Best Practices for Using eLearning in Soft Skills Training

Your company has a new five step leadership model it wants everyone to follow… and you need to make an eLearning course to get the ball rolling. Unfortunately, employees are not too enthusiastic about the new model and don’t see any benefit to themselves if they start using it. Is eLearning going to solve the problem?

Or perhaps you need to help sales reps practice their selling skills. Should be simple enough, except some of the new reps are fresh out of college, and others are 15 year veterans who come from another organization and are used to doing things “their way.” You’ve been asked to create eLearning for that, too. How do you make it applicable to everyone?

Why is teaching soft skills so hard?

Alicia Ostermeier - Learning Designer

Alicia Ostermeier

I interviewed Alicia Ostermeier, Manager of Operations and former Senior Learning Designer at BLP, to learn more about how she approaches eLearning projects designed to teach soft skills. Alicia has developed training on sales skills, leadership skills, communication skills, change management and more.

Read on to learn more about developing soft skills eLearning… that actually works.

Starting a Soft Skills eLearning Project

If a client comes to us with a new model they want everyone to follow, we know it’s not really about the model, but a desired performance improvement. Alicia uses a set of questions that we like to use across BLP to kick off new projects.

Alicia commonly asks these questions:

  • “Okay, that’s the model you want to teach, but what do you want people to do with it?”
  • “What’s in your environment right now that’s driving a need to change the way you do things?”
  • “What do you expect to happen differently after you’re done? What will people be able to do?”
  • “What other mechanisms will be in place to help them get it done? Job aids? Organizational culture change?”
  • “Who is the actual learner? Are they new to the company or have the been around awhile?”
  • “What”s the mood of people taking the course? Will change be perceived as good or bad?”

Answering basic questions like these BEFORE starting the eLearning project are crucial to success.

Choosing the Right Learner Interactions

Using Scenarios in Soft Skills eLearning

An example of an eLearning scenario we created for a soft skills eLearning course.

Of all the interactions available to eLearning designers, Alicia rates scenarios as the most effective tool for soft skills eLearning. Learners need to see what a particular model for soft skills behavior looks like in real life. The best eLearning scenarios will do the following:

Allow learners to make decisions: Include realistic consequences. Let learners experiment with various responses to see how the outcome is affected. Scenarios in eLearning let people practice in a safe environment. One of Alicia’s preferred scenario types asks learners to have a conversation with a co-worker where they not only get to see what the co-worker says, but also what they are thinking. Get creative with your scenarios to help learners practice.

Include appropriate context and background information: Alicia cautioned that scenarios that do not set the stage and give learners the “what” and “why” will be less effective than scenarios that provide a sense of context.

Apply directly to the learner’s job: Your scenarios have to seem realistic. Trying to keep things generic just won’t have a lasting impact. When multiple job roles and personas are taking a course, Alicia recommends using a branching scenario that presents different learners with the most applicable information for them.

Develop Emotional Intelligence and Intuition: Since soft skills training often uses a particular “5 step model” or “4 step tool” to provide guidance for learners, eLearning scenarios must be designed to show that one sizes does not fit all. Your goal should not be teaching people to go down a flow chart and make the best decision, unless you will have a flow chart available in real life! According to Alicia:

The trick is to not make it about the model itself, but about how the model applies in the particular business situation. It has to apply to the level of employee you are working with and types of individuals on your team.

Without a doubt, effective soft skills training will include lots of applicable scenarios… giving learners a chance to practice. As Alicia (rather humorously) puts it,  “You can fail at your desk in eLearning and you haven’t hurt anything.”

Tangible Impact of Soft Skills eLearning

Blended Learning for Soft Skills Training

The best soft skills training blends eLearning with face to face methods.

Soft-skills eLearning is most useful for giving learners a standardized picture of “what good looks like” and giving them some introductory practice opportunities. And while soft skills eLearning is an important tool in a company’s culture, Alicia says it is only one part of the solution:

For soft skills training to work, the entire framework has to be there, including  the support of management. Learners must feel like there is organizational support for what they’re doing… and have the right tools and resources.

