Managing your Digital Toolbox

In the past I’ve talked about how it’s important to not let efficiency get in the way of trying to master a new skill or tool. Today, I want to expand on that a little bit and argue that sometimes, leaning too much into monetary efficiency is bad.

Yeah. Sometimes you just gotta spend money.

I’m not saying be frivolous. But rather try not to get locked into design patters solely by financial concerns. Let me explain.

Innovation Drives Learning

For eLearning to be successful in the long term, it absolutely must innovate. Over the past several weeks, we’ve heard Gary talk about the 4IR, or Fourth Industrial Revolution, encompassing new technologies like deep learning, AI-driven eLearning, VR/AR, and other exciting technologies.

If you’re anything like me, you love new technology (I have an IT background after all). There’s something alluring about the promise of accomplishing things that only a decade ago were solidly in the realm of science fiction.

Obviously, it’s dangerous to jump too far off the deep end with a new tool, particularly if you haven’t done your due diligence to determine whether or not it can be used to promote effective learning. So, I’m not advocating jumping off a digital cliff with no parachute.

But I am advocating you should take occasional strategic risks with the tools you use.


Because it makes you a better designer.

Striving for Better eLearning Designs

As a designer, you might find a tendency to fall into familiar patterns—particularly if what you are doing is “good enough” for your current project. The human brain is amazingly lazy efficient. If it finds a great way of doing something, the next time it has to complete a similar task, guess what it’s gonna do? That’s right, it’s going to do the same thing over again. And you’ll end up with a similar result.

The same is true for the tools you use. We’d probably all agree that eLearning limited to bulleted lists and reading charts isn’t exactly the best we can do. But at one time it was cutting edge.

Talented designers take eLearning to a more interactive, personal level by stretching themselves, trying new tools, and just seeing what they can accomplish. If previous designers had never gone beyond a word processor, we wouldn’t today be on the cusp of the 4IR.

Let’s put it in a more modern context. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Articulate Storyline is your eLearning authoring tool of choice. Now, I’m not trying to be down on Storyline here, It’s a fantastic piece of software that in many ways, I’m still just starting to scratch the surface of. But imagine you’ve used it day in and day out for years. You’re mastered layers, triggers, and are a JavaScript wizard.

When your next client (or boss) wants you do develop a piece of eLearning, you’re probably naturally going to reach for Storyline—it’s what your brain thinks is the most efficient path. And so, at the end of the project, you have a fantastically well produced Storyline module to drop in your LMS of choice. Again. But you never really stopped to consider if Storyline was the best tool for the job.

But what if you had used a different tool? Or eschewed traditional eLearning authoring tools altogether?

Maybe this time you look for ways to develop a blended course, instead of just traditional eLearning. Or maybe design something like a virtual workshop, where the learners are even more directly involved in creating artifacts to help them learn? Or what if you really pushed toward using interactive branching video in a tool like PlayPosit. Now you’ve opened up possibilities for new (and possibly better) ways of delivering a learning experience that helps the learner retain knowledge.

And as a bonus, you’ve added another tool to your toolbox.

Now, the next time you have a project, you can spend some time evaluating the different tools at your disposal and work toward picking the best tool rather than the one you are most familiar with. Good eLearning starts with analysis, and that includes thought about the tools you’ll use.

Exploring Design Stretches the Designer

Now, is this process the fastest? Of course not, and sometimes you just have to get a project done. In which case, go for the efficient tool. And sometimes you need the familiar consistency of something like a Storyline course for the learner experience—if they’ve taken previous courses in that format, it makes sense to take advantage of that previous knowledge.

But don’t expect the training you develop to be radically different, to break new ground, or dramatically stretch your thinking and ability as a designer. To improve learning, we ourselves need to learn. We have to try new things—and that comes at the cost of efficiency.

The Right Tool for the Job

Efficiency is the enemy of innovation. You will never discover new approaches and solutions to problems if you stay where you’re comfortable. Even if those uncomfortable ledges cost money.

There’s another, slightly more insidious trap that can happen when we strive to be as efficient as we can with our tools. Tell me if this sounds at all familiar.

“We’ve purchased [X Tool,] so let’s make sure we get a return on our investment for it!

This kind of thinking (while understandable) can be incredibly dangerous. I’m sure you can see why. We’ve just talked about expanding our toolbox to ensure that we can use the right tool for the right situation.

Too much focus on RoI thinking locks you into the polar opposite approach.

Instead of using the right tool for the job, you’re suddenly concerned about maximizing your use of a tool so you can justify the purchase. Even if that tool is bad. Even if that tool is the wrong choice for the eLearning you are creating.

Don’t feel compelled to use a tool just because you’ve spent a bunch of money on it. Obviously, there’s a balance somewhere (because no one has infinite money—or infinite time—to learn how to do everything).

Imagine if a carpenter went to a job site, and his boss had just purchased a fancy new hammer.. We’ll call it the Mjölnir of construction hammers, but without the lightning. It’s the best possible hammer that exists, and it cost a fortune.

Now, to recoup his costs for the hammer, the boss decides that everyone needs to learn how to use it, and use it for everything.

Need to break down a wall? Grab Mjölnir. Fair enough. Need to hammer a nail? Well, ok, that makes sense. What about sawing a board in half? Or chalking a line? Or one of hundreds of other tasks that need to be performed at any construction site.

Yeah, it gets absurd pretty quickly. No one in their right mind would say “we have to use this tool a ton just to make sure we get our money’s worth out of it.” They’d say “hey, we’ve got this great tool. When you find the right job for it, go ahead and use it. Or, even do the occasional experimental project with it to see if you can push it a bit further or find a new use for it.

My point?

Sometimes you have to spend money, and learn new tools. It’ll make you a better designer, and by extension, your eLearning quality will trend upwards too.

Have you found any tools that stretch your design skills? Let us know.

Author: Dave Zokvic, Assistant Instructional Designer

Dave helps Model eLearning forge narrative and gamified eLearning and side-hustles as a writer and designer for Northward Compass. Off the clock, he’s likely eating sushi, wandering around a bookstore, playing tabletop games, or picking up his next ‘digital native’ skill.

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