People always seem to be looking for the next big thing which is going to turn learning around and make everyone fall in love with it. That isn’t going to happen. But it is possible to get a better idea of what you’re trying to achieve by thinking in terms of knowledge, skills, attitude and awareness, and writing learning objectives.

This blog is about the way I use learning objectives 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.

Why are learning objectives important?

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 in this area: 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

Knowledge is generally the easiest to measure. We’re dealing with ‘things you can know’. Quiz shows test contestants’ knowledge on discreet points which are right or wrong. That’s probably why teaching facts is popular – it’s easy to test and measure, but it’s only part of the picture.

Knowledge is closely linked to awareness and some educators leave awareness out of the objectives mix – it’s often seen as a bit waffly, not real learning.

Awareness

I think it’s useful to distinguish between knowledge and awareness. Sometimes you need that gradation. I find it helpful to think of knowledge as ‘footprints in the sand of awareness’. Another reason I like to leave it in is because one educator, Caleb Gattegno, argued that only awareness is educable and I have a sneaky suspicion he may be right. When you think of teaching, whether it’s knowledge, skills or attitude, all you can do is make the learners aware of certain things. The learners then turn them into knowledge, skills and attitudes.

Skills

Skills are often easy to identify – to be able to do something, or do something in a particular way. In workplace learning skills are often seen as being the most important. Again they are fairly easy to define and measure, but even when some is able to do something, they often don’t. We know using strong passwords is important, we can create them and remember them, but we don’t. Why? We won’t get hacked, no one’s interested in my password, it too difficult… which all come down to attitude.

Attitude

Attitude is hard 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, resilience when things get tough and these, for me, all come under the umbrella of attitude.

This is important in all sports, but it’s often particularly noticeable in games like tennis when two players battle it out, evenly at first, and 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.

Focussing on the learning/training challenges

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 every day, 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.

SMART objectives weren’t designed for learning

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 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?

‘Achievable’ is a good example of why they’re unsuitable for learning. If you’re designing elearning, you often have to guess at what’s achievable – it can be an educated guess, but it’s often more like a stab in the dark. Is this achievable for the 26,000 people who are going to use this elearning? It’s not a useful or realistic question to ask.

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

Writing meaningful objectives is one of the hardest things I’ve found when preparing materials. They’re often overlooked, or hastily put together 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.

The next big thing?

So will objectives become the next big thing? I doubt it. Good ones are difficult to write, they’re tedious and make you think about what you’re doing and why. Should they be the next big thing? If they were, the elearning landscape would be a very different one – a far more effective one in this writer’s opinion.