Liz Gusmati and Dan Keckan have achieved the impossible: They created required ethics and compliance training that got rave reviews from learners. Not only that—the same team pulled together a DemoFest Best of Show–winning microlearning project as well. On government contract regulations, no less!

Who are these miracle workers, and what is their secret?

Liz Gusmati is a lead associate at Booz Allen Hamilton, where she designs finance and business development eLearning and training. Dan Keckan, a vice president of eLearning and instructional design at Cinécraft Productions, leads a team of instructional and graphic designers and eLearning developers.

Their teams worked with members of Booz Allen Hamilton’s ethics and compliance team on the two creative and popular eLearning projects described in “Booz Allen Hamilton Scores Rave Reviews with Compliance Training and DemoFest-Winning Microlearning.” Here, they offer guidance to designers and developers tasked with creating engaging training based on material that might be dense or complex.

The secret keys

Gusmati’s advice to designers who struggle with a small team or minuscule budget starts with brainstorming. “You don’t need a whole lot of people to come up with some really cool stuff,” she said. She strongly recommends brainstorming with colleagues—at least one other person, even if that person is not an ID or developer. “Two people brainstorming is a lot more powerful than one; it’s an example of ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,’” she said. “If I brainstorm on my own, I’m going to get maybe 50 percent of the possibilities, but if I brainstorm with another person, we’re going to get 150 percent; you build off of one another.”

Gusmati emphasizes that creating great eLearning doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, and the courses do not need to be complex. “Imagination is your biggest asset when you are creating a course. Use your imagination, and find places to get inspiration,” such as books, movies, and everyday experiences. She keeps a “running list” of ideas and waits for the perfect moment to use them—one theme that she’s using now has been on her list for two years! “When the perfect moment came, I was glad that I didn’t waste it on whatever I was working on at the time,” she said.

Some other strategies that have worked out well on her projects include:

  • Storytelling—Any time an ID is faced with content that is potentially dull, Gusmati suggests wrapping it in a story. “Give your course an overarching theme or story when possible,” Gusmati said. “A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you have content that you’re trying to push to somebody, if you just give it a beginning, middle, and end … it doesn’t need to add time to your course, but it pulls everything together,” she said. “Once you get to a certain level of complexity, or it’s 10 minutes or longer, if you just give it a beginning, middle, and end, you’ll find that the relevance for learners is going to skyrocket.”
  • Learning plans—The microlearning modules for the DemoFest entry, a spy-themed game, are packaged in a learning plan in the learner’s LMS. When a learner enrolls in a learning plan, that learner is registered for all the modules of the course. The LMS provides a suggested order for completing the modules, she said, and it allows easy access and an easy way for learners to keep track of which modules they’ve completed.
  • Gamification and thematic elements—Each program includes a well-developed theme that is reinforced with visual and audio elements. In the microlearning spy game, learners use “smart glasses” to discover and decode information. They use that information to complete challenges. Progress meters fit the theme as well: Collecting badges for completing challenges allows learners to increase their status, and a “power gauge” built into the smart glasses lets learners know how they were progressing through each module.
    Gusmati advises caution when adding sound effects and visual gimmicks, like a departing airplane used in the passport-themed compliance training. The visuals and sound effects “were awesome” and made the training much more fun and engaging, she said—but the team was careful not to overdo it. They didn’t want to put in so many effects that they risked annoying learners or affecting course performance.
  • Opportunities to fail safely and learn from errors—In the spy game, a character named Andre asks learners to repeat a challenge if they miss too many of the questions, but the modules are so short that learners never have to repeat very much content, Gusmati said. The repetition also provides an opportunity to reinforce learning in their weaker areas. This is a way to allow learners to try applying their knowledge but to “fail safely” and review; the consequences are negligible, unlike making the same error on a real-life contract or other work situation.
  • Agile project management—“Any time you attempt to push the envelope and try new things, you always need more time to perfect it,” Keckan said about the development and implementation of the joint projects. “With these projects we did not have the affordability of more time. We had very strict deadlines.” They used an agile project management process that helped them control the length of each revision and testing cycle.

Above all, Gusmati emphasizes the value of scenario-based learning. “Use scenario-based learning when possible so you can give them data to use and apply. The actual learning occurs when they’re applying what you’ve given them,” Gusmati said.

This is especially important for ethics and compliance training. “We try to make our compliance training scenario-based whenever possible, where it makes sense. It doesn’t always make sense; sometimes it’s just facts,” Gusmati said. “When you get into those gray areas, scenario-based training is really the best way to go.”