Oct 072015

I spent last week at DevLearn 2015, the eLearning Guild’s conference focusing on learning technology.

DevLearn-featuredAmong my goals for attending: conducting a workshop on building job aids, finding ideas for supporting learning and improving performance, learning more about topics I don’t know much about, connecting with peers, and spending time with people energized about things that energize me.

On one level, any half-decent professional conference is a kind of pep rally. It’s easy to levitate on the excitement. It’s great to hear engaging speakers and hash over their ideas afterward, especially with them. And at least for me, the company of smart people who are accomplishing impressive things helps me feel as though I can accomplish them, too.

You can read virtual reams of ideas of how to prepare for a conference. DevLearn makes that pretty easy. The link above will lead you to descriptions of the pre-conference workshops, the co-located Adobe Summit, some 125 concurrent sessions… heck, just browse along the menu bar of the main page.

How to turn the pep-rally buzz into personal motivation, though, especially when the event’s over and you’re schlepping through the airport on your way home?

Revisiting the past

One thing I did on the plane was to dig out the program guide – the day-by-day schedule. My first task was to note down the session number, title, and presenter for each event I attended.

A session description from the DevLearn app

A session description from the DevLearn app

For one thing, that’d make it much easier to retrieve further information on the handy DevLearn app. And recording these things in Evernote meant I could tag, search, and include links.

As I worked through the schedule, I recognized my backup sessions as well.

A conference is a nonstop series of choices.  I try always to have a Plan B session in case the Plan A one I choose doesn’t turn out to be what I was looking for. Even so, a wealth of options and the realities of distance mean that you can’t take in everything you’d like.

I knew that with DevLearn’s mobile app, I’d have a source for materials shared by the presenters. I now had two lists: one for the sessions I’d attended, and a second one for those I didn’t see but wanted to know more about.

Mapping the future

This note-taking and note-revising triggered other thoughts: people I wanted to ask certain questions of, notions I didn’t want to lose, and topics I want to explore further. A third list emerged.

Finally, I had a lot of notes from my workshop on job aids: things that went well, things I’d like to change, even an idea for a virtual follow-up, a way for the participants to keep in touch on the subject of job aids. One idea I may try to make that happen came from Tracy Parish’s session on using WordPress to deliver blended learning.

Reflecting in the present

This may have been among the best two hours I’ve spent on a plane, with the possible exception of the one time I got upgraded. I ended up with four separate notes (in Evernote, of course), along with the first draft of my last blog post. The topic wasn’t earth-shaking, but few of mine are. Writing the post was a renewal of good practice for me: being more conscious about what I do, what I’d like to do, and the gap between those things.

I got far more out of my time in Las Vegas than I expected. I’ve thought a lot about how to sustain those benefits. Making these notes was a good start, and so has been the process of writing a couple of blog posts.

I’m re-examining what I do, what I enjoy doing, and what I want to be doing in my career and my life over the next few years. In the short term, I have the session material to download, and some two dozen people (not counting presenters) whom I want to keep in better contact with.

Dress for success

I do have a day job to return to, with a fast-approaching deadline. I know from experience, though, that the material-reviewing and emails to contacts won’t happen without intention on my part.

The best professional contacts, I think, are free exchanges, and almost always they include something of the personal. At DevLearn, keynoter Adam Savage talked about his fondness for costumes and how it led to jumping off a building, into a dumpster, dressed like Neo from The Matrix.

That’s a bit more colorful than my choice for a workplace Halloween celebration. My immediate team – or those who were pumped up for the holiday – had the idea of being Game of Thrones characters.

That didn’t really appeal to me, but the good interaction I have with them did, and so I managed to play along while letting my personality come through:

dave as george r r martin 2014

And now, DevLearn’s over. Winter, as they say, is coming (except in the casino, where they don’t allow weather). Still, that means spring is coming as well, and summer after it.

As the next few months roll along, I want to be rolling down a conscious path. DevLearn’s helped me map out a route.

Oct 042015

In my Building Job Aids workshop (presented last Tuesday at DevLearn 2015), participants analyze multiple case studies, applying techniques and using job aids to, well, build job aids. Among the skills they practice are the ability to choose the right type of job aid for a task, and the ability to use that type effectively.

There’s a lot of thinking and writing: I make an effort to avoid explaining much before an exercise. Instead, there’s a minimal introduction, with a lot of what would have been explained turned into a print resource to be consulted as needed.

