Constructive criticism of Coursera

Posted 23 November 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: MOOCs

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Well it’s taken me over 3 and a half years, but I’ve finally completed another mooc.

I use the term completed loosely, because while I consumed all the content, I didn’t submit any of the assignments. In other words, I completed the course as far as my personal learning needs are concerned, while still feeding the naysayers’ MOOCs-are-a-failure-because-their-completion-rate-is-low argument.

The mooc in question was e-Learning Ecologies: Innovative Approaches to Teaching and Learning for the Digital Age by the University of Illinois on the Coursera platform. I found the Australian accents of the instructors a pleasant surprise, and the quality of the content top-notch.

The course revolved around 7 affordances of e-learning “ecologies”, with 2 presented each week. I have put the word ecologies in inverted commas because I would have used the term “pedagogies” instead. Nonetheless, while most e-learning professionals would be familiar with (or at least aware of) each of the affordances, I found it worthwhile to review them in turn, which also provoked deep tangential thinking.

Speaking of tangents, one of the instructors supplemented his presentations with interesting vignettes about his educational heroes from history, which I found both informative and engaging.

Pulp fiction cover entitled Amazing Wonder Stories: Cognitive Reality: Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and other stuff!

Despite my overall satisfaction with this course, however, I experienced yet again a couple of perennial bugbears. Accordingly I offer the following points of constructive criticism to Coursera.

1. Lack of instructor interaction.

I am sensitive to the “massive” in mooc, and appreciate the fact that the instructors can’t possibly respond to every contribution in the social forum.

However, I found their total lack of participation really quite odd, especially in the early days when I seemed to be the only one posting anything.

Given the subject matter of this course, it’s also ironic!

2. Obscure pricing.

It may be widely known among enthusiasts that moocs are free, but this fact is not widely known among the general population.

I’ve lost count of the number of times my colleagues have contacted me to double- and triple-check that the Coursera courses which I have curated for them are indeed free. Either the price (i.e. $0 or “FREE”) is not mentioned, or the effectively meaningless “Audit” is used in its place.

Coursera’s push towards paid courses – which, by the way, are not moocs – only serves to muddy the waters.

I don’t know if it’s due to Coursera’s genesis in Higher Education or for some other reason, but it’s evident they do not understand their prospective customers in the corporate sector.

Psst…! 10 more tips for sales reps

Posted 15 November 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: sales

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When I wrote Psst…! 15 inside tips for sales reps five years ago, I braced for a backlash. But that didn’t happen.

Indeed, I had taken pains to explain that I appreciate the challenges of this line of work, and that I was sharing my insider’s view to engineer a win-win outcome for all of us.

Evidently this was graciously received, as several people contacted me offline to thank me for my frankness. One sales manager even distributed my article to each of his team members for mandatory reading.

But alas, since writing the article I have racked up a number of other bugbears to which sales reps wittingly or unwittingly subject me and, no doubt, other prospective clients.

So if you are a sales rep, please refer to my additional tips below and use them to your advantage. If you are a potential client, please share your own bugbears with me via a comment…

Thanks for connecting with me on LinkedIn and then messaging me 5 minutes later with a sales pitch.

1. Social selling is a different animal.

In this age of social media, I’m flabbergasted by those who use the medium to find me, request a connection, then start pitching. There’s a concept called quid pro quo that’s sorely missing from their repertoire.

I’m active on Twitter and I write this blog, so why not engage with me on these platforms first? If you contribute something substantive, I’ll respect you for it.

I’m also curious as to why such a “big fan” has never ever liked a tweet or contributed a comment.

2. You’re not on the agenda.

I attend conferences to learn. If you want to meet me there, I’d be delighted, but please don’t request a meeting. I prefer to attend the presentations I paid for, and enjoy the breaks in-between.

Do feel free to introduce yourself to me at an opportune moment. That’s networking ;-)

3. No one likes a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

If you ask me to give you feedback on your new widget, don’t repay my courtesy by pressuring me into buying it.

If I help you out by suggesting speakers or topics for your upcoming event, don’t ask me to sell it.

My time and expertise are valuable. I don’t need to spend either on you.

