Thursday, November 22, 2007

Leveraging my own grey matter

I've been having bad few weeks; various influences had put me in a tough spot.

So much so that the first part of this week was spent struggling with a course outline for a new client that should have been ready at the end of last week. Coming up with something that would satisfy the simultaneous demands of the client, my new boss, the improved (more standardised) business processes we are implementing and leave me with mental capacity to spare for home was looking like too much.

A quick chat with a colleague - a recent addition to the company ranks - made a world of difference. Just 30 minutes of chat left me feeling better. The fact that it consequently took just 15 minutes to write a rough overview of the entire course, and just 2 hours to subsequently write a 7 page course outline that I actually feel excited about developing just blew me away (okay, the arrival as I did this of 5 super-sweet layouts from our great GD helped, but still).

It wasn't that my colleague told me what to do, but how to approach the problem.

"This is all wrong," she said taking a look at the template outline I had taken along to show her. "That's not how you think."

Like I say, we are putting in to place new processes so I was trying to use the new standard outline document. I'd looked at the required content, lifted the structure the client had used, mapped their learning outcomes against sections and then... and then...

Every angle I looked at was functional and dull. Not through any fault of the client or the system, but because try as I might, using this approach all I could do was to take facts and say "this goes here and this goes here" and what I was left with was a series of facts and what the learner would get would be the same series of facts. BooorrRRING!

Worse than that, I wasn't in possession of the full facts - we're still in the period where the client is fact gathering. Every blank space left me in a panic. I was immobilised.

"You don't need to know," was my colleague's zen-like reply when I appealed to her to tell me how I was to reconcile not knowing the information with writing the plan.

"How would you write this?" she asked me after I let slip that this sort of thing (corporate induction in the public sector) was exactly what my first training job was. After a long pause, I conceded that I didn't know. I'd forgotten.

"But it was easy then - I was the SME!" I protested.

"Exactly. You know this so it should be easy for you now. How would you do it?"

So I started to say how I would train people - without any thought on the detail of the content. Things started to come thick and fast. "Good, you could probably write most of this course without knowing anything." I didn't believe her.

She went on to explain that she feels I tend to be more free-thinking and creative insofar as when I'm thinking my thoughts race off and diverge. Where I was going wrong was that in sitting with the highly structured document template in front of me I was trying to force my brain in to a mode that didn't suit me.

She went on to describe how what I needed to do was embrace my brain's desire to think wildly and only once it had stretched it legs, refine the results in an organised way. The other key point was that she said I HAD to limit the creative time or else I would spend forever thinking.

So I did. I went upstairs and got out my lovely new mindmapping pens and the unlined pad that I had put together having seen my colleague's similar set up. I put some soothing music to power my thinking and set the alarm on my watch.

Within minutes I had sketched out a plan that rolled from theme to theme in a coherent fashion, carried the learner along a path that was structured and built on each point. It clicked buttons the client wanted to hit, linked in themes and objectives. It used the learning principles I had been so conscious of missing in the earlier attempts. It felt good and in my mind I can see how it will look.

What's more, it covered everything they'd asked for, and more, and has the capacity to absorb the inevitable bits and pieces that will need to go in as everyone thinks again about what to include now that a concrete plan is coming together.

It's not going to be an award winner, but it feels right. But for me the best thing is the way it developed. The results have left me buzzing since. I like my job again. My colleague rocks.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A seal of approval for wikis

The venerable RSA, the UK Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (how'd they fit all that in to 'A'?) has endorsed the use of wikis, according to a press releasey email from Wikispaces. Their initiative is launched under the zeitgeisty sounding OpenRSA. What's more, it all started courtesy of the current belle of the ball:
OpenRSA started as a Facebook group - now with 340 members - after a get-together of about 15 people.

It seems the wiki is working out well:
Participants in events can add their reports, we can embed video, and also take in a
feed from the chief executive of the RSA, Matthew Taylor.

One day all organisations will see and harness the levelling power of wikis as shared workspaces.

Welcome to the party GIMP 2.4!

The GIMP, the brilliant open source graphics package, 43rd most useful elearning tool on Jane's list, has hit 2.4.

It's a good upgrade too. Improvements to the appearance are only the most superficial (but it is a lot prettier). The selection tools, arguably the most frequently used, have been radically improved with drag handles making getting exactly what you're after much easier. The context menus for many of the tools have been improved meaning that greater options are on hand.

If you, like me, are a non-graphics kinda person who can't justify the expense of PhotoShop, but who nonetheless needs to occasionally tweak images with a little more precision than Office Image Manager or MS Paint allow, GIMP will help you.

Download it here.

(Darn it, I can't begin to convey how excited this made me!)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Been caught napping

I've become something of the "rapid" specialist of late.

We have managed to show a client that for their needs rapid development tools like Articulate are what they need to be able to produce quick turnarounds on material that is mostly about presentation (product training) and liable to last minute changes (their industry constantly shifts).

The lightbulb moment has been particularly gratifying since I have thought that they would be better off like this for some time. I'm not a big fan of page turning elearning (who is?) but I'm even less a fan of taking up time to produce page-turning elearning when tools like Articulate and PointeCast allow reasonable results in comparatively little time.