One potential downside is that especially an hour or so after lunch, thinking and writing are conducive to dozing off.

At the same time, my assumption was that participants would want and need additional practice on relevant examples. How could I give someone the chance to assess different job aids and rate their effectiveness? Did she think the samples would produce the desired result? How did they align with ideas in our workshop?

The challenge wasn’t so much finding the examples as structuring the evaluation. The tradeoffs I saw (or believe now that I saw):

  • Time constraints
  • Relevance
  • My desire for multiple elements in a rating system
  • My desire for a simple, overall total

Then the format presented itself in three words:

bja best in show

I liked this title so much, I was determined to use it. But I’ve learned not to be literal about this kind of borrowing. What  makes Jeopardy!-style games in training a dumb idea (even a counterproductive one) so often is not (necessarily) Jeopardy! itself. It’s the mismatch between the content and a format best suited to recalling isolated facts.

Some characteristics of dog shows that I thought suited my goals: I had widely different types of job aids, like the different dog breeds. I had limited time, which at least for me was like the dog-judging segment where the trainer fast-walks the dog in a set pattern before the judge. Plus judging.

That’s where I had the most trouble.  How to get multiple points, an overall total per judge, and a logistically sane process? I started with a three item scale, rating each job aid on its fit (is this a good job aid for this kind of task?), its function (is it likely to produce the desired result?), and its format (how does it stack up against the job aid guidelines in the workshop).

I could score each of those from 1 to 3, with an extra point thrown in for personal preference. No matter how I squinted, though, it looked like way too much math.

best in show singleThen I remembered the Apgar score – a quick assessment of a baby at birth. Five qualities like heart rate or respiration are each assigned a score of 0, 1, or 2. The total describes the baby’s physical condition on a scale of 0 – 10.

So I came up with a five-point scale for Best In Show:

  • Aptness: how well the job aid fit the task and the setting
  • Payoff: how likely it’ll achieve the desired result
  • Guidelines: how it fit with guidelines in general and for its particular type of job aid
  • Appearance: overall effectiveness of the design
  • Response: the judge’s own reaction to the job aid.

As you can see, each item had a line for its score, with a box on top for the total.

In the interest of time, I limited myself to six competitors. This was the score sheet:

best in show 3 x 2

(Click to enlarge in a new window)

Off to the show

I was pretty sure I’d have a decent internet connection. I made a slide with links to my six examples. I explained the scoring, distributed the ballots, and showed each competitor for 30 – 60 seconds, with some contextual commentary as needed.

If I’d had a large group, my plan was for each person to fold the completed ballot between the six boxes, so as to tear it into six individual sheets. I’d have had one person total the ballots for competitor A, one for B, and so on. My workshop group was small enough that I could divide a sheet of flipchart paper in six as Voting Headquarters. It was little trouble for me write down scores by candidate and then total them.

How it went

Best in Show was a success, both as a change of pace and as an exercise in judging job aids. It also broadened exposure: half the competitors were new; the other half had been seen only briefly, as examples, earlier in the day.

An unexpected plus: everyone could see all the individual totals. One job aid received solid 10s except from one person who rated it a 7. Another participant said to her, “I want to know why you rated it a 7.” The question was not a challenge but rather genuine interest in how another person applied the principles of the workshop.


Thomas the corgi (with the kind permission of Jane Bozarth)

Thomas the corgi, showing his best 
(with the kind permission of Jane Bozarth)

I’m really pleased this went as well as it did. I’m thinking of ways to make it work better (one participant was confused by my instructions and rated on a scale of 1 to 3 rather than zero to 2).

And if I have more time, I’ll have a follow-on exercise: Raise the Runt. The idea would be to see which job aid scored the lowest, and then talk about why and about how to improve it.


Aug 112015

In a previous post, I talked about deciding to learn Avid’s Sibelius First, which is software for composing music. My goal wasn’t composition, but I’d read that I could scan sheet music and produce an audio file. I’d joined a choir and wanted to hear the tenor parts for the songs we sing.

This post is about challenges I ran into and reflections I’ve had about how I went about learning.

piano-523050_640Cha cheòl do dhuin’ a bhròn uil’ aithris.
(It’s no music to a man to recite all his woe.)

From a glance at the product site, I thought my choral problems were over. “Choose the note input method that’s most comfortable for you–play a MIDI instrument, transcribe audio, or scan sheet music.” I downloaded the software and launched into my own 30-day trial.

There’s more than one meaning for “trial.”

