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

29 August 2011

Checklist Manifesto

Clark @ 6:32 am

On the advice of Judy Brown, I picked up The Checklist Manifesto, and I have to say it’s a must-read.  This is a short, well-written, and mind-changing book.  Frankly, it ranks up there with Don Norman‘s Design of Everyday Things, and that’s saying a lot.

Atul Gawande is a medical doctor who’s also an eloquent writer.  In the course of his work he’s become interested in reducing errors, and has looked deeply into how to minimize them.  And he’s had the opportunity to put into practice and test his ideas, refining them until they work. This book documents his explorations, developing a thesis that he recognizes has applicability far beyond medicine.  And that’s important for us, if we care about improving outcomes both professional, personal, and societal.

He breaks up flaws in execution into those where we don’t have knowledge, and those where we make errors despite having the requisite knowledge.  And he explores eloquently how likely the latter are in the real world.  Demonstrably smart  and knowledgeable people, acting in complex situations, regularly make mistakes. Those who have heard me speak about how our minds work know that there’s some randomness built into our system. Frankly, we’re not really good at doing rote tasks.  He doesn’t go into the cognitive architecture, but rather documents it via stories and explanations of complexity.  And he develops a particular approach that is striking in it’s simplicity and powerful in it’s effects.

Not surprisingly, given the title, the solution are checklists.  He has two types, ones that help us execute those rote steps that are critical to success, and another that helps connect us at critical times.  He categorizes, in a way I find reminiscent of Van Merriënboer’s elegant task analysis in terms of the knowledge you need and the complex problems you apply it to, the benefits of both remembering those crucial but empirically overlooked steps and of having people build a quick rapport and share the critical information at critical times.  He illustrates with flight and large-scale architecture examples as well as medical,situations where performance literally is life-or-death.  The clear implication is that if it saves lives there, it can save dollars or more anywhere.

And, refreshingly, he admits you’re not going to get it right the first time, and you need to trial, iterate, and refine again. He recognizes that it must be quick, easy to use, and tuned for the context of use.  This is no quick fix, but it ends up providing small easy changes that actually save time as well as reduce error.  It’s really about performance support, and it’s not complex, and it can work.  It’s also a natural match to mobile delivery, which I’m sure is one of the reasons Judy pointed it out.

This short, eloquent book holds the power to make significant improvements in many fields.  I strongly recommend it.

25 August 2011

Immersion or collaboration?

Clark @ 6:06 am

In something I’ve just been involved in, I realized I had a question.  I’m a fan of scenarios (read: serious games), to the point that I’ve written a book about how to design them!  I’m also a fan of social learning, and consequently argue for the benefits of collaborative assignments.  They both have the opportunity for powerful outcomes.  The question, naturally, is which makes sense when?

This is an important question, to the point that I’ve recommended it as a critical hiring criteria: that a candidate can not only articulate when you should do which, but also articulate how to do both.  Really, if you’re responsible for learning design, you need to go farther: when would you use scenarios, role-plays, or collaborative assignments?  How would you capitalize on the experience, formatively?  How would you design such a practice?

This gets into not only your pedagogical philosophy, but also your meta-cognitive ability.  Before you read my answer, take a moment and think: what’s my answer?  Seriously: what is your answer?

In short. my take is on the nature of the task the learners will be performing in the real world. Will they be performing individually, or will they be working as a member of a team?    There are processing differences (I do recommend that there is collaborative reflection after an individual learning scenario, to get meaningful processing).  Regardless, the core nature of the real world task should be closely aligned to the practice situation. If they’ll perform alone, make it a scenario. If they’ll work in a group, make it  a collaborative task, or a multi-player scenario/role-play.

Regardless, it’s worth checking: who’s your audience, what are your learning goals, and what is the most appropriate practice.  So: immersion, or collaboration?

24 August 2011


Clark @ 5:58 am

What’s In It For Learners?

