Archive for the ‘challenges’ category

The black hole of adult education

6 March 2012

So the Russians want to build a research base on the moon, and they want NASA and the European Space Agency to help them.

Anyone who has read Off The Planet by Jerry Linenger knows that this idea has about as much chance of getting up as Vladimir Putin has of winning American Idol.

Linenger knows better than most: he spent 5 months on Mir. Despite the years of training and the millions of dollars poured into the program, he and his two cosmonaut colleagues had to rely on their collective ingenuity, tenacity and sheer luck to remain alive.

Endangered on a daily basis by the incompetence of the Russian Federal Space Agency and the political expediency of the US Government, he was caught between a rock and a hard place – while floating between the third rock and outer space.

Space Station Mir Over Earth

One of the most shocking parts of the story takes place in Star City – the cosmonaut training compound located outside Moscow. Linenger was sitting in a classroom, struggling to interpret both the Russian language and the technical complexity of the subject matter…

My only saviour was oftentimes an outdated, hand-drawn engineering diagram hanging in the classroom beside the instructor’s blackboard … During many of my one-on-one lectures, I would block out entirely what the instructor was saying and memorize the diagram hanging on the wall. The diagrams themselves were outdated — showing only the original configuration of the Mir and not the myriad modifications made over the eleven-year lifespan of the station — but so were the lectures. Most of the instructors looked as if they had been teaching the subjects since the time of Yuri Gagarin. They had not kept abreast of the changes on Mir.

Furthermore I had the impression that my understanding the material presented was almost irrelevant to the lecturer. What was important was that they got through the canned lecture word for word, just as they had for the past ten years.

It gets worse…

What struck me as different about the training sessions, as compared to all the schooling I had ever received, was the lack of written materials or handouts. All of the material was presented orally … instructors realized that their job security, to a large extent, hinged on their knowledge of a system or component of the space station. Write the information down and their corner of the market would be lost.

For a fledgling language student like myself there is no more difficult way of learning space systems than by lectures delivered entirely in Russian … I learned very little during the 4:00PM to 6:00PM lecture time-slot, other than how to appear attentive while daydreaming. I spent much of my time asking myself, “What am I doing here?”

And yet it gets worse…

After hearing pleas for assistance from every astronaut training in Star City, NASA shuttle-Mir program managers finally sent over American trainers to help produce some translated, written materials … The Russians were uniformly uncooperative … The goal of helping cosmonauts and astronauts better prepare for a mission was not a shared goal.

The Russians were being paid to train the American astronauts. Each minute of training was paid for. If written materials — clear, understandable, and readable — were made available, we would eventually require less instructor time. Less time, less money. The Russians finally agreed to at least explore the possibility of making training manuals, but insisted that they be paid handsomely for their “vast knowledge and experience”.

Linenger goes on to describe the continuing obstructiveness of the Russian administrators, their exorbitant fees to accommodate minor requests, his interrogation-style exams, the futility of his complaints, his frustration over the lack of change, and how the astronauts on a subsequent mission threatened to leave Space City en mass.

Russian soldiers guarding the newly unveiled monument to Sputnik at Star City, courtesy of Spaceports.

If you think I’m just picking on the Ruskies, you’re missing my point. Some of my best friends are Russian.*

On the contrary, I could write a book about all the parallels I can draw between Linenger’s mission and the state of education in the West today. I’m thinking along the lines of:

• Organisational culture
• Activity vs outcome
• Formal vs informal learning
• Instructivism vs constructivism
• Andragogy
• Learning styles
• Authenticity
• Flipped classrooms
• Peer-to-peer knowledge sharing
• Motivation
• Special needs
• Kirkpatrick’s levels of evaluation
• Academic tenure

… the list goes on.

If you haven’t read Off The Planet, I highly recommend you do so.

Furthermore, I challenge you to apply Linenger’s experiences to your own working environment, and to consider how you can effect positive change.

It’s not rocket science.

* To be read as per Tallulah Bankhead in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.

The 2 sources of freebies

2 August 2011

A little while ago I attended the latest Learning Cafe in Sydney. The theme this time around was Learning in a cost conscious environment.

We’ve all seen it with our own eyes: when a company hits hard times, its training budget is one of the first casualties.

Bob Spence rightly pointed out that the training function is often seen as a cost rather than an investment. To counter-act that perception, the L&D team must do a better job of demonstrating its worth to the business in terms of performance and, ultimately, profit.

Stack of money

We all nodded in agreement and a lively discussion ensued on how we should go about doing that.

However in the back of my mind I was empathising with the poor bunnies who are stuck now with slashed training budgets. What can they do about their current reality?

Of course the remedy is simple: spend less. The challenge is doing that without compromising value.

While there are many pieces to this puzzle, I think an oft-overlooked one is the exploitation of freebies. Freebies are everywhere, just waiting to be gobbled up. The trick is finding them.

There are 2 broad sources…

1. The external environment

Everyone knows there’s a wealth of free learning resources on the web, and many of them are relevant to the corporate sector.

I’m referring to things like:

• Blogs
• Slides
• Videos
• Podcasts
• Webinars
• Social networks
• E-Journals
• News articles

Why waste money reinventing the wheel?