I have subsequently been drafted in to produce other product training type elearning for some other clients of the same salesperson, so pleased have the first clients been with the results. As a result I am getting more and more familiar with the tools and finding ever more interesting things you can do (the Articulate demo piece where it is possible to edit a wiki in a window in a course is quite neat - interesting to see if our developers would match that as easily!)

Yesterday I chatted through what was possible with my new boss. He was impressed by what he saw. Tools like this have until now passed him by (it's not really anything his clients have asked him for). I think pretty quickly understood the challenge that faces companies like us in maintaining value in our bespoke development when off-the-shelf products like those I'm using can give such results for so little labour.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Kirkpatrick - misunderstood again

Acres of screen and print pages have been given over to the relevance or otherwise of Kirkpatrick's model of evaluation. Indeed, so much time seems to be spent critiquing it in the training press that it is easy to assume that everyone knows it, and from the number of voices lined up for and against, that everyone understands it.

Today a colleague received a request to make sure the course he was working on featured Kirkpatrick analysis.

'Well, we can do a "happy sheet" and intra/post course testing,' was the group reply, in an attempt to crudely match the good doctor's schema.

But no! The client wanted a survey at the end of the course that addressed all four levels of Kirkpatrick in one go:
  • what do you think of this training course?
  • have you learnt what you need to know?
  • will you change your behaviour as a result of this course?
  • do you think your performance will improve?
Now, I'm not sure of the background of this particular client, and I have no idea if they are in a training department or not, but someone, somewhere has only made the most cursory glance at the literature here. I think we'll be working with them a little more to straighten this out.

Perhaps, sadly, what it made me think about was just how out of the loop I am when it comes to the whole training cycle. For our clients we are simply a means to an end - nothing more than the design phase of the training - so I never get to learn how the training went down; I never get any learner feedback or statistics.

I used to enjoy the thrill of sorting through the post course sheets (back when I was a classroom trainer) looking for comments (instead of a straight row of satisfactory ticks) and trying to implement changes for the next time to get better. Or the nervous feeling of awaiting the six-month peer review. Still, being an elearning guy now does have its benefit - no more bloody business hotels...

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

GetOut of My Space!

The Times ran a short piece in last week's Public Agenda section reporting that the Times HES says that under-graduate students are rejecting attempts by tutors to colonise spaces such as YouTube and MySpace.

According to a poll by Ipsos MORI:
students regard the virtual worlds as a place for entertainment, socialising and information-gathering.

This doesn't really surprise me - the idea of getting a tutor's mugshot on my friends list on FaceBook is as cheesy and toe curling as the supply teacher using "street slang" in an attempt to get down with the kids.

Of course, this runs contrary to another report a few weeks ago in the Gruaniad, and picked up by Donald Clark, stating that an MIT lecturer's iPod videos are doing a roaring trade. I suspect the difference is that, as Donald says, his are quite excellent examples and are being picked up by all comers, rather than the rather tatty, droning automaton working in the local FE college who is looking to fill his/her evenings by starting online relationships with their students...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

OpenOffice Impress - a rapid tool?

The open source movement supports pretty much all we have to offer. It is entirely possible to create blogs, wikis, elearning courseware and even LMSs for free.

To design your projects you can replace Adobe with a range of sophisticated desktop apps such as GIMP, Nvu/Kompozer, Inkscape, Audacity and so on. If you aren't entirely ready to leap on line for your documentation handling courtesy of the likes of Google Docs, you have one very powerful option, OpenOffice.

I've just noticed that OpenOffice Impress, the counterpart to the well used 'authoring tool' PowerPoint, has the option to output to Flash directly. has anyone used that feature? How easily can this be "SCORMed"? Anyone tried that?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Facebook - a group for us, and thoughts on its value

While I'm still not sure how, or indeed why, Facebook could or should be turned to educational purposes, I'm still interested to see if it can.

To that end I've joined Elizabeth Murphy's 'Facebook as a learning tool' group. There's some discussion on there with most people arguing that it can be put to good use. However, the one comment that has struck me came from Nicole Cargill-Kipar who says:
Perhaps, then, the question is if we actually want to encroach into the students' social spaces.
Quite so. Does every new space have to be bent to elearning's needs?

Of course, this approach comes from the Education sector. I've more experience of the corporate space. I would feel uncomfortable, both as a manager and as a user, using Facebook as a networking space bringing together my personal and private lives. After all, one of the great joys of FB is having it unearth people you had long since lost touch with, wherever they are (I've had two such people contact me in just the last 3 days), but I'm not sure that I want to be linking these same people with the folk who sit at the next cubicle at work.

But what if corporate intranets used the same approach to building online relationships organically? Of course, this would really only work in large organisations - in my own company for example I don't think it would be make much sense - I'd have achieved all my meeting and greeting pretty much by the end of the second day.

But it's in this larger corporate sense that I could really see the social networking model having value as a place for informal learning and discussion. For example you could post queries to your friends, much as you might in person anyway, but you wouldn't have to open yourself up to the entire organisation, as you might on an open forum. Your time meeting other new inductees would bear fruit for much longer than those first few days.

I'm still not sure that I see how content would be pushed via the FB model, but as a place to share learning, I can really see how the model has benefits, even if FB itself may not be the place to do that.

