The dawn of a new generation

Posted 22 July 2014 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: e-learning development, strategy

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User-generated content (UGC) is not a novel concept, but most of us in the corporate sector have barely scratched its surface.

Beyond enterprise social networks – which are hardly universal and face substantial challenges of their own – UGC in the broader sense is beset by concerns about content quality, accountability, organisational culture, job security and power dynamics.

And yet… the world is changing.

Notwithstanding either the validity or the importance of our concerns with UGC, the traditional training model is becoming increasingly unsustainable in the modern workplace. And besides, I think most of our concerns can be addressed by a change in mindset, a little imagination, a dash of trust, and a collective commitment to make it work.

To explore the practicalities of user-generated content, the Learning Cafe sponsored a webinar entitled Learner Generated Learning Content – Possibilities, mechanics and chaos? The event was hosted by Jeevan Joshi and presented by myself, Andrew Mazurkiewicz and Cheryle Walker.

My part comprised a proposed solution to a fictional caselet. Both the caselet and the transcript of my proposal are outlined below…

Call centre

Ron is the manager for a 250 seat contact centre at an insurance company in 3 locations. Ron has made sure that there is a comprehensive training program to cover all aspects of the job. However in the past 6 months improvements have plateaued despite improving the content and structure of the training workshops. Ron did an analysis of contact centre data and concluded that further improvements were only possible if practical knowledge and better practices known to the team were shared in the team.

Denise, a team leader suggested that operators would be keen to share how they dealt with difficult or complex calls using the web cam on the PC and post it on the intranet. Ron was concerned that recording may be a distraction and may be perceived by some as monitoring performance. Kit, the Learning Consultant insisted the videos should be loaded on the LMS so that the time spent and results could be tracked. There were also concerns that inappropriate videos may be posted. Denise was however convinced that it was a good idea and the only way to improve further performance. What should Ron do?

Formal training

Well firstly I think Ron should retain his formal training program. It’s important for the organisation to cover off its “must know” knowledge and skills, and formal training can be a quick and efficient way of doing that. Besides, moving away too radically from formal training would probably be a culture shock for the company, and thus counter-productive. So in this case I suggest it would be best to build on the foundation of the training program.

Training is the front end of an employee’s learning & development. I know from first-hand experience that there is a lot for contact centre staff to take in, and they can’t possibly be expected to remember it all. So the formal training needs to be sustained, and a powerful way of doing that is with an informal learning environment.

Formal training complemented by a content repository

A key component of the informal learning environment is the content repository – such as an intranet or a wiki – that contains content that the employee can search or explore at their discretion. The logical place to start with this content is with the existing training collateral. Now, I don’t mean simply uploading the user guides, but extracting the information and re-purposing it in a structured and meaningful way on-screen.

If Denise knows operators who are keen to generate content, then I would certainly welcome that. These people are the SMEs – they live and breathe the subject matter every day – so they are the obvious choice to add value.

However, I’m not sure if web cams are necessarily the way to go. In the case of dealing with difficult calls, audio would be a more authentic choice; visuals wouldn’t add anything to the learning experience – in fact, they’d probably be distracting. The operator could request a particular recording from the quality system and write up in text how they handled the call. And if they used a tool like Audacity, they could easily cut and edit the audio file as they see fit.

Another way of generating content – especially for process and system training – might include Captivate or Camtasia, which are really easy to use to produce handy tutorials.

An important point to remember is that the operator on the phone might need to look up something quickly. For example, if they have an angry or abusive caller on the other end of the line, they won’t have the luxury of wading through reams of text or listening to a 7-minute model call. So it’s important that the practical knowledge be provided in the form of job aids – such as a template or a checklist – that the operator can use on-the-job, just-in-time.