Whatever topic you care to nominate, odds are some expert somewhere around the world has written about it, talked about it, filmed it, or presented a slideshow about it.

And published it to the web.

2. The internal environment

This one isn’t as obvious, but it’s arguably more important: every employee knows something worth sharing with their colleagues.

Furthermore, I contend they have an obligation to do so.

Our job as L&D professionals is to facilitate that collaboration. I’m referring to things like:

• Discussion forums
• Wikis
• Communities of practice
• User groups
• Brown bag sessions

Why pay for training when you have an army of SMEs at your disposal?

Whatever topic you care to nominate, odds are some expert somewhere in the organisation can write about it, talk about it, film it, or present a slideshow about it.

If that person does not exist, perhaps a number of employees can chip in their nuggets of knowledge and experience, and together make a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

I’ve twitterised my blogroll

20 February 2009

While the digital age has opened up (and continues to open up) new avenues for learning and knowledge sharing, I sometimes feel the effects of information overload.

Indeed, useful tools are available for managing the avalanche of information. For example, RSS allows us to aggregate feeds from our favourite sources, without the need to visit each and every site every day.

Thus far I’ve been using NewsGator as my RSS reader, which I think is an excellent tool. However, I’ve finally cottoned on to the fact that Twitter can also be used as an RSS reader. Or more accurately, Twitterfeed can direct all your RSS feeds to your Twitter account.


This was a (belated) lightbulb moment for me: I realised that I could actually cut something out of my daily routine. I like to access my Twitter account every day, but I don’t seem to find the time to check my blogroll as often as I like, so why not combine the two? Instead of using both Twitter and NewsGator, now I can use just Twitter. w00t!

However, I have some advice for anyone who is considering the idea. Because Twitterfeed posts to your Twitter profile on your behalf, your followers could be misled into thinking that you are the author. Sure you can automatically prefix the posts, but even so, you will no doubt annoy your followers with the dozens of extra tweets every day. Just because you want to read them doesn’t mean they do!

A better idea is to create a separate Twitter account specifically for collecting your feeds. For example, I’ve set up r20_blogroll. I can simply refer to this profile at my convenience, or I can follow it myself.

But more importantly, others have the option of following my blogroll. This way, my followers don’t have to be bombarded with my blogroll just for having the grace to follow me; while others who are indeed interested in my blogroll don’t have to bother with my own silly tweets.

In any case, by combining two handy technologies, I’ve got one less thing to do every day. Thanks NewsGator, you’ve been great – but Twitter makes my blogroll a little easier to keep up with.

Tiny ship of order, courtesy of Hugh MacLeod.

E-Learning challenges in vocational education

5 December 2008

Yesterday I participated in an enterprise discussion panel at the eLearning08 conference in Sydney. Topics under discussion were the emerging issues and key challenges facing e-learning in the vocational education sector.

James Dellow, Kate Carruthers, Catherine Eibner & Ryan Tracey on the Enterprise Panel at eLearning08, courtesy of rosao, Flickr.

The discussion was facilitated by Kate Carruthers (CEO, Digital Business Group), and my fellow panellists were James Dellow (Consultant, Chief Technology Solutions) and Catherine Eibner (Dynamics Developer Evangelist, Microsoft Australia).

Our role was to share our perspectives of e-learning in the industry sector with the conference delegates, hopefully sharing some knowledge, experiences and ideas that can cross over into vocational education.

Emerging issues

For me, one of the major emerging issues in both sectors is the rise of Web 2.0. Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, blogs, wikis and other social media have shifted the role of the learner from a mere recipient of content, to an active participant in the production of content.

Likewise, Web 2.0 has shifted the role of the teacher from an authoritarian transmitter of content, to a facilitator of content exploration and generation. Sure, the teacher can remain the “expert” in their field, but their role today is not so much to tell you what’s what, but to guide, coach, mentor and assist you in using the tools at your disposal to find out for yourself and to share your own ideas.


Three of the challenges that resonated with me during the discussion were: computer literacy (or lack thereof), assessment difficulties and information overload.

Companies and vocational education institutions share the challenge of a diverse target audience, particularly in terms of computer literacy. This tends to (but does not always) correlate with age. For example, more and more recruits into companies are being drawn from Generation Y, whose members are typically familiar with the Internet and happily use it in their everyday lives. In contrast, many of us among the existing staff base may never have heard of podcasting, don’t have a clue what Facebook is, and are totally mystified by the concept of a “wiki”.

A similar situation is experienced by vocational education institutions, which draw their students from all walks of life. Teachers also find themselves in this predicament: how can you use e-learning to its full potential if you don’t have the practical skills?

Assessment via e-learning presents other challenges. For example, can you effectively assess a skill like repairing a fuel pump remotely? Can you be confident in an online learner’s competency more generally? How do you even know the right person is undertaking the assessment?

With so many e-learning tools and technologies available to us today, and with it all changing so rapidly, how can we keep a handle on it all? We can’t spend our entire days reading endless news feeds and subscribing to a multitude of professional journals and magazines. After all, we have a job to do!

Further discussion

It’s clear that there are no single, simple solutions to these challenges, and any solution will depend heavily on context and circumstance. However, I’m sure we can learn plenty from each other and share some great ideas.

Please join the follow-up discussion at: