What I Learned
Mobile Ready +
One of the courses in which I learned the most is also one in which I did the worst work. I'm not including either of the projects I developed for "Mobile Apps Development" in this portfolio for a variety of reasons. In one of them, I developed a mobile app that would allow the user to create a mobile recipe box. I got the idea while baking for Christmas. My favorite cookie is one that I know I'm misspelling, but Google isn't helping me out. They're a Croatian cookie called pohantzes (phonetically, "PO-haun-zees"), which are flat, fried cookies made with brandy and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The recipe was written down in the margins of a newspaper by my wife's great-grandmother when she emigrated to the United States. Seeing the well-worn paper, I thought of how cool it would be to have an app that lets you enter the ingredients, instructions, and categorize it as dessert, main course, etc. Users would create an account, and then they could log in to create or edit the recipes for their most loved foods. You can do this on a notebook computer, but think of how much easier it would be to pull your phone out of your pocket, jot down the recipe, and then retrieve it later when you want to try it out. The problem I ran into is that you need a MySQL database to store the content that users submit. Database development has never been one of my strengths. I eventually made it work (sort of), but the database wasn't backed up when I changed hosting services. If I gave you the link, the app would do nothing but throw errors.
Developing mobile apps in this class reinforced to me that idea that the era of the personal computer is coming to a close. More and more people, especially those in developing countries, will consume most of their content on mobile devices simply because these devices can be produced and sold much less expensively than notebook or desktop computers. Google recently changed its search algorithm to favor websites that are mobile-friendly. If you want your content to be accessible, it's going to have to be mobile-friendly. All websites should be designed with a mobile-first approach. In other words, web developers should assume that everyone is going to be viewing their websites on mobile devices and scale their stylesheets accordingly. Think of the frustration that you feel when you try and load a website that is not optimized for mobile on your smartphone. The text is too small to read, buttons are too small to click. You have to zoom in and scroll. You'll probably accidentally click on links that take you away from the page, forcing you to start the process all over again. Responsive design allows for a website (such as the one you're currently reading) to re-size and re-format depending on the window size (go ahead--try it!). Designing a full-screen page and then re-formatting it for tablets and then for mobile is a mistake. This approach emphasizes cutting back--you're always squeezing something so that it will fit the smaller screen. But if you flip this approach, you are forced to focus on presenting the content that is truly important. You can then scale the page up for a tablet and then for a full-screen. And, as an unintended consequence, your fullscreen pages will have much more whitespace, larger fonts, and a cleaner look to them.
I'm often asked if a particular course that I've finished is "mobile ready", a phrase that really should be retired. What the person asking this question is usually wanting to know is whether the page will load without errors on a mobile device. In other words, "Will it work on a smartphone?" They usually aren't asking if the user experience of the course in question will be ideal on a mobile device. In several courses, I used JQuery Mobile as a framework on which to build apps optimized for mobile browsers. I wish that we could have spent time in a course exploring philosophical questions that need to be answered when it comes to the subject of mobile eLearning. What would a mobile-first approach to eLearning look like? How does a limited screen size affect the kind of interactions you can and should develop? Is mobile eLearning simply a matter of re-formatting an existing course to display properly on a small screen, or does it mean that the course design itself needs to be reconsidered? Would mobile eLearning finally kill the dreaded "click and read" structure too many lazy designers use? Would it force us to design more interactive courses that use hardware such as cameras and microphones? When I'm asked if a course is mobile ready, what I want to ask in response is, "How could it be when we don't even know what a mobile ready course would look like yet?"
Measure Twice, Cut Once+
When I first looked at the program requirements for the learning systems design and development track, I groaned when I saw that "Formative and Summative Evaluation" and "Needs Assessment" were the two required courses that everyone has to take. These two courses were going to be painful. I wanted to focus on development, not waste my time with analysis. It didn't even really occur to me while I was taking these courses just how critical they are to the instructional design process. I think that it's because in the corporate environments in which I've worked, the kinds of decisions that grow out of needs assessments and evaluations are always made by people I never see in parts of the company I never have contact with. I'm usually given assignments to execute. Sometimes, decisions are made without consideration to downstream impacts. Other times, the problem that the new program will address is not going to be resolved with training. Or, project managers are focused solely on due dates that you don't have time to do the proper analysis ahead of time to do the job well. These aren't criticisms of my current or past employer--these are problems every organization faces in varying degrees. But because my own experience with assessment and evaluation has been generally negative, I viewed these courses from the same perspective.
A needs assessment that determines whether and what kind of training needs to be developed and evaluations that fairly judge the effectiveness of these programs is essential to their success. In the needs assessment that I wrote for Dr. Holly, I concluded that the problems facing St. Mark's parish had nothing to do with training. Instead, open and honest conversations about mistakes that were made and commitments to improvement were needed to heal the wounds of the community. Without this needs assessment, I might have had the impression that there was a problem, and felt it intuitively, but I wouldn't have had any way to address it. I might have designed soft skills classes or team-building exercises, but these would have been a waste of time. I've worked on projects where someone in a position of authority "felt" that something was wrong and pushed for re-design of existing training programs. I'm sure that we all have. Without careful analysis of the situation at hand, you can't develop solutions that will resolve the problem. And if you don't take the time to evaluate the results, you can't know if the problem has been resolved.
Learning should be designed with a focus on the desired results. This may seem obvious, but without clearly written learning objectives that address a deficiency, you can't measure the results to see how effective the learning is and whether it should be continued. I used to tell my students that bad writing was almost always the result of bad thinking. Many of my students were obsessed with the mechanics of grammar instead of critical thinking. A structurally perfect paragraph that doesn't say anything is pointless. I was once asked to re-design an existing course which had as one of its learning objectives, "identify the location of the restrooms." In fairness, I suppose there might have been issues with trainees using the classroom to relieve themselves, but I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that folks with MBAs aren't going to attend a firm-required training event and urinate in the corner whenever the need arises. Asking yourself what behaviors you want your learners to be able to do after they complete the course you design will go a long way towards not having to redesign the program in the future.