Posted tagged ‘expert’

Let’s get rid of the instructors!

9 September 2014

The title of my previous post, Let’s get rid of the instructional designers!, was a tongue-in-cheek reference to a radical view of instructional design.

I think it would be safe to say that the vast majority of us in the L&D profession do not advocate the riddance of instructional designers. On the contrary, they are the experts in a science that is critical to the overall performance of the organisation.

The title of this post however, while similarly tongue-in-cheek on my part, is much less so on the part of many of my peers.

We live in an era where “training”, “lecture”, “course” and even “teaching” have become dirty words. In their place, a learner-centered vocabulary espousing “inquiry”, “exploration” and “discovery” are the soupe du jour.

A manifestation of this trend is no more vivid than in the invective directed at MOOCs – or more accurately, xMOOCs. To many L&D folks, these types of courses (there’s that word again) are mere replicas of the lectures and exams that they so despise. Ergo, xMOOCs are bad.

Now I maintain this view sells xMOOCs short, but for the sake of argument I’m willing to pretend that this mode of delivery is devoid of constructivist empowerment. I acknowledge that many MOOCs do replicate olde worlde instructivism, at least in part.

And here’s where I propose something counter-radical: Sometimes that’s a good thing.

Screenshot of Foundations of Business Strategy

Indeed, I advocate direct instruction under the following circumstances:

1. When the learner is a novice.

Novice learners don’t know what they need to know. But the expert does.

By adopting an instructivist approach, the expert can scaffold the learning experience and construct a foundational framework for the subject matter. The learner can then build upon this foundation by other means.

2. When the subject matter is complex.

By definition, complex subject matter consists of interconnected parts which may be difficult to make sense of through inquiry, exploration and discovery.

Sometimes it makes more sense to have someone who understands the system explain it to you end-to-end.

3. When the subject matter is black & white.

It’s worth noting that complex is not the same as complicated, whereby inquiry, exploration and discovery may be eminently suitable for gathering multiple versions of the “truth”.

Geopolitics springs to mind, but cooler headed topics such as strategic thinking and decision-making are also highly dependent on context, lending themselves to a more constructivist approach.

But not all topics are like that. Consider financial statement analysis: the content is so straight-forward that it would make little sense to inquire, explore and discover, when you could simply see how it’s done and practise it for yourself.

4. When speed to competence is important.

Learners in the workplace are time poor, and whatever the topic, their employer demands that they get up to speed quickly. Otherwise, don’t come Monday.

These people don’t have the luxury of a semester to inquire, explore and discover. They need to know what they need to know now.

5. When the learning outcome is non-negotiable.

There are some things that your employer must know that you know. It may be critical to your role, a compliance obligation, or a risk management issue; so it can’t be left to chance.

Personally, I think the indicator of must-know learning is its assessment. I wouldn’t care so much where, when or even how you learned it, so long as you did.

However, I can also see that if an employer found itself in court because one of its employees sexually harassed one of his colleagues, it would want to demonstrate that it had provided sufficient training to that individual.

6. When the learner is less inclined.

We in the L&D industry tend to believe (or want to believe) that our target audience is just like us. They’re self-motivated individuals with a hunger to inquire, explore and discover.

The truth, of course, is that our target audience occupies the full spectrum of autodidactism. And dare I suggest many huddle at the lower end.

Woman using computer

Getting back to xMOOCs specifically, another point I wish to make is that just because they are delivered in an instructivist manner, does not mean they must be consumed in an instructivist manner.

While the learner is free to work their way through the curriculum along the pre-defined weekly path, they are also free to inquire, explore and discover at their discretion within a thoughtfully structured environment.

But oh no! If we empower the learner to drive their own MOOC experience, they might not finish it!

Grumpy cat thinking they just won't complete their MOOCs.

As history reminds us time and time again, no one view is ever the “right” one – at least, not all the time.

Our perspective is so dependent on the circumstances that we learning pro’s must appreciate the problem before trumpeting or poopooing the solution.

Just as it makes little sense to get rid of the instructional designers, it makes little sense to get rid of the instructors. Instead, let’s get smarter about instruction.

The classroom option you should not ignore

19 November 2012

I’m sure you know the feeling. You’re sitting in a classroom watching a presentation – which started late to allow the “stragglers” to show up – when about 10 minutes in it dawns on you…

What am I doing here?

Either you’re already familiar with what’s being presented, or it’s so straight-forward it didn’t require 30 or 60 minutes of your time. But whether it be due to politeness, shyness, peer pressure, or a sense of obligation, you remained bolted to your seat until the bitter end.

It’s such a waste of time – both for you and for the presenter.

Attendees sleeping in a seminar

Despite my obvious predilection for e-learning, I am actually a fan of the traditional classroom.