I don’t agree with Kit that this content should be put on the LMS. Frankly, no one will go in there – and in my opinion, that’s not what an LMS is for. By definition, an LMS is a Learning Management System – so use it to manage learning. It makes sense to use the LMS for the formal training program – for things like registrations, grading, transcripts, reporting etc. In contrast, what we’re talking about here is the act of learning – not its management. The operator needs a resource that is easy to access, easy to navigate, to learn what they need to do their job in the moment.

We must remember that the point of learning is performance – so the focus of our measurement and evaluation energies should be on the performance stats. The employees would have been thoroughly assessed during the formal training program, so now is not the time to go loading the LMS with more stuff just for the sake of tracking it. The real tracking now should be done with the business scorecard.

Formal training complemented by a content repository, which in turn is complemented by a social forum.

OK, a missing link in this solution is a social forum.

If an operator can’t find what they need, a social forum enables them to ask their crowd of peers. And again, because these peers are themselves SMEs, someone is likely to have the answer. Not only does this approach service the operator with the information they need, but other operators can see the interaction and learn from it as well.

Also, by keeping tabs on the discussions in the forum, the L&D professional can identify gaps in the solution, and review the content that is evidently unclear or difficult to find.

So in summary, my solution for Ron is an integrated solution comprising his formal training program, complemented by an informal learning environment including a structured content repository, which in turn is complemented by a social forum.

Those among us who like the 70:20:10 model will see each component represented in this solution.

Formal training (10) complemented by a content repository (70), which in turn is complemented by a social forum (20).

Do you agree with my integrated solution? What else would you recommend, or what would you propose instead?

Are we witnessing the dawn of a new generation? Can user-generated content be a core component of the corporate L&D strategy? Or is it just a pipe dream?

Why I blog

Posted 8 July 2014 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: blogging

Tags: , , , , , , ,

I’ve been blogging for several years now, and a question that continually pops up is why do I do it?

My answer has remained consistent over time.

I blog primarily for myself. I use writing as a vehicle for my thinking. By presenting my thoughts to the world, I need to understand them, and articulate them effectively for others to understand. And if other people learn something from my insights and experiences, then I’m delighted.

The tag line of my blog is provoking deeper thinking. I want us to escape the echo chamber, to use our own brains and come to our own conclusions. To go beyond the obvious and explore the implications. We all have different perspectives, and we operate under different circumstances, so there’s no “one answer” anyway.

Comments are the lifeblood of blogging. I welcome comments from my peers. We don’t even have to agree – in fact the discussion is often richer if we don’t – so long as the interaction is empathetic and mutually respectful. So yes, I invite everyone to add their voice to the conversation.

The Average Joe imperative

Posted 24 June 2014 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: e-learning development, technology, usability

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There once was a time when I thought Second Life was going to take over the world. Well, the virtual world.

I was so impressed with the technology – and amazed at its availability for free! – that I saw it as an unstoppable force.

Yet more fascinating for me was its implications for education. Web conferencing was starting to become popular around the same time, and while these days Skype and FaceTime are de rigueur, back then webcamming introduced a sorely needed human element to distance learning.

However, I noticed something peculiar with web conferencing. While the webcam presented the human face, the learning experience remained undeniably isolated. We were all together, yet each alone.

Second Life was different. Its animations reproduced not only the full human form, but also the learning environment: chairs, tables, stage, etc. Now (at least visually) we were all together. The irony was that by making the interaction entirely artificial, it made it more real.

A virtual learning session in Second Life

Alas, Second Life had an Achilles heel. While it was drop-dead easy to participate as a consumer, it was relatively difficult to participate as a producer.

For a start, if you wanted your own space, you had to buy your own virtual real estate. But worse, it was surprisingly hard to make stuff. I remember trying to build simple objects using the developer tools, but I struggled. So I’d give up, go back to it later when I could steal some time, only to abandon it again. Until I finally gave up for good.

Now I’m a fairly tech savvy kind of guy. While I can’t hack into NASA, I’m confident enough to give any software a go and not be put off by shiny new toys. But I was put off by this. And so too, it would seem, was the rest of the L&D world.

