Converting Instructor-Led Training to E-learning or Distance Learning: Keys to success

We receive frequent requests to convert ILT courses to e-learning or distance learning. And sometimes I think that people perceive the process will go something like this:

  1. We start with a 126 slide PowerPoint presentation.
  2. We insert the presentation into a conversion machine.
  3. An engaging, effective e-learning course comes out on the other side. (and includes all 126 slides.)

I’m exaggerating a little to make my point, but even I can be convinced that starting from an existing course can be faster, and that’s not always the case. In my experience, here are a few realities I have found to be true:

  • It’s difficult to let go of the slides. Allow for a mourning period. Sometimes subject matter experts (SMEs) think that we’ll be able to translate their slides “as is” to an e-learning course.
    • This is not usually true. It’s my job to help the team realize that a clear slide for an ILT course may be very confusing in an online environment.
    • One way that I help the team through this grieving process is with the e-learning course design document. For each screen we plan to have, I’ll insert thumbnails of the slides that will be used to build those screens. That way the team knows that the information isn’t being trashed.
  • You’re probably going to have to cut some of the content. There is usually content that doesn’t make it into the e-learning course due to time constraints or because it can’t be translated online effectively.

  • In theory, the e-learning version of the course should be about ½ of the ILT version. (See Tony Karrer’s blog for some good info on this math.) But it doesn’t always work exactly. I recently had a project where we translated a 16 hour ILT course into a 45 minute e-learning course. Obviously, something had to go.
  • One approach to determine what can go is through a “slide-sort”. We have a face to face meeting with the team. We print off each slide and lay them out on a conference table. Then, as a team, we evaluate what stays and if the order gets adjusted. It’s a good way for the SME to 1) realize just how many slides they have and 2) identify the impact of their changes on the rest of the course content.
  • Translating activities online is going to take longer than you think. Since I’m not a programmer by trade, it can be easy to look at an ILT worksheet or activity and say, “Yes, we can translate that into a great online activity by….” And while that might be true, it isn’t always a quick process.
  • A good example is the below activity we developed for a recent ILT to distance learning conversion. In the ILT course, learners used fun-size bags of M&Ms to learn about basic statistical concepts. I thought, “we can make that an online activity!” And we did. While this is a slick interaction, we dealt with several unknowns throughout development, from how much to randomize the colors of the candies, to how learners will share their results with their instructors. Click the image below to test out the activity for yourself.

  • Someone has to capture what the instructor “says”. I’ve submitted an e-learning script to a SME for review and heard back, “But that’s not what I say when I teach the class.” It’s important to the team to not just convert the content, but also the discussions and points made by the facilitator. Obviously, not everything a facilitator says can be kept in the e-learning course, but be sure and find out what happens in the class. It is frequently those discussions that are what you really want to keep, rather than slides full of bullet points. You can capture this by:
  • Observing a class, taking lots of notes, and talking with the learners in the room.
  • Interviewing the facilitator. A good way is to walk with them slide by slide and have them share the key points as well as frequently asked questions.
  • Don’t be afraid to express your professional opinion. As a joint team, we need to have open, frank discussions about what the best approach is to the e-learning or distance learning version of the course. Sometimes the course needs to be almost completely redesigned, especially if the ILT version wasn’t instructionally sound.

Those are just a few of my guiding principles when dealing with ILT conversions. What would you add to the list?

Helping Your SMEs Help You

I love working with SMEs. (OK, most of the time I love working with SMEs. But really, I only love working with people in general most of the time.) Subject matter experts are great because they’re subject matter experts. I get to learn stuff from them. Sometimes, it’s cool stuff, and sometimes it’s just mildly interesting stuff, but’s always new to me. 

I try to make sure that SMEs don’t mind working with me. Because for all the SME jokes in our industry, they’ve got to have just as many about us crazy instructional designers. Afterall, we ask a lot of them. We want their expertise, but we want to have the right to change anything they tell us to make it more understandable. And we want to pull knowledge from them that has become so second nature they don’t even know they have it. Usually, we’re asking them to give us their time on top of everything else they have to do for thier job. When you think about it, we have to be kind of exhausting to work with.

So I want to make it as pain free as possible. For many of my projects, I spend a good chunk of time creating content worksheets or interview guides after I have a finished design. Leanne Batchelder wrote about our Mad Libs approach with content templates before.  That works great if I can’t meet with the SME face-to-face. If I can get face time, I usually use a six-step process:

