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

28 December 2016

2016 Reflections

Clark @ 8:07 am

2016 out, 2017 inThis is the last Learnlet for 2016, and so it’s time for some reflections on what has been an ‘interesting’ year.  I’ll admit it’s been rough, what with losing so many people known through popular media. I guess you get to an age where more and more people who’ve you’ve grown up with in one way or another begin to pass on. And of course serious changes nationally and internationally.  But there are some learnings as well.

So, I did a fair bit of speaking in 2016, keynoting conferences in New York and Beijing, as well as more private events live and online. I spoke about mobile learning, deeper learning design, innovation, as well as the L&D revolution.  And, of course, I attended the usual suite of industry conferences, notably the eLearning Guild events and Online Educa.  I also was engaged in a number of consulting engagements, working with folks to deepen their understanding (and mine), to achieve meaningful outcomes.

One learning is the value of travel outside the US.  I actually lived outside the US for 7 years (in Australia), and the perspective of seeing how others live, and looking at the rest of the world (and back at the US) from other perspectives is a valuable grounding.  The view I had of China before my recent trips was quite different than the reality. I can say the same from previous experience with India.  It’s too easy to be insular.  Instead, it’s helpful to be curious.

And that’s an industry comment too.  I continue to talk (e.g. my workshop in Berlin) and write about deeper learning design.  And I continue to evangelize about it (c.f. the Serious eLearning Manifesto with my colleagues, and the recent Future of Work project). And yet, the industry seems to continue on in ignorance.  The tools still reflect more of a focus on content instead of experience, for instance. Things get better, but surprisingly slowly. How long until we start treating learning design with the appropriate respect? We need to get out of our comfort zone!

There are positive signs. My engagements with Learnnovators has demonstrated that at least some folks care about quality. And I had several client engagements specifically focused on better learning design.  There just need to be more efforts in this area. It’s not hard to tweak processes to generate outcomes that not only look like good elearning, but actually have a high likelihood of an impact.

I’ve done a lot of reading this year (most recently The Fifth Discipline, which puts lots of what I’ve learned about organizations into a context).  It amazes me that with robust science at the organizational level as well as the learning science level, we still see so much action in organizations (and society) contrary to what’s demonstrably known. There are positive signs here too, but still too few.  It’s challenging, as it involves crossing discipline and business boundaries, yet the benefits are promising.

And I think the hype about technology improvements are premature. Wearables continue, of course. And VR has reached the stage where it’s easy to experiment.  Yet in each case, we’re still in the stage before standards emerge that will make a real market.  AR and content strategy are still nascent, but there’s much potential.  Fortunately, analytics is seeing a boon from the standardization around xAPI. We need to stick to the core learning affordances of new technology to truly grasp the potential.

Looking forward, I see much opportunity, as implied by the gaps indicated above. There’s real opportunity for improvement in the use of technology to facilitate outcomes. We can do personal and organizational learning better.  We can leverage technology in ways that are closer aligned with how our brains work. As a precursor, we’ll need a broader understanding of cognition, but that’s doable.  I’m happy to help ;).

And let me just add a very heartfelt thanks to those of you who I’ve interacted with, this year and in the past. Whether reading the blog, making comments, engaging on social media, attending sessions or workshops, and of course via engagements, I’m very grateful. I hope to connect with you in the future, in any of the above ways or any other. I continue to learn through and with you, and that’s a gift. Again, thank you.

Goodbye 2016, and here’s to making positive changes in the new year.  May it be your best yet.


15 December 2016

(When) Is pattern-matching enough?

Clark @ 8:09 am

In the course of my research, I came across the project shown here, as represented by the accompanying video.  In the video, they show (and tout) the value of their approach to developing pattern recognition around  mathematics.  Further, they argue that it’s superior to the typical rule presentation and practice. And I can buy that, but with many caveats that I want to explore.

So it’s clear that we learn by abstracting patterns across our experiences. We can provide models that guide, but ultimately it’s the practice that works. An extreme example is chicken-sexing (mentioned in the transcript); determining the gender of new-born chicks.  Here, no one can articulate the rationale, it’s merely done by attempts and correct/incorrect feedback!  And the clear implication is that by having learners do repetitive tasks of looking for patterns, they get better at it.

And, yes, they do.  But the open question is what is the learning benefit of that.  Let’s be clear, there are plenty of times we want that to happen. As I learned during my graduate studies, pilots are largely trained to react before their brains kick in: the speed at which things happen are faster than conscious processing.  When speed and accuracy is important, nay critical, we want patterned responses. And it does work for component skills to more complex ones in well-defined domains.  But…

When we need transfer, and things are complex, and we aren’t needing knee-jerk responses, this doesn’t work.  I would like to train myself to recognize patterns of behavior and ways to deal with them effectively, for instance (e.g. in difficult presentation situations, or negotiations).   On the other hand, in many instances I want to preclude any immediate responses and look for clues, ponder, explore, and more.

