What would you do with a brain if you had one? (Dorothy Gale, to the Scarecrow)

Nov 162015

On several projects lately, I don’t know what I’m doing. Or at least what I’m doing next.

A way to cope is to ask someone who seems to know more. I’m lucky in having smart colleagues at work who will not only share what they know, but will work with me to reshape that knowledge so I have a better understanding.

I’m lucky professionally as well, because I have people I can and do consult with on issues apart from my everyday job.

Directing the right question

CC-licensed image from PublicDomainPictures

Sometimes, though, I’m not quite ready to do that asking. Usually that’s because of the particular type of don’t-know I’m experiencing.  Either I don’t know what (as in what to ask, or what’s the difficulty, or what’s the domain), or I don’t know how (to take the next step, to choose the right option, to switch points of view).

To that end, in a nod to the Working Out Loud concept, I’ve been making what I think of as Talk To Myself notes. (The TTM nickname just came to me, and I like it enough that it’ll become a tag in Evernote.)

The idea is that for a specific project or domain, I write down what it is I can’t figure out or what I want to know.

This is hardly an earthshaking idea, but it’s a concrete one. The effort to form a question, even if I’m not good at forming one for the topic at hand, gets me to run through what I do know, and I think primes me to think more expansively.

Here are some examples:

Sibelius First

I’ve written about this music-composition software here and here. I got it so I could scan choral sheet music and produce audio files — especially for the tenor, since that’s what I sing.

I think I’m at the “relatively good apprentice” level with Sibelius. I can handle basic tasks pretty well, and I’ve developed some good-enough workarounds.

Noting things down

CC-licensed image by FNeumann

One side effect is that I’m more aware of things I don’t know how to do but want to. So onto the TTM note go thoughts like these:

  • How can I add a blank page on the end of a score so I can add text there — like block lyrics, or background notes, or even a pronunciation guide for Gaelic?
  • Can I export the melody for just a portion of the piece (say, bars 12 – 24 for the tenors)?
  • Is there an easy way to change the instrument for a given line? So far I only know how to add a new staff for a new instrument, then copy the notes from an existing instrument, then delete the staff they were copied from. That seems… kludgy.

Forums in WordPress

As a follow-up to my Building Job Aids workshop last month, I wanted to learn how to create a private online community for interested workshop grads — a place where they might share how they apply what they learned, and maybe even do some show-and-tell in a safe space. At DevLearn I heard Tracy Parish talk about how she did something similar, and I got some ideas from her.

This is one of those don’t-quite-know-what situations for me. Through trial and error, I’ve installed plugins to enable forums (threaded discussions) but I still feel I lack understanding.

Talk To Myself in this case means repeating questions till they make sense, at least to me.

  • Do I have to have open registration?
  • If I do, can I keep out the obvious spambots?
  • What should be recording the registration (if anything)? Do I need some kind of sign-up form, and if so, where does the signing-up go?
  • At a broader level, what’s the flow from inviting someone to that person’s reading and posting in a forum?

At work, a practice database

So many core corporate systems have no way for people to safely learn and practice how to use those systems. A rich, low-risk environment like Amtrak’s training trains will support and encourage learning in a thousand different ways.

We have such an environment for a key system at work–but it hasn’t been used much, and the documentation I can find is sketchy. So I’m making Talk To Myself notes here, too. This is a tougher area because it involves a lot of database security and management.

Borrowing from advice I received from a graphic artist, I’m framing these questions in terms of what I want to accomplish rather than how I think I should go about getting that accomplishment. For example, I don’t know the steps or the stakeholders or the timeframes needed to copy data from another environment into this practice one. I don’t know how (or if) it’s possible to search for certain types of data in the practice database.

I’m pretty sure I need a conversation with one of my IT contacts — but that conversation with her will go much better because I’ve spent time Talking To Myself… and taking notes.


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.

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 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?”



May 112015

I started to write about learning new software. But no one learns software for its own sake. Software’s like a second language: you learn it because you have a goal. Even the well-intended “everyone should know how to code” silliness has a goal, which is less about coding and more about something like logical thinking, understanding complex systems, or producing a result that the coder finds worthwhile.

