A friend of mine, an Oxford-educated mathematician, had a smart strategy to succeed in university. When two or more of her professors scheduled exams for the same week, she would immediately ask the instructors to clarify to what extent these exams would influence the final class grade. If the exam in one class was worth, say, 25 per cent of the final grade, and the exam in the other class was worth 50 per cent of the final grade, she would spend significantly more of her efforts studying for the second class.
This seems logical and self-evident.
And yet, I’m a bit ashamed to say, the relative weighting of exams was the last thing on my mind when I was a student. Presented with two exams, I’d either study equally for both or study much more for the subject I found more difficult, even if that subject’s exam was only worth 10 per cent of the final grade. Had I been as smart as my math-whiz friend, I would have largely ignored the 10 per cent exam and focused on the big fish. After all, if you can get 100 per cent on a preliminary exam worth 50 per cent of the final grade, you can pretty much ignore this subject going forward and sleep soundly knowing you’ll pass the course.
Assessments are an important part of learning and development strategies. Exams, of course, measure knowledge and retention and help establish whether a person is qualified to do a job or attain some type of accreditation.
Since we tend to overestimate our own knowledge of a subject, exams also provide an important feedback mechanism. An exam can be a wake-up call, telling us we aren’t the experts we think we are. Exams designed to provide this type of reality-check feedback really shouldn’t count for as much of the final mark as an exam designed to measure overall knowledge of the learning content.
Consequently, learning strategies can benefit from providing exams with different weightings. A course, for instance, might contain a preliminary exam worth 20 per cent of the final grade, and a final exam worth 80 per cent. Did you fail the first exam? Don’t despair! You can still pass the course if you stop goofing off and get a decent mark on the final exam.
To implement this type of strategy, look for assessment authoring tools or a learning management system that allow you to add weightings to exams:
If you implement this strategy, be prepared to discover a few really smart students, like my math-whiz friend, who do poorly on the first exam and ace the second one.
You, dear reader, can obtain an education from the most prestigious universities in the world, all for free. It makes no difference whether you received straight `A’s in high school or whether you spent your high school years sitting in your friend’s basement learning to play the opening to Stairway to Heaven on a Gibson Flying V guitar instead of studying for final exams. Your past educational performance has no impact on your ability to study at the world’s best universities.
Your choice of institutions includes many of the status rock stars of the higher-ed world:
- California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
- Columbia University
- Harvard University
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- McGill University
- The University of Queensland
- The University of Tokyo
- And many more
You won’t even need to move to the U.S., Canada, Australia, Japan, or elsewhere to attend classes. These institutions have all generously put their courses online, accessible through sites such as EdX and Open Education Consortium.
Imagine how great it will be to apply for your next job by submitting a resume showing off your Harvard education! Your starting salary will easily pay for your Fifth-Avenue lifestyle with a bit left over for a yacht.
Although you will have successfully completed courses provided by these institutions, you won’t actually be a graduate. These universities (and potential employers) get a little touchy about people saying that they studied there unless they have an actual signed diploma hanging on their wall.
There was a time when people paid university tuition fees to access great content. Increasingly, that content is available for free to anyone with Internet access. Tuition now pays for the certification. In the education section of your resume, it’s not what you know that opens career doors. Rather, what many employers want to see is that a respected university has vetted you, certifying that you truly know what you say you know.
Commercial course providers agonize over how much content to provide for free as marketing teasers, and how much to make available only to paying customers. If you provide a certification program that is highly respected and desired by learners, you may want to consider adopting a business model similar to the academic one discussed above:
- Make courses available for free
- Charge for the certificate
This is an easy model to replicate in a learning management system:
- Create a curriculum containing the courses and learning activities the learner must complete to meet the requirements of certification.
- Create a course separate from this curriculum that issues the certificate. A prerequisite for accessing this certificate course must be the successful completion of the curriculum.
- Configure this certificate course with the necessary pricing details.
Although learners will be able to purchase the certificate course prior to completing the curriculum, the actual certificate will only be issued once they complete the necessary courses.
Managing this type of model manually is time-consuming and expensive. A learning management system can automate the process, freeing you up to focus on creating great content for your learners.
I’ve ranted repeatedly (here, here, and here) about the horribly-designed Request for Proposals (RFPs) that cross my desk. Invariably, these so-called learning management system selection tools suffer from one or more of the following design flaws:
- They ask vendors to provide information they won’t ever disclose and/or is not relevant to the acquisition of a learning management system. Example:
“Describe in detail all of your company’s marketing activities including the percentage of leads generated by each.”
- They ask for textual descriptions of features that really should be demonstrated. Example:
“Describe the steps required to create a certification-based course containing a video, a quiz, a presentation, and a final exam.”