  1. Ask the SMEs to review the design before the meeting. I’ve encountered instances where my SMEs for a project were not the same group of people that helped me design the program. I want them to know what the goals are before we meet.
  2. Go through the design document. I wrote it, edited it, read it a million times over, but I still need to go through it and pull out every question I have. This keeps me from forgetting to ask all of my questions. I don’t want to trap my SMEs for three hours in a meeting, then have to send 5 follow up emails because I fogot a key question in my meeting.
  3. Create an interview guide or content worksheet. I have a background in journalism, so I prepare for every meeting like its an interview. I write questions like I will ask them, in the order I will ask them.  This is not always the order I intend to use the information in the course. 
  4. Compare the interview guide against my source content. I want to fill in anything I can before I go into the meeting. Then, I can just have my SMEs confirm what I know or correct what I only thought I understood. It saves everyone time to have something to start from. At this step, I send a list to my SMEs of any documents I think they may already have, like standard operating procedures, forms, or plans.
  5. Review the design one last time and print everything. Chances are, I still forgot something. So triple-check my work against my design. Then I print all of the source material and head off to my meeting. 
  6. Send a summary of the meeting back to the SMEs. Often, SMEs need to provide me with additional information, documents, or forms. I try to send a list of anything they promised me to them within a few hours of our meeting. It helps me make sure I get all of the information I need and keeps them from having to remember one more thing.
How do you work with SMEs? Is there anything I should change in my approach? I’m always open to suggestions, because I know SMEs value their time.

Creating a good elearning or ILT course: Getting SMEs to think about outcomes

So…anyone can create a course, right? But…very few people actually create GOOD courses that truly train people to do something.

If you are tasked with creating a course on a technical topic…and you have to rely on a subject matter expert (SME) to help you create this course, you need to get your SME to think in terms of outcomes as opposed to content.

Subject matter experts tend to want to share everything they know about a topic. It’s the course designer’s job to help them shape their thoughts into outputs rather than inputs. At BLP, we do this with a design meeting. Here’s a quick look at the main steps in our design meeting and the process we use to “shift” SMEs toward an outcome focus rather than an information focus.

Step 1: Verify required outcomes. This sounds amazingly simple, yet you wouldn’t believe how many times people say they need training and yet they cannot articulate a simple goal or outcome this training should achieve. In instructional design lingo, we call this a “course goal.” It’s a description of what learners will do on the job once training is complete. Here’s a few examples of course goals:

  • When selling Product X, reps will position Product X against competition, communicate benefits, and successfully close at least 80% of sales.
  • During customer phone calls or customer meetings, reps will appropriately communicate the “fit” of Product X for the customer’s particular situation.
  • Patients will safely and confidently use Equipment X to do home treatment.

Often, SMEs who have been tapped to be content experts have thought very little about what OUTCOME they hope learners will have. They have focused instead on thinking about what content they want to deliver. We give them examples of possible course goals and then ask them questions to help them shift focus:

  • When training is over, what does the employee need to be able to do on the job? (When you hear, “Well, they need to understand X, Y, and Z,” you simply re-direct them and say back. “But WHY do they need to understand X, Y, and Z? What will they DO with this information?)
  • If this training is successful, what problem will you solve or prevent?
  • If this training is successful, what improvement will occur?

Sometimes, SMEs simply cannot articulate a goal. If they can’t, try shifting to step 2 and seeing if you can distill the ultimate goal after seeing their responses to Step 2 questions.

Step 2: Define the learning objectives. Now – we don’t tell SMEs that we’re “defining learning objectives,” but it’s what we do. We ask these questions, and we have them write their responses to each one on individual Post-It Notes. Ideally, we’ll use different colored Post-Its for each “type” of question:

  • What do learners need to know?
  • What do learners need to do?
  • What do learners need to believe/feel?
  • What common mistakes do you want to prevent or what problem do you want to solve?

SMEs generally respond really well to this activity. They may not do a great job distinguishing between something people need to know (knowledge) versus something they need to do (skill), but they will brainstorm their thoughts and we can then organize them.

Step 3: Chunk everything. This is honestly what we do. Together with the SMEs we shift/move the Post-Its around into logical groups. Topic themes will emerge and natural hierarchies will form. We’ll put the Post-Its on flipcharts and name each chunk with a logical title.

Step 4: Identify required content. Now, the SMEs can start talking content. We will look at each objective we defined and discuss what content has to be included to support it. For example, if the objective is that the patient performs machine set-up tasks, then the content is clearly descriptions of the machine set-up tasks.

Step 5: Identify appropriate learning activities. This is something we sometimes do with SMEs..and sometimes without them. If an appropriate learning activity is a practice activity in answering customer questions, we will brainstorm with the SMEs what questions are typically asked, what common mistakes reps make in answering these questions, and what kinds of resources a rep typically has available. In other words, we use the SME to craft the structure of the learning activity and to help us populate it.

Step 6: Identify job aids. What tools can help the learner transfer the training to the job? Sometimes the answer is – nothing. Other times, SMEs will identify “job aids” they want the learner to have access to. Honestly, in our experience, this offers a nice outlet to the SMEs to spill out all the content they didn’t get to include in the body of the course. We call these “reference materials” and allow SMEs to include all the “extra” material that we helped them winnow out through Steps 1 – 5.

I did a podcast where I attempted to show a very abbreviated form of this design meeting process. You can check it out here (And, yes, I realize no one is going to nominate me for an Emmy or an Oscar for my scintillating performance in the podcast!):