The caveat of content curation

Posted 3 November 2015 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: content curation

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At last week’s Learning @ Work conference in Sydney, Clark Quinn declared:

Curation trumps creation

And this resonated with me. Why spend time, effort and money reinventing the wheel?

However I’d like to explicate his implied caveat:

…if good content is available.

There is a belief prevailing among L&D folks that all the information we need is at our fingertips. We can learn anything online. Everything is googleable.

But this is a myth.

Empty fuel gauge

Anyone who’s spent 5 minutes in an organisational setting appreciates how difficult it can be to source relevant, actionable content. If it’s not hiding in a walled garden, it’s of terrible quality or doesn’t even exist.

We’ve all scoured user manuals and discussion forums and video libraries, seeking assistance for that one specific thing we need to do, only to give up dispirited and empty handed.

Under these circumstances – when the right content can not be found – there is nothing to curate, so we have no choice but to create it.

Half empty fuel gauge

Having said that, I recognise a halfway point.

Clark observes that finding good answers is more problematic than just finding an answer. In an agile environment, it is also important to realise that an answer will be useful if it is good enough.

By way of illustration, I am currently piloting what I call a “MOOC-like” training program at my workplace. Uncertain of whether this kind of L&D will fly with my colleagues – and mindful of failing fast and cheap – I have purposefully avoided investing big in scenario production. Instead, I have found a couple of videos on YouTube that are good enough to support my minimum viable product.

If the MVP proves to be a success, I’ll scale it up and invest in producing scenarios that press all the right buttons.

In other words, I’m taking Clark’s advice to create when I have to, but only then.

Where is L&D heading?

Posted 6 October 2015 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: future, learning and development

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Last week I was invited by David Swaddle to be a panellist at the Sydney eLearning and Instructional Design meetup.

The topic of the evening was Where is L&D Heading? and some questions were posted through by the attendees ahead of time, while others emerged through the discourse.

Here is an overview of my answers, plus elaborations and suggestions for further reading, for each of the questions that was (and was not) asked. Feel free to add your own views via the comments…

Businessman holding a crystal ball

With Ernst & Young dropping their degree entry requirement, how do you see the future of universities? Is the race to the bottom on time and price for degrees affecting employers’ perceptions of universities? What respect do MOOC qualifications get?

I find EY’s move here interesting, but I don’t expect other companies to follow suit en mass – particularly enterprise-wide. Having said that, dropping the degree entry requirement could make sense for specific teams such as Innovation, who might be looking for someone with creative thinking skills rather than a Bachelor of Commerce degree.

I see the future of universities as service providers, plain and simple. Students are customers, and increasing competition, deregulation and even the emergence of MOOCs has shifted power into their hands. Yes, deregulation may prompt the $100,000 degree… but who will buy it?

If students are customers, by extension so are employers. I don’t think the time and price of a degree are such big issues for them; instead I think it’s the relevance of the degree. Whether or not we agree the role of the university is to prepare students for the workplace, I think it’s going that way due to market forces.

Regarding MOOC qualifications, I think many of us are still looking at them the wrong way. When we worry about the status of their credentials or lose sleep over their completion rates, we’re perpetuating an out-dated paradigm of education based on formal learning. I prefer to see MOOCs through the lens of informal learning which values the learning over its bureaucracy. If a job applicant lists some MOOCs on their CV, I think it demonstrates an aptitude to drive their own development.

Question mark

How do you see the impact and importance of big data, adaptive learning, mobile learning and micro-learning?

While mobile learning gets a lot of hype – rightly or wrongly – my target audience is office bound. Yes, I can push content to their devices (and there’s a solid argument for micro-learning in this instance) but the truth is no one will do their training on the bus. Outside of work hours, most people don’t want to do anything work related.

I see more scope in pull learning. For example, it’s important that your intranet is mobile optimised, so when someone is away from their desk, they can quickly look up the information they need and put it into action.

The real power of m-learning though is in creating an experience. By this I mean integrating the content with the environment in which the individual is situated, and I see a lot of potential in augmented reality and wearable technologies facilitating this.

And let’s not forget about blended learning. If we allow our attendees to bring their tablets into class, they can participate in online polling, consume content and play games together. While this isn’t actually mobile learning, it leverages the technology.

As for big data, there is clearly a lot of potential in using it to inform our practice – if we can access it. I also see a lot of potential for adaptive learning in personalising the learning experience – if we can work with the tools. My caveat for emerging technologies such as these is what I call the “Average Joe imperative” – if regular folks can’t do it, it won’t gain widespread adoption.

