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The Rock Stars of eLearning: An interview with Patti Shank

By Rick Raymer / June 2013

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While a lot of people might associate being a rock star as a solitary pursuit, behind every rock star there is a team of people that are equally talented that are working to produce groundbreaking material. Take for instance the James Bond stories. What would 007 be without his support team? Mr. Bond couldn't do his work without the cool gadgets that Q produces for him, nor would he be very effective without the tactical team headed by M. While neither Q nor M are in the forefront of these phenomenal spy tales, both are both rock stars in their own right, even though they might be uncomfortable with that title.

I think Patti Shank is a lot like M. She assembles a lot of data, across our entire industry, and uses her research to help focus others on what's important. Patti is concerned about results, not hype. She casts a wide net, and finds the most effective solutions that make the greatest impact on learning and development. While she is reluctant to see herself as a rock star, I know for a fact the results of her work allow the people of our industry to work more strategically.

For everything she does to shape and support our industry, I present our next eLearning Rock Star, Patti Shank.

When people ask you, "what do you do?" What is your response?

I'm a learning and performance analyst and practitioner. I look at how we can use instruction and performance interventions to fix performance problems. I also have the good fortune to be working for The eLearning Guild as their Research Director, which means I get to help others use research as a tool to improve their practice. I write and help others write practical research reports about practitioner-centered topics.

If you were going to classify the industry you are currently a part of, what would you identify this industry as? What motivated you to get into this industry?

Although many people classify me into the eLearning industry, I don't. I got involved in technology because it gave me an additional big way to provide help to people I worked with at the time (patients and healthcare staff) that was sorely needed. We were pioneers and looking for ways around obvious obstacles. It worked and we kept moving forward with all the lessons we learned. Still, using technology has issues so we always remember that we have to marry high tech with high touch. And technology is not always the answer so you always have to start with what problem you're trying to solve, rather than shoving technology down people's throats. So I say I'm in the learning industry (whatever is needed to help people learn and grow so they can be productive workers), not just the eLearning industry. But I'm glad to see that the eLearning industry and the learning industry have become much more merged than they were in the past.

Why are you passionate about what you do? What makes you enthusiastic about what you do?

I'm passionate because solving work productivity problems reduces pain. Reducing pain means everyone has more fun at work every day and finds more meaning in what they do. And I'm just a passionate person anyway. I believe in doing things wholeheartedly or not at all. Really. Plus I'm just incredibly grateful to have such great work, great bosses and clients, and the best family and friends.

What are some of your "big ideas" for improving yourself, your learners, the industry, society, etc.?

My biggest idea is that we often get our biggest bang from some of our smaller fixes—like job aids and better work processes. That way we can conserve resources, too. We often don't see some of the small fixes that are needed to improve productivity and they are often not training. That goes for self-improvement, too. I find that if I am open to hearing what I can fix, I can make good strides in growth. (Luckily, my boss is great at doing this! ☺) This involves listening and learning from others. No matter how much I know, I don't know enough to be the best me.

What suggestions do you have for "turning your learners into fans"?

Most learning in organizations is informal and social. Training/ L&D departments must learn how to support these well, not try to own them (they cannot), and spend less resources on formal learning. And, uh, perhaps we need to stop calling learners, "learners." They're workers, just like us. It's not them and us.

What are some of the best examples of eLearning that you have seen? What is considered "state of the art" in our industry?

eLearning that is integrated into the workflow and directly performance oriented. It jumps up and helps you when you are stuck. Then it goes away until you need it again.

What needs to change in our industry? How will it evolve?

Too many things to count. I've talked about some of them here. I feel very passionately about not doing training when training won't help, doing what it takes to solve real problems and reducing pain in the organizations we work in, and using technology wisely and efficiently. And getting rid of stupid buzzwords.

Who are some of the people that you consider to be the "rock stars" of our industry, and why?

The people who get the training/L&D work done and deal with the day-to-day crises in organizations. It's not easy and some of the situations are close to impossible. I've worked as an advisor on many teams and see what they have to deal with. Often they have less than ideal resources and inadequate time. And they are underappreciated. And they still get it done. People like me have lots more resources. We should not be called rock stars!

About the Author

Rick Raymer is an eLearning consultant specializing in gameful design. Previously, he was a primary solution architect at Serco Inc., working with integrated product teams to design, develop, and deliver state-of-the-art learning games, interactive courseware, and simulations. In addition, he designed and managed production of eLearning, games, and simulations for the North Carolina Community College System's BioNetwork organization, and was the VP of Product Development for Oasys Mobile, a top 10 mobile games publisher. Raymer has been designing videogames professionally since 1996. He has produced more than 40 games, with titles on every major gaming platform including consoles, PCs, handheld devices, and mobile phones.

© 2013 ACM 1535-394X/13/06 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2491560.2499129


  • Fri, 28 Jun 2013
    Post by Kevin Condon

    For future Rock Stars of eLearning, could I nominate my wife, Lesley Beth, who is the first and only person to have created a complete kindergarten ELA curriculum that integrates the arts and meets Commmon Core State Standards. Her program, JazzleELA, is extensive, has rigor and engages children at exceptional levels. It is transformative and she has achieved it against the odds selling her house to fund it.