I appreciate that sometimes it is more efficient for someone who knows more than you to teach you something. As a novice, you don’t know what you don’t know. But the expert does, and he or she can get you up to speed.

Also, away from your desk you’re free from those universal distractions such the phone, email and uninvited guests. Furthermore, you have the opportunity to ask questions and receive immediate feedback from the human standing right before you.

However the traditional classroom has plenty of downsides too. For example, you typically can’t influence the content that is being delivered, you’re beholden to the pace of the presenter, and there’s always that f@#king idiot who hasn’t bothered with the pre-work yet is happy to prolong the misery for everyone else by asking inane, redundant questions.

Woman attending a virtual classA modernised version of the traditional classroom is the virtual classroom.

Delivering the content over the internet allows people to attend wherever they are geographically located, without incurring travel costs and losing time in transit. A virtual class also allows people to attend to other tasks if need be, and to slip away on the sly if it becomes clear the session isn’t adding any value.

Of course, the virtual classroom also has its fair share of downsides too. From technical glitches to the challenges of e-moderation, it is common knowledge that virtual presenters fantasise about the good ol’ days when everyone was in the same room at the same time.

Flipped classroom

A postmodern twist on the classroom delivery model is the flipped classroom.

Taking root in the school and university environments where regular classroom sessions are mandated and homework is the norm, the “flipped” concept posits the content delivery as the homework (typically in the form of a video clip) which frees up the in-person session for value-added instruction such as discussion, Q&A, worked examples, role plays etc.

I truly believe the flipped classroom is on the cusp of revolutionising the education sector.

Empty classroom

Notwithstanding the advantages of the three aforementioned classroom options, there is yet another option that is often ignored by educators: no classroom.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my obsession passion for informal learning environments, but in this instance I’m not referring to the constructivist approach.

Still true to the instructivist paradigm, I maintain the “no classroom” option can work.

It’s so simple: record your class on video. Then deploy it to your audience, so they are empowered to watch it when convenient, pause, fast-forward, rewind, and even play it again later.

The model is similar to a flipped classroom, but there is no in-person follow-up. And you know what? Frequently that’s all that’s needed. When the content is so straight-forward that it doesn’t require a classroom session, why on earth would you waste everyone’s time with one?

In cases where the content is more complex and follow-up is necessary, why not combine the video with formative exercises? An online discussion forum? A buddy program? Again, you probably don’t need to drag everyone into a classroom.

Woman using computer

My point is, under the right circumstances, video can provide effective instruction.

But don’t just take my word for it. Why not get a second opinion from Ted, Lynda, Salman or David.

See the wood for the SMEs

27 August 2012

In my previous blog post, Everyone is an SME, I argued that all the employees in your organisation have knowledge and skills to share, because everyone is an SME in something.

Sometimes this “something” is obvious because it’s a part of their job. For example, Sam the superannuation administrator is obviously an SME in unit switching, because he processes dozens of unit switches every day.

But sometimes the something isn’t so obvious, because we’re either too blind to see it, or – Heaven forbid – our colleagues have lives outside of the workplace.

Martha the tea lady

Consider Martha, the tea lady. Obviously she’s an SME in the dispensation of hot beverages. That’s her job.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that she’s also an SME in customer service and relationship management. That’s her job, too.

Oh, and she speaks fluent Polish and Russian.

Gavin the IT grad

May I also introduce you to Gavin, the IT grad. Gavin is proficient in several programming languages, as you would expect. In his spare time, he develops iPhone apps for fun.

You’re working on a mobile strategy, right?

Li the BDM

Then there’s Li, the Business Development Manager. Li’s an expert in socratic selling and knows your product specs off by heart, but did you know she’s halfway through a Master of International Business degree?

She also recently emigrated from China – you know, that consumer market you want to break into.

My point is, when we seek subject matter expertise for a project, a forum, a working group, an advisory board, or merely to answer a question, we might not see the wood for the trees are in the way.

Does your organisation have a searchable personnel directory that captures everyone’s expertise? Their experiences? Their education? Their interests? The languages they speak?

If not, you are probably oblivious to the true value of your payroll.

Colleagues holding question mark signs in front of their faces

Everyone is an SME

20 August 2012

One of the recurring themes on my blog is a call for Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to share their knowledge with the wider organisation.

In my view, this isn’t just an expectation: it’s an obligation. Organisations whose people embrace collaboration will prosper, while those who don’t will be left behind.

While the stereotype of an SME is a Sheldon-like character with superhuman intellect, the convenient truth is that we’re regular folk.

Of course the level of expertise in a particular domain will vary across a population, and the label of “expert” will naturally be assigned to those who have the most. However, it would be a folly to assume that the eggheads are the only ones who have anything to contribute.

