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January 21, 2011

Checklists and Human Error Reduction: Lessons for Learning Design

The Checklist Manifesto is white hot on the non-fiction bestsellers list. Atul Gawande, the author was promoting the book on the Colbert Report last week, demolishing a myth about Van Halen’s preference to have brown m-n-ms removed from their backstage room bowls. It wasn’t a high maintenance demand, but an item sneaked into a concert prep checklist, which included stage safety. So when the brown MnMs are found in the bowl, it means critical safety checks were eliminated and the stage may collapse unto itself.

Cut to about 10 years ago, as I sat in a Work Study class, as a part of my Industrial Engineering training. Our good hearted professor professed something about checklists that would burn into my mind forever, until the day Atul Gawande sat down for that chat with Colbert. We were taught to avoid checklists in manufacturing settings as they were proven to be condescending. Workers and supervisors found them insulting to their intelligence: something left to life-and-death situations only, like flying an airplane. Curiosity to rediscover a simple and powerful (and maybe pricky) tool led to a rediscovery, which was long due. And surprisingly neither my good hearted professor or Atul Gawande were wrong about checklist. They were just talking about different kinds of checklists.

The checklists most experienced workers would find insulting to their intelligence are read-do kind of checklists, where one would read every step, do it and then move to the next item in the list. There is another kind of checklist -- the do-check kind. Here, there are checkpoints where the worker or team are supposed to stop and check if the preceding steps were done or not. This frees up professionals to keep moving through their tasks without having to pause at every step. It also frees them up from any sequence enforcement, where it is not needed.

Do-Check checklists emphasize an important point about well designed checklists: They are not recipes (although recipes are probably a subset of the checklist universe). Thinking about how do checklists work in complex work situations, is that it is more a collaboration and communication tool, rather than an error prevention tool. Collaboration or Complex Work checklists are success tools, rather than failure prevention tools when the mapping is done to modern day distance and online learning.

In most models of online learning, asynchronous collaboration has some role. Asynchronicity suffers from challenges similar to lack of communication in a synchronous team work. This component of successful distance learning is acknowledged in learning models like the Community of Inquiry Model (Anderson). Social presence is one component to overcome distance and time asynchronicities in collaborative work. Let’s look at an idea of how this may work in a 100% asynchronous course.
Instead of spoon-feeding steps for successful submission of exercises, a check-do checklist will help the student to ensure that it has met the expectations of that specific assignment in terms of content and format.

Read-do checklists are also highly relevant to self-directed learning. We have been using To-Do lists which are Read-Do type checklists to ensure that the necessary learning modules are consumed by a student in a particular order, within a particular time-frame.
For an instructional designer / eLearning specialist, the application of checklists would entail deciding (a) where can checklists eliminate lengthy or un-readable instructions and (b) what kind of checklist is necessary (Read-do vs. Do-check).


Further Reading

1. The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande

2. Theory of Online Learning: Chapter 14: Teaching in an Online Learning Context

Posted by rdivecha at January 21, 2011 11:17 AM

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