Archive for the ‘learning management’ category

Badges of honour

17 June 2013

“Will I get a certificate for this?”

No matter how much we try to cultivate an informal learning culture within our organisations, this question pops up time and again. It’s a symptom of the way workplace education (and education more generally) has been administered over the years, and while I don’t blame people for thinking this way, I confess to being frustrated by the redundancy of it all. It reminds me of that episode of Peep Show in which Mark presents Jeremy with a life coaching certificate, replete with 4 stars.

The fact remains: people love recognition for what they do. Mozilla’s Open Badges initiative leverages this phenomenon by gamifying the learning experience. The initiative allows training providers to issue digital “badges” to the participants in their courses, who thereby earn online representations of their newly acquired skills. Each learner can earn badges from all manner of verified issuers, collect them in their online “backpack”, and show them off by plugging them into their website or blog.

Open badge

And you know what, it works. When self-confessed cynic Mark Smithers earned his first badge after completing a jQuery course, he was chuffed:

“I have to say that my feelings were of enormous pleasure at finishing my course and being able to display that quickly and easily. It also made me very eager to get another badge to add to my collection. If feelings like this can be engendered in someone as notoriously cynical as me then that’s a pretty powerful reaction.”

Powerful indeed. And yet I suggest that open badges have more powerful potential still.

To put this into context, let me first explain that Australia is one of the most regulated nations on earth. And that, of course, includes our financial services industry.

Partly credited with shielding our economy from the worst of the GFC, the flipside of our regulation is that it is widely considered to hamper productivity, agility and innovation. Moreover, mandatory compliance training is universally disdained and dreaded in equal measure.

There are reasons for this – and in Take the law out of compliance training I argue that it shouldn’t be so – but the point I wish to make here is: how do we know the training is legally sufficient? Of course we draw the content from SMEs and run it by Legal, but at the end of that long and winding road, we effectively roll the dice and hope it never gets tested in court. I personally believe it would stand up nonetheless, but without going to such extremes, how else could we ever truly know…?

Blue dice

In a conversation I had with a friend the other day, I suggested one solution might be for the various regulatory agencies to develop their own training courses for their minions in Workland to complete. But I have since realised this is a terrible idea. Not only would it put a lot of e-learning developers out of business (compliance being their bread and butter) but government is in the business of governing, not training.

This is where I think open badges can play a role. Instead of a badge representing the provision of training by a particular organisation, it can represent the endorsement of the training by the organisation. It is a subtle difference but an important one. It means training providers such as employers can continue to endorse their own courses (naturally) but so too can other organisations such as ASIC, APRA and Standards Australia. The latter don’t produce the content, but rather review it and stamp it with their seal of approval if it meets their exacting requirements. All for a fee, no doubt.

This slightly modified approach to open badging promises significant benefits for the stakeholders:

  • For the regulatory agency, it weaves its governance more tightly into the workplace, not to mention generating a new revenue stream.
  • For the employer, it instills a sense of confidence in their training program, not to mention a legal defence.
  • For the employees, it gives them the shiny recognition they crave, not to mention better protection of their and their customers’ safety and security – which of course is the whole point of compliance.

And that’s not all: open badges can also facilitate the portability of employee training records. Currently, if you complete your training at one organisation and then leave to join another, you leave your training records behind and thus have to do your compliance all over again. What a laughable and desperately inefficient proposition.

If, however, you earned ASIC- and APRA-endorsed badges from your previous compliance training, all you would need to do is authorise the connection of your backpack to your new employer’s LMS.

Backpack

In other words, you wear your badges wherever you go.

They are, after all, badges of honour.

The future of learning management

11 February 2013

People familiar with my blog will know that I’m not a member of the anti-LMS brigade.

On the contrary, I think a Learning Management System is a valuable piece of educational technology – particularly in large organisations. It is indispensible for managing registrations, deploying e-learning, marking grades, recording completion statuses, centralising performance agreements and documenting performance appraisals.

In other words – and the name gives it away – an LMS is useful for managing learning.

Yet while LMSs are widely used in the corporate sector, I suspect they are not being used to their full potential. You see, when most people think of an LMS, they think of formal learning. I don’t.

