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

29 July 2010

School of the Ether

Clark @ 12:59 pm

Many years ago, Australia reached their farflung learners via the School of the Air.  While they’ve now moved to internet technologies,this post on the mobile talks at the eLearning Africa conference reactivated and extended some thoughts.

In the course of  interviews for the mobile book, Bob Sanregret of Hot Lava (now part of Outstart) mentioned some work they were involved in preloading safe sex information on mobile phones for sale.  This idea is intriguing, because it avoids download issues and data plans, but still ensures that the opportunity is there for elearning content.  And, the content does not have to be voluminous, but instead the smaller and more focused the better.

I’ve been sensitized to international mobile issues from a variety of channels. I had the pleasure to meet Inge de Waard, has been active in using mobile learning in developing countries, and served as a reviewer on a draft of the mobile book.  I have been contacted about using mobile learning to support health learning in Arab countries and India.  I was asked about the killer mobile application for a high-speed network in Taiwan as well.  I’ve also heard the stories of empowerment that come from eliminating the middleman in grain sales in India.  All told, there are considerable issues in distribution of devices, and the cost of and uptake of data services, in many locales.

The interesting issue in the post is how to use mobile devices to support learning. One of my points, and I’ll point to David Metcalf’s book mLearning as the progenitor of the idea that mLearning is really about augmentation: augmentation of formal learning and augmentation of performance.  While it might be feasible to deliver a small full course (a learnlet :) on a smartphone, trying to do so on a regular cellphone would be problematic.  Delivering adequate learning resources could be difficult. Instead, the question would more likely be about how to blend mobile devices and any other resources, and what those resources could be.

Looking at the device side, internet access is dicey. I think it was Bob who told me that there hasn’t been a cellphone sold in the US in the past 2 years that doesn’t have a browser built into it (and I remember an earlier stat that 75% had them, and 75% of owners didn’t know they  had them).  However, data services might not be practical for either availability or cost issues.  What is available, reliably, is voice and SMS (text messages). This, then, becomes the channel.

The reason I was reminded of the School of the Air is that they augmented correspondence materials with shortwave radio.  What could be done, then, is to augment print materials with voice. However, the quantity of learners in remote Australian areas was small, and I think the developing world has a larger scale of need.  This suggests programmatic solutions, whether voice or SMS.  Text might be simpler in a response format, though voice could work through the keypad as well.

The problem, of course, would be the distribution of materials. One of the interesting mentions in the post is how they’re using radio to deliver content, and then other technologies to support conversation. This is an intriguing intermediate, and of course television could be used if feasible, as could mail delivery of magazines or texts.  There’s another possibility, too.

Models for intelligent delivery

If learning is meaningful activity resourced with content and scaffolded with reflection, then maybe there’s a simplification.  Typically, we create artificial activities and supplement with rich resources since the learning activity isn’t contextually valid.  Perhaps if we could use the learner’s own environment as a source of activity we could use streamlined resource materials.  That’s the type of model I talked about in an article (PDF) a number of years ago, where I suggested we could identify the learner’s context, learning goals, and available content as a basis for intervention.

The idea is that rules governing the matching (by categorically, semantically, not hand-wired, ideally) of learner to content can create a custom learning experience.  While ideally there would be some social network as part of this (and using distance technologies like voice and SMS can accomplish this, as the article recounted at least in the case of SMS), we can create a successful learning experience for an individual.

I admit I’m not certain about having appropriate activities for individual standard K12 learning, but it’s a goal, and then we can approximate with content and designed activities.  It’s a step towards the goal I’m trying to find about taking an architecture like the diagram, and finding a flexible and powerful pedagogy that can distribute learning across our activity and life.

28 July 2010

On principle, practice, experimentation, and theory

Clark @ 4:11 pm

On twitter today a brief conversation ensued about best practices versus best principles.  I’ve gone off on this before ( I think Dilbert sums it up nicely), and my tweet today captures my belief:

“please, *not* best practices; abstract best principles and recontextualize!”

However, I want to go further.

Several times recently I’ve had people ask for research that justifies a particular position. And at a micro-level, that makes sense.  But there’s little ‘micro’ about the types of problems we solve.  So I hear it at a larger level: “why should we make learning more scenario-based”, or “what is the empirical evidence about social learning in the organization”.  And the problem is, you can’t really answer the question the way they think you should be able to. On principle (heh).

The problem is, most empirical research tends to be done around very small situations: these 3 classrooms were trialed in this state or province.  In many cases, there just hasn’t been the specific studies that are close enough to make a reasonable inference. And it’s hard to coordinate large studies that are really generalizable for pragmatic reasons that include logistics and funding.

What’s done instead, when sufficient cases arise, are meta-studies (as the recent one that said online learning was somewhat better than face to face), that tend to look across research, but you need a sufficient quantity of comparable studies (and someone capable and motivated).  Or, you can point to long programs of studies that are based around theoretical positions (e.g. John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory).  And expert practitioners typically have created  or procedures across long experience that can guide you.  In any case, you’re making inferences from a variety of studies and models.   One of my favorite models (Cognitive Apprenticeship) actually came from finding some synergy across several bodies of work.

