What I read

The strongest memory is weaker than the palest ink.

Sep 142014
 

an leabhar beag gormMy ancestors were all Scots–MacDougalls, MacLeods, MacLennans, MacFarlanes, MacIsaacs, Rankins, Macdonalds, and more than one who spelled my last name MacFhearghais–and so I’ve followed the run-up to next Thursday’s referendum asking “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

This is a question for the voters of Scotland, and I don’t pretend to have advice on how they should vote. In the social media streams I follow, though, I’ve seen many remarks to the effect that, despite excesses here and there, discussions in Scotland have had a high level of seriousness.

Just today, on the Facebook page for an artist I follow who’s an ardent advocate for Yes, a person planning to vote No was invited to a public discussion. He felt secure enough to ask with an emoticon wink, “Will I be safe?”

Ordinary individuals are exploring, considering, pondering, which is a good thing for any democracy.

What this post is about is not a Yes or No vote in the referendum, but the thoroughness of one organization firmly on the Yes side–Wings Over Scotland, a political website focused on the media.

What I mean by thoroughness is their approach to communicating with potential readers. I only happened to notice this because I came across a link to An Leabhar Beag Gorm, the Gaelic edition of their publication, The Wee Blue Book(I don’t know much Gaelic, but I knew all four words in the Gaelic title, so it caught my eye.)

wee blue bookAs Wings Over Scotland explains in their introduction to The Wee Blue Book, none of the 37 national or daily papers  available in Scotland supports independence.  “Newspapers have no duty to be fair or balanced, but… the press being so overwhelmingly skewed to one side is a problem for democracy.

“Our website…is biased, too. We support independence…”

To that end, they’ve collected a great deal of information and assembled it into the Wee Blue Book.

What’s impressive is how they’re offering it up. You can see on their August 11 post that the book is available:

And, as you’ve seen, in Gaelic.

But wait! There’s more!

Wings Over Scotland has a print-ready edition–and when they say “print,” they mean A6 paper, self-cover, CMYK, saddle-stitched, with a 3mm bleed, on 130gsm stock, so you can “just hand the PDF to a printing company.”

Finally, they have a “low-colour, ink-saver version” for home printing, with instructions, so if you want to run off a couple yourself, you can.

I’ve never met the Reverend Stuart Campbell, who runs the site, but I’m pretty sure he’s a lot smarter than the average social media guru whose self-promotions rain down on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Feb 092013
 

I’ve been reading All I Really Need to Know (about Creative Thinking) I Learned (by Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten, by Mitchel Resnick of the MIT Media lab. This was the suggested reading for the first session of the Learning Creative Learning online course.

This paper argues that the “kindergarten approach to learning” – characterized by a spiraling cycle of Imagine, Create, Play, Share, Reflect, and back to Imagine – is ideally suited to the needs of the 21st century, helping learners develop the creative-thinking skills that are critical to success and satisfaction in today’s society. The paper discusses strategies for designing new technologies that encourage and support kindergarten-style learning, building on the success of traditional kindergarten materials and activities, but extending to learners of all ages, helping them continue to develop as creative thinkers.

Resnick's image of kindergarten learning

Resnick’s image of kindergarten learning

Resnick is referring to the kind of kindergarten where kids are not “filling out phonics worksheets and memorizing flash cards” — more like the one I remember, with huge wooden blocks, a full-size rolltop desk, and nothing that I can recall as an effort to get me ready for the LSAT.

His diagram’s a spiral because the steps in this process aren’t as distinct or sequential as describing or depicting them might imply.

It’s through this process that kindergarteners “develop and refine their abilities as creating thinkers.” And, as they grow, they need resources beyond wooden blocks and finger paint.

I like his stress on little-c creativity (“creativity within one’s personal life”). Not everyone’s going to be the next Freeman Dyson or Linus Torvalds, but everyone can “become more creative in the ways they deal with everyday problems.”

In the Imagine section, he points out that many kindergarten materials encourage the imagination–they don’t over-structure. By contrast, a lot of “education technologies are overly constrained” — you can only do what they’re set up to do.