I think of informal learning. I think of the vast majority of knowledge that is acquired outside of the classroom. I think of the plethora of skills that are developed away from the cubicle. I think of reading a newspaper and chatting around the water cooler, and the myriad of other ways that people learn stuff. Relevant stuff. Stuff that actually makes a difference to their performance.

And I wonder how we can acknowledge all of that learning. We can hardly stick the newspaper or the water cooler into the LMS, although many will try in vain.

No – the way we can acknowledge informal learning is via assessment. Assessment represents the sum of learning in relation to a domain, regardless of where, when or how that learning was done.

The assessment need not be a multiple-choice quiz (although I am not necessarily against such a device), nor need it be online. The LMS only needs to manage it. And by that I mean record the learner’s score, assign a pass or fail status, and impart a competency at a particular proficiency.

In this way, the purpose of learning shifts from activity to outcome.

Wheelbarrow

Having said that, the LMS suffers a big problem: portability.

I’m not referring to the content. We have SCORM to ensure our courses are compatible with different systems. Although, if you think migrating SCORM-compliant content from one LMS to another is problem free, I have an opera house to sell you. It has pointy white sails and a great view of the harbour.

No – I’m referring to the learner’s training records. That’s the whole point of the LMS, but they’re locked in there. Sure, if the organisation transfers from one LMS to another, it can migrate the data while spending a tonne of money and shedding blood, sweat and tears in the process.

But worse, if the learner leaves the organisation to join another, they also leave their training records behind. Haha… we don’t care if you complied with the same regulations at your last organisation. Or that you were working with the same types of products. Or that you were using the same computer system. We’re going to make you do your training all over again. Sucker.

It’s hardly learner-centered, and it sure as hell ain’t a smart way of doing business.

Enter Tin Can.

Tin can in the cloud

According to my understanding, Tin Can is designed to overcome the problem of training record portability. I imagine everyone having a big tin can in the cloud, connected to the interwebs. When I complete a course at Organisation A, my record is recorded in my tin can. When I leave Organisation A for a better job at Organisation B, no worries because I’ve still got my tin can. It’s mine, sitting in the sky, keeping all my training records accessible.

This idea has taken the education world by storm, and some LMSs such as UpsideLMS have already integrated the API into their proprietary architecture.

Furthermore, I can update my tin can manually. For example, if I read a newspaper article or have an enlightening conversation with someone around the water cooler, I can log into my account and record it.

This sounds admirable prima facie, but for me it raises a couple of concerns. Firstly, the system is reliant on the learner’s honour – ! – but more concerningly, its philosophy reverts back to activity over outcome. Recording reams and reams of minor learning interactions all seems a bit pointless to me.

So where to from here?

Enter Plurality.

Plurality is a brilliant short film watched by the participants in Week 2 of The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures course.

The film paints a dystopian vision of the future whereby everyone’s personal details are stored in an online grid, which is controlled of course by the government. When you swipe your finger over a scanner, the computer reads your DNA and identifies you. This is convenient for automatically deducting the cost of a sandwich from your bank account, or unlocking your car, but not so convenient when you are on the run from the cops and they can track you through everything you touch.

Despite the Big Brother message pushed by the film, it prompted me to recognise an emerging opportunity for Tin Can if it were to re-align its focus on assessment and exploit the Internet of Things.

Suppose for example you are sitting in a jumbo jet waiting to take off to London or New York. If the cockpit had a scanner that required the pilot to swipe his finger, the computer could check his tin can to confirm he has acquired the relevant competencies at the required proficiencies before activating the engine.

Or suppose you are meeting a financial advisor. With a portable scanner, you could check that she has been keeping up with the continuing education points required by the relevant accreditation agency.

Competencies and assessment tend to cop a beating in the academic sphere, but in the real world you want to be reasonably confident that your pilot can fly a plane and your financial advisor knows what she’s talking about.

DNA strand

If the film’s portrayal of DNA is too far-fetched, it need not be the mechanism. For example, the pilot could key in his personal credentials, or you could key in the financial advisor’s agency code.

But maybe it’s not so far-fetched after all. The Consortium for the Barcode of Life – based at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, no less – is currently researching DNA barcoding.

And still, maybe Plurality is looking at it the wrong way around. We can already store digital information in synthetic DNA. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future our training records will be coded into our natural DNA and injected back into our bodies. Then instead of the scanner referring to your tin can in the cloud, it mines your data right there in your genes.

