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.

Graph

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”.

Scientist

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

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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

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This one goes out to all the trolls.

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

The point of compliance

Posted 15 April 2014 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: compliance, motivation

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Why do we wear seat belts?

To avoid the fine… right?

I really wish I embedded this video into Take the law out of compliance training, but I didn’t.

So here it is now.

The triple-threat scenario

Posted 31 March 2014 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: instructional design

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There’s no shortage of theories as to why a scenario works so well as an educational device. But for me, it boils down to context.

An authentic and relevant context facilitates two important processes.

1. Sense making

The authenticity and relevance of the scenario contextualises the content so that it becomes more meaningful for the learner. It approximates a real life situation with which she is familiar so that she can make better sense of it.

2. Transfer

When the learner finds herself in a similar situation in real life, she will associate the current context with the scenario and thus apply her experience from it more readily.

When we combine these two affordances with the engagement power of video, we create a triple threat which dramatically increases our probability of success.


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