The ooh versus the ah: tools, authoring, and learning

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?”



Singing in Gaelic, thanks to Sibelius

I started to write about learning new software. But no one learns software for its own sake. Software’s like a second language: you learn it because you have a goal. Even the well-intended “everyone should know how to code” silliness has a goal, which is less about coding and more about something like logical thinking, understanding complex systems, or producing a result that the coder finds worthwhile.

I decided I wanted to write about two things: why I wanted to learn this particular software, and how I’m not learning the way the program’s developers think I should. I’m not even learning the way I might have thought I should. It’s going to take me a couple of posts; this is the first.

What I wanted to learn

Last year, I joined the Victoria Gaelic Choir. Gaelic (Gàidhlig, Scottish Gaelic) was the language of my ancestors and even my grandparents. I know only a few words and phrases, but I’ve know Gaelic singing for a long time–and if you don’t, there’s a list at the end of this post to get you started.

As I said last year, this opened a clutch of challenges. I needed to learn lyrics in a language I don’t speak–one whose spelling and pronunciation aren’t always easy for an English speaker:

O seinnidh mi dàn do dh’eilean mo ghràidh
(O, I’ll sing a song to the island that I love)

“oh shay-nee mee dawn doh yell-un mo gr-eye…”

And before the lyrics, I needed to learn the melody for many songs I’d never heard. (Tune first, words second; trust me.) Even for those I did recognize, I needed to learn the tenor part.

I can pick out a tune or a tenor line on guitar, but that’s not a practical way to learn a choral piece. I seriously considered buying an electronic keyboard, but my son (thank goodness) suggested I experiment with a 30-day trial of Sibelius First.


With Sibelius, I know what I’m doing. Or what I should do.

This $120 package lets you compose music on your computer and share it with others. I didn’t plan any composition, but the features that caused my son to suggest Sibelius include the ability to scan printed sheet music, to create an editable digital score, and to export sound files.

Sheet music to an mp3? Does it work?

Let me show, rather than tell. That line of Gaelic above is from Uibhist Mo Ghràidh (Uist, My Love), an archetypal Gaelic song about the island of North Uist, where my mother’s people came from.

O seinnidh mi dàn do dh’eilean mo ghràidh
far an d’fhuair mi m’àrach nuair bha mi nam phàisd’
Far am bi mo chrìdhe gu deireadh mo là
ann an Eilean Uibhist an eòrna.

O, I’ll sing a song to the isle of my love
where I was raised as a child
where my heart will be to the end of my days
In the Isle of Uist of the barley.

If you want some idea of how I felt when everyone else in the choir knew this, listen to Linda NicLeòid — Linda MacLeod — singing. (I’ll resume below below the video.)

A recording like this demonstrates the melody, and from Wednesday night choir practice I had a nodding acquaintance with the tenor line. But “once a week” takes the idea of spaced practice to an extreme. I needed to hear the tenor part on its own, a lot, so I could practice.

I chose Uibhist Mo Ghràidh for this post to show what I was able to do after working with Sibelius off and on for about three months. Starting with a good copy of the sheet music, arranged for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass:

  • I scanned the music into Sibelius.
  • I edited a few errors the scan didn’t quite catch.
  • From the digital version, I exported audio files for each part and for the four parts together.

Sibelius allows me to choose instruments–which means I can make the audio sound like piano, or like human voices. I went the latter route. Here’s the full choir audio, and here’s the tenor part.

The audio comes out as .wav files. It takes me less than a minute to convert them to mp3s, which I can then send to my phone or share with other members of the choir.

That’s where I went. Next time: how I got there.

It’s taken me a while to write this post, because I kept rethinking what it was I wanted to learn and how I could explain the context. If I had to summarize my own learning goal, it’d be “have the tune for the tenor parts to Gaelic songs I want to sing.”  That’s an oversimplification, but it was also a 14-word target I wanted to hit.

It took some effort before I could hit it, and the process of that learning is what will be in the next post.

Those Gaelic songs I promised

Raylene Rankin
(Click for an appreciation from the Halifax Chronicle Herald)

Song may be one of the most enduring ways to preserve and transmit a language. Here are a few examples–the links in the song titles lead to a recording of the song. When I’ve been able to find an online translation into English, I’ve put a link for that as well. (The links are set to open in a new window.)

Songs, subtitles, and the beach at Sète

Quite a while back, I came across a site that used to be called Universal Subtitles but now seems to call itself Amara.

You can submit a video via a URL of “an Ogg, WebM, flv, mp4, Youtube, Vimeo or Dailymotion video.” There’s also a script capability. Once you upload the video, you can enter or upload subtitles, and then synchronize to the video.

