Tips for Small L&D Departments: An Interview with Emily Wood


Tips for Small L&D Departments Image

Learning and development professionals, including elearning developers, have to wear many hats. That’s kind of true by definition, since it’s a field that incorporates a lot of different skills and tasks. But it’s even more true for L&D/eLearning professionals who work in small learning development departments. Maybe it’s a 3-person department, or maybe even a 1-person department. It’s pretty amazing what these hardworking professionals get done.

This article is an interview with Emily Wood, who is her own “elearning department of one” at a non-profit based in Portland, Oregon. She’s also the author of a new book by that same title–eLearning Department of One.

In this interview, she offers some insights into how she gets it all done and offers tips and resources for L&D professionals out there in the same situation. If you’re in a small L&D department, we think you’ll find this interview especially interesting.

We’ve got a recorded video of the discussion for you immediately below, plus if you prefer reading, we’ve typed up a transcript for you too (just click the MORE button to read).

Emily Wood: An eLearning Department of One (Hats Off to Her!)

Convergence Training: Hi, everybody, and welcome. This is Jeff Dalto with Convergence Training, back again with our semi-regular pod/web/audiocast series, and we have a cool guest today.

We’re in the world of learning and development or elearning development, and today we have a guest who is really going to be of interest to people who L&D or elearning development departments at their workplace. She’s recently written a book called eLearning Department of One, because she herself is a one-woman elearning development department, her name is Emily Wood, she’s a learning & development professional and elearning developer with a non-profit in Portland, OR (w’e’re not allowed to mention the name).

Emily, hello and welcome and thanks for coming on.

Emily Wood: Hi, Jeff, thanks for having me.

Convergence Training: How’s it going today?

Emily Wood: Wonderful. It’s not raining in Portland, so it’s a banner day.

Getting to Know Emily and Her Work in L&D

Convergence Training: I hear ya.

OK, cool. So Emily, to start rolling, could you tell us a little about yourself, the type of organization you work for, even if you can’t mention its name, maybe we can get an idea of the size of it, and in particular the kind of learning and development and training support that you provide there? And feel free to tell us a little about your work history as well, which is really fascinating.

Emily Wood: Yeah, sure.

So the organization where I work now is a non-profit organization that covers the state of Oregon, and we offer training to people in a lot of different work areas (we call them service areas), where we have custodians, and facilities people, and a warehousing system, and educators, and social services-types of positions.

So it’s kind of fun from a training and development perspective because the training that we create is all over the map. Like right now, I am launching a module on supporting civil rights, like how your USDA rights are established for purchasing food, a module on blood safety, a module on hand washing, and we’re working on a series of modules right now on supervisory skills to be better coaches and supervisors.

So it’s kind of just, you know, any day of the week is completely different, and that makes it fun and interesting to do, but then again it can also be a little bit overwhelming because you’re learning a little bit about a whole bunch of things. And then doing it as a department of one, you’re doing it end-to-end, so I have wonderful experts in the organization that I get to meet with and talk to about content that they know a whole lot about, and I need to learn just enough from them to help them do the needs assessment to build out a learning path for the learners who need to upskill in that particular area.

And then, my background–I’ve been in non-profit for fifteen years now (it’s been quite a while). I’ve done a lot of work in teaching people English, and then I worked for a museum for a little while, and I worked with the Department of Defense for a little while.

In one of the positions I had, we had a call center of people I was in charge of training and my boss said “Hey, you seemed to kind of like that, would you like to go to school for it?” and I wound up attending graduate school during night school while working full-time during the day, getting my masters in instructional design, but it wasn’t something I came to with my whole goal in life being to become an instructional designer. I actually started off professionally doing market research. So, a lot of background in qualitative and quantitative analytics, so I’m really excited about xAPI and the kinds of data that we can get back from training and learning.

Emily’s eLearning Development Process: From Start to Finish

Convergence Training: Well, cool. Maybe if I’m lucky enough we can have you back to discuss how you work with all those different SMEs on those topics you know a little bit about, or get to know a little bit better, and also touch base in the future about your experiences with xAPI.

I agree with you that one of the cool things about being an instructional designer is that you get to learn a lot of stuff, and also in your case when you’re handling it from one end of the production cycle to another, you’re doing a lot of different kinds of things, and we’ll talk about that more in a second.