In organizations, we talk about addressing WIIFM (What’s In It For Me).  As a key component of motivation, we want to connect to individuals viscerally.  With my focus on engagement in learning, I’ve felt it’s important to address the conative (anxiety, motivation, etc) of learners as well.

What I’ve meant by this has included having introductions that viscerally capture the consequences of the knowledge (positive or negative, dramatically or comically; I’ve a predilection for comically negative), help them connect the learning to the broader context of the world, help them understand why it’s important for them, remove anxiety, etc.  I believe we need to open up learners emotionally as well as the well-known benefits of activating relevant knowledge cognitively.

I was just writing up a list of what would need to change for schools to be effective, and as I was riffing on epistemology (having learners understand and take responsibility for learners), it occurred to me that we needed to address the WIIFM, and I realized it’s about WIIFL.  We need to explicitly address what makes the learning experience valuable to learners.  I’m sure we’ve all heard learners say something like “I’ll never use this”.  If it’s true, bin it.  If it’s not, then help them see it.

On a set of content I was lead on the design of (math), I created the spec for our introductions to show how the content would get used in real life, and then we worked through meaningful examples and practice items. In another set of content I created the engagement for, we used a professional cartoonist to create a comic that introduced every section.

We don’t emphasize enough helping learners understand why they should care, so is it any wonder why they question the WIIFM?  And it’s not presenting the learning objectives that we use to design, it’s a more coherent story that uses, essentially, marketing to get them to get it.

Ask yourself, if and when you’re creating a learning experience: WIIFL.  If you do, you can either eliminate unneeded content, or help learners connect in a motivating way. If you don’t, you risk learners tuning out and staying away.  Which isn’t a worthwhile investment of time and money.

23 August 2011

Mind the SME (and process)

Clark @ 6:09 am

At the recent Distance Teaching & Learning Conference I keynoted at, I met up with Jon Aleckson who, among other things, provided me a copy of his new book MindMeld. As the subtitle tells you, the book is about “micro collaboration between elearning designers and instructor experts”. To put it another way, the book is primarily about how to work successfully with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

Bsed upon Jon’s Ph.D. thesis work, this doesn’t read as an academic treatise for the simple fact that Jon’s run an elearning business for years now. While solidly grounded in good theory, the book is also focused very pragmatically on success factors. Written in a very accessible style, illuminated with case studies and hints and tips, this is a short and readable.

More importantly, the book is valuable. It talks about how to work with what the book calls instructor-experts in ways that increase the likelihood for success. Along the way, it provides useful coverage of topics like shared representations, process, and the value of project management. Along the way, the book isn’t afraid to touch upon the more intangible but real issues like culture and momentum.

The book is not without it’s flaws. Perhaps not surprisingly, situated in Madison WI, there’s a very strong emphasis on games as learning activities. Certainly I don’t disagree, but I would also emphasize collaboration equally. Also, despite not being academic, and admittedly also intended for academic designers as well as corporate, the examples appear to skew to the academic side. There also isn’t my favorite tip about where SMEs add extra value, finding their passion for the topic as a hint to designing the learning solution. These, however, are minor points.

Overall, I can strongly recommend this book to any individual or team that needs to be working to create a learning solution. The conceptual clarity around the practice of working as a team, and the practical advice, on a topic too seldom discussed, wrapped in a brief and accessible package, make this an easy recommendation.

PS: note that just because I get a copy of a book doesn’t mean I review it favorably; my integrity prohibits it (testimony in the stacks of free and unreviewed books that sit around my office).  I do not recommend giving me a free book in any expectation of favorable consideration.

17 August 2011

Travels, travails, & thought

Clark @ 6:19 am

In case you’ve been wondering about my relative paucity of posting, let me confess that I’ve been on the road almost non-stop for months.  Starting with the Australasian Talent Management conference in Sydney, through the Innovations in eLearning Symposium in DC, mLearnCon in San Jose, a visit to Saudi Arabia on behalf of a client, a long-delayed and deserved European tour with the family, a trip back to Australia on behalf of another client, speaking at the Distance Teaching & Learning Conference in Wisconsin, the Southwest Learning Summit in Dallas, and then a family trip to San Diego, I haven’t slept under my own roof for more than 2-3 consecutive nights (with one exception) since mid-May.

