Themes in L&D – Canadian eLearning Conference Day 2

Themes in L&D – Canadian eLearning Conference Day 2

June 21, 2024 Off By JR

The second day of the Canadian eLearning Conference is arranged as a series of concurrent sessions. They organized it by five streams, which I thought was really nice. It’s been a while since I’ve been to conferences, but sometimes I have trouble choosing sessions, so the themes helped with my decision-making. The streams were accessibility, advanced technology, learning tools, and two elearning streams (it was unclear how sessions were divided between the two).

I think in years past, I’d write about specific sessions, but after having some time to reflect on this conference, I think there are more themes I got throughout the day. Right off the top, one highlight was getting to meet Megan Torrence and talking about her book, which I brought with me, Data Analytics for Instructional Designers. The book itself has got me thinking about things in a different light, and it had some hooks in a few sessions I attended.

A couple of notes I guess. I intentionally avoided tool-ie sessions and specific big brand tool elearning sessions. I think I get enough of that through seeing different community sample sites, reviewing portfolios for folks, and based on some of the comments I heard in the lunch line, I didn’t miss much (if I were earlier in my career, maybe they’d have been helpful). I was after bigger ideas than what I assumed to be tutorial-ish type presentations.

Learning from other Disciplines

One theme that stood out was looking outside of L&D for inspiration or ideas about how to design and implement programs. Some of the things that came up along those lines were storytelling, there was a whole keynote about it. Ideas from marketing such as thinking about attention, the efficiency of messaging, visuals, and ‘what’s in it for me.’ There was some pointing at technology companies like Apple, of course, but also some nods to lessons from project management, which I thought was great as most ID positions include some competency requirement in PM. Part of the panel discussion leaned into this directly with the question, “What can we learn from consumer-driven models, and can learning tech adapt to meet these expectations?” which, of course, conjured some of the typical comments around Netflix for learning and other statements that would sound identical to 10-15 years ago. From that conversation, in particular, two key points that were made that really resonated were grounded in different levels of budget and technology (read: data) that many commercial tools use that L&D tools are either incapable of or difficult to use that way. Netflix doesn’t force me to watch a video that I can’t pause or scrub through to learn how to use Netflix. Another comment was about attention; we are up against contexts where people use mobile phones day in and day out. Here I thought about the number of elearning samples that begin with “please rotate your phone” to then be taken through a click-next experience. I think the underlying bit here was about habits, and a mismatch between engagement habits and delivery modes for learning interventions. There was some discussion about the shifting role of L&D folks, with the underpinning idea that we need to be better about understanding the customer needs (audience, business, client, etc. need came up throughout the day).

One final point from the panel that tied into this learning from other areas I thought was spot on was, “Should all L&D professionals learn data analytics or is it better to have specialists on our teams?” which included a response from a panellist that sounded a lot like something similar I say a lot (in work context but also in training for martial arts). It’s important to know about it, but “time spent learning to [be a data analyst] is time spent not doing learning design“. So, the advice was to build interdisciplinary teams.

Other places where the theme of learning from other areas came up in the case of audio cues (as in podcasts), mnemonics (lots of commercial and public awareness campaign examples), and emotional hooks.

A few of the specific examples that came up that I’ve engaged with already are things like learner personas and journey mapping. I received a few resources and ideas around better headline writing and learning campaigns I’d like to explore further, as well as reflecting on SURE (simplicity, utility, resonating emotionally, and easy to skim) for writing I do moving forward. There was a LinkedIn post I saw this week that mentioned ID programs don’t always cover writing for L&D very well (my observation is that multimedia and ‘online learning’ get more stage time than really getting into the writing for different types of learning interventions. One of the presenters showed stats (I didn’t get the source, so take this as you will) that 8/10 people will read a headline while 2/10 will go further. I tried a new design pattern with a project earlier this year; we will see how the changes that kind of align with these stats work or not. If you’re in a program at the moment, if your institution offers technical writing courses and you can take them as an elective, it’d really help) and so that’s something I took notice of in these sessions that borrowed from marketing and other areas.

AI (of course)

So it was interesting because AI raised its head every now and then in the sessions I went to but wasn’t as dominant in the conversation as I was expecting. Granted there were dedicated AI sessions, and I only attended one of those. In one session I was in, it would come up in passing, and the facilitator would immediately say something like, “But we’re not in this room to take a deep dive on AI“, which I thought was actually a nice way to acknowledge it without letting it dominate conversations. A big takeaway from the scenarios session I went to on this topic was how it shifted the feel of the scenarios. The presenter showed two similar examples of a gated scenario (a term I’d not heard before, but sounds the same as branching scenarios). The first included speech bubbles and decisions that were in a narrator’s voice, which is really common in attempts at creating scenarios. This text includes statements like “Correct! You should do blah blah while remembering bleh bleh.” Just the most artificial sounded robot text. The presenter then shared how she used GenAI to build out a similar scenario, but it included actual dialogue options. In the panel, one or two people commented on bringing gamification to elearning (yup, we’re still saying that) but what I see in this demo is finally bringing the way game designers do branching to learning (finally). I think about the Growlanser series, Skies of Arcadia, and most recently Baulder’s Gate where the branching and dialogue options look like dialogue.

