Careers: Interviews
eMedia Development Expert

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Randy Coin, an e-media development expert, systems analyst, and curriculum development expert. Randy is an international authority in many areas of electronic media, instructional design, and course development plus a published poet and short story writer. When Randy is not actively working on consulting projects, she can be found volunteering with youth and working on and gathering stories for her web site, http://www.letyourmindwander.com.

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Discussion:
Q: First of all, thank you Randy for agreeing to this interview. Your experiences as a respected and widely known instructional design expert and authority on e-media with systems analysis skills would be of benefit to many veterans. How would you describe yourself? What personally prompted you to enter your field?

A: Before I begin, Stephen, I would like to first thank you for interviewing me and for your kind remarks. I am very flattered to be featured in CIPS.

As a young person, I was always drawn to all things creative. However, the course of study I ultimately chose at college was not what I initially thought I would choose. I took courses in many different subjects—primarily in the sciences—before discovering my interest in and desire to write. With some nudging from a professor, I eventually declared English as my major and graduated quite happily with a Bachelor of Arts in English. Similar to the early years of my university education, my first years in the working world were spent trying different things. My attraction to the Big Apple led me to a job at an insurance brokerage firm in New York City, where I worked for two years. But after two years of failing to get excited about assessing workers compensation and similar corporate insurance risks, I moved to the Silicon Valley to pursue a job in which I could apply my writing skills. I landed at SkillSoft (formerly SmartForce), where I was initially a content writer. It was very exciting, as I was part of a new and growing e-Media group that developed rich media educational courses and published them to the Internet. Creativity and innovation were always encouraged, and for the first time in my professional life, my skill set was an excellent match for my occupation. I’d always thought my strengths lay in my creativity, communication, analytical, and interpersonal skills, and my various positions at SkillSoft provided the opportunities in which I could really leverage these strengths. I also became a big believer in the potential of eLearning, which is why I continue to work in the industry today.


Q: You graduated with honors from Lafayette College and attended King’s College in London. What lessons did you learn from your educational experiences?

A: My most treasured memories of college are of the semester I spent in London because I learned so much about others and myself. Being alone in a foreign country tested and proved my ability to be independent and allowed me to meet many wonderful people who were so different from the students with whom I regularly attended college and from me as well. The experience taught me a lot about other cultures, as London is a very international city with many international students. Therefore, although I always thought there was a lot more to experience in the world than I had at that point in my life, the time I spent in London proved it and how valuable having new experiences is as well.

I also gleaned a lot from participating in college athletics. I was a member of the basketball team for one year and played tennis for three. I certainly never worked so hard before juggling such a full schedule, but similar to my London experience, playing college sports also taught me a lot about others and myself. Some years, the competition was much more ferocious than I was used to among my teammates. And my basketball team went 2 and 25 the year I played. These were much different experiences than I had in the 1000-student high school I attended, and both were somewhat challenging and off-putting. But these types of experiences forced me to focus on participating for my own reasons and resulted in my being more driven for my own reasons than for others’ than I once was.


Q: How would your creative writing differ from your technical writing assignments? What tips can you provide to those thinking about engaging in either of these areas of writing?

A: Creative writing has been what I would call one of my only new hobbies since I graduated from college. It is completely different from any technical writing I’ve done for an employer (which I’ve only ever done for an employer). Unlike writing for my job, I am fairly shy when it comes to sharing my creative writing because I tend to write about my and others’ personal experiences. I think that creative writing is an excellent way to express thoughts and emotions and would encourage people to find opportunities to write about topics in which they are interested. I also very much enjoy technical or educational writing and think that it is an excellent way for a naturally skilled writer to earn a living. But again, if one were pursuing a technical-writing career, I would encourage that one finds a position in which one can write about topics of interest.


Q: Can you share two stories from your volunteer work?

A: Prior to the recent holidays, I worked with a class of fourth graders in a San Francisco charter elementary school. My task was to assist the children who needed the most help during their writer’s workshop. This assignment lasted six weeks, and each child was to produce a fictional story by the end of those six weeks.

The first day I arrived, I was asked to help a little boy. When I introduced myself, he asked me, “Why is your name Randy? Isn’t that a boy’s name?” It was nothing I hadn’t encountered previously; but his tone of voice implied that he wasn’t the slightest bit interested in my offer to help him. Nevertheless, I sat down beside him and stayed absolutely quiet until he finally needed to know how to spell “elephant.” Of course, I made him look it up in the dictionary, but it broke the ice, and he was soon defending my boyish name when the other students inquired about it. And he had a really great story by the end of the six weeks.

In the same class, I helped a little girl who wrote a story about a sheep that went mad and thought she was a human. She named the sheep Miss Alabama, which I never questioned. One day towards the end of the six weeks, this little girl volunteered to read her story aloud. After its conclusion, her classmate asked her why she named the sheep this way. She responded, “Well, I was watching TV last night, and there were a bunch of models on this big stage, and they all had really big name tags, and one model’s name was Miss Alabama.” She had, perhaps obviously, named her sheep the day after the Miss America pageant.