So OK, cool. Why don’t you give us an idea of what you, as a one-person elearning developer, have to do from the beginning of the process to the end, just kind of a bird’s-eye view talking us through the different phases, knowing that in a lot of cases, each of these different little elements might be performed by a different person or a different department at a larger company.

Emily Wood: Yeah, sure.

So the big thing that’s important to me now when I’m talking to people who are near to an organization or are working as a department of one consulting for another organization is to do an organization-wide needs assessment to really understand the population of people that they’re working with, the technology people will have access to, which is particularly important for elearning, to know “Am I developing for mobile? Am I developing for computers? What are the bandwidth considerations? Do I need people to be able to complete this remotely and then upload later? Can they take it real time? What kind of streaming video options do we have?”

So really having that high-level of discussion with your IT department, about kind of what their level of support is and how that’s going to affect you, and what their publication is going to be–so, do they have a learning management system, is it going on a website, and how do they want to handle that?

And then talking to Human Resources to find out what are the education levels of the staff, what are the languages that we need to be supporting, and issues revolving around disability and inclusion: what kind of backgrounds are we expecting from the people who are taking these courses, what kind of adaptive considerations do we have to have going in to build the modules themselves?

And then, if you have the benefit of coming in fresh, like I did–the organization I worked for didn’t have an L&D department before I got there, so I got to be involved in the development of all of that–is to meet with all the different subject matter experts and talk to them about where they see the department in terms of the training and learning paths and what they would like to see come out of it and then, particularly with an organization that hasn’t had elearning before, get their perceptions about how elearning works and what they feel about it.

I DID have to spend some time at the beginning of my tenure at this organization doing a series of trainings explaining what it is to be a subject matter expert versus an instructional designer, because I felt like there was…they weren’t mean about it, but there was some “I’ve already made this PowerPoint, I’ve already given them, they’re good enough, just add audio.” And for those of us that are in training & development, I like to think that we’re not just adding audio and hitting a continue button to make a PowerPoint into an elearning course. We get to have a fundamental discussion with somebody about what it is to be good training, and how we can help them, and really effect this behavior change we are looking for as a result of this training we’re trying to do.

And then in a lot of cases, I actually went so far as to get the elearning challenges from eLearning Heroes and going to Captivate sample trainings and making a web site of “Here are all of the kinds of things that we could possibly do. I want you to go to this website and check out 1, 3, and 5 and then let’s talk about it based on the content you have.” Because you’re the expert in instructional design and in elearning, and they’re the expert in the subject matter. And it’s kind of your responsibility to share with them all of the amazing kinds of things that we can do and offer, because I think in a lot of cases, the experience that some of these experts have with elearning is what they had back in school, and they’re not getting to see the really amazing strides we’ve made in the industry in the last five years or so in terms of what can be developed.

And then, from there, if you had to pick one skill to be really good at, I would say project management is way up there in terms of what you need to do, because you need to be able to negotiate with all the stakeholders, you know.

When I started, I made a five-year plan, I had a list of all the basic modules at a very basic level, the absolute minimum of what everybody wanted, to get us through this plan that we had developed. And that’s not even talking about any new development, anything that might happen–new government regulations, changes to policies, all of those other things that are of course going to come up–so being able to manage the expectations, know who you need to work with, and then have excellent communication and time management skills to keep each project going.

And as you get held up, because a subject matter expert is not available, or they’re on vacation or–in a lot of cases, mine are out leading training sessions right now, because the purpose of the elearning is to reduce their need to travel so extensively. You know, in a perfect world, I’d travel with them, and I’d go see how their presentation goes over with a live audience, and then I’d be able to take notes for future conversations and talk to them in a plane or a car. But that isn’t necessarily the reality, particularly with the budget constraints, to be able to watch what they’re doing.

So from there, you prioritize the modules that you have, and your start on your instructional design, whatever way makes sense for that particular project. I’m not married to any one philosophy, I typically run waterfall (ADDIE) on my really simple stuff, because I can just run it through and get it done and it gets approved. On the more complicated compliance-type training, where we have multiple hours of training that has to happen and it has to have all of these different touch points, I alternate between SAM and LLAMA, SAM being from Allen Interactions and LLAMA being from Torrance Learning, sort of depending on the individual subject matter expert, because some of them lean towards different ways that we connect, and the content itself, and how it lends itself to multiple cycles of revision and review.