Graph of Gartner hype cycle showing that all new innovations follow the same predictable trajectory from hype to eventual application

The moral of the story is deeper than the Gartner hype cycle.

In fact, while we experienced a peak of inflated expectations with Second Life, and then the trough of disillusionment, I don’t think as a profession we ever reached the slope of enlightenment, let alone the plateau of productivity. Sure, some educators such as Sydney Medical School are doing wonderful things on the platform, but that’s hardly universal.

So what happened?

To me it’s simple: Second Life failed to accommodate Average Joe. If Joe wanted to attend a virtual conference or a meetup, he could do so with ease; however, if he wanted to host a virtual conference or create a meetup venue, that was beyond him.

And so Second Life sailed off the edge of the virtual world.

Statue of Achilles Thniskon

Compare Second Life’s journey to that of other products that have emerged recently. For example, everyone says that Articulate Storyline looks and feels like Microsoft PowerPoint. Well guess what… that’s the point.

Love it or loathe it, PowerPoint is easy to use. So hundreds of millions of people use it.

Articulate’s master stroke was to piggyback the usability of PowerPoint for their own purposes. And the proof of the pudding is in its eating. I am seeing Average Joes everywhere who wouldn’t touch other authoring tools with a 10-foot pole expressing an uncharacteristic willingness to give this one a go. That’s not by accident; it’s by design.

I predict a similar fate for other emerging technologies, be it Tin Can, augmented reality, responsive e-learning, or whatever else lay on the horizon.

Address the Average Joe imperative. Lest your Achilles heel becomes your fatal flaw.

E-Learning = Innovation = Science

Posted 10 June 2014 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: e-learning, innovation, science

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Have you ever been to a conference where the presenter asks the audience, “Who’s implemented a mobile learning strategy?”, and only 2 or 3 people raise their hand?

Forgive me: it’s a rhetorical question. I know you have. Because everyone has.

Of course the question might not revolve around mobile learning, but rather gamification, or enterprise social networking, or flipped classrooms, or whatever the hot topic may be.

While a lot of talk is bandied around about e-learning, it’s evident that relatively few of us are actually doing it.

The e-learning panel at AITD2014

To help bridge the gap, I was honoured to moderate a panel session at last month’s AITD National Conference. I was even more honoured to share the stage with Helen Blunden, Matthew Guyan, Anne Bartlett-Bragg and Simon Crook.

The session was entitled E-Learning: Transforming Talk into Action, and the panellists were hand-picked from multiple sectors to share their insights and expertise with us. And that they did.

Simon explained how his science students are using their iPads in class to enrich their learning experience: “Engage me or enrage me”; Matt described his use of Articulate Storyline to develop online courses in-house; Helen shared her experience in using Yammer to cultivate a collaborative culture in a conservative corporate environment; while Anne dove head-first into MOOCs and ruffled a few feathers along the way.

Regardless of the specific technology or pedagogy discussed by the panellists, the overarching advice provided by each one was to give it a go and see what happens.

In other words, e-learning is innovation.


Now I realise that many of my peers will balk at this assertion. After all, e-learning is decades old, and today’s L&D pro’s are tech savvy and digitally invested.

So let’s take the “e” out of “e-learning” already – I’ve argued that myself in the past. However I put it to you that a great many among us still haven’t put the “e” into e-learning, let alone take it out again.

For these people, e-learning represents making changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products. And when you think about it, e-learning is that for the rest of us too – it’s just we’re more comfortable with it; or, in fact, excited by it.

For all of us then, viewing e-learning through the lens of innovation offers us a crucial advantage: it reframes failure.

You see, innovators don’t think of failure as most people do. Rather than see it as something to be ashamed of, avoided at all costs, and certainly not to be aired in public, innovators embrace failure, they actively seek it out – and most importantly of all, they learn from it.

They appreciate the fact that if you never try, you never know. A failure isn’t an error or a mistake, but a beautiful piece of intelligence that informs your next move.