Question mark

What about online social education and Communities of Practice? What are the challenges in using them properly in companies, schools or universities? Where are the success stories?

Beyond the technology, the success of social learning is predicated on the culture of the organisation. If you’re people aren’t the type who care and share, then a platform isn’t going to be much help. Having said that, I believe the managers in the organisation have a critical role to play in leading by example.

My go-to success stories for social learning are Coca-Cola Amatil, who have cultivated active communities of practice across state-based factory floors; and Deloitte, who are the poster child for enterprise social networking.

Question mark

Will interactive videos replace e-learning modules?

I think lots of things will replace e-learning modules!

As we embrace informal learning, we will rely less on e-learning modules in favour of alternatives such as social forums, job aids, games, and indeed, interactive videos.

I see the LMS then being used more for the assessment of learning.

Question mark

What tips does the panel have for coping with reduced training budgets?

My big tip here is that you can do a lot for free or on-the-cheap.

For example, if you want to film a training scenario, you could pay a production house many thousands of dollars to produce a slick, Academy Award worthy video clip. Alternatively, you could use your iPhone.

Sure, the quality won’t be nearly as good… so long as it’s good enough. What really matters is the learning outcome.

Besides, I think in-house production adds authenticity to the scene.

Question mark

Does L&D belong in HR?

I interpret this question as really asking “Should L&D be centralised or distributed?”.

My short answer is both. A centralised Organisational Development function can focus on enterprise-wide capability needs, while L&D professionals embedded in the business can address local capability needs.

Question mark

How does the panel identify whether an L&D professional is good? Does Australia need improved quality benchmarking or qualifications for L&D professionals such as instructional designers?

I think the point of learning in the workplace is to improve performance, so my definition of a “good” L&D professional is one that improves the performance of his or her business.

There are certain attributes that I value in an L&D pro, including being proactive, consultative, creative, and willing to try new things.

If I were considering an applicant for an instructional design role, I’d ask them to demonstrate their track record, just as I’d ask a sales rep to do. A portfolio would be useful, as would be their approach to a hypothetical project.

Furthermore, I think you can tell a lot about someone’s expertise through simple conversation; if they don’t really know what they’re talking about, it will become painfully obvious.

As for benchmarking and formal qualifications for L&D pro’s, I think they can help but I wouldn’t put too much stock into them. As EY is seeing, acing the qual doesn’t necessarily translate into good practice.

Question mark

What advice would you give to somebody interested in getting involved in ID?

I think getting involved is the key phrase in this question.

Attend meetups and events, get active on social media, participate in #lrnchat, work out loud, scan the academic research, and read blogs – learn from those at the coal face.

The joy of UX

Posted 8 September 2015 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: usability

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One of the funniest tweets I have ever seen was brought to my attention by Vala Afshar…

Seeing this little animation was one of those serendipitous moments, as I had that very day experienced something eerily similar.

I’ve written previously about how I’ve been toying around with the augmented reality app Aurasma. In A way with the fairies I described how I used this app to replicate Disney’s fairy trail in my local botanic garden.

Impressed with what the app can do, I turned my attention to using it in the workplace. I decided to start small by using it to promote a new online course that my team was launching. I took a screenshot of the main characters in the course’s scenario and provided 3-step instructions for the target audience outlining how to: (1) Install the app onto their mobile device; (2) Visit the relevant URL in their browser; and (3) Point their device at the picture. When they did so, the names of the characters would magically appear above their heads.

This wasn’t just a gimmick; it was a proof of concept. By starting small, I wanted to test it cheaply and fail quickly. And fail I did.

Deflated sports mascot

When I asked several of my tech-savvy colleagues to test it, every one of them reported back saying it didn’t work. Huh? It worked for me! So what could be the problem?

After much tinkering and re-testing in vain, I decided to ask a friend of mine to test it. Bang, it worked for her first go. As it turns out, my colleagues simply weren’t following the second instruction to go to the URL. In their excitement to scan the image, they did so immediately after installing the app – but of course without the link, the app had nothing to connect the image to my augmentation. So when I pointed out their skipping of Step 2 and they re-tried it, voila it worked.

Despite this rough start, another colleague of mine cottoned on to my trial and was keen to use the idea to jazz up a desk-drop he was creating. Upon scanning the trigger image, he wanted a video to play. Aurasma can indeed do this, but I was trepidatious because my experiment had failed with tech-savvy colleagues – let alone regular folks. But I decided to look on the bright side and consider this an opportunity to expand my sample size.