And then from there, doing the content acceptance testing, usually I have a group of people that I ask–because I’m covering the whole state–typically what we’ll do is the content acceptance testing in English, because it’s the language that we work in with our subject matter experts. I get the sign-off on that, send it for translation for the appropriate departments, and while that is in translation, I do the beta launch in the LMS to be sure that everything is working correctly, and it goes out to that group. And then when I get back the other languages, I load those in, and then I build it into a learning program, so you can take any language of the content, and then get points for it or pass or get a badge or whatever we’re doing for that particular scenario. And then I soft launch it out usually to a part of the state to make sure it’s working and then do the wide launch for the whole state.

And then quarterly, we have meetings by subject area, so like all of the trainings in a particular subject area, to talk about how many people started them versus completed them, and for the people who completed them, how are they doing on the assessments. And then we do a Kirkpatrick-level 2 assessment, so we make sure that is good. Almost all of our tests are the type that you can take over and over again until you score a certain number of points, so I like to see how many times it takes the average person to pass–and if it’s above, like 3, then I worry (laughs). And beyond that, we like the Likert-sort of “How did you feel about this?” survey, it’s a happy/touchy/feely kind of thing, to see how we’re doing there. And we do evaluations on what content needs to be updated, or rebuilt, or what isn’t being answered.

Side note: Check this interview with Dr. Will Thalheimer for some tips on improving those Level 2 learner surveys.

And moving forward to 2019, our goal for this year is to add an on-the-job checklist aspect to it, to move us into the Kirkpatrick Level 3 evaluations, where we’d be able to say “OK, this person just took a course on hand washing, so as a supervisor, when you go and observe this employee doing his/her job, they now should be demonstrating doing the 20 seconds, the water should be this temperature, they need to wash their hands twice, and they should be turning off the water with the paper towel, and they should be throwing the paper towel away after using it to open the door to exit the room.” That kind of stuff, so that they can be monitored to meet our federal compliance requirements. So that one is on the horizon for this coming year for all of our new training.

Side note: Not familiar with the Kirkpatrick Four-Level Evaluation model? That link you just passed will help set the scene and make this conversation make more sense 🙂

And we’re also adding a spaced repetition aspect to that, so that they’ll get emails as soon as they finish the training as well as 24 hours out, 6 days out, 11 days out, 27 days out, and 30 days out to help them with key points of the training (assuming its’ one one of our bigger ones). So if you’re doing a microlearning lesson, there are only two spaced learnings, because, you know, with a five-minute training, how much can you really say in terms of doing your retention on that?

Side note: Click for more on spaced practice, and spaced practice, and spaced practice, and spaced practice.

But the stuff that is an hour or more, we do the full 30-day retention cycle on it.

Convergence Training: Wow.

So, a couple of comments and a couple quick follow-ups.

I heard you interviewed on a different webinar and that person said “Wow, what you’re doing is really impressive and advanced!” And I want to underline that point: what you’re doing is really amazing. There may be other elearning departments of one out there who have similar responsibilities who aren’t doing quite so much. So I would say “Don’t feel like you’re inferior if you’re not doing everything that Emily is doing, but maybe keep her as a milepost or for inspiration.”

Emily Wood: Well, in fairness, I’m also several years in at the same organization. So in the first year, it was all about what is an LMS and let’s get one. And then the second year was what is elearning and let’s build some. So now we’re years down the line, so the organization has had more time to implement what we’re doing, and as we’re implementing it, I’m an absolute nut for best practices and what’s happening in the industry and what is the latest research saying, and so I’ll present it at management meetings and say “I want to try this, will you let me?” And one of the great things about being at a non-profit that’s very education-focused is they say “Yeah, we want people to be compliant, do it and let’s see what happens.”

Spaced Practice, Blended Learning, and Working with SMEs

Convergence Training: Well, that is good. And I get your point that it’s a multi-year process. But I still think a hat-tip to you is in order for all that.

I’m curious…quickly, because I don’t want to take us too far off our path here…but how did you come up with the particular intervals for your spaced practice/space learning?

