Objectives – chasing the tail of the next big thing

One of the fundamentals of designing any training, in my view, has to be objectives. This blog is about the way I use them and why I think they are so important, especially in an environment where technology, rather than how it is used, often seems to take priority. One of my teachers once said, ‘If you don’t have any objectives, why are you walking into the classroom?’. I believe the same is true for any online learning. Having a clear purpose to start with gives you a good foundation and a reference point for when you look back.

This quote from Alice in Wonderland perhaps explains it best.

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where –’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘– so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’

There are lots of different words and phrases used: aims, goals, objectives, learning outcomes and so on. I work in terms of goals and objectives. Goals are overarching, higher level and not necessarily measurable. Objectives on the other hand are measurable, though this may not always be easy as you’ll see. The most useful way I’ve found of breaking objectives down is into four dimensions of learning; knowledge, awareness, skills and attitude (KASA).

Knowledge is perhaps the easiest to measure. We’re dealing with ‘things you can know’ so you don’t have to be able to do anything with it. Quiz shows like Mastermind test contestants’ knowledge. Knowledge is closely linked to awareness and some educators leave awareness out. I think it’s useful to distinguish between the two, sometimes you need that gradation, and I like to think of knowledge as ‘footprints in the sand of awareness’. Another reason I like to leave it in is that one educator, Caleb Gattegno, argued that only awareness is educable and I have a sneaky suspicion he may be right.

Skills are often easy to identify – to be able to do something, or do something in a particular way, but when we come to attitude, it’s far harder to work with. For example, there are certain skills that a tennis player needs, a coach can work on these, develop a training plan and so on. However, when you hear commentators talking about players they’ll often say that one of the most important things is belief in themselves, belief that they can win. This applies to all sports, but it’s often particularly noticeable in tennis when two players battle it out evenly in the first two sets, then one of them loses a bit of confidence and belief and the match comes to a swift conclusion. Building a player’s confidence and self-esteem is an important part of coaching, but a different approach is needed for this compared to, for example, fixing a poor backhand.

To me the usefulness of thinking of objectives in terms of KASA is that it helps focus on where the real training challenge is. Objectives often require a blend of some, or even all four of these dimensions, but one or two will most likely be dominant. I see them as a tool, something which aids thinking, the actual division itself isn’t particularly important, but the way it shapes your thinking is. Here’s an example.

When we wrote our Information Security video

we looked at what other people were doing, and you can see that a lot of training materials are very knowledge focussed. Yes there are things you need to know, but a lot of information security is about our attitude to it and therefore how we behave. We often become complacent about it, ‘security breaches happen to other people, not to me’. We asked the question, but what if it did? Is it worth the risk? So our take was to try and raise awareness of some of the risks and what could happen. It’s similar in the way that anti-smoking and drink driving campaigns works. Here’s a very strong health and safety example. This is not for the squeamish, it is shocking – but it is also very effective. Slippery floors – slips, trips and falls – kitchen accident .

As we were writing the information security script, we started thinking about mobile devices, especially smartphones and tablets. The use has grown very quickly and there’s a lot of overlap with everyday, office-based information security, but there are quite a few differences. The way information is synced up, for example, but the most obvious is perhaps that we carry these around all the time so the propensity for them to get lost or stolen is much greater. We’re not so used to thinking of phones in terms of information security. Attitude towards information security was still important, but there are things that I certainly wasn’t aware of – I just assumed that virus protection was taken care of, I hadn’t thought about getting something more secure than what came on the phone/tablet when I bought  it.

So two similar videos in many ways, but looking at KASA helped to inform the emphasis.

A lot of people use what they call SMART objectives. Here’s why I don’t. They were designed for project management and they’re great for that. Project management and learning are in my view very different things. Most commonly SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. However, on Wikipedia there are eleven alternatives for the ‘A’, thirteen for the ‘T’ – so do people really know what others are talking about? You say ‘achievable’, I say ‘assignable’.

‘Achievable’ is a good example of why they’re unsuitable for learning. If you’re designing learning, especially elearning, you often have to guess at what’s achievable – it’s more a stab in the dark which is maybe all you have, but not particularly useful. Is there anything that’s not achievable in learning terms?

Smart and measurable yes, A and R (whatever they stand for) I don’t find helpful, and the time-bound seems to fly in the face of the Anytime/Anywhere mantra that’s so often used in elearning.

Why do I think objectives are so important? We seem to be constantly bombarded with the ‘next big thing’. At the moment it seems to be gamification. People talk passionately about it, but if I’m honest I don’t get it. Ever since I started teaching we used games in the classroom, there were books for of games for teaching, memory games, guessing games, discussion games, simulations  – all sorts of things. So far, I’ve not heard one person say we’ve got a difficult issue we need to address and here’s the game we’re going to use to help get that over. There’s a lot of talk about engagement and making it fun, but I’d be asking myself first why learners are disengaged and bored with the materials they’re getting.

A recent Towards Maturity survey said that a lot of learners found materials uninspiring. It seems to me that the reaction to this it to look at the delivery methods and try and make them more interesting. My experience is that it’s not so much the way the materials are presented that makes them uninspiring, but the content. An example of what I mean is the phrase, ‘… and remember, [insert your own topic here] is everyone’s responsibility’. I’ve seen it so many times and, as a learner, it raises my affective hackles every time.

Writing good meaningful objectives is one of the hardest things I’ve found when preparing materials. They’re often overlooked, or quickly concocted based on the material that’s covered in the course – i.e. not real learning objectives. For me, however, they provide the foundations for any training materials and are essential to the process.