New learning and the “so what?”

Janet Clarey asked recently how you measure effectiveness when moving from a content-presentation to a distributed-learning model.  There’s a lot going on there, both in her post and in the extended comments.

Janet believes that learning is embedded in social experience (true, though some of them are pretty indirect — I can and do learn from, for example, Head First HMTL, for which the main social component is that two other people wrote this book).  Thus, she says, social media are the better choice for supporting the learner.  “The role then for the [instructional designer] is to provide access to immersive environments…powered by the tools that foster social experience.”

Count some beansThe crux, though, is how to evaluate effectiveness.  And that has me going off on my own tangent, because the next project coming up for me will involve (as Janet says) a more-or-less bean-counting workplace.

Because, you know, unless you work for yourself, pretty much every place counts beans.  Joe Harless spoke once about adding value for the client.  “Value in terms of what?” Training Magazine asked.  “Value in terms of money,” said Joe.  “Otherwise, you’re babysitting, or doing psychotherapy.”

Have you bean counting?

The lure of traditional assessments — and far too recently I saw multiple-choice questions for judging the ability of paralegals to interpret case law — is that they’re easy to understand and to track.  Hell’s bells, that’s the main reason for the success of learning management systems: they administer.

As you get into more and more complex behavior, it’s harder to define what’s effective, harder to retain the attention of stakeholders (as in, upper management), harder to avoid everyone’s favorite nit to pick:  “paralysis by analysis.”

What kind of bean did you have in mind?I worked on a series of cold-call roleplays for people selling electronic data interchange services.  EDI is a big deal in the corporate world (e.g., Target requires all its suppliers to accept purchase orders and to send invoices electronically — no more fax, no more phone).  The salespeople has a wide erange of skills they needed to apply: getting past the gatekeeper, determining whether the “client” has (or was aware of) any problems, doing “client triage” to avoid nonproductive sales.  You couldn’t grade this kind of thing.

I worked with the group’s management to come up with scales and checklists.  Ad hoc?  You bet — but informed ad hoc.  As a developer, I sometimes have an irresistible urge to help my clients more than they want help.  In a performance system, though, it’s the people who make up the system who matter, not the outsider like me.

If Leo, the cold-caller manager, chose to spend all his time in exaggerated roleplay (wildly hostile customer, preternaturally bored customer), the best I could do ask whether many prospects responded to cold calls in this way.  In other words, did he have evidence that these were high-value reactions to encounter and respond to?  Or was he just messing with his staff’s head?

Counting beings

Whatever the “new learning” is, it involves the same neurons we developed over a far longer period of time than the use of phrases like “web 2.0.”  And in organizations that have to earn their way, someone’s gong to look for evidence of effectiveness. If you can’t work with your partners/colleagues/clients to find that evidence, sooner or later, they’ll find someone who will.

For all involved, then, even if we use iMacs, it’s good to keep in mind the advice of the noted theorist James Thurber:  “It’s better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.”

Photo of navy beans by Eva the Weaver / Eva Ekeblad.
Coffee bean photo by robertstown2001 / Ken.
Jelly bean photo by Caro’s Lines / Caroline.
Being-counter photo by gullevek / Clemens Schwaighofer.

2 thoughts on “New learning and the “so what?”

  1. Kia ora Dave!

    As you probably know, this is a hot debate (or should I say warm, for it’s cooled a bit) that’s been going on for some time now. I side with you about the neurons bit.

    I get a hard time from some people who know I have different metaphors for learning – but these are for the behavioural aspects of learning, not the neural mechanisms, which are what you are referring to. I get a hard time for mixing my metaphors – but the truth is, I’m not mixing them.

    I think what the new environments do, though, is highlight behavioural patterns that may not have been noticed till these environments came into play. It’s a bit like the recent hype over mobile phone use and related driving accidents. (Accidents of that type were always taking place (walky-talkies in police cars, taxis, ambulance and commercial trucks and other vehicles) but not to the scale that they are now, principally because of the enormous explosion in the use of mobiles in society.)

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  2. Ken, I agree with you on the new environments, and the mobile-phone use is a good example. I disagree with people who think that using these phones has changed anatomy or affected evolution (we don’t evolve in perceptible ways in a single generation).

    Rather, individuals become habituated, and some become more skillful at manipulating new tools. But the mobile phone is at least as distracting as fiddling with the radio while you drive, or trying to dig out a map from the pocket on the back of a seat, or any other task requiring more of the bandwidth that we can’t easily increase.

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