Designing for Learning

A social learning guru once suggested that my company name was misleading since it was impossible to design learning. Her  argument was that learning is something that happens instinctively and that you can’t design it or force it in any way.

Was she right? Is it not possible to design learning? Maybe not but we can design for learning.

Designed for Learning

We may not be able to design the actual learning that people do but what we can do is design a resource, an experience or an intervention that encourages, stimulates or facilitates learning – and this applies equally to the classroom and the online environment.

When clients buy e-learning they often start by giving us a list of learning objectives. Our task as learning designers is then to design a resource that will result in learning by those who go through it. Ultimately clients want their learners to have all learnt the same thing, but in practice what they learn will depend to a large extent on what they already know. Learners will have different ‘aha!’ moments as they work their way through the learning material.

As learning designers our key role is to design scaffolds for learning. We take information and knowledge and present it in ways that help learners make sense of it all and which help map the new knowledge to their existing knowledge. To do this we use a wide range of devices, tactics, and strategies.

Sometimes these devices, tactics and strategies are embedded in learning design methodologies. Sometimes they are just intuitive approaches honed over years of experience in helping people understand stuff.

Learning design isn’t rocket science – every day teachers design learning experiences within a classroom environment. They aren’t designing the learning but they are designing the activities and interventions that will encourage and stimulate learning.

And this takes us back to social learning. Social learning is clearly not designed learning. Social learning does happen naturally. However left to its own devices it’s very inefficient and virtually impossible to manage or monitor.  For social learning to be truly effective the environment (technical and cultural) needs to be right and this will need the hand of a designer in its widest sense.


Has Tweeting killed Blogging?

In the same way that ‘vacuuming’ is the generic term for hoovering, the generic term for ‘tweeting’ is microblogging. Blogging because Twitter allows you to share your thoughts or ideas with others – micro because you can only use 140 characters to do it.

Why 140 characters? Apparently it stems from the early days when Twitter used SMS messages which were limited by many mobile phone carriers to 160 characters. The Twitter team decided that 140 characters for the message plus an extra 20 for the username would ensure that only one text message would be sent (and charged).

When I first started blogging, it was the only effective social media platform on the block but things have changed and the stream of intellectual discourse that often characterised blogs seems way too wordy to be of interest to Generations X and Y. To get their message out today many people switch on their video camera and ‘broadcast themselves’ via YouTube. Meanwhile Twitter has become the attention manager that blogs often aspired to.

In the early days one of the great advantages of a blog over a news or other published article was that readers could comment on the material and a dialogue could be established between author and reader, and between readers themselves. Today comments seem to be used less and less in blogs, partly this could be due to the hijacking of comments by spammers (when I re-launched my new web site based on WordPress they overwhelmed my moderation area), but generally I think people are less prepared to spend time on writing a comment when they can quickly share a link with their Twitter or Facebook followers. This image illustrates what I mean:

Twitter versus Comments

For those in the know of course Twitter and blogging are a marriage made in heaven. Here’s how it works for me:

  • I pick up on an interesting Twitter hot topic
  • I reflect on the topic and make some notes
  • I craft a blog article based on my take on the topic
  • I then Tweet a link to my blog article and ensure that I reference the original Twitter ‘conversation’

Hell later I may even video blog it all!

So thank you Twitter for re-vitalising blogging. And thank you for forcing us all to be oh so economical with our words. One hundred and forty characters is easy compared to those oh so time consuming blogs!

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

Steve Jobs TributeIt was very sad to hear this morning that Steve Jobs had died after finally losing his battle with pancreatic cancer. Apple has had a profound effect on the way information and communications devices look and work and this is largely attributable to the innovative and insightful team who set-up and ran the company over the last 30 years.

Over the years I have had a love/hate relationship with Apple. The love started in 1984 when I was writing software user guides for Racal Electronics. At the time we were writing drafts by hand and then having them typed into a lone IBM PC running Wordstar. Just to give you a flavour of what that was like the screen was a phosphorus green and in order to make a word bold you had to type formatting commands into the text itself. All illustrations were done entirely by hand using basic technical drawing equipment. One day, one of our contractor software engineers arrived at the office in his red Porsche with his a new ‘toy’ – an original 128k Apple Macintosh.

I was blown over by the simplicity of the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer) interface. Just by clicking and pointing you could do so much more than was possible on the IBM PC. Of course I later realised that the underlying technology had been invented by Xerox but Apple had developed it and made it affordable and truly understood the significance it would have on the future of personal computing. I was responsible back then for making the business case for Racal to buy its first Apple Macintosh. In practice we failed to get the company to replace the IBM PC as the core publishing system but we did manage to get it adopted as the system for developing all our illustrations. Later Racal did move over to Apple Macs for all their desktop publishing but by then I had left the company to start my own technical authoring business. My first purchase was an Apple Macintosh 512k which cost around £3,000 – a lot of money in 1984. It had no hard disc – just a single 3.5 inch floppy drive. Initially I used three applications – MacWrite (wordprocessor), MacPaint (bitmap editing) and MacDraw (vector drawing). They worked together like a dream. You could copy a drawing from MacDraw and simply paste it into a MacWrite page. To achieve this on a PC was laborious and fraught with difficulties. Later PageMaker arrived on the scene and the Macintosh pioneered the concept of desktop publishing.

For years I used the Mac but eventually made the switch to the PC as Windows became more intuitive and the range of specialist software available made it more suitable for the type of work I was doing with clients. I still work on PCs to this day primarily because they are cheaper, and run the specialist software that I need.