What I bumped into was my own misapprehension. After fiddling around with the menus and discovering that the reference manual is 437 pages long (not counting glossary, shortcuts, and index), I found that I couldn’t scan handwritten music (like the first piece I wanted to try), only printed music.

I also discovered that while I knew a few things about music (I can play guitar and on a piano can pick out melodies on the treble clef), the details of Sibelius First were a bit like the details of relational databases or organic chemistry: the individual words mostly made sense, but the combinations and contexts often left me stranded.

Chan e na léughar a ni foghliumte ach na chuimhn-ichear.
(It’s not what’s read but what’s remembers that makes one learned.)

Sibelius First comes with three tutorials whose printed guide is 87 pages long. Here’s what you find under “Start Here.”


shield-69096_640However much you may dislike manuals, you must read the whole of this introduction in order to get started with the program.

You are then very strongly advised to work through at least the first three of the five tutorial products before embarking on any serious work of your own with Sibelius First. Sibelius First is easy to learn and mostly self-explanatory, but if you don’t work through these projects you will run a risk of never discovering some basic features, particularly if you are used to notation programs that work in different ways. By the time you have completed the projects — which will take you only a few hours — you will be able to input, edit, play back and print out straightforward music, and you’ll know how to get going on more complicated music too.

Actually, I stuck with the tutorial long enough to read the “7 main elements” of Project 1. They include opening a score, editing and inputting notes, selections (I think they mean “selecting”) and copying music, and “Flexi-time™ input.” Not a word about scanning.

I had no interest in opening a score, and doubted whether Sibelius could open a PDF of a printed score I had. I had some specific goals in mind, and the admonitory tone of the warning didn’t seem to offer much hope of reaching those goals without submitting to a period of initiation.

I don’t want to beat up on Sibelius. This is the crux of off-the-shelf software training: it homogenizes learners to such an extent that it abandons almost all context that’s meaningful to them.

So I refined my context: how do I scan music? It was at about this point I began printing selected chapters of that 437-page manual. Tracking down mentions of scanning, I came across “PhotoScore,” which seemed to be a kind of add-on needed to scan. Where was it? Why didn’t I see it?

I was better able to tackle these questions, in part I think because their scope was more limited. At worst, I’d have to discovered I was wrong — but I wasn’t. It’s been a while and I may have the sequence wrong, but I think I did the download wrong.

I assumed it was one big download with all the necessary parts. In retrospect, I had to go back to the download page two or three more times to pick up various packages I didn’t realize I needed.

music-429711_640This began a series of two-steps-forward, one-step-back incidents, such as:

  • Discovering I had to start PhotoScore from outside Sibelius.
  • Scanning my first page and not understanding the results.
  • Scanning a complete piece and figuring out how to edit
  • Moving the edited piece from PhotoScore to Sibelius
  • Discovering that I couldn’t hear any audio because I hadn’t downloaded the audio portion of Sibelius

It’s been close to six months now. I’ve produced audio files for at least 10 pieces, including eight that include separate parts for all four choir voices, along with nice clean scores in PDF. I even bought a numeric keypad to attach to my laptop (see footnote below for technical explanation). Most important, I’m more than satisfied with my investment of time and money.

And what about learning?

Beiridh am beag tric air a mhòr ainmig.
(The frequent little will overtake the infrequent large.)

Especially early on, I’d work trying to transcribe a piece.  I’d stop when I felt stumped, roam around in the manual, but very often would make guesses about what might work. Some of those guesses became more educated in time. So I was doing the typically messy learning by doing (and, yes, learning by failing).

Ironically, I continue to have very little interest in finishing the Sibelius tutorials. Some of that is just my annoyance at the tone of the warning; some is the sense that I may have taught myself a good portion of what I might have learned, and I’m several pieces of music to the good.

On the other hand, now that I’m more familiar with what *I* can produce, I might be more open to picking up something unexpected.

Which leads to another reflection: for me, in this circumstance, good enough is good enough. I’m not trying to make a living as a music composer or arranger; I’m just trying to learn my choir parts. I think there’s a message in that for those hoping to turn people in the workplace into All Learning, All the Time: most people don’t want to do anything all the time.

At the same time, my definition of “good enough” is changing; my standards have become higher. When I see in sheet music something tricky like a pick-up bar (one at the start of a piece that doesn’t have, say, the four beats that 4/4 time calls for), I want to get the Sibelius transcription to show it and the audio file to play it as written.