4. The belt-and-braces look is never in fashion.

You are welcome to call me or send me an email – but not both.

It’s really annoying when you leave me a voicemail telling me you’re sending me an email.

5. Your email is not a magic spell.

No, I don’t remember that email you sent last week. I read it, but I get emails from sales reps daily. If I didn’t reply to yours, it’s because I don’t need what you’re offering.

If I do reply saying thanks but no thanks, please don’t insult my intelligence by trying to argue otherwise.

And what’s with the threatening disclaimer? If I “inadvertently” share the content, then I’m a criminal?! That’s no way to treat a potential customer. If your legal department is so afraid of what I might do with your unsolicited message, please don’t send it.

6. Your VIP is my VUP.

Honestly I don’t care if a bigwig from your head office is flying into town. I have my own bigwigs to worry about!

7. We’re not on Dragons’ Den.

I have no interest in “partnering” with you, nor do I seek an opportunity to divulge our strategy to you.

8. If dad says no, don’t ask mum.

Please be aware that my colleagues forward all your emails to me.

9. A cartoon is not a “product tour”.

This one’s more for your marketing department, but it’s good for you to know.

An upbeat animation about your product is a glorified advertisement. I don’t trust advertisements.

In contrast, a product tour shows me your product in action, and provides me with enough information to make a judgement call as to its usefulness and usability.

I won’t sign up for a demo to get this basic info, nor will I contact your sales team. I fear doing so will condemn me to the hard sell.

10. Chickens always come home to roost.

In Australia we have the Goods & Services Tax. By hiding the GST from your quote, you may make your product or service appear cheaper, but I’ll find out the real cost sooner or later.

Then you’ll be as popular as the tax man.

How to fix our senseless compliance training

Posted 4 October 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: compliance, learning management

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All big organisations have a Learning Management System.

It’s used to track and record the training that the employees do. In practice, it tends to be used to administer compliance training, though it can be much broader than that.

And this is a good thing. Despite the scorn that LMS’s attract, we should be tracking and recording the training that our employees do – especially compliance training.

Looking down at the buildings and streets of Sydney

But here’s the rub…

Let’s say I work at Bank A. I do all my compliance training within the first 3 months of starting at the company, and I keep those certifications up to date every 2 years. That’s normal.

Then I get a job at Bank B. But because my training records are locked up in Bank A’s LMS, I have to do my compliance training all over again.

This does not make any sense, because the laws governing privacy, anti money laundering, OH&S, and all the other topics, are the same for both banks! If I’m compliant at Bank A, odds are I’m compliant at Bank B as well.

I see re-doing my compliance training as a problem, not just because it’s an inconvenience for me personally, but also because the financial services sector alone employs half a million people in Australia. That’s a lot of people, a lot of movement, a lot of training hours, and a lot of wastage.

There has to be a better way, and as I explain in the video below, I propose the accreditation of compliance training with open badges as the solution.

Now some people misunderstand this idea, and they’ll say it’s not the role of the regulator to train a company’s employees. And I agree, but that’s not the idea.

The idea is that the regulator accredits the training that is delivered by the company to its employees, and authorises the issuing of the official badges for that training.

Our secret world of learning

Posted 22 September 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: professional development

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One of my peers in Australia, Arun Pradhan, is developing an app to help us learn smarter, faster and deeper.

To gain insight on how we learn in the real world, he’s reaching out to L&D professionals, CEOs, entrepreneurs, actors and artists who have mastered complex skills, with the aim of uncovering our “learning secrets”.

Arun asks 4 specific questions and my answers are as follows…

Someone telling someone else a secret

Q1. In your working life, how have you learned effectively from experience, please provide an example if possible? (e.g. how have you used intentional practice, learned from failure, learned from ambitious projects and/or used reflection)

When I first got into e-learning, it was all very new for everyone. Of course computer-based training had been around for decades, but when the World Wide Web took off in the 1990’s, it transformed education.

