Media Matters

It was Marshall McLuhan who declared in his monumental 1964 work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man that, "the medium is the message." While McLuhan was speaking mainly of the societal impact of television, the influx of media has certainly impacted the training world in a big way.

In recent years, the automotive and heavy vehicle industries have been bombarded with alternative delivery methods for information and training. CD-ROM, DVD and numerous forms of Web-based training have supplemented or even supplanted traditional classroom courses. It is appropriate to look back a little now, and assess the situation. How well is media-based training really working? How could it work better?

Over the past several months, I have been fortunate to interview a number of technicians as a required follow-up to some pilot classes in diesel engine performance diagnosis. There was a fairly large mix of age groups and experience represented. The most frequent responses to the question of what they liked most about the course were, "hands-on activity" and "interacting with fellow technicians and the instructor."

Hmm… with the plethora of media-based communication and simulations now at their disposal with just a click of the mouse, simple human interactivity comes out on top. Does that mean McLuhan was wrong? Not necessarily.

Ian Andrew of CDX Global stated in a recent presentation at my Automotive Training Managers Council (ATMC) conference that simply repackaging your old course content for Web delivery isn't enough. As he put it, you've spent all this money developing a snazzy website and, "now all you have to do is take a book of words, convert it into an electronic version of the book, and then sell it as multimedia… very clever. And the dogs will eat the dog food and be happy ever after. If only it were that easy!"

Indeed, another interview response from my recent course participants was that they expected more theory and operation to be in the class student guide. When I noted that they were expected to get this information from the Web-based prerequisites, there were a few chuckles—especially from our Generation Y students. Those are the ones who are supposed to be embracing Web delivery, right? One response said, "I couldn't stand taking those courses. I'm looking at a still graphic while someone reads the exact text that is on the screen. After a few lessons I wanted to put my fist through the screen! In later courses, I just started skipping to the post-test."

Ouch! If you want to put a knife through a content developer's heart, that's the way to do it!

In defense of my customer, the students cited some very old Web courses. More recent efforts have certainly been more interactive and engaging. But the responses support the idea that the message is not just a by-product of the media. Look at the example of television: how does a one-hour drama manage to get across its storyline or "message" in about 40 minutes of content? By telling or showing you only what they want you to know... or what you need to know!

My wife is always baffled that I can remember the lines from almost every episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, but forget what she asked me to do a few minutes ago. What is it about Monty Python that made it so memorable for me? Well, besides the obvious entertainment factor, it was an early "sketch" comedy. They delivered their humorous content in short skits, usually lasting no more than five minutes. In that format, you must cut out any unnecessary wording and get to the guts of the story or message.

Web or other media-based training formats must do the same, and many are now starting to head in that direction. With the growth of the Learning Management System (LMS) or Managed Learning Environment (MLE), training objects are being broken up into smaller segments. This gives the students access to only what they need, without the excess. Another recent trend is "just in time" training. These are even shorter content objects, targeted to a specific problem and specific fix, that can be developed and delivered rapidly.

To find out more on related topics, I highly encourage you to attend the upcoming ATMC Spring Conference, April 2-4 in Orlando, Florida. The theme is "Managed Learning in the 21st Century." Information and registration forms are available at