And you thought science fiction was scary!

Does L&D belong in HR?

23 August 2011

That was the topic of last week’s Learning Cafe in Sydney.

In short, my esteemed peers and I agreed on “yes”, but that’s not the end of the story. Allow me to explain…

Business woman designing a plan on screen

According to one school of thought, L&D belongs in HR because that’s how you achieve scale. The fundamental learning and development needs in the organisation (eg leadership, culture and change) are enterprise-wide. So it makes sense to centralise their management.

According to another school of thought, however, the needs of the business are so diverse and unique that a central L&D team could never hope to keep abreast of them all – let alone address them effectively. So it makes sense to embed L&D professionals into the teams to manage the learning in its context.

Of course, both POVs are right. Whether L&D should be centralised in HR or distributed throughout the business is not a binary proposition. A true learning organisation needs both.

Having said that, how the organisation implements the two is important. There’s no point having an ivory tower bestowing empty training interventions upon the masses; and conversely, there’s no point having an army of hermits toiling away in isolation.

What’s required is a partnership: L&D people across the organisation consulting and collaborating with each other – and with the business – to generate the right solutions for everyone.

Open Learning Network vs Informal Learning Environment

21 September 2010

In the comments section of my previous post, Mike Caulfield kindly pointed me to the article Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: The Open Learning Network by Jonathan Mott.

I was immediately interested because, like me, Mott is striving to bridge the gap between the organisation’s LMS and the learner’s PLE. He articulates his position as such:

“…a one-or-the-other choice between the two is a false choice between knowledge-dissemination technologies and community-building tools. We can have both.”

Amen to that.

But how do we bridge the gap?

Mott’s blueprint is the Open Learning Network (OLN). Mine is the Informal Learning Environment (ILE).

While both proposals have remarkable similarities, the pedagogical philosophies that underpin them are fundamentally different.

The ILE recapped

An ILE is a space that centralises tools and resources that the learner can use to drive their own development. In How to revamp your learning model, I propose three core components:

1. A comprehensive wiki,
2. An open discussion forum, and
3. A bank of personal profiles.

These components work in tandem with the LMS and system reports, which in turn comprise the core components of the Formal Learning Environment (FLE).

A revamped learning model, consisting of an ILE and an FLE

The organisation manages the ILE on behalf of the learners, who are free to search, explore, ask and share at their own pace and at their own discretion, and – ideally – integrate the system into their broader PLE.

The OLN compared

While the ILE is designed to bridge the gap between the LMS and the PLE, it purposefully keeps them apart. Not only do I believe in the right of the learner to keep their PLE strictly personal, but I also believe in the power of separating “learning” from its administration.

The OLN takes a different approach. Mott states:

“The OLN is not intended merely to allow the LMS and PLE paradigms to coexist in harmony, but rather to take the best of each approach and mash them up into something completely different.”

The OLN model connects private and secure applications on the organisation’s network (such as the student information system, content repository, assessments and transcripts) to open and flexible tools and applications in the cloud (such as blogs, social networks and non-proprietary content) via a services-oriented architecture.
The university network and the cloud under the OLN model. Source: Mott, J. (2010) Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: The Open Learning Network, Educause Quarterley Magazine, Volume 33, Number 1.

Both the OLN and ILE are modular because they comprise standalone resources or “learning objects”. This makes them flexible because the objects can be easily replaced by others that are more current, relevant or useful.

The key difference between the two models is interoperability. In a nutshell, the objects in an OLN can talk to one another via web service protocols such as LTI. Mott elaborates:

“In the simplest terms, web services-enabled applications leverage the elegantly simple Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) that gave life to the World Wide Web. This means that applications use a common set of verbs (such as GET and POST) and nouns (standard definitions of ‘student,’ ‘course,’ ‘score,’ etc.) to share data (as XML) via HTML. A robust services architecture will also implement role-based security and authentication protocols to manage data and application access and permissions. Within such a framework, any tool can securely interact with any other tool, passing user IDs and course and role information. Activities are then logged in the second application so that data can be passed back to the originating application (via a secure HTTP POST in the browser).”

A full-featured OLN. Source: Mott, J. (2010) Envisioning the Post-LMS Era: The Open Learning Network, Educause Quarterley Magazine, Volume 33, Number 1.