However in 2008 my love affair with Apple was revived when I bought my first iPhone. Strangely this device didn’t have the wow factor that I experienced when I saw that first Macintosh back in 1984 but once I started using it it really transformed the way I thought about productivity devices. The iPhone combined a number of technologies into one elegant and seamless productivity enhancing experience. The iPad simply adapted that experience for the big screen. As always it wasn’t so much the invention but the insightful way the device and its underlying technologies were packaged to provide a user experience that even the very latest Android devices struggle to match. One fact that was reported on the BBC today was that Apple did very little market research – it relied on the instincts of its people to develop products that would transform people’s lives. Steve Jobs wasn’t a geek – he loved technology but his lasting legacy was the way he developed products that put usability at the heart of the customer offer. For this he will be missed.

As a fitting memorial to Steve I recommend this book on the early days of Apple:

‘Revolution in the Valley’.

Linked-In reaches 100 million users

I had an e-mail today to thank me for being one of the early adopters of Linked-In:

“I want to personally thank you because you were one of LinkedIn’s first million members (member number 237,711 in fact!). In any technology adoption lifecycle, there are the early adopters, those who help lead the way. That was you.”

Total members is now 100 million! I feel like a pioneer though I have never really utilised the full potential of Linked-In.

My profile is here (come and connect):

Read more at:

Infographic at:

BETT Show, London 2011

January is a busy month for learning technologists. On Monday we had Handeld Learning, this week is BETT and on 26/27th January it’s Learning Technologies.

I didn’t manage to get to Handheld Learning this year but I did manage to spend a few hours at BETT. BETT is the learning technology show for education so it’s frequented primarily by teachers who have a special bent on technology. Few corporate e-learning people attend but I always find it useful to see what is happening on the other side of the learning technology fence.

One thing that is immediately clear is that this is a big show – it takes over the whole of Olympia (Learning Technologies is teeny by comparison). As you can imagine the technologies on display are aimed primarily at the classroom environment so interactive whiteboards are really big at BETT. So are student response technologies – you know those little wireless devices that let pupils and students make contributions in class. There are also big stands by major IT players such as Dell, Asus, NEC, Toshiba and Adobe and Microsoft. Strangely there was no Apple stand but a fair number of Apple Resellers and Solution Experts. There was very little in the way of remote or virtual learning solutions. I guess this reflects the fact that the show is aimed primarily at classroom teachers. Synergy Learning were there with Moodle but there was no sign of Blackboard or any other virtual learning environment platforms.

Here are some highlights/lowlights:

  • Elearningforce were demonstrating their SharePoint based LMS. Ouch!
  • MOOPLE is a new virtual learning environment aimed at kids.
  • ASUS were demonstrating their new big slate device. Nice widescreen but Windows 7 is not a great slate OS and as for apps well you’ll just have to be patient.

One thing that you do see at BETT is learning technologies that are fun and engaging. Lego had a massive stand and there were some pretty cool interactive whiteboard applications. But probably the most interesting piece of new technology that I came across was a chair designed specifically to be used by a class gathered around an interactive whiteboard. The Lamu can be used in two positions facing forward or facing backwards (more like a conventional chair). Even for an adult it was surprisingly comfortable and facing forward it allows a sort of rocking motion that makes using it even more enjoyable.

Smartworking for Knowledge Workers

Together with a colleague, Chris Hayford, I have developed a new site for knowledge workers.

"Smartworking ( helps knowledge workers to explore the issues underlying knowledge work and enables them to improve the way they work. Smartworking provides a fresh perspective on the way we work in the information age. It helps knowledge workers take control of their work

Rumsfeld on Knowledge

The departure of Donald Rumsfeld after the recent Republician US election disaster led to the Guardian to review some of his ‘insights’ – here is my favourite:

"The message is that there are no knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know."

It’s easy to see why KM is so hard to do – especially in the US Department of Defence!

Wise Words and Bad Analogies


In the knowledge management field there are often interesting philosophical discussions on the connection between knowledge and wisdom. Most of these are ultimately fruitless but it’s helpful to constantly re-evaluate exactly what we mean when we use the term knowledge.  That’s why I thought this latest Dilbert cartoon from Scott Adams was brilliant, and sort of neatly ties together a comment on wisdom with the art of storytelling (something that is also big in KM circles).  What’s your favourite overused analogy?

Information Strategy

Dilinfo_1Being a consultant, and working with clients on information, knowledge and learning issues  I couldn’t resist this Dilbert cartoon on ‘information strategy’.

Case Based Reasoning

FirecbrAt one of the Contacivity networking events I paired up with Ben Diamond from the West Midlands fire service – our task was to find each other three interesting contacts from all the people at Contactivity. That was an interesting exercise but I was particularly interested in some of the stuff Ben has been involved with involving decision support systems for mobile workers (actually firefighters like himself). He has been involved with an EU project (AMIRA) which is researching a variety of tools  and combinations of tools to support mobile workers:

"The technical goal of AMIRA is to develop a set of reusable components using search, reasoning, speech dialogue technology and collaborative working techniques that can be used to create a variety of applications for use by mobile workers operating in safety or business critical situations in the field."

Amongst other approaches AMIRA uses case based reasoning to present solutions to critical incidents. This is related to the AI (Artificial Intelligence) and expert system ideas that I came across years ago and all of this stuff is becoming highly relevant to knowledge management as a variety of different technologies mature and converge. I will follow-up case based reasoning is a later article but in the meantime check -out the following:

Link: Case Based Reasoning at Wikipedia
Link: Case Based Reasoning at American Association for Artificial Intelligence
Link: Kaidara Case Based Reasoning Software

The last link is to a French software company that sells case based reasoning software in support of customer service operations (including Comet in the UK). Is this KM in action or just another clever information search tool?

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