Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

15 April 2014

What do elearning users say?

Clark @ 7:17 am

Towards Maturity is a UK-based but global initiative looking at organizations use of technology for learning.  While not as well known in the US, they’ve been conducting research benchmarking on what organizations are doing and trying to provide guidance as well.  I even put their model as an appendix in the forthcoming book on reforming L&D.  So I was intrigued to see the new report they have just released.

The report, a survey of 2000 folks in a variety of positions in organizations, asks what they think about elearning, in a variety of ways.  The report covers a variety of aspects of how people learn: when, where, how, and their opinion of elearning. The report is done in an appealing infographic-like style as well.

What intrigued me was the last section: are L&D teams tuned into the learner voice.  The results are indicative.  This section juxtaposes what the report heard from learners versus what L&D has reported in a previous study.  Picking out just a few:

  • 88% of staff like self-paced learning, but only 23% of L&D folks believe that learners have the necessary confidence
  • 84% are willing to share with social media, but only 18% of L&D believe their staff know how
  • 43% agree that mobile content is useful (or essential), but only 15% of L&D encourage mlearning

This is indicative of a big disconnect between L&D and the people they serve.  This is why we need the revolution!  There’s lots more interesting stuff in this report, so I strongly recommend you check it out.

14 April 2014

How do we mLearn?

Clark @ 6:56 am

As preface, I used to teach interface design.  My passion was still learning technology (and has been since I saw the connection as an undergraduate and designed my own major), but there’re strong links between the two fields in terms of design for humans.  My PhD advisor was a guru of interface design and the thought was “any student of his should be able to teach interface design”.  And so it turned out.  So interface design continues to be an interest of mine, and I recognize the importance. More so on mobile, where there are limitations on interface real estate, so more cleverness may be required.

Stephen Hoober, who I had the pleasure of sharing a stage with at an eLearning Guild conference, is a notable UI design expert with a speciality in mobile.  He had previously conducted a research project examining how people actually hold their phones, as opposed to anecdotes.  The Guild’s Research Director, Patti Schank, obviously thought this interesting enough to extend, because they’ve jointly published the results of the initial report and subsequent research into tablets as well. And the results are important.

The biggest result, for me, is that people tend to use phones while standing and walking, and tablets while sitting.  While you can hold a tablet with two hands and type, it’s hard.  The point is to design for supported use with a tablet,  but for handheld use with a phone. Which actually does imply different design principles.

I note that I still believe tablets to be mobile, as they can be used naturally while standing and walking, as opposed to laptops. Though you can support them, you don’t have to.  (I’m not going to let the fact that there are special harnesses you can buy to hold tablets while you stand, for applications like medical facilities dissuade me, my mind’s made up so don’t confuse me :)

The report goes into more details, about just how people hold it in their hands (one handed w/ thumb, one hand holding, one hand touching, two hands with two thumbs, etc), and the proportion of each.  This has impact on where on the screen you put information and interaction elements.

Another point is the importance of the center for information and the periphery for interaction, yet users are more accurate at the center, so you need to make your periphery targets larger and easier to hit. Seemingly obvious, but somehow obviousness doesn’t seem to hold in too much of design!

There is a wealth of other recommendations scattered throughout the report, with specifics for phones, small and large tablets, etc, as well as major takeaways.  For example the implication from the fact that tablets are often supported means that more consideration of font size is needed than you’d expect!

The report is freely available on the Guild site in the Research Library (under the Content>Research menu).  Just in time for mLearnCon!  

10 April 2014

Can we jumpstart new tech usage?

Clark @ 7:20 am

It’s a well-known phenomena that new technologies get used in the same ways as old technologies until their new capabilities emerge.  And this is understandable, if a little disappointing.  The question is, can we do better?  I’d certainly like to believe so!  And a conversation on twitter led me to try to make the case.

So, to start with, you have to understand the concept of affordances, at least at a simple level.  The notion is that objects in the world support certain action owing to the innate characteristics of the object (flat horizontal surfaces support placing things on them, levers afford pushing and pulling, etc).  Similarly, interface objects can imply their capabilities (buttons for clicking, sliders for sliding). They can be conveyed by visual similarity to familiar real-world objects, or be completely new (e.g. a cursor).