When I assumed my first role in this space, I learned mostly through experience because there weren’t many alternatives available. I would learn what I needed to “on the go” or just in time, immediately putting it into practice and seeing how it went – whether that be the design of a web page by tinkering with HTML and JavaScript, or the production of a saleable product by getting onto the platform and just working it out.

Q2. In your working life, how have you learned effectively from people, please provide an example if possible? (e.g. how have you learned from project teams, mentors, coaches and/or broader social networks)

Over time I’ve realised that learning from other people is not only important but crucial to my professional development. Conferences get a bit of a beat-up these days, but I always learn something useful from seeing what other people have done. I also like meetups, and social media has taken my peer-to-peer networking to a whole new level.

I think it’s important to maintain relationships with people who are not only knowledgeable and experienced, but also open and generous; these relationships are two-way streets as you learn from each other. I also know someone whom I respect immensely and whom I consider a mentor; I seek his insight on matters that I’m thinking about, and I’ll bounce ideas off him to get his perspective.

So my recommendation is to actively engage with other people, utilising all the various means of doing so.

Q3. In your working life, how have you learned effectively from courses, research or investigation, please provide an example if possible? (e.g. how have you learned from reading on the web, reading books or attending conferences/courses)

It’s all very well to learn from experience and roll with the punches as you go along, but you have to beware not knowing what you don’t know.

When I decided to make e-learning my career, I went back to university to do a Masters in Learning Sciences & Technology. This course opened up my eyes to concepts that I would never have appreciated otherwise, such as learning theory, and raised my awareness of important empirical research.

Post-uni, I read lots of blogs and keep an eye on the academic journals. I also like to run my own “mini” research studies at work by trialling something new and seeing how it goes.

Q4. What’s your top advice for someone who wishes to develop faster and learn complex skills in modern workplaces?

You have to do it. Yes, read widely and talk to lots of people, but not at the expense of giving it a go. Only then can you gain the insights you really need and appreciate the nuances of real-life application.

The workplace is only ever going to get more VUCA, so by maintaining an experimental mindset you can be confident to take on whatever comes.

Blue dot   Blue dot   Blue dot

If you would like to respond to Arun’s questions, he invites you to do so here.

A use for 3D Printing in the corporate sector

Posted 6 September 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: 3D printing, collaboration

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I’ve often wondered about the relevance of 3D printing in the corporate sector because we rarely produce a thing. Our products – such as bank accounts and insurance policies – are essentially 1’s and 0’s floating in the ether.

Then I attended a webinar presented by Jon Soong from Makers Empire. This Australian startup is active in the K12 sector, helping teachers bring 3D printing into their classrooms.

With the right hardware, software and guidance, teachers and their students can visualise abstract concepts (Mathematics, Science), produce replica objects (History, Geography) and create original objects (Art).

As the following video demonstrates, the technology can also be applied to problem-based learning.

I like what I see at St Stephen’s School, not only because of the pedagogical benefits that 3D printing affords, but also because it makes sense to familiarise our children with emerging technology.

This particular technology is already impacting manufacturing. A diverse range of products is currently being 3D printed, including clothes, jewellery, candy, teeth, prosthetics, tools, car parts, architectural models, furniture, toys and accessories.

I predict one day in the not-too-distant future, hospitals and medical device companies will dispense with their warehouses. Instead of stockpiling surgical equipment in big rooms – or worse, waiting for products on backorder – a hospital will be able to build the device it needs on-demand. No more need for storage and transport; just a licence to print the proprietary design.

A 3D printed umbilical cord clamp

In the corporate environment, however, we don’t make widgets.

In this context, I suggest we turn to the students from St Stephen’s for inspiration. When the kids use 3D printing to solve a problem, a by-product of that activity is collaboration. Following their lead, we could split our colleagues into teams and task them with producing a 3D artefact; whether or not that artefact has practical application is irrelevant. What is relevant is how the team members work together to achieve the goal.

The technology is the vehicle with which a collaborative situation can be engineered, experienced, observed, and reflected upon.

And we can go further. Consider a methodology such as Human Centered Design. By baking HCD into the task, the team members can practise it in a low-stakes scenario – for example, creating an office mascot. If the artefact doesn’t gain the target audience’s approval, it’s relatively cheap to make the necessary modifications or even go back to the drawing board.

