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The Rock Stars of eLearning: An interview with Judy Katz

By Rick Raymer / August 2013

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"Just do it." Sure, it's an extremely successful marketing campaign that happens to belong to Judy Katz's employer, but outside of that, I think it exemplifies Judy's outlook on her life and work. It's not only about the act of doing; it's also about the quality of doing.

Judy does a lot. Like, a whole lot. And, it's not only doing for the sake of doing; it is well-considered and truly considerate action. Judy has helped and mentored so many people, including me. She's really inspiring. I'd highly recommend that you check out Judy's podcast, The ToolBar, as well as the articles she's written for Learning Solutions Magazine and other publications. What you'll find, and what she also demonstrates in her interview here, is that she's very thoughtful and really seeks to understand people for the betterment of herself and others. And, more importantly, she really enjoys what she does.

It doesn't really matter what brand of shoes you wear, when you find yourself looking for inspiration or motivation, just look at your feet and remember: Be like Judy and, "Just do it."

With that, I give you our next eLearning rock star, Judy Katz.

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

That's always been a tough one, but generally I tell them I create online learning experiences. Or just "I make stuff that helps people learn."

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?

I think of it as the learning field. I've never thought of myself as being part of the insurance industry (even when I was) or the retail industry or whatever; the most important subject matter expertise we have is about learning and design. I think that mentality has allowed me more flexibility in my career choices than many people I've worked with; maybe they got into training because they were subject matter experts at a particular industry, and then they never transitioned to being L&D professionals.

How I got into this was…I grew up wanting to be a teacher, and then got into "training"-related jobs in college. Eventually I realized that I wanted to be in that field, but wasn't enough of an extrovert to train all day, every day. I wanted to make stuff, so now that's what I do.

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

Making stuff, helping people, and exploring new technology are pretty much my favorite things, so those interests intersect nicely in what I do. And it's a very exciting time on the technology front in particular. I think we're emerging from an era that's kind of dark, in a sense; if you look at eLearning that was created 10, 20 years ago, it was much more interactive as a whole. Yes, it took longer and it took more skill to create, but it was way beyond this linear, slide-based mentality that seems to be the norm now. There are some disruptions in the technology world now that present the opportunity to change the way we create and the way learners access information. Mobile technology is making it possible—and even expected—or content to be more contextual, more personalized. New web technology (the HTML5 stack) is unseating plugin technology, making it possible for information to be more accessible in all ways—more searchable, more disability-friendly, more customizable, more translatable, more usable. The Experience (Tin Can) API is making it possible to track achievement in ways we never have been able to before, and even customize the experience in the moment. All of these technologies have their weaknesses, but new possibilities demand that we rethink what we create and deliver.

I think there's also something exciting about being an underdog…L&D isn't traditionally a very sexy field, and sometimes I wonder if we wouldn't get further with a less conservative culture, more like marketing or product design or technology. Sometimes it's just trying to do that that keeps me engaged. I like to shake things up.

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

I think instructional designers need to actively seek out how things are done in other fields of design. In fact, I believe this about all fields of design, but I think we're particularly vulnerable because we don't typically go to design schools and don't have a strong culture around studying design. We come up through education programs or technical programs or, frankly, a lot of us were office admins before we became IDs. Our culture teaches us project management (ADDIE) instead of creative problem solving. Obviously this is a very broad brush; it's not the full story, but it seems like a huge pain point.

One way to combat this that I engage in all the time is that I think a lot about my surroundings, because almost everything we come into contact with has been designed, whether carefully or carelessly. When I'm sitting at a light rail crossing gate, I'm thinking about how the gate was designed. How much time do they allow between the gate going down and the train arriving? Was a single parent of twins one of their personas? Would he have time to get both of his kids out of their car seats if his car stalled on the tracks? I guess that example is kind of morbid, but it's where I go.

Even in nature, where things didn't have a "designer," they usually evolved into what they are for a reason…to solve a problem or exploit an opportunity. And that's what design is. I was fascinated by evolutionary biology as a kid; learning about adaptations was probably my first design school. Now I like to go to museum exhibits and study how information is communicated. I'd like to see more of that obsessiveness in our field. Or maybe that would just make me feel less weird.

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

Truthfully, I'm still not entirely sure why I'm being considered a "rockstar"; if I am one, I identify with Janis Joplin, because she had incredible luck very early in her career and then spent the rest of it learning lessons very publicly and being acutely aware of it!

