This week, Managing eLearning features another guest post from Andy Hicken, Web Courseworks’ Product Innovation Specialist.

ASTD’s International Conference and Exposition is a massive, thoroughly capitalist, and rather carnivalesque convergence of people working in corporate talent development, along with the companies and consultants who sell to them. A smaller contingent of non-corporates also attends, including students, a smattering from the association niche, and government and NGO types. The latter were particularly well represented at this edition of the conference and expo, perhaps because it was held in Washington DC.

The robust market cap and mass appeal of this convention is signaled first by the high-dollar household names giving keynotes: Arianna Huffington and Stanley McChrystal (one keynote for Democrats and one for Republicans?). On the floor of the sprawling vendor exposition, marketers are doing anything they can to draw bodies and eyeballs to their booths: giving away sweets, holding raffles and games, dressing in absurd clothing, and funding well-attended daily free lunches and ice-cream breaks. The free food is positioned in the back of the capacious expo hall to force the hungry throngs past the vendors’ booths. Some of the breakout sessions are just as frankly commercial: there’s no attempt to hide the agenda of a session with the title “Introducing Lectora Mobile!” presented by a Lectora VP.

If there was a more high-minded (if still arguably commercial) theme to this conference, it was unease about the quality of contemporary online learning. Multiple presenters lamented a disconnect between the theory and practice of eLearning, and session attendees appeared to agree. Not just one but two insurrectionary manifestos were presented (one by Jon and me, as described below—and I use “insurrectionary” with tongue in cheek). A few examples:


  • Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, and Clark Quinn presented their Serious eLearning Manifesto. The gist of their presentation was that, while we all laud interactivity, personalization, and performance-based objectives, the practice of eLearning is too reliant on rapid-development technologies that create a PowerPoint-style experience. The manifesto, which first came on our radar screen in March of this year, is a comprehensive recipe for high-quality online learning and a step in the right direction. Read it here.



  • Jon’s and my workshop challenged attendees to develop their own quality manifestos (manifesti?). Jon and I presented our COMPASS manifesto, which we first blogged about last fall, as a case study in using a one-page manifesto to give direction to a large and distributed project. We were delighted and a little surprised by the great attendance (thanks for coming, everyone!), and even more delighted by how well the idea took off. We encouraged our workshoppers to define a list of quality tenets that made sense for their learners, objectives, and project teams, and they delivered: in just 90 minutes, they came up with a range of personalized manifestos. Some of them even had pretty snappy acronyms, like the gentleman working in military eLearning who came up with CARPE.



  • Dan Steer’s excellent presentation on the use of social tools in formal training was intentionally not limited to eLearning, but it did have to do with improving quality and offered a lot of ideas that would work great in online learning. Steer’s employment of social tools is fundamentally about increasing interactivity and engagement to better achieve training objectives. I would recommend his presentation to anyone, and I’m sure he’ll be back by popular demand again next year.



  • Even a delegation from the venerable Blackboard LMS gave a presentation oriented around competency-based learning as a higher-quality approach than content-centered learning.


Of course, those of us presenting manifestos are not without our own commercial agendas. The Serious eLearning Manifesto should (in my opinion) be understood as a dagger aimed at the heart of Articulate, Adobe Presenter, Lectora, Brainshark, and other “rapid development” tools. Rapid development is, of course, a threat to the custom eLearning business—i.e., the business that we manifesto-writers are involved in to varying extent. Interestingly, the rapid development companies are at ASTD, too, suggesting some simmering tension in the world of corporate talent development.

Hopefully it will be a productive tension. We don’t have to make too big a deal of these conflicting agendas. Sacrificing time and budget for improved quality makes sense for some projects; sacrificing quality for rapid development makes sense for others. It is the tendency to apply rapid development tools to every project that is a problem. In some circles, eLearning has become synonymous with the PowerPoint-style experience. People don’t even realize there are other types of online learning. But, for the record, Jon and I have never claimed that every learning experience has to be developed to the highest quality standards; most organizations need to prioritize their learning experiences in terms of A, B, and C quality levels.

The Serious eLearning Manifesto’s attempt to codify a global definition for eLearning quality is certainly welcome, if for nothing else than as a single document, endorsed by respected industry veterans, that can be used to make the argument for quality to funders. Once that funding is in place, we would encourage all eLearning practitioners to sit down with a piece of paper and determine what quality tenets they will prioritize for their own projects. That is the point of our workshop. From there, you can assess what tools are right for you.