Learning from my mistakes, I re-worded the 3-step instructions to make them clearer, and this time I asked a colleague to test it in front of me. But again we ran into trouble. This fellow did follow Step 2, but when the URL opened the app, it immediately required him to scroll through a tutorial. Then it asked him to sign up. Argh… these steps were confusing… and I was oblivious to it because I had installed Aurasma ages ago and had long since done the tutorial and signed up.

But that wasn’t all. After I grandfathered my colleague to Step 3, he held out his smartphone and pointed it at the image like a lightsaber. WTF? He read the instruction to “point” his device literally.

Another lesson learned.


Steve Jobs famously obsessed over making his products insanely simple. Apple goodies don’t come with a user manual because they don’t need them.

My experience is certainly a testament to that philosophy.

Three steps were evidently too many for my target audience to handle. The first step appeared simple enough: millions of people go to the App Store or Google Play to install millions of apps. And indeed, no one in my test balked at that. (Although convincing IT to tolerate a 3rd-party app would have been my next challenge.)

Similarly, the third step was easy enough when re-worded to point your device’s camera at the image.

The second step was the logjam. Not only is it unintuitive to open your browser after you have just installed a new app, but dutifully following this instruction mires you into yet more complexity. Sure, there is an alternative: search for the specific channel within the Aurasma app and then follow it – but that too is problematic as the user has to click a tab to filter the channel-specific results, which is academic anyway if you don’t want the channel to be public.

I understand why Aurasma links images to augmentations via specific channels. Imagine how the public would augment certain corporate logos, for example; those corporations wouldn’t want anything derogatory propagated across the general Aurasmasphere. Yet they hold the rights over their IP, so I would’ve thought that cutting off Joe Public’s inappropriate augmentation would be a matter of sending a simple email request to the Aurasma folks. Not to mention it would be in the corporation’s best interest to augment its own logo.

Anyway, that’s all a bit over my head. All I know is that requiring the user to follow a particular channel complicates the UX.

So that has caused me to wind down my plans for augmented domination. I am still thinking of using Aurasma: we might use it in our corporate museum to bring our old photos and artefacts to life. But if we go down this road, I’ll recommend that we provide a loan device with everything already set-up on it and ready to go – like MONA does.

In the meantime, I’ll investigate other AR apps.

The definition of Enterprise Social Network

Posted 26 August 2015 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: social learning

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Enterprise Social Network, n. 1. A software platform that facilitates communication and collaboration among the employees of a company. 2. A means of liking senior executives' posts.

Collateral damage

Posted 4 August 2015 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: instructional design, motivation

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The L&D community may be divided into two camps: (1) Those for whom the mere mention of learning styles makes their blood boil; and (2) Those who are inexplicably unaware of the hullabaloo and are thus oblivious to the aforementioned boiling of blood.

All the things meme guy

Credit: Based on original artwork by Allie Brosh in This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult, Hyperbole and a Half.

The antagonism stems from the popularity of learning styles in the educational discourse – not to mention vocational curricula – despite a lack of empirical evidence supporting their effectiveness when incorporated into instructional design. The argument is that in the absence of such evidence, don’t waste time and money trying to match your teaching style to everyone’s learning styles; instead, divert that energy towards other, evidence-based pedagogy.

This is sound advice.

Nonetheless, I urge my peers not to throw the baby out with the bath water. By this I mean regardless of the existence or impact of learning styles, a phenomenon that enjoys universal recognition is that of learner preferences. And I fear it may be an unintended casualty of the war on learning styles.

For example, a deduction from the literature might be that a teacher need not tailor his or her delivery to meet the needs of the audience. Since learning styles are bunk, I can do what I like because it won’t make a difference anyway. Such a view is conveniently teacher centric, and it flies in the face of the thought leadership on learner centeredness that we have advanced so far. Sure, the deduction may be unreasonable, but extremists rarely listen to reason.

However, a more insidious factor is the dominance of the literature on formal learning. Studies of the impact of learning styles are typically based on teaching in a classroom setting, often in the K12 sector. Furthermore, the statistics are based on scores achieved via formal assessment. Yet we know in the workplace the vast majority of learning is informal.

Let me illustrate my concern here with a personal example. When I need to find out how to perform a particular task in a particular software program, I strongly prefer text-based instructions over video. I’m annoyed by having to play a clip, wait for it to load, and then wait for the presenter to get to the bit that is relevant to me. Instead, I prefer to scan the step-by-step instructions at my own speed and get on with it.

Now, if only video was available and I weren’t such a diligent employee, I might postpone the task or forget about it all together. Yet if you were to put me in a classroom, force me to watch the video, then test my ability to perform the task – sure, I’ll ace it. But that’s not the point.