One of the important concepts is whether the affordance is ‘hidden’ or not.  So, for instance, on iOS you can have meaningful differences between one, two, three, and even four-fingered swipes.  Unless someone tells you about it, however, or you discover it randomly (unlikely), you’re not likely to know it.  And there’re now so many that they’re hard to remember.  There are many deep arguments about affordances, and they’re likely important but they can seem like ‘angels dancing on the head of a pin’ arguments, so I’ll leave it at this.

The point here being that technologies have affordances.  So, for example, email allows you to transmit text communications asynchronously to a set group of recipients.  And the question is, can we anticipate and leverage the properties and skip (or minimize) the stumbling beginnings.

Let me use an example. Remember the Virtual Worlds bubble?  Around 2003, immersive learning environments were emerging (one of my former bosses went to work for a company). And around 2006-2009 they were quite the coming thing, and there was a lot of excitement that they were going to be the solution.  Everyone would be using them to conduct business, and folks would work from desktops connecting to everyone else.  Let me ask: where are they now?

The Gartner Hype Cycle talks about the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ and then the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’, followed by the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’ until you reach the ‘Plateau of Productivity’ (such vibrant language!).  And what I want to suggest is that the slope up is where we realize the real meaningful affordances that the technology provides.

So I tried to document the affordances and figure out what the core capabilities were.  It seemed that Virtual Worlds really supported two main points: being inherently 3D and being social.  Which are important components, no argument. On the other hand, they had two types of overhead, the cognitive load of learning them, and the technological load of supporting them. Which means that their natural niche would be where 3D would be inherently valuable (e.g. spatial models or settings, such as refineries where you wanted track flows), and where social would also be critical (e.g. mentoring).  Otherwise there were lower-cost ways to do either one alone.


Thus, my prediction would be that those would be the types of applications that’d be seen after the bubble burst and we’d traversed the trough.  And, as far as I know, I got it right.  Similarly, with mobile, I tried to find the core opportunities.  And this led to the models in the Designing mLearning book.

Of course, there’s a catch.  I note that my understanding of the capabilities of tablets has evolved, for instance. Heck, if I could accurately predict all the capabilities and uses of a technology, I would be running venture capital.  That said, I think that I can, and more importantly, we can, make a good initial stab.  Sure, we’ll miss some things (I’m not sure I could’ve predicted the boon that Twitter has become), but I think we can do better than we have.  That’s my claim, and I’m sticking to it (until proved wrong, at least ;).

3 April 2014

Egoless design

Clark @ 6:40 am

A number of years ago I wrote a series on design heuristics that emerged by looking at our cognitive limitations and practices from other field. One of the practices I covered briefly in one of the posts was egoless design, and a recent conversation reminded me of it.

The context for this is talking about how to improve our designs.  One of the things from Watts Humphrey’s work on software design was that if we don’t scrutinize our own work, we’ll have blindspots that we’re unaware of.  With regular peer review, he substantially improved code quality outcomes.  Egoless programming was all about getting our ego out of the way while we worked.

This applies to instructional design as well.  Too often we have to crank it out, and we don’t test it to see if it’s working.  Instead, if it’s finished, it is good.  How do we know?  It’s very clear that there are a lot of beliefs and practices about design that are wrong. Otherwise, we shouldn’t have this problem with elearning avoidance.  There’s too much bad elearning out there. What can we do?

One of the things we could, and should do, is design reviews. Just like code reviews, we should get other eyes looking at our work.  We should share our work at things like DemoFest, we should measure ourselves against quality criteria, and we should get expert reviews.  And, we should set performance metrics and measure against them!

Of course, that alone isn’t good enough. We have to redesign our processes once we’ve identified the flaws, to structure things so that it’s hard to do bad design, and doing good design flows naturally.  And then iterate.

