Thursday, December 22, 2011

Preparing for preparing to teach in the life-long learning sector

Another season, another department shuffle, another new manager. It's been a turbulent couple of years here at EP Towers. My job has morphed and changed and for several months I haven't had a clear job title, much less a job description. However, there's a very positive flow under way now that I am interested to be a part of.

For the first time since I've been here there is to be a genuine focus on teaching and learning in our short course training provision - the most obvious manifestation of which is a decision to require our trainers in future to hold  the creatively accronymed PTTLS (aka "petals"), CTTLS ("kettles") and DTTLS ("dettols"), more formally: "Preparing to..", "Certificate in..." and "Diploma in..." Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Sector.

This suit of courses is obligatory for people wishing to teach national qualifications for which there may be funding - for example "professional" courses in colleges or NVQs. Coming from the corporate e-learning sector, which to my experience tends to think of itself as something apart from (possibly even "anti-") mainstream "education" in many respects, I've never really looked at these qualifications very closely. I've assumed that they will be focused on classroom delivery. Given that I am largely in a training design-not-delivery role - and some time spent "delivering" training is required - I've not given it a second thought.

However, as part of the new way of thinking the company is running this course for some colleagues and out of curiosity I've gotten myself on the attendee list. The course can be run in all manners of ways - since this was set up by a classroom fixated colleague it's not going to be making much (any?) use of online tools, and helpfully crams the learning components in to two info-dump sessions since this is the cheaper way of doing it. The first is this week, three days in the empty classrooms at work.

I do have some reservations. A former colleague completed it a couple of years ago. Looking at the work she did, it looked very similar to the CIPD's Certificate in Training Practice, which I did as a new trainer back in 2003 - which is to say it was full of the sorts of things that Will Thalheimer rails against: learning styles, that what we say makes up only 8% of how messages are communicated, Dale's Cone of Experience etc. But it need not be the case as this sort of detail depends on the tutor delivering the course, so I will reserve judgement until later in the week. I do intend to blog my experience as part of my reflective learning so let's see how it gets on.

If you have experience of PTTLs then I'd be interested to hear what you made of it.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Gamification by example - my slides

After a suitable delay, here are my slides from my talk at the eLearning Network's October Converting Classroom Courses event in London. I've added a summary of what I said on each slide in the notes.
This was the "winning" talk on the day. Not sure I agree with the idea of it being a competitive event, however, I certainly felt better prepared for having used my audio tool, so if you are working on a talk for Ignite or PK, give it a go.

Friday, October 28, 2011

In defence of jargon

"Every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas."
Ettiene Bonnot de Condillac (circa 1780)

"Jargon" has been a fairly persistent meme on Twitter lately. I seem to be in a minority amongst a group of learning tech people which I feel is well meaning, but misplaced in its desire to obliterate "in" language.

I'm all for clear, open and inclusive language in business - it's a workplace activity I could count as a hobby; discouraging the odd, clunky "institutional" language of passive sentences and misused pronouns. I've even tried unsuccessfully to convince organisations to pursue Plain English Campaign accreditation, though so far to no avail. I am a fully paid up swatter of jargon when it is used to obfuscate and bamboozle.

So, it's not that I defend the use of "jargon" in all instances - far from it; I agree completely that "our" jargon has no place in discussions with learners or with our customers until they are ready for it, should they ever need to be - but it is important to recognise that blanket assertions to the effect "jargon must be avoided in all circumstances" aren't helpful and are, I believe, misguided.

Jargon is exclusionary
One argument against jargon, perhaps even the argument against jargon is that it is exclusionary.

I recently joined the board of governors at my son's school - part of a comparatively large contingent of new faces. Halfway through the first full AGM the Chair apologised for lapsing in to "jargon". The subsequent explanation and referral to a handy glossary was welcome, but the apology, in my view at least, was entirely unnecessary - schools are a place quite unlike any other environment and they are part of a complex environment of funding, scrutiny and measurement that necessarily creates a language all of its own. However, once you understand it, it all makes perfect sense. More importantly it speeds things up. Had the Head to speak all the acronyms out in full and explain every last word to us newbies we would not have covered as much ground. This "jargon" was technical language; precise and concise.

That was entirely proper in its environment. What would be wrong would be for the school to use much of that jargon with parents. And in most cases it doesn't. But arguably education generally does. My son had reached Key Stage 2 before I even really understood what KS1 meant...

The sales person who stands in front of a new client and starts talking about LMSs, Scorm, client-server, protocols, ADDIE, terminal learning objectives blah, blah, blah is doing so to gain a position of authority and strength in negotiations with the client. This is not helpful and they should avoid it unless they are confident they will be understood. Any of these words could well be useful at a later date as they relate to specific ideas that the client may want to discuss in greater depth, and as experts in these fields then it our job to guide and educate the them, if they so wish. But it would be hard for us on the "inside" to get by without many of these words. LMS perhaps, protocol probably. But Scorm or ADDIE? These aren't jargon; they're our technical language.

Just as I don't think surgeons would be quite as able to carry out their work anything like as successfully if they set out to "cut through the skin, pull aside the white blubbery bits, poke about to find the brown nobbly bit on the pinky squigey thing and cut it off with a hot burny knife"; nor would theoretical physicists, er, be able to exist at all if they didn't have "exclusionary" technical terms to describe their ideas, neither can we really discuss what it is we are able to help people achieve if we don't have some technical language of our own.

The key is to recognising that this language can be exclusionary, and making allowances or creating ways of dealing with it if and when it occurs. Embrace it among those that can understand it and make the most of its power to be precise and concise; make allowances for those that aren't up to speed and help them learn; avoid it completely when it is inappropriate and likely to confuse.

Of course, there are clear examples of daft "made up words" - it goes with the territory of L&D, full of faddy made up concepts that require exotic, self-important lexicons - think MBTI, learning styles in all their flavours, NLP and so on. The tweet-child of the #madeupword meme, "leaderment" is not so much a genuine attempt to add a new word to the vocabulary as it is a misguided attempt to create a "catchy" label for an entirely new concept of dubious worth. The word is problematic because the idea is problematic.

Another recent bete-noir is "gamification", coincidentally the subject of my talk at the recent eLNConvert event. The great irony here is that before I picked gamification as my topic for the PK, I had intended to present a talk entitled "20 words L&D should stop using now". Gamification was on that list. Indeed, as my talk said, gamification is a tricky word since its definition is so broad as to stray close to meaningless and it is favoured by people who speak in hyperbole. This, for me, makes it problematic. However, it does describe something - the application of game-derived concepts and characteristics in to things that aren't themselves games - that is actually happening; and it does so in a handy word that is less clunky than that phrase that I just used. You might dislike the concept, but it is something concrete(-ish).

What's more, gamification is following an established construction - the "-ify" ending turns nouns in to verbs with the meaning "to imbue with the qualities of" or to "extend the reach of". Think personify or mystify. The -ication ending turns that verb back to a noun to label the activity. In this sense, the coiner of the word gamification is behaving just like a child who says "I eated jelly" - using the rules that they know exist to describe something that has happened, in the absence of an alternative "correct" label.

I'm not labouring this point to justify my using gamification - "leaderment is bad because I don't like it but gamification is okay because I do" - but to show that some new words are natural developments to accommodate new things, but others are specifically manufactured to create and propagate new concepts. I'm not saying that the latter is wrong either - after all, that's exactly what brand names are. However, that I think hits one of the significant objections to "made up" words - they smack of an attempt to slip in someone else's idea in to the conversation. I don't feel comfortable using a word that is in effect selling someone else's idea. We don't wish to be co-opted as anyone's mouthpiece.

Life imitates the art of language
Language shapes our perception of the world. Give something a label and the label can define that thing. It's the trick that's being played in the coinage of "leaderment", but it's the problem that keeps "e-learning" in a box for some organisations. There's "learning" and there's its other, "e-learning". The "e" keeps it different somehow, rather than just another mode of delivery that could sit alongside b-learning, v-learning and a-learning in the trainer's toolbox* (book, video and audio, if you're wondering).

But it is language's ability to shape reality that makes me wary of striving to remove all jargon from our vocabularies. Appropriate, meaningful jargon enables to us to think of things that are not otherwise labelled - allows us to use ideas we would have no handle on otherwise. Take away the sales pitches, the babbling, the dead metaphors and downright daft ideas - no, really, please do! - but leave me my jargon. It's the tools with which I turn my craft!

* actually, it's more complicated than that as it can also mean a channel for delivering all of those other types of learning as well, but you know that. I just wanted to be clear.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The informal learning plugin, on an LMS near you soon

I just read a tweet from Jay Cross that took me to a post from a representative of Blackboard, makers of the dreadful LMS, purporting to dispel "myths" about informal learning. Given that I take informal learning to be a conceptual notion of knowledge acquisition and sharing rather than a defined and fairly uncontroversial body of knowledge like, say, climate science or evolution, I was intrigued and felt I needed to know more about these "myths".

I had to respond but not sure that my contribution will be welcome, so thought, like Jay, worth reposting. I can't set quotes on the Android Blogger app, sorry...

"Hang on a moment, doesn't this post fundamentally miss the point about informal learning as it was originally presented, by you Jay, that it is happening anyway? That 70-80% of the learning in an organisation is NOT taking place in the allocated space but at the water cooler or cafe. This seems to suggest that informal learning is something newly invented and available now for you to rollout in your organisation or institution. 

Point 1 says "too unstructured", but too unstructured compared to what? To a planned taught course? Doesn't  informal happen alongside it anyway? It may not be on Twitter, it may be in the bar or students union  afterwards, but it is happening now irrespective of what learning professionals might think.

Point 2 includes the nonsequitor concept that ubiquitous computing somehow negates knowledge growth. I don't see the connection here.

When you consider the line "when informal learning comes with clear instructions and desired outcomes are explained ahead of time, learners will be more likely to stay on task and work towards the goals set out during training sessions" you have to wonder what it is that is informal about it. That to me is pretty formal, or perhaps "homework" might be another phrase to use.

Point 3 further suggests that the author believes that informal learning is a new phenomena by suggesting its impact can be measured. This can only be the case if informal learning is a new factor, but if it is something that is there to begin with, how do you measure the impact of an already present thing. How could you account for the impact unless by seeing what happens if you remove the structured, formal component altogether?

Points 4 & 5 reveal the authors underlying assumption that informal learning means using social media, but surely the concept is more sophisticated than that?

The final paragraph reveals the killer punch. You too can have informal learning on your LMS if you just buy a Blackboard product. "informal learning" on an LMS!? Isn't that paradoxical? Jay, you do your worthy concept a disservice by even dignifying this ludicrous post with your comment."

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Prepare better for lightning talks

I'm heading to London tomorrow to take part in another eLearning Network event, this time speaking as part of their Pecha Kucha programme - a great way to get to events for a more affordable price.

