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The Agony or the Empathy? An interview with Anne Bartlett-Bragg

By Ryan Tracey / February 2014

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Anne Bartlett-Bragg is a unique species in eLearning: She is both a researcher and a practitioner. As a sessional lecturer at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia Anne researches, designs, and delivers eLearning subjects in the organizational context. As managing director of the Ripple Effect Group in the Asia-Pacific region, she helps aspirational companies realize their social potential and gain competitive advantage.

I posed the following questions to Anne, with a view to gaining insight into her work. I hope her responses will serve to inform your own work and improve your business outcomes.

What are you researching?

We have been working with an association of professional practitioners in Australia to provide advice and recommendations about the integration of eLearning into their post-graduate training accreditation programs and ongoing professional development approach.

We always take a user-centred design approach (UCD), which is focused on understanding how people—the learners—are using technology, and where learning can fit into that context.

We used a rapid ethnographic methodology that required us to extend our research beyond traditional focus groups and surveys to immersing ourselves in the learners' working environments—on site. This enabled us to observe and participate in their daily workplace tasks and challenges.

So instead of merely reviewing existing online materials and perhaps even relying on usability testing, we engaged with the learners at a deeper level to develop empathy far beyond a rigid systems approach.

What has your research revealed?

In the context of this project, our appreciation of the workplace environment has had a critical impact on our understanding of our target audience's use of technology—in particular, devices (smartphones and tablets) and access to the Internet.

Had we not done this research, we could easily have promoted a strategy that quite simply rolled out eLearning modules designed primarily for the laptop and desktop. Significantly, what we have we uncovered is the complexity of the learners' workplace context and their limited access to "standard" eLearning technology (laptop or desktop + internet), making the use of mobile even more important than we previously expected.

Our assumption about the learners being self-directed was also challenged when we observed workplace tasks taking priority over learning. This observation held even though accreditation will not be completed without completion of the learning tasks.

Another assumption about each learner's capability to make sense of the learning without context and guidance was also challenged when we were placed in their environment and appreciated the constraints and amount of time learners had (or had not) to reflect and structure their experiences into meaningful learning interactions.

How can an eLearning practitioner apply your findings to their own work?

We all know that learner-centric design requires us to research and understand our audience. However, we find time and again that many eLearning practitioners don't really know where or how the learners will interact with their eLearning initiatives.

It's about empathy, so get yourself into the workplace context of the learners. Observe and participate in their daily tasks and challenges. Doing so with empathy is going to be the deepest way to engage and understand them and their learning environment. Then you can use that knowledge to inform your eLearning design and provide a more appropriate solution.

Always remember that learners should not be treated as detached "others"—people we do something to. Rather, they should be perceived with empathy, as people we participate with and learn alongside so we can provide guidance and enhance their learning experiences.

Where can we find out more?

User-centred design goes beyond traditional approaches of eLearning practitioners. Extensive information about UCD, including publications and courses, is available from the Interaction Design Foundation.

You can extend that knowledge by referring to design thinking techniques, such as those practised by Ideo.

Anne Bartlett-Bragg blogs at Ripple Effect Group, and can be found on Twitter as @AnneBB.

About the Author

Ryan Tracey is an Editorial Board Member for eLearn Magazine and an E-Learning Manager in the Australian financial services industry. His work focuses on adult learning in the workplace, and he maintains a particular interest in blended delivery, informal learning, and social media. Ryan has worked in corporate e-learning for over a decade, following several years in the higher education market. He holds a master's degree in Learning Sciences and Technology from the University of Sydney, blogs as the E-Learning Provocateur, and can be found on Twitter as @ryantracey.

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