If you don’t think your work is good enough to share, you’re not doing good enough work. And that needs to change.  Get started: get feedback and assistance in moving forward.  Just hearing talks about good design isn’t a bad start, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to look at what you are doing, get specifically relevant feedback, and then get assistance in redesigning your design processes.  Or you won’t know your own limitations.  It’s time to get serious about your elearning; do it as if it matters. If not, why do it at all?

2 April 2014

It’s (almost) out!

Clark @ 6:42 am

My latest tome, Revolutionize Learning & Development: Performance and Innovation Strategy for the Information Age is out.  Well, sort of.  What I mean is that it’s now available on Amazon for pre-order.  Actually, it’s been for a while, but I wanted to wait until there was some there there, and now there’s the ‘look inside’ stuff so you can see the cover, back cover (with endorsements!), table of contents, sample pages, and more.  Ok, so I’m excited!

RLnDCoverSmallWhat I’ve tried to do is make the case for dragging L&D into the 21st Century, and then provide an onramp.  As I’ve been saying, my short take is that L&D isn’t doing what it could and should be doing, and what it is doing, it is doing badly.  But I don’t believe complaining alone is particularly helpful, so I’m trying to put in place what I think will help as well.  The major components are:

  • what’s wrong (you can’t change until you admit the problem :)
  • what we know about how we think, work, and learn that we aren’t accounting for
  • what it would look like if we were doing it right
  • ways forward

By itself, it’s not the whole answer, for several reasons. First, it can’t be. I can’t know all the different situations you face, so I can’t have a roadmap forward for everyone. Instead, what I supposed you could think of is that it’s a guidebook (stretching metaphors), showing suggestions that you’ll have to sequence into your own path.  Second, we don’t know all yet. We’re still exploring many of these areas.  For example, culture change is not a recipe, it’s a process.  Third, I’m not sure any one person can know all the answers in such a big field. So, fourth, to practice what I’m preaching, there should be a community pushing this, creating the answers together.

A couple of things on that last part, the first one is a request.  The community will need to be in place by the time the book is shipping.  The question is where to host it.  I don’t intend to build a separate community for it on the book site, as there are plenty of places to do this.  Google groups, Yahoo groups, LinkedIn…the list goes on. It can’t be proprietary (e.g. you have to be a paid member to play).  Ideally it’d have collaborative tools to create resources, but I reckon that can be accommodated via links.  What do you folks think would be a good choice?

The second part of the community bit is that I’m very grateful to many people who’ve helped or contributed.  Practitioner friends and colleagues provided the five case studies I’ve the pleasure to host.  Two pioneers shared their thoughts.  The folks at ASTD have been great collaborators in both helping me with resources, and in helping me get the message out.  A number of other friends and colleagues took the time to read an early version and write endorsements.  And I’ve learned together with so many of you by attending events together, hearing you speak, reading your writings, and having you provide feedback on my thoughts via talking or writing to me after hearing me speak or commenting on my scribblings here.

The book isn’t perfect, because I have thought of a number of ways it could be improved since I provided the manuscript, but I have stuck to the mantra that at some point it’s better out than still being polished. This book came from frustration that we can be doing so much better, and we’re not. I didn’t grow up thinking “I’m going to be a revolutionary”, but I can’t not see what I see and not say something.  We can be doing so much better than we are. And so I had to be willing to just get the word out, imperfect.  It wasn’t (isn’t) clear that I’m the best person to call this out, but someone needs to!

That said, I have worked really hard to have the right pieces in place.  I’ve collected and integrated what I think are the necessary frameworks, provided case studies and a workplace scenario, and some tools to work forward.   I have done my best to provide a short and cogent kickstart to moving forward.  

Just to let you know that I’m starting my push.  I’ll be presenting on the book at ASTD’s ICE conference, and doing some webinars. Bryan Austin of GameOn Learning interviewed me on my thoughts in this direction.  I do believe in the message, and that it at least needs to be heard.  I think it’s really the necessary message for L&D (in it, you’ll find out why I’m suggesting we need to shift to P&D!).  Forewarned!  I look forward to your feedback.

