‘To Diagnose or Autopsy’: Review of Lori Niles-Hofmann’s Data-Driven Learning Design

Lori Niles-Hofmann begins her new ebook, Data-Driven Learning Design, with what I think may well just be my favourite metaphor for traditional learning & development departments…

L&D, she says, is ‘the aging elephant on the Serengeti surrounded by hungry lions and poachers. The elephant may be wise, but it is slow and cumbersome’. It’s an appealing image: paying respect where it’s due and offering solace and consolation, but ultimately reminding L&D of a stark duality…

Each successive wave of digital innovation is making our lives easier as creators and managers of online learning: it’s easier to source, build and manage the stuff than ever. But, at the very same time, digital disruption is sinking the ship that traditional L&D is sailing in.

Employees are turning to Google before they look at anything internal. Our useful resources languish in shadowy old systems and our compliance modules are hated no matter how gamified they are. We face irrelevance because we cannot engage.

So far, so familiar. But in response, Lori’s diagnosis is insightful, radical and original. She argues that whilst learning departments have indeed adopted digital means of delivery, we design and build those online solutions using laborious and data-blind methodologies designed for the classroom. These old chestnuts – ADDIE, Bloom’s Taxonomy – are completely unsuited for the digital user…

Why? In the classroom we read audience reactions like smiles and body language and use them to adapt and ‘personalise’ training content on the fly. That’s what keeps even the dustiest old classroom stuff fresh. But it’s not so with anonymous, asynchronous digital learning: each one-shot course takes 2, 4, 8, 12 weeks to produce and relies on decisions made without looking at data. It gets made once and rarely changed. No wonder it isn’t working. Effectively, we’re building something in the dark and rolling it out with a blindfold on. We only go looking for feedback when it’s too late.

Meanwhile in the big wide world of the internet everything else has been fundamentally refashioned by the digital transformation: the internet thinks in microseconds, not fortnightly review cycles. It’s a formidable challenge, and what I like best about this ebook is how Lori, against all the odds, argues that it is possible to take this blindfold off and design online learning in a way which competes with the on-demand digital platforms that threaten it.

To do so, she looks to the industries which have successfully adapted to the web, adopting Steve Woods’s term, ‘Digital Body Language’. This behaviour, DBL for short, is ‘activity such as where a customer clicks, or, more importantly, does not click’. Rich insights await those who learn to read it. To quote the book at more length:

‘These actions are the eye-rolls, smiles, and arms crossed from the classroom, simply in digital format. But we are not listening. If we took the time to study and decode learner DBL, we could make better design decisions and eliminate lengthy guesswork needs assessments.’

It’s a massive paradigm shift. Is it too difficult to achieve? If you’re quaking in your Storyline templates, then Lori’s next big metaphor may supply a little motivation. She compares L&D to a doctor who, when confronted with a patient asking if the medication will work, tells them that ‘it is possible, but that the only way to tell is to wait until the patient dies. An autopsy can then be performed to see if the medicine worked or not.’ That would be a bad doctor, but this is our current evaluation model. The patient always dies before the results are in.

This is a critical insight. Most modern communications technologies are either managed by human operators in real time in response to audience reactions, or use artificial intelligence to profile users and instantly create personalized experiences. They think fast, or they die out. It’s that simple.

And this can be done, must be done, to the sphere of corporate online learning… To find out how, you will need to download Lori’s free ebook, Data-Driven Learning Design.

Post-mortem: It’s worth concluding with some thoughts about what might happen if we don’t change. Like Lori, I’m actually not overly worried about the wise old elephant himself. This is partially because I think the best people in L&D are well-aware of the practices we need to get rid of (linear courses, locked-down navigation, pointless framing with learning objectives, boring material). They know that they were never even part of good instructional design in the first place. Corporate online learning is improving and it will survive by drawing on its better traditions and wisdom.

But this future will be an isolated one. The elephant survives inside a little-visited zoo (more like a prison….) up on Compliance Hill over in High Consequence Sector County: reliving its glory days and crafting ever more elaborate courses on the same old regulatory topics…

This LMS-shaped retirement home is not a future I want to live in. The alternative is what Lori sets out in her book: a world in which using data and reading digital body language allows us to re-imagine and re-invigorate the craft of learning design. I suspect that this will mean thinking a bit less like instructional designers and a bit more like app designers: helping people to perform their jobs faster, better and more enjoyably.

Let’s face it. Data-driven learning design has arrived. It’s not going away.

Lori’s ebook, Data-Driven Learning Design: How to Decode Learner Digital Body Language is available to download from her website.

About the author – Toby Harris

Toby is a creative thinker and writer who takes a keen interest in analytics and online learning environments. A specialist’s in adding value to the elearning community, developing new thinking about how people development programmes and platforms can drive business performance and prove ROI.

Toby is Solution Architect at Filtered

Connect with Toby via LinkedIn

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