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.