Q: Please describe your experiences in working in each of these areas, lessons you learned, and share some useful tips you used to maximize your effectiveness:

  • Modular, interactive text- and graphic-based instructional content
  • Streaming-media instructional content—“events”—for both live broadcast and archive
  • Capturing and managing requirements to improve learning management systems
  • Instructional design

A: I developed modular, interact, text- and graphic-based instructional content for nearly the last year and half and develop this type of content currently. The most important thing I have learned is that educational content producers must keep the users (audience) in mind at all times. It is very easy to develop instructional design, writing, and graphic-design styles that are efficient for the course-building team; however, efficiency for these people does not always result in effective courses for users. I would offer this advice—educate yourself about the user group for which the courses are being designed and study the topic of usability as much as possible. Many users within an industry such as healthcare might be less technically savvy than user groups for which eLearning content has more traditionally been developed such as for the IT and business industries. Packing excessive amounts of interactivity that require advanced computer skills might be discouraging to these types of users. This should always be a consideration when developing eLearning content. Collecting user feedback should prevent eLearning companies from having to make incorrect assumptions about their learners and to learn what elements of their courses are and are not effective.

I helped create streaming-media instructional content also for about a year and a half, which was very fun and frequently allowed for innovative and creative changes. With respect to content broadcast live or simply put into an archive, my advice would be very similar to what I said above about interactive text- and graphic- based courses—know your audience for all of the same reasons I stated above. Additionally, streaming audio and video are very attractive ways to convey information over the Internet but require sufficient bandwidth and a lot of learners’ full attention. On the former point, eLearning developers should ensure that their learners are able to receive the full experience regardless of what type of Internet connection they have. And on the latter point, be careful that you don’t overload learners with too many educational elements at one time thus forcing them to divide their attention among too many things at one time.

Capturing and managing learning requirements for any type of system—including a Learning Management System—is a position that requires good listening skills and the ability to restrain oneself from making assumptions about stakeholders’ needs. It also demands a lot of patience, as stakeholders often suggest changes they’d like to see be made to a system before clearly articulating a problem. I have less experience as a systems analyst than I do as an eLearning developer, but in the time that I was a systems analyst, I learned that identifying the real problem and identifying its scope, although sometimes difficult, saves many headaches down the road. Also, I learned that there are often many solutions to a problem, and deciding which solution is right is not a simple task, as each one may very well cause a chain reaction of additional problems that also require solutions. And lastly I learned that it is almost impossible to meet the needs of every single stakeholder, so it’s important that you address each stakeholder’s major concerns as best as you can. And always be able to explain the rationale of each solution!

I’ve worked as an instructional designer for about a year and a half now. I started in the eLearning industry as a writer, which was a great position and one that allowed for the easy transition into instructional design. Instructional design is the big picture. I now decide how content is structured at both the curriculum and course levels. Organizing a course is always more difficult, as I have to decide how to best present the content to a learner. This means determining the amount and type of interactive and graphic elements besides identifying the content. And it means, once again, knowing the audience. Throughout my experiences as an instructional designer, I’ve learned that some content lends itself very easily to graphic explanations and interesting interactivity, which, when combined, usually allow for a wonderful experience for learners. Contrarily, I have designed courses on government regulations, for example, and have found that it is very challenging to ensure the same result. This, however, is what keeps an instructional design job interesting!


Q: Can you share your 20 leading tips for those thinking of getting into the e-learning area of computing?

A: They are:

  1. If you are thinking of entering content development, keep in mind that it requires a lot of attention to detail.
  2. If you would like to be a writer or instructional designer, you should be prepared to digest a lot of information—about topics that may be foreign to you—in a short amount of time.
  3. Time does not always allow for the perfect course. Write and design as best as you can in the time allotted, and apply any shortcuts that you learn to build future courses better and more efficiently.
  4. As in all jobs, some suggestions that you make may be turned down. Don’t let that discourage you.
  5. eLearning development is more often than not a team environment. Be prepared to collaborate with writers, graphic designers, copy editors, project managers, and instructional designers, among others.
  6. While the eLearning industry is well established, it has a lot of potential to change with respect to course development. Your day-to-day processes might be altered at any moment.
  7. Every eLearning company may approach course design differently. Be sure that you are on board with a company’s learning strategies before becoming an employee.
  8. Some eLearning companies do not use or focus on streaming media educational content. You might look into an eLearning company’s product offerings before applying to ensure that you will get to develop the type of content you wish to develop.
  9. Consistency is key. Learners require consistency with respect to how content is presented. If, for example, a red button, when clicked for the first time, displays a graphic, then a red button should always display a graphic when clicked.
  10. Don’t think you are confined by text and graphics. Use the medium most appropriate for the content and the learner.
  11. Always know for whom you are designing.
  12. Feedback is extremely important. When possible, collect it from the client and from individual learners to help ensure that the learning product(s) you have sold are effective.
  13. Don’t always assume that fancier is better. Text and graphics are sufficient for some content and some users.
  14. Provide learners with a learning experience that is similar to more traditional learning experiences that they may have encountered in school or in instructor-led courses. This means implementing book marking and note taking features.
  15. While collaboration online is more difficult than collaboration in a classroom, don’t discount it. Mentoring, threaded discussions, and virtual meeting rooms are all possible.
  16. Reach the broadest audience by meeting disability (ADA) and industry (SCORM, LRN, AICC) standards.
  17. Be aware of bandwidth. Design a product that provides all users—even those with the slowest Internet connections—with the full learning experience.
  18. Many people still prefer to learn from hard copy. This doesn’t mean that you can’t reach them with eLearning. Provide printable versions of courses.
  19. You can design the best eLearning courses and the best eLearning Management System, but no one will ever see them unless clients promote their usage. Implementing incentive programs might be the best way to do this.
  20. Learning is the focus; “e” is only the distribution method. Therefore, make sure your instructional design is always sound and imparts real knowledge.

