Amy Potthast | Instructional Coach & Designer | Learning Design Studios

Businesswoman typingOne of the projects I am managing these days is a synchronous e-learning (webinar) series for young leaders. I find myself wishing that the digital interface were more like social networking.

Using Cisco WebEx

A webinar is kind of like a PowerPoint presentation, delivered live over your computer.  We are using WebEx, which is one of my favorite platforms for this kind of training — versatile tools, easy to use, good information flow back to the presenter (important since you can’t see your learners).

WebEx, like other synchronous e-learning platforms, also allows for a variety of participant interactions — both among participants, and between participants and instructor or producer. (A producer of a webinar takes care of technical housekeeping and troubleshooting while the presenter concentrates on facilitating learning.)

Social networking functionality

What I keep wanting is for the interface to look and feel more like a social networking experience.

We know that social presence — such as human speech or images, also known as pedagogical agents (PDF) —  can be helpful for maintaining the attention and motivation of distance learners.

Social networking functions such as photos of other learners tied to the participant and chat lists might work in a similar way. Connecting to your professional network through LinkedIn links, live Tweeting of webinar content, and other tools also might support (rather than detract from) learner attention.


Isn’t it obvious (in the age of LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that we should be able to see each other’s profile photo as well?

While WebEx offers a chat window — so you can instant message the instructors or other participants or the group as a whole — you can only see a list of participant names in the chat window.

It seems like an interface with LinkedIn would be useful here — WebEx could pull in participants LinkedIn profile pics, and their LinkedIn headline — so people see a name and face, with a quick sense of who each other is in space and time.  If a participant didn’t have, or didn’t want to share, their LinkedIn profile, they could opt out.

Like button

And once folks start chatting, it just feels wrong that we can’t “like” another person’s chat.

“Liking” (or clicking a thumbs-up icon) isn’t just a cliche of our times. It’s a way of building esprit de corps — and of showing agreement and support for what someone else has said.

And “liking” someone else’s comment or question is also potentially great feedback for the instructor.

Live Tweeting

Finally, WebEx should make live Tweeting from the webinar easier. 

In addition to the chat window, a Twitter window would be so handy. If a participant does not use Twitter, and doesn’t want to read the Twitter feed, they can collapse that window so it’s invisible.

To make it work, webinar organizers could indicate a hashtag for the event, and encourage learners to use it in their Tweets.

One design might be to have participants only see each other’s Tweets — to sidestep the distraction of seeing their whole Twitter stream.

By live Tweeting the presentation, participants must listen carefully, and pull out and echo the most salient points of the session.

In effect, Twitter could be a useful reflection tool and note taking tool. Live tweeting would also give learners a self-assigned role to play during the webinar —  reporting or re-teaching webinar content to the outside world.

The dangers of distraction vs. WIIFM

I know that the presenter’s great concern is maintaining the focus and attention of learners.

Without any research to back up my hunch, I’d like to propose that incorporating some elements of social networking will draw otherwise bored learners into the session more, and give them social and personal reasons to focus on webinar content.

In other words, if I sense that What’s In It For Me is connecting to others — either socially or professionally — by participating in the webinar, I will pay more attention.

Frankly, it also gives me something to do during a webinar.

HINT: If you’ve designed your session well, learners will pay attention anyway!

Do you participate or lead synchronous e-learning events? What tools do you use? Do you hate, or love, the idea of incorporating social networking functionality — which functions? Why? 


You don’t need a teacher to learn, just a plan.

Photo by Jayel Aheram, Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Jayel Aheram, Flickr Creative Commons

Develop a learning project and create a learning contract with yourself that includes, goals, resources, strategies, and assessment.

1. Describe your learning goals

Make a list of the things you want to, or need to, learn. If you’re not sure what your learning goals are (or should be), ask some experts.

You may have heard of an “informational interview,” often used in the context of a career transition. For a learning project, seek out experts who already know what you want to learn more about. Ask them: “After a month of effort to learn, what should I be able to do, out in the real world?”

For example, you want to learn more about using You might ask, “After a month of effort, what should I be able to do, using WordPress?”

Experts might help you come up with such verb-driven learning outcomes as…

  • Navigate the back end of a WordPress site
  • Author a blog post
  • Design the content and organization of your pages
  • Add and delete widgets
  • Attach a new URL to the site
2. Discover useful resources

Through conversations with your experts, Google searches, a trip to your local library, reading key blogs and Twitter feeds regularly, and other methods, keep a list of resources you can draw on to learn more.