The best soft skills training curriculum will take a blended approach. Alicia recommends combining eLearning with face to place role playing and one on one coaching. Have Director-level people sit in and observe the role-playing to encourage greater accountability. Integrate the training into what people are already doing in their workday anyway if you can.

If you follow Alicia’s advice, Soft Skills training does not have to be hard. Remember: use eLearning to show what “good” looks like, include lots of scenarios, and blend the eLearning with role playing and coaching opportunities. Don’t forget that soft skills success depends on commitment and buy-in from the organization as a whole. eLearning plays a big part, but it’s still just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving performance.

How to Figure Out If You’re Hitting the Mark With Target Learners

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Our eLearning Challenges blog series explores the common situations our clients face when deploying learning solutions. We use samples from real projects to help you uncover the best way to meet these challenges in your organization. This is Part 5.

No matter how confident you are about the learning solution you are producing, you need to verify what your target learners need. We’ve made this a regular part of all our eLearning projects. The job is not done until you have crafted an accurate learner profile and confirmed the course’s desired outcomes can realistically be met, given that profile.

Hitting the Mark With Target Learners

Here are some of the ways we make sure we are hitting the mark with target learners:

Think Out Loud sessions

The best way to see things from the learners’ point of view is to be present while they take the course and gauge their responses. We conducted a Think Out Loud session while developing a recent course for Cummins. We had just finished programming the first draft of the eLearning course and wanted to gather true learner feedback before transitioning to the second draft of the programmed course. Because there was a considerable amount of highly technical content in the course, as well as a multi-layered post-test requiring a 100% passing score, we wanted to know with certainty what learners thought.

With a Think Out Loud Session, you ideally want one observer for each learner participant. Our observers watched the learners take the course from start to finish, tracking their start and stop times for each module in the course, and for the post-test. We encouraged learners to literally “think out loud” when they came to a screen that confused them, or that was easy for them, or that they liked (or didn’t like!). We weren’t looking for feedback on the accuracy of the content or for wordsmithing suggestions; we wanted to know how they felt about the overall learner experience. After the learners completed the course, our observers used a Think Out Loud debrief worksheet to ask them all the same questions, and then we debriefed the experience as a larger group so everyone could share their perspectives and elaborate when necessary. We asked questions like:

“How easily did you navigate through the course? Did anything confuse you?

“Did you always know what to click and when to click it?”

“Did you learn from the course? If so, can you describe the key things you learned?”

“How do you think your peers will react to this course?”

“Was the post-test too easy? Too difficult? Just right? Please explain.”

Part of a Think Out Loud debrief worksheet

By having learners explain reasoning for doing what they did, we were able to:

  • Test the length of the course: The course was originally supposed to be 45 minutes, but it took learners 90 minutes to go through material. This was important to find out!
  • Find out where navigation and directions are confusing: Is someone stuck because they didn’t read the directions? Did they have trouble finding the Next button? All this helps us adjust the course to make it more user friendly.
  • The difficulty level of the post-test: Is 100% as a passing score realistic? How much information can and should learners be expected to remember, to pass the test? Are there any post-test questions that do not directly relate to a learning objective? A post-test that is impossible to pass only serves to frustrate the learner. We want to challenge the learners, but we want to be sure we’re asking the right questions, and the right number of questions.

The session had some interesting takeaways: Everyone agreed that there was a lot of “required content” in this course but no one thought the amount was unacceptable. The customer realized that with all of the information learners needed to know, it was more important to provide them with easy-to-use reference tools than to expect them to memorize technical content.Learners also told us their favorite parts of the course were the more visual and interactive one, especially the problem-solving activities.

So, what did we do with this feedback?  We moved large content sections of the course into an interactive PDF resource tool and focused the course on visual scenarios, animations, and activities that required learners to use the tool to find the information needed to complete the activities, and even to pass the post-test. Thanks to the Think Out Loud session, we were able to revise the course for a more positive learner experience that also met the overall learner outcomes. We were also able to provide learners with a user-friendly resource tool they can use on the job as well.

Learner Interviews and “on the Job” observations

Focus groups and learner “on the job” observations are a terrific way to see things from the learner perspective at the very beginning of a project, as part of a good training analysis. Visiting client workplaces is a regular part of what we do… and vital to producing great learning solutions. We can’t create this stuff in a vacuum! Whoever your vendor is, make sure they spend some time onsite to get a feel for your company culture and the performance issue(s) that should be addressed.

We recently created a new employee curriculum for Harlan Laboratories. Visiting the work sites and talking to employees was one of the most important analysis tasks we did when designing the new curriculum. Jennifer Bertram, project manager for this project, conducted two site visits… which helped her understand what the employees actually do during a typical day, and where they do it. She observed and asked questions to fifteen or twenty Harlan employees all in the same role, but with varying lengths of employment (new hires and seasoned employees). By asking questions like “What do you think you need to learn to do this task well?”, “What do you wish you would have learned on the first day? The first week?”, “What mistakes are most common?” “What challenges do you face?” and “What tools would be helpful to you now”, Jennifer was able to map out the optimal curriculum.

The site visits made the curriculum design workshop much more focused because we came into it with our analysis findings and recommendations. The employee interviews made it apparent that they needed (and wanted) more “just in time” quick reference tools, but electronic tools were not going to work. Why? Because employees did not have access to computers or tablets as part of day-to-day work. Since most employees did not have prior experience coming in either, the training needed to cover all the basics in a staggered, four-week approach.

Based on information gathered from the site visits and interviews, we created the following materials:

  • Training flip book that Harlan trainers can use to show new employees “what good looks like.”
  • 3×5 spiral employee notebook that contains all the key messages from training along with a place for learners to take notes. And, it easily fits into their scrub uniform pocket.
  • Visual flash cards for studying key terminology and facts.
  • A Trainer Guide that helps Harlan trainers guide their new employees through the four-week training program in a consistent, logical order and at the right pace.

We designed binders, flip books and flashcards for Harlan Labs because their learners do not use computers on the job.

On-site visits helped us identify that these “low tech” tools were actually the best learning solution for the employees. Spending time on site with the target learners was critical to getting this right!

Listen, Test, Refine

These aren’t the only ways to test out your learning solutions. We also use usability testing, scenario building workshops and pilot programs to make sure learning hits the mark.

If you want to hit the mark with target learners, listen to them! Spend the time asking them questions and gathering information before starting a project. During development, take the time to conduct Think Out Loud sessions and perform usability testing. When you’re ready to launch, start with a pilot and use the results to make any final revisions.

Enabling Global eLearning Across Cultures and Languages

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Our eLearning Challenges blog series explores the common situations our clients face when deploying learning solutions. We use samples from real projects to help you uncover the best way  to meet these challenges in your organization. This is Part 4.

When we communicate, we seek to be understood. That’s why our everyday conversations, meetings and presentations are probably full of informal language, jargon and micro-culture we don’t even know we use. It’s the most useful way for us to communicate, because people who share the same culture as we do will understand what we mean.

But what do you do when your audience is global? What about when the words you speak must be translated into a multitude of languages? If your audience speaks English as a second language, will they understand a corporate buzzword, slang term, or colloquialism?

These are just a few of the translation challenges Instructional Designers face.

It’s common sense, really: you have to meet your audience where they are if you want to get your message across. Most of our clients are global companies who deliver eLearning to learners around the globe. Most solutions we produce will need to be translated into many languages.