I did gather an idea from the session (more like had an aha moment that wasn’t really the session itself, but other neurons fired somehow. Serendipity) as they discussed their prompting process. In addition to my aha moment, it made me think of a recent podcast David Wiley was interviewed on where he talked about how IDs should acutally be really good at writing prompts. He refers to the ABCD approach, which tells you about the time and place he learned ID, and my general observation is that I agree with him but also if you asked that room of elearning folks you’d learn about a whole range of rich experience and backgrounds but I’m not sure how many would be all that familiar with ABCD. That’s for another post maybe.

Best Practices

Now, there’s a phrase you’ve definitely heard if you’ve ever worked with an ID: lots of roles in your centre for teaching and learning, IT department, or L&D department. I think the phrase itself was only uttered once during the panel discussion, with the first question being, “How do we identify and preserve the best practices while evolving our tools and methods?” There are some in the field of L&D that hold best practices as this unchanging, inflexible thing and that it’s their way or the highway. I’ve worked with SMEs who have had experiences with folks like that, where most of my work was in relationship repair. I’ve also encountered it, where something got elevated to the best practice pedistle and pointing out the obvious (and evidence-based) problems with applying it in a specific case didn’t help any. So, I had hoped this question would be tackled from a critical angle, but the particular take I was hoping for didn’t really appear. One comment, followed by a question from the audience, pointed out that people just repurpose what they’ve already done into the new tools. I recall Stephen Downes writing about this when M*taverse was new and “all the rage,” that the first thing we did with Second Life was to make lecture theatres, and we’re just doing that again with the new tool.

Elements of best practices appeared in the marketing session as well. There was a quip about how an L&D person would sell you a burger, which, of course, was a mostly white slide with six bullet points on it. I can totally see how that slide would be created that way while “following best practices”.

Another session I went to included loads of strategies for approaching learning design, so I appreciate that there wasn’t much time or space for nuance. Mayer’s 12 principles for multimedia learning came up (there are many, many more than that now in the third edition of The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning) and was a drive-by of overarching principles. This is generally where best practices begin and end, and what is completely missed is that every chapter that discusses one of these principles explicitly details boundary cases where the application of the principle either doesn’t work or should be adjusted. So then you get situations where a design approach is taken, and the hammer of a truncated (listicle style) best practice is used to smash what is actually a sound approach. The nuance and the issue here weren’t discussed in the session, again, as there wasn’t time, and the presenter didn’t say they were hard-bound rules; this is overall an observation of best practices coming up throughout the day and what I’ve seen outside of the conference.

One session, which I didn’t attend, covered myths in L&D, including learning styles, personality types, and generations. I’m not sure if it came up in that room, but again, here is a place where I can see the hammer of best practice didn’t help our designs, as for a long time, it was best practice to “design for different learning styles.” This was even something I recall being taught directly when I was in teachers’ college.

So, going back to that audience member during the panel, the question they asked was, “How can we have conversations about how we can do better?” I really enjoyed that question as a positive, non-reductive way to move forward, and the responses from the panel were really thoughtful.


Trendy trendy. But different from what I’ve seen before. Storytelling was actually one theme that bridged both days, day 1 being a workshop about starting your own podcast (10/10 JRs recommend that session). The keynote was all about storytelling for use in L&D. The marketing session had elements of storytelling, I think, wrapped up in the learning campaigns and learner personas pieces. The scenarios session leaned in on storytelling elements that make a scenario more -engaging- and immersive. The case study session was the presenter telling the story of the case (which was actually one of my favourite sessions of the day). One of the presenters even added a story to their session, saying they were inspired by the keynote. What made these stories different is that they made use of the things pointed out in the keynote: beginning with intent not purpose, authenticity, relatability, and emotion.

Stories are never about what they’re abouthadiya nurriddin

There is one teaching conference I went to many years ago, closer to when storytelling became a big thing in the circles I was in professionally, and I attended a session I still call back to today. Not because it was an example to be followed either. Storytelling so often becomes weird, tedious, irrelevant anecdotes applied to presentations and elearning because some consider storytelling a best practice (aha, the link of the theme). So what I appreciated here was an earnest attempt throughout to share stories in a storytelling format that followed the same principles. it espoused.

What I wish was a theme

I mentioned a session I went to that was a case study. Many of the presentations at any conference are kind of a grab bag of ideas (I do those presentations too!) There are plenty of times I’m envious of other design disciplines because they have great look books, and case study books to review and get ideas from. We’re not great at that in L&D, partly because of confidentiality etc. Watching a presentation about a start-to-finish elearning project, challenges, successes, failures, warts and all was so valuable. Many other presenters shared snippets of projects that related to the idea they mentioned. For example, the marketing session included a story about an OHS performance solution that they came to via learner personas or one guy talking about using Xbox Kinect for a particular project that related to the talking point. Those are little doses of interest and insight, but they’re vastly different than going through a project, seeing the inputs and outputs and results. Reflecting on this I would love to have something like an L&D case study conference, where all the presentations were detailed cases. Kind of like a live version of the International Journal of Designs for Learning. It would be amazing.

This doesn’t summarize all of the 15 pages of notes I took over two days, but there are some overarching themes and ideas I felt in the air. The sessions gave me lots to think about and some clear tools and techniques I’d like to try on upcoming projects.