I just try to connect with people in a real way and share those failings and lessons, and that tends to stand out in our field. The first bloggers in elearning who I really became a fan of—Janet Clarey, Jane Bozarth, Cammy Bean, Ellen Wagner, Koreen Olbrish—were doing that; they were being very frank and open and approachable.

Now I just try to tell the truth (as I see it) on my blog, and Brian and I have very candid and casual conversations with other learning professionals on our podcast—just like we're talking in a bar. I try to apply that same realism—sometimes grittiness—to my design and development work. But realism isn't very prevalent in our field; I see a lot of work that is too boring to engage people or too safe to be effective. It's inauthentic, or it comes off that way.

At the same time, though, I don't really want fans—not among my learners, anyway. I mostly don't want my learners to think about me at all. Like Nancy Duarte writes in Resonate, the speaker shouldn't be the hero of the story. The heroes are the audience members, who you hope are going to go forth and carry on your message. I think the same way about my learners.

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

That really depends on what you consider eLearning. Everyone (hopefully) knows about Cathy Moore's excellent elearning samples page. One of the things I like best about it is that it includes learning interactions that aren't just "courses." We desperately need more influences along those lines, and the good news is that they're actually everywhere—in apps, in infographics, in games. We just don't always think of them as related to what we do.

So I would say that though there is a lot of great work going on inside the learning field, in some circumstances we're getting our butts handed to us by ad agencies. Play Spent and tell me I'm wrong.

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

The biggest problem I see—and of course, this isn't everyone, but it's far too prevalent—is that I see too little of designers who are willing to be experts and push that expertise. We allow ourselves to be order-takers, we work on outrageously tight timelines, we accept that we have to be designer and developer and project manager and QA person and LMS administrator and and and and and and all at the same time. And our work suffers for it. So part of how I hope we evolve is that we become more trusted partners. We build our design skills and leverage that expertise early in the process. We create solutions instead of taking orders.

And what are those solutions? I know that early in my career, I looked at everything that wasn't a course and even if I knew it was good, I didn't really take it seriously as a learning intervention that I could create and implement. I let all of the but's get in the way: But how do we deliver this? How do we track it? How can we tell if it worked? Courses were easy because I had a framework for delivering them and reporting on them and I had tools that would create output that plugged right into that framework, but I've learned that if something's ineffective, it's not worth doing no matter how easy it is.

And courses can be ineffective for a number of reasons, even if they're designed well. They could be hard to find within an LMS. They could be inaccessible from a tablet. They could be good learning experiences but not supplemented with the job aids that learners will need when applying the information six weeks later. All delivery modalities have inherent flaws and best uses; I'm just picking on courses because our field is very course-centric; we have a lot of methodology and technology that supports the assumption that we will create a course for every need. I'm seeing us start to evolve past that—at least I hope I am. The new technology that I mentioned earlier is both enabling us to evolve, and challenging us to.

I also believe we're also going to see some evolution happening to us if we don't embrace it. Increasingly, content is everywhere. It's cheap or free. Our role will shift from content producer to curator, designer of systems that manage and recommend crowd sourced content, and gardener of communities. Maybe our organizations will still want traditional LMSs to serve and manage compliance training, but most of us purport to hate designing and managing compliance training. It's not where I want to be stuck.

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

I really hate this question, mostly because I definitely leave out people who deserve to be listed. Also, it greatly depends on your definition of "rock star."

After spending longer on this question than any of the above, I decided that my definition of "rock star" is a combination of three things. First, you're a true proficient; you've proven yourself and you don't need to lip-sync or be autotuned. Second, your work has a distinctive voice; I can tell it's you from your opinions and you've earned them. Third, you're still hot; your ideas buzz around in my head like hit singles.

Cheezy comparisons aside and in no particular order…my personal top 10, all-time, desert island rock stars of eLearning: Cathy Moore, Reuben Tozman, Ellen Wagner, Aaron Silvers, Jane Bozarth, Kris Rockwell, Julie Dirksen, Will Thalheimer, Jane Hart, and Michael Allen.

Wow. Just making that list made me feel what I debt of gratitude I have to these folks, each one of whom has had a major impact on my work whether or not I've even met them. Thank you. Rock on.

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.

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