Pecha Kucha is a form of lightning presentation (one that is less than 10 minutes) very like Ignite, which I'm closely involved with. However, although I watch lots of talks, I don't often give them. One reason I don't is it is quite time consuming to sit down and thrash the idea out. Another is that once you've actually settled on your concept, practising can be hard.

I think I've come up with an idea to overcome both these barriers, my audio templates. I've created a sound track that is simply timed to match the timings for Ignite and PK, 15 seconds or 20 seconds a slide respectively. No longer am I tied to my PC to work on the ideas or practice my talk - I can listen to it anywhere. I've found it helpful in two ways.
  1. If you have a rough idea for a talk then "riffing" over the track helps to give form to a rough idea.
  2. Once you have an idea you can practice it while doing something else. I have a 30 minute drive to work each day. That's 3-4 run throughs on the way in and again on the way home.
So here they are, feel free to take them. They are first drafts really - I want to add something as a backing track to cover the silence, and perhaps revoice them with someone better sounding than me. But they work.

 >> Download 5 minute Ignite audio template (mp3)
 >> Download 6 min 40 second PK audio template (mp3)

For the record, they were produced with the ever helpful Audacity.

Friday, October 14, 2011


Rule 1: use symbols your users
will relate to
In keeping with the craze for following crazes, I've decided to add "badges" to our company wiki, Wisdom. I built Wisdom first as a personal note-taking tool on our development server, but then it has grown in to a fairly healthy internal resource for my colleagues.

I've usually managed to get contributors by cozying up to new starters and giving them the erroneous impression that everyone always uses the wiki for everything. Those first few weeks are wonderful time, because new starters are ideally suited to notice what it is that everyone simply assumes everyone else knows. New starters ask all the right questions to turn this tacit knowledge in to something tangible, then Wisdom is there to hold it.

Rule 2: use animals. That's
got to work.
Wisdom is built using Dokuwiki, a lightweight, database-free wiki engine that I really like, but which I would acknowledge is possibly not the best for our non-technical user profile - for an elearning development team or a group of programmers it would be perfect. However, we are building up a useful body of knowledge and placing my how-to videos and process walk throughs on Wisdom is certainly preferable to using the next alternative which is a Moodle instance. I'd never get anyone to look at anything if I had to use that.

However, while I have a couple of consistent contributors - L* using it to store minutes of meetings and J** steadily building up our equipment requirements for on-site training and so on - it has met with some stubborn resistance. Some team members admit to using it to look stuff up, but kinda laugh at the suggestion they might actually contribute to it.

So I'm turning to a gamification layer to sort this one out. Okay, so my badges are simple and have to be manually added by me, but nonetheless, they are something a bit different to the way we do things, and based on the feedback so far, the novelty may achieve what I'm after - some limited specific engagement, at least long enough to get people over their reluctance to making edits. A couple are specifically targeted at getting people to think wiki, rather than mechanically go through the steps of an edit.

Rule 3: Add an element of wonder
 by using symbols that leave
them scratching their
 heads - this is for "wiki
I'm making the set of badges available here , so if you want some to add to whatever you are doing, help yourself. I have also included the text that I cut and paste on to people's profiles on Dokuwiki. For that to work I simply copied all the images in to the wiki:user media folder (if you don't know what that means you aren't a Dokuwiki user).

I'll let you know how I get on.

* not her real name, obviously
** not his either ***
*** but you probably guessed that

Monday, October 03, 2011

Compliance in health estates training

I was required to speak to a group of estates managers at a recent training event organised by IHEEM, the Institute of Healthcare Engineering and Estates Management, on the topic of compliance. Naturally enough, we fielded a presentation on just how that topic applied to training. I've never stuck anything on Slideshare before, but thought I'd give it a try.

Let me warn you now: unless you are in health estates management, and ideally unless you were actually there, this won't be very interesting or all that meaningful.

UPDATE: Having used Slideshare now I can report it is every bit as easy as one might expect uploading a presentation to the Internet might be. Ridiculously so.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Testing a new method of access

I spend a lot of time drafting posts in my head but rather less time writing them down. So now I'm seeing if it's bearable trying to post from my phone.
It's a HTC Sensation which runs Android 2.3, so it has the wipe text input - you simply run your finger across the screen touching each key in turn, without lifting, creating a snail-like trail that loops and twists. Android then gives you its best guess as to what you were after. It's of course Blogger nowhere near as fast as touch typing, but it is a whole lot quicker than stabbing out each letter like normal. You wouldn't want to write a novel like this, but a couple of hundred reflective words on something you've seen or done is quite fair.
Which changes the game somewhat, as instead of reading the paper or catching up on the Twitter when snatching a quiet coffee or beer, I can now get round to jotting down those thoughts, which for me right now means thinking about becoming a school governor, a change in my focus at work, what accreditation means for learners, mobile learning for difficult to reach learner groups and a lot more.
Twitter is great for learning and getting exposed to new things, but to close the loop you need the kind of space a blog excels at. Viva la RSS!

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Failed by VISA

Just when I thought the "Verified by VISA" experience couldn't get any worse, the usually reliable eBuyer manages to pull off a real doozy:

See the problem?


After a moment's consideration I tried hitting tab and thankfully it scrolled the frame you can't see and skipped to the next, unseen box. I'm not entirely sure this was the envisaged user experience at First Direct or eBuyer. I'm not convinced that it wasn't what VISA were intending though as the whole VbV nightmare has form...

