On the job

Otherwise, it’s babysitting or psychotherapy.

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?”

 

 

WESA and work: what and why

 Uncategorized
Apr 252014
 

I’ve spent most of the past four months learning how public-sector pension administration is affected by WESA (the Wills, Estates and Succession Act that goes into effect in British Columbia on March 31).

That’s because my assignment was to design WESA-related training for the people in my organization who deal with members of the different plans we administer at BC Pension Corporation.

In the training / learning networks that I connect to, I frequently see discussion (and occasional grousing) about “compliance,” which often seems to mean “having to comply with some picayune requirement.” At the moment there’s a video clip making the rounds of Twitter and Facebook, with a flight attendant joking through the standard safety announcement.

I thought it was funny (though it wouldn’t be if I had to hear it five times a month), but the mandatory pre-flight announcement is also near the bottom rung of the compliance ladder. Where I work, compliance can mean “make sure we meet the legal and fiduciary requirements established to protect the interests of the individual members of pension plans and of their public-sector employers.”

Putting that in terms of accomplishments, we want to be able to:

  • Accurately describe the options you have for nominating (designating) who will receive:
    • Any benefit available if you die before retirement
    • Any benefit available if you die after retirement
  • Correctly explain options for allocating benefits among multiple beneficiaries
  • Review nominations submitted by members for completeness and accuracy
  • Correctly enter that information into our system
  • Update information based on changes from the member or the employer

…and a number of other changes to how we’ve done things prior to this legislation.

So one part of this post is to say “yes, compliance can matter,” and the other is just to talk a bit about how fortunate I’ve been in this new job. I was assigned to the WESA my first week on the job, because my acting manager believed it was good for people to have a project that’s their own.

I worked with the person writing our procedures related to nominations; he guided me through the initial thickets of terminology, acronyms, and workflow. My colleague Chris, the senior member of our instructional designer group, helped me plan my project and gave invaluable ideas from a course he’d developed on a similarly complicated topic. I also got to work with several subject-matter experts who “work in the plans,” as we say — their day jobs involve dealing the members of one or another of the BC public-sector plans, so they know this stuff.

Best of all, the experts who were the instructors were eager to avoid information dumps and talk shops. Ultimately we created three versions of our course, tailored to three different job categories. Lots of practice cases — including simple ones they walked the participants through, so people could see the relevant part of the system and update a (fictional) member’s records instead of just having someone tell them how they’d do it back on the job.

I’m thinking of writing a bit more about this. I need to find the right balance between describing what I think is worth talking about, safeguarding specifics about our members and our systems, and putting people to sleep with more information about nominating beneficiaries than they might want to know.

I’ll figure that out, and I’ll try to get my posting frequency up a bit. I’ve been missing the thinking-out-loud for quite some time.

Jan 312014
 

I recently came across a link to this infographic by Julian Hansen.

Infographic by Julian Hansen

I don’t see most infographics as a job aid. They usually aren’t intended to guide you through a task, and don’t usually serve well as reference job aids (my term for information that’s been organized for quick reference). I don’t think this would serve as a true job aid for most non-designers–it’s really busy, and the criss-crossing paths could easily confuse someone.

As this Fontfeed article states, though, that wasn’t really Hansen’s goal.

 Instead of simply browsing through type specimens, Julian wondered if he could come up with something more rational, a systematic approach [to choosing typefaces]. His project took the form of a flowchart on a poster. Studying different type finders made him come to the conclusion that selecting type really could be a matter of taste…. This made Julian decide that his poster should not only be useful, but also be light-hearted and make fun of stereotypes. This made him throw in options like “is it an Italian restaurant?” for instance. His ultimate goal was to show that typefaces convey a whole lot of meaning that “ordinary” people just don’t see.

Assuming that’s true, I see the chart as one way to demonstrate understanding: here’s what I think about fonts and when to use them. This is part of what I think Jane Bozarth means when she says, “We learn by doing, and by telling what we’re doing, and by watching others do things, and by showing others how we did something.”

Personally, I’m not much info fonts.

