In my line of work there’s a lot of conversation about instructional design and common design flaws, and I spend a lot of time evaluating eLearning courses and products. I find it helps my perspective immensely when I set out to learn something new for myself, the more unrelated to work, the better.

I’m presently helping to plan an event for people primarily involved in workplace learning, innovation, and technology. We were talking about maker sessions, and I joked that we should have a ukulele orchestra. This got me thinking that playing the ukulele might be fun. I rummaged around and found the souvenir uke my mother bought on a trip to Hawaii when I was 9, which as far as I know was never even tuned.

Now, I’m a guitar player—giving music lessons is what first led me to the training business—so I wasn’t starting from scratch. I know how to tune a stringed instrument, form chords, pick out a melody, and strum, even if my experience has been with something with six strings, different chords, and somewhat different tuning. I went in with a pretty good idea of what I needed to learn and what I didn’t.

So I turned to YouTube.

The learner experience

There are hundreds of videos on learning to play ukulele and particular songs on the ukulele, and not surprisingly—just like eLearning courses—they are all over the place in terms of content and intent and quality. Most were made by musicians at home who want to share, some made by people offering lessons at cost, a few selling a product like videos or books.

The experience was like a crash “ID 101” course, with shining examples of good, bad, better, and awful. Here are some takeaways:

  1. Use effective, clear titles. Help people decide what’s right for them. Trust that they often know what that is.
  2. Get on with it already (aka: Shut up and play). Some of the video creators went on… and on… about ukes, and wood, and tuning, and what kind of chair they were sitting in, and what a guitar store in your town might have if you went there … before finally getting to the lesson proper. Lucky for me, YouTube has a scrubber bar. If the video is titled “How to Play ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’” then teach that. Put the setup and the background and asides somewhere else like an intro module, or divide the lesson into Parts 1 and 2. Recognize that someone wanting to learn “Bohemian Rhapsody” probably already knows how to tune the thing anyway. Also: Recognize when you’re trying to cover too much in one bite.
  3. Know your audience. Find out what most of them already know. Look over what already exists and don’t replicate that needlessly. Decide who you are pitching to: Are you trying to help the novice or the one like me, who has some background or prior training with the topic? Or the advanced player? (Folk musician Marcy Marxer offers a series of lessons called “Ukulele for Guitar Players.” There’s an example of knowing your audience.)
  4. Help the learner keep up. Break the song into parts. Play it once at half-speed before moving to full speed.
  5. Draw a picture. It was amazing to see how many people would just talk on and on about things begging to be shown as images, like how to form chords: “Okay, put your index finger on the first string third fret, and then put your pinkie on the third string fourth fret…” There are several tools that will let you add chord diagrams and other notation to videos so you can follow along as the tutor plays (and see how she or he is placing fingers). One did home-drawn chord diagrams on paper and held them up to the camera. One drew the chords on a whiteboard, then filmed himself playing in front of it. (Note: Failing to recognize that the right picture is in fact worth a thousand words happens in training and eLearning. All. The. Time.)
  6. Before you start teaching: Play the song. There are lots of ways of playing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in several different keys. Two videos showed more or less what I wanted and felt I could do, with chords easy enough for me to play as a uke beginner. Many videos don’t begin with showing the final product or an example of the final performance, so I had to skip to the end to see if the version of the song being taught was even the one I wanted to learn.
  7. Provide follow-up support. The best “how to play this song” videos offered a link to the written music, the chord diagrams, or the tutorial for an advanced version.
  8. Leave the ferrets out. Many videos are shot in a living room or kitchen, and an inordinate number had cats and, in one case, a ferret, frolicking in the background. It was mesmerizing, and a delightful distraction from the lesson. And it reminded me a lot of clicky-clicky-bling-bling flashing buttons and irrelevant art and distractors you see in eLearning courses.

What didn’t matter? I remember the lessons that were the most helpful, not the ones that were prettiest or had the highest production value. I remember learning quickly from the tutor who had clearly rehearsed and planned out structure and order, and didn’t keep saying, “Oh, wait, I forgot to show you this thing…” I remember that the diagrams on a whiteboard were more helpful than the ones done with expensive software showing real-time animated musical notation.

Be a learner

So: To learn more about ID, be a learner. Learn something far out of your usual area. Go see how 20 other people designed for that topic. You’ll find some are naturally better teachers than others. Take lessons from them about what’s best. Note how they make it happen effectively online. Become more mindful of how you learn: what works for you, and how quickly, and how much effort and time you are willing to put into learning.

And let me know if you take up the ukulele. We can start a Google Hangout band.