For example, this screen follows the incredible workflow where it asks for your DoB in DDMMYY format and in the very next box asks for your card's expiry date in MMYYYY format* - two date related questions; both require six characters; right next to each other. It's going to catch some people out. It's a small thing but plays like a sleight of hand card trick in my book.

My great concern is that the whole experience behaves at all times for all the world like a scam site designed to con users like my parents (concealing this activity inside a frame on what could be any website looks and feels like early 00s online scams).

For more like this try this search: "verified by visa sucks". I like most that it even has its own fb group.

(If anyone at eBuyer sees this, I carried out the transaction in FF5.0 if that explains what happened )
* okay, may be the other way round, but it's certainly two consecutive boxes.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Why I don't like Twitter

Let me start by making one thing really clear. I like Twitter very much. I find it very useful and it has probably become my number one personal learning tool over the last year*.

However, I am becoming increasingly sceptical about its use as a social learning tool in any organised sense and in particular, there are some characteristics of how it is being used that frankly I'm not altogether comfortable with.

I follow a lot of people from different arenas, but the only ones who consistently use Twitter to amplify what they are hearing in a conference are those in the learning technology industry. Perhaps this is because there are lots more conferences in the learning tech arena, perhaps not.

The concept is familiar enough. If you have ever participated in a webinar then you will hopefully have seen how the text discussion of the talk can be used as an excellent supplement to the main show. The slides are on the screen and in the absence of all the online delegates being able to speak at the same time the onscreen text channel provides a really good way of allowing for feedback - especially if the presenter is aided by a "producer" who can watch the channel and respond, or post relevant links and so on. Some systems even allow whispering" between delegates which are another, quieter channel opportunity.

Twitter, with it's low barrier to entry and ability to work on all manner of devices, makes an ideal platform for taking this notion of the "backchannel" anywhere. And it works okay. For Ignite Bristol, where venues allow we throw up a twitter wall so that anyone tagging with our #ignbrzl hashtag can see their contribution to the debate, albeit after about 20 minutes wait, in the interval.

"Look mum, I'm on telly!"
Which kind of leads me on to another peculiarity of the Twitter-as-part-of-live-event mentality. Just like a bare wall in an alleyway exerts a magnetism for a cretin with a can of paint and a flowery autograph, or a virgin powder field will pull in sideslipping snowboarders from the safety of the piste (or learner slopes) where they belong, so a Twitter wall frequetly encourages less than entirely worthwhile contributions, or the me-too sensibility of the RT. Any 140-character friendly pronouncement will be pounced on as an opportunity to be the first to get that point out the the non-attending participants. Not fast enough on the last one? No worries, seize the next succinct and snappy phrase and tweet that instead.

Of course, playing the game in this way does rather depend on being able to read the Twitter channel at the same time as playing to it, however it has often been my experience that wi-fi provision at events is mediocre at best. The idea of being able to get a consistent connection so you can follow the backchannel in a timely manner is restricted, which reduces many contributions to a one-way broadcast model as you can post and let your client shift the tweet in its own good time, next time your device gets a sniff of the router.

If I worked in a large open plan office I am accepting that I will get aural overspill from the work going on around me. A little spill is acceptable, indeed desirable, as I am able to keep up with what is going on around me and drop my own points in to the conversation to test them or seek advice. This is good, this is right. This is Twitter 90% of the time.

However, if, once a week, a proportion of my colleagues gathered in the middle of the room and started a raucous discussion, while at first it may seem novel, it would quickly begin to grate. This is Twitter as a backchannel.

My daily dose of useful titbits and sound bites is occasionally washed out by the enthusiastic twitterings of one or more conference delegates, and amplified by a few keen twitter echoes. It's a shame because I really only follow people who use it wisely - I stick to the "tell-me-about-your-coffee-and-you're-unfollowed" credo - but occasionally I find myself flirting with the unfollow button because the torrent of decontextualised sound bites.

Present, only not present
The edu-learning crowd like to bust myths - our ILT forebears are prone to latching on to every snakeoil salesman to cross their path or submit an article to their journals so there are plenty floating about in need of deflation. Great stuff. Myths are worse than useless as they actively misguide the, er, mythees - a false model is less helpful than no model at all.

One myth that has been rubbished time and again is that of multi-tasking. We can't do it. As John Medina says, "The brain is not capable of multi-tasking. We can talk and breathe, but when it comes to higher level tasks, we just can’t do it." I'd include in this category of higher level tasks, assimilating a useful and/or complex new concept and interacting with your smartphone/tablet user interface. Somehow this point is jettisoned when it comes to "socialising" the learning experience.

Okay, I'll concede that not every nugget that comes out of a presenter's mouth is gold, but the fact is that you never know when what they say will be relevant to you. And if you are struggling to type on your poxy little smartphone screen, or rather, waking up your phone, unlocking it, switching to Tweetdeck*2, typing in the pithy point (prĂ©cising it for 140 characters and remembering to include the hashtag and perhaps the Twitter account name of your source of course), sending, waiting, getting frustrated at the crappy event wi-fi, etc, then you are by definition NOT paying attention. And all this lost attention is only worthwhile if the summarised point you have made is received with understanding by your crowd of followers, and worthwhile. Which it frequently isn't, taken out of context and without reference.

