your advice for them to upskill (re-learn the strategies) for designing effective learning solutions for today’s situations?

Joe: One of the reasons that easy-to-use tools sell more than powerful ones is that we have saddled instructional designers with the task of being developers as well. At one time, there was a clear distinction between being an instructional designer, who understood learning principles and who focused on creating the best design possible, and being a developer, who knew the ins and outs of the tool so well that the instructional designer’s needs could be met. We used to say that the instructional designer was more of a right-brain, creative type and the developer was more of a left-brain, logical type, though of course the division isn’t really that clear cut. However, in trying to force instructional designers to be developers, many of whom are much more creative than technically savvy, and many of whom do not wish to be developers, tool vendors saw a need and they met it, promising instructional designers tools that are easy to use (true) and also very powerful (false). What has happened over time is that instructional designers have perforce looked to the tool to determine what their instructional design could include rather than look to create the best instructional design and then determine what tools are needed and who would use those tools (if not themselves). I don’t see an easy solution here because we compromise too much when we tell instructional designers to become developers and we tell developers to become instructional designers.

8. Learnnovators: There is a wide array of rapid e-learning development tools available in the market that claim to enable people with limited instructional design background to build powerful and effective learning interventions. They claim to help turn boring e-learning into interesting challenges that are meaningful, memorable and motivational. How do you compare and contrast these tools?

Joe: As I’ve indicated above, I don’t think most of them allow for the kind of freedom and power needed to build powerful and effective learning. Those who believe it is possible have often not encountered the better eLearning, the kind that makes it evident how much more they would learn. When I meet with clients, I often will show examples of the same content in three or more formats: 1) linear with little interactivity, 2) linear with more interactivity, 3) nonlinear, case-based scenarios with multiple branching. Those who have had no exposure to learning principles often find such an exercise a real eye-opener and almost invariably see the wisdom in creating learning that really works, not that which is linear in nature.

Of course, you can compare the easier tools between themselves, showing which has this feature or that feature, but comparing easy tools with more powerful tools becomes an exercise in futility.

9. Learnnovators: Many of the tools are based on the linear structure and flow of PowerPoint. There is a thought in the community that Prezi may be a better medium to base on in order to break this linear design that makes e-learning boring. What are your thoughts?

Joe: Prezi is a great tool for presentations, but I don’t see it as a tool that I would use to create eLearning that is nonlinear and which tracks progress well enough for the learning to make sense. It certainly makes presentations more interesting and beautiful, though some are put off by the constant movement and animations that so many implement in their Prezi presentations (Why? Because they can!). Still, I wouldn’t consider it a serious tool for eLearning development.

10. Learnnovators: Today’s learners start learning on a device, and then move on to continue the same learning using other devices. What are some of the exciting possibilities for designing powerful learning experiences in these multi-device learning scenarios? What are the challenges? How do today’s authoring tools support this emerging need for ubiquitous design?

Joe: Yes, it’s become a ubiquitous access world. At home, we can watch a TV program, pause it, and then continue watching it in a different room or on our mobile devices on another day. We can look up information online at almost any time and almost anywhere. We can store files and data on cloud-based drives and access them from anywhere else we wish. We are no longer satisfied with being able to see a movie just in a theater. We now expect to see it at our convenience on our DVR, on Netflix, or at the very least on DVD.

So what about learning? We’re a little behind the times but we’re catching up. If you’re using a Learning Management System, make sure it’s accessible from mobile devices too. Also ensure that your learning is mobile and desktop ready. Responsive design approaches, where the content automatically adjusts itself to the device height and width, has become the standard for more professional websites. We should also make sure that our learning applications run smoothly and correctly on all devices. Very few authoring tools accommodate responsive design today, Adobe Captivate being the best known of them, but others will follow suit. Then we can start learning a lesson on our phone, switch to our iPad later, at a certain point access it on the seatback screens on airplanes, and perhaps finish on our desktops, seamlessly and effortlessly.