To continue with the example, you might find:

  • A range of books on the topic,
  • and/or Youtube tutorials,
  • Friends who’ll let you look over their shoulder
  • Blogs about blogging
  • Coursera and other free online courses (MOOCs) about writing web content
  • WordPress user forums (where people write and answer questions about using WordPress).

You are limited only by your imagination and savvy!

3. Decide on learning strategies

What steps will you take to learn what you need to know? List the activities that you can realistically undertake, and that will help you learn. Your list will grow once you begin your learning project — because the more you know, the more you’ll see what your learning options are!

Using the example, you might:

  • Play around on
  • Watch and chat with a friend or an expert as they update their own blog
  • Hire a coach
  • Watch online tutorials about WordPress (via Lynda or Youtube, referenced above)
  • Read books
  • Listen to podcasts or audiobooks
  • Go to a conference or training
  • Keep a journal of questions, problems, and discoveries
  • Read other WordPress-hosted blogs to discover what you like and dislike
  • Read blogging experts’ tips.
4. Determine markers of your success

What does success look like? Before you embark on your learning project, think about how you will know you’ve succeeded. Some ideas for assessing and “grading” yourself:

  • Write a test for yourself, asking open-ended questions that you want to learn the answers to (ask an expert if s/he would be willing to read your answers once your learning project is nearing completion
  • Develop a checklist of skills you’d like to be able to execute (and check them off as you succeed)
  • Complete a meaningful project incorporating your learning goals, and ask an expert or friend to assess it for you according to criteria you specify
Execute your project

Once you’ve developed your learning contract, put it into action — use the resources, follow the strategies, and assess your progress. It may help you to set up a schedule for yourself, or get into a rhythm — commit (to yourself!) to try one new strategy a week, or reflect (journal) three times a week on what you’re discovering.

Benefits of a self-directed learning project

Whereas a teacher-led learning efforts are usually time-limited (i.e., a college course lasts a term; a workshop may last an hour or two — time lengths that you have no control over!) — with your own learning project, your goals are focused, but you can keep learning till you’ve accomplished what you set out to.

And once you’re done — celebrate, and then start all over again!

To get where you want to go, process is helpful.

by Katy Terwolbeck, Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Katy Terwolbeck, Flickr Creative Commons

But process requires patience!

Resist the urge to make decisions about content for your upcoming training event — or the activities to include — or the information to list on your slide deck — till you’ve gone through an instructional design process.

Start with roles & outcomes (what learners will do out in the real world after your learning event) …

Based on outcomes, make decisions about:

  • Learning objectives (assessments that allow you to judge the learners’ ability to achieve the outcomes). Robert Mager has written books on writing strong objectives; Blooms’ Taxonomy is also a useful tool here.
  • New knowledge — concepts, skills (the ones that will help learners achieve the outcomes).
  • Activities (opportunities to master the concepts and to practice the skills that support the outcomes) — consider activities that will support learning, not simply fun or “engaging.”  Ruth Colvin Clark has written a half dozen books on learning strategies grounded in cognitive science.

When you are an expert in what you do, it’s really hard to remember what it’s like not to know what you know.  If you don’t first consider learner outcomes, you’ll have a much harder time narrowing down content to include — and you may attempt to over-stuff (but under-serve) your audience.

Over-stuffing your audience with information will make it harder for them to learn, and your attempts to assess them will be clouded — should they be responsible for all the content you’ve delivered?  Will you resent them if they can’t grasp it all based on your many power point slides and your fun activities?

Outcomes focus your assessment strategies to ensure your learners are on the hook for completing course objectives and not memorizing and repeating all the information you’ve imparted (or tried to!).

Good luck and let me know how it goes!!

Last week, I posted a puzzler of sorts — an acquaintance Deb* had some issues with a two-day training she’d been compelled to attend at work. (Read that post here.)

Here are some ideas about how the instructional designer, the trainer, and the learner herself could have done things a little differently, lowering Deb’s affective filter & increasing her engagement and learning.

First — on role plays in general

I love role plays — as an instructor and designer.

They give learners practice simulating a potentially real-life problem, and allow the facilitator to determine if the learners have achieved in-class objectives.

As a learner, I admit I am more resistant to role plays — out of shyness (not introversion) — but I am happy in the end to have had a chance to practice. I especially prefer role plays that I don’t have to stand and perform.