You can probably see lots of ways to apply this. I thought I’d enter the lyrics to a few songs, especially ones not well known to English speakers.  And since Amara lets you provide subtitles in multiple languages, I tried a few songs by Georges Brassens, a French singer-poet known throughout the francophone world, but who’s about as well known to English speakers as… most French-speaking singer-poets not named Jacques Brel.

In this song, he’s asking to be buried not in a cemetery, but on the beach at Sète, his home town (about 50 miles west of Marseille).

The control in the bottom left corner of the video lets you choose subtitles in English or in French; they’ll appear as the video plays, and you can switch between languages on the fly. (Although the embed code is finicky; I hope they’re working on something a bit more reliable for WordPress blogs.)

This seems like a great way to help connect the written words of a language with native speech (in this case, with Brassens’s distinctive accent), among many other things.

Besides, this is a terrific song. It’s a shame I don’t know more people who speak French, or I’d ask to include it at my funeral.

Working at learning, or, pluggin’ for results

When I read about the Organize Series plugin for WordPress (a focus of Monday’s post), I thought, “This could do it.”

No I didn’t.  I don’t know about you, but I rarely think to myself in complete sentences.  Phrasing like this is how we capsulize a more complex experience.  What I believe was going on at the time was something like this: I had a situation I wanted to change (the way I used to manage a series of posts here on my blog no longer worked). And the Organize Series plugin at first glance looked like it could accomplish at least two things:

  • Provide automatic navigation between posts in a series (so I wouldn’t have to hard-wire the links).
  • Display a list of all the posts in a given series (for me to use as a summary or as a table of contents for the series).

If I’d thought about it longer, I might have articulated another goal: have some way to list all the different series I have.  But I’m not usually that strategic.  Still, what I came up with (provide navigation, display a list) acted as my critical-to-quality elements.  CTQs were widely used at GE when I worked there; I use that acronym partly tongue-in-cheek and partly to highlight informal criteria.

So, I put Organize Series to work, and within 10 minutes I had automatic next/previous navigation for posts in a series, along with an indication that they were part of a series:

No, this isn't the entire post.
(You can click the image to see the entire post.)

When I was still considering whether to use the plugin, I said to my wife, “Wouldn’t it be great to know how to write a plugin?”  On reflection, I realize this statement was another capsulization–a series of them, nested inside each other.  “Know how to write a plugin” really means:

  • “Know how to write a plugin” really means “write a plugin that works….”
  • Which in turn means “write one that produces results…”
  • Which means “write one that people use to accomplish things that matter to them.”

To me, this is an important distinction for workplace learning: You can learn on your own for your personal satisfaction, and if you’re satisfied, then that’s a sufficient result.  In the workplace, though, you’re part of a larger group (even if that group is you and one individual client), and so the result has to matter within that context.

What’s this got to do with my plugin tinkering?

Think of it as my own workplace learning.  At this point, I was still some distance from my (loosely articulated) end state.  I hadn’t moved much toward my other CTQ of displaying a list of all the posts in a series. In fact, I didn’t yet grasp all the options in the plugin, let alone know how to make them work in a way useful to me.

I only put this here to scare you a little.
About 5% of the info from the plugin's page of options

But…In my first 15 minutes with the plugin, I’d achieved a result that I found valuable.  That left me more willing to experiment–which, put another way, says I was somewhat more willing to spend time trying to achieve the next valuable result.

To me, this is a core principle for any type of workplace learning: formal or informal, face-to-face or virtual.  I need to be able to accomplish something that looks to me like real work–produce something that I see has having on-the-job value.  And I need to do that sooner rather than later, which is why twenty minutes on introductions, half an hour on expectations for this workshop, and twenty minutes on learning objectives will invariably drive me to teeth-clenching frustration. Or to eating more of those lowest-bid-hotel pastries.

One of the unexpected outcomes of achieving an initial on-the-job goal is that you end up better able to visualize other goals.  In a sense, learning leads to new problems (or opportunites) because you’re better at grasping the current situation and at visualizing different ones.

In the course of my experimenting with the Organize Series plugin, I did find at least one way to display a list of all the posts in a series.  I can make a box like this appear alongside the title for each post:

Example of a 'series post list box' - a box listing posts in a series
The posts in my most complex series

You can click that image if you’d like to see the first post in the series, though I’ve turned this “series post list box” feature off for now, until I learn how to control the way it displays.  Having managed to produce it, though, I’ve picked up several more goals for myself.  I was about to write “learning goals,” but I want to stress that they’re all tied to accomplishment.

