Learning to Forget

On the BBC news last week there was some criticism of A Levels (the pre-university qualifications used in the UK). One university admissions spokesperson said that in some cases courses had become too ‘modular’.

Some of the courses have become too modularised. The focus is on learning a chunk of content then testing that content immediately afterwards. This approach has resulted in an approach that encourages ‘learning to forget’.

I think anyone involved in e-learning would recognise this behaviour of ‘learning to forget’ but instead of modules lasting three months ours last just 30 minutes!

Of course taking a 30 minute e-learning module on Time Management or even a 3 month A Level Module on Oilfield Geology isn’t going to result in deep learning. It can only prepare the ground for true learning by application later – most learning interventions focus on this exposition phase with maybe a little activity in the instruction phase (see Clive Shepherd’s post). Only occasionally do we take it to the higher phases – guided discovery or exploration.

Learning to forget is likely to characterise much of our ‘learning’ in today’s information rich environment. Increasingly we will be exposed to vast quantities of information and knowledge. Whether we simply scan that information or embed it deeper build on it and synthesise from it will depend upon our motivations, needs and preferences.

BETT 2012: A Learning Technologist's Viewpoint

BETT 2012I normally try and get along to the BETT (British Educational Training and Technology) Show at London’s Olympia. I made it in 2011 but this year other commitments have got in the way.

Of course BETT is a show aimed at the education market so as a learning technologist and designer working in the commercial sector I’m not part of the core audience but aren’t learning technologies pretty much the same whatever the application? Well actually no, and once you’ve spent a couple of hours wandering around BETT you will see why.

The vast majority of learning technologies at BETT are designed for use within the classroom. Interactive whiteboards, classroom response systems, projectors, even special trolleys that contain banks of iPads or laptops for use in class. Educational learning technologies are all about keeping the power in the classroom. Last year I even struggled to find a Moodle vendor even though this is a massively popular platform in colleges and universities. Outside of education learning technologies are all about taking learning out of the classroom. Why is there such a disconnect? In my view it’s related to the two types of business model. Mainstream education’s business model is based on ‘bums on seats’. Schools and colleges get paid for each student they entice through their doors – there is no model to educate or partly educate online. In the commercial sector however the online learning business model works pretty well – reducing cost and providing flexibility for learners.

Things are changing however – colleges and universities are testing the water with online access to learning (proper learning technologies ;-) ). Open Courseware is now available from a number of leading educational institutions such as MIT in the US and The Open University in the UK. Of course Open Courseware is literally the ‘courseware’ which can only be a shadow of the full interactive learning experience (imagine PowerPoint without the presenter and audience). MIT though has recently announced that some of its courses will have free open access – not only to the courseware but also to the tutors, assignments, tests etc.

These are positive moves but the education business model is still rooted in the ‘bums on seats’ model. It always amazes me how one’s business model trumps almost anything else. Even though the research tells us that classroom model is outdated is so many ways we find it hard to change in case we cannibalise our core income stream.

Footnote – Next year BETT moves to Excel – this was a move that the CIPD HRD Show made a few years back and it resulted in poor attendances. As I’m not working in the education space I think it’s unlikely that I will make the trip out to Excel which is a shame because I always enjoyed the very different slant they had on learning technologies.



Designing Learning for the Right Audience

WAudience Analysis in e-Learninghen we design an online learning programme one of the first things we do with clients during our Learning Design Day is to try and define the audience as accurately as possible. We try and identify who they are, what they already know and also what their motivation is for learning more. Sometimes we manage to identify a specific group that will particularly benefit from the learning but more often than not we end up trying to design something that works for everyone. I guess this is one of the downsides of e-learning – because it’s so easy to train so many the temptation is to push it out to as wide an audience as possible to justify the cost. BUT this is a flawed approach because instead of speaking directly to our key target audience we end up being bland and ineffectual. That’s why this article from B2B marketing agency Velocity caught my eye and makes a lot of sense for those involved in learning design too:

Marketers are instinctively inclusive. Our default is to set our crop-sprayer on the widest possible setting, covering the largest possible audience for everything we do. If a single piece of content can cover more than one target audience, why not go for it? It saves time and money and raises your Return on Content. Unfortunately, it’s not always a good idea to try to kill two birds with one content stone. In fact it’s rarely a good idea.