The trick of course is to ensure that when you fail, you do so quickly and cheaply. You don’t want to bring the roof crashing down upon you, so protect yourself by taking baby steps. Pilot your innovation and if it doesn’t quite work, modify it and try again; if it tanks miserably, cut your losses and abandon it; but if it does work, scale it up, keep an eye on it, continue to modify it where necessary, and enjoy your “overnight success”.


And still I wish to take this line of thinking further. Beyond innovation, e-learning is science.

My definition of science is “systematic knowledge”. If you want to obtain deep, scientific insight, get systematic.

Scientists frame failure in much the same way as innovators do. Again, rather than seeing it as something to be ashamed of, they see it simply as a result. It’s not good or bad, right or wrong. It just is.

The advantage of viewing e-learning through the lens of science is embedded in its methodology. Classic experimental design is based on two hypotheses: the null hypothesis, in which the treatment has no effect; and the alternative hypothesis, in which the treatment has an effect. By running an experiment, the scientist will either accept or reject the null hypothesis.

For example, suppose a scientist in a soda company is charged with testing whether honey-flavoured cola will be popular. He might set up two sample groups drawn from the target market: one group tastes the regular cola, the other group tastes the honey-flavoured cola, and both rate their satisfaction. After crunching the numbers, the scientist may find no significant difference between the colas – so he accepts the null hypothesis. Or he may find that the honey-flavoured cola tastes significantly better (or worse!) than the regular cola – so he rejects the null hypothesis. Whether the null hypothesis is accepted or rejected, it’s a useful result. The concept of failure is redundant.

The parallel with e-learning is readily apparent. Consider the teacher who allows her students to bring their mobile devices into class; or the trainer who delivers part of her program online; or the manager who sets up a team site on SharePoint; or the L&D consultant who supports a group of employees through a MOOC. In each case, the null hypothesis is that her new method, idea or product has no effect – on what? that depends on the context – while the alternative is that is has. Either way, the result informs her next move.

A baby taking a step forward

So my advice to anyone who has never raised their hand at a conference is that you don’t need to don a white coat and safety goggles to transform talk into action. Rather, change your mindset and take a baby step forward.

I can’t use Facebook

Posted 27 May 2014 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: informal learning, motivation

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This one goes out to all the L&D folk who are wary of the “I haven’t been trained” excuse.

I can't use Facebook because I haven't been trained in it (said nobody ever).

They’re not like us

Posted 12 May 2014 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: informal learning, motivation

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As learning in the workplace becomes increasingly informal, the motivation of employees to drive their own development becomes increasingly pivotal to their performance.

This is a point that I fear many of our peers fail to grasp.

You see, we love learning. We share knowledge on Twitter, contribute to discussions on LinkedIn, read books, write blogs, comment on blogs, subscribe to industry magazines, share links to online articles, watch videos, and participate in MOOCs. We tinker with software, experiment with new ideas, attend conferences, and join local meetups. We crowdsource ideas, invite feedback, ask questions, and proffer answers. The list is endless.

No one forces us to do all this. We do it because we enjoy it, and we understand that it is critical in keeping our knowledge and skills relevant in an ever-changing world.

The inconvenient truth, however, is that not everyone does this. I’m not referring to some of us in the L&D profession, although that’s an ironic part of the problem. For now I’m referring to a large proportion of our target audience. In a nutshell, they’re not like us.

An embodiment of this concept is the 1% rule. This heuristic maintains that in a typical online community, only 1% of the members create new content, while the remaining 99% lurk. A variation of this theme is the 90-9-1 principle, which maintains that in an online space that empowers users to create and edit content (eg an intranet or wiki), only 1% of the members will create new content, 9% will edit it, leaving the remaining 90% who consume it.

Of course, these ratios assume a participating population; they don’t account for the proportion of the membership that is disengaged with the community. That is to say, not even lurking. And that proportion may be surprisingly large.