- They contain a list of every possible LMS feature ever invented (of which the organizing acquiring the LMS will use a tiny fraction).
- They fail to differentiate high priority `must-have’ features from low priority `nice-to-have’ features. I’m pretty certain that within every organization, the ability of the LMS to track whether a classroom has a projector isn’t as important whether the system can serve learning content on mobile devices such as iPads.
The smartest organizations I’ve worked with keep their requirement lists short and prioritize must-have features over nice-to-have functionalities. Prioritized lists of requirements help these organizations quickly weed out systems that don’t meet their needs, allowing them to spend their time doing a deeper dive into the systems that might be a good fit.
Here’s a fun tool you can use to quickly identify and prioritize your LMS requirements. Mind mapping tools are immensely effective ways to make sense of anything complex. Rather than attempting to describe what a mind map is, here’s a mind map that explains itself:
To help get your creative juices flowing, here’s a basic mind map that identifies and organizes some learning management system features. (Click the image to see a full-size version.)
It seems like just yesterday that business analysts were wondering whether this newfangled e-commerce fad would catch on.
- Would anxiety over credit card theft deter customers from trusting on-line retailers?
- Would people feel confident in buying stuff sight unseen or would they instead stick to going to brick-and-mortar stores to paw and sniff the merchandise?
Fast forward a few years and we now find Web retail giant Amazon, fueled by our insatiable urge to buy stuff on the Internet, with 2013 sales of more than $17 billion U.S. and a market capitalization of $153 billion.
We choose to buy from sites such as Amazon because of convenience, pricing, breadth of offerings, product reviews, and a simple and pleasant shopping experience.
One of the things these sites excel at is the ability to recommend products based on our browsing or purchasing history. Search for, say, a bicycle helmet and Amazon will tell you that “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” cycling shorts, cycling shoes, cycling gloves, and every other cycling-related item including chamois cream (don’t ask).
Amazon’s recommendation engine encourages us to increase the number of items added to our shopping cart. Rather than feeling like these items were forced upon us, we are instead grateful to the site for making shopping so easy. Gone are the crowded parking lots, endurance of inclement weather, and eternal waits in checkout lines, replaced with anticipation for delivery which may soon come within minutes via a flying drone.
With millions of customers, Amazon has the big data to support a powerful recommendation engine. But really, it isn’t rocket science to suggest to someone shopping for a kitchen knife that they may also want to purchase a cutting board and maybe some adhesive bandages for potential sliced fingers.
Adopting an Amazon-like recommendation system in learning and development doesn’t require big data and teams of programmers. This can be done within any learning management system (LMS) that contains two simple features:
- The ability to have course-specific communication templates
- The ability to link directly to one or more courses
Here’s a typical course completion e-mail:
Here’s a variation that contains a couple of recommendations:
Adding recommendations to your communications with learners can provide measurable benefits:
- Increased enrolment, course completion, and certifications obtained
- Better learner engagement through a more pleasant experience
- For commercial learning content providers, increased sales
Successful on-line retailers such as Amazon would never let you buy a pen without also suggesting you take a look at notebooks. Consider using the same simple logic in your learning initiatives.
Dear readers, you’ve in the past endured me ranting about the horribly-designed Requests for Proposals (RFP) that regularly cross my desk and the desks of my Blatant^ colleagues. (See my previous posts titled “Why Your RFP May Not Get You the Best Learning Management System” and “The Worst Type of Question to Ask in Your Learning Management System Request for Proposal (RFP).“) These RFPs often ask hundreds of open-ended questions such as:
“Describe the procedure to create a report showing the progress of a group of learners in a curriculum.“
The vendors with enough time and mental fortitude to tackle submitting a proposal in response to the RFP then deliver 50 to 100 pages of answers to these questions. The organization looking to acquire the technology then needs to read hundreds if not thousands of pages containing answers that look like this:
- On the main Admin Control Panel dashboard, click on Reports
- Select the Learner Progress Report
- Add the appropriate courses
- Show or hide the columns you wish to display
- Define which learners should be included
A textual description of a feature that should be demonstrated is a waste of everyone’s time. Since few vendors will respond to your lengthy and poorly-designed RFP, you’ll be less likely to find a great system. The proposals you do receive will contain information that in no way helps you select the right learning management system. You believe you are doing your due diligence in issuing an RFP; what you are actually doing is significantly reducing your chances of finding the right system.
There’s a simple alternative.