Here’s why:

Link: When Target Audiences Clash

Converting Classroom to Online

This is the online version of the Pecha Kucha presentation (20 slides of 20 seconds each) that I gave at the e-Learning Network (ELN) event in London on 21 October 2011. I’ll be at the next ELN event in London later this week (Friday 9th December) where the subject will be; “Writing great copy, storyboards, and scenarios for e-learning”. It will also be the grand final of the 2011 Pecha Kucha competition. Hope you can make it!

Authentic e-Learning

I’m currently working with a client on developing an online programme that is partly about a key business process and partly about a software application that supports that business process. We are using WillowDNA’s Pathway platform to deliver a mix of learning activities organised as a ‘learning pathway’. The interactive bits are developed in Articulate and we are using Camtasia for software walkthroughs. We are also using lots of short videos produced in house featuring key people in the business (including the CEO) and also stories from users in the field from across the worldwide business.

In the last couple of years the use of video in e-learning has grown significantly. In the old days video was way too bandwidth hungry for corporate networks and it was also very expensive to produce. The bandwidth restrictions are now much less stringent and suddenly there are devices all around us that will capture high quality video and tools that will allow us to publish that video simply and quickly.

This morning I reviewed a 30 minute video which contained some ‘to camera’ pieces from the leadership team. The footage was completely unedited and so contains practice runs, people looking away from the camera, asking the cameraman questions and even joking with the camera team about the mistakes they are all making. Now I know that our task is to remove all the mistakes and end up with a something that looks professional (the way the BBC would do it) but it dawned on me that by taking out the less professional bits we also lose a lot of the humanity. The unedited video made me smile – I warmed to the CEO making mistakes and joking about it. I know that the final edits will get across the message succinctly but will the whole thing feel authentic?

For me this feeling of authenticity is critical for successful learning experiences and sadly it’s one of the things that almost always gets edited out in e-learning programmes. When I deliver a face to face workshop there are lots of authentic bits included – by accident more than by design. We may tell a joke or share a story or just laugh about something that has come up in a Q&A session. I think it’s important that we strive to keep this authenticity in online learning as well. When it comes to video, speaking ‘off the cuff’ to the camera is so much better that using a script. It may feel a bit scary and there will be some pauses and moments of imperfection but overall it will feel much more authentic.

Articulate Storyline

Articulate StorylineI use Articulate Studio a lot in my e-learning projects. It’s a great tool and because it relies on PowerPoint as the primary authoring environment (Articulate Presenter is actually a PowerPoint add-on) it is ideal for trainers who are just getting into e-learning. This reliance on PowerPoint however has also caused some key problems – primarily because PowerPoint is a presentation tool not an e-learning development tool. It quite common to see e-learning that looks a lot like PowerPoint presentations with a voice over. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Articualte Presenter was originally conceived as a presentation tool NOT an e-learning authoring tool (the name gives the game away). However as a learning designer I have always wanted to break out of the PowerPoint environment and be a little more creative with my e-learning projects.

For a while now there has been some speculation as to when the next version of Articulate Studio (the current version is Studio 09) might appear and what additional features it may contain. More recently there has been speculation that it might abandon Flash altogether and take the HTML5 route. Well it appears that the mist is clearing and we will see in 2011 TWO new products from Articulate:

A new product called Articulate Storyline which will be aimed at intermediate e-learning designers. This will be a standalone installed desktop application (like Quizmaker) and will publish to both Flash and HTML5 (primarily to keep us iPad owners happy). It will have a lot more creative control over learning interaction and also the player design. Release is due in Summer 2011.