If you need to deliver learning solutions across the globe, have your eLearning provider do the following:

  • Avoid contractions. They won’t translate!
  • Cut the colloquialisms. It sounds clever to us, but learners across the pond have vernacular of their own and they will not necessarily understand yours. Simple phrases like “top of mind” (or even “across the pond”) that we use in America do not mean the same thing in another culture.
  • Plan ahead when using audio or video content. For instance, can you keep the English audio but have an audio transcript available in other languages? Can you still use the English video clip, but incorporate subtitles in other languages? Do you need to replace English audio and video clips with new versions altogether–one for every language? If so, you will definitely need a bigger budget!
  • Remain ethnically and geographically diverse in story, character, and overall approach. Creating an activity with Bob Jones, a Caucasian male in a common Indianapolis, IN home-office setting talking about “brainstorming” may not work well for learners in India, China or Mexico City. The setting may not look anything like their locations’ work environments, they may not be familiar with the term “brainstorming,” and they may ultimately decide to skip an activity that doesn’t seem to apply to them.
  • Create character profiles early in the development process that include specific names, titles, geographic locations, gender, and age details. Include photos if at all possible. This will help many of your global learners relate to stories and situations they see in the course.
  • Avoid the use of lengthy module or screen titles–some languages will cause those titles to lengthen even more and you may not have enough line space for a translated title. Less is better!
  • Do not embed text into images; embedded text cannot be replaced easily so the whole image may need to be updated as a result.
  • Use a rapid authoring tool such as Lectora, that offers a Import/Export feature of course text. Text is pulled out of the course and put into an .RTF, organized exactly as the course is: by module, section, screen. Translators can translate the text in the .RTF for easy import back into the course. Hopefully, all that is left is simple formatting and clean-up!

Case in Point

Creating a diverse collection of characters for the eLearning is one of the most important steps when developing global eLearning. Spending the time in the design phase to identify learners in every possible ethnicity and job role will save lots of time later on. The image below is from a Character Profile Document we used with a global customer. Notice the “iStock Photo” watermark on each image. We placed the images we suggested the client use and then waited for their approval before purchasing. Creating this document was a major part of the up-front planning we did to make this course globally diverse.
Character Building Worksheet for Global eLearning

Illustrations for a Universal Feel

You can use illustrations to make a learners feel like a course is “everywhere and nowhere at the same time.” By illustrating the characters and settings of a course, you can help people imagine themselves in the setting. If images are too literal and realistic, anyone who cannot directly relate to the photo will miss the point. It is also much easier to create custom illustrations than to find a stock image for every single type of learner! Consider the images below we included in a recent course for one of our clients:
Illustrations for Culturally Diverse Courses
Not only did the illustrations give the course a fun look and feel, but it also made it easier for us to provide images that would be understood and recognized by learners.

don’t over-generalize

Examples, humor and stories have meaning when they play on the unexpected or contain some form of novelty. You do not want to lose this element, even when a course must be translated. The key is to use references and examples that will be universally understood without making them so generic that they lose their meaning. This takes some practice to execute.

Making a learning solution “apply to everyone” can make it unappealing to the learner. In the recent course we developed, we included a map screen that prompted learners to “Choose a screen that’s most like you.” The screen had five or six options with different business units, countries, and job roles available. A simple feature like this gives learners control over what they want to look at. We have used a similar approach in many of our past global courses. You may not be able to hit on every single user profile, but an approach like this will give you a pretty good sampling.

Global learning solutions do not pose any challenges that are too tough to handle, as long as you or your eLearning vendor have the tools and experience to handle them. As long as you are prepared for an extra layer of the development cycle, the initiative will be a success.


Using Rapid Authoring Tools to Design eLearning Courses for Multiple Devices

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Our eLearning Challenges blog series explores the common situations our clients face when deploying learning solutions. We use samples from real projects to help you uncover the best way  to meet these challenges in your organization. To get today’s content, I interviewed Alicia Ostermeier, a senior learning designer for this project. This is Part 3 of our series.

Let’s face it: the primary delivery tool for eLearning is still usually a desktop or laptop computer. And it’s not even close. The 2012 eLearning Guild research report on mobile surveyed 819 respondents about their mobile learning usage across four categories: Content Delivery, Content Capture and Uploading, Custom Applications and Social Networking and Communication. Each category of mobile learning had only been implemented by 12.5 – 20% of respondents:

eLearning Guild's mlearning Report

These numbers put the current state of our industry into perspective. When clients come to us in need of a learning solution, accessing the solution on a phone or tablet is still usually a “nice to have.” They may be researching mobile usage and plan to implement mobile learning in the next year or two (maybe), but we still must meet their needs today with the learning solution we produce.

