Tag: higher education

Semantics, semantics

I dislike grammar jokes, pedants, and Oxford commas.

That’s my jovial way to end a year that will be remembered as a tough one for a long time to come.

I found blogging a welcome distraction, so much so that in addition to my annual list of e-learning conferences in Australia (which took a beating!) I churned out no fewer than ten thought pieces.

My joke at the start of this summary is a nod to the theme of semantics, which I maintain are important in the L&D profession. Because it is with shared meaning that we do our best work.

I invite you to share your own views on each piece, so feel free to drop me a like and contribute a comment or two…

A vintage poster depicting a group of dogs of different breeds

I hope you find my articulations helpful.

In the meantime, I wish that for you and your family the Christmas season will be a time of healing, rest and renewal.

Academic deflation

I once had a conversation with a man who scared me.

It was over 20 years ago, and I remember him being quite a lovely fellow. He was simply proud of his son earning his PhD.

What scared me was his conviction that in order to keep up in the imminent future, an undergraduate qualification would not be enough; one must earn a postgraduate qualification. Not to get ahead, but to remain competitive.

With the ink still drying on my Bachelor of Science degree, my heart sank at the prospect of several years’ more slog.

The man was describing academic inflation and upon reflection, I realised I had experienced it already. Only a few years prior, as I was studying my high school diploma, “going to uni” was all the rage. Accounting was inexplicably popular, and competition for the trendiest major – Communication – drove its course entry score to the dizzying heights of Medicine and Law.

Not going to uni was seriously uncool, which no doubt contributed to a shortage of tradies such as plumbers, who to this day can charge a fortune for changing a washer.

The parallels to Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches are uncanny. This is a story about creatures called Sneetches, some of whom have a green star on their belly, some of whom do not. Of course the latter group covets those little status symbols, and their envy is duly exploited by an entrepreneur who invents a Star-On machine.

After the plain-bellies eagerly pay to get their own stars, the elitism of the original star-bellies wanes, and so the entrepreneur invents a Star-Off machine. The former elites pay an inflated price to reclaim their privilege, and so the pendulum swings back and forth with stars going on and off bellies until all the Sneetches run out of money.

Star confetti

Back in the real world which recently declared Australia’s most educated generation faces the worst job prospects in decades, I wonder: is academic inflation undergoing a Sneetch-like reversal?

The UK office of Ernst & Young ruffled a few feathers when they dropped the degree requirement for their entry-level jobs, while Elon Musk famously maintains that you don’t need a degree to work at Tesla.

I admit to not taking too much notice of this trend until Google launched its Career Certificates. Their courses can be completed online over several months, and they cover red hot topics such as data analytics and UX design. Their website says it all:

Learn job-ready skills to start or advance your career in high-demand fields. These certificates developed by Google connect you to top national employers who are hiring for related roles.

Furthermore, the tech giant’s SVP of Global Affairs claims we will consider our new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related entry-level roles.

Wow… if it’s good enough for Google, then “top national employers” isn’t an empty promise. Suddenly that little green star doesn’t shine so bright.

Perhaps after years of academic inflation, the pendulum is swinging back towards academic deflation. The prospect should sound alarm bells for a sector that’s already reeling from the impact of COVID-19.

If the trend towards short, practical, employer-sanctioned courses continues, one day of course we’ll collectively realise that the way to get ahead of the pack will be to embark on a longer, deeper dive that leads to a qualification with scholarly gravitas.

Hence the next generation of students going to university may no longer be doe-eyed teenagers craving a foot in the door, but experienced operators seeking to enhance their careers.

Which will in turn attract the young ones back when they realise they’re missing out on all the best jobs.

That is until everyone, once again, has stars upon thars.

Our secret world of learning

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.

Where is L&D heading?

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 past tense of open badges

Some commentators are heralding open badges as the nemesis of the college degree. I don’t quite see it that way.

It is true they are uneasy bedfellows. As Mark Smithers observes…

“It’s interesting that the reaction to open badges from senior academic managers is often to dismiss them as being child like and akin to collecting a badge for sewing at scouts.”

…and…

“I also suspect that traditional higher education providers will resist providing them because they don’t fit in with traditional academic perceptions of achievement and credentialing.”

I wonder if these academics have consulted their own faculties of education?

Of course, open badges and college degrees are not mutually exclusive. If a particular university can overcome its initial prejudice, it will see badges for what they really are: representations of achievement – just like those pieces of paper they dole out at graduation ceremonies.

There is no reason why a university couldn’t award a badge upon the completion of a degree. In fact, it could also award badges upon the completion of individual subjects within the degree. That would give the student a sense of accomplishment while in the midst of a multi-year program, and I imagine showcasing one’s backpack on the university’s VLE would become rather competitive.

Open badges

Speaking of competition, I don’t see open badges as a serious disruptor of the higher education system in the way that MOOCs are. And that’s because MOOCs are disrupting the delivery of education, rather than its credentialing.

A degree will always command a certain level of gravitas. It represents a structured, comprehensive education from – according to broader society – an elite bastion of knowledge and research. In short, it equips you with the intellectual foundation to do something in that domain.

In contrast, open badges are task oriented. Beyond the nebulous notion of “study”, they recognise the execution of specific actions. For example, Mozilla issues its Div Master Badge upon successfully using the div tag at least 2 times in its Webmaker Project.

If the task were passing an exam, the badge could indeed represent the acquisition of knowledge; but the spirit of open badges dictates that the task be performed in the real world, and hence represents the mastery of a skill. And this is meaningful to the corporate sector.

For example, if I were an employer who needed a graphic designer, I would seek someone who knows how to take awesome digital photos and edit them in Photoshop. So an applicant who has earned badges for digital photography techniques and advanced Photoshop operations would be an obvious candidate.

Yet if I were seeking a IT executive, I don’t think open badges would cut the mustard. Sure, badges earned by an applicant for various Java programming tasks might be attractive, but a wide-ranging role requires the kind of comprehensive education that a degree is purposefully designed to give.

Magnifying glass

When we look at learning through the lens of the college degree, we see its application in the future tense. The learner has a well-rounded education which he or she intends to draw from. In other words, the degree recognises something you can do.

In contrast, when we look at learning through the lens of the open badge, we see its application in the past tense. The learner has demonstrated their mastery of a skill by using it. In other words, the badge recognises something you have already done.

So the degrees vs badges debate isn’t really about the latter displacing the former. The emergence of badges is merely re-roasting the same old chestnut of whether degrees are necessary for the modern workplace.

And that’s an entirely different matter.