Emily Wood: There is a professor here in Portland, based at Portland State University, Dr. Art Kohn, and I saw a few of his presentations a few years ago. I think he now presents fairly regularly at the national level, so you’d be able to follow him. And I’ve seen a few companies that product as like a stand-alone product. He offers one you can buy directly from him. And now there are some elearning-specific products that you can buy that do that.

Honestly, we’re doing it in the kind of chewing-gum-and-dental-floss kind of way, where in the LMS I make another course that’s assigned to them and that shows up for them after those date ranges have passed, so it’s not quite to the Outlook-level of forwarding messages. It’s pretty hand-built at this point in time, because we didn’t want to invest money in it without knowing how well it would work. So we’re still in early days in terms of determining if it will actually effect behavior change as opposed to the elearning by itself.

Side note: Check out this page and video for more on Dr. Art Kohn and spaced learning.

Convergence Training: Cool. I love that you have a future plan to create a level checklist and that you’re acting on the realization that training doesn’t end when the training session is over, that’s great–Dr. Will Thalheimer has done some nice work on that issue.

I’m curious: you said in some cases the elearning you’re creating is intended to replace instructor-led training. Are there cases when you’ll be using elearning within some kind of blended learning solution as well?

Emily Wood: Yeah, so, the organization I’m at, because it’s funded by the government, we have a lot of super-required training that someone has to take every year. And the idea was, when we had an expert like you, we wouldn’t want you to go in and teach the same course over and over again every time we hire somebody. We want you to teach the higher-level courses. And so this is more to replace some of the entry-level, every year, kind of “check the box” for lack of a better word training. And then some of the courses where, based on your educational background, we kind of expect you to know this information, and for the people who don’t have that background we need sort of a basic introduction to a philosophy, we have that happen.

Then when our experts go out–they’re still traveling extensively–they’re now going out and teaching these 200-, 300-level courses that are hands-on and practical and doing the job as part of the training.

Convergence Training: And I promise I”ll get back to our prepared questions in a second, but I was really intrigued by what you were talking about working with the SMEs, and how you explained the role of a SME and an ID. And I’m curious–in addition to telling them “Hey, this is Articulate (for example), I can do a branching scenario or this form of interactivity or whatever,” you also had discussions with the SMEs about the reasons you didn’t want to put a PowerPoint with an audio narration and some next buttons, and about how people learn and why there’s actually a design to it and a purpose for it, and so I’m curious what you told your SMEs and how that went over?

Emily Wood: You know, I haven’t had to have a discussion at that level. I think they’ve bought in enough that they believe I know what I’m doing and they’re giving me the benefit of the doubt.

I have had discussions with them, like when I’m presenting storyboards, depending on the complexity of the topic, sometimes it’s a Word document listing these things that will happen with these interactions, and then the more complicated ones, I’ll make them out into paper games sort of things, like uhm…way old-school UX for websites where you have people touch the paper to see what they’d do and see how they’d interact with it.

I’ve had situations where I’ve built the game, and I’ll ask questions, and they’ll ask me why I’m asking inane questions or questions that don’t really make sense, and I’ll say “You know, sitting in front of a computer, the benefit of it is I can make mistakes. Like, maybe I know that one of these answers is absolutely the wrong answer, but there’s no harm in me clicking that just to see why it’s the wrong answer,” and so some times I’ll want to go a little farther down the road in terms of things that would never happen. Not because I think somebody is going to pick them because they think they’re right, but they’ll pick them because they don’t understand why they’re wrong, and this is a safe space for them to actually get that information.

And so when I’m talking to me SMEs, and we’re saying “You know, we need to have a training that’s at least an hour long, and it has to encompass these parts, they’ll say to me “Well, I went through this, and I finished it in like 35 minutes,” and I reply “Sure, you finished it in 35 minutes, but (1) you wrote the content, (2) you took the fastest path through the content because you know all the right answers, and (3) you weren’t trying to extend your learning with it.” Where, my hope is that a learner is going to come in, and assuming it’s a topic in which they’re engaged enough and they aren’t just doing it to finish it, that they will take the time to go down some of these paths and see where they’re going. Of course, I can’t validate that yet, but my hope is that with xAPI, that I will be abel to say “Hey, look, now six percent of our population did do the wrong/wrong/wrong, and that’s why we built this, because we want them to be able to have that opportunity.”