The best conference I've been to in terms of me getting something out of it was one organised in a venue with no wi-fi and very thick walls. No internet meant I bust out my notebook - actual paper notebook, £5.99 in Staples - and scrawled 24 sides of notes. Okay, there were more good speakers than I usually encounter and fewer people trying to sell their services in the guise of an informative talk but the fact remains that I still look back on speakers that day and think positively of them (and can remember more of what they said). Now, we might argue whether or not I was fully present with my head in my notebook, but since I have plenty of notes and could, at a push, reconstruct some of the speakers' arguments from them (which I did, partially, with this post about Bettr), I'd argue I was sufficiently in the room to benefit. I can't say the same of the tweets I issued from the floor of Learning Technologies this year.

A simple solution?
This is not to say that I don't believe Twitter is bad, or that it doesn't have a place in the workplace learnosphere, but I think we need to remember that in learning technology we are in the vanguard of professional users of Twitter, alongside perhaps politicians and salespeople. The professions we serve - finance, engineering, oil and so on - may not be as ready for this as we are.

Furthermore, could not more traditional channels - ie "classic" chatrooms or forums - not provide more appropriate, secure locations for activities that lead to the same outcome? After all, #lrnchat transcripts bare an uncanny resemblance to a chatroom chat history*3.

Perhaps someone has already thought of this, but a simple "block tweets with this hashtag" would mean I could zone out of at least that portion of the chatter that is correctly marked. If it had a timespan, for example "until 3pm" or what have you, then I wouldn't have to worry about then leaving potentially useful.

Ultimately though, my solution is not to tweet from talks.  I'm more than happy to tweet about events before they happen, and use the channel for conversations about what is happening, but as a courtesy to speakers, I think I'm going to stay "in the room" next time.


* If we count only work-relevant learning. Otherwise it's Wikipedia. This week's it's not been battleships I've looked up, but I did learn that in addition to the R22 and R44, Robinson Helicopters have now added an R66. Ladbrokes will not accept bets on the name of their next model.
*2 Other Twitter clients are available. Though of course, if you have an iOS device you won't be "switching" to it exactly, for although humans and iOS can't multitask, Android can.
*3 Except that every comment has been truncated to 140 characters...

Friday, June 24, 2011

Revisiting old useful ideas - learnscapes

For whatever reason, this diagram by Clark Quinn has stuck in my head, and for the fourth time of calling I found myself scrabbling to find it, including tweeting the man himself to see if he could identify it from my patchy description.
Taken from "eLEarning Tools" 17 April 2007 at Learnlets
Clark's original post came in to being around the time of the big PLE debate if I remember correctly* and heck, it mentions social in the era "BT", or "Before Twitter". What I like is that it shows asynchronous elearning as an anti-social, low-level approach, really only suited to the start of a larger programme of development (assuming the goal is to take people on a journey from novice to something greater).

I have cause to dig this out as I try to make the case for expanding our conceptualisation of training material here from simply asynch courseware and physical classroom work to something a little more involved and lasting. Our mindset can sometimes be a bit "classical" I fear, as befits a former public sector training organisation/venue in its fifth decade...

I should have looked at this for my talk last week at the eLN too - see wikis nestled up there at the top? I was right to include it in the social arena, but in the sense I was promoting their use them I'd downgrade them to scaffolding and support perhaps.

Have you seen anything similar to this that brings us up to date? Please let me know.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Why I'm still at Blogger

Started off here. Always been here. Love the backdrop on this one. Can't be bothered to move. End of.

(I love Wordpress and I am happy to self-host these things, but Blogger is fine for what I need it to do).

Hopefully that will answer that question now and in the future...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Usability FAIL

What on earth have I done wrong?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Things I'm fed up of doing in the 2010s

These are some productivity (for which read "Windows/Office") activities for which the case against was clear and present 5 years ago, or longer, and yet which persist. They're a mixture of training related and general points.
  1. Dealing with email. Need I go on? Irritating inbox limits, lost communications, spam, single line throw away comments, documents mailed to a dozen people on the same network. I despise email.
  2. Responding to people setting up meetings via internal email to tell them to send a freakin' invite. I've noticed a shift recently but honestly, this feature has been in Outlook for a decade or more. Does anyone stop to think when writing that meeting request email that if it's an invite, it saves company time if it is going straight to the calendar instead of each recipient who uses it having to add the same thing themselves?
  3. Fixing PowerPoint slides. I can't recall when I heard the phrase "death by PowerPoint". I think it was within a month of getting a training job. Messages about the stultifying powers of marching armies of bulletpointed "factoids" or, worse still, dense paragraphs of 14 point text lifted verbatim off the pages of notes in front of training or meeting delegates abound. I still regularly come across slide decks with logos inserted on every slide instead of being on the master, or even where each line of text on a slide is in its own text box (but not the default body text box from the template). 
  4. Explaining to people that they should NOT hoard all "their" files on their local drives but store them on the shared drive. If we are going to use a 20th century files and folder paradigm, lets at least throw away the lock and key unless we really need it. In each case someone has left us in the last year we have had to trawl through slushy drives riddled with file soup to locate critical missing files. Grrr.
  5. Demonstrating the basics of spreadsheet automation. Excel is magic. For me, it is the gateway to understanding how computers can be used by anyone to liberate themselves from pointless, repetitive tasks. It leads the way to programming even - each cell that reacts on its own to a change is a task saved. Yet still I see people sifting through tables of data and manually changing the colour of text to indicate something that a simple conditional formatting command would do for them. Or I see tables created that mix data types in cells that prevent anything useful ever being done to bring the data to life. Or are laid out in such a way that filtering can't be done. In short, which reduce spreadsheets to simple tables.
While the frustration felt in all these is entirely mine, as is the raised blood pressure, the lost productivity is across the board. Everyone is penalised for these failures. And they are all a result of the misconception that office productivity is not a thing for which training is required. Windows and Office look largely the same as they did 10 years ago and they are used in the same way. Thing is, a lot of the complaints I have here were being said 10 years ago too.