After the team members build up their experience with the methodology via this seemingly silly exercise, they can apply it to the organisation’s real products and services.

Pokémon whoa!

Posted 9 August 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: augmented reality, games

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When I was a teenager I was addicted to video games. Not stay-awake-for-three-days-and-die-of-starvation kind of addicted, but I would spend every conceivable moment playing.

While I enjoyed car games and classic shoot’em ups, my favourites were the more strategic kinds of games in which you could explore, think, and discover. There was always somewhere else to reach, something fascinating to find, another stratagem to try.

I ended up imposing a ban on myself in order to focus on my studies, and I did not lift a video gaming finger for years afterwards.

Then along came Ingress.

Ingress screenshot

Ingress is a mobile game developed by Niantic (an offshoot of Google). You choose to join one of two factions that are fighting for world supremacy by capturing virtual portals – which are represented by public landmarks in the real world such as statues and fountains.

Ingress is oft described as an augmented reality game, but I disagree. It’s an alternate reality game. And it’s addictive. There’s something about covering a swathe of land in deep green (or blue, if you’re one of them) which elicits that sweet dopamine of achievement.

The plot isn’t real, of course, but that doesn’t matter. The emotion is.

Eventually I had to give up Ingress because I could feel my dubious history with video games flooding back, and I was chewing through my data like a hot knife through butter.

Zubat over Sydney Harbour

It is in this light that I look on with amusement at Niantic’s latest offering: Pokémon Go.

I was vaguely aware of this game since I maintain a general interest in augmented reality. Then one day it exploded. Suddenly everyone was playing it!

I hadn’t planned to play Pokémon Go myself, but given its sheer popularity I felt it would be remiss of me as an e-learning professional to forgo an informed opinion. So I gave it a go.

Frankly, it isn’t my cup of tea. Indeed I find the game a bit childish and pointless. When you catch one Pokémon, you catch another, and then another… ad infinitum. So what?

Still, I can see why others enjoy it. All the key game mechanics are there: it’s intuitive to play; your first Pokémon is easy to catch; you level up quickly; and the Pokédex is an interesting element that taps into the collector’s mentality.

You can also earn ownership of a gym (reminiscent of becoming a mayor in Foursquare) and you can incubate and hatch eggs (reminiscent of the parenting responsibilities for Tamagotchi).

Pokémon Go players congregating undercover by the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House.

Predictably, Pokémon Go has provoked a torrent of criticism from non-players, and I say some of it is warranted. From public nuisances to privacy concerns, the game has also fuelled discourtesy, disrespect, and self harm.

Personally I don’t think that you are stupid just because you play Pokémon Go. However, I do think the game is a vehicle for stupid people to express their stupidity.

I also think the decision to assign churches as gyms was ill advised, though I realise there is a technical reason for this and thankfully some churches are using their lemons to make lemonade.

Pokemon Go screenshot

On the plus side, Pokémon Go gets people walking – that’s unusual for a video game, even a mobile one – and it has single-handedly introduced millions of people around the world to the concept of AR.

And if we needed it, it’s yet another reminder to L&D folks that people love games.

3 uses of Virtual Reality in workplace education

Posted 19 July 2016 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: virtual reality

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I’m always surprised when someone makes a sweeping declaration such as “No one’s using virtual reality in the workplace”. I heard this very statement recently at an e-learning conference. Yep, an e-learning conference.

Sure, VR is an emerging technology, but as 20 real-world examples of Virtual Reality can attest, early adopters are indeed putting it to use in the workplace.

I suspect the dismissiveness among some of our peers stems from their uncertainty about how they might apply it in their own contexts – particularly if that context is corporate.

However, I propose the opportunities for using virtual reality in the workplace – or more specifically, in workplace education – remain consistent across sectors according to the 3 use types that I outline below.

We corporate folks can learn from our peers in other sectors who are pursuing these uses, and translate their ideas in our own workplaces. All it takes is a bit of imagination.

1. Virtual reality can substitute the real environment.

Virtual reality may be a feasible alternative when the real thing is infeasible – perhaps due to expense, logistics, or sheer impossibility.