It’s like all that fun drill and practice.

He offers the example of Crickets, which I hadn’t heard of: small programmable devices, suited to children, that they can interconnect, modify, and program. Don’t take my word for it, though:

In the article, he says:

The design challenge is to develop features specific enough so that children can quickly learn how to use them, but general enough so that children can contine to imagine new ways to use them.

For some reason, this reminded me of explanations of “simple machines” in long-ago science classes–things like inclined planes, wedges, screws, and pulleys. I’d been told that a screw was a kind of inclined plane, but when it came to pulleys, I don’t think we ever actually rigged up a bunch of pulleys to experience how the right combination would let us lift a load we otherwise could not.

While reading the Create section, I read this line three times:

With Mindstorms and Crickets, for example, children can create dynamic, interactive constructions — and, in the process, learn concepts related to sensing, feedback, and control.

It’s the last part that got me. What it brought to mind was the first course I wrote in the computer-based training system we used for reservations training at Amtrak. Things I had learned about learning (like using a minimalist approach, or providing feedback without giving away the answer) clicked. I could create a course that would help someone learn how to request and interpret train schedules–and I wouldn’t have to be there when that happened.

Resnick says (sensibly) that playing and learning ought to be linked. “Each at its best involves…experimentation, exploration, and testing.” This is part of why he disliked “edutainment” (and not just for its overripe, marketeerish name).

Studios, directors, and actors provide you with entertainment; schools and teachers provide you with education… In all of these cases, you are viewed as a passive recipient. If we are trying to help children develop as creative thinkers, it is more productive to focus on “play” and “learning” (things you do) rather than “entertainment” and “education” (things that others provide for you).

Also in this section, he mentions Scratch, a programmable language that kids can use to create interactive stories. I haven’t gone into this, but just the illustrations of the code remind me of the MIT App Inventor that I used to build a smartphone app (touch a picture of a cat, hear a purring sound, after which the image changes to a cow).

A scrap of Scratch

 

Say meow, then switch to the cow.

Scratch is one way that Resnick’s article moves into the Share section. He quotes Marvin Minsky as saying that the Logo programming language has great grammar but not much literature.

So the Scratch website is an example of “both inspiration and audience.” And, in my way of thinking, if that’s not what you want to share, you at least see how sharing can happen.

Resnick is talking about children, but I come to this from a career mostly involving helping adults to learn. And perhaps the single biggest drawback to learning in the workplace (well, after you get past icebreakers and listening-as-learning and endless recordkeeping) is the dearth of support for reflection.

What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How’s it going? What do you think made that happen (for all kinds of outcomes)?

A colleague I respect recently said he’s decided to propose his first professional-conference presentation. I was surprised that he hadn’t presented already, but no matter. I can recall the first one I did. I wanted to share with people, but I was nearly paralyzed by the idea that I didn’t have all that much to say.

And you know, maybe I didn’t, depending on what measurements you choose.

What I did have was my particular experience (using a complex computer-based training system) combined with the data-based, lean approach to helping people improve, which I’d learned from folks like Geary Rummler and Dale Brethower.

My point is that thinking about what I’d been doing, and trying to uncover value it might have for other people, helped me see the everyday in a new light. That’s the goal of useful reflection.

* * *

I’ve written this post both to help me process the ideas in Resnick’s articles and to set down thoughts of my own. In addition, I found myself noting in a separate document things I wanted to know more about (like Crickets, epistemic games, and Lev Vygotsky). To me those were sidelights; I might discuss them one on one, but this post is plenty long as is.

 

Jan 292013
 

boller trends coverThis is my summary and reaction to the first part of Sharon Boller‘s whitepaper, Learning Trends, Technologies, and Opportunities. Boller is the president of Bottom-Line Performance, a learning design firm based in Indiana.

The 26-page whitepaper has two main sections:

  • Six truths about today’s learning environment.
  • Emerging trends and technologies

I think it’s well worth reading in its entirety. Here on the Whiteboard, I wanted to summarize some of those truths in part one, and add comments for which Boller has no responsibility whatsoever.  