In larger organisations I have witnessed ad-hoc attempts to overcome these shortfailings - individuals lucky enough to work in an enlightened company, or perhaps one that has signed up to IiP, might be able to self-select to go on "Intermediate Excel" or something equally scattergun, but where are the systemic, root/branch attempts to modernise working practices with these basic tools?

In smaller companies, are managers even aware how they might be able to realise improvements but for someone to simply say "we need to change up how we use our computers". How much is small business in this country squandering through a lack of understanding the art of the possible? The number of times I have heard "we must work smarter" as a call to arms, yet small, smart changes at the micro level can't be taken because people don't know what they don't know.

Overcoming these sorts of things demand a campaign, not a course. But for a successful campaign those who would commission it need to understand what they are missing out on.

Are there things that make you wince when you think about the time that is lost? Are you an active advocate for improvement or simply a cog in a "course factory"?

Postscript: This rant came out of frustration I feel most days, sparked off by the farewell editorial of Tim Danton, departing editor of my favourite IT magazine, PC Pro (sadly the article doesn't seem to be on the website, only in print). If his co-workers can't get their head around progressive change in the workplace you have to wonder if anyone ever will.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Fresh Look at Learning Design by Patrick Dunn

Following the usual twisted thread of discovery I stumbled upon an interesting video by Patrick Dunn of a webinar that I suspect I had intended to join, but missed. Not having a stumbleupon account, and in the spirit of blog-based sharing I have rekindled recently, here it is for your delectation.

"A fresh look at Instructional Design" - eLN webinar presentation from patrick dunn on Vimeo.

Good old Vimeo. Far better than other video sites I could mention.

I really like in this:
  1. Patrick points out that ADDIE is appropriate in some contexts. A more nuanced approach than some. Reflects realities of the job.
  2. The formal approach favoured in the States is not the same as is the predominant model here (UK). I had my suspicions that the term "instructional design" had regional differences.
  3. The "experience, not content" model reminds me of Cathy Moore's action mapping approach, but focused on behavioural change. A nice counterpoint.
  4. I like the idea of throwing the spec away and just speaking to learners first. In all my paid time as an ID I was never invited to do this - or costed the time to be able to. I'd argue for it now mind you. 
  5. The before/now slide early on is good too.

Letter to my MP on selling off the woodland

Okay, so I appreciate that this blog is supposed to be about learning, but it might be argued I learnt something about how I feel about this while penning a missive to Stephen Williams, my local LibDem member of Parliament. I was inspired by an article on what the forest sell off might mean to Bristol MTBers.
Throughout my life I've had opportunities to spend lots of time in forests - hiking, barbecuing, playing in streams, bird watching and mountain biking - though a son of this city I grew up in the Shropshire Marches and spent many weekends and evenings in the local woods with my friends and family. They are a playground I have returned to time and again.

And I can hardly think of a time when I haven't done so on land managed by the Forestry Commission. So it causes me great anguish to know that this government, that I in part voted for, and encouraged people to vote for - to vote for you - is now suggesting that it sell off the trees and neuter an organisation I have immense respect for.

I'm not some dumb-ass hippy tree hugger who would care more about what happens to a tree than a person. But it is this action more than any other that causes me to feel aggrieved by what I voted for.

What annoys me is that by deigning to flog off this land, and special entity that lives upon it, this government appears to indicate that it believes it owns this land. No, the government holds it in trust for the people that legitimise it. Sure, keep people off the nuclear base at Faslane, or away from motorway construction sites - there are greater needs in the public interest at work - I accept that - but don't sell off the trees.

In particular, these days I go mountain biking locally near Ashton Court and at locations around Wales. These places are graded amongst the best locations for the sport anywhere in the world - mile after mile of wonderful man made trails that develop riders' skills and test them again and again. Each week thousands of riders make the same trips to these places, spending money in local shops and cafes, staying in local hotels and pubs. In the afternoons, as they stream off the hill, they share the same broad grin and look of satisfaction at a day on earth well spent.

But none of these centres would be feasible if private landowners had to meet the costs of insuring for the sport. Only the FC is able to do this. Without the FC these trail centres would close, and the tourism they attract, month in, month out, would die out. Taking precious money from already poor regions (like the valleys of South Wales) and robbing people of a fun and healthy past time.

It's easy to see now that Beeching's solution to the size of the rail network was woeful and short-sighted. Stephen, don't let your parliamentary colleagues make a similar terrible mistake - one that will live in infamy far beyond your time in the Palace of Westminster.
Hmm, will try not to be too political again for a while. I'll leave that to Twitter.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Why video is your cheap option

Video was once both a dream and a nightmare.

A dream because only in your wildest dreams would you ever get funding to put together training videos. And a nightmare because there was no easy route to do it - you needed expensive cameras, editing suites and reproduction facilities.

Since it is now possible to shoot, edit and upload video all from a mobile phone, it is time to revisit video again.

And to show how easy it can be, here's a good example that I really like. Just a good expert with a nice line on her subject, a hand held video, one scene and YouTube. Couldn't be simpler.

For a far better, more thoughtful take on using video as your budget option, check out Rob Hubbard's tip from 24Tips 2010.

Learning research to action - from Jakob Nielsen

I never tire of going on about Jakob Nielsen and the usefulness of his Alertbox. Nielsen is one of the pre-eminent figures in web usability, but in this post he is looking at information recall/learning as it relates to online content.