27 March 2014

Manifesting in practice extended

Clark @ 8:25 am

In my last post, I wrote about the first step you should take to move to Serious eLearning, which was making deeper practice.  Particularly under the constraints of not rocking the boat.  Here I want to talk about where you go from there.  There are several followup steps you should take after (hopefully) success at the beginning.  My big three are: aligning with the practice, extending the practice, and evaluating what is being done.

1. So, if you took the advice to make more meaningful and applied practice within the constraints of many existing workplaces (order-taking, content dump, ‘just do it’), you next want to be creating content aligned with helping the learner succeed at the practice. Once you have those practice questions, you should trim all that material to just what they’ll need to be able to make those decisions.

This also means stripping away unnecessary content, jettisoning the nice-to-know, trimming down the prose (we overwrite).  By stripping away the content, you can work in more practice and still meet the (nonsensical) criteria of time in seat.  And you’ll have to fight the forces of ‘it has to be in there’, but it’s a worthy fight, and part of the education of the organization that needs to occur.

Get some war stories from your SMEs while you’re working (or fighting) with them.  Those should be your examples, and guide your practice design. But if you can’t, you’ll just have to do the best you can. Make the introduction help learners see what they’ll be able to do afterwards.  All this fits within the standard format, so you should be able to get away with it and still be taking a stab at improving what you’re doing.

2. The second step is to extend practice. I mean this in two ways. For one, massed practice dissipates quickly, and you want practice spaced out over time. This may be a somewhat hard sell, yet it’s really required for learning to stick. Another part of the organization’s education.  You should be developing some extra content at development time for streaming out over time, but breaking up your course so that the hour of seat time is 30 or 40 mins up front, and then 20 or 30 mins of followup spread out over days and with repeated practice will make learning stick way more than not.  And if it matters, you should (if it doesn’t, why bother?).

The second way to extend it is to work on the meaningfulness of your practice.  Ideally, practice would be deep, simulations or at least scenarios.  The situations that will most define company success are, I will suggest, in complex contexts. To deal with those, you need practice in complex contexts: serious games or at least scenarios.  And don’t make them boring, exaggerate so that the practice is as motivating as the real world situation is.  Ultimately, you’d like learners creating solutions to real world problems like creating business deliverables, or performing in immersive environments, not answering multiple choice questions!  And extending the experience socially: whether just reflecting on the experience together, or better yet, collaborative problem solving.

3. Finally, you should start measuring what you’re doing in important ways.  This, too, will require educating your organization.  But you shouldn’t assume your first efforts are working.  You want to start with the change in the business that needs improving (e.g. performance consulting and Kirkpatrick level 4), then figure out what performance by  individuals would lead to that business change, and then develop your learning objectives and practice to get people able to do that performance. And then measure whether they can, and whether it leads to performance changes in the workplace, and ultimately changes in the business metrics. This will require working with the business units to get their data, but ultimately that’s how you become strategic.

Of course, you should be measuring your own work, and similarly if your interventions are as efficient as possible.  But those should only happen after you’re having an impact.  Measuring your efficiency (“our costs per seat time are at the industry average”) without knowing whether you have an impact is delusional. Are your estimates of time to accomplish accurate?  Are you using resources efficiently? Are people finding your experiences to be ‘hard fun’?  These matter after the question of: “are we helping the organizations needs?”

So, between the previous post and this, hopefully you have some concrete ideas about how even in the most constrained circumstances you can start improving your learning design.  And the Manifesto supporting principles go into more depth on this, if you need help.  So, does this provide some guidance on how to get started?  Ready to sign on?  And, perhaps more importantly, what further questions do you have?

26 March 2014

Manifesting in practice extremis

Clark @ 8:27 am

Yesterday, I posted about what we might like to see from folks, by role, in terms of the Manifesto.  The other question to be answered is how to do this in the typical current situation where there’s little support for doing things differently.  Let me take a worst-case scenario and try to take a very practical approach. This isn’t an answer for the pulpit, but is for the folks who put all this in the ‘too hard’ basket.