The point is that the learner’s preference hasn’t been taken into account in the instructional design, and that can affect his performance in the real world.

If you don’t agree with me, perhaps because you happen to like video, suppose a manual was the only form of instruction available. Would you read it? Perhaps you would because you are a diligent employee.

Isn’t everyone?

All the things meme guy, sad

Credit: Based on X all Y (Sad) In HD by CanineWritter, in turn based on original artwork by Allie Brosh in This is Why I’ll Never be an Adult, Hyperbole and a Half.

In case your blood is beginning to boil, let me emphasise: (1) Learning styles appear to have no significant effect on learning outcomes; and (2) The nature of the content probably dictates its most effective mode of delivery.

If we assume that learning styles are highly correlated with learner preferences – indeed, for some they are synonymous – then we might be tempted to conclude that learner preferences have no significant effect on learning outcomes. I consider this a false conclusion.

Indeed in a controlled environment, learner preferences don’t really matter. The participants are forced to do it whether they like it or not, or they somehow feel obliged to comply.

Outside of the controlled environment, however, learner preferences do matter. We sometimes see this in formal settings (which is why universities enforce a minimum percentage of lecture attendance), but it appears most starkly in informal settings where the learner is empowered to do it or not. If they don’t like doing it, odds are they won’t.

So we need to be mindful of the interaction between pedagogical effectiveness and learner preference. An experience that your learners love but is ineffective is ultimately worthless. But so too is an experience that is effective but your learners loathe.

As a profession we need to aim for experiences that are both effective and liked by our audience – or at the very least, don’t turn them away.

5 papers every learning professional should read

Posted 1 July 2015 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: research

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I don’t read as many journal articles as I’d like.

Given the challenges and pressures of professional life, combined with everything else that’s been going on privately, I’ve fallen out of the habit of scanning the latest abstracts and deep diving into particular studies.

And that’s a problem because as a practitioner, I consider it important to inform my work with the latest science. While blogs (for example) certainly have their place in the discourse, so too do peer-reviewed publications.

So it was with much gratitude that I read The Science of Training and Development in Organizations: What Matters in Practice.

I say “gratitude” because it was one of the pre-reads for last night’s Sydney eLearning and Instructional Design Meetup. If David Swaddle (the meet-up’s organiser) hadn’t prompted me to read this paper in preparation for the event, I fear I never would have done so.

This in turn got me thinking about good papers – the ones that stand out from the rest. The ones that I would recommend to my fellow learning pro’s. While there are many that could fit that bill, I’ve given it some thought and have short-listed my Top 5.

A pile of papers on a desk.

1. Sfard, A. (1998). On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One. Educational Researcher, 27(2), pp. 4-13.

In this paper, the author distinguishes between two metaphors for learning: the acquisition metaphor in which the learner’s mind is akin to a vessel to be filled, and the participation metaphor in which the learner is an active social agent in the learning process. The latter metaphor reminds me that learning is not about the consumption of information; it’s about making sense.

2. Cook‐Greuter, S. R. (2004). Making the case for a developmental perspective. Industrial and Commercial Training, 36(7), pp. 275-281.

In this paper, the author distinguishes between two directions of human development: horizontal growth and vertical transformation. I translate this dichotomy as the difference between “learning” and “development”, recognising that as a profession we tend to assign disproportionately more attention to the former – to our organisation’s detriment. I elaborate here.

3. Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1), pp. 3-10.

Somewhat controversial in academic circles, this paper documents real thought leadership in my humble opinion. The author challenges the notion of what it means to “learn” in the modern world, and if we put philosophical arguments aside, he provokes us to re-think our practice.

4. Biesta, G. J. J. (2012). Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher. Phenomenology & Practice, 6(2), pp. 35-49.

In this paper, the author rues the shift of our collective discourse from teaching to learning, whereby the sage has been pushed off the stage and recast as a guide on the side. I don’t agree with everything he has to say, but I do agree with much of his sentiment. I’ve blogged my reflection here.

5. Salas, E., Tannenbaum, S. I., Kraiger, K. & Smith-Jentsch, K. (2012). The Science of Training and Development in Organizations: What Matters in Practice. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(2), pp. 74–101.

In this paper, the authors outline “what matters” before, during and after training in the organisational setting. While their focus is set firmly on the traditional one-to-many mode of delivery, their advice is grounded in research and real-world experience. Even if you aren’t involved in training per se, this is a solid framework against which you can (dare I suggest should?) audit what you do and how you do it.