The ILE model is not as technologically complex! It makes no demands for interoperability among the components of the PLE, ILE and LMS; in fact, it celebrates their independence. The common denominator is authentic assessment, which represents the sum of all learning regardless of its sources.

Digging deeper

So while the major difference between the OLN and ILE is apparently their respective technical framework, that is simply a manifestation of their true difference: pedagogical philosophy.

I see the OLN as a solution for monitoring the student’s progress during a program of study in the digital age. It formalises the informal. The underpinning pedagogical philosophy, therefore, is formal learning – which I recognise as entirely appropriate in the Higher Education environment.

In the workplace, however, the vast majority of learning is informal. I would even go so far as to suggest that we hinder the learning process by drowning it in bureaucracy.

I see the ILE as a solution for self-directed learning, peer-to-peer discourse and knowledge sharing. It informalises the formal. The underpinning pedagogical philosophy, therefore, is informal learning – which is crying out for support in the corporate sector.

Horses for courses

So yes, Mott and I propose two similar yet fundamentally different learning models – but we have our reasons.

Neither is necessarily right; neither is necessarily wrong.

It all depends on context.
 

How to revamp your learning model

7 September 2010

In my articles Online courses must die! and The ILE and the FLE in harmony, I advocate the development of a virtual Informal Learning Environment (ILE) to work in tandem with the Formal Learning Environment (FLE) to support both the learning process and its administration.

Heeding the advice of Bill Brandon, I will now flesh out that idea with an illustration of how it might be implemented in a real organisation.

Informal learning

I believe in the power of informal learning. In fact, I go so far as to say it should be the central philosophy of the organisation’s learning model.

In a practical sense, that means we need to provide our learners with tools and resources that they can use to drive their own development.

This is where the ILE fits in: It’s a space (like a website or intranet site) that centralises those tools and resources.

The ILE illustrated

There are a thousand and one possible combinations and permutations of an ILE.

However, if I were to consider (read “fantasise”) a greenfield opportunity (read “pipedream”), what would I design?

Essentially I would base my design on three core components, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Informal Learning Environment, consisting of a wiki, a discussion forum and personal profiles

Figure 1. Informal Learning Environment

Core component #1: Wiki

The primary component of my ILE is a comprehensive wiki.

In a big corporation like the one I work for, knowledge is distributed everywhere – on obscure intranet pages, in random folders, in people’s heads – which makes it really hard to find.

A wiki enables the organisation to centralise that collateral, whether directly (by inputting it) or indirectly (by linking to where it exists elsewhere), thereby functioning as the first port of call.

A wiki can contain – or point to – all manner of media, such as text, graphics, documents and multimedia. The learner can search and explore the content that’s relevant to them, just-in-time if need be.

The flexibility of a wiki also allows anyone to contribute content. This empowers the learner to share their knowledge with their colleagues, build on the knowledge that has already been contributed by others, and communally keep it up to date.

Core component #2: Discussion forum

The secondary component of my ILE is an open discussion forum. I say “secondary” because my rationale is that, if the learner can’t find the knowledge they need in the wiki, they can crowdsource it via the forum.

A discussion forum enables the learner to post a question to their peers, thereby leveraging the collective intelligence of the organisation. Of course the learner can also share their knowledge by answering someone else’s question, and they can learn incidentally by reading the questions and answers of others.

The questions posted to the forum may also serve to expose knowledge deficiencies in the organisation, which can be remedied by updating the wiki!

Core component #3: Personal profiles

The tertiary component of my ILE is a bank of personal profiles. I say “tertiary” because my rationale is that, if the learner can’t find the knowledge they need in the wiki nor via the discussion forum, they can target an SME directly.

For example, if the learner is struggling with a Java programming problem, they can look up a Java expert in the system and send them a direct message. The SME may be recognised as a “Java” SME because they have said so in their profile, or – if the technology is sophisticated enough – their contributions of Java-related content in the wiki and participation in Java-related conversations on the discussion forum flag them as such.

I’m in two minds as to whether a full-blown social network is useful for internal learning purposes. Apart from profiling, I’m not convinced that friending, status updating and other Facebook-like activities add much value – especially when a discussion forum that accommodates groups is already in place.

Formal learning

Self-directed, informal learning is great. However, there are some things your employer must know that you know.

