Archive for July, 2008

I had a recent experience working with a large group of subject matter experts (approximately 17 teachers, curriculum writers, and program specialists). The goal was to create a course outline in one 7-hour design session. As you can imagine, gaining consensus with a group of this size can be quite a challenge. It was by far the largest group I’ve worked with for this purpose. By structuring the day carefully, applying strategies to engage the group, and using design templates, I was able to keep the group focused and productive, and I felt some of the methods I used would be beneficial to share.

Prior to the Session

Before meeting with the group, I talked with key stakeholders for the project to collect as much background information as possible about the proposed course, including course goals, targeted audience, and technology requirements. Understanding the targeted audience, teachers, helped to determine what form this course should take. Also, I reviewed any available content prior to the design session and read an evaluation report relating to the curriculum upon which the course would be based. By gathering this information beforehand, I was able to ramp up and was well positioned to guide the design meeting, using the course goals as my guide.

Recognizing Expertise

An important strategy I used was to recognize and elicit the feedback from all members of the group as a lead in to the actual course outlining. Each person attending the meeting had a valuable perspective to contribute, so I devoted time to let them share their ideas relating to the course we were planning. An added benefit of encouraging participation from everyone was that the individual participants seemed to have more of a vested interest in accomplishing the goals of the meeting when they were actively contributing. I do think it’s important to keep some structure, though, so I had some guiding questions that I used to organize this conversation.

Identifying Key Questions

In my experience, different strategies work for different clients when it comes to developing a course. With this particular group, it was helpful to first identify what key questions teachers might have about the course content, since this training was intended to support teachers in using a particular curriculum. Using this strategy, we were able to identify 4-5 key questions relating to the curriculum, and related sub-questions for each key question. These questions then formed the basis for identifying our course objectives. For each key question, we translated it into what a teacher would need to know or do to answer each question. Using this process, we soon had a list of learning objectives for the course.

Keeping the Group on Track

Once we identified our objectives, we were able to use the key questions we started with as our lesson themes under which each set objectives resided. To help keep things moving throughout the design session, it helped to return to the course goals when we were going off on a tangent.

I used a course outlining template to sequence the lessons and objectives we were identifying. I projected the various templates onto a screen for the group as we worked so they could see the outline being developed. Next, we mapped any curriculum elements that already exist to the objectives and identified gaps to help support the rapid build out of this course. Finally, we brainstormed ideas for interactivity to support each topic in the course.

The clients were very happy with the results of this session, and the course outline holds potential for us as a future project. While the outlining session was challenging, it reconfirms in my mind the importance of striking a balance between structure and flexibility when designing, especially with large groups.


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Peer Learning

We deal with lots of forms of knowledge transfer.  Our classic forms of ILT, e-Learning and other types of performance support are great formats for delivering structured knowledge to meet well-defined objectives.  That said, peer groups formed to facilitate learning and knowledge sharing are a method that has tremendous value.

For the past two years I’ve facilitated a monthly roundtable of small business owners in a peer-based learning format and the power of the approach is pretty significant.  First, it allows for more real-time learning to occur since participants can address specific issues or areas of business that they need more knowledge on at the given time.  Second, it allows learners to learn from other practitioners, people dealing with very real challenges similar to their own.  Third, the format allows for a great deal of reflection; often we know how to solve our own issues, we just need a forum for working through them.  Finally, it relies heavily on a tried and true method of story-based or experiential learning.

Heare are some suggestions for running an effective peer learning group:

  1. Develop a format for identifying issues and topics for discussion.  Our format includes a brief update from each participant where topics and current issues are put on a white board and then prioritized for discussion.
  2. Develop a format for addressing topics or issues.  This can include a limited presentation by one member; question and answer sessions; experience sharing; a “lightning round” to share best practices; or other structured techniques that draw participation and balance the discussion.
  3. Use a timekeeper to structure discussions.  After a format or structure has been identified, develop time guidelines to keep participants from dominating a discussion.
  4. Focus on experiences.  The sharing of experiences and stories drives a great deal of learning.  It causes other participants to reflect on their own situations and to re-apply lessons and ideas to their own world.  Ultimately the transfer of ideas and concepts from one context to another drives both learning and innovation.
  5. Hold each other accountable to discussions and actions.
  6. Develop a plan for subsequent meetings and topics.
  7. Monitor the health of the group.  Keeping a peer group vibrant and growing is important to foster continued learning.

Ultimately one of the best ways to develop yourself personally and professionally is by learning from peers.  Whether it’s in a formal setting as outlined here, or informally by networking with peers in your field and drawing on their thoughts, ideas and experiences, peer-based learning is an invaluable (and also cost effective) way to continue your own development.

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Community Jumpers[I almost named this article, Why Social Communities Are Fickle.]

There is a trend amongst online social community environments. As new features and functionality are added to the sites, users are “jumping ship” (or more accurately – “jumping from ship to ship”) for the lure of the latest and greatest. This trend seems to have some baffled. It’s a migratory time.

New Game in Town
I liken this to the software application wars reminiscent of Macromedia FreeHand and Adobe Illustrator, QuarkXpress and InDesign, or Microsoft Word and WordPerfect, that leap-frog over one another in new features and functionality with each release. However, the difference then was that fiscally you were tied to a certain software package and were least likely to jump over to another because you knew with the next upgrade you’d have access to some of the same competitor features, if not more.

Then along came “competitive upgrades”. Now, here was the chance for many to switch to the other manufacturer without a huge outlay of cash. Software companies found themselves in a new game.

In today’s world, with RIA, Ajax, Python, and other Web 2.0 applications and environments, the ease to switch can be accomplished on a whim. Is it any wonder that the abandonment rate of community sites is so prevalent? Why stay with one when you have new and better features with another?

Fickle Crowd
Today’s Web-savvy generation can be a tough group to predict. Viral communication and change for the latest-and-greatest seem to be commonplace.

How are community developers going to retain their communities? Should retention really be the end goal? If your business model is monetary gain, you’re probably screaming, “Yes, the goal is to keep people!”

If so, how?

Below are a list of questions to ask yourself, followed by a list of tips that you might find useful.


  1. What are you currently doing to retain members? Is it working?
  2. What are you planning on doing to keep members? Is that your goal?
  3. Who is your competition and what are they doing?
  4. What member loyalty programs do you have in place? Are they working? Why/why not?
  5. What are you doing to reward new members?
  6. Is your target niche too narrow? Too broad?
  7. Is your backend technology flexible enough to promote change? Do you have the funds to change?


  1. Define who you are and make no apologies for it.
  2. Define who your members are and who you want them to be.
  3. Stay on task and do not change with “every little whim”.
  4. Be willing to change #1-2 if needed.
  5. Talk to your members — treat them like royalty.
  6. Put your money where your mouth is.
  7. Build your technology in modular fashion — think plug & play.

I hope you have found this article of use. It is truly challenging garnering community members. Stay flexible, do not be afraid of reality, and above all have FUN!

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