Exemplars that spring to mind include: Google Expeditions which teleports you to wonderful places like Machu Picchu; VR Mars which let’s you walk on the surface of the red planet; and The Body VR which takes you for a ride through the human circulatory system.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see myself visiting any of these places anytime soon. But I can visit a duplicated environment now, virtually. Of course I’m not really there, but it’s the next best thing.

This substitutive use of VR is being leveraged by a range of players in the workplace. For example, real estate agents offer virtual property tours; hotels show off their rooms; while architects visualise their designs (and modify them quickly and cheaply). The technology allows us – their customers – to experience each environment without having to physically go there.

Similar applications are more difficult to envisage in corporate L&D, so my advice is to return to the value proposition of the substitutive use of VR. Ask yourself: where would you like your colleagues to visit though it is currently infeasible to do so?

In my case, my employer is currently trialling new-look “concept stores” to transform the provision of financial advice. This strategic imperative relates to the overarching transformation of our organisation, so it’d be great if all our employees (and prospective customers!) could experience our flagship store in-person. But with people in different locations all over the world, that’s never going to happen. A 360° virtual tour is a feasible alternative.

2. Virtual reality can prepare you for the real environment.

Virtual reality can be the first port of call when the real thing is high stakes – perhaps because it’s dangerous, emotionally charged, or financially sensitive.

Flight simulators are the obvious exemplar of this use of VR. These systems enable trainee pilots to test their skills and learn from failure in a replicated environment, without the fear of losing their life or causing millions of dollars worth of damage.

This preparatory use of VR is also being leveraged by a range of players in the workplace. For example, engineers preview the hazards of mining; electricians manipulate high-voltage switches; while someone I know in a rural fire service is looking into using 360° video to help volunteer firefighters get a sense of what to expect in a bushfire.

Again, similar applications are more difficult to envisage in corporate L&D, so my advice is to return to the value proposition of the preparatory use of VR. Ask yourself: what will your colleagues be doing that is high-stakes? Bearing in mind that in the corporate sense, “high stakes” is probably financial.

In my case, my employer is progressively remodelling our office building into an Activity Based Working environment. This represents a significant shift in how we go about our day-to-day business, so the project team has been running regular group tours to prepare each batch of employees who are scheduled to occupy the newly decked-out floors. I dare not calculate how many hours multiplied by the number of tour leaders and tour followers have been spent on this. A 360° virtual tour would have allowed everyone to learn the basics at their own pace at their own desk, without any loss of learning outcome.

3. Virtual reality can foster empathy.

Finally, but no less importantly, virtual reality can foster empathy by putting you in another person’s shoes.

An exemplar that springs to mind is Fear of the Sky which uses 360° photos to immerse you in Syrian towns ravaged by barrel bombs.

This empathic use of VR is also being leveraged by players in the workplace. For example, doctors experience the hospital system as an emergency patient; while aged care workers see life through the eyes of someone with dementia.

The need for empathy is not restricted to charity and healthcare. Consider a retail environment in which your sales people can interact with a virtual customer, then have them replay that experience through the eyes of the customer. I also see an opportunity with VR for police officers to experience what it’s like to be hassled on the street, and conversely, for the public to appreciate what it’s like to be a police officer.

Returning to the corporate sector, ask yourself: where are the social interactions? In my workplace, the retail sales example that I suggested could be similarly applied to financial advisers, while our claims assessors would benefit from experiencing our company in the shoes of a grieving claimant. Then there are meetings, presentations, performance appraisals, and myriad other scenarios to simulate.

VR headset

In summary, sweeping statements such as “No one’s using virtual reality in the workplace” are nonsensical. Plenty of people are using the technology in their workplaces, and they are doing so according to 3 use types.

The substitutive use of VR allows us to experience an environment without having to go to there; the preparatory use of VR allows us to experience an environment before we go there; while the empathic use of VR allows us to experience our own environment as someone else.

I encourage you to consider how you might explore each of these use types in your own workplace.

In the meantime, those who say it cannot be done should get out of the way of those doing it.