Why develop a learning platform?
After 10 intense weeks of ethnographic research, we had more data than we could share in a single presentation or document. Yes, the Debriefing Team (a group of managers and chief executives from the disability system) had come along for real-time learning, but we wanted to reach more people. Particularly people in the sector who didn’t have the opportunity to witness our process or see our outputs in person. Lots of different folks - families, frontline staff, and managers - had expressed interest in our process. They would ask: what was it like? How did you do what you did? How could I do it too? So we knew there was a hunger for more. The question was: how could we package our learning in an engaging and useful way? So that it wasn't just interesting, but also relevant to practice?
A loose vision of a learning platform quickly took shape. We didn’t know what it would look or feel like yet, but we knew we wanted to create products that families, frontline staff and managers could use to stimulate fresh thinking and doing.
We had two goals for the platform and the 'episodes' of content on the platform. (1) We wanted to give people a better flavor of the work. Share the sights, sounds, and emotions of working in an unconventional way. Because it can be difficult to convey the energy of an immersive project, the intensity of deep ethnographic work, and our own thinking behind the methods. (2) We wanted to build discernment and critical thinking, and expand people's curiosity and confidence to experiment with their own practice. It would have been all too easy just to disseminate our findings, rather than to translate what it was like to find out our findings. Indeed, we hoped to whet people's appetite and enable them to look at what they do from a new perspective.
Who was it for?
Initially, we thought staff and families who work and interact with community living services could benefit equally from our learning episodes, but over time, our content became a better fit for service staff. The particular staff we wanted to engage were community support workers, residential workers, and service delivery managers who were feeling stuck and uninspired. Whether they had just entered the field and were looking for resources, or had been in the field for decades, we felt there was an opportunity to inject some new content into their 'idea' pipelines and give them materials to experiment with on their own.
How do you encourage people to think more critically about their work? How do you prompt new ways of thinking? What is the format? What does it look and sound like?
The Learning Episodes
To be attractive and effective, we knew the learning experience would have to be different to other online courses or professional development sessions. We researched a lot of the existing training that agencies made available to staff. Most were quite technical modules around health & safety themes, or troubleshooting specific 'client' challenges. We researched media that was both engaging and informative, and were drawn to podcasts like This American Life and Radiolab because of their compelling narrative formats. We hoped using stories, our own voices, and a DIY-homemade feel, would yield a richer learning experience.
Check them out for yourself!
The Iterative Process
Iteration starts with an idea. Staff we had met had voiced that they wanted the opportunity to learn, but found it challenging to engage in learning while on the job. Most of what they had been exposed to was online courses geared towards social services, but many stated that these courses were too long, sometimes 2 hours in length, and that they couldn't really chunk them into smaller increments without losing the plot all together. They described learning becoming a source of frustration rather than a source of ideas and inspiration. So, we started with the idea of developing short podcasts that lasted no longer than 15 minutes in length.
We tested out the podcast and got some mixed reviews. Some users liked the format, whilst others did not typically listen to podcasts and were not interested in starting. Some users stated that they would listen to it if they had to - but we wanted them to want to listen to them. We began to mock-up a wider variety of modalities including interactive games, videos, case studies, podcasts, and animated film. We asked users to react to the content, to the length of the episode, to the format, to the setting (individual or group), to the proposed incentives for completing the episode.
After each session of user testing, the whole team would convene via conference call to discuss the feedback and brainstorm our next steps. This involved us tweaking existing episodes, discarding what didn’t work, and developing new episodes. We had to discard quite a lot of our initial ideas.
Making the learning episodes required that our team gain a lot of new skills. We started with podcasts as the modality because we wanted users to be able to learn at times that fit their schedule: when in their car, or walking somewhere. But, Sabrina and I had never created a podcast before nor were we familiar with audio editing software. Luckily, our third team member, Laura, has made something like 700 podcasts! Sabrina and I had a quick tutorial with Laura on recording and editing software, and then we started making our own. Trying to learn the technical aspects of developing a podcast, while also trying to create and edit content that was of high enough quality, was pretty time consuming!
Once we discovered that podcasts were not the preferred modality, we had to add even more skills to our repertoire. We wanted to create a style that blended the visual and audio, and felt fun. But, how to be fun when we also wanted to introduce some new concepts? Users told us that most training videos consisted of talking heads so we knew we didn't want a lecture format. We decided to use stop motion animation to bring to life the concepts, alongside interviews with team members and photos from our on-the-ground work. Challenge is, stop motion animation require 5 frames to make up 1 second of film. That meant we needed to draw hundreds of scenes, and then take photos of them in rapid succession. There was a lot of trial and error involved. Luckily, users are responding really well. They tell us the blend of animation, interviews, and photos is working. That it's sparking critical questions about their own practice - and that they want to talk about what they just encountered.
Although the making process was long and not particularly efficient, it's given us a lot of insights about how to package up the learning during Prototyping. We've got to get better at making learning episodes as we go!
What we'll takeaway into prototyping
As we tried to compile audio, pictures, and video footage from the 10-weeks into learning episodes, we realized how much of our documentation wasn't clear. There were so many moments of wishing we had film of a particular moment, but did not. We need to have a much more sophisticated way of collecting and tagging all of our photos, audio recordings and film snippets during the project.
Another piece of learning was the need for consistency when conducting user testing. To try and ensure a script is followed and similar conditions are set to get accurate feedback about our materials. We need to have people really trying out the content in their own settings, be it their car or their workplace. It was also important when iterating to clearly document feedback so that we could track the rationale for all of our tweaks.
Finally, we want to move to a much more real-time production process. This will mean having a team member whose main responsibility it is to produce learning episodes each week. Users were so eager for new learning materials that we think it would be more impactful to share the process of prototyping while it unfolds.