Shifting up a gear and getting rapid

At my company we are finally beginning to see a shift towards calls for rapid elearning options coming from our clients, or other clients being won over by what we show them we can offer to speed up their turnaround if they adopt rapid tools for certain parts of their output.

This is all to the good. The pressure cooker of bespoke development does no-one any good if the basic situation is that content cannot be finalised until only days before the final rollout of training is required. It even less useful if the content is apt to change AFTER the training begins, as it does with one company we work with. Collating changes, forwarding them to developers, testing the results, getting sign off, LMS testing and finally integration can ome in days after we might otherwise fire up PowerPoint, tweak the offending content, distribute for sign off and publish to SCORM output. Its a no-brainer.

By far the most convenient approach for us in these circumstances is the tried-and-tested PowerPoint to Flash route (Breeze, Articulate, PointeCast et al) as it allows the SMEs, mostly experienced classroom trainers beside their elearning roles, to get on with collating and editing content, while we can help by ensuring standard appearances and the optimum use of the tricks and workarounds that disguise the output's humble origins.

This approach is increasingly becoming attractive for dealing with that part of elearning that we do where we are dealing with straightforward knowledge transfer - performing the function that a memo may have done in the past, but with the trackability afforded by an LMS. This is not what I would hold up as a shining example of the benefits of elearning, but some clients feel it necessary and for them it is a huge advantage. I suspect that if many elearning practitioners are honest, they'll admit that they've seen this before - after all, it comes out of the same place as much of the compliance work that forms a huge part of the demand for elearning in the corporate environment.

I'm pleased as this allows our clients time to lift their heads up from the worry of gathering content that in the grand scheme of things is ephemeral, and instead they can begin to focus on that sort of content that makes for real benefit for their learners - and by cutting time on what is really, in terms of the final outcome, the 'little stuff', they are able to free budget to tackle the 'good stuff'. And that's a win all round.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Facebook? How? Why?

I've been out of the loop for a while. Partly because I've been busy, but partly because, inspired by Drew Meyers, I joined Facebook a few weeks ago - after all, who could resist a line like "How Facebook is completely changing the internet."

I wasn't alone. About the same time about a dozen of my close friends (not distant acquaintances, people I speak/write to at least weekly) were doing the same thing. Ever since I have had a steady stream of people getting in touch. Quite simply, it's amazing.

In the same way I had a "Road to Damascus" conversion to blogging last year, I can now see that the idea of so-net software could have huge benefits in the corporate environment - the idea of being able to gently broadcast ideas (instead of forcing the point in email, or hiding them away in forums) , share apps (I'm thinking how you could set training courses up) or simply get to know colleagues in different places. Like blogging, so-net software's ability to create spaces for communication, rather than sterile channels like mail and IM, makes it easy to find new ways to find and create value in thought.

What I'm less certain about is the idea that Facebook itself is the ideal place to do this (or here or here). Maybe it's a cultural thing (most of the folks saying these things are American) but I'm to be convinced on the value/desirability of merging social and private lives in this way. Work/life balance is a tough enough gig anyway, without having the walls removed entirely in your on-line life.

Maybe I'm missing a trick, but the idea that what I emote on a Sunday morning after a night on the sauce with friends will be visible by the MD (if I can get him to accept my friendship invitation that is) does not fill me with warmth. Equally, the idea that I should self-censor in order to avoid trouble is equally worrying.

One thought I can't help but think: if there is ever to be a tangible "PLE" I think it will bear a simple blue and white logo in the top right - and I'll be sharing it with people that I haven't seen since school.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Cogitating cognition

It's strange, but every time I read anything about cognitive load it seems to be in a pure, old-fashioned, "words on a page" kind of context. Really dense, heavy words on a page*, like those in this rather interesting article by John Sweller.

It interests me as I have been evaluating the work that I and colleagues have been producing to see how I can get better results out of our development team. In thinking about scripting challenges I also had a chance to consider my thoughts on how to structure pages - I feel cheated if I can read everything quickly and easily - it's almost as if I want to struggle! So, I favour pages that are quite busy - not complex for the sake of it, but I try to use the space to ensure lots of information is on hand, if not actually presented all the time.

But this is odd as it directly contrasts with my prime love - cutting the BS out of training waffle. I come to ID from a background in classroom training, mainly in "Business Language" use (strange term - not sure what it means) and I get quite lively in arguments about use of the passive voice, inappropriate deployment of the reflexive pronoun in place of the object pronoun and my despair for the souls of those who misuse the apostrophe.

However, it was the same job (and CIPD training route) where I learnt my trade that led me to acquire faith in a variety of unchallenged assumptions: great hoary legends like the progression from seeing to teaching graph (Donald Clark enjoys ripping in to such things). Amongst that there were approaches to designing learning that were handed down and received without challenge (I was just starting).

So my quandry has been, while there may be nothing I enjoy more than hacking a draft script down by 20, 30 or 50 % and presenting something clean to a client, if my aim is to simplify the words, am I undoing all the good by unthinkingly building pages that may distract? That's what I needed to work out.

Recent posts by various people have prompted me to spend more time reading than writing (hence my recent quietness) as I try to find evidence based guidance on developing training materials.

So it is that I come to be reading densely packed text as I am trying to get back to the source - and in the most part it means academic papers.