I’m not bragging or looking for sympathy, I’m just explaining (also mentioning that this is not usual for me). While it’s good, it’s also exhausting, and has really hampered my ability to do other than the associated work. Finally, however, I’m at home for several weeks before beginning another batch: Chicago for Learning 3.0 (an eLearning strategy workshop), Laguna Niguel for  the CLO Symposium (with Jay and Jane from the Internet Time Alliance), both in October, and then DevLearn in Lost Wages (running a mobile strategy workshop), DC for a local ASTD Chapter event (mobile talk & social workshop), and Toronto for CSTD’s annual conference in November.  At least I’m staying on the same continent this time, so the jet lag won’t be quite so bad!  And more time at home in-between.

On the way, I lost my new leather iPad cover when I left the iPad on the plane (got the iPad back, sans the cover ?!?!? *cough* United Airlines*cough*), had the usual debilitating experience with too-expensive data (ATT’s new rates notwithstanding), and didn’t always make the best luggage choices. On the other hand, I was able to resurrect a favorite rolling briefcase, got in a few surfs (so nice to find I can still do it!), generally exercised, ate very and mostly reasonably well, met some great people and had great conversations, and felt like I really was adding value by giving talks, running workshops, doing consulting, etc.  And the time with family was fabulous.

I also had time for some reflections, which I hope to populate here (wish I’d thought to capture them as they occurred, sigh).  One of the first ones is that mobile is more than just a technology, it’s also a lever. Under the mobile banner, we can discuss the whole performance ecosystem: formal learning, performance support, social learning, games, etc.  And we get additional opportunities with context-sensitive learning. When Google is designing for mobile first, and tablets and smart-phones are on the rise, there’s an opportunity to shake things up.   It’s like the conclusion Barbara Means made on the report from SRI on the difference to face to face and online learning: “the observed advantage of online learning is a product of redesigning the learning experience, not of the medium per se”.  I think that’s what’s on tap with mobile, and I think we should be looking to pursue those opportunities.

5 August 2011

Digital Helplessness(?)

Clark @ 8:26 am

Recently, I’ve been hearing quite a bit of concern over the possibility that reliance on digital, and increasingly mobile, technology may make us stupider.  And I don’t think this is just easy to dismiss.  In a sense, it could be a case of learned helplessness, where folks find themselves helpless because after using the tools, folks might not have the information they need when they don’t have the tools.

Recently announced research  shows that folks change what they remember when enabled with search engines: they don’t remember the data, but instead how to find it.  Which could be a problem if they needed to know the data and are not digitally enabled in some context.

As has also been conveyed to me as a concern is whether folks might not engage in learning about their environs (e.g. when traveling), and in other ways miss out on opportunities to learn when dependent on digital devices.  Certainly, as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been concerned about how disabled I feel when dissociated from my digital support (my external brain).  Yet is there a concern?

My take is that it might be a concern if people are doing it unconsciously.  I think you could miss out (as m’lady points out when I am reading instead of staring out the window every moment as we take the train through another country :) on some opportunities to learn.

On the other hand, if you are choosing consciously what you want to remember, and what you want to leave to the device, then I think you’re making a choice about how you allocate your resources (a ‘good thing’).  We do this in many ways in our lives already, for instance how much we choose to learn about cooking, and more directly related, how much to learn about how to do formatting in a word processing program.

Yes, I’ve been frustrated without my support when traveling, but that’s chosen (which does not undermine my dismay at the lack of ability to access digital data overseas).  I guess I’m arguing for chosen helplessness :).  So, what are you choosing to learn and what to devolve to resources?

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