11. Learnnovators: Our hearty congratulations to you on being awarded the ‘Best Alternate Solution’ in the eLearning Guild Solution Fest 2014. It is greatly inspiring to know that you are the recipient of several other awards for your work in e-learning, including second annual Guild Master Award from the eLearning Guild, “In recognition of outstanding contributions to the eLearning Guild community and the learning technologies industry” in 2013. You also had the honor of being awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award way back in 1999. How do you look at these achievements?

Joe: Of course it’s gratifying to be recognized for my efforts. However, it would be even more satisfying to see the eLearning world improve more and more each year. In some ways, we have. In other ways, we’ve not. If my awards mean anything, it’s that I need to work even harder to help eLearning folks because, having learned a few important facts about eLearning in my career, it’s important that I help others achieve eLearning greatness. I actually received a Lifetime Achievement Award back in 1999! Did I stop then? No way!

12. Learnnovators: One of the most perplexing questions for e-learning departments is, “Which authoring tool(s) should we adopt?” for a project. As we know, the answer is hardly ever simple due to various reasons. It is quite possible for e-learning designers to get confused or lost in the dynamic list of authoring tools, especially in the rapid e-learning development scenario. Selecting the right tool for the job is a critical decision, and one that needs to be guided by a strategy. You, with your un-biased reviews come to the rescue of the designers. What do you consider as the top qualities of the best authoring tools?

Joe: I am often asked to help organizations build an eLearning strategy and one of the important aspects of that is the choice of one or more eLearning tools with the understanding that the strategy must be able to change over time to address new needs and challenges. The choice of the tool comes near the end of my analysis because many other questions must be addressed first. The choice of an authoring tool is important because instructional designers may end up needing to compromise their instructional design as the tool they are using won’t accommodate higher forms of design. On the other hand, they may end up using a tool that is so confusing to learn and use that they never get the job done. It’s true that I will usually opt for more powerful tools rather than simpler ones because power means more features, higher abilities to deliver great eLearning. However, I don’t ignore the PowerPoint add-in tools or other simpler tools because they sometimes can fit the job need perfectly.

The important thing is to take a step back from the marketing claims, because every vendor would like you to believe their tool is perfect for you. This is why I find myself teaching so many tools classes and why I’m often asked to analyze an organization’s needs to help them choose. I know it’s not easy. It’s a full-time effort just to stay on top of this industry.

13. Learnnovators: You’ve always been a sort of a technology geek. How do you look at the radical shifts happening in learning paradigms (such as social learning, flipped classroom, Bring-Your-Own-Device [BYOD], etc.) fuelled by the enormous possibilities thrown open by emerging technologies (such as Ubiquitous Learning, Social Learning, Gamification and Game-based Learning, Learning Analytics, Personalized and Adaptive Learning)? How encouraging is the new learning landscape? Where do you see today’s organizations in the midst of these radical shifts? What would future (organizational) learning look like?

Joe: Back in the year 2000, I gave a keynote speech both in the United States and in The Netherlands. I called it “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back” because over the time I’ve been in this industry, I have seen many leaps forward that have often necessitated a step back as well. For instance, in the early days using video meant having a large videodisc player attached to a computer. Eventually, we were able to do away with that hardware player when QuickTime and other digital video formats became available. However, the videodiscs could provide full screen high-resolution (for its time) video, whereas the digital formats, when first introduced, could not be much bigger than postage stamp size on the screen. This meant getting rid of a big piece of hardware but having to step back on our video expectations.

More recently, mobile delivery has meant that we are now free to move away from our desks to learn or to use Facebook or watch YouTube videos, but the early versions of these apps were lacking in features compared to the desktop versions. They have since improved a lot. eLearning delivery has become ubiquitous, but we now find that we can no longer provide exercises where the learner moves the mouse over an area of the screen to pop up information, because mobile phones and tablets generally don’t use mice. On the other hand, mobile devices are giving us new opportunities that we have not yet tapped into heavily, such as geo-location and internal cameras and microphones.