The important question is when we want rote performance and when we don’t .  Rote ability to do math component skills I’m willing to accept.  But I fear a major problem with math instruction in schools is about doing math, not about thinking like a mathematician (to quote Seymour Paper).  And I don’t want students to be learning the quadratic equation (one of Roger Schank’s most vivid examples) instead of how math can be used a problem-solving tool. The nuances are subtle, to be sure, but again I’m tired of us treating learning like color-by-numbers instead of the rocket science it should be.

Look, it’s great to find more effective methods, but let’s also be smart about the effective use of them. In my mind, that’s part of learning engineering. And I’m by no means accusing the approach that started this discussion of getting it wrong, this is my own editorial soapbox ;).  There’s much we can and should be doing, and new tools are welcome. But let’s also think about when they make sense.  So, does this make sense?

13 December 2016

Improving design processes

Clark @ 8:02 am

Recently, I had a chance to catch up with a client who’d used my services to review their design processes. Per my approach, I’d generated a report with a large number of suggestions. What happened, not surprisingly, is that a subset of them actually were implemented.  Still, it was gratifying to hear of the changes, and I think they’re worth exploring as an opportunity to show how small changes can yield big improvements.

One of the major areas was to work on how they use SMEs. Instead of just having a contracted expert, they’re moving to work with folks who have ‘on the ground’ expertise to couple with their domain expertise.  I argue for triangulating on the real objectives with several perspectives, and this approaches that ideal.

A second thing was that there was a bit of a ‘waterfall model’, and instead I suggest having collaboration at critical points along the way. In this case, they have moved to more collaboration at an important juncture point, with more roles involved to be more innovative on the possibilities.

Also, in their particular case, they have to abide by certain constraints, such as amount of time.  As a result of looking at the opportunities, they are moving to meeting their requirements by adding more practice, not more content.  This is a big win for the learners, and the learning.

They are also looking at applying their refined understanding of the nuances of learning. This is embryonic, I was told, but they are moving to looking to redesigning their content to better align with what is known about learning science. At this point it may not be instituted in their processes, but it’s already affecting the mindset they bring to the task.

There are a couple of other things they’re beginning, but I reckon these are some big wins for their audience and the outcomes. With only small changes in what they are doing, they are increasing the likelihood of effective learning.  And that’s the point: for any design process, there are inflection points where better outcomes can be achieved with minimal impact on the overall processes. That is, the processes may change, but they’re different, not hugely larger.

There’s much we can and should be doing to improve our learning design processes, for our learners, and the learning. We know what the opportunities are, now we just need to marshal the will to make changes.  Are you ready?

6 December 2016

Aligning Learning

Clark @ 8:09 am

Online Educa logoLast week, at Online Educa in Berlin, I gave a tutorial on deeper elearning as a pre-conference event. In it, I talked about getting more meaningful objectives, writing practice that actually develops meaningful outcomes, and content (concepts & examples) aligned to support effective practice. I also talked about emotional engagement and social learning, before talking about revising design processes to incorporate these deeper elements in an effective and not-too-different approach.  In short, I was talking about aligning our designs, and our design processes, to how we think and learn.

This is something that most organizations should be thinking about.  I was pleasantly surprised that the audience included folks from universities, not-for-profits, and government agencies as well as businesses.  The challenges are different in some respects, but there are shared elements. Education tends to be about long term learning relationships (typically at least a half year to several years), versus the short-term relationships (e.g. an hour to several days) in organizational learning.  Yet the need to respect how our brains work is a continuum. Our brains learn in particular ways that are unaffected by the curricular needs.  Learning solutions for performance and for education both still need to respect our neural and cognitive architecture.

And too little of what we do reflects what we know.  As a recent commenter noted, there’s a conflict between the de-facto practices and what research says.  As she also noted, our tools are also focused on supporting wrong approaches.  It’s not that tools prevent doing meaningful learning, it’s just that you have to get your design right first and then make the tool conform (as opposed to the alternative). And our limitations as designers flow from the same source, our brain, as our limitations as learners.  Thus we need to be as aware of cognition in our designing as in our design.

I’ll be talking about the problems this engenders in a special webinar tomorrow. There’re still a few slots left. If you’re committed to trying to improve your learning design, and you have the resources to do so, this is an opportunity to get started.  There isn’t a lot of pressure yet, but it’s time to be proactive before people start asking questions about the business impact of what we’re doing. What do you think?

29 November 2016

Thoughts on Learning Design Strategy

Clark @ 8:10 am

learning design strategy questionsAt the DevLearn conference, I ran a Morning Buzz on Learning Design Strategy. I’m happy to say that the participants threw in lots of ideas, and I thought they were worth capturing. I started with a set of questions to address, so I’ll go through their comments in roughly that order (though we didn’t exactly follow this structure):

What is learning design strategy?