The most obvious example is compliance, eg privacy, trade practices and OH&S. If you breach the regulations, the company will be in hot water, so they’re not just going to take your word for it.

There are plenty of other examples, such as a certain level of product knowledge, that may be critical to the role.

In a practical sense, this means we should map required competencies to each role and assess the employee’s proficiency against each one. That probably leads to a development plan, which in turn forms a subset of the performance agreement and is subject to regular appraisals.

Then there are formal training events like courses and workshops that are important and require documentation, and some people want their informal learning (eg reading a book) recorded too.

The FLE is a space (like a database or platform) in which all this administration is done.

The FLE illustrated

Again, there are a thousand and one possible combinations and permutations of an FLE.

However I base my design on two core components, as illustrated in Figure 2.

Formal Learning Environment, consisting of an LMS and reports

Figure 2. Formal Learning Environment

Core component #1: Learning Management System

The primary component of my FLE is a Learning Management System (LMS).

The LMS is an oft-derided yet invaluable educational technology. I suspect the typical organisation under appreciates it because it uses it illogically.

My advice is to use the LMS for what it’s designed for: managing learning. Competency maps, auto-marked assessments, registrations, completion statuses, grades, transcripts, performance agreements and performance appraisals are what the LMS does well. Some even extend into talent management and other HR domains.

Conversely, my advice is to avoid using the LMS for what it is not really designed for: managing content. Leave that to the ILE, which is a much more open and flexible environment, and is purpose built to support “learning”.

Core component #2: Reports

The complementary component of my FLE is the range of reports that can be generated from various systems to provide useful data. Such data may include productivity statistics, quality scores, complaint volumes, engagement indices… whatever can be analysed to identify training needs and/or evaluate learning outcomes.

At the end of the day, learning must support performance.

Putting it all together

My revamped learning model, then, comprises two discrete but related virtual environments:

1. An ILE, and
2. An FLE.

The former supports the process of learning; the latter supports its management.

A revamped learning model, consisting of an ILE and an FLE

Figure 3. A revamped learning model

Separating the two environments like this aids in segregating them in the human mind.

Why bother?

Because learning should be a joy.

By definition, an ILE should be unforced, unscored, unthreatening.
It should be a safe, open space where people are excited to go because they want to learn, without the burden of forced navigation and pass marks.

Simultaneously, an FLE should focus on what really matters. Too often when formal and informal learning are mixed, goals blur and we run the risk of formalising for formalising’s sake. We don’t need to monitor our colleagues like Big Brother; we just need to assess them when necessary.

How long is a piece of string?

Of course, many more components may be reasonably argued for inclusion in the learning model.

An onsite classroom, for example, is obviously a part of the formal learning environment. So too is a university campus on the other side of town.

In terms of informal learning, the water cooler, a cabinet of books – and even the pages in a book – may be considered components of the ILE.

How about a library of online courses? That might be considered a component of the ILE if the learner is free to explore it at their convenience, but it will suddenly revert to the FLE if the learner is instructed to complete a particular course.

Clearly then, the ILE and the FLE are elastic concepts, highly dependent on perspective and context. That’s why I have focused on the core components that I think can provide a universal framework for a revamped learning model.

The two virtual environments are constant; everything else around them is variable.
 

The ILE and the FLE in harmony

15 July 2010

In my previous article Online courses must die! I advocated the development of Informal Learning Environments (ILEs).

Since then, Steve Wheeler’s thought-provoking article Anatomy of a PLE has prompted me to extend my argument a little further.

My updated premise is that an organisation – be it a corporation, university or otherwise – should facilitate two discrete but related virtual environments on behalf of its learning community:

  1. An Informal Learning Environment (ILE) which supports the learning process; and

  2. A Formal Learning Environment (FLE) which manages that learning.

The ILE will contain self-paced, self-directed, unmeasured learning resources such as readings, video clips, podcasts and discussion forums. The ILE might be called a learning portal, a learning centre, or some other friendly moniker.

In contrast, the FLE will contain administrative tools such as enrolment lists, formal assessments, grades and transcripts. The FLE might be called an MLE, VLE, LMS, or some other acronym.

Both the ILE and the FLE can be hosted on the same platform, but I think the front end of each needs to be demarcated in order to psychologically separate the “learning” from its administration.
 


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