I decided I wanted to write about two things: why I wanted to learn this particular software, and how I’m not learning the way the program’s developers think I should. I’m not even learning the way I might have thought I should. It’s going to take me a couple of posts; this is the first.

What I wanted to learn

Last year, I joined the Victoria Gaelic Choir. Gaelic (Gàidhlig, Scottish Gaelic) was the language of my ancestors and even my grandparents. I know only a few words and phrases, but I’ve know Gaelic singing for a long time–and if you don’t, there’s a list at the end of this post to get you started.

As I said last year, this opened a clutch of challenges. I needed to learn lyrics in a language I don’t speak–one whose spelling and pronunciation aren’t always easy for an English speaker:

O seinnidh mi dàn do dh’eilean mo ghràidh
(O, I’ll sing a song to the island that I love)

“oh shay-nee mee dawn doh yell-un mo gr-eye…”

And before the lyrics, I needed to learn the melody for many songs I’d never heard. (Tune first, words second; trust me.) Even for those I did recognize, I needed to learn the tenor part.

I can pick out a tune or a tenor line on guitar, but that’s not a practical way to learn a choral piece. I seriously considered buying an electronic keyboard, but my son (thank goodness) suggested I experiment with a 30-day trial of Sibelius First.


With Sibelius, I know what I’m doing. Or what I should do.

This $120 package lets you compose music on your computer and share it with others. I didn’t plan any composition, but the features that caused my son to suggest Sibelius include the ability to scan printed sheet music, to create an editable digital score, and to export sound files.

Sheet music to an mp3? Does it work?

Let me show, rather than tell. That line of Gaelic above is from Uibhist Mo Ghràidh (Uist, My Love), an archetypal Gaelic song about the island of North Uist, where my mother’s people came from.

O seinnidh mi dàn do dh’eilean mo ghràidh
far an d’fhuair mi m’àrach nuair bha mi nam phàisd’
Far am bi mo chrìdhe gu deireadh mo là
ann an Eilean Uibhist an eòrna.

O, I’ll sing a song to the isle of my love
where I was raised as a child
where my heart will be to the end of my days
In the Isle of Uist of the barley.

If you want some idea of how I felt when everyone else in the choir knew this, listen to Linda NicLeòid — Linda MacLeod — singing. (I’ll resume below below the video.)

A recording like this demonstrates the melody, and from Wednesday night choir practice I had a nodding acquaintance with the tenor line. But “once a week” takes the idea of spaced practice to an extreme. I needed to hear the tenor part on its own, a lot, so I could practice.

I chose Uibhist Mo Ghràidh for this post to show what I was able to do after working with Sibelius off and on for about three months. Starting with a good copy of the sheet music, arranged for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass:

  • I scanned the music into Sibelius.
  • I edited a few errors the scan didn’t quite catch.
  • From the digital version, I exported audio files for each part and for the four parts together.

Sibelius allows me to choose instruments–which means I can make the audio sound like piano, or like human voices. I went the latter route. Here’s the full choir audio, and here’s the tenor part.

The audio comes out as .wav files. It takes me less than a minute to convert them to mp3s, which I can then send to my phone or share with other members of the choir.

That’s where I went. Next time: how I got there.

It’s taken me a while to write this post, because I kept rethinking what it was I wanted to learn and how I could explain the context. If I had to summarize my own learning goal, it’d be “have the tune for the tenor parts to Gaelic songs I want to sing.”  That’s an oversimplification, but it was also a 14-word target I wanted to hit.

It took some effort before I could hit it, and the process of that learning is what will be in the next post.

Those Gaelic songs I promised

Raylene Rankin
(Click for an appreciation from the Halifax Chronicle Herald)

Song may be one of the most enduring ways to preserve and transmit a language. Here are a few examples–the links in the song titles lead to a recording of the song. When I’ve been able to find an online translation into English, I’ve put a link for that as well. (The links are set to open in a new window.)