Distance and learning

Stephen Downes mused last week at Half an Hour about distance learning. Several points struck me enough to repeat them here and muse on them myself.

…because the technology gives users more freedoms than traditional environments, the effects of such dissatisfaction can be magnified…

With corporate elearning and webcasts, in my experience, it’s inevitable that some people will multitask, turning their flagging attention to email or the current looming deadline, swinging back to the distance event if it seems to offer… potential, maybe.

I’ve done that myself, and wanted somehow to rewind in order to catch up. Rather than demanding that people just pay more attention, maybe a design consideration is to build in that rewindability, which turns more control over to the learner.

…I think that different learners have very different motivations and needs…In some cases, it’s the having of a person to report to that creates motivation; in others, it’s the support and shared experience.

…other learners neither need nor want this sort of interaction. The time constraints imposted by synchronous learning are an inconvenience, and they find the spoken word a clumsy and inefficient means of transferring information….Though people talk about learning being a social experience, a not-insignificant number of people don’t want to become part of a group – this is especially the case with highly motivated people who have already built their own independent networks for support and information exchange.

So much packed into this section, I didn’t want to shorten it too much. The last sentence tracks with my experience of skilled learners, meaning people already at high strength in some area. If I’m an experienced programmer or instructional designer or supervisor, I don’t necessarily want to mingle opinions with people just starting out. It’s true they might have insights or viewpoints that could give me a new perspective, but more often, they won’t.

I know several people who champion the value of blogging, and their advocacy seems at times to be about blogging per se, rather than about the connections or the learning that the blogging brings. Personally, I don’t typically find commenting on blogs to be a conversation in an ongoing sense; it’s more like a hallway exchange with a near-stranger at a conference. Only over time can those small exchanges build up to a conversation, in which both parties know something about the other, with that knowledge serving as background context.

That’s not to say blogging or commenting is without value; only to say that the social experience that some value doesn’t have the same value for everyone.

…I think that while an attempt to increase synchronous interaction – using, say, Second Life – will thrill some students, it will annoy others, especially those who are busy, results-driven, have slower bandwidth, who are poor typists, or who have weaker computer skills….

Synchronous interaction demands that you have time, talent, and inclination or motivation suited to the synchronous window. I suspect that for many people there’s an implicit cost/benefit consideration, and learning just the basic Second Life controls, or the virtual-classroom tools, seems just not worth the trouble.

People who’ve already gotten custom skins; people who’ve set up their own RSS feeds; people who’ve installed WordPress on their own servers and updated it a time or two — they’re prone to forget how daunting the learning curve can be, and they seem at times to forget “what’s in it for me?” as a fundamental question.

For me, with my experience in the corporate and organizational world, the biggest challenges in Stephen’s thinking come in comments like this:

…As for the actual content – I would try to keep design to a minimum. Rather than trying to create something all in advance, and then deliver it, I would try to have a set of resources on hand, available as needed, and to then think of it as content being streamed, where the instructor and the students are as responsible for the shape of the course as the designer, indeed, more so. Think of it as being like one of those reality TV series, where you throw things into the mix, but where the participants sort it all out for themselves. A course is not an object, not a project – it’s a live improv event, and so design consists essentially of having props ready to be pulled onto the stage as needed.

I’m not yet sure how I’d make this happen in the situations I find myself in. At the more introductory or procedural levels — helping workers learn to use a new application that’s replacing a paper-based process, say — time and expedience might demand something much like an independent but not free-form course.

Beyond that, though, I see a huge space of opportunity very rarely seized. At Amtrak, when I was in charge of training for the reservation system, we created a set of “training trains” — imaginary trains running in the reservation system, using the same routes and schedules and fares as the actual trains. Anyone with access to the reservation system could use a special ID to enter the training mode, and could try out or practice transactions on the training trains.

The real value was that these were exactly like the actual trains — so you could decide you wanted to make complicated reservations for a family of 9, and the system’s responses would be exactly the ones you’d get for a real family on a actual trip.

Many similar projects, even for applications critical to an organization, lack any sort of training/practice/learning mode. A client I’ll fictionalize as Midas Financial sold complex systems to banks, which used the systems to track customer accounts, suggest additional products, cross-relate accounts held by members of the same family, etc.

Midas’s systems almost always replaced several smaller systems from different sources, meaning that everyday work changed significantly for the employees at Midas’s clients. But not one of Midas’s systems had a training mode — so the only way to practice, say, opening a new CD or applying for a line of credit was to open an actual CD or an actual line of credit, and then go back and cancel the thing.

(Note: I have made three small changes to Stephen’s words here, fixing what seemed to be typos: “the spoken word” for “the spoken work,” “sort it all out” for “sort ot all out,” and “improv” for “improve.”)