Quite serendipitously a mail in my inbox led me to unearth this little treasure trove of papers on the subject from several authors, but mostly Sweller - I haven't had time to read all the works, test the URLs for authenticity or cross-reference other authors, but they seem sound. At the bottom of the page I've even noticed links to Meyer and Clark, who were the stars of a post by Clive Shepherd that started me off on my learning trip, so it may be even more useful.

* Not that I'm making anything of this you understand: from what I gather - the cognitive impact of dense text in this academic setting is offset by the lack of other distractions - thankfully I'm not trying to relate it to extraneous diagrams or a word for word narration. And anyway, academia has its own style and conventions - wordiness mostly (and yes, I'm guilty of that one too, but this is my blog, not learning copy).

Thursday, May 10, 2007

TED launches a new super encyclopedia

Not sure whether this is directly related to the view that Wikipedia is not the greatest thing ever, one of the founders described it as "broken beyond repair" (sorry, I can't remember where I read that), but a new on-line super encyclopaedia focusing on the creatures of the earth is to be launched.

Anyway, this is from the press release:

Many of the world’s leading scientific institutions today announced the launch of the Encyclopedia of Life, an unprecedented global effort to document all 1.8 million named species of animals, plants, and other forms of life on Earth. For the first time in the history of the planet, scientists, students, and citizens will have multi-media access to all known living species, even those that have just been discovered.

The big difference with this EoL and Wikipedia, other than the focussed remit, is that, in the interests of accuracy, this won't be a wiki but an expert authored resource, albeit with a larger number of experts than might have been the case in the past. In this fashion it hopes to avoid the damage to reputation that the unscrupulous "false" editors have wrought upon Wikipedia. Is this tacit recognition of the problems with wikis? That they allow anyone, credible or not, to "interfere" with the efforts of genuine experts?

Whatever the case, I think that this will be a great resource for learning that truly rocks. It's not actually up and running yet - it was only first discussed in March, but some mock-ups are available. Have a look at the Encyclopaedia of Life here.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Cheating Rocks!

I have a small boy who is just entering the education system at the moment. The schooling he is getting seems comfortingly familiar but then he's only four - things at this end of the learning scale have changed much in, well, centuries (for those that got it at least): a bit of painting, holding pencils, building blocks and jugs of sand or water. Playing Rocks, right?

Like all parents I wonder about the quality of the education he'll receive, whether the school will be well funded and the other pupils a help or a hindrance - unlike most in the UK I get worried about moving him into a foreign system and whether one or the other would be better (if China was the alternative, that might well be the conclusion). The last thing I need to be worrying about is whether the fundamental approach to his education is right.

Karl Kapp has a great article here that shows just how out of date school thinking is becoming. The skills taught in schools (passing exams) are not those skills that people need to succeed today.

Redefining elearning

Spurred on by one of those emails that "does the rounds" I tried to come up with a few alternative definitions for aspects of our business. The rules are add, take away or change one letter.

SCORN compliant
what some rapid elearning has to be to get past militant LMS managers.

a point of view, especially prevalent in sales people, pushers of LMSs and IT folk that online training is the panacea for all ills.

rabid elearning
too much course based elearning written in PowerPoint causes learners to foam at the mouth and bite people.

how a poorly designed user interface can short circuit a user's brain.

a click-here, do-this activity that causes learners to respond in ways not anticipated - like throw their mouse away in frustration.

and here's one for devotees of ILT:

SCONE compliant
what a classroom course must be to make way for a really satisfying afternoon snack.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Aha! #2 Practicing what we preach

For me, the revelations are far from over. The elearning bloggers are all very much walking the walking the walk.

Hot on the heels of the eLearning Guild event in Boston, indeed as a result of a meeting there, Clive Shepherd has kicked off an interesting experiment in collaborative working - the elearning SME 30 minute masters.

So far it has been a few tentative tweaks to Clive's original effort - I suspect most people are cautious about wading in and doing anything that may seem to contradict the the very point of the course. I've thrown one comment in and am contemplating opening up some more pages to start populating ideas for content, but I haven't just yet...

However, in having this team of elearning professionals come together in this way, it is in the spirit of Tom Haskins article here about educators practising what they preach and the absurdity of the notion of a formal qualification in informal learning.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Social Learning - my Aha! moment

I really like this diagram by Clark Quinn that tries to summarise the relative value of various elearning tools. I find it quite a good illustration of where most organisations that are new to elearning go wrong - almost all their initial investment will be in the bottom left corner. And that is hardly likely to get the big leaps in performance that they will have/have been promised.

But what it really did was make me think about social learning. I've never really been sure about the actual learning benefits of all the social learning hype, yet here it is represented as the middle of this diagram (almost a z-axis?).

Thinking more about it I was struck by something. A group of people I've never met gathered in a city I've never been to discuss a series of pretty obscure topics that weren't in anyway picked up by the mass media. And I learnt from it.

In entries by Cammy Bean, Clive Shepherd, Stephen Downes, Tony Karrer and Brent Schenkler and the whole PLE meme that spread about over the weekend I got a significant portion of the benefit of actually attending at least a part of the eLearning Guild Conference.