  • What if my relative comfort with role plays has to do with my natural extroversion? I don’t need time to process mentally. I’m perfectly happy processing orally! Do instructors and designers tend to be extroverted? Are we a self-selected bunch of extroverts who design with ourselves in mind?
  • Must role plays be scripted, or can they simply come with guidelines, rubrics, tips? — like, snippets of language suggestions or prompts? I think in the specific program that Deb attended, the scripts were probably trademarked and therefore meant to be used verbatim. Is it realistic to think she will actually memorize and repeat the scripts in real life?

In line with this last point, my friend and colleague Tracy Schiffmann commented:

Instead of scripts (although examples are always helpful, but perhaps they may have been used as just that, examples), the skills and concepts might have been taught through principles of effective communication.

This could have even been done through a Thiagi type “envelopes” framegrame in which teams study the principles on a handout, then generate relevant scenarios and then use the framegrame (along with the handouts and maybe a scoring guide for the use of the principles) to respond to the scenarios – a different one in each envelope.

A few rounds of this (in which teams write out their response and put it in the envelope without looking at other teams’ responses) with the final round being an evaluation round of all responses in the envelope using a scoring guide, might have been more meaningful for folks.

It also allows for truly owning the communication principles as they are filtered through one’s prior knowledge, culture, personality etc.

So what could have been done differently?

What could the trainer, designer and learner do differently next time?

What could the trainers have done to help Deb?

Given an established curriculum, what could the trainers have done to make Deb feel more comfortable? 

To get more ideas, I consulted with several friends and with my husband —who is an introvert, a teacher, and (therefore) a participant in many work-sponsored in-service trainings. Here were his ideas for what the instructor could do to help Deb out:

  1. Create a safe environment from the get-go. Model a positive attitude, and clarify the reasons participants showed up today. It helps if they create their own goals for learning — especially if they don’t know why their boss made them come.
  2. Time to process. Use a structure like “Think pair share” which offers everyone (including introverts) time to process on their own, time to process again in a chat with someone else, and then the opportunity to share more broadly, if they choose to do so.
  3. Ask learners to volunteer their participation. Don’t insist that every participant take part in a role-play, or have any kind of public speaking role. It’s not that learners have to “get over shyness” — it’s that some learners need more time to think through their responses. Even teachers and public figures who speak regularly love to have time to prepare. If student participation is part of your scoring guide, find alternative ways for assessing participation, such as writing a reflection about the class (ex-post-facto).
  4. Give learners the right to pass. If an activity is structured so that each person in a group does have to speak, allow learners to pass. Circle back to them if they need more time to think of what they’d like to say.
  5. Keep it real. Don’t pressure learners to say something they don’t want to say, or to behave in way that’s not reflective of who they are. A classroom should be a learning laboratory, not a first dinner with the in-laws — or a job interview — where everyone uses their most restrained behavior. Learners need room to struggle and grow — and be authentic.
  6. Listen for, and address, struggles you see in the classroom. Not all learners are going to pull you aside and let you know that they are struggling. Not all learners will resist vocally. Be on the lookout for uncomfortable body language — and listen in on group work to spot people who are having a harder time. Where necessary, take a struggling learner aside and discuss ways to modify the activity to suit their learning needs. Be prepared to listen — and don’t try to be a psychotherapist. Invite them to participate — and accept it if they decline to do so. I admit this kind of side discussion is difficult if you have a large group of learners.
  7. Know thy learners! It’s always a good idea to survey your learners ahead of time, as part of the registration process. My friend and colleague Erin Neff observes:

    “The instructor could have also done a pre-course survey to get a sense of how best the students would learn so the instructor could target certain activities to that class. I assume the instructor does not have the luxury of polling the class in advance so the better option is to have several tricks in the bag and to be able to offer up those tricks to get at the learning objectives.”

What could the instructional designers have done to help learners like Deb?
  1. Leave room for the learner’s experience. When designing role plays, leave open the option for learners to come up with their own scenarios, and to paraphrase any script they’re given. Offer (and define) key words and useful phrases, rather than dictating whole sentences. Tracy Schiffmann says: 

    “The adult learning literature demonstrates that participant-generated scenarios are better for not only engagement but also for transferability of learning to novel situations. Had participants been able to generate their own scenarios, the issue of relevance might have been better met.”

  2. Let learners act on their strengths. When designing any kind of small group activity that includes a teach back or presentation, give the small groups a variety of roles — including roles that need to speak to the big group, and roles that do not (such as small group facilitator, recorder, flip chart writer, etc.)
  3. Offer more options! The course designer/developer might vary the learning activities during the two-day program. Erin Neff says:

    “A better approach would have been to have options so the learners could select a way that would work for them. I also can’t speak to the purpose of this strict script and what were the objectives of the class. Regardless, I am sure there were many people who experienced something similar as did Deb and shut down to learning at some point. No one wins in that case.

