Posted tagged ‘informal learning environment’

A defence of the “Next” button

4 June 2012

The “Next” button doesn’t have many friends in the e-learning community. The humble yet shiny arrow is associated with boring page turners.

Next button

Hell-bent on avoiding the “Next” button, many instructional designers will delinearise the content by creating a course homepage with a raft of topics represented by funky icons. The learner is free to explore and discover the knowledge contained therein at their convenience and – more importantly – at their discretion.

While I broadly agree with the constructivist sentiment of this approach, I can’t help but think it’s a band-aid for a much deeper issue.

Let me explain by rewinding a little…

In my previous post Informal first, I articulated a mindset that prioritises informal learning over formal training. I argued in favour of providing all the necessary learning resources to the target audience in an open, structured format. I had in mind an Informal Learning Environment which would host the bulk of the content and enable peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.

This is constructivist design. It facilitates pull learning at the convenience and discretion of the learner, and moreover it supports on-the-job learning just in time. Its primary focus is not on training, but on performance support.

Having said that, I am the first to agree that sometimes training is necessary. This is where an online course can step in.

By design, an online course is meant to transmit knowledge to the learner. By design, it’s meant to be programmatic in nature. By design, it’s meant to be ruthlessly efficient.

In other words, it’s meant to be linear.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that an online course should be stripped of all constructivist principle. On the contrary, I highly recommend that the learner be empowered to explore and discover the contents of the course as they wish, free of the yoke of forced navigation. However, it is important to note that such freedom is not mutually exclusive with linearity.

What I am suggesting is that the instructional designer who rails against the “Next” button is valiantly (but futilely?) trying to backfill a void in their organisation’s learning architecture. Because open, searchable, browsable, accessible content does not exist, he or she feels compelled to create it. But the LMS is not the place for it!

Open, searchable, browsable, accessible content should be available to the learner all the time on an open, searchable, browsable, accessible platform.

In contrast, an online course should scaffold the learning experience to achieve a pre-defined objective. It should not be played with for hours on end, and it certainly should not be used for ongoing reference.

Next button

So whenever you are consumed by the burning desire to deride the “Next” button, ask yourself whether you are assigning guilt by association.

Perhaps the true guilt lay closer to home?

Next!

Doctoring the Informal Learning Environment

3 May 2011

Anne Marie Cunningham is a GP and Clinical Lecturer at Cardiff University, Wales. She authors the blog Wishful thinking in medical education, which she uses to advance thinking about the training of student doctors.

Recently Anne Marie blogged Location and Learning (which I have reproduced here) and she asked me whether or not I consider her central idea an example of an Informal Learning Environment (ILE).

My short answer is “yes and no” – which I will explain – but for the moment please read Anne Marie’s idea for yourself…

Hospital corridor

In the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about how we can support the learning that takes place when medical students are on placement.

We know that entering wards can be a daunting experience for students. They don’t feel part of a team. They don’t know who everyone is. They don’t understand what is happening. They don’t want to interrupt nurses attending to patients or junior doctors catching up with paperwork at desks. They see other members of the team wandering in and out of the ward but they don’t know what their role is. They don’t recognise the social worker or the pharmacist or the OT. They might not even know what their own role is. They miss out on opportunities to attend meetings and teaching sessions because they don’t know they are happening.

In fact they spend too long waiting around for someone else to turn up to teach them, and on activities that have little educational value. They generally have a haphazard learning experience.

But placements are very rich environments with many unique opportunities to learn. So what can we do?

Imagine instead that before coming to the ward the students had access to a network which let them find the profiles of all the staff who worked on that ward. They could see the timetables for teaching. They could even see what the last students who had been on this placement had seen and learnt. They can select what they would particularly like to gain from the placement, and this will become part of their profile which will also be available to all the staff on the ward.

The network will also contain links to information about initiatives that are happening in the ward to address patient safety and quality improvement. The students can see if there are opportunities for them to get involved in this work and learn about the input their colleagues have had in the past.

When they turn up on the ward the students check in. They can see the profiles of the staff who are working there and when they should be finishing, when they will be on call and what clinics or theatre sessions they will be doing that week. Their calendar updates with activities that are happening that day that they should know about.

The network that they are tapping into is the same one that all the staff in the hospital use to keep themselves up to date. The students can record their learning and their thoughts about how the ward works. Their input is valued by the staff on the ward and their fellow students from other disciplines.

Do you think this will happen soon? Why hasn’t it happened already? And how could patients use this network?

[Source: Location and Learning]

Light bulb

What a wonderful idea!

Given the realities of the workplace for student doctors, shifting the pedagogy – if ever so slightly – from formal to informal sounds long overdue.

I certainly support the idea of staff profiles. If they include the name, photo, role, expertise, work roster and contact details of each staff member, the student can identify the right SME for their problem and avoid wasting precious time on a wild goose chase.

I also support the idea of the student having their own profile, and connecting it to a personal blog. The blog provides the student with a vehicle to express what they hope to gain from their placement, record their experiences, reflect on what they have learned, and even voice what they have struggled with.

Other students could read the blog to find out how their fellow student is faring, and perhaps make a social connection. The administrators and teaching staff could also read the blog to evaluate the student’s experience and remedy any problems.

Using laptop

In addition to profiles and blogs, I would also suggest facilitating an open discussion forum. Unlike a blog (which may or may not be read by others) a discussion forum enables the student to push a question to the crowd, thereby leveraging the collective intelligence of the hospital.

Senior doctors and nurses could participate in the forum to contribute their expert knowledge and lead the students in the right direction. Of course the student 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 discussion forum would also be a suitable vehicle for promoting the various initiatives that Anne Marie speaks of, providing reminders about upcoming teaching sessions, advertising project opportunities, and sharing other hospital-related news.