Q: You have a reputation for being plugged into the stream of computing consciousness about where it’s going now and in the long term. You’ve also done a lot of research. Can you comment on the studies that you’ve performed, what you have learned, and your experiences? Where is technology today and where is it going?

A: The first wave of Internet technology seems to have come and gone. Shopping and banking online, for example, were once only for the technically savvy but are beginning to become core to more and more people’s daily lives all the time. Who would have thought even a few years ago that it would cost more to get paper airline tickets than to get electronic ones, as is the case today? I suppose I see this type of eCommerce becoming the norm.


Q: For those relatively new in the computing field and for seasoned veterans, which 10 areas should they target for future study, what are the high-growth areas, and can you provide specific advice?

A: I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this question, Stephen, but if I had to take a guess, I think that the following areas have the potential for tremendous growth in the computing field: wireless, micro and molecular biology, nanotechnology, network and commerce security to protect against fraud, national security, digital entertainment, artificial intelligence, and, of course, eLearning (in healthcare, law, medicine and perhaps many other fields that the industry has yet to tap into on a mass scale).


Q: What changes do you see for the future of computing, conducting business, and the use of the Internet?

A: As I said above, the Internet will continue to be used more and more frequently as a means of conducting business. Thus I think the demand for speed and security as well as for robustness with respect to applications and web sites will be extremely high and result in even better eBusiness and Internet services. And as the gap between the technology and end users decreases, we might even see voice recognition replace the keyboard and touch screens replace the mouse. I also think that the computer could become more personal to its owner’s needs and wants and that we might see a huge increase in the amount of technology-specific devices (i.e. mail-only and Internet-only devices)


Q: What would be your recommended top ten references for the serious writer, developer, and the serious IT professional?

A: I think I am most qualified to advise the serious writer. For those in the eLearning industry, I recommend reading the following two usability books: Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug and Handbook of Usability Testing by Jeffrey Rubin. Anything you read on usability will enhance the way you develop eLearning courses.

For the creative writer, there are always a lot of opportunities to join book clubs, attend author readings, and enroll in writing workshops. There are also many forums on the Internet to share your writing and to read others’.

For the systems analyst, I recommend becoming acquainted with the Unified Modeling Language (UML) and the Rational Unified Process (RUP). RUP skills seem to be in high demand when it comes to systems analysis, and many books have been written about it and UML as well.


Q: If you were doing this interview, what three questions would you ask and what would be your answers?

A: Since I am a resident of the Bay Area, I would ask about the job market there, particularly in the eLearning space. Just before Christmas 2002, the market seemed to pick up slightly. There were more writing and instructional design jobs being offered. Unfortunately, though, there is not an abundance of eLearning companies here. If you have your heart set on the industry, you may have to relocate to the East Coast.

Since I have been in a number of different job roles in the eLearning industry, I would ask in what role do I see myself laying roots. Of all of the positions I have held, I prefer instructional design. It is a position in which you see the product develop from the very beginning until the very end, which I really enjoy. It also allows for a lot of creativity and project ownership—two things that are very important to me in any job.

Before beginning an instructional design contract earlier this month, I was out of work for a month and a half. Therefore, I would ask how I found contract work and what I did while I was out of work. Similar to most people out of work, I combed the Internet job boards and newspapers daily. I lost track of how many resumes I sent out a long time ago. But I was very persistent, focused as much as I could on eLearning companies—where I had the most experience, and always tailored my resume to every single job for which I applied. And finally, the hard work paid off. While I wasn’t working, I volunteered at a children’s writing workshop in San Francisco, set up my web site, did some creative writing, traveled, and played a lot of tennis!


Q: It’s a blank slate, what added comments would you like to give to enterprise corporations and organizations?

A: eLearning is a great investment if you promote it from within. It’s relatively inexpensive when compared to more traditional forms of learning and its user drive—users can work at their own pace on their own time wherever they have access to a computer.

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