    The instructional designer could have made the event more useful by having a variety of activities in which the learners had the opportunity to absorb the information effectively, whether they are introverted, extroverted, learn by doing, seeing, or hearing. It sounds like I expect a utopia but it is not impossible.”

Finally, what can learners do to help themselves?
  1. Communicate your needs ahead of time. Ahead of the training, be in touch with the instructor, if possible, and let them know what your specific needs are. Ask them what type of activities the workshop will rely on, and ask them what the goals and outcomes of the course are. Try to figure out why you are going (if your boss asked you to go), what you’re supposed to get out of the training, and come up with your own personal learning goals. Of course it would be nice if the trainer surveyed you and other participants ahead of time.
  2. Stay upbeat. If at all possible, maintain a positive attitude during the workshop.
  3. Communicate your needs during the training. If necessary, speak to the instructor during the workshop to let them know that you are struggling.  Erin Neff says:

    “Another idea could be to approach the instructor during a break to explain the challenges she was facing and that she was having a hard time learning the material in that environment.”

     Be as specific as possible: “I find that I am so anxious about the role plays, that I am not able to concentrate on the content of our course. Can you give me some options for participating in alternative ways. Can I take notes for my small group, for example, or paraphrase the script in my own words?”

That all said, it might be hard to speak up during a workshop especially if the trainer seems to have a rigid approach. Erin Neff continues:

“Considering that Deb is more introverted, with the need to think things over first before acting, and the fact that the workshop was set up with little flexibility, I am not sure if her speaking out would have made a difference. Perhaps rather than be thrown in to immediately taking a turn reading from the script, she could have watched others do it and then take her turn playing that same role. I get the sense that the instructor was not interested in deviation though so there might not have been time for that.”

*Deb is not her real name. That said, I asked her permission to blog about this issue.

Serving diverse learner needs

Yesterday I had coffee with a new acquaintance. I’ll call her Deb.*

When I explained what I do for a living (design new training programs for adults; coach subject-matter experts to teach and train better; coach writing), Deb told me about a two-day workshop she attended recently. Here are the salient details:

  • The training was a nationally-known program based on a best-selling book, and led in-house by the human resources staff of Deb’s company.
  • The training involved learning scripted conversations, and practicing the scripts during role plays.
  • Deb’s boss arranged for her to attend.
  • Deb’s an introvert — but not shy. She needs to ponder and process her thoughts internally before speaking.
  • Deb’s intelligent, educated (has a masters degree from a U.S. university), and practical.
  • Deb’s from a country in Southeast Asia, and speaks excellent English.

So…Deb really didn’t like the training.

The reasons Deb disliked the training

1. The scenarios she was asked to practice weren’t realistic to her.
For example, one dealt with what she should say to a colleague she suspected of stealing from the company. She said that was not something she would ever address on the job because she’s not in that kind of role.

2. She wasn’t permitted to paraphrase the script.
She was instructed to read directly from the script. And she didn’t think it was Read the rest of this entry »

“If you prick us, do we not bleed?” — Shylock (from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice)

I caught part of a radio interview this afternoon on Q with Gian Gomeshi — the guest was Greg Graffin, the (now middle-aged) front man for the punk band Bad Religion. I know almost nothing about punk, but the guy sounded like a sweet, thoughtful person, doing his music thing, and teaching at Cornell.

What got my attention was that Graffin said he didn’t read reviews of his music, and didn’t read student comments on the faculty evaluations and the end of his courses. He’s afraid of the criticism.


Okay, it’s NOT that I CAN’T relate. Criticism — even private criticism from learners, written on an evaluation survey that only you read — is painful. Worse (obviously) if the learner is trying to be hurtful. And knowing nothing of fame myself, I don’t know how it would feel to read a published review of my work.

All that said, the evaluation comments at the end of a workshop or course aren’t about YOU.

They are about how the learner experienced the event, how the learner interpreted you, and how the learner negotiated meaning from the content, activities, and interaction with other learners.

While some learners might offer vapid griping — Graffin’s fear was a student calling him “boring” — and others might try to be insulting, the most helpful comments you’ll read will come from learners who ask for specific changes, or give you new insights into your teaching, methods, or materials.

Here are a few tips for rethinking post-course evaluations:

Look for patterns

Are many learners, over many trainings, giving you similar feedback about your organization, timing, or tone?

