Frequent eLearning Guild speaker, author, Learning Solutions Magazine columnist, and self-described eLearning geek Mark Lassoff was recognized as a Guild Master at FocusOn Learning 2017 Conference & Expo. Since the Guild is deep into an exploration of digital learning, our recent interview focused on the skills developers will need to stay relevant and adjust to learners’ changing expectations and needs. Mark is the founder of Punk Learning and president of LearnToProgram Media, so his emphasis on coding might be expected; Mark shared his views on other essential skills for eLearning developers as well. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela Hogle (PH): The eLearning Guild is facilitating conversation—including hosting a forum at DevLearn 2017 Conference & Expo—about digital learning and how changes in the way people learn will affect eLearning professionals. What do you see coming for eLearning developers? What skills will they need? How do you see their role changing?

Mark Lassoff (ML): For developers who are already working, I don’t think their role is going to change all that much, except that I think they’re going to be more involved in enterprise learning-development projects.

More and more, the tools that eLearning developers have used for years have proved limiting as to what you can actually do. And as clients are demanding more and more simulation, demanding AR- and VR-style presentations—programming is part of that, and it’s not going to be enough for eLearning developers to use the current set of tools. They’re going to have to adapt and either learn coding or include developers on their teams in order to continue to flourish in the industry.

PH: Is there anything specific that developers should learn?

ML: If you’re going to learn a language, it’s JavaScript. JavaScript can drive everything from the back end of web-based presentations to scripting your learning management system (LMS) to presenting augmented and virtual reality.

I think that JavaScript is the most important language to learn right now, and I think that’s a great place for people in eLearning to start because it’s so ingrained already in the tool sets we use, just not in a visible way.

PH: The formats that people are using for eLearning are changing—it’s not just parking a bunch of people in front of the same eLearning; it’s more personalized, more on the go. Is there anything that designers and developers should be doing to get better at that kind of eLearning?

ML: What you’re talking about is essentially including new logic in eLearning that makes the entire experience more individualized. Again, it’s coding that’s really the answer there, because with coding, you can do just about anything you imagine.

You’re limited, when you use a tool, to what that tool predicts you’re going to want to do. As eLearning becomes more individualized, it’s going to become important to understand the technologies that your LMS system and your authoring system actually are using in the background to produce the output. You just can’t anticipate what you’re going to want to do and what you’re going to need to do, and that’s when you are going to need to write custom code.

PH: So, it all comes down to how things work and getting your hands dirty a little bit rather than just using tools?

ML: Anything that’s going to depart from linear presentation methods—or what I call the “slide and share” method of instruction, that’s been used in eLearning for years—is going to require a new logic layer. How’s it going to know, for example, how to individualize the instruction, based on what criteria?

There are some rudimentary things that we can do now with the current tools, but there are layers of complexity that are going to be added onto it, that are going to be expected in the market, that we are going to need to be able to deal with. Which is why, again, I am a big advocate of the inclusion of qualified developers on our teams when possible—in order to do something that’s individualized and outside the scope of what we think of as possible right now.

A lot of the best work in our field is being done by companies that regularly include programmers on their teams and that are going outside the bounds of tools that are used typically in corporate learning to produce content.

PH: Where does xAPI fit into all of this?

ML: xAPI is a way for any system to access a user’s learning transcript and for any action to be included as part of the process. A lot of that is coded in JavaScript—so a way to access xAPI, often, is with JavaScript. xAPI lets you turn almost anything that is computerized into a learning tool and communicate with a larger course or learning management system. So the tasks that right now have to be done on a computer could be done on an outside device or machinery that simply sends a little bit of text to the xAPI engine—and allow us to measure all sorts of things that we haven’t thought about measuring. But again, I think that one of the reasons that xAPI is being adopted slowly is that we have a dearth of qualified developers in the field, and in order to take advantage of xAPI, you need to be a qualified developer.

PH: Are there other skills, from the perspective of training managers, that are missing?

ML: As far as the training manager, it’s the uptick of expectations on the part of the audience. I’m really fond of saying that digital learning is going to be compared to other forms of digital media—movies, video games, etc.—not to other forms of learning as a comparison point. So until we can create digital learning that’s as engaging as a video game, we’re going to look secondary. I think that’s what training managers need to keep in mind.

