CBT, ATMs, and Charles Aznavour

I saw this comment on Twitter:

@urbie: Flashback.. taking a text-based CBT. Owie.

I couldn’t resist retweeting…nor adding my own comment:

@dave_ferguson: RT @urbie: Flashback.. taking a text-based CBT. Owie. // Me: yeah, like going to college at the ATM screen.

This led to a side conversation with Simon Bostock about the (mostly) bad old days.  I’ve written thousands of lines of text-based CBT: long ago, I was in charge of computer-based training for Amtrak’s reservation system, and I consulted with Marriott when they launched MARSHA, their hotel system.

It’s hard to convey the impact of the all-text, monochrome oppression of dumb terminals, back in the early 1980s.  Amtrak’s ARROW system couldn’t (or wouldn’t) display lowercase letters, so the entire screen (25 rows, 80 columns) would be in uppercase.

(My ATM remark reveals the bias own experience; actually, I haven’t seen an all-text, graphics-free ATM in quite some time.  But a mainframe screen is falling into the same category as a dial telephone or a ditto machine.)

Back then, CBT could be downright horrible. So is a good deal of contemporary digital learning; it’s just horrible in newer, flashier, noisier ways.

I recalled, during my conversation with Simon, that at the time I’d taken great pride in the training we created at Amtrak.  The reason for the pride?  We made good use of the tool.  It was what we had to work with, and a better tool  for the situation than any other realistic option.

Every technology has its advantages and its drawbacks.  If you work in a group setting, let alone an organizational one, sometimes you choose to live with the givens.  So, at Amtrak: we had over 2,000 people in over 125 locations who needed to learn to use a new reservation system, different from the one about half of them had seen before.  And we wanted the training to work for new employees–say, 400 or 500 per year–so we didn’t want to keep saying “in the old system…”

So what did we do?  This kind of thing:

  • Started with a goal in mind. Specifically, we wanted to teach people how to make reservations and issue tickets using the new system.  Folderol about what kind of mainframe we had or what company made the previous system was, well, folderol.
  • Strenuously avoided on-screen lectures. We worked hard to avoid over-explaining.  A frequent pattern: simple example, you-do-it problem, clear feedback for varied answers, then extension to more cases.
  • “Individualized” by chunking. Most people would learn on the job, so we build courses to take less than 20 minutes.  Clear topics (“how to report train time”) made it easy for someone to decide whether to take a given course.
  • Built a practice system. Probably the single most useful thing we did was to create (in collaboration with the Train Operations department) a set of “training trains.”  Any user of the Amtrak system could use a special ID to work with these in any way he wanted–make reservations, change reservations, even issue tickets (nonvalid ones–they wouldn’t print).  This allowed people to apply the general procedures from the formal CBT to the kinds of problems they encountered on the job.

Note that the training trains were not part of the CBT.  One person on my team worked with Train Ops and essentially cloned actual trains.  You had to use the training-train ID to get to them, and with that ID, you couldn’t work with actual reservations.  So it provided robust practice (you were using all the capabilities of the system) while protecting you from serious consequences for mistakes (you couldn’t cancel someone’s actual trip).

Our success was a result of combining the new tool with the best of what we knew about learning in the workplace.  All of this reminded me, as Charles Aznavour does in a different setting, that at times in the past, people weren’t wrong.

Public domain image of a dumb-terminal screen by SamuraiClinton, from WikiMedia Commons.

3 thoughts on “CBT, ATMs, and Charles Aznavour

  1. Recently, I went out for a break during a workshop I was leading on Professional Boundaries with social workers (or ‘support workers’ as they’re called in this particular field) to discover a stand-up fight.

    “You should never ever under any circumstances give a client a hug,” said one.

    “You’re just a jobsworth who hates clients,” said another.

    I asked them who their clients were – one worked with young adults from Leaving Care services and the other with Category 1 sex-offenders. I think you can guess which one is which.

    In all the discussion about the ‘future of workplace learning’, I wish there were little avatars indicating which ‘workplace’ the speaker was talking about.

    I work in Business Development and Social Care (don’t ask how this happened, let’s just say my voluntary work got out of hand) and the methods I use in the two settings simply wouldn’t transfer. Methodology, like expertise, is domain specific.

    L & D professionals who talk about the ‘bad old days’ are mostly, I hope, talking about historical resource constraints and the enterprise itself. Seems to me that the fact that I live in a state of unimagined luxury – econopalypse notwithstanding, I am richer than Queen Victoria by any sane metric – means we must have been doing some things right.

    You’re right, sometimes you do choose to live with the givens. The past is one of those ‘givens’ and focusing on what was ‘bad’ about it is fun, on occasion – but should be no more than that.

  2. Simon, along the lines of social care, I remember hearing during a very stressful time, “Sometimes there aren’t any good choices. Sometimes it’s only the least bad choice.”

  3. Great story, Dave. There is something magical and innocent about having such resource constraints. I think this helps solution groups focus on goals and principles.

    In my organization our entrepreneurial hay-day was between 8 and 12 years ago. In our solution community, except for the transient program management currently running the show, we collectively recognize that additional resources and opportunities lost to the grip of control have caused our progression to slow to the point of regression.

    I see so many folks now that get so bogged down in the shiny wrapper and the splendor of options that they forget why they’re really there. To solve problems.

    I think that’s part of what Simon references above. We have it so good ‘in the now’ that we often get lost in the luxury.

    The perspective and stories brought by experience are too often have too little influence on current thought and practice.

    Thanks for sharing.

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