You see, everyone is an expert in something. When humans work in a domain day in, day out, they familiarise themselves with it; they grow to understand its subtleties; they think up ideas to improve it; and they recognise the difference between business reality and academic fallacy when other people talk about it.

SamSo while they might not be experts in the entire domain, they will be experts in parts thereof.

Take Sam for example. He’s an administrator in the back office of a financial services organisation.

He’s no expert in superannuation, but he sure knows how to process a unit switch – even complicated ones. He processes dozens of them every day.

So when you need someone to record a unit switching tutorial, who you gonna call? It sure as hell won’t be Carl the CFP, or Mary the MBA, or anyone else with an acronym after their name. It will be Sam, the unit switching expert.

Spectacles

When we view the concept of subject matter expertise through this lens, we realise our roles as learning professionals need to change:

  • We need to stop deifying the few. This creates an “us & them” mentality which – even if affectionate – discourages the participation of the mortals.
     
  • We need to empower the many to share their expertise. In the modern workplace, this will involve social technology.
     
  • We need to cultivate a participatory culture. The best technology in the world is useless in an organisation with inhibitive policies and attitudes. Tools are meant to be used.

So unless they are doe-eyed novices, all the employees in your organisation have knowledge and skills to share. And if they don’t or won’t, let them find alternative employment with your competitors.

Something all learning pro’s should do

10 April 2012

Learn a language.

I don’t mean a programming language (although the theory probably still holds). I mean a bone fide foreign language like French, German, Japanese or Mandarin.

By going outside of your comfort zone, you stimulate your brain into new realms. But more importantly, you experience once again what it’s like to be a novice learner.

Now YOU are the one on a steep learning curve.

It’s daunting. It’s awkward. And it’s humbling.

Teacher assisting mature student in class

As a teenager I developed a fascination for the German language. I think it stemmed from my love of history and my desire to understand what the enemy soldiers were saying in the movies.

Over the years I dabbled by doing a class, listening to tapes, buying an English-German dictionary and reading a few language books.

However it wasn’t until recently when I planned to revisit Germany that I made a conscious effort to give it another red hot go. I didn’t want to be one of those tourists who’s first words are inevitably: “Do you speak English?”

No, I wanted to understand – and be understood – auf Deutsch. At least enough to get by.

And I did all right. But in no uncertain terms I reminded myself of what works and what doesn’t in the learning process.

All those fundamental pedagogical principles that had faded into the background came flooding back with avengeance…

Instructivism and formal learning

When you’re a novice in a domain, the guidance of an expert is golden.

For example, the teacher at the front of a language classroom already knows the grammar, vocabulary, phrases, habits and customs that you need to know. He or she is in a prime position to provide you with a programmed sequence of knowledge.

In my opinion, there is no other way of getting up to speed so quickly.

Constructivism, connectivism and informal learning

While instructivism and formal learning are valuable, they comprise only one piece of the puzzle. Anything else you can access is invaluable – whether it be a copy of Der Spiegel, an episode of Inspector Rex, or a Twitter buddy in Berlin.

The motivated learner who extends the learning process beyond the formal curriculum is destined for mastery.

Skills development

You can learn about a language until the Friesian cows come home, but to acquire the skill you have to actually do it. From simply saying new words aloud, through role plays, to full-blown conversation cafes, the objective is to practise.

Make mistakes, improve your pronunciation, get the vocab front of mind.

OTJ, PBL and job aids

Developing a skill is a waste of time if you never apply it in the real world. At some stage you need to immerse yourself in the environment (in my case, Germany) and actively participate (eg order food, buy train tickets, ask for directions). In doing so, you continue to learn.

When you are in the moment, job aids – especially mobile job aids – become indispensable. I gave Google Translate a beating!

Use it or lose it

Repetition is key. I’m not referring to rote learning, but rather to the continual application of the knowledge.

When I was overseas, I must have looked up the same words six or seven times each; they weren’t very common.

On the other hand, other words were everywhere. I only needed to look those up once; they were naturally reinforced thereafter.

Now that I’m back in Oz, I know that I’ll lose much of my German unless I find ways to keep up the reading, writing, listening and conversing.

World in the hand

Of course, I realise I’m not telling you – a fellow learning professional – anything you don’t already know. But honestly, when was the last time you consciously used the concepts and principles I have just mentioned to inform your work?

During the daily grind it’s easy to slip into production mode and put your brain into hibernation. As a profession, we need to shock ourselves out of that state.

It’s time to put some skin back in the game, so why not learn a language?

Wer wagt, gewinnt!

