Authentic tasks and time travel

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:

(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

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