ILT is not dead.

When I read this, I tell you, you could have knocked me over with a smilesheet.

I’m not mocking Boller–far from it. Among the many useful features in her whitepaper are summaries of facts. For instance, ASTD said last year that 59.4% of companies reported using instructor-led classroom training, and another 13.3% use instructor-led by online or remote (such as video).

Self-paced online? 18.7%, and a whopping 1.4% are using mobile as a distribution method.

I looked at this summary from ASTD about the State of the Industry report that Boller mentions. While this isn’t the entire report, I found a comment about “content distribution” striking:

Technology-based methods have rebounded to account for 37.3 percent of formal hours available across all learning methods.

If I read that right, then non-tech methods (you know, like instructor-led classroom training) accounts for more than 60% of “formal hours available across all learning methods.

Even the phrase “learning method” is telling. I’m not the kind of fanatic who goes around correcting punctuation and menus; I can even hold a civil conversation with someone who uses “understand” as part of a training objective–because I’m inclined to see it as shorthand for something that can eventually be observed.

So I do understand that people in the industry use “learning method” for things that can only aspire to encourage learning. I do think it’s helpful to state that explicitly from time to time. Absolutely, you can design and create activities, experiences, exercises, games, what have you, that are aimed at supporting, encouraging, and so on, just as you can  find recipes, buy ingredients, set a table,and prepare dishes. What you can’t do is guarantee that people will eat your food.

mLearning: lots of talk, little action

That ASTD report tells us that 1.4% of formal learning is delivered via mobile. Like Boller, I’m sure the current figure is higher. After all,  an increase of nearly 50% would get you all the way up to 2.1% .

I can’t help wondering whether one serendipitously limiting factor is that you can’t easily cram a 300-slide barrage of PowerPoint onto a smartphone screen. Tablets are an easier target for this pumpkin-headed kind of leveraging, though, and are probably already plagued with far more legacy content than the Geneva Conventions should permit.

I want to underscore that in this first section, Boller’s talking about the way things are, not how they will or should be.

I confess that I’m a little leery of “mobile learning” in a learning-industry context. I fear it’ll be stacking and tracking: loading stuff up because it can go onto a mobile device, and then using ever-better software to track whatever somebody thinks ought to be tracked. It’s always easier to track a score on a quiz than the quality with which someone handled an actual problem from an actual customer.

Outside vendors matter.

One thing Boller says in this section is really about attitudes inside an organization:

Most companies are NOT in the L&D business; they are in business to do something else.

This ought to be obvious, but it’s sometimes only a ritual nod that L&D makes toward the reason there’s a organization at all.

Employees don’t get much formal training.

31 hours a year is the average in ASTD’s data, or 1.5% of a year’s worth of 40-hour weeks.

There’s a way in which much “formal learning” in the workplace is really “focused introduction with maybe a little practice.”  31 hours is like a 2-credit course in college (which may explain my level of skill when it comes to History of Art).

Boller says she thinks of this time spent in formal training like driver’s education. “Would you rather have your kid spending more hours in the classroom… or more hours behind the wheel practicing driving with a qualified adult providing constant feedback?”

In Maryland, where I live, the formal training requirements for a new driver, regardless of age, include completing a standardized driving course with at least 30 hours of classroom instruction and 6 hours behind the wheel.

That’s the formal-training requirement. But obtaining a provisional license also requires 60 hours of driving with “a qualified supervising driver (parent, guardian, or mentor)” who completes and signs a practice log documenting those 60 hours.

I can picture the diagram in my driver’s ed textbook that explained how to parallel park. That was helpful, in the way that a dictionary definition of a word is helpful. But if your goal is more than “repeat the definition when asked,” you’ve got to work up to fitting your car in between two others on the street.

That might not take 30 hours–but it will take spaced practice; it will take varying conditions; it will probably benefit from scaffolding (such as starting with a span of three empty spaces behind a parked car).

And that’s just the parking part of the driving-a-car set of skills.

Majority of eLearning “doesn’t match” what’s optimal.