Thanks to blogging I have learnt simply because the conference happened. If that doesn't rock, nothing does.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Personal Learning - Corporate Environment

So far at work I've managed to avoid mentioning the TLA "PLE", mostly to avoid the blank stares and potential ostracism. However, the blogs often come back to the subject and this description, by Michelle at Bamboo Project is about the best description of how it works I've found.

For me, the most important technological component in all this is RSS, really simple syndication, the bit that makes the blogs work and what feeds my Google homepage - the start of my own PLE.

While in a really great meeting at a client this week where someone from one part of the business challenged someone from another part to come up with some new approaches it became apparent that what was wanted was a variety of presentations of the same material so learners could choose their method of learning: podcasts, video, micro-training - anything but another page-turner.

The problem was that to use the LMS to distribute all these different versions of the same thing would be a mess. I suggested RSS allowing learners to pick and choose the subject areas or formats they prefer - it fell on deaf ears - if it can't be tracked and reported on in the LMS they weren't so interested.

Does anyone out there know of an instance of RSS making it in to the L&D strategy for a large corporation? I'd love to know so I could help these guys get the solution that suits them best, and examples of people like them getting the learning right would really help.

Friday, April 06, 2007

TED's back

Not too long ago I posted on the subject of the TED Talks - a lecture series given by some of the the most eloqent speakers in the world on subjects as diverse as education, economics, engineering and ecology. These short videos are for me a great example of the very best of the free, wide ranging teaching available out on the web.

The good news is that they are back. TED 2007 took place in early March so the videos are starting to appear, beginning with the winners of this year's awards: Bill Clinton, E O Wilson and James Nachtwey. And they are available in a hi-res 480p format.

Brilliant stuff.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

What goes unsaid

I read the elearning blogs and I feel I am learning a lot and I am.

I'm learning about people's beliefs and hopes and ideas. About what inspires them.

What I'm not learning about is what people do.

There is a strange gap in the elearning world, and it's as true of the print media as it is of the online world. Read a blog, pick up a magazine, attend seminars and while there is plenty about ideas and theories on how we need to create "experiences" and be moving to game based learning, there is absolutely no indication of when and how such approaches are to be selected - after all, if we are to be subtle and nuanced in handling our learners' needs then it is important that we recognise the strengths and weaknesses of these new ways of thinking and apply them when necessary. One way would be to offer concrete examples of how a new product launch could be given an "experience" (oh, it is, by the guys in marketing). But this never seems to happen. The stats are wheeled out, research is mentioned, but what we might do with this knowledge is never really discussed.

Sure, I know the US Army used a simulator that was actually released as a game, and there are some games that allow in-depth exploration of life at the top of the corporate ladder. And I can understand how that might come to be - both are realms awash with dollars so they can afford the time and money.

But does anyone ever venture to suggest how game based learning might be brought to bear on the worthy but dull subject of the Age Discrimination Act, or how to make an "experience" of the introduction of the new Somi Nokisson 1234x super phone? No.

Sure, I have ideas of how that might be achieved. But on a budget of a couple of grand and week or three and 20 minutes of learner time, tops?

Trust me, I'm all for ditching LMSs and trying to trust in the learner, but the practical realities are that its not going to happen. The secret shaded working lives of these voices does nothing to illuminate the cloudy future for the rest of us either.

Compare it to programming magazines and journals, or design sites that examine the techniques and secrets of pin-up pros, perhaps with appraisal of their work, or step-by-steps to getting the same effect.

Then look at the good examples of elearning 2.0 on the net. They are short presentations with (or without) audio driven from YouTube and cobbled together in a rapid dev tool and blogs. Hardly ground breaking, but for me it has been a worthwhile learning event.

What seems to be missing from the discussion of all this is people going "yeah, and we got learners to understand how to recognise fraud by doing x, y and z." I've yet to find an "experience" on line telling me how to be better as a learning designer. Every one wants to tell the world what the future is without actually showing anyone else. And as we all should know, showing would trump telling - actually getting us involved would seal the deal.

Unless it is that I'm missing the point. As a wordy liking, self-motivated learner perhaps I have already created my own "experience". Brilliant. But hardly the kind of approach that will get through to the call centre operative who just wants to answer the phones till 5.30 then get outside to his or her car and go home.

I guess that this is the sort of thinking that the people who proclaim a new world of learning want to hear - I'm in touch with a new market for their thinking and they can come and poach it. But the fact is while the voices of the future speak in vapid marketing hyperbole without any substance that will allow their clients (or their competitors and that's probably the point) to actually conceptualise what it is they are on about, short rapid learning driven courses (that hated word) are going to continue.

Oh, and I purposely haven't linked to anyone else here as I'm sure that would not be a way to win and influence.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

What to track?

Something that I often struggle with when I'm dealing with clients is "what is it you want to record about this learning event?"

All these companies have spent large sums of money on their expensive LMSs and are spending not inconsiderable sums of money, usually with the company I work for, on creating "courses" of elearning for their staff.

Part and parcel of their specifications is typically a locked down navigation that forces the learner through a linear learning route - exactly the sort of thing that Donald Clark pours cold water on here and vexes Cammy at Learning Visions.

From this they are able to get stats on time spent elearning, who has completed what and a whole host of stats that, at the end of it tell them nothing at all about how the behaviour of the learner has changed as a result of the training. With compliance training this is basically the point - how much diversity training is delivered online for example, despite the fact that diversity training is by and large discredited (such as in this paper).