Getting the Most Bang for Your Buck

Convergence Training: Great. And that was a good tie-in back to your original xAPI comment.

Alright, so I’ll get back to the prepared questions. So the next question is, given this large production road map you sketched out, and which I pointed out was impressive and I’m not sure everyone does all that, and you didn’t even mention graphic creation and the creation of audio, so you’re wearing a lot of hats and impressively so, but given that, and I’m sure sometimes you apply more effort on one part and less on another, and you may make those decisions on a case-by-case basis, but in general, are there tips you’d tell people in situations like yours, “You will get a lot of bang for your buck if you get this phase right or if you get this phase right?”

Emily Wood: I had the benefit of meeting Diane Elkins recently and taking a course with her about elearning development, and she had just finished doing a major self-select user study where she offered a free course on time management that people could take. And she made it three ways. She made it as ugly as she could possibly make it, she made it what she considers to be sort of “elearning developer average,” which I like to say I’m sort of in that range, and then she made it awesome, like you have the graphic designer, you have the videographer, and it’s beautiful.

And the idea was, when you self-selected to take the course, you didn’t know which one you were going to get. And so she has a perfect 33 percent split across all of them. So for the course that was just hideous, she had a zero percent finish rate. So the content was 100 percent the same through all three versions of the course, but the UX in this one course was like early 1990s-throw-up-in-Captivate. It was animated GIFs and the black background and the animated, and it was just very distracting and it took away from what you were doing. And then between the average course and the super-awesome course, the completion rate was almost identical and the happiness rate was almost identical.

So if I had to pick one thing to get you to the next level, it would be to build enough to make it not hideous. Which is sort of my general goal in life. I don’t enter competitions, I’m not making stuff that’s super fancy and beautiful and that’s going to win awards. But I make stuff that people finish and they don’t hate. And that’s the reality in which I live.

One of the people who contributed to the book for me, I had seen a talk where she’s in a very similar situation to where I am, doing everything by herself. She called it “embracing her sh*ttiness.” She knew it was sh*tty, she knew there were better things out there, but it’s what she could make with the time she had and the budget she had, and, you know, she’s videotaping with an iPhone and using construction paper to make her animations. And it’s kind of awesome. It was cool-looking in a sort of hokey way. She said “You know, you own it and you do what you got.”

So I think the movement toward mobile first for development has done a lot for us as an industry to move away from things that are really sort of over-the-top ugly or that don’t have a shelf life because honestly you just can’t do that much animation or some of the crazier interactivity stuff that you might want to do because it doesn’t lend itself well to a little tiny screen size.

So I would say investing in your own graphic knowledge enough to understand color theory, layout, and white space to get there. Actually, one of the first books somebody gave me when I started out was White Space Is Your Friend (note: Jeff wonders if this is really White Space Is Not Your Enemy). He said I made the ugliest designs he had ever seen in his life and this book was going to help me.

And I would still say, for me, that’s probably one of my biggest weaknesses. If I randomly wound up with head count tomorrow, the place where I would spend money would be a graphic designer.

Convergence Training: All good points.

Could you go ahead and show us your book? We encourage listeners to go out and buy this book immediately, although we’ll be touching on some of this, I’m sure there’s a lot more to learn there and a lot more to benefit from.

Emily Wood: Yeah, and if your’e an ATD member, you get the ATD price on it. Otherwise, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, wherever you like to buy books.

Convergence Training: Cool. I don’t have it yet, but I plan on getting it.

And on the graphics point, for people out there listening, I’m also not skilled with graphics, but I work at a place where I have a stable of art-school grads doing it for us, so we’re fortunate, but I would recommend, and Emily I will bet you’ll confirm this, a couple of great sources on graphics and learning are Connie Malamed and her website and books

Emily Wood: Yes, I just got her whole series of books for Christmas and I’m so excited.

Convergence Training: …and are you familiar with the book Dr. Ruth Colvin Clark has done on learning graphics?

Emily Wood: Yes, and I actually had the pleasure of meeting her at DevLearn last year. She won Person of the Year, and so that was super-exciting. I learned about her in grad school.

Where Can You Cut Corners?

Convergence Training: Well I’m definitely jealous then.

So you talked about the importance of getting some graphic skills, being good enough to be average an

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