Friday, July 03, 2015

Elearning. L&D's hard to kick habit?

I was talking about elearning design with a colleague recently and we wondered briefly what constraints we had on ourselves that we ourselves imposed.

  • Scrolling seems so self-evidently the right solution to lots of text, yet lots of authoring tools are predicated on a fixed screen format of design that not simply encourages the text 'n next approach to learning design.
  • Similarly, a lot of elearning follows an eerily family format of a couple of screens of text, perhaps with a non-essential, thematically linked image or two, perhaps sprinkled with "engaging" click-to-reveal interactions then a question.
  • It's quite normal to see all sorts of audio controls on the chrome of the player, despite the fact that Windows has separate volume controls, as do most computers (on dedicated buttons), speakers and many headphones.

Now clearly, I'm creating something of a straw man here. There are lots of people (our team included) who no longer see elearning in these terms and have not problem designing solutions that are quite different.

  • It's my suspicion that the fixed screen harks back to PowerPoint, either in the design of the "rapid development" tools that mimic it (Storyline is but one example) or in a literal interpretation of scripts written in PowerPoint.
  • Audio controls seem to be an artifact of trying to create standalone "learning apps" that remind me of the sorts of CBTs put out on CD-ROM in the earliest days of my working life on versions of Windows that weren't as slick as we're accustomed to now.

These vestiges of a bygone era are by no means something that solely afflicts elearning. There are strong cognitive biases in all of us that encourage this - we enjoy the familiar and resist change consciously and unconsciously. Colleagues in IT or finance will doubtless tell similar tales of how "we've always done it this way" thinking holds back developments there. Much like the default solution to any "L&D problem" being "a course".

But go to an off the shelf provider, or indeed, some bespoke elearning design companies, and something constrained by some or all of these vestiges of a time since past will be what you get. And your learners won't thank you for it. They won't say anything. They'll just ignore you.

Microsoft invented the tablet computer, but they made it like Windows because they've always made things like Windows. People ignored it. When somebody else came along with a fresh new take, the iPad, people loved it*.

So win your learners gratitude and appreciation by trying to think differently. Think about what you have at your disposal now, not what your elearning forebears had once upon a time, and create a kick ass modern solution to your current problem.

*granted, there were other elements like the size of batteries and processors that made a better design possible, but bolted on to a modified desktop UI, the iPad would have not been the success it was with iOS aboard.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Drunk at work? No, just resting...

I know I don't get enough sleep. I really struggle with it. There's always so much churning around in my head that it takes quite a long time to fall asleep, and once there, I am prone, like very many, to waking in the middle of the night with the mixer still on, seemingly only able to drift off once again just before the alarm sounds...

So when my colleagues in the CSR team arranged a lecture by Dr Vicki Culpin of Ashridge Business School on the topic of sleep I was one of the first to sign up. Quite simply, it was one of the best talks I've attended in a long time.


Culpin is a very engaging speaker, and as the string of letters after her name will attest, immensely qualified. This gave her a great mix of both style and substance. Speaking to the first of two "sell out" audiences in the lecture theatre at our Bristol office, the first part of Vicky's talk was a simply presented lecture backed up by artfully simple slides presenting eye-catching facts that enabled her to elaborate on her subject.
Adults who regularly sleep fewer than 6 hours per night may have a four times greater risk of stroke symptoms 
Reduction of sleep by only 1.5 hours per night for only one night can result in a reduction of daytime alertness by 32%
Perhaps the one that made a big impact on the group was the revelation that 17 hours of sustained wakefulness can lead to performance impairment equivalent to drinking two glasses of wine. To put it another way, if you've been on the go since 6am (easy enough when, say, commuting to London) by 11pm you're as good as drunk (even without hitting the FGW buffet carriage bar on the way home), so forget about working late to finish that report for the next day - you just won't be able to do it justice. In our context, financial services, this was considered a very real risk end-of-quarter or end-of-year results time when our actuaries/finance department can be working incredibly hard to get the numbers together.

The real value of Culpin's expertise, however, become all the more apparent in the the second half or more of her talk. She parked PowerPoint in favour of responding to questions from the keen, and unusually alert audience. I won't list everything she said, but here are a couple of key points that I scrawled down:
  • The Tablet menace is real. The reported harm from blue light in flat screens is a very real phenomenon and, by virtue of its similarity to natural light from the sun, interferes with the melatonin production in our brains, making sleepfulness harder to achieve. Ditch your iPad, phone or even flatscreen TV at least an hour before bed. Related to this, if you do wake at night, try to avoid switching the light on for the same reason.
  • Exercise does have a useful effect on improving sleep, but it should be done at least an hour and half before bed time. One way the body recognises the need to rest is a raised body temperature, which exercise of course achieves, but another way to fool the body into thinking it has exercised is to have someone blow on your cheeks. No, I didn't fully believe this one either, but Dr Vicky was quite adamant about it.
  • With my son about to hit his teens, I perked up my ears when someone asked about teenagers and sleep. They can need up to 12 hours a night, but for other reasons, at precisely the same time they are likely to be going to bed ever later. In particular, phones, tablets and gaming can be very detrimental to their sleep patterns at a very important stage in their brains development - particularly in light of sleep's value in learning.
  • A sleep cycle is about 90 minutes long, with a short period in light sleep, then a longer dip into deep REM sleep. If you are going to nap, try to avoid going in to deep sleep unless you have time to get a full cycle done, as waking during the REM cycle can be quite unpleasant and disorientating (you know how you feel when having to traipse out of a hotel after fire alarm goes off). One trick for getting a nap without going too far is to hold a set of keys. At just the moment you begin to drift from light sleep into deeper sleep, your muscles relax and you drop the keys. The noise should wake you up.
There was loads more that I could relate, but I would suggest that if you want to know more then the best you can do is look to get your company to book Dr Culpin. Given the risk of damage to your business that a load of people behaving as if they are drunk might cause, you should be able to get a solid case together.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Optimism - L&D's vice

With election fever gripping the nation (ahem), I've been thinking a bit about polling and it occurs to me that we are subject to some of the same errors that cause pollsters eggy faces after the election - you know, where the media outlets start their witch-hunt to find out why the predicted outcome didn't match the one we got.

One of the standard tropes for communiques from companies and organisations of all sorts involved in L&D is the line that "we expect to see a growth in area x" in the next 12 months, using the old approach "everyone else is doing it so you should too".

If reality matched the shiny future projected by the results of these surveys, then L&D would be a rude state of health, perfectly aligned with the needs of business, skillfully blended solutions at every turn, making the most of advanced online tools and, well, you know, yada-yada-yada...

Given that I've completed a couple such surveys recently, and knowing the people I do, I can see the flaw in this approach: L&D people tend toward optimism. We're interested in making the world, or at least the workplace, better. And moving toward that better future involves imagining us and our colleagues in it, and hoping we'll be there a little quicker than we might actually manage it.

So while we're responding to these requests for information on where we see ourselves in a year's time we may tend toward gilding that future with a bit more budget, or fewer last minute requests for data from the LMS, or more time to talk our clients in to accepting something new and exciting instead of rehashing trusted (but tired?) solutions. With all that in mind we might overreach and fill our window shopping basket with a shinier vision of the future than we might be able to grab.

And what's wrong in that? While we are still thinking of trying new solutions and implementing new approaches we are still engaged with the field, listening to our peers and trying to make things better for the people we are here to serve.

So you know what, while I keep seeing wildly optimistic projections for future uptake of the latest trend, I'll relax because it's a sign that the future is still rosy.