The emphasis is on what the training has said, not on what the learner will do. I see this in some of the material I'm given where learning objectives begin "By the end of this training you will have learnt..." instead of " will be able to..."

One "problem" with elearning as it is reported to me is that learners just take the assessment without doing the learning. My natural reaction is to say "So what? Let 'em." (Though naturally I bite my tongue!) If the learner does that and passes then they have saved themselves 20-60 minutes of their life (I only do short courses).

If on the other hand they fail, then that is not the fault of the elearning - it's the fault of the learner for not having prepared themselves properly. If they don't seek to rectify it and try again, this is not a reason to force all learners to sit through a sluggish course that has unnecessary usability constraints - it's a disciplinary/performance management issue. After all, if a company sends a delegate to a classroom based course and they don't show up, or come in, fail the exam and go home, it wouldn't be long to expect that person to be having a "chat" with the boss or HR...

So I would argue that the only thing that need be tracked is the assessment and let everything else go - effort would be better spent in designing learning resources that are useful and appropriate as job aids, reference works, neat little broadcasts to keep people up to date and support informal learning rather than hamstrung mandated learning that no-one enjoys.

Access more knowledge

With the recent list of the world's top five brands revealing elearning to be a big benefactor from the work of those companies, I thought it worth mentioning this post on how to get the most out of Google, arguably the most important of the list to our subject.

Google never ceases to amaze me. I'm happy to admit I am one of the dozy users who just splats three words associated with my subject of research and goes with it. At least I usually make a point of jumping about four pages in to the list, but I'm hardly sophisticated. Actually, I'm still buzzing over the fact you can type calculations straight in to the search bar, or type "define" before a word to get a definition of it.

It's a global player that it is genuinely hard not to like - all the others, the Microsofts, Walmarts, Fords, BPs, BAs, the list goes on; these guys can from time to time leave a sour taste in the mouth, and though the whole "agreement with the Chinese authorities" thing may not be their finest hour, Google still shine.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Overshadowed by marketing

I work closely with the training department of a large company in the communications sector. A highly competitive industry, new products and services are like sand - constantly shifting and rearranging. The best training can hope to achieve is take a nice snap shot and package up that for release to the people out there selling and supporting the offerings.

The constant shifting and changing presents training with a huge problem when it comes to their elearning. In order to get it as accurately aligned as they can to the final release they have to leave it late - something that is easily achieved as the project team often give the training fairly low priority. If they try to get an early start on anything the effort stands a good chance of being wasted as the content moves.

In the event that the project team do not co-operate on developing the material the chance of training successfully lobbying to get a project rollout held back until the training is ready is slim.

You can bet the house, however, that if the guys in marketing haven't got their glossy brochures together to sell this to the punters, there would be no problem holding product off.

In this I am reminded of a recent post on Passionate Users. It's not that I wish to suggest that these guys are the kind of company to figuratively "flick the bird" at its customers - actually, I know that they don't being a fairly satisfied customer of theirs - but I do think it is a sad and probably all too often repeated scenario where training is the poor cousin to the big boys (and gals) in marketing, and in the push to market the needs of the signed up customer are secondary to those of the new, as yet untapped, opportunity.

Friday, March 02, 2007

In praise of page turners

Bane of learners' elearning experiences?

Not if they looked like this!

All that programming effort to produce a (gorgeous) 2D simulation of a £5 magazine. But imagine what this would look like on a tablet or an interactive whiteboard (like they have in my son's class at nursery!).

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Learning Visions: The Learning Show

Learning Visions: The Learning Show

I was looking out for new voices in elearning and found another fan of Will Thalheimer. I was especially struck by this part of Cammy's response to Will's Learning Show on forgetting:

I cringe thinking about the amount of material I've tried to cram into a course -- because that's what the client told me they wanted.

Which is EXACTLY how I feel about certain courses I've worked on, and where I've pushed down my better judgement to match what the client wanted...

Oh God - the bit of my job I like and it's a dead end!

I have to admit, I'm in the middle of the possibly the worst week of my life. I'm mean really, it's been, well, dreadful. As one of my clients, for whom everything seemed to be going wrong, put it "it's not like anyone died," but frankly it's not much consolation.

The fact is, I hate project management. I love ID. Unfortunately for me, in my organisation the IDs do the PM. So I have half a job I love and half a job I loath. Nevermind.

So to come to my Google homepage, follow a couple of links (this one, and then this one) and then read Brent Schlenker saying this:

DIY is killing ISD to discover that the bit I like is, well, if not laid out cold on a slab, at least lying bleeding in the gutter clutching a mortal wound. Bugger. That ruined my evening. Or at least it might have done if not for the comment a few lines lower on that entry.

Well, it would have ruined my evening if not for the fact I realised that ID is going to suffer a glorious, hammy strung out "luvvey" death complete with multiple last gasps and dying speeches. What we in the elearning blogosphere (they're in where the air is thick - out here it's a bit difficult to breathe - I feel faint...) can easily forget is that the percentage of learners who can penetrate the technology to go fully DIY is still very thin. And for all the spectacular growth in blogs, wiki, 'casting, blah... there are still huge numbers of people for whom learning is a gross imposition on their time, or the idea of actually consciously making an effort to find something out with a computer is crazy talk.

