The Edutainment Problem

24 September 2021

In this post Garth Gilmour ponders the problem of 'Edutainment' and whether or not trainers need to be entertainers.


Another business year just ended at Instil, plus the calendar year is racing past. So I’m reflecting on another 12 months of virtual-only training.

The big picture is great. Bookings are up. Feedback is great. As an industry we have embraced remote training in the same way we adopted distributed development. Most companies we work with find virtual courses almost as effective as traditional classroom deliveries. The inability to coach in person and have informal chats during breaks is certainly missed. But this is counterbalanced by simplified scheduling, time reclaimed from commutes and the ability to make learning much more asynchronous.

The Problem

That being said one thing scares me, and is the focus of this article. Some months back a very senior educator expressed an opinion to me that we were now in the 'edutainment business'.

Their thesis was that developers today have so many distractions that our job is not just to pass on knowledge, but to deliver it with such pizzazz that students are not tempted to seek diversion elsewhere.

Jim Carrey in The Mask

My immediate reaction to this was not entirely negative since:

  • I’ve always believed that training should be as entertaining as possible. If you’ve been on an Instil course hopefully you noticed we work our butts off to make the process as welcoming and lighthearted as possible. Training is a service industry first and foremost. We’re here to help.
  • The way technical literature is written continues to evolve. I remember the cries of anguish from old school writers, accustomed to the IBM ‘red book’ format, when they were told they needed to be more like O’Reilly. Similarly in the 2010’s I had to adapt to the reality that course manuals are now always consumed online, so printing costs no longer dictate the format.

As such I’m not entirely hostile to the idea of “Edutainment”. But the more I think of it the more my views harden. It needs to be said that:

  • Professional trainers are not professional entertainers. We do the best we can to introduce levity and interaction, but the students need to meet us half way. More can be done over the extended period available in academia, but there are always limits. Note this is equally true in the classroom, it’s just that we worry about it more in a distributed setting.
  • Not all the source material is inspiring. In a polyglot world students are keen to ask questions about languages like Rust, Go and Haskell. This is all well and good. But we are paid to work with the proven technologies that make up the thousands of applications and billions of lines of code in production. A measure of ennui is, and always has been, part of the social contract of being a professional developer.
  • Formal training is only a small part of the overall picture. Preconditions and postconditions need to be managed carefully to get the best results from any form of education. In an ideal world students would be fully briefed on the project they were moving into, the agenda would be perfectly tailored to their needs and mentors would be standing by to take over coaching the moment the delivery ended. In reality there are any number of ‘leaks’ whereby circumstance and commercial realities conspire to inject uncertainty and delay. Once again this is just as much of a concern in the classroom, but home working makes any lapses more self-evident.

The Solution?

Now in my third decade in this industry I reflexively ask if I’m on the wrong side of the debate simply because I’m old. But in this case I’m going to blame my younger colleagues…

Simpsons quote — it’s the children who are wrong

There is definitely a professional responsibility:

  • On trainers to make the material as engaging, accessible, amortised and asynchronous as possible.
  • On managers and mentors to make the journey from induction through training and into a new team as well signposted as possible.

But it is on the individual to maintain their focus in the face of all the other potential distractions. Ultimately there will always be more fun things to do than what your employer asks of you. But at least we get paid, and sometimes there are burritos 😀.

Article By
blog author

Garth Gilmour

Head of Learning