Spring Cleaning

Read any lifestyle blogs or magazines lately, and you’ve probably heard of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. This unassuming home organization book has kickstarted a worldwide decluttering phenomenon called the “KonMari Method.”

The central idea behind KonMari is that, by eliminating clutter, we can free ourselves to experience the joy of things we truly love and respect. The two-pronged approach to the method is simple:

  • Put your hands on everything you own. Ask yourself whether each item sparks joy. If it does, keep it. And if it doesn’t, bid it farewell.
  • Once your most joy-giving belongings remain, put every item in a place where it’s visible, accessible, and easy to grab and then put away. This allows you to appreciate your most cherished belongings while keeping them useful and organized.

Much of the book frames our struggle with clutter using very emotional terms. For instance, the concept of “sparking joy” speaks to our feelings about objects. In the book, Kondo even encourages the reader to hold items and address them as people.

But before you burst into fits of laughter thinking about the choice words you might have for your annual compliance training, I do think there are some great, practical ideas and wisdom we can take from the KonMari Method and apply to our real-world challenge of e-learning maintenance. For instance, ask yourself:

  • Are there courses living on my LMS that have simply outlived their usefulness?
  • What would I eliminate from my “closet full of courses” (aka the LMS) to make it easier for folks to find what they really need?
  • How do I know which content is really making an impact on learners?

Here are a few KonMari-inspired tips I found particularly handy to answer these questions and more.

1. Tidy up by category

One of the KonMari Method’s central ideas is to tackle tidying up category-by-category, rather than room-by-room. In your home, this means you might start with categories of things, like clothes, books, shoes, etc. Kondo further suggests that you start with categories that are less emotionally or personally significant. For instance, it’s easier to purge things like clothing first, since that’s something most of us are accustomed to giving away when it’s outlived its usefulness or is no longer in fashion. From there you can move onto much more personal articles like books and photographs.

Similarly, when you’re considering thinning out your course catalog, you might find it easier to kickstart your efforts with categories of courses that are less of an emotional (or political!) minefield. Courses that are focused on things like administrative policies and procedures may be a good choice because they tend to be click-and-read in nature, making them ripe for an overhaul—or maybe even retirement.

2. Declutter your content

While “sparks joy” isn’t exactly a useful business metric when it comes to streamlining your entire course catalog, it is a nice way to help you focus on the critical content in your courses. Here’s why: whether you’re evaluating an existing course as part of your spring-cleaning efforts or designing a new one, one of the hardest parts of instructional design is knowing which content is worth keeping. Fundamentally, the emotional reaction of “sparking joy” is about recognizing the meaning or significance of something; for learning, that spark takes the form of learner engagement and performance impact for the business.

When you’re trying to figure out what content “sparks” for your learners, it may be as simple as evaluating their feedback on the course or looking at some key performance metrics to see if it's meeting the objectives.  From there, you can focus on specific course content using the need-to-know and nice-to-know approach. In this great article, The Dos and Don’ts of Separating Need-to-Know from Nice-to-Know by Nicole Legault, she gives an example of a course on changing a tire and asks, “Would you include a history of cars, and information about the various types of tires?”

Most of us would agree that the history of cars is nice to know, but not essential for learning how to change a tire. And yet, try as we might to focus on essential information, it’s not uncommon to find courses that are full of sidebar details that have somehow snuck their way into the main content.

If you’re determined to declutter and re-focus your course content, then it’s time to put on your editor's hat and ask yourself:

  • Is this information essential for the learner to do XYZ?
  • Will understanding this information really improve their performance?
  • What’s likely to happen if they don’t get this information?

3. Be aware of the "sunk cost" fallacy

Letting go of things is a surprisingly complicated, emotional process and in Kondo’s book, she spends a good deal of time talking about how certain flaws in our logic feed our hoarding tendencies. One of these is the “sunk cost” fallacy.

This logic fallacy focuses on the fact that we, as humans, really dislike giving up on things we’ve paid good money for. The sunk cost fallacy is an irrational perception that goes something like this:

We’ve made an investment in X, therefore we are now fully committed to X …
even if it doesn’t work.

I’ve found that the sunk cost fallacy often afflicts organizations that have heavily invested in e-learning without having a full understanding of the problems they were trying to solve in the first place.

For example, years ago I worked in an organization that spent many thousands of dollars on developing a lengthy custom e-learning course that walked users through our key piece of software. The vendor we hired to create the course promised a highly interactive experience, chock full of features that would really engage learners.

Unfortunately, one of those features turned out to be a universally despised talking pencil that would appear every time users clicked on the wrong input field. Not only was the talking pencil irritating and gimmicky, the course was just too lengthy for quick reference use and too complicated to be a reliable stand-alone training tool. And although many mocked the course’s bells and whistles, when it came time to replace it with something streamlined and effective, the management team suddenly became very protective of it. They were concerned about the money they’d invested being “thrown away.”

Bottom line: a course needs to deliver results. So if you find yourself in a battle over “sunk costs,” it might be time to steer the conversation towards ways of shoring up the investment so it’s more effective. Or, maybe it’s time to spin the conversation in an entirely new direction: away from the cost of the lost investment and onto the bigger cost of maintaining something that just doesn't work.

More Resources

So much of our focus as designers is on how to create e-learning. It's easy to overlook what goes into maintaining it. Here are a few articles from the E-Learning Heroes archive that can help you make sure your e-learning is clutter-free.

What’s your course maintenance strategy look like? Are you in the midst of some e-learning spring-cleaning? Share your tips, ideas, and questions with us by leaving a comment below. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.