I can’t possibly improve on what Boller says:

Clients ALWAYS say they want something that is “engaging” and not too content-heavy. Yet the stuff we routinely see looks very much “Text and Next” with tons of content and little relationship to any behaviorally-based outcomes. Sometimes this is the result of a subject matter expert who ruled with an iron fist in terms of focusing on content rather than outcomes. Other times it was the result of an internal person who decided to get Articulate or Captivate and started creating his or her own stuff – with no background in learning design.

Most of the people we talk to inside organizations HATE taking eLearning courses (including lots of folks who hire us to produce it). They hate it because most of it is boring, bad or it’s not really eLearning – it’s a communication piece squished into an eLearning shell so someone’s completion can be tracked via an LMS.

My only quibble is with the “not really eLearning” part. My hunch is that most people in organizations hate elearning because it’s far more about the E (as in ease of delivery and easily outsourced and easily tracked) than it is about the learning.

LMS: few pull data, but they all think they need it.

We've got to get everyone on board.Boller says is that the majority of people “do not actually access or use the data available to them within an LMS.”

This sounds so much like the SCORM evangelism I used to hear–“there’s so much good stuff in there; it’s just not implemented right.”

To which my (occasionally spoken) reaction was, “No kidding.”

There must have been places where SCORMification actually helped increase the likelihood that people learned on the job–but that’s a belief on my part, or perhaps a hope. My own experiences with projects where the management team included a SCORM hall monitor was that the fetishization of the SCO could overrule any argument based on ephemera like principles of learning or on-the-job relevance.

Just as with mainframe-based CBT back in the olden days, just as with the 12-inch laser disks and players grafted between the PC and its VGA monitor, just as with the nearly unavoidable audio response systems that have reanimated the multiple-guess question, there are convention-halls full of vendors eager to explain how their particular magic beans are just the thing you want to trade your corporate cow for.

CC-licensed image of bandwagon by Jed Sullivan.

Dec 302012
 

Today’s New York Times business section included Adam Bryant’s Corner Office interview with Karen May, vice president for people development at Google. The interview is short (the feature takes up a bit less than half a page), but well-focused, particularly on two topics: training and feedback.

Asked about common mistakes she’s seen with regard to training programs for employees, May says:

One thing that doesn’t make sense is to require a lot of training… If people opt in, versus being required to go, you’re more likely to have better outcomes.

Well, there goes the whole compliance-training industry, and a good percentage of elearning producers with them.

Yes, May seems to have in mind training-as-an-event, but I think that was implicit in the question. She’s clearly not an idealist:

Another “don’t” would be thinking that because some training content is interesting, everyone should therefore go to it.

I don’t know whether the other bigwigs at Google listen to her (I suspect, without evidence, that the proportion of formal training there is on the low side), but I can think of a few elsewhere who’d benefit from heeding this. How many large organizations plunge into some flavor of the month because of what was said on the golf course to the vice-president in change of things beginning with R?

Kay segues from training to feedback by talking about performance.  “Don’t use training to fix performance problems,” she says. I’ve said something similar (not that I’m a vice president for people development), though what she’s referring to is problems of individual performance.

In her view, managers will sometimes send a person to training if that person isn’t performing well.

I agree that’s generally a dumb idea–when the cause isn’t a skill deficit, and especially when no one’s looked for evidence of the cause.

May discusses the difficulty people have in giving candid feedback–especially “difficult feedback,” which I take to mean feedback intended to help change current behavior.  There’s the potential for great value in frank feedback, of course, and she believes it’s often realized:

People can do something with the feedback probably 70 percent of the time. And for the other 30 percent, they are either not willing to take it in, it doesn’t fit their self-image, they’re too resistant, in denial, or they don’t have the wherewithal to change.

(I do think she’s left out the possibility that the person giving the feedback is mistaken. That’s not necessarily a common situation, but it’s hell on the person who’s on the receiving end, because attempts to correct a misimpression can easily be seen as unwillingness, resistance, denial, what have you.)