I had in mind the approach taken by an organization to their learning design.  Attendees suggested it’s your goals and approach, ensuring you are delivering effectively.  It’s also your review approach, and metrics.  These are all elements that indeed contribute to strategy.

What gaps are we seeing in learning design strategy?

The participants offered up a suite of places that were problems, including aligning with organizational goals and access to support measuring impact, both of which are indeed strategic issues.  They also raised problems with prioritization of the demands, the need to move beyond just courses, and the lack of learning design knowledge. All are real problems.

What do we need to be able to improve?

The audience offered up a number of suggestions.  For one, there was a desire for strategies (probably more tactics) for doing beyond ‘the event’.  Support for selling changes in the way of doing things was mentioned as well.  The shift to self-learning was mentioned, leading to concern over how to support this. Attendees also mentioned a need of awareness in designing ‘backwards‘. Finally, a culture of learning was expressly discussed.

What are possible solutions?

The participants offered a suite of suggestions. One was adopting a learn-apply-perform model, which another termed a learn-practice-demo. Both were getting at the need for active practice and an ability to actually demonstrate performance.  There was also a mention of looking to social networks and peer recommendations to lower the demand and facilitate self-learning.  A culture shift was suggested, supported by the methods used to teach! A final solution was to move quickly to mentoring, which implicitly suggests including mentoring in the design.

Steps to take to move forward?

I also wanted to know what how they might move forward, and what they needed.  Two clear suggestions emerged.  One was for examples, and I reckon both of better learning designs, and approaches to implement those learning designs in organizations.  The other was for tools. Here it was clear that they weren’t talking about tools to develop learning, but tools to support them doing good design, and following processes.

At the end I left with mixed feelings. It’s good to know that the problems I see are reflected in what the practitioners reports; we see the same problems  It’s also sad that these problems exist.  I do believe that the Serious eLearning Manifesto is one piece of support.  And I’ve written on practices (e.g. with SMEs), but it’s clear that some practical scaffolding would help. I’ve worked with a few organizations, but I’m struggling to find ways to help more.  (Maybe this is the topic of my next book?) So, what ideas do you have?

(I’m offering a webinar next week that will address these issues, if you’re serious about making changes.)

23 November 2016

Special Webinar on Learning Design Strategy

Clark @ 8:03 am

Learning, properly, should have an impact. It’s about systematically changing behavior, developing new skills to meet ever-changing needs. That’s why we invest in learning: training or elearning. If elearning doesn’t make an impactwho cares how accessible or affordable is seems? It’s actually undermining your goals for increasing expertise, effectiveness and productivity.

Too much of what is done under this umbrella isn’t sufficient. It’s quite simply not effective. Here’re some signs that your elearning might not be working:

  • Your learning unit develops courses on demand
  • You work from PDFs and PPTs to develop your course
  • You have a knowledge quiz at the end
  • You use libraries to add graphics & interactions
  • Your learners avoid the courses
  • You track completion
  • You evaluate impact by learner feedback

burning moneyIf you’re spending money to develop elearning, and it has any of the above features, there’s a strong chance you’re burning money.

The good news is that it’s not as hard to change as you think! The design processes you are using now, the ones that reflect the above issues, are not that far removed from ones that offer real outcomes. Yes, there are changes, but they’re changes within the process, not fundamental. You can be making changes that will make a marginal impact on the development measures, but a real impact on the learning outcomes.  It’s not trivial, but it is doable.

If this is of interest, I’m offering a free webinar to talk through the issues. It’s not for everyone: if you don’t have the authority or the resources to make a change, there are other posts that talk through the opportunities. This webinar is for those who really want to explore the possibilities. If that’s something you want to be thinking about, if you’d really like to consider consider how you get from here to there, I encourage you to keep reading.

Webinar: 7 Unbelievable eLearning Mistakes

Date: December 7

Time: 10 AM to 11AM Pacific

Via: Zoom Conference Service

Have you been concerned about your learning design: whether your designs are actually producing results? Ultimately, is your elearning changing behaviors, developing skills, and increasing capacity? And how do you know?  There are a lot of reasons to believe that most elearning is not delivering on the promise. And yet elearning has the potential to be a powerful tool for organizational excellence. The barriers are not unsurmountable; we know the problems, and steps to change.  However, as has been said: “When all is said and done, more is said than done.” I want to give you the chance to take the steps. In this complimentary webinar we’ll explore barriers to getting measurable results from elearning.

This isn’t your usual webinar, however. Here we are specifically talking to organizations that want their elearning to actually have an impact. If you don’t have the resources and position to make a change, this really isn’t for you. If you want your organization to take it more seriously, invite your boss ;).