With each new advent in technology and ability comes the need to adjust, and sometimes shift radically. Large organizations are reticent to make large costly shifts without good reason, so it’s often the smaller organizations that are the early adopters of these technologies, with their lower overhead costs.

Every learning project must start with three questions:

  1. Who is my audience?
  2. What measurable objectives must they reach?
  3. How will the content be delivered?

These three questions lead to many others, of course, but the answers to those questions will help decide most of the important factors:

  1. Will this be experienced on mobile devices as well as desktops?
  2. Is this part of a flipped classroom or a blended learning approach?
  3. Will the learner better achieve the objectives by playing games?
  4. How will social networks help us assist learners in achieving their goals?
  5. How much do we need to track the learner’s progress and use it to adapt the learning to the individual learner?

There are many other questions that should be answered as well. The failure to ask the proper questions will often result in bad learning experiences.

14. Learnnovators: As we know, learning technologies and styles have been advancing quickly. How are authoring tools evolving to catch up with these changes? Where do you think we are heading? What are some of the wonderful possibilities of learning and performance support via the new devices that are ‘smart’? What are some of the challenges to the practical design, development and delivery of learning via these devices? What will it take to solve these problems?

Joe: Mobile devices afford us several advantages over desktops. Obviously, they are portable. In addition, as lower-cost high data rates and fast and free wireless networks become more and more the norm, nothing will stop us from using our devices to be even more connected. This means too that we will be able to learn wherever, whenever, even more so than we do now. Smart mobile devices give us built-in cameras and microphones, high quality audio and video, new interaction types such as swiping, pinch-and-zoom, and using the built-in accelerometers. We can talk to each other, send audio and video files to each other, and much more. Of course, just because you can doesn’t mean you always should. It always depends on the learner audience and the content to be mastered. Which of the mobile features will help in that endeavor? Which will distract the learner? Making wise choices means great learning experiences.

Problems include smaller screens, no roll-over interactions, and no Flash animations. Responsive design approaches can help a lot. Tools that will warn us when we’re using a feature that won’t work on a mobile device will be preferred over those that don’t. Just as is true of any new practice, we are learning what works and what doesn’t work through the experience of trying different approaches, but already we know a lot more than we did a year ago, and we knew a lot more a year ago than the year before that. Soon, mobile learning will be the norm, just as more of us now browse the web on our phones than we do on our desktops.

15. Learnnovators: It is inspiring to hear you say, “My job keeps me on my toes, because tools are constantly changing and evolving. Staying on top of the changes to existing tools as well as new tools is challenging but fun.”You continuously strive hard to guide us with your insights on tools and processes that are aligned towards good e-learning. What is your vision for the e-learning community? In other words, how do you plan to continue help create ‘good’ e-learning?

Joe: When I teach a class on Adobe Captivate, Articulate Storyline or any other eLearning tool, I always teach good instructional design approaches as well, in the context of applying the tool’s features in the examples we build in class. Often, in my evaluations, I’ll often see comments such as “Joe Ganci’s Adobe Captivate workshop not only taught me how to razzle and dazzle eLearners, it sparked imagination in my dry procedure-writing brain.” Those kinds of comments are important to me because they tell me that I’m making people think about approaching eLearning design in ways they never have before, improving their results.

My goal in 2015 is to create even more and better samples, guides, and resources to help eLearning professionals achieve the goals of creating fantastic eLearning without spending a lot of time and money getting there. I have some excellent allies in this effort, many of whom have also received awards and honors, and some of whom I’m sure soon will. Together, we can and are making a difference. I hope others will join us in this important effort.

Learnnovators: Thank you so much for sharing your valuable insights and experiences, Joe. It was wonderful interacting with you. We wish you the very best!

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