Sunlight shining through dark clouds

The above papers are several rays of light that break through the clouds to change our mindsets and behaviours.

Do you agree with my short list?

Which papers would be in your Top 5?

A framework for content curation

Posted 17 June 2015 by Ryan Tracey
Categories: content curation, instructional design

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In conversation at EduTECH earlier this month, Harold Jarche evoked George E. P. Box’s quote that “all models are wrong, but some are useful”.

Of course, the purpose of a model is to simplify a complex system so that something purposeful can be done within it. By definition, then, the model can only ever be an approximation of reality; by human error, furthermore, it won’t be as approximate as it could be.

Nevertheless, if we accept the inherent variability in (and fallibility of) the model, we can achieve a much better outcome by using it than by not.

It is with this in mind that I have started thinking about a model – or perhaps more accurately, a framework – for content curation.

I have grown weary of hotchpotch lists of resources that we L&D pro’s tend to cobble together. Sure, they may be thoughtfully filtered and informatively annotated, but a hotchpotch is a hotchpotch. I should know: I’ve used them as a student, I’ve seen my peers create them, and I’ve created them myself.

Surely we can put more design into our curation efforts so that the fruits of our labour are more efficient, meaningful, and effective…?

A mess of jigsaw pieces.

Consider the trusty instructional design heuristic of Tell Me, Show Me, Let Me, Test Me. As far as heuristics go, I’ve found this to be a good one. It reminds us that transmission is ineffective on its own; learners really need to see the concept in action and give it a go themselves. As the Chinese saying goes, “Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.” *

* Truisms such as this one are typically met with suspicion from certain quarters of the L&D community, but in this case the research on the comparative efficacies of lectures, worked examples, PBL etc appears to add up.

As a framework for content curation, however, I feel the heuristic doesn’t go far enough. In an age in which learners in the workplace are expected to be more autodidactic than ever before, it needs refurbishment to remain relevant.

So I propose the following dimensions of a new-and-improved framework…

Pyramid: Attract me, Motivate me, Tell me, Show me, Let me, Support me, Extend me, Value me

Attract me

An important piece of content curated for the target audience is one that attracts them to the curation in the first place, and promotes word-of-mouth marketing among their colleagues.

While related to the subject matter, this content need not be “educational” in the traditional sense. Instead, its role is to be funny, fascinating or otherwise engaging enough to pull the learners in.

Motivate me

As learning in the workplace inevitably informalises, the motivation of employees to drive their own development becomes increasingly pivotal to their performance.

Old-school extrinsic motivators (such as attendance rosters and exams) don’t exist in this space, so the curator needs to convince the audience to proceed. Essentially this means putting the topic into context for them, clarifying how it relates to their role, and explaining why they should bother learning it.

Tell me

This content is new knowledge. I recommend covering only one key concept (or a few at most) to reduce cognitive load. It’s worth remembering that education is not the provision of information; it is sense making.

It’s important for this content to actually teach something. I see far too much curation that waxes lyrical “about” the subject, yet offers nothing practical to be applied on the job. We’re beyond the sales pitch at this stage; give ’em something they can use.

Show me

This content demonstrates the “Tell me” content in action, so the employee can see what the right behaviour looks like, and through that make further sense of the concept.

Real-world scenarios are especially powerful.

Let me

By putting the content into practice, the learner puts his or her understanding to the test.

Interactive exercises and immersive simulations – with feedback – allow the learner to play, fail and succeed in a safe environment.

Support me

This content jumps the knowing-doing gap by helping the learner apply the concepts back on the job.

This is principally achieved via job aids, and perhaps a social forum to facilitate ad hoc Q&A.

Extend me

This content assists the employee who is keen to learn more by raising their awareness of other learning opportunities. These might explore the concepts in more depth, or introduce other concepts more broadly.

All that extra curation that we would have been tempted to shove under “Tell me” can live here instead.

Value me

Everyone is an SME in something, so they have an opportunity to participate in the curation effort. Whether the content they use is self generated or found elsewhere, it is likely to be useful for their colleagues too.

Leverage this opportunity by providing a mechanism by which anyone can contribute better content.

A mess of jigsaw pieces.

As you have no doubt deduced by now, the overarching theme of my proposed framework is “less is more”. It values quality over quantity.

It may prove useful beyond curation too. For example, it may inform the sequence of an online course. (In such a circumstance, a “Test me” dimension might be inserted after “Let me” to add summative assessment to the formative.)

In any case, it is very much a work in progress. And given it is #wolweek, I ask you… What are your thoughts?


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