So, worst case: you’re going to still get a shower of PPTs and PDFs and be expected to make a course out of it, maybe (if you’re lucky) with a bit of SME access.  And no one cares if it makes a difference, it’s just “do this”.  And, first, you have my deepest sympathies. We’re hoping the manifesto changes this, but sometimes we have to start with where you live, eh?  Recognize that the following is not PoliticallyCorrect™; I’m going outside the principled response to give you an initial kickstart.

The short version is that you’ve got to put meaningful practice in there.  You need an experience that sets up a story, requires a choice using the knowledge, and lets the learner see the consequences.  That’s the thing that has the most impact, and you’ll want several.  This will have far more impact than a knowledge test.  To do that isn’t too complex.

The very first thing you need to do when you’ve parsed that content is to figure out what, at core, the person who’s going to have this experience should be able to do differently.  What performance aren’t they doing now?  This is problematic, because sometimes the problem isn’t a performance problem, but here I’m assuming you don’t have that leeway. So you’ll have to do some inference.  Yes, it’s a bit more thinking, but you already have to pull out knowledge, so it’s not that different (and gets easier with practice).

Say you’ve gotten product data.  How would they use that?  To sell?  To address objections? To trouble shoot?  Maybe it’s process information you’re working on. What would they do with that? Recognize problems? Take the next step?  If you’re given information on workplace behavior problems? Let them determine whether grey areas exist, or coach people.

You’ll need to make a believable context and precipitative situation, and then ask them to respond. Make it challenging, so that the situation isn’t clear, and the alternative are plausible ways the learner could go wrong.  The SME can help here.  Make the scenario they’re facing and the decisions they must make as representative of the types of problems that they’ll be facing as you can.  And try to have the story play out, e.g. the consequences of their choice be  presented before they get the right answer or feedback about why it’s wrong. There are good reasons for this, but the short version is it’s to help them learn to read the situation when it’s real.

Let’s be clear, this is really just better multiple choice question design!  I say that so you see you’re not going beyond what you already do, you’re just taking a slightly different tack to it.  The point is to work within the parameters of content and questions (for now!), and yet get better outcomes.

Ideally, you’ll find all the plausible application scenarios, and be able to write multiple questions.  If there’s any knowledge they have to know cold, you might have to also test that knowledge, but consider designing a job aid.  (Even if it’s not tested and revised, which it should be, it’s a start on the path.)

There’s more, but that’s a start (more in my next post). Focus on meaningful practice first.  Dress it up. Exaggerate it. But if you put good practice in their path, that’s probably the most valuable change to start with.  There’re lots of steps from there, basically turning it into a learning experience: making everything less dense, more minimal, more focused on performance, adding in more meaningfulness.  And redoing concept, example, introduction, etc.  But the first thing, valuable practice, engages many of the eight values that form the core of the Manifesto: performance focused, meaningful to learners, engagement-driven, authentic contexts, realistic decisions, and real world consequences.

I’ve argued elsewhere that doing better elearning doesn’t take longer, and I believe it.  Start here, and start talking about what you’re doing with your colleagues, bosses, what have you.  Sign on to the Manifesto, and let them know why. And let me know how it goes.

25 March 2014

Manifesting in principle

Clark @ 8:24 am

The launch of the Manifesto has surfaced at least a couple of issues that are worth addressing. The first asks who the manifesto is for, and what should they do differently.  That’s a principled response.  The second is just how to work differently in the existing situations where the emphasis is on speed.  That’s a more pragmatic response.  There are not necessarily easy answers, but I’ll try.  Today I’ll address the first question, and tomorrow the second.

To the first point, what should the impact be on different sectors?  Will Thalheimer (fellow instigator), laid out some points here.  My thoughts are related:

  • Tool vendors should ensure that their tools can support designers interested in these elements. In particular, in addition to presentation of multimedia content, there needs to be: a)  the ability to provide separate feedback for different choices, b) the ability to have scenario interactions whereby learners can take multistep decision paths mimicking real experiences, and c) the ability to get the necessary evaluation feedback. In reality, the tools aren’t the limitation, though some may make it more challenging than others. The real issue is in the design.
  • We’d like custom content houses (aka elearning solution providers) to try to get their clients to allow them to work against these principles, and then do so. Of course, we’d like them to do so regardless!  I’ve argued in the past that better design doesn’t take longer.  Of course, we realize that clients may not be willing to pay for testing and revision, but that’s the second part…
  • …we’d like purchasers of custom content to ask that their learning experiences meet these standards, and expect and allow in contracts for appropriate processes.  If you’re going to pay for it, get real value!  Purchasers need to become aware that not meeting these standards increases the likelihood that any intervention will be of little use.
  • Similarly, if you’re buying pre-made content (aka shelfware), you should check to see if it also meets these standards.  It’s certainly possible!
  • Managers and executives, whether purchasing or overseeing in-house teams, ideally will be insisting that these standards be met.  They should start revising processes both external (e.g. RFPs) and internal (templates, checklists and reviews) to start meeting these criteria.
  • And designers and developers should start building this into their solutions (within their constraints) while beginning to promote the longer term picture.

Of course, we realize that there are real world challenges. The first is that the internal elearning unit will have to be working with the business units about taking a richer and more meaningful approach.   Those units may not be ready to consider this!  The ‘order taker’ mentality has become rife in the industry, and it’s hard for a L&D unit to suddenly change the rules of engagement.  It will take some education around the workplace, but to ensure that the efforts are really leading to meaningful change mean it’s critical.

The second caveat is that not all of these elements will be addressable from day 1.  While we’d love that to be the case, we recognize that some things will be easier than others.  Focusing on meaningful objectives and, relatedly, meaningful practice are the two first priorities.  (While I suspect my colleagues might instead champion measurement, I’m hopeful that making more meaningful practice will drive better outcomes. Then, there’ll be a natural desire to check the impact.) When the meaningful focus is accomplished, trimming extraneous content becomes easier.

The goal is to hit the core eight values first, as these are the biggest gaps we see, and integrate many of the principles: performance focused, meaningful to learners, individualized challenges, engagement-driven, authentic contexts, realistic decisions, real-world consequences, and spaced practice.  With those, you’ve got a real start on making a difference.  And that’s what we’re about, eh?  We hope you’ll sign on!

21 March 2014

Cathy Davidson #LSCon Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 9:19 am

Cathy Davidson gave us an informative, engaging, and inspirational talk talking about how we’re mismatching industrial approaches in an information era. She gave us data about how we work and why much of what we do isn’t aligned, along with the simple and effective approach of think-pair-share. Very worthwhile.


18 March 2014

Serious Conversation

Clark @ 5:25 am

We’ve already received the first request for an article on the Serious eLearning Manifesto, and it sparked a realization.  We (my co-conspirators are Will Thalheimer, Julie Dirksen, and Michael Allen) launched the manifesto last week, and we really hope you’ll have a serious look at them.  More, we hope you’ll find a way to follow them, and join your colleagues in signing on.

What has to happen now is people need to look at them, debate the difficulties in following them, and start thinking about how to move forward. We don’t want people just to sign on, we want them to put the principles into practice. You may not be able to get to all from the beginning, but we’re hoping to drive systematic change towards good elearning.

The Manifesto, if you haven’t seen it, touts eight values of serious elearning over what we see too often, focusing on the biggest gaps.  The values are backed up by 22 principles pulled from the research. And we’ve been already been called out for it perhaps being too ‘instructor’ driven, not social or constructivist enough.  To be fair, we’ve also already had some strong support, and not just from our esteemed trustees, but signatories as well.

And I don’t want to address the issues (yet), what we want to have happen is to get the debate started.  So I didn’t accept the opportunity to write (yet another) article, instead I said that we’d rather respond to an article talking about the challenges.  We want to engage this as dialog, not a diatribe.  Been there, done that, you can see it on the site ;).

So, please, have a look, think about what it would mean, consider the barriers, and let’s see if, together, we can start figuring out how to lift the floor (not close off the ceiling).


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