And for them, I'm patiently waiting with a cleverly designed little something to help them see the light.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Blogging - a maze in learning

For ages I've been meaning to write about how the blogoshpere (sorry, it would appear my fingers have been drinking) is conducive to the best learning I've experienced in years. In particular, I've benefited from setting up my own Google homepage and following the thinking of people that have impressed me when I read their work.

This followed a call to action by a colleague seeking blogs he could add to his Google homepage. I've since added a handful of other tabs and this has meant that for me the act of firing up my web browser has become an act of learning. Which is what I like.

A great example of how this offers itself as a great method for learning can be seen in this exchange:
Clive Shepherd, English e-learning figure of note, wrote in his blog about a seminar he attended with a neuroscientist called Dr Itiel Dror, of Southampton University. I'm all for listen to the experts on matters of the brain, for as I have said in earlier posts, all too often the L&D industry/media seems to rely on pat received wisdom (to the ire of people like Will Thalheimer). The entry is interesting, but did seem to have one or two things in it that I wasn't sure about.

This was picked up by Steven Downes, pre-eminent e-learning blogger from Canada, and dissected in a fairly visceral fashion. Downes really knows his stuff, or at least gives the impression of knowing it, and the result was, for me as a learner, a better understanding of the relaionship of the brain to learning, and more importantly, the relationship of both to me as a learning designer.

But here's the real Learning Rocks moment: Clive picked up on this and whacked it on his blog. So it shows that he is engaging with the critique, he'll have learnt something from it; his readers (like me) will have gotten something out of it; arguably Steven will have gained something from engaging with it. So we have a triple win here.


All politicians should be made to read this

I stumbled across this, in a link buried in someone else's blog. Isaac Asimov no less, showing the basis of the idea of multiple intelligences argued in so very cleanly a fashion that there is no need to read Gardner - it is abundantly clear from this piece alone.

I can't help but think that the morons who dismantled all the non-academic channels of learning in English FE teaching and decided that everyone needs a university education might also have benefited from it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Herd learning - I'm a sheep

I don't mind admitting it. I saw a really good article on Donald Clarke's blog about how he'd been looking at on-line video as a great learning resource. I was still heartily banging on about the wonders of Wikipedia to anyone that would listen (actually, I still am).

Mysteriously, within days other British based learning technologist blogs were also miraculously singing the praises of YouTube learning. I noticed this apparent synergy because so many of these blogs appear side by side on my Google homepage reader.

So off I went and followed Donald's lead. And blow me if he wasn't damn right. I already shouted out his main link, TED Talks, as a great source, but this one is more partisan. I don't mind saying that I like this one as it looks at the big questions of the day - questions far bigger than elearning anyway. Check out Meaning of Live TV. Oh, for the record, the interviewer, Robert Wright, is a speaker at TED and I found this site via his entry on, yep, Wikipedia.

I have been learning a lot this weekend, but the main thing is that, if I didn't have a wife who loves TV, there would be no need for a TV in this house. Not with this stuff out there for free.

TED talks a lot of sense

There are those that equate the classroom lecture with the lowest form of learning. I beg to differ.

There is something special about seeing an expert in their field stand up and speak on a subject that is important to them that transcends all other forms of learning. You can connect with the passion that they feel for a subject and get a genuine sense for what it is that excites them. This goes far beyond the fairly simplistic "push" of knowledge that people offer by way of critique of lectures.

Instead, the feelings of excitement and involvement that an expert brings to a subject inspires you to "pull" out the messages they carry.

The TEDTalks website offers a view and opportunity to learn from people at the very head of their field. An annual gathering of 1000 of the world's top thinkers, at $4400 a seat, the TEDTalks are probably the greatest gathering of brilliance in the world. One day I might dream of being able to attend (it's an invitation only affair so I need to start networking now...) but in the meantime I will follow the speakers on the website.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Learning shock - go to bed!

According to a report on the BBC website, researchers at Princeton have revealed that depriving mice of sleep caused the production of new brain cells to cease until well after normal sleep patterns had returned (actually, how do you stop a mouse sleeping for 72 hours?)

It does state that the research can't necessarily be assumed to hold true for people, but given that lack of sleep caused a rise in stress levels, and, anecdotally, people who get more sleep tend to feel less stressed (cause or effect?), it's not unreasonable to guess that it may well apply to us too.

So my late night TEDTalk viewing sessions may well have been counter-productive!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

PowerPoint's forgotten powers

In the rush to embrace rapid elearning, one tool and its potential value is easily overlooked - PowerPoint.

Rapid authoring tools (RATs) like Presenter and PointeCast hoover in your slideshows and, with a little bit of dressing up, spit out LMS friendly broadcast shows. In the main these are suited to low level tasks like broadcasting new services or products - where content simply needs to be made available and tracked. This is the beauty of using PowerPoint. The author/SME is using something they are happy with and a neat master slide can (if they know how to use it) lead to something that is at least passable.