In a pile of friendly, supportive evals, are there one or two grumpy folks who totally didn’t get you? Or missed the point of your training, came for the wrong reasons, or didn’t appreciate your sense of humor?

Read those, but don’t dwell on them more than on the comments from your fans. (Oy, I know — easier said than done!)

Treat feedback as a gift

Learners came to the event to take something away (skills, concepts, new contacts). If they take the time to evaluate the event and your presentation — bonus! Free coaching for you.

Learn something

Find the grain of truth in any comment, and shake off any negative tone you’re picking up. That tone could come from anything — the learner’s fight last night with the boyfriend, a bounced check, a flat tire on the way to the event….

The important thing is, maybe what they are saying is legitimate. Maybe you left some context out of your intro that would have helped, or maybe you need to think about using additional instructional tools, like a scoring guide, or agenda.

It might be you

Have you been leading a longer course? And ignored repeated feedback from the same learners? In that case, you might need to own both the content and tone of negative eval comments. (Sorry to point out the obvious…)

Remember how it feels

The next time you give feedback to a fellow instructor, keep it useful and professional.

Ask for what you need. Praise specific methods and materials.

You might dislike the instructor, but, well, that might be obvious without writing about it in the course eval! Just in case the instructor bleeds when he’s pricked, go ahead and use a butter knife if you have critical feedback.

Have you ever skipped reading your course evaluations? How do you prepare to read them — and process the good, the bad and the ugly?

Event planning basics

Here are some basic guidelines for planning a solid event….and communicating the details to your learners ahead of time.

Photo of clipboards by Schezar, Flickr Creative Commons

By Schezar, Flickr Creative Commons

1. Location

Last minute disasters aside, you should have a venue reserved for your learning event before you open registration. Otherwise, how can you tell folks when, where, and how long the workshop will be? How will you know how many people you can accommodate?

When you advertise the event, include:

  • Location (including full address: host organization name, building name, floor number, and room name or number)
  • Day of the week, and date
  • Start time and end time
  • Event planner’s contact name and phone number

When learners register, they should get an automatic email with these details, as well.

When you close registration — or a week or two ahead of the event — send all registered learners another note reiterating the information, with links to directions, and your contact info (including cell phone number) in case people experience issues, day-of.

2. Food — for longer events

Let learners know whether you are providing a meal, or snacks— or whether they should bring food themselves.

If you plan to provide food, ask folks what their dietary needs are. The easiest way to do that is to ask on the registration form.

If you can’t provide food, plan to provide water if at all possible. My personal preference also includes coffee!!

But skip candy on the tables. Candy doesn’t wake you up…at least not in the long run. It makes you run down. For alert learners, opt instead for stretch breaks and fresh air.

3. Introductions

Name tags or tents are nice, too, but at the very least, allow folks to introduce themselves and explain why they came. This is especially important for longer training events (2+ hours). If it’s a large group, or you are worried about time, at least have learners introduce themselves to the people sitting near them.

4. Written agenda, and preferably, learning objectives

Let people know where you are taking them during the learning event.

Agendas and objectives (what learners will show you they can do, by the end of the workshop) serve as advanced organizers — giving learners a framework with which to organize the information that’s to come.

Also: showing the learners your agenda and objectives also increases the chances you HAVE an agenda and objectives. Don’t think I am kidding!

Throughout the event, refer back to your agenda, and at the end of the event, use the objectives as a prompt to quiz learners about the event’s takeaways.

5. Evaluation

Always ask for feedback. Especially if you offer the learning event regularly, or if this was the first time. Use either pencil-and-paper forms that folks can fill out towards the end of the event, or online surveys they get a link to in their inbox next-day.

You might ask what they took away from the workshop (knowledge and skills) as well as comments on your facilitation, methods, activities, materials, and event logistics. I prefer open-ended questions and space for writing. Some people would rather see Likert rating scales (1 to 5). It’s up to you, and your boss or client how to evaluate the event.

NOTE: the surveys you collect after a learning event are just the tip of the evaluation iceberg.

  • You can also assess what the learners actually learned in more formal ways (tests, essays, reflections, projects).
  • You can find out whether the learners have started using their new skills and knowledge in the real world.
  • You can find out if the learner’s workplace, school, career, or community has benefitted from the learning.

Especially if you offer a high-stakes instructional program with intense social or other implications, you should plan to do some kind of periodic or longitudinal program evaluation. You might not know how to conduct it, which questions to ask, or how to collect accurate data — but someone else will! If you can’t afford an evaluation expert, consider work with a graduate intern.

What’s on your list of must-haves when you are planning a learning event?