So what’s a person to do? Sure, if you can find that specific relevant experiment, go for it.  Otherwise:

  • look to what others do, but don’t try to immediately adopt their practices, look to find the underlying principles and adapt those,
  • look to theories folks have proposed, and see how they might guide your approach,
  • bring in someone who’s had experience doing this,
  • or, think through it yourself, conceptualize the relationships, and determine what should be appropriate approaches.

(Note that the latter likely will take longer.) This is a ‘design-based research‘ approach, and to continue you need to trial, evaluate, and refine. Please do bring your reflections back to the conceptual domain.  We need more transparency!

The point I’m trying to make here is that, particularly in the learning sciences (e.g. when you’re working with the human brain), the properties aren’t as predictable as cement or steel; there is a bit of ‘uncertainty principle‘ going on (studying it changes the situation), and your intervention can very much affect how the individual perceives the task and possibilities.  You should expect to do some iteration and tuning.  And your bases for decision will not be individual research studies, by and large, but frameworks, models, and inferences.

Still, it’s systematic, based upon research and theory, and the best we can do.  So what are you waiting for?

27 July 2010

Catching up…

Clark @ 12:46 pm

It’s been quite a while since I’ve blogged, and it’s not that there haven’t been learnings, it’s just that my dance card was too too full.  What with conferences, a week of radical fever, the mobile book manuscript coming due, and a week off in the woods, not to mention a full load of client work, it’s just been crazy here around the Quinnstitute.  I intend to get more organized, but let me toss off a c0uple of quick thoughts that may get elaborated more soon:


The eLearning Guild‘s mLearnCon event was fabulous (as their events always are).  It was small and intimate, but with a palpable sense of excitement.  As I’ve mentioned before, I really think mobile is poised to be a revolution that will fundamentally affect how we use technology to support organizational performance. The conference reinforced that viewpoint significantly, with capabilities being expanded seemingly daily.

The key affordances mean you have computational power to augment your ability to do wherever and whenever you are, and that’s a big win.  Being able to do Personal Knowledge Management at the time of inspiration or need, or even of convenience, is huge.  Having your social network on tap on demand really augments your ability to work more effectively.

In short, doing mobile right means you’re more capable than without, and that’s a clear opportunity.  How do you make yourself smarter with your mobile device?


The ongoing debates around social media for learning flummox me.  How can you not see that social augments formal learning (Jane Bozarth has a whole new book on the topic) as well as provides new opportunities for informal learning and performance support? Maybe you have to be ‘in it’ to get it, but then, get in it.

This is not to say that formal learning needs social learning, but rather that it supports it in many meaningful ways.  It’s also not to say it’s the only tool for meaningful performance support, but it’s a powerful one.  It’s certainly the necessary backbone for collaboration, inherently, but there’s also the somewhat ephemeral but valuable interpersonal contact, not just the information.

For example, Twitter has been a great source of information through the links people provide to interesting material, and in the ability to get questions answered. However, you can go further, as we have with #lrnchat.  There’re people I’ve met there that I’m eager to meet in person now that I know them on twitter, but even prior to that it’s valuable to have got to know them.

If you’re not already using chat (w/ or w/o video, e.g Skype), Twitter or equivalent, Facebook and/or LinkedIn, Google Docs, etc, you really do need to get that experience going to really understand the opportunities.

Business changes

It becomes ever clearer that the old way of doing business, even enlightened versions, are just not going to cut it.  The evidence mounts.  A compelling article I was pointed to today points out how and why incentives and management are contrary to optimal performance.  What the article doesn’t do, of course, is help you figure out how to make the switch.

In talking with my Internet Time Alliance colleagues, we see that you need to provide infrastructure, develop skills, modify culture, and scaffold transition.  This isn’t easy, but it’s doable.  The article cites a number of examples.  However, incrementalism doesn’t cut it, it takes a serious commitment to change.

It’s early days, but I reckon it’s time to get a jump on it. Those companies that have made the switch are seeing benefits, and I reckon that the increasing pressures will make it simply the only viable survival strategy.


I can speak first hand to the value of time away.  There is the conscious reflection, like the thoughts I want to solve that I key up before a shower or a jog, and then there’s just ‘off’ time to let things ferment on their own (I prefer fermentation to percolation or incubation since I like the outcome more).  And, if you do it right, there are side benefits.

Serendipitously, after putting the manuscript to bed for the mobile book, we were scheduled with some wilderness time. I’d booked two days of ‘meals only’ at Yosemite’s Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp, and a night at Tuolomne Meadows Lodge two nights before.  My intention was to spend one night in the wilderness on the way to the HSC, giving the lad and lass their experience of actually having to pump water and cook your own food in the wilderness.  This is part of a strategy to get them into the wilderness experience with a maximum amount of experience and an appropriate amount of effort (previously we’d twice done the 1 mile hike into May Lake HSC for meals-only, with them carrying their clothes and our superlight down bags).

Despite a hiccup that turned serendipitous (we had to take a longer route in, but it turned out to be a much less mosquito-laden trail), we had a great time. The kids had to push through a mental barrier or two each at times, but both succeeded and commented on the view and the experience positively.  The Grand Canyon of the Tuolomne is truly a spectacular spot, and Waterwheel Falls turned out as stunning as I had recalled.

The nice thing for me was being completely off the grid for 4 days. While I had my iPhone (used the GPS function a couple of time), I couldn’t get a signal and check email or twitter.  I put work essentially out of my mind and focused on family.  I came back feeling quite refreshed!  Actually, it’s hard to get back into work, but that’s ok too, as I’ll get back in gradually.

The take-home, of course, is to take some time with those significant in your life and get away from work completely.  Recharge your batteries, reflect, and have some fun!  Here’s hoping you are getting some ‘me’ time this summer.

6 July 2010

The Social Media Cigarette Break

Clark @ 6:57 am

In the course of my interviews for the mobile learning book, Robert Gadd (OnPoint Digital) made a comment that’s stuck with me.  He opined that the new ‘cigarette’ break was the social media break where employees will stand outside with their mobile phone and check in on their social networks.  The reason, of course, being that their companies block social media access via their IT infrastructure.

As a grad student, I took a summer consulting job with a defense contractor looking at their education policies.  At the time (and this was circa early 80′s), the company was investing in a new IT system (we’d now call it an ERP system).  I remember this because the company asked that the vendor turn off the email system as they didn’t want folks frittering away time being social.  These employees had phones, but the company didn’t trust them with email for some reason!

Now, of course, we would be hard-pressed to conduct business without email. I know many of my cutting-edge colleagues are talking about life beyond email these days, but it’s still a mainstream tool, for better or worse.  We wouldn’t think of not allowing it, in fact we’re expected to provide it for employees.  Yet that same mentality of not trusting employees to use resources responsibly comes in with social networks.  We’ll trust employees not to steal office supplies, and use phones and email responsibly, but we won’t trust them with “the web”!  Instead, we block access to certain sites.

The lack of trust in employees is sad.  I believe in education over censorship, coupled with careful observance to ensure that there are no abuses. It says a lot if you feel you have to restrict your employees instead of letting them know what the expectations are and ensure that they can follow the guidelines.

The worst part, to me, however, comes from the recognition that it’s no longer about ‘know how’ but about ‘know who’.  With my ITA colleagues helping me recognize that increasingly “work is learning and learning is work”, and that conversation is the best learning technology, cutting off folks from their networks is like cutting off part of their brain and still expecting them to be productive!

I always joke about how we cut off the flow of blood to the brain before we expect men to conduct business (my take on the business ‘tie’), but this is really a serious impediment to successful problem-solving in the coming workplace where continual problem-solving and innovation is necessary. Innovation isn’t solitary, and your best colleagues are not necessarily in your workplace.  You may need some discretion, but that’s already covered by policies about communication, and mediated interaction isn’t any different.

I reckon connecting to your colleagues is as important to work, going forward, as is your schooling and experience.  It’s the network, baby, so enable connections, don’t stifle them!

3 July 2010

Brain science in design?

Clark @ 11:30 am

The Learning Circuits Blog Big Question of the Month is “Does the discussion of “how the brain learns” impact your eLearning design?”  My answer is in several parts.

The short answer is “yes”, of course, because my PhD is in Cognitive Psychology (really, applied cognitive science), and I’ve looked at cognitive learning, behavioral learning, social constructivist learning, connectionist learning, even machine learning, looking for guidance about how to design better learning experiences.  And there is good guidance.  However, most of it comes from research on learning, not from neuroscience.

The longer answer has some caveats.  Some of the so-called brain science ranges from misguided to outright misleading.  Some of the ‘learning styles’ materials claim to be based in brain structure, but the evidence is suspect at best.  Similarly, some of the inferences from neural structures are taken inappropriately.  There’s quite a bit of excitement, and fortunately some light amidst the heat and smoke.  In short, there’s a lot of misinformation out there.

At the end of the day, the best guidance is still the combination of empirical results from research on how we learn, a ‘design research’ approach with iterative testing, and some inspiration in lieu of what still needs to be tested (e.g. engagement).  I think that we know a lot about designing effective learning, that is based in how our brains work, but few implications from the physiology of the brain.  As others have said, the implications at one layer of ‘architecture’ don’t necessarily imply higher levels of phenomena.  We’ve lots to learn yet about our brains.

As with so many other ‘snake oil’ issues, like multigenerational differences, learning styles, digital natives, etc, brain-based learning appears to be trying to sell you a program rather than a solution. Look for good research, not good marketing.  Caveat emptor!

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