Clash of the titans

26 December 2011

I have really enjoyed following the recent argy bargy between Larry Sanger and Steve Wheeler. From a learning practitioner’s point of view, it raises issues of pedagogy, instructional design, and perhaps even epistemology.

Having said that, I think it all boils down to the novice-expert principle. As a novice, you don’t know what you don’t know. Thankfully, an expert (the teacher) can transmit the necessary knowledge to you quickly and efficiently. In eduspeak, you benefit from “scaffolding”.

Then, after you have acquired (yes – “acquired”) a foundational cognitive framework, I suggest a constructivist approach would be appropriate to expand and deepen your knowledge. In other words, now you know what you don’t know, you can do something about it.

My sector of practice is corporate rather than K-12, but I would assume that because the learners are children, their level of experience and prior knowledge is limited. Hence, having the basic concepts explained up front is a perfectly reasonable teaching strategy.

Teacher in front of K-12 class

I wonder, though, whether conversation (online or otherwise) would indeed be a useful technique after the basics have been bedded down? Perhaps the last third or so of the class could be devoted to discourse facilitated by the teacher? Or assigned to participation in a district-wide online discussion forum? (Moderated, of course, by teachers and class nerds.)

Or – more likely – I’m exposing my ignorance of the logistics of managing a classroom.

My point is that constructivism can complement, rather than substitute, instructivism. This is something that I have argued for previously.

My secondary point is that I am quite getting over the Twitterati’s tendency to devalue the role of the expert in education. Not only is the expert aware of the important facts, but they can also impart their meaning and context.

Googling ability does not a scholar make.

Learning vs Development

27 June 2011

Is there a difference between learning and development?

I ruminated over this question for a number of years as a Learning & Development professional, but without much progress.

I could never draw a clear line between the two, so I considered the “D” in “L&D” to be a simple tautology.

That was until a colleague of mine recommended I read Making the Case for a Developmental Perspective by Dr Suzanne R Cook-Greuter.

Bidirectional POV

Cook-Greuter distinguishes between two directions of human development: horizontal growth and vertical transformation.

Horizontal growth refers to the gaining of new knowledge, skills and behaviours within a particular stage of development. In doing so, the learner becomes better equipped to perform in their environment.

Vertical transformation is much more sophisticated. Rather than expanding capability within the same stage of development, the learner promotes their intellect to a higher stage of development.

The Leadership Development Framework (LDF) models this transformation as an upward spiral from the preconventional Impulsive and Opportunist through to the transpersonal Ironist and beyond:

Torbert's Leadership Development Framework

Each stage of development represents a level of wisdom that transcends the one before it.

The vast majority of people in modern society (and hence in the workplace) occupy the conventional stages of Diplomat, Expert and Achiever. Promotion to the postconventional stages of Individualist, Strategist and Alchemist is relatively rare, while I presume the transpersonal stages are the realm of the Zen Master.

(For profiles of the seven most common stages in the workplace, refer to Rooke & Torbert’s Seven Transformations of Leadership.)

The sound of a penny dropping

As I read Cook-Greuter’s paper, it dawned on me that her bidirectional model of development can represent the two sides of the L&D equation:

1. Horizontal growth represents the “L” – improving your competence.

2. Vertical transformation represents the “D” – maturing your mind.

I think it’s fair to say most L&D professionals focus their energy in the L space:

• Classroom-based training
• Online courses
• System simulations
• Job aids
• Assessment
• Performance appraisals
• Coaching

But this might only be going half way.

Cook-Greuter maintains that to help people transform, “only specific long-term practices, self-reflection, action inquiry, and dialogue, as well as living in the company of others further along the development path has been shown to be effective” (pp. 3-4).

In other words, meaningful transformation requires deep intervention which is personally driven and fostered by peers. The role of the L&D professional is to facilitate it:

• Communities of practice
• Social technology
• Disruptive content
• Cross-departmental workshops
• Executive retreats
• Mentoring

In addition, reflection and deep thinking requires time, permission and support – so we need to secure managerial buy-in.

We can’t “do” development for others; they must do it for themselves. However we can cultivate the right environment and empower them to make the most of their opportunities.

Why bother?

That’s a question that has been on my mind since I wrote Shades of green last year. Does all this warm and fuzzy stuff really make a difference to the performance of the business? I’m convinced the answer is yes.

Of course horizontal growth remains important. Every employee has a job to do, and since nobody’s perfect, there will always be opportunities to increase knowledge, expand skillsets and change behaviours to do those jobs better.

Complementing that, I see the ROI in developing people vertically. When we refine our views of the corporate system and our roles in it, we think more strategically, work more efficiently, and collaborate with one another more effectively. In short, we perform better.

So it is clear to me now that the role of the L&D professional is two-fold: by definition, it’s to help people learn and develop.


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