But PowerPoint can be more (or less?) than that. In the rush to use PowerPoint to author this low grade elearning* it is easy to overlook its other values. It can be a very useful way of allowing SMEs to write their scripts:
  • it forces them to think about layout (and thus stopping them grouping content too densely)
  • as a slide show it allows them the opportunity to view the content in a way that is likely to match more closely the output - of particular use where you have screen shy stakeholders (what? you don't?)
  • the notes and comments facilities allow them to place comments where they are meaningful, without interrupting the flow of the content, as Word content might.
  • templates and copy/paste functions mean it is easy to add panels for management
  • it relates to Word and the rest of Office in a way that makes producing other forms of output a "doddle", and of course it is ubiquitous.
  • you can even demonstrate and mock up with graphics and animations, or even use the magic of one of the RATs to throw up a work in progress.
Okay, so it still doesn't help with the ID, but then, that's my job. But commenting and replying is straightforward too, and throwing lots of comments in doesn't disrupt the flow of existing content.

Criticisms? Sure, it's clumsy and is predicated on linearity. But that is not insurmountable - in fact it works quite well to use hyperlinks if needed. And by calling on a tool that already looks half way to poor page-turning elearning, there is a danger it may encourage that, but let's not blame PowerPoint for that happening.

We don't work like this, but my experience of doing so with one client is making me rethink the whole thing.

*why "low grade"? Well, all my careful interactions are pruned out by my tool of (someone else's) choice, PointeCast. If I ever resolve the problem, I will rethink my position, but for now I see these mostly as tracked slideshows.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Reliable sources

Following on from the points I made in my last post about Will's quiz and the need to have verifiable data to back up our theories, I have to mention another site I found, Infed.

Unlike Wikipedia, great though it is, this is a small site that has a finite number of admin/contributors. The style of the articles is thus far more individual and human and without the waffle that the old NPOV tends to engender. I can't remember what I was looking up - cyclical learning or something like that - but what I found at this site was neat, scholarly summation of facts on key elements of informal learning.

More than that, it's a beautiful, elegant site. Simple, text-based and very fast to use, it is a nice example of the kind of resource that I wish I could find time to use more often. Even the images they use are a bonus. I'm a little surprised to see that it dates as far back as '95, so I'm sorry that I've taken this long to find it.

If I had a single criticism it is that is not the easiest place to find a way to browse - the front page is so clean, with only the barest minimum of links that you need really to have something in mind to look for as grabbing topics of the shelf isn't as easy as, say, Wikipedia...

Friday, February 02, 2007

Will's big quiz

Will Thalheimer (PhD no less) is the author of one of the blogs I like to go to hear actual serious debate of many of the "truths" that inform the L&D world.

When I began life as a trainer I was struck by the wealth of knowledge that seemed to be out there that, if only people knew about it, could revolutionise the way learners took in new knowledge. There was lots of writing here there and everywhere that came up with the same ideas so that learning to be a trainer seemed to be a rote process of taking on board the received wisdom and spouting it appropriately.

But what struck me about a lot of the magazine articles in particular is that much of the content was stated as a given - there never seemed to be any in depth discussion of the basis. But in my naivety and eagerness I ignored these concerns and got on with what I was doing.

But as I got more into it and discovered things like the debunking of learning styles (Wikipedia put me on to that - bless its NPOV) I found my way to people lilke Will, who actually go out there and try to find the basis for many of the claims L&D people seem to make.

So that's why Will's quiz is worth doing - it forms part of the research that he does, and he says that he publishes the results later, as well as being enlightening in itself. On the basis of the quiz I even went as far as to buy a couple of papaers of his. They're good and I may even stump up for one of the big expensive ones on the strength of it.

What's the quiz about? It's 15 questions pitched at elearning professionals that pose scenarios for you to consider (I suspect that they are "simulation type" questions that form the basis of one of Will's papers). You don't get to see your results, but you do get feedback to compare to what you said and it's this feedback that makes the process more than usually worthwhile.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Learning: a case study

I love learning stuff. I mean, that's the point of my blog and it's the point of my job. But sometimes I just get really disillusioned with just how difficult making headway can be.

I've been chipping away at Japanese for, well, it seems like for ever, and it is very rare to get an "Oh, wow!" moment any more. You know, the bit where suddenly you realise you can do something entirely different - a no-going-back moment where you see you can do things differently and better than you could do them before.

I had that recently when I went back to HTML class and, with the aid of a really good text book, found out how the how DIV tag and CSS thing has made HTML a whole lot neater. But since I'm not a web jock, this was cool to know but not life enhancing.

On the other hand, a friend asked me how to do advanced form making on Word, something that I've always meant to get round to doing, but never really had the time. With a little bit of searching on the web (which, it has to be said, led me down some pretty dark alleyways - thanks a lot to the muppet that advocated doing it with self-made macros...) and some clever interpolation of Word's own help files, I managed to fathom out how it worked.

And kick-ass grin it brought to my face was a real burn.

But the unfortunate fact of the matter is, I'm stumped if I can work out how or where you lever that kind of feeling in to the day-to-day learning me and my colleagues have to pull together for our customers. However, having remembered what it feels like, I'm going to be thinking more about it in future...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A periodic table of visualisation

You may not get the sense of it from this wordy blog, but I'm a fan of visual methods of writing, most typically as seen in mindmaps.

This clever take on the periodic table offers a summary of many ways of representing information in visual formats.

Taking this as inspiration, I can see lots of ways to improve on the standard clickable or animated graphic I might want to rope in to a course.