In any case, I’m not interested in getting tied up in knots over the numbers. Like 70:20:10, these are merely rules of thumb that reflect a broader truth. I also appreciate that lurking isn’t necessarily a bad practice. The consumption of content is an important element of “learning”. No argument there.

A problem arises, however, when active participation is expected. Consider an ESN such as Chatter: 1% of the organisation won’t adequately reflect the enterprise’s collective intelligence. Or a discussion forum that supports an inhouse training program: 1% of the participants will fall short of the critical mass that is required to develop a rich, diverse and meaningful discussion. In such cases, the vast majority of the SMEs are effectively holding back their expertise, and those with experiences to share are not doing so. Hence the learning experience suffers – even for the lurkers.

Another challenge we face is pre-work – or more to the point: it not being done. Of course this has been a problem for as long as pre-work has existed. However it’s becoming acute for those among us who are trying to implement a flipped classroom model. Value-add activity can not be undertaken when the face time is spent on the non-value add activity which should have (but hasn’t) already been done. It defeats the purpose.

Again, when the expectation of active participation is not met, everyone’s learning experience suffers.

Tumbleweed rolling along a deserted road

So how can we as L&D professionals change the situation? How can we motivate our participants to participate actively…?

My poll results from Drivers of Yammer use in the corporate sector are somewhat enlightening. Indeed, I have enjoyed some success by getting executives actively involved, as well as by calling on champions throughout the business to push the barrow.

I recently asked a presenter at an e-learning conference what she does when her target audience aren’t actively participating in the discussion forums that she sets up, and she replied matter-of-factly that she reports their reticence to their respective managers. Ouch! but apparently it works.

Natalie Lafferty blogged about a paper recently published by the Virginia School of Medicine, in which they reported dwindling attendance at their flipped classroom sessions…

“In sessions where students could sit where they wanted, they were less prepared as they would typically sit with their friends and would choose their table based on fun rather than who knew their stuff. The session for some served as a ‘social catch-up’, others admitted they watched videos. There was however a difference in approach to team-based learning sessions where students were assigned into groups; they were more likely to prepare as they were more concerned about appearing stupid.”

I call the latter phenomenon “social accountability” and it appears powerful.

Jayme Linton blogged about encouraging her students to do their pre-reading by employing similar techniques such as “speed dating”…

“Speed dating allows students to interact with several peers in a short amount of time. Students talk for a short time (1 or 2 minutes) with a classmate, typically in response to a question or set of questions. After the specified time period has passed, students rotate and have a conversation with another peer.”

Dare I suggest again the major concern of the participants is their social standing?

Carrot and stick

While all these techniques evidently motivate the target audience to participate, I can’t help but feel a pang of disappointment. Because each of these motivators is extrinsic.

Whether it be ego, fear, politeness or bald-faced sycophancy driving their behaviour, I put it to you that the retirement of the motivating technique by the L&D pro would result in the cessation of that behaviour. By definition, the motivation is not intrinsic and so the participants are relieved of their incentive to continue.

Of course, an alternative is to cultivate the participants’ intrinsic motivation instead. For example, if the content is authentic, relevant and engaging, then that makes it compelling, and that should pull the participants in. However, I put it to you further that even with the most compelling content in the world, it will be worth nil if the participants are not habituated into interacting with it and with one another about it.

Which leads me to consider a hybrid approach: using extrinsic motivators to drive the desired participant behaviour, which is consequently rewarded by an experience that is intrinsically motivating. In other words, scaffolding the informal learning process with a formal structure, thereby driving the behaviour that achieves the outcome that drives the behaviour.

Perhaps over time a sustainable participatory culture will emerge and the need for such scaffolding will dissipate. In the meantime, though, we may have no choice but to dangle the carrot with the stick.

The Comparative Value of Things

Posted 29 April 2014 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: cartoon, social media

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This one goes out to all the trolls.

Relative scale with platinum at one end and anonymous comments on social media at the other.


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