Doctor with iPad

Having said that, I think a big missing piece of this puzzle is a wiki or some other form of bulk content repository.

I would imagine that in a big institution like a hospital, knowledge is distributed everywhere – on scraps of paper, in folders on shelves, on a poster in the canteen, in people’s heads – which makes it really hard to find (especially when you need it). A wiki enables the hospital to centralise that content so that it can be retrieved quickly, easily and on‑the‑job via a mobile device.

I’m salivating over the thought of the kinds of resources it might contain!

Essentially, then, I would base the hospital’s ILE on three core components:

1. Wiki – the first port of call,
2. Discussion forum, the second port of call, and
3. Staff profiles, the third port of call.

Of course I recognise the importance of formal learning too. I’m not suggesting the hospital ditches face-to-face instruction, for example, with 3D animation. On the contrary, I believe formal and informal modes of delivery complement each other. The trick is determining which is best in each situation, and it might involve a combination of both – why not run a face-to-face demonstration and make the animation available in the wiki for future reference?

In the hospital, then, formal teaching sessions remain a core component of the student’s learning environment. They require support resources such as timetables, agendas and follow-ups.

Taking this one step further, the student’s shifts in the ward may also be considered a core component of their learning environment, as they are instances of on-the-job training. They require support resources such as a roster and perhaps an online check-in facility.

So Anne Marie’s wishful-thinking learning network for student doctors could look something like this:

Hypothetical medical learning environment

As you can see, the interface segregates learning from its management.

The former comprises the ILE (wiki, discussion forum and staff profiles) plus elements of the FLE (work shifts and face-to-face teaching sessions). This zone is where the student goes to learn something.

The latter zone comprises the remaining components of the FLE. This is where the student attends to administrative matters (calendar, floor maps, 60-day checklist), assessment (quizzes, assignments, due dates, grades) and performance management (PMA, development plan, 360° feedback, performance appraisal, manager’s reports).

Stethoscope

As an organisation shifts its pedagogy towards the informal end of the learning continuum, its ILE and FLE increasingly represent the distinction between the act of learning and its management.

However, organisations are rarely so extreme in their learning model, and some (like hospitals) probably never will be because formal instruction is so crucial.

So I see nothing wrong with “doctoring” the ILE by associating it with formal elements. ILEs and FLEs are flexible concepts that should be manipulated according to the contexts in which they will be used.

Doctor with iPad

I know if I were a student doctor, I would completely immerse myself in this learning environment. I would get myself an iPad and carry it with me at all times as an indispensable learning aid.

I would check in every day. I would look up what was going on. I would attend teaching sessions. I would search content. I would browse. I would post queries. I would discuss. I would contact SMEs. I would blog. I would read other people’s blogs. I would check out my fellow students’ profiles and perhaps meet up for lunch.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced this idea is bigger than any individual hospital. It is something the Health Department should implement across the sector. Now.

Square pegs and round holes

28 September 2010

What’s your role in the workplace?

How does that compare to what you do on a day-to-day basis?

I ask you this because what we think we should be doing and what we actually find ourselves doing are often two very different things.

That concerns me because I’ve been blogging a lot about a revamped learning model which relies heavily on Web 2.0 technologies to support informal learning.

In the back of my mind, I realise that revolutionising the learning model in this way would shock some organisations.

To work effectively in those environments, the model would demand significant shifts in roles and responsibilities away from the status quo, towards what I suggest the employees should be doing instead.

Allow me to elaborate…

Various pegs in their right holes

The role of the learner

In my view, every employee has the obligation to drive their own development.

An Informal Learning Environment (ILE) empowers them to do just that. It’s a space where they can explore content, ask questions, and seek help from their peers.

This relieves the L&D professional from alternately spoonfeeding and coercing grown adults into doing what they should be doing for and among themselves.

In short: the role of learning should be assigned to the learner.

The role of the subject matter expert

Taking the logic one step further, every employee also has the obligation to share their knowledge with their colleagues.

Web 2.0 empowers them to do just that. With tools like blogs, wikis and discussion forums, they can contribute content, participate in the conversation, and keep everyone up to speed in their domain.

This relieves the L&D professional from developing and managing content over which they have no authority.

In short: the role of knowledge sharing should be assigned to the SME.

The role of the manager

Must it be said that every manager has the obligation to manage the development of their own staff..?

With the help of their subject matter experts, managers should identify required competencies, assess proficiencies, assign development goals, fund and approve training, and hold regular development discussions.

This relieves the L&D professional from getting bogged down in technical matters over which – again – they have no authority.

In short: the role of managing the team should be assigned to the manager.

The role of the L&D professional

So if the L&D professional is no longer responsible for babysitting and strong-arming employees, conjuring content, and doing the managers’ jobs for them, what on Earth are they responsible for?

The answer is plenty, including consulting, training needs analysis, instructional design, developing content for which they are the expert (eg development plan templates, development discussion workshops), facilitation, community management, training evaluation, research and governance.

In short: the L&D professional supports the learners, subject matter experts and managers in playing their parts to improve the capability and performance of the organisation.

Change management

In the 99% of organisations in which a greenfield opportunity does not exist, my revamped learning model represents a paradigm revolution.

Given legacy systems, entrenched practices and perhaps a less-than-booming corporate culture, successful implementation would require skillful change management to say the least, not to mention a lengthy, multi-phased rollout period.

Dare I suggest the new paradigm may also prompt a review of the organisation’s recruitment criteria?
 

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.
 


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