Every once in a while, I receive from a prospective customer a short, elegant, Request for Information (RFI). Typically, these RFIs consist of one or more tables that simply require Yes/No answers from the vendors. Whereas a full-fledge RFP might take an LMS vendor 40 hours or more to complete, an RFI can take one-tenth the effort. The result is that the organization looking to acquire a LMS gets a 100 per cent response rate from vendors. In addition, the information received from the vendors can be easily compared and scored. Gone are the thousands of pages of materials, replaced with tables that illustrate feature sets at a glance.
Here’s a sample:
CAUTION: Your RFI should not contain a laundry list of every LMS feature in existence. The tables should only list your most important requirements. The longer you make your RFI, the lower the response rate from vendors. You’re aiming for a 100 per cent response rate, which means keeping the RFI short and focused on your top-level needs.
An RFI designed this way will quickly weed out the systems that aren’t a good match for your learning initiative. Demonstrations of the remaining systems, ideally employing use cases, will then identify the best system.
The vast majority of RFPs I see are horrible tools to select enterprise software. An RFI, if designed as illustrated above, is totally awesome and effective, and a very simple tool to help you select the right LMS.
How Branding Your Learning Management System Can Influence Culture (and Create a Fun Place to Learn)
The best companies I’ve worked with have had great workplace cultures. Management in these companies understand that happy team members are more productive and less likely to jump ship the next time an opportunity arises elsewhere.
Whenever I speak to anyone about workplace culture, I often end up pointing them to a great Harvard Business Review Blog post by Nilofer Merchant titled “Culture Trumps Strategy, Every Time.” Compare an organization with happy, motivated people to a similar-size organization filled with demoralized walking dead, and it immediately becomes clear why a positive workplace culture drives success.
If you’re a budding entrepreneur hoping to start the next billion dollar company, you should read the Merchant post and other resources about workplace culture before you even have your first business card designed. If you’re a manager, you need to be aware that you are a key driver in defining the culture within your organization. Speak to anyone who’s worked for a few years and they’ll have stories about managers from hell who were the impetus behind staff calling in sick and eventual mass exoduses.
In a previous Blog post titled “How to Use a Learning Management System to Support Your Workplace Culture,” we looked at how changing the wording of system prompts and interface labels can create learning environments that more closely reflect the culture you are attempting to create and promote. Textual communication, however, is only one tool to support culture; the visual design of the learning environment is equally important.
In branding visually your learning management system (LMS), you should think beyond simply being faithful to corporate colors and placing a logo at the top left-hand corner. Imagery including illustrations, photos, and icons can enhance the environment and help eliminate the preconception that your learning management system is just another boring piece of business software. Most importantly, these visual elements can create a more pleasant place to learn.
Need some inspiration? The following video presents some of the ways the Absorb LMS user interface has been branded for various clients.
There are two ways to get a young child to school on time in the morning:
Method 1: Every minute or so, repeat the words `HURRY UP!’ at increasing levels of volume. After about ten minutes, and upon reaching a decibel level similar to a low flying jet, your goal will be achieved. Mind you, you and the child will be a little stressed, and regrettably, some life-long resentment generated but these are worth the price of having this child succeed in school.
Method 2: Alternately you could say, quietly and in a relaxed tone of voice, “first one out of the house is the winner.” For your own safety, it’s best not to block the exit when uttering this phrase.
Deeply rooted in our brains is a desire to compete and win. The reward centers in our brains love the chemical jolts that stem from victory.
Even when we aren’t the participants, we experience competition vicariously by watching professional sports. When our team or favorite athlete wins, we raise our arms in the air as if we were the one who crossed the finish line before others or scored the winning point. When our team loses, we feel despair and wonder where we went wrong. Perhaps if we had not traded a player or hired the current coach, the outcome would have been different.
The ability to increase learner engagement through competition is a common requirement encountered when speaking with effective learning leaders who are currently evaluating learning management systems (LMS). This requirement usually falls into two different categories and approaches:
- The ability to hold contests
- The ability to rank learners, departments, or teams and share the results with learners
For contests, an easy approach is to issue points, educational units, or credits for the successful completion of a learning event. Individuals with the most points in a given time frame win. Another approach is to reward learners who score the highest on an exam with a reward.
For ranking of learners, teams, or departments, you can simply generate the rankings from your LMS’s reporting engine. As was the case with contests, rankings can be based on a wide range of criteria:
- Points, educational units, or credits earned
- Courses completed
- Exam scores
Once you’ve created the report showing ranking, you can make it available to learners on their dashboard.
In conclusion, contests and rankings can be helpful in identifying achievement-driven individuals within your organization. But, we shouldn’t just focus on the top performers. Rankings based on exam scores may also be helpful in identifying people who need extra help in specific learning areas. Supplementing their current learning with coaching may help them better perform their responsibilities.