Learning (by design)

I’ve been at loose ends the past few days–at a Franciscan retreat center while my wife takes part in a leadership conference for the organization she works for.  No in-room phone, no TV (Francis would have approved).  (I did walk to the resort hotel a mile away to watch the inauguration, and may God bless Reverend Lowery and everyone who said “Amen.”)

A chance conversation at dinner this evening brought back a notion that’s been part of any technology training I’ve done in my entire career:  “It’s not what you call it; it’s what it does.”

One man at dinner admitted to confusion and not a little cynicism about social software.  It’s not part of his life, it’s not part of his work (at least not yet).  More important, he can’t connect the examples he sees to things that matter in his life.

On a different route, I’ve seen mainly Twitter-based conversation about instructional design (and especially the notion of “instructionally sound”).  When you talk about that sort of thing apart from a given setting, it’s not a long distance into eyeroll territory.

Neither Dick nor CareyI’ve seen people who treated Dick and Carey pretty much the way others treat the Mosaic Law.  And I’ve seen ritualistic adherence to a Mager-style objective that resulted in stultifying training materials.  Audience, behavior, condition, and degree are planning tools, not required text for learners.

At the same time, I think that for specific situations, especially toward the procedural end of the performance spectrum, there definitely are design principles and techniques that can “enhance learning.”

I put that in quotes because, at its essence, learning is what the learner does, not what a designer or instructor or facilitator causes.  So if you think you’re enhancing something for somebody, you ought to include them in the conversation.

That said, design can make a difference:

  • It can provide scaffolding by presenting increasingly realistic or increasingly more complex problems for people to work with.
  • It can encourage metacognition by making deliberate reflection part of a process.
  • It can increase interest (attracting and retaining attention) by using realistic, high-value situations.
  • It can reduce cognitive load by providing non-instructional support for some aspects of a job (for example, through job aids).

Clark Quinn shared a great example of design at work the other day in Usability and Learnability.

I told the man at dinner about the Twitter hashmark by which people shared their voting experience in the last election.  He asked, “Why do you need to know that?”

The answer: maybe you (the mythical average person) don’t need to know that.  But maybe a county or state elections officer could tap that stream of information to help analyze staffing, deploy backup resources, or identify trouble spots sooner than incoming phone calls might.

So–I’m thinking that some criticism of “training” is, to put it kindly, low-hanging fruit.  Groups of people are always going to need to acquire basic procedural skills and knowledge.  No one’s going to become a reservation agent through discovery learning (or through Facebook).

Do things stop there?  Of course not–and that’s where organizational inertia works against companies.

America needs trainingI ran online training for the Amtrak reservation system for three years.  The single most effective tool we had was our set of “training trains” — imaginary trains operating on real routes.  In your formal training (much of it distance learning) you got a training ID; with that ID you could perform any entry on the training trains that you could perform on your job.

That means you could fiddle around with entries you didn’t quite get, try things out, ask other people to show you things, with no risk of screwing up an actual reservation.

The training trains supplemented the online courses that taught the nuts and bolts of how to reserve a seat or how to report train departure.  Both were part of the big design.

Moses photo by Jason McKim.
Amtrak photo by Professor Bop.