That’s not the point, though. Work like Hansen’s has the potential to trigger further interest in people.  For example, after reading his chart and the Fontfeed article, I happened to see a tweet by @MizMinh linking to an article on The Next Web:

The Science Behind Fonts (and How They Make You Feel)

Personally, all my working out loud lately has been done on site, in my new job. I’m not unhappy about that; I’m working on an engaging project and I have collaborative colleagues. But I’ve been neglecting other avenues, and this post is one effort to overcome that neglect.

Oct 192012
 

Part of an email I received yesterday; I’ve changed a few [specifics] for privacy’s sake:

My friend [Veronica], a retired lawyer, has just started training as a part-time [Stratosphere Airlines] ticket agent at [Overcrowded Airport].

She has started with some computer-based self instruction that seems to dump lots of info on students before any application, like memorizing the airport codes for cities that Stratosphere flies to. She says there will be interaction–role-playing-like simulations of conversations and problems a ticket agent will predictably experience.

She said the trainer has confessed to her that the info dump without application is neither his own preference nor his design. It is imposed.

Have a good flight, sugar.I’ve never worked for Stratosphere Airlines; I’ve hardly ever flown them. But I recognize this situation and this approach, because they’re a direct flight to 1975, when this dull-witted, learn-X-before-Y approach was pandemic in the travel industry. It’s how I started learning what was Amtrak’s reservation system at the time: memorize a trainload of facts.

One of the many unfortunate assumptions is the value of such memorization. Like Latin or limp broccoli in your school lunch, it’s supposed to be good for you. In the context of becoming competent as a ticket agent, though, it’s as misguided as memorizing the name of every street along your 25-mile commute, rather than learning the most sensible route and then useful variations, like when to avoid driving past the high school.

The assumption in Veronica’s training program is that you have to know the city code before you can look up a schedule. The reality is that you have to have the code, which isn’t the same thing.  Let me demonstrate with an example from based on Amtrak’s old reservation system:

Use the A (Availability) entry to find the schedule between two cities.
Here’s how to check availability between Chicago (CHI) and Los Angeles (LAX) on July 5th:

A 5JUL CHI LAX
(don’t use spaces; they’re here just to make the example clear)

How would you check the schedule for May 9th from San Francisco (SFO) to Portland (PDX)?

The odds are that 80% of people, given that example, will come up with one of the two correct answers(A9MAYSFOPDX or A09MAYSFOPDX–the leading zero in the date is optional). Which means that for them an instructor or course can respond, “That’s right” and then show what the reservation system would show: the schedule from San Francisco to Portland on May 9th.

I’m skipping some nuance here, like taking note of the leading zero if the person uses it (and pointing out it’s optional). I’m also skipping what a good instructor or course would do with what I call expected wrong answers–someone using the correct city codes in the wrong order, or using a code from the example.

To me, this example is a bite-sized authentic task: it’s a small accomplishment that makes sense in a workplace context. Your customer asks what the schedule is from Point A to Point B, and you find out. Looking up city codes is a useful, even essential skill (if you don’t have the city code for Moose Jaw, you can’t find a flight that goes there), but it’s just one component in a cluster of authentic tasks.

What’s more, I can put together a logical sequence of such bite sized tasks into a complete customer transaction suited to a novice ticket agent.  And I can then expand parts of that sequence to give practice in applying the system’s power (which is to say, its complexity) to meet a customer’s requests. “Is there a flight that will get me to Moose Jaw by 3?  Can I leave Moose Jaw on Saturday morning? Is there a discount fare when traveling with small children on the weekend?”

I worked in an Amtrak ticket office for four years, and no customer ever asked me for a city code. We used them all the time–but our practice was to teach ticket agents to look them up at first, and not guess. We also has job aids for frequently-requested cities–storing the information in the job aid instead of trying to cram it into someone’s head. The training-wheels effect would kick in, so that after a week or two on the job in Detroit, you did memorize the code for Jackson, Michigan (JXN), a destination people requested from us far more often than they did Jacksonville, Florida (JAX) or Jackson, Mississippi (JAN).