Just because many clients have not implemented mobile learning yet doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. We still expect to see wide mobile learning adoption soon. That’s why so many are currently researching and building the business case for mobile now.

Our client, MISO, is a perfect example of this. We recently created a course for MISO to help managers handle organizational change. MISO currently does not require their eLearning courses to function on an iPad, but they are seeing usage of the iPad increase in their organization… especially at the director level and above. Since our target learners are Managers, there is a high probability that they will want to access the course on their iPad.

This was our approach:

  • Use Articulate (a rapid authoring tool) to decrease development time and cost.
  • Use Articulate Storyline specifically because Articulate Studio was already the development tool of choice for MISO but Studio did not allow you to publish courses for use on an iPad. Storyline does! MISO wanted to complete a project in Storyline and see how they felt about the upgraded tool.
  • Create a design that is similar to the desktop eLearning courses the client was familiar with but with subtle changes to maximize the learner experience on the iPad.
  • Enable tracking through MISO’s learning management system (LMS).

eLearning Design Considerations for iPad

As we were designing the course, we made a couple of choices specifically because we knew the iPad was one distribution method. For example, the original course design included rollover states. Those do not work on the iPad, so we replaced them with “tap” or “swipe” activities that would translate well to the tablet. This drag and drop activity is a great example of an iPad-ready activity:

Articulate Storyline - Drag and Drop activities on the iPad

You’ll notice that the faces of the characters are large enough to touch with a finger. We used large links and buttons throughout the course. The buttons are much bigger than what we might use in desktop-only eLearning. The key is to design the entire course while thinking about the smaller screen. Use generous amounts of white space and make links as large as possible. The screen below is a great example:

Articulate Storyline - Large links for iPad

It’s not just the size of your links and buttons, either. Notice how those magnified faces above are all at the bottom of the screen? That’s where users hold their tablets. We placed lots of interactions near the bottom of the screen so learners can easily tap the links with their thumbs. The lower right hand corner is also a good place to put your interactions. Take a look at the branching scenario screen below. Alicia intentionally placed the dialogue choices in the bottom right so users with iPads have easy access:

Articulate Storyline- Button placement for iPad users

Check out the left-hand navigation menu on all of these screenshots. Articulate Storyline gives you the option of publishing courses with or without the navigation. It may not look as pretty, but our internal testing showed that learners preferred having the navigation menu when viewing on an iPad. It makes the course much easier to navigate. If you publish to the iPad without this navigation, you do not have any navigation controls at all. We left the navigation off when publishing for the desktop.

Tracking mobile Learning in an LMS

SInce MISO needed the course to function within their LMS, we had to adjust some settings when publishing for the iPad. The Articulate Player gives you the choice of letting learners download the course on their iPads or running it through the web. If you are not yet using Tin Can API for tracking, you do not want to let learners download your courses. The data will not be passed back to the LMS. Unfortunately, Articulate Storyline courses that are meant to be used without an internet connection are not a good option if you need tracking with your LMS. If your LMS is Tin Can API compliant, you can work around this pretty easily.

Using the Articulate Player

Rapid authoring tools allow us to publish courses for the iPad easily and cheaply, but they do not deliver a fully immersive experience. You’ve already seen images of the left hand course menu and likely noticed a black “shell” around the course content. This is the Articulate Mobile Player. Users will have to download the Articulate Mobile Player app to their devices to view Storyline courses. If they try to access the course without downloading the app, this is what they’ll see:

Articulate Storyline Mobile Player

Once learners have the player though, it acts as a library to house all of their Storyline courses. If you are delivering multiple courses to learners using iPads, the app is pretty nice.

If mobile learning is still a “nice to have” or you are still researching the possibilities, designing eLearning courses that are “iPad ready” with a rapid authoring tool is an inexpensive, easy-to-element solution.

Stay tuned for part four of eLearning Challenges!