How can we use this? I sent the following suggestion out to my colleagues on our Foundation Degree programme. Thought I'd share it here.
The activity may be a relevant approach to adopt for review activities. The issue is how to incorporate it, as it is difficult to mark an “all points” review, and unmarked review activities will, in most cases, be outright ignored (I know I tend to – falsely believing in my fallible memory), so the old “Now write a summary of what you have learnt in this module” gambit is likely fail.

So, what’s the alternative? Setting the idea in a brief scenario context might work. “Imagine you had to relay the content from this section to a working group and your presentation needed to fit a five minute slot between two other activities. Summarize the learning from this section as fully, but concisely as you can.” Arguably this adds sufficient constraint that it might be easy to feedback on, but also it should give the target learner sufficient cause to read and review the section in enough detail to attain that full 145% effect. And let’s not forget that 145% better means nearly two and a half times more effective. A very big boost indeed.
There. A much better way of demonstrating my renewed love for blogging than writing a blog post about how I enjoy blogging once more and should do more of it again.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A BETTr type of conference?

It's an interesting time to be involved with education in the UK. The government is hacking wildly at the structures that have been familiar for so long; results from UK schools seem to be slipping sharply; the industrial education model looks to be broken.

And where can we find solutions to these problems, to bring education in this country back on track? Matt Jukes thinks it's in the hacker mindset that we'll find answers so he put together Be BETTr, a sideshow conference running on the third day of BETT, across town in Holborn. Sold as "a conference about 'hacking education'" I couldn't say no - especially as tickets to the day long event were only £20 - and that only if you missed the early bird and discount prices (psst, Matt, you should have charged more!)

So, nearly a fortnight on, here's what I remember of the event - excuse the excessive bulleting, a lot of this is from my copious note taking (quite unlike me) and I haven't the time to write it back in to a coherent narrative. I'll stick up the first bunch of speakers and add the others later.

Paul Miller - School of Everything
  • we find it hard to think of a different model to the one we grew up with (applies to lots of things, not just education) - this explains the persistence of the industrial learning-factory school model.
  • Groundbreaking research in the East End of London in 50s documented the importance of communities - captured in the book Family & Kinship in East London by Michael Young* (founder of OU, later Baron Young)
  • The information layer of the internet is only now becoming interesting - precisely because it is becoming boring and mundane - now we are at the point where we can start to do interesting things with it.
  • School of Everything (SoE) links people with something they can teach with people who want to learn for face-to-face learning sessions - the Internet can only take you so far and getting contact time with an expert can be really beneficial.
  • Not only 1-to-1, but also used to create study circles - peer groups self tutoring.
  • In Sweden some 300,000 people are thought to be in regular study circles - and that's in a country with a much smaller population than the UK.
  • What are universities? Yes, there are some features like libraries, but at their heart they are communities with a common set of rules focused on a campus - SoE want to become a "code campus".
  • Accreditation - SoE appeals to adults not too fussed about accreditation (music, languages are top subjects) - perhaps there could be room for micro-accreditation in this?
The SoE website wasn't responding when I wrote this, so here are links: Paul was interviewed by the Grauniad in 2009 and blogs here.

David Jennings - Agile learning
Immediately David came on to the introduction of "agile learning" I had an inkling that I knew where this would be coming from...
  • The book DIY U lists three groups in the learning area: artisans - changing the academy from within; merchants - changing it for money; monk - learning nerds who simply love knowledge.
  • LMSs (VLEs, virtual acadamies, call them what you will) hamper learner access. Google beats the LMS every time.
  • Google empowers "feral learning" where people "forage" for the knowledge they need.
  • Concept of foraging explored in Jennings' book Net, Blogs and Rock 'n Roll.
  • (DR - feral learning looks and sounds a lot like informal learning, but less corporate-friendly, less amenable to vendor take-over and more learner centric).
  • (David mentioned something that sounded like "carn-academy" which I mistook to be some meat-eating variant on knowledge foraging, but actually might be Khan Academy which looks like something in the open learning field - like a not-for-profit iTunes U or OU LearnSpace. Worth a look)
Mohit Midha - Manga High
  • Manga High is a games based learning tool for maths, originally aimed at UK nat. curriculum but now expanding in other markets - big in US.
  • e-learning for K-12 needs to be effective, relevant, engaging - all three, you can't pick any two.
  • Manga High has maths at the centre of the design philosophy - the maths MUST be relevant to the game play, not a tatty add on or window dressing.
  • Uses an adaptive quiz engine that adjusts level to learners (like any video game does)
  • Demos showed that the games actually require use of maths as a function of game play; maths essential for play, rather than getting in way of the game (rather than my experience of "games" in elearning as a tawdry, embarrassing thin visual layer over MCQs - like the "answer games to move your car in the race" type nonsense)
  • nomenclature important: teachers set "challenges" not homework.
  • Sophisticated LMS inside the website provides lots of statistics for teachers - to the learner the experience is no different to logging in to any other website (DR - LMSy CMS origins are NOT on display here!)
  • Gaminess extends at a higher level - badges for completion of work, first to complete, high scores and so on (think Kongregate rather than Moodle) this social layer allows for competition between classes and even schools/regions etc.
  • Arguments for in schools are that the system frees teacher up for other things, rather than simply marking. Good metrics enable the teacher to see the feedback they need to help students who need help. Multiple representations of the data make it clear.
  • Meets with some resistance - parents/schools can't accept that such pretty games can be educational - but soon won over.
Aral Balkan - Teaching programming to kids

