Tuesday, February 08, 2011

On stating the bleedin' obvious

One of the criticisms of my (ahem) academic writing, is that I made (make?) too many assumptions on the part of my readers. My course supervisor once asked me "Why are you so reluctant to state the obvious?"

To me the answer is: because it is obvious. If it is obvious, why do I need to say it? Why do I need to sacrifice part of my precious word count saying something well-duh-ish?

Of course, the response to that is "Because it's obvious to you. It might not be obvious to your reader."

I always took the view that, if you're reading this paper, you have a level of interest in this field. This is not likely to be the first paper you ever read on the subject. Of course, if the paper is electronic, you can include links to definitions and explanations, without having to sacrifice word count. But when it's an old fashioned paper-based submission...

"Just pretend I don't know anything at all," they told me, "and write from that standpoint."

But that's nonsense too, surely? If I assume you know nothing at all, I have to start by explaining the basic concepts to you, such as what workplace learning is and why we do it... before I've even got halfway through that, I've used up my word count.

So I must assume you know something. The trick is knowing where to draw that line.

This is a challenge facing learning designers, too. Do we start by covering the basics? Do we assume that the learner knows the basics?

During my years as a classroom based trainer, this was always the balancing act. Where do I start from? What if one person in the class doesn't know the basics, and everyone else does? What then? All the years I taught spreadsheets, I would find myself also teaching basic maths. Because it's pointless learning about formulas if you don't know how to string together a mathematical sentence. And almost without fail, the ability to construct a mathematical sentence was conspicuous by its absence. I could probably teach the BODMAS rule in my sleep!

Ah. Did you spot what I just did there? I included a link to an explanation of what the BODMAS rule is. If you already know, you don't have to follow it. But if you wondered what I was blethering about, you could follow the link and bring yourself up to speed.

This is one of the things I like about designing online learning resources. You don't have to tell people stuff they might already know! You can include a link and let them choose.

Of course, many is the traditional e-learning designer who will trap that poor learner in a tunnel of back and next buttons and lash them with information they already know, holding all the 'good stuff' to the end... only to be seen when they have jumped through the requisite hoops.

I find the whole collaborative-pull learning such a fantastic fit, here. You can look things up when you need to. If you find that there is no definition/explanation/demonstration of the thing you're after in your organisation's learning space, you can track one down elsewhere and add a link to it for the next person. Or you can create one yourself as you learn-by-experimenting how it's done. People don't need to waste their time sitting through a whole day of stuff they already know, or to trudge through page after page of elearning that adds no value to their lives.

The bleedin' obvious can be stated, but on an optional basis... and everyone is catered for. What's not to like?

Of course, none of this is going to turn me into a brilliant academic writer as long as paper-based submissions are required!

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