Articulate Studio will remain but will be upgraded with new functionality. It seems that this will still be the first choice for those just getting started in e-learning. Release is not until the end of 2011.

And Quizmaker – well I assume that as a standalone product it will also get an upgrade and either be bundled with Storyline OR with Studio.

This seems like a good strategy. We need a tool with the ease of use of Articulate Studio that can break free of the constraints of being a PowerPoint add-on BUT of course learning this tool is going to a challenge to those who have never developed any e-learning (or indeed any form of on-screen multimedia) before. Hopefully moving from Studio to Storyline will be reasonably straightforward so once Studio has been mastered there is a clear next step.

The only downside? The extra cost of buying and managing two products in an organisation. But if they let us do more then that investment will be repaid quite quickly (one good client project might just do it)!

There is limited information about the new products on the Articulate web site but there is a discussion thread here:


NLP and Learning Styles

NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) is currently big business. And it’s being applied to more and more areas of our working lives – just check out the latest NLP book titles on Amazon. Some people I know swear by NLP. Consultants and coaches are particularly keen on employing NLP techniques and they are being applied in a wide range of disciplines from sales training to education. I’m not an expert on NLP – I’ve just read a couple of books and articles on the subject but I can see its attraction – meta models, chunking and re-framing are all so ‘obvious’ once you sign-up to the concept, and are great for adding to your repertoire of management speak. But the following article in a recent edition of Education Guardian sounded a note of caution:

"..proto-science of NLP. A system devised by a Californian. Learning styles are cobblers. There is no proof that children have such preferences. They are of use only in describing styles of input, not in terms of describing a child’s hard wired bias for one style over the other."
Philip Beadle, Education Guardian 3 Oct 2006

The NLP entry on Wikipedia is substantial and ultimately quite complex, and peppered with warnings about lack of objectivity (and sometimes likened to astrology). So beware NLP lovers, don’t overestimate the power of proto-science. Having said that, I do like the insights that NLP gives us and as a working hypothesis it appears to provide some useful tools for working with people in a variety of contexts. I’m also keen to investigate the application of NLP to learning more closely (keeping in mind of course the warning from Philip Beadle).

Talking of proto-science another really interesting take on all this pseusdo-science is at Bad Science.

Physical Learning Structures

More from the Plymouth e-Learning Conference

ArtcollegeIn a physical educational environment times and methods of access to books and teachers is controlled. This is a concept worthy of further investigation. The physical structures limit access and I guess in some way come about more as a result of the education business model rather than as a specific attempt to deny wider access or participation. The fact that the conference itself took place in a physical space (a brand new multi-million space) demonstrated the lack of access. Plymouth is pretty hard to get to if you live in the North of the country and due to an uncharacteristically early fall of snow even those who were physically close struggled to join in. Clearly there is a lot more to concrete structures than ease of access

Blended Networking

BlulogoI attended an interesting workshop in Birmingham last week organised by BLU (Business Link University) which focussed on the development and use of peer-to-peer learning networks. BLU is a UK government funded organisation that aims to support those working in the SME support sector – primarily government and EU funded organisations that are tasked with raising the capabilities of start-ups and other small businesses. As something like 90% of companies are classified as SMEs it’s a critical area for driving economic performance but actually getting value for taxpayers cash is hard because of the sheer number of businesses which operate in this sector. Until now the support input has been largely advisory, mixed with some basic training and development activities but recent changes to the structure of publicly funded business support has resulted in a range of fresh approaches. One of these has been the realisation that small businesses often learn a lot simply by getting together and talking about their businesses with each other. Clearly business people have always networked – and networking is regularly seen as a key way to promote your business – but the idea of networking specifically to learn things is less well understood.

The workshop was led by a mix of Business Link people and BLU Associates (contracted to work with BLU on various projects) and was heaviliy participative – to the extent that it was hard work for all of us poor participants. That’s the secret of good facilitation – you get to spend as little time up-front as possible. And as a refreshing change not a single PowerPoint slide to be seen – that felt quite weird actually – when I first selected a seat I tried to work out the data projector and screen arrangement. Paul Jackson led the event supported by Jim McLaughlin and others.