I’ve even managed to do things like take music written on two staffs, like this, and scan it…

chi mi 2 staff sample

…and then have Sibelius expand it so that each voice is on its own staff, like this:

chi mi 4 staff sample

That latter version takes more space, since the lyrics appear separately for each voice. Choir members like that; they can more easily focus on their own line, especially when not every voice is singing the same word for the same length.

That’s another lovely song, and one you might have heard. Here are the Rankins singing it:

And here are the lyrics in Gaelic and English.

I’ve become more curious about musical things; I understand more about notation, and I want to figure out how to get Sibelius (and thus the audio files) to do things like multiple repetitions of a chorus — especially because in a Gaelic song like Horo Gun Togainn air Hùgan Fhathast (link to a BBC audio file), with a three-line chorus interwoven with two-line verses.

My choir takes the summer off, and I’ve been working on a professional project (if you’re going to DevLearn at the end of September, I’ll see you there), but I need to reacquaint myself with Sibelius. I’ve got melodies to learn and tenor lines to master.

Jul 302015

I’ve been collaborating on a course with my colleague, Tanis. An unexpected benefit has been the ability to float an initial idea, talk about it, and have it improve from the discussion, from feedback, and from new ideas these things engender.

I want to talk about one of those engendered nuggets. I’m a bit hesitant, because when you get to the end, you may well think “Yeah, so?” For me the path was well worth following, and I might not have taken it without the back-and-forth with Tanis. So this is another form of working out loud.

The topic doesn’t actually matter much. If you’re curious, see the following aside; otherwise, just skip past.

About the topic:

Many pension plans allow purchase of service, a way for a person who hasn’t contributed to the plan (for example, during a leave of absence) to pay additional money into the plan. That payment is the purchase. The person then gains credit for the corresponding work time–that’s the service. Purchasing service can increase the amount of your eventual pension.

Different plans have different rules and coverage, and within a plan there are usually several types of purchase of service. You can see typical examples here (for an Ontario plan) and here (a Pennsylvania plan).

Some pension plans use other terms, but purchase of service is the one we use.

The nugget emerged as we juggled three goals for the first part of our course:

  • Introduce a new type of purchase
  • Connect this new type to what people already know
  • Provide a framework to show what the various types of purchase have in common

Employees taking our course would already have learned how to handle certain purchases, like the leave of absence mentioned above. In the new course, they’ll learn the details for purchasing arrears (payment for a period when contributions should have been made to the pension plan but were not–for example, because of clerical error).

Version one: framework → known → new

I can picture the right framework.

CC-licensed image by João Moura

Working with internal documents and with our subject-matter experts, we discovered a pattern that seemed to apply at a high level to all purchases:

  • Circumstances occur that make a purchase possible.
  • The plan receives an application for the purchase.
  • Plan staff analyze the application to see whether the purchase is permissible.
  • Plan staff calculate the cost of the purchase.

There’s a lot more to it, and there are nuances and conditions for each of those, but it didn’t seem like a bad framework. Having laid it out, we could ask participants how a leave-of-absence purchase would fit into this, since they’d already know how those purchases work. Then we could start talking about arrears purchases, to show how at this level they’re like other purchases the participants have worked with.

On second or third glance, though, this version felt abstract. Our plan staff don’t work directly with frameworks; they work with the specific purchases. And so we moved to…

Version two: known → framework → new

In the revision, we decided to start by describing out a leave-of-absence purchase according to our framework: a person goes on maternity leave; she later applies to purchase the service; the staff evaluate the application; we provide a quote for the cost. We’d make sure participants saw how at a high level thus was how the LOA purchase worked. Finally, we’d introduce arrears purchases using the same framework.

Yeah, yeah, I know...

CC-licensed photo by MTSOfan

This felt better, in no small measure because we began with the specific and not the abstract. And we felt we were doing a better job of connecting to what people already knew.

As we worked on other parts of the course, we’d revisit the intro. Gradually we began to feel that we were explaining for the sake of explaining.

I’ve been in the instructional design field longer than Tanis has, and I feel as though I should have known better. It’s always tempting to try and make things clear. As we poked at this, though, we realized that the key point is not that a leave-of-absence purchase follows these four stages, and so does an arrears purchase.

What was important? Knowing about LOA helps you to learn about arrears.