There’s an awful lot of stuff to learn in a railroad or airline reservation system. I often use ticket-agent training as an example of a potential drawback to using only informal learning approaches. Yes, it’s true, if I dropped you in the middle of Budapest with a tattoo on your forehead that said “Kérem, ne beszélj velem angolul” (“Please don’t speak to me in English”), you’d probably start picking up Hungarian quickly. Depending on your interests, though, a scenario-based course on Hungarian for Travelers–focused on realistic situations that made sense to you–might be a better idea.

It’s almost certainly a better idea than beginning by studying verb conjugations. You’ll need those, eventually, but you can probably find out what time the flight arrives without having to study the subjective first.  Except, maybe, if the Stratosphere Airlines flight from 1975 were to arrive.

CC-licensed image by Robert Huffstutter

Jun 282012
 

There’s this:

Blended learning

“Stir the mixture well / Lest it prove inferior…”

And there’s this:

Blended learning and job aids

“…then put half a drop / Into Lake Superior.”

Even conceding that many of the “blended learning” hits are from formal education (schools, academia), it’s a little depressing that only 3% of them mention job aids. I personally doubt it’s because everyone uses job aids. It’s almost as if developers, yearning to produce ever-more-engrossing courses, are blind to this kind of performance support.

This is closely related to what Cathy Moore says in the opening minute of the following clip:

And here, at 4%… is what is possibly the least expensive and most effective approach [for blended learning]: on-the-job training tasks. Apparently we are still stuck in the mindset that training is a course.

The clip actually covers a lot of territory in six minutes, including realistic tasks, application, relevant examples, and so on, but I want to focus here on the aspect of figuring out how not to train — or, more accurately, how to not train. Cathy demonstrates the use of “a mega job aid” to enable on-the-job learning. This is her term for combining a job aid (which stores information or guidance so you don’t have to remember it) with instruction (which tells you how to apply what’s in the job aid to a specific task).

How do you know it’s a job aid?

  • It’s external to the individual.
  • It reduces the need to memorize.
  • People use it on the job.
  • It enables accomplishment.

I asked Cathy for some comments about job aids.

“Before designing formal training, consider whether a job aid is all you need.”

Here, she’s asking what makes you think you need formal training for X?  Is there another way to help people accomplish the desired result?

“If you decide training is necessary, make sure the job aids are top-notch, and consider having the ‘course’ teach people how to use the job aids.”

It’s not a job aid if you don’t use it while you’re performing the task. So if you build a job aid but find that people need to practice using it, that practice should be like on-the-job use.  They’re not going to be doing the real-world task from within the LMS (unless, poor devils, their real-work job is managing the LMS). Embalming a job aid inside a course is like disabling an elevator in hopes that people will learn how to get from the 3rd to the 9th floor without “cheating.”

“Don’t duplicate the job aid info in the course.”

  Part of the decision about whether to build a job aid involves the nature of the task. Among the considerations:

How likely is it that the task will change?

The likelier it is that the task will change (and thus that the steps for accomplishing it will change), the more sense it makes to build a job aid — and the less sense it makes to duplicate the job aid inside a formal course.

Instead, as part of your formal training, use the same job aid people will use on the job. And figure out how to make updates easily available.

No matter what learning management ideology claims, there are only three kinds of people who return to an online course for reference information:

  • People who work for the vendor.
  • Actors appearing in the vendor’s materials.
  • People on the job who are really bored or really desperate.

Because she involves herself with what people actually do on the job, Cathy has some inexpensive yet highly effective ideas about where to get started:

To evaluate and improve job aids, physically visit learners’ work stations and look around. What support materials have people created for themselves? Often someone on the job has already created a good job aid and you just need to “borrow” it.

Even if it’s a less-than-ideal job aid, the fact that someone’s created it and is using it suggests both that the task is important and that people feel the need for support as they’re carrying out the task. That’s one heck of a head start, and you haven’t had to create a single “at the end of this training program” statement.