  • I want to learn how to use code that’s part of the plugin to, for example, display a list of posts like the last example where and when I want it.
  • I want to find out how to modify the plugin’s template (the tool it uses to display the full text of all the posts in a series).
  • I may even want to learn how to modify the PHP or CSS code to make things happen.

That last is quite a goal for someone who doesn’t really know how to program.  But my various experiments to date, and especially the things I see as successes, have taught me that I can learn to successfully modify small bits of PHP code and achieve relatively high-value results.

So I’m accomplishing what looks like real work to me.


Presentation: from receive through react to interact

Someone I follow on Twitter was at the Higher Education Web Association’s conference in Milwaukee this week.  HighEdWeb is “an organization of Web professionals working at institutions of higher education. We design, develop, manage and map the futures of higher education Web sites.”

What caught my eye were tweets about yesterday’s general session.  (Session description)  These were live tweets–in other words, a backchannel.

One interpretation of  “backchannel” is a public display of comments in real time–for example, on a screen visible to participants and to presenter.  The keynote didn’t include such a screen, and apparently the speaker wasn’t following tweets with the #heweb09 hashtag.

Almost from the start, things didn’t look good at the Keynote Corral:

  • hella drop shadow
  • too much background music
  • We’ve had two keynotes, neither of whom build websites
  • conspiracy theory about the keynote: it’s a test of the power of the back channel; social experiment.
  • Can we say preaching to the choir? Save this speech for my faculty
  • watching people try to figure out how they can get out, starting to see the OMG I AM TRAPPED looks on faces

Those came in the opening 15 minutes.  From noon till 1 p.m., there were some 550 tweets with the #heweb09 hashtag, the vast majority related to the keynote.  (You can see the entire day’s stream here.  Warning: it gets snarky, but it’s instructive.)

Honestly, I’d hate this to be about my presentation.  One participant used the term “harshtag.”  I liked the color of that, and Holly Rae was kind enough to talk with me later so I could understand the context better.  And we agreed on a number of points, including how much you can learn if you do pay attention to what’s going on.

This post isn’t about this particular conference or keynote, but about how we connect professionally. I tend to see “formal presentation” as something like the Nobel laureate lecture; what I’m talking about is any “structured presentation” — a planned event where one or more people focus on a topic with other people at the same time.

I believe we’re moving from audience (those who hear) to participants (those who take part).  From receiving through reacting to interacting.

Participant instructions at a comedy club.Not all participation is necessarily positive: in the #heweb09 stream, you’ll find wisecracks, distractions, and just plain mockery.  And a publicly-displayed backchannel can give extra weight to comments from those who comment on the backchannel.  (It’s a fact.)

The presenter didn’t see the stream, and the Twitters knew he didn’t, but no one seems to have stood up and said, “Hey, you’re talking down to us.”  What would have happened?  I have no idea–but I’ll tell you this: I’m primed for someone saying that to me some day.


The wisecracks and distractions are there anyway.  You’ve made them yourself, to your neighbor or just to your appreciative self.  One thing the backchannel does is make them visible–which means if you as a participant are only a buffoon, your buffoonery will be more widely evident, just as the presenter’s shortcomings or skills are.

The backchannel also offers the potential for immediate feedback.  It invited participant to contribute to and enrich the discussion — via links, via information they came in with, via ideas to explore later.  And even, as with Holly Rae, by what you say that catches someone else’s attention so you can connect later.

To say nothing of a presenter (or part of a presenting team) deciding to monitor and respond to the stream.  Just like “any questions,” only with bits.  And with the possibility of using the stream after the fact, as I’ve done here.

Yes, people could have spoken out, but at live sessions you’ve been to, who raises a hand?  Who asks questions?  Who adds something?  The framework doesn’t always encourage this behavior, especially in large keynote sessions.

In fact, the main feedback mechanism we currently have, other than mutters and groans, is people voting with their feet: heading out the door, something I saw once when a person whose work I admired make an amateurish, unrehearsed, poorly organized, one-way presentation.

This isn’t a coming phenomenon; it’s here.  Maybe you didn’t see it much at the ASTD ICE conference or the ISPI conference, though I’d argue it’s because those two organizations are further behind than they suspect. I’d like to be going to DevLearn 09, where I expect participants will insist on a high level of participation.

Revised and updated on Oct. 10:

  • Here are practical suggestions for presenters from Denise Graveline — whom I learned about, of course, from my conversation with Holly Rae.
  • Further context, details, and opinion from me in a more recent post (links to, comments from HEWEB attendees).
  • As part of the revision, I got Denise’s name right.

CC-licensed image:
Comedy-club “no heckling” sign by Rick Audet.