Man, if teachers had half the enthusiasm for teaching that Aral Balkan has, ICT education would not be in the parlous state it is now.
  • Do we want to teach programmers or secretaries? (Hint: it's the former)
  • School IT basically teaches Microsoft Office. That's secretarial skill. That's why there is an IT skills gap (DR - I'd heard about this but didn't really believe it - later stats scared/disappointed me)
  • There is no career path in education for IT. IT support in schools is amongst the lowest paid in IT industry, goes nowhere - so get very low skilled or inexperienced people.
  • Cyber-stalking pedo scares mean schools do not even grasp the great ability of IT to put things on the web for people to see.
  • Kids are immersed in technology - phones, iPads, tablets, consoles - but they are basically told computers are dull - they don't have to be.
Aral managed to fit in to his talk a demonstration of some BASIC, a great visual programming tool Scratch and also the beauty in simple code with some lovely effects in HTML and CSS. So simple, and something that could easily fire the imagination of people not inclined to think of themselves as potential programmers.

Interestingly, Aral also eschewed Key Note and just presented from whatever the OSX equivalent of file manager is, popping up images with his ideas on. Very neat, very engaging. Helps that it's on a Mac mind you...


So I'll add speakers 5-12 later, when I get a chance. Worth it though as I am enjoying revisiting my notes from the day.
    * There's alot to be said about this guy - founded OU, the Consumers' Association, coined "meritocracy" - all offset by inflicting Toby Young upon the rest of us...

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    A good BETT

    Each year I go to Learning Technologies and see the posters for BETT and curse that I've missed what is billed as "Europe's biggest educational technology event". Given what drags me to Olympia every January, I've always suspected that something at BETT would interest me too, so I swear to myself that I will go and renew that vow a year later, as I walk to LT20xx and respy the next round of forgotten posters...

    But this year, reminded of BETT by the somewhat smaller BETTr conference being run by Bristol's Matt Jukes (more on this to follow), I actually got my act together and managed to attend. And wow! Glad I did.

    Though the terms learning technology and educational technology may sound like synonyms, the difference is that educational technology means all the technology in schools, so the remit is very much larger. Adobe is the big ticket brand at LT; at BETT it's the likes of Dell and Microsoft. Around this nucleus of very large companies aiming to sell their hardware and software to heads and education chiefs are hundreds of companies competing with their software aimed at K12 and schools management; science education and ABCs; projectors and milling machines - simply if it's got wires or needs wires and it might end in a school, it'll be there.

    So this of course means that the vast majority of what is there is of little interest to corporate L&D types. But a fraction of something that big still constitutes a fair amount and in my position, working for a company with a primary focus in ILT, the classroom presentation hardware was a primary draw.

    Based on what I saw, here are a couple of observations:

    Visualizers - the overblown and fancy brothers of the humble webcam - have dropped in price substantially in the last couple of year - basic models are now comfortably under £300 and even top featured ones are in the region of a grand. This is a lot less than the few I saw a couple of years ago at WOLCE. Interestingly, a lot of the competition seems to be from Chinese companies now looking to sell direct under their own names rather than regionless rebrands as you find with consumer electronics in supermarkets.

    If you want to add live product demos to your online seminar or VoIP conference, or to shoot clear video of items for elearning, you'd do a lot worse than to look in to this technology.

    • Example - ELMO helpful bods, established model range and good usability.

    Projectors - you might hate the presentation, but I'm sure your company colleagues still love 'em. There has been development here too. "Ultra short throw" projectors are more common, so no more straying in front of the screen only to have your retinas scorched by the 800W bulb shining directly at you. Fixed projectors now need be no more than a foot or two away from the wall, directly above the screen so that there is no risk of your shadow ruining the view - a whole lot easier than having to organise back projection.
    • Example -  Hitachi seemed to the one recommended

    Interactive whiteboards - still not sold on these. I've seen two or three of these at companies but never seen them actually used. The principle innovation here is that there are now a couple such devices that do not require an expensive hardware whiteboard - advances with some projectors can use light pens and do what whiteboards do on any old surface. Actually, you can even do this yourself with a regular projector if you are more creatively minded, as this 2008 TED story demonstrates (details here).

    Audience participation devices AKA the ask-the-audience gadget have been around for a few years now. Not sure that I saw much development here but I still would like to see these used more often. Never had a chance to develop a course to take advantage, but I do feel that they could offer some of our tutors a boost when trying to gauge understanding on some of our intense courses, especially when dealing with mixed-cultural groups who may not all get stuck in with pushier British students, or where language barriers mean reading a question might be easier than simply hearing it.
    • Example - Quizdom have been doing this longer than most.

    Classroom furniture may not be a big issue to you, but we at my company have been thinking about how to make computers available in our learning labs in a way that would not take up space for other activities, and sure enough, BETT threw up a couple in interesting solutions I hadn't seen before. Where, in my experience at least, corporate training often seems to go for a clear elearning or ILT distinction, K-12 education is far more likely to use PCs in an ILT setting for moments of self directed learning, so little PC islands that squeeze a lot of computers in to a small space, or desks that conceal IT equipment within are potentially very useful. We've identified a definite case for something like this when we rebuild our training centre in the next couple of years.

    Okay, so probably not a great revelation to you if you are still regularly engaged in ILT, but these were new to me, and I suspect that I would struggle to see anything like the range on display at a purely L&D event as they simply aren't what the majority of the market are interested in.