Three Steps to Teaching Decisionmaking Online

Here’s another line of thought spurred by my ongoing cross-blog conversation with Maish R. Nichani of elearningpost – which I’m enjoying immensely.

In his Dec. 16 article It’s all about rich e-learning experiences, Nichani wrote: “Amy Gahran points out that a task-oriented approach is more effective in most e-learning than an information oriented approach. My point is that a decision-making or an execution-based approach is even better. Decisions are what business organizations are about. The need to perform a task or to acquire information really depends on the decision you are trying to make. Thus, know-how is equally important as know-why or know-what, it really depends on the decision.”

That’s a very good point, and I’d like to respond to that. I think we might both be circling around the same goal here…

First of all, I certainly don’t wish to denigrate the importance of raw knowledge and context. We all need information – either in our skulls or in readily available resources – in order to understand our world, make decisions, and take action.

In my Dec. 15 article The Highlights Approach to Corporate E-Learning, I should have clarified that decisions are a type of task. That is, when you make a decision, you are doing something. You may only be doing it in your head, but it is an action nonetheless.

Decisions are a very important type of task. Maybe even the most important type, ultimately – in business and other realms.

I think e-learning can be incredibly valuable for teaching people how to make decisions such as evaluating, troubleshooting, researching, investigating, selling, communicating… you name it. But personally, I think that type of teaching is handled best if the act of making the decision (putting information to use) is separated from the “information dump” (facts, context, history, details, etc.).


Let me try to clarify this: I envision three aspects in the overall learning process to communicate material that mainly involves decisionmaking skills:

  1. Introduction: Learners are told that there is some important information available that will enhance their ability to make crucial decisions. (This is the HotWired-style 1-2 paragraph overview that Nichani mentioned on Dec. 16, or the “Top 10 things you need to know” approach he suggested on Dec. 14.) This intro also tells learners where in their organization’s information resources (such as a library section of an intranet) they can find complete information.
  2. Exploration: Learners are guided through or encouraged to explore the new information, in order to get them at least somewhat familiar with what’s available and how it’s organized.
  3. Exercises or games: These would be designed to allow learners to practice the skills of retrieving the new information according the needs of a hypothetical situation, applying that information to make a decision, and acting according to that decision. They should also address the most basic part of decisionmaking: asking the right questions.

It seems to me that this approach would directly address the know-how, know-why, and know-what aspects of learning, as well as the often-overlooked task of decisionmaking. Most corporate e-learning I’ve seen does not address decisionmaking directly. Rather, the approach is: “Here’s the information. Now you figure out how to use it.” The actual process of decisionmaking is left implied, unpracticed, and unobserved.


The approach I outlined would also benefit the organization as well as the learner. By treating information retrieval and decisionmaking skills as tasks that are practiced and honed within the e-learning system, organizations can measure how effectively they have communicated important information to employees.

It’s almost impossible to measure how well someone “knows” something, but you can measure how effectively or quickly they can find appropriate information and put it to use as circumstances dictate. Based on learners’ performance, informational materials and other types of communication or lessons can be re-evaluated and enhanced to yield better measurable results.

So that’s my idea. Whadya think?

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  1. Three steps to teaching decision-making online
    Amy Gahran has written a blog entry on teaching decision-making online. To quote: Decisions are a very important type of task. Maybe even the most important type, ultimately — in business and other realms. I think e-learning can be incredibly…