eMedia Develpment Expert
Interview with Randy Coin
by Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P.,
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.
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
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
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
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
- Modular, interactive
text- and graphic-based instructional content
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:
- If you are thinking of
entering content development, keep in mind that it requires a lot of
attention to detail.
- 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
- 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.
- As in all jobs, some
suggestions that you make may be turned down. Don’t let that discourage
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Don’t think you are
confined by text and graphics. Use the medium most appropriate for the
content and the learner.
- Always know for whom you
- 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
- Don’t always assume that
fancier is better. Text and graphics are sufficient for some content and
- 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
- While collaboration online
is more difficult than collaboration in a classroom, don’t discount it.
Mentoring, threaded discussions, and virtual meeting rooms are all
- Reach the broadest audience
by meeting disability (ADA) and industry (SCORM, LRN, AICC) standards.
- Be aware of bandwidth.
Design a product that provides all users—even those with the slowest
Internet connections—with the full learning experience.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.