It’s been possible for it [eLearning] to be better for a long time, but the people who were creating eLearning, and I am going to say something controversial here, were instructional designers who over-valued instructional design and didn’t include the important components of visual and digital design, oftentimes.

PH: So, more of a balanced emphasis instead of focusing on instructional design so heavily?

ML: No; honestly, I think it actually favors digital design. You can learn from anything; you can learn from a National Geographic piece. They don’t have instructional designers working on it. To me, it’s the digital that comes first, and it’s informed by instructional design. I’ll take that one step further: If we don’t adopt that kind of attitude as an industry, we’re going to lose the learning industry to those who do digital design well.

PH: Such as game designers?

ML: I think there’s a strong possibility. If you have a game designer develop an engaging learning activity, versus what typically comes out of our industry, I don’t think there’s really any comparison in the level of engagement that’s going to result from that. And I think that what scares me is that I see no urgency in the industry to change to a more digital perspective.

PH: Where do you think that change needs to come from?

ML: I think we need more of the “rock stars” to recognize and promote that this is happening. I really think we’re going to be blindsided as an industry, as we start to lose contracts to more traditional digital designers who engage better. They may not articulate the information in the most efficient way, like an instructional designer would do. But the gain in engagement will more than make up for that.

We’re going to lose ourselves as an industry to people who are already doing digital—even people in marketing and advertising. We have a lot to learn from all of these digital fields. But we have to be willing to do it, and we have to be willing to skill up so that PowerPoint is no longer good enough. So that some free imitation of Photoshop is no longer good enough. So that the free video editing software is not good enough.

If we’re truly going to be professionals, we’ve got to use professional tools; that is one of the steps of creating professional digital content. The other is really skilling up and learning the techniques—the design, not just the instructional design but the other aspects of design that are so missing in our field.

PH: Can we make a list of skills that you see as needed or missing?

ML: Coding skills, JavaScript specifically; you can’t really isolate JavaScript and just learn that. You need to learn the context in which JavaScript operates.

I think the next set of skills is visual design—I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to a session that was called “Visual Design and eLearning” that was undermined by the quality of the title slide.

We have to learn the real digital and graphic design. We have to learn layout; we have to learn typography; we have to learn the very basic rules of color and things like that. I think that’s a missing skill set. Some will say, “That’s just taste.” But it’s not. There are definitely ways to communicate visually more effectively.

And I think we’ve got to master video and audio, which is part of digital; it’s all integrated. Post-production and all of that.

If we don’t do it, someone else in digital, who doesn’t consider themselves part of the eLearning industry, will.

PH: Do you gnash your teeth when you see sessions like “How to Produce a Podcast in 10 Minutes”?

ML: I think we make the typical choice. When I started in the industry, there were two things that were being discussed: Twitter and rapid course development. To which my response was: Maybe instead of being rapid, we should be good.

We’re always making that choice of quality versus time and budget. If you can do it in 10 minutes, more power to you. I’ve been doing this work for 20 years. If you’re that much better at it than I am, great. But it takes me more than 10 minutes.

I think the time to do quality work is what’s missing. And that’s something that on a macro level—budgets are going to have to increase if we’re going to do this stuff well. The time allowed is going to have to increase. The personnel on it is going to have to increase. But I can’t see a more important corporate initiative than having employees who are well trained and having training that’s developed, that’s evergreen, for as long as possible.

PH: Is there anything else that you think is important to raise in the context of this ongoing conversation about how learning is changing?

ML: Yes. Stop using the same stock photos. I’ve seen them all already.

I’ve seen “Hispanic family, celebrating” in 19 pieces of eLearning already. I say that half-joking, but it’s really a metaphor for the industry. Not very innovative, doing the same thing over and over again. And there’s a great deal of potential—I said this at the closing of FocusOn Learning [June 20 – 22, 2017, in San Diego, California]. The potential is there for us to be kind of the rock-and-roll of education. We are not weighed down by government regulations, state requirements, teaching to the test. We have the opportunity to do really good, impactful, creative, interesting, and effective work. And the fact that we keep choosing not to is just a shame.

From the editor: Join the conversation!

The eLearning Guild is exploring the digital learning landscape next month at DevLearn 2017 Conference & Expo in Las Vegas. Senior learning leaders will delve into digital learning strategies at the Digital Learning Executive Forum on October 24. The conversation on digital learning continues, as a special area of focus, throughout the conference, October 25 – 27. Register today!