Version three: known → new

Here’s the sequence we now have–and in the course, the sequence takes much less time than you’ve spent reading this post:

  • Ask participants to describe the phases of a LOA purchase, from the member’s point of view, in 25 words or less. (We don’t care about word count; brevity encourages big-picture summary.)
  • Show a diagram with LOA information illustrating our four phases: the maternity leave, the application, our research, the cost estimate. Discuss how the experience of the participants aligns with this pattern.
  • Redraw the diagram with an arrears purchase replacing the LOA one.
Plenty of purchase

CC-licensed photo by James

We really like having the participants start by sharing their own ideas about the processes involved in the purchases they already work with. We then show our summary (the LOA in the four phases) and make sure they see their own experience in that summary. Finally, we can start talking about arrears.

So now we don’t belabor the four phases; they’re just stepping stones between the familiar and the new. We’re inviting participants to build the connections that work for them.

What comes next? We use this intro as a springboard to what’s different about purchasing arrears. We ask participants what they think might trigger an arrears. If they already have an idea, great–we can reinforce that. If they don’t, that’s okay, too; their interest level is higher as we move into the explanation.


Jul 282015

Joe Ganci, a prolific and generous e-learning consultant, just published a column in Learning Solutions Magazine: The State of Authoring Tools: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going.

I think it’s worth reading in full, especially since Ganci’s experience is deeper and far more recent than my own. His reflections on the origins of e-learning triggered a number of thoughts for me, and this post is a sort of extended comment on Joe’s article.

CC-licensed image by Patrick Finnegan

Oh, boy, we’ve got learning NOW!
(CC-licensed image by Patrick Finnegan)

He mentioned two of the ancestors of modern elearning: PLATO and TICCIT, both of which began in the 1960s. I first encountered mainframe-based computer-based training (as elearning was called then) in 1978 via the IBM Interactive Instructional System, and two years later was the head of a team developing training for Amtrak’s new reservation system, using a competing product, Boeing’s Scholar/Teach 3.

It’s telling that I couldn’t find a worthwhile link for either of these last two.

I also remember a long-ago conference where someone asked, “How many of you have seen PLATO?” Nearly every hand went up. “How many of your organizations use PLATO?” Not a one.

In 1979 I was put in charge of developing CBT for Amtrak’s new reservation system–to new it was still under development as we learned the authoring system and started designing the courses. Our IT department got the CBT software up and running, but we were left on our own when it came to using it. So I had to teach myself and then my team quasi-programming concepts like using variables to track progress, record quiz results, and control paths within a course.

I clearly recall the next stage of elearning, a proliferation of chip-laden devices rolling through trade shows like the Bandwagon Express. When Joe mentioned the two Authorware camps — icon-draggers and codeheads — I recalled a set of definitions that’s served me well for years:

Easy to learn: hard to use.
Ease to use: hard to learn.
Easy to learn and easy to use: won’t do what you want.

The reality is that the people who buy elearning systems (as with much other organizational technology) are not the people who have to use them, either as developers or, alas, as learners. Hence my agreement with this passage in Joe’s article:

Very often we hear vendors say that we no longer need instructional designers because the tools are so easy to use that Harry the Engineer can create the engineering course himself, or Susan the Physicist can build that physics lesson herself. The bean-counters in those organizations buying those tools are psyched at all the money they can save by not hiring or contracting instructional designers (and of course programmers) to fill their learning needs.

They don’t know, of course, that the resulting lessons are often at the very least anemic and at the worst nothing more than boring text and images punctuated with a Jeopardy game and quizzes. Learners end up expecting their eLearning to be onerous and are resigned to getting through it as quickly as possible and in some cases cheating if they can.

Some of those people may have taken a course I once worked on, aimed at supervisors. The client insisted that a lesson take two hours to complete–because that was the standard required by the state of California for the topic at hand.

This approach and similar ones have nudged corporate elearning ever closer to to the status of Death By PowerPoint, only with voiceover. And the inevitable Jeopardy review.

Formal training in organizations has always struggled between flashy features (the ooh!and effective learning (the ah!). Far too often, the ooh wins — so you’ve got terabytes of animated demos of corporate systems, with the apparently mandatory click-click imitation typing, yet almost never a way for people at work to practice safely in the actual systems (such as via a robust training mode built into the system).

I admire Joe Ganci’s optimism, and I couldn’t agree more with this opinion:

If you ask yourself, “What will my tool allow me to do for this audience and this content?” then you’re asking the wrong question. The real question should be, “What is the best approach to have this audience learn and so what interactions should I build?”