This is the first post in a series of six that covers Deeper eLearning.

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This is the first post in a series of six that covers Deeper eLearning. The goal of this series is to build upon good implementations of instructional design, and go deeper into the nuances of what makes learning that really works. We’ll move on to practice, examples, concepts, emotional elements, and putting it together, but to start, we’re talking objectives. 

For a learning experience design to be truly effective, it has to have a focus. That focus is the outcome that the learning experience is designed to achieve. So, the starting point of a learning design has to be the objective that will achieve the outcome. And there are several issues involved.

Once we get the objective, we can start following a design process such as ADDIE or SAM, but to assume we’re ready to design a learning experience when we receive a request for a course is a mistake. In short, we need to be sure that a learning experience is indeed the answer. And while there are a number of other preliminary activities, which include understanding the audience, those are already fairly well understood. Here we focus on those deltas that will make a difference between just well-produced learning and well-designed learning.

There’s a process called performance consulting that looks to determine what the real need is, and this should be employed before determining a course is the solution. When there are performance gaps in organizations, there could be several possible reasons: that the performer doesn’t have access to the necessary resources, that the performer isn’t motivated or is motivated to perform in other ways, or that the performer is lacking in particular skills. It is only in the third situation (lack of skills) that a course is needed to bridge the performance gap. If you have another situation, you need another solution (and that should be in the L&D repertoire, but here we’re talking about learning design). So, first, determine that the course is the necessary option.

This isn’t necessarily easy, of course. When someone comes and says “we need a course on X”, the easy path for course designers is to do it. But why would you want to invest your resources on a solution that isn’t really what’s needed? It’s far better to ask several questions: “how do you know you need a course”, “what’s the problem you’re trying to solve”, and most importantly “how will you know if the course is working”. Determine that it really is a skill or knowledge gap before you continue. And if it is the latter, ensure that it really should be in the learners’ head and can’t be in the world in the form of performance support (which they can refer to repeatedly as and when they need it).

Once you’ve established that a course is really the answer to the performance problem, make sure that the objective is high enough in the taxonomic sense. Don’t have your learning objectives be about knowledge if what you really need is the ability to make better decisions. Make sure that the ability you’re developing is the real one they’ll need to apply in the workplace. And, as the workplace gets more complex, with more ambiguous and unique situations, I’ll suggest that the objectives are likely to be about deciding in complex circumstances. (In an upcoming post we’ll see that model-guided decisions are the way to do this.). So, “know X” isn’t as useful as “be able to decide whether to do Y or Z”.

One important element of this is to realize that your subject matter experts can’t tell you 70% of what they actually do, according to research. Because a characteristic of expertise is that it’s compiled away below conscious access, it takes work to figure out what experts really are doing. They do have access to all they’ve learned, so they can readily provide you with a large amount of information that they think is relevant, and believe it’s important for learners to have to hand. Which is where we get these information-heavy and decision-light courses that don’t lead to any meaningful improvement, but you must resist. There are exhaustive and some more heuristic approaches, but you have to resist what SMEs tell you has to be in the course, and dig into what really needs to be in your learning experience.

Having said that, I’m not really too fussed about the verb you use in an objective as long as it’s about ‘do’, not about ‘know’. And I really don’t like complex taxonomies (e.g. Bloom’s), I prefer a simple approach of ‘know A’ objectives, and ‘be able to do B’ objectives (there will be ‘know’ objectives, but they should only come in the context of a ‘do’ objective). You need to winnow down to the minimum, with as few objectives as possible that will accomplish the goal. And, as much as possible, put the information in the world, not in the head.

We should also determine how we’ll know if our intervention is successful. It should be an organizational performance gap that is demonstrated by an available metric. For sales, it could be about decreasing costs of sales or time to close, or increasing success rate. For operations, it might be reducing errors, increasing throughput, or increasing product options. For marketing, we should be increasing customer retention and/or satisfaction. Our successes should be business successes!

Which frames our statement for a good objective. I’m quite happy with the traditional Mager-style objective of . So, it might be , or . The point is to make it measurable, per the discussion above.

Ultimately, the goal is to make sure that what you’re helping them to be able to do is what’s going to make a difference to the organization. Follow Kirkpatrick backwards from ‘business problem’ to ‘change in workplace behavior’ to ‘learning needed to accomplish that behavior’, and make sure that your learning objective is going to lead to new behaviors that will address the measure that’s lagging. From here, if you’ve a good objective about what they need to be able to do differently, we have a strong basis to create meaningful assessment of their ability, and consequently to design a learning experience that aligns with that desired outcome. With a clear goal, we can know how to get there. And that’s the goal of having a good objective, not just an objective.


Here are links to all six parts of the “Deeper eLearning Design” series:

1. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 1 – The Starting Point: Good Objectives
2. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 2 – Practice Makes Perfect
3. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 3 – Concepts
4. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 4 – Examples
5. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 5 – Emotion
6. Deeper eLearning Design: Part 6 – Putting It All Together


Written by Clark Quinn


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