Having worked many years in training and e-learning, and a few years in the wine business as well, I realized recently that both these industries face somewhat related issues with quality. Sadly, way too many consumers of both these products are satisfied with, well let’s say it, crap.
This is not that different from the situation with many types of products and services, but with e-learning and wine, there are some interesting parallels. For instance, with both of these, “quality” has both a technical and a more “creative”, less easily quantifiable component. Technical measures of wine quality include the quality of the processes used to make it, but also quite objective sensory measures, including the absence of known faults (such as too much sulfur, the presence of various bacteria and so on) and the presence of some key characteristics that are generally accepted to make for good or great wine. These are things like a wine’s complexity (the variety of aromas and flavours in a wine), its balance (the absence of overpowering aromas and flavours), and its finish (how long the flavours linger).
An interesting thing is that personal preference doesn’t really have that much influence on how someone will assess the quality of a wine. When a group of people have been trained on wine tasting and appreciation, and have a common framework for assessing wine quality (check out the Wine & Spirit Education Trust for this kind of training, you winos), they will still vary widely on the specific flavours and aromas they will detect. These are dependent on how finely tuned one’s nose and palate are, and on personal memories and experiences too. They will also disagree about how much they like the wine, because people vary greatly in their appreciation of a wine’s sweetness, acidity, body and tannins. But in my experience, even with very different types of wine drinkers in the room, there is surprising consensus on the basic elements of quality, when everyone is asked to independently rate a wine’s balance, complexity, finish and so on.
Now if everyone had to get a little training on wine quality before they bought and drank their first bottle, I dare say the wine industry would be healthier and a fairer business as well for hard-working grapegrowers and passionate winemakers. Millions of bottles of awful wine (at all price points) would stay on the shelves, and wine marketers would turn their attention to producing better wine rather than spending oodles of cash on cool labels and catchy commercials. I know I know, a pipe dream.
On the e-learning side, the situation is similar. Principles of high-quality instructional design have been well known since the middle of the last century, and quite clear evidence-based best practices have emerged for applying these principles to training on a computer-based platform. For a number of years, I helped out with and reported on a well-regarded “Excellence in E-learning” awards program. Like in my wine courses, when our e-learning judges were provided with a clear framework for assessing the quality of submitted e-learning courses, there were all kinds of dfferences of opinion on how much each judge LIKED the program or would want to take it. But yet again, there was only little disagreement about how GOOD each program was, measured by things like: how well learnng strategies matched the skills or knowledge being taught; how appropriate was the use of media to support learning; how expertly did the program use strategies to overcome motivation issues with e-learning; and so on.
So why then, after thousands of years of making wine, and many decades of educational technology, do we still drink bad wine while suffering through hours of tedious page-turning e-learning courses?
If I had the answer, I would have made more money in both these businesses! But perhaps the answer lies partly in our culture of constant change. With so many new devices and platforms to deliver learning on, our attention is drawn to the mechanics of responding to these innovations rather than the noble drive to continuously improve the quality and effectiveness of what we’ve been doing for years and years. Perhaps if we soon hit the “resource wall” that sustainability experts say is coming and we stop being obsessed with growth, perhaps then we will return to a passion for craft and for doing things well rather than just fast and cheap.
On the wine side of things, however, it’s more or less hopeless. By the time wine industry experts get to drafting creative proposals for ridding the world of bad wine, everyone at the table is on their fifth glass of a sublime Bordeaux and the day’s great ideas have long been forgotten.
p.s. I like Jim Shamlin’s take on “Why e-learning sucks”. Check out his blog post on the subject HERE.