How Good ARE Your “Best Practices”?

Michael Echols at Chief Learning Officer has a post this week urging learning leaders to do the research to check whether “best practices”  for improving performance which are articles of faith in their organizations are more than myths.  It’s shocking how much of what guides common practice has no actual scientific basis, but is merely “the way we do it here.”

Some best practices really do depend on corporate culture– what works for some organizations may not work in others. Others, though, depend on more universal parameters, like, say, human cognitive function, and hence can be widely applied in different organizations.

Way back in 2003, Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer published e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, an extremely practical book which reviewed the research on how various design elements in e-learning modules affect learner retention, and distilled that research into best practices for authoring these modules.

Ten years later, we’re still seeing uneven adoption of good design. For example, we’ve known for at least a decade that learners retain less when we have the audio narration channel “reading” the text on the page. For reasons probably related to limits to the aural and visual cognitive channels (not to mention that the speed with which individuals can read text is generally different from the rate at which they can understand the spoken word!) we have study after study which demonstrates that it is better for retention when the audio channel is used to elaborate on the information presented to the video channel, not replicate it. Nevertheless, the how-to videos Adobe publishes for use of their Captivate authoring software not only “narrate” the text on the page, but use a robotic voice which mispronounces both technical and not-so-technical words!

When a major vendor to the profession demonstrates unawareness of good design, (or, at the very least, the willingness to compromise design in the interest of showing off spiffy new features like that robotic voice!) I think we have a problem. I suppose it’s probably not the worst thing for those of us involved in instructional design to have to take Really Bad Training every once in a while, in order to equip ourselves to empathize with our learners. But we’ve been building multi-media computer-based training for a while now. It’s time that designers getting the basics right was something our learners, and the organizations which pay us all, could count on.