May does say that many of the executives she’s coached needed help “in relationships with others, and understanding the impact they have on the people around them.”  Of the need for empathy, listening, and so on, she says, “It wasn’t usually from a lack of willingness to do those things, but they didn’t have a strong muscle.”

 

 

 

Jul 112012
 

Thanks to David Glow, whose mention of it I happened to notice on Twitter last night, I found a blog post by Steve Flowers that I hadn’t seen: Just a Nudge–Getting into Skill Range. He’s talking about skill, mastery, and the (ultimately futile) “pursuit of instructional perfection.”

Steve starts with a principle from law enforcement: only apply the minimum force necessary to produce compliance.  (This is why those “speed limit enforced by aircraft” signs rarely mean “cops in helicopter gunships”). Then he works on a similar principle for, as he puts it, instruction performance solutions.”

Trying to design training / instruction for skill mastery can hinder–or defeat–the learning process, he says. That’s because mastery, in whatever form reasonable people would define it, is likely the outcome of a long period of practice, reflection, and refinement.

“Mastery” sounds good, which is why the corporate world is hip-deep in centers of excellence and world-class organizations.  A lot of the time, though, “world-class” is a synonym for “fine,” the way you hear it at the end of a TV commercial: “available at fine stores everywhere.”  Meaning, stores that sell our stuff.

He’s not saying there’s no place for formal learning, nor for a planned approach to helping people gain skill.  What he is saying is that we need “to design solutions to provide just the right nudge at just the right moment.

Most of the time, we don’t need mastery on the job, he says, and I agree.  We do need competence, which is what I believe he means by helping the performer move into a “skill range” — meaning the performer has the tools to figure out a particular problem or task.

From a blog post by Steve Flowers
(Click image to view his post.)

I’ve been mulling some related ideas for some time but hadn’t figured out how to even start articulating them. One theme has to to with the role of job aids and other performance support–things that Steve believes strongly in. I despair at the server farms full of “online learning” that shows (and show), and tells (and tells and tells) while failing to offer a single on-the-job tool.

Listen: the only people who’ll “come back to the course” for the embedded reference material are (a) the course reviewers, (b) the utterly bored, and (c) the utterly desperate.

A second theme has to do with the two different kinds of performance support that van Merriënboer and Kirshner talk about in Ten Steps to Complex Learning. In their terminology, you have:

  • Procedural information: this is guidance for applying those skills that you use in pretty much the same way from problem to problem.  That’s the heart of many job aids: follow this procedure to query the database, to write a flood-insurance policy for a business, or to update tasks in the project management system. You can help people learn this kind of information through demonstration, through other presentation strategies, and through just-in-time guidance.
  • Supportive information: as vM&K say, this is intended to bridge the gap between what learners already know, and what they need to know, to productively apply skills you use differently with different problems.  “Updating the project management system” is procedural; “deal with the nonperforming vendor” is almost certainly a different problem each time it arises.  (That’s why Complex Learning uses the somewhat ungainly term “non-recurrent aspects of learning tasks.”) Types of supportive information include mental models for the particular field or area, as well as cognitive strategies for addressing its problems.

As the complexity of a job increases, it’s more and more difficult to help people achieve mastery. That’s not simply because of the number of skills, but because of how they related, and because of the support required.

Rich learning problems

Part of the connection I see, thanks to Steve’s post, is that the quest for perfect instruction ignores both how people move toward mastery (gradually, over time, with a variety of opportunities and guided by relevant feedback). In many corporations and organizations, formal learning for most people gets squeezed for time and defaults to the seen-and-signed mode: get their names on the roster (or in the LMS) so as to prove that learning was had by all.

We focus on coverage, on forms, on a quixotic or Sisyphean effort to cram all learning objectives into stuff that boils down to a course. I’m beginning to wonder, frankly, whether any skill you can master is a course is much of a skill to begin with. At most, such a skill is pretty near the outer border on Steve Flowers’ diagram. So the least  variation from the examples in the course–different circumstances, changed priorities, new coworkers–may knock the performer outside the range of competence.

(Images adapted from photos of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway from Wikimedia Commons.)