Peeling Back the Layers: An Interview with Kevin Thorn

By Jeannette Campos / March 2012

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In the second of this four-part series of interviews with eLearning experts, Jeannette Campos sits down with Kevin Thorn an award winning eLearning designer. After retiring from the Army, he earned a B.S. in information technology management from Christian Brothers University and has self-taught himself eLearning theories and skills by sacrificing sleep and exhausting his library card. By day, Thorn is a mild-mannered corporate workforce LMS Administrator and Learning Design and Technologies Specialist where he is fully immersed in all things related to eLearning. By night, he's the Chief NuggetHead of NuggetHead Studioz where ideating continues well into the night armed with a pencil, Moleskine,, and the latest technology. His experience in eLearning development, instructional design, LMS implementation, storyboards, graphic design, cartooning, and comics gives him awareness of projects from cradle to grave. As a freelance consultant, illustrator, cartoonist, and animator, he can be found around learning and development communities, on Twitter as @LearnNuggets, and is the author of LearnNuggets.com where he writes views and tutorials about eLearning.

Jeannette Campos: Kevin, thanks for talking with us. To start things off, would you tell us how you began your career in instructional design for eLearning?

Kevin Thorn: Ah, you want me to start there? Ok, so this is a great story of when opportunity meets preparadness. I was actually a trainer in the military, and it wasn't until I got out and was able to look back on it, that I realized that I actually really liked training, and I liked the sense of satisfaction and the reward of teaching people, and helping people.

So, combine that experience with the degree I earned from Christian Brothers University in information technology management and I was really prepared for the opportunity that presented itself with AutoZone. I took that job because I needed a job, and I needed one fast! And fortunately, I've found my passion there. I moved from retail operations to the corporate offices where I've been given a lot of creative license to explore ways to technically do things. Over the years, I've moved from a training analyst into a position managing learning solutions.

Although I am 100 percent self-taught in instructional design, I have the chance to do what I do best everyday, which is merge creativity and technology to impact business.

JC: When you think back to starting out, what's the advice you wish someone had given you when you started off?

KT: Gosh, only one piece of advice? Well, I guess that would be, "Don't take no for an answer." You see, because I am not formally educated in instructional design, I have sometimes lacked confidence, or I have felt like I am behind the power curve, because I started this as a second career. I want to always be on top of the trend, be ahead of the new stuff, and I want to be the guy who is always challenging my peers.

So, I guess it's this. It doesn't matter where you are, or what school you went to. You can never take for granted the extra 10 minutes you have at lunch to grab a book or find a tutorial. Because today, there is no excuse for not learning your craft. There is just too much out there, there is just too much available, and I would say to anyone, don't take for granted that your degree taught you everything you need to know. Don't take your craft for granted. Work hard to make yourself better, and work hard to make others better.

JC: As a seasoned designer, you must work with a lot of new designers. What is the advice you would give to them?

KT: Oh, that's an easy one. Design BEFORE you develop. Get your pencil and paper out, and forget about what and how you're going to develop. It doesn't matter if you have one authoring tool or an entire suite at your disposal. If you try to start developing before you design your eLearning, you'll back yourself into a corner and then not know what to do.

Also, when we talk about storyboarding and instructional design, there is a piece that is routinely overlooked and that most people do poorly. You have to design navigation. You have to design the navigation before you start developing. It has to be planned. The navigation matters, and it's an element of design that is unique to eLearning, and it's important. It's one of the first layers of instructional design for eLearning. First, plan the navigation. All of the other layers follow. [Editor's Note: Craig Wiggens will talk with us more about storyboarding in his interview, which will be published on April 10th as part of this series.]

JC: That's great advice, Kevin, what more can you say about these layers?

KT: Well, we touched on it a little bit. Traditional instructional design is really project planning, and most people use some variation of the ADDIE [Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation] model. [Editor's Note: Abigail Wheeler will talk with us more about the brass tacks of project management in her article, which will be published on April 12th.] So, the first layer is gathering all the content from a subject matter expert, and then the instructional designer sifts through all the content, and makes decisions about how best to organize it. The ISD determines if the content maps to a learning objective, or if a simple job aid would be more effective than a course. Through the process, the designer is educating the subject matter expert, and together through a consultative model, they work through it, and make decisions. If the right solution is eLearning, well, what should happen next is a storyboarding process.

But what we see happening now, is that people get a hold of an authoring tool, and they jump right into designing and developing at the same time, and the overlook the instructional flow, which is the navigation. That really important layer.

Once your navigation is designed, the next step is to build a prototype. And the prototype is just fill text and images. You just want to see how the prototype works in the environment in which it is intended to live. You need to see how it behaves and then show it to the SME. Keep it clean, no images, no color, just the prototype, so that the SME can focus on functionality.

When you've cleared that hurdle, then move on to visual design. That's the next layer. And I'm not talking about stock photos. I'm talking about how people look at a screen, and how it attracts their eyes, and just at the basic level, what do you want people to see when they look at the screen? And, you need to be honest with yourself, and ask yourself, "Do these screens visually communicate what I intend?"

So, here's a challenge. Take a project. Start it with a pencil and without turning on a computer. Get the layers right first. And then develop. Work your storyboard one screen at a time. And time yourself. And I can almost guarantee that it will take less time, because you'll have your map and your specifications and you're just going to develop, and everything will be in place.

JC: What can you say about the relationship between eLearning and its business partners?

KT: If you are in the field of instructional design for eLearning, whether you had the passion to be self-taught or whether you spent the time, energy, and money to get a formal degree, you are here by choice. You were hired into your department because you know what you are doing. And, your business partners come to your department because they need a solution that only you can provide. And you need to have confidence in that. If your clients could do it themselves, they wouldn't need designers. Whether the solution is simple or complex—the client wants the designer to bring expertise to bear on the problem. Business partners come to you because they need a service that they can't provide for themselves. [Editor's Note: To further explore the relationship between ISD and business partners, please read an interview with Cammy Bean published in this series on March 23rd.]

JC: Excellent, Kevin. In the next article in this series, we'll be talking with Craig Wiggens about storyboarding and authoring tools. Do you have any initial thoughts on that?

KT:Craig's got a great topic. Because storyboarding, I would say, is integral to the entire design. Actually, I would say it is THE most important thing. The storyboards are the map, they are the blueprint. And their importance cannot be overstated. I look forward to seeing what more Craig has to say about it.

JC: Thanks again for your time, Kevin.

About the Author

Jeannette Campos is currently an Instructional Design Project Manager at the Central Intelligence Agency. Prior to joining the CIA, Campos owned and operated a service-disabled veteran-owned small business. She also served as a Project Manager and Senior Instructional Designer to multiple contracts awarded by the United States Department of Defense and Department of Labor. She is a graduate professor of Instructional Systems Design at UMBC and held an adjunct faculty appointment at The National Labor College. Campos teaches ISD for Project Managers to other organizations within the United States intelligence community.

ACM 1535-394X/12/03 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2157652.2170471

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