Though the event looked at various ways in which networks could both promote and support peer-to-peer learning I was primarily interested in how offline and online networks could be used to support each other. I therefore selected a couple of sessions which looked specifically at using online learning networks. In those sessions we touched on some of the following issues:

Cultural dimension – it’s hard to get those who aren’t into social computing onto a PC – networking to many people is about meeting face-to-face. There are other cultural issues at play as well – for example no women attended either of the online sessions!

Chicken and egg – do you need to meet face-to-face before you can participate in an online network or can online networks act as a catalyst for face-to-face networks? We shared examples of each.

Give and take – learning networks need to balance give and take. Frequently people expect to take and aren’t prepared to give. Successful networks need to manage this expectational mismatch.

During our discussions we decided that a balance between online and offline was probably the most sustainable approach – and we coined the phrase blended networking – which borrows from the language of e-learning,  where blended learning is used to indicate learning that balances both online and offline elements.

A search on Google reveals only 93 pages for the phrase blended networking and none of those sites appear to use the term in the context described above. I’ve created  an entry in Wikipedia to celebrate this historic event!

ExLink: BLU Leadership


Project Management Simulation

Cayenne1_1Last week I participated in the European launch event for a new project management simulation called Cayenne.  At Hitachi’s Conference Centre at Sefton Park, close to London’s Heathrow airport, five teams battled it out to be the most successful at running a project on time and within budget. As might be expected not all teams made the grade – our team ended up over budget but at least we completed  within time. In the real world nearly three quarters of all projects either overrun (average overrun is  222%), exceed budget (average overspend is 189%) or get cancelled before completion (see Standish Group CHAOS Research). 

It’s well known that projects struggle to deliver on time and within budget hence the emphasis on project management tools and methodologies such as Microsoft Project and Prince 2. But most of the research shows that the devil isn’t in the detail but in the wider context of the project – in the big picture. User involvement, executive support, clear business objectives and strong teamwork are all much more important than complex plans and critical path analysis. And that’s where Cayenne comes in; it helps project teams and project stakeholders see the bigger picture and involve them in key issues within a typical project lifecycle. Cayenne can be used prior to the start of a project to uncover potential issues and develop a shared understanding of common stumbling blocks or as a generic tool to support ‘harder’ project management programmes such as those based on Prince 2. The strength of Cayenne is its big picture approach – it isn’t just for experienced project managers (though as a project manager myself  I found its insights extremely valuable) and requires only a basic understanding of the language of project management. Celemi actually position the simulation as ‘a tool that prepares people for better project work‘ and i’d agree that it would be useful for all types of teams that are working in a project type environment – if not actually within a formal project.

Cayenne is loosely based on a technology project but the technology elements are fairly low key and with good facilitation the issues can easily be related to most project scenarios – whether they involve technology or not. If ICT projects represent your bread and butter then you’ll love Cayenne – I can’t wait to demonstrate it to some of my high-tech clients.

Like most Celemi simulations the underlying design is first class and though the simulation mechanism is fairly linear participant involvement is excellent. People really do learn from these simulations. The materials are excellent and Cayenne can be run easily over the course of a day (including a short intro presentation and a slightly longer action planning final session).

Cayenne2 Though Celemi always plays down the competitive element the desire to run the most successful project really focuses people’s attention and is supported by an excellent software tool which is used by the facilitator to feedback a range of compative performance measures as the simulation progresses. There’s nothing like seeing your project recover from a couple of poor decisions and head back up the performance league table (in the end we finished a very close second)!

Crucially the simulation also balances tangible and intangible performance measures and overall success comes only when attention is paid to all five key indicators – time, cost, client, organisation and team. That’s a key foundation of the simulation – and of project management generally. We all ‘know’ that but it needs tools like Cayenne to help us articulate it and explore the issues that occur in the interface between clients, stakeholders and the project team.

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