This is for you, if:

  • You’re ready to look at your elearning with a serious eye
  • You want to ensure that you are getting value for your investment
  • You need to operate in the real world, under real constraints
  • You’re willing to invest for a real change that has impact

This isn’t for you if:

  • You are happy with the status quo
  • You haven’t the authority or the resources to make a change

If you are ready to take a serious look at your elearningI invite you to sign up.  There’s a limit to how many can attend, so please register early. When you register I’ll send you the necessary details. Hope to see you!

The webinar was run on schedule, and signups are now closed.

22 November 2016

Thoughts on story, games, and VR

Clark @ 8:09 am

story games VRAs luck would have it, I found out about an event on Storytelling Across Media being run in the city, and attended a couple of the panels: half of one on interactive design and Telltale Games, one on story and games, and one on story and VR.  There were interesting quotes from each about story, games, and VR that prompted reflection, and I thought I’d share my thoughts with  you.

Story and Games

The first quote that struck home was “nonlinear storytelling strikes a balance between narrative and choice”. This is the challenge that I and I think all game designers struggle with. So, I subsequently asked “How do you integrate storytelling with experience design?”  The panelists acknowledged that this was the ongoing challenge. Another comment was that “stories are created in your imagination”.  That’s key, I think, to create experiences that the player will end up writing as a story they can tell.

I found myself  thinking about story machines versus experience engines.  It appears to me that, ala Sid Maier’s “a good game is a series of interesting decisions”, that it’s all about the decisions you make.  It’s easier to tell a good story when you put a game ‘on rails’; it’s harder when you want to have an open world and still ramp up the tension across the board.  Having rules and timers give you the opportunity.  For serious games, however, not commercial ones, I reckon it’s more ok for the story to be somewhat linear.

Another interesting comment was about how things are going transmedia.  An issue that emerged was the business of transmedia, how you might start with a comic to build interest and revenue to fund adding in a game, or a movie.  Telling stories across media is an interesting challenge, and could have real opportunity for learning. I have been a fan of Andrea Phillips Transmedia Storytelling and Koreen Pagano’s Immersive Learning, which I think give good clues about how this might go.  I’m also thinking about the movie The Game (Michael Douglas & Sean Penn), and how it’s a great example of an alternate reality game. I’d love to do something like that, but serious. We did a demo once about sales that captured some of the opportunity, but…

Also, I’ve looked at many instances of experience design: movies, theatre, amusement parks, games, etc.  And I’ve advocated that those interested in making experience engaging, particularly learning, should similarly explore this. It’s hard work, you know ;).  However, one of the panelists commented on ‘circus design’. That’s something I had never thought to explore, so it’s now on my ‘todo’ list!

There were also several mentions of a theatre experience in New York called Sleep No More.  It involves two intersecting stories: Macbeth and a lady looking for someone. There’s no dialog, and it plays out across several venues. The interesting thing is that you, as an audience member, choose where to go, who to follow, and what to watch.  Now I need to find a way to experience this! (Wish I’d heard about it before my keynote there in June.)


The other theme was VR, and there were some very interesting comments made. It was repeatedly made clear by the practitioners that this was a field  still very much in development. The tools and technologies had become good and cheap enough to allow tinkering and exploration, but the business models and viable experiences were still being explored.

One quote that was interesting was a response to the issue of what the ‘frame is’.  In computer games, the frame is the screen. But in VR there’s no ‘screen’, you’re surrounded.  A response to this was “the player is the ‘frame’ in VR”.  That’s an interesting perspective.  I might reframe it as “the player’s attention is the ‘frame’ in the game”, and manipulating that may be the key.  To ponder.

Another interesting comment was “proximity breeds empathy”.  I was reminded of the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt”, but I can see that an experiential approach may help generate sympathy and comprehension.  Can you actually share someone else’s experience?  Certainly, immersion has yielded concrete learning improvements, and successful behavioral interventions.

Which brings up a response on the question of where the future of VR is (that seemed to be reflected by the other panelists) is that shared VR is the future.  Clearly, social has big benefits for learning, and can be the basis of strong emotions (sometimes negative!)

There are clearly times when VR has unique and valuable advantages for learning, though I continue to think that AR may provide the greater overall opportunity, when it’s done right.  It might be like the difference between courses and mentoring.  That is, VR to make a step change, and the AR for continual development.  Where do ARGs fit in?  Perhaps more for developing the ability to deal with the unexpected?

One of the panelists mentioned Magic Leap, and I was reminded that that type of experience will be where we can really get opportunities for transformative experiences. I think that’s where Google Glass was going, and they’re right to hold off and get it right, but when we can really start annotating the world, combining it with ARGs, there will be real potential.  We can start designing now, but it’ll definitely be some time before tools and technologies hit the ‘experimentation’ phase VR has reached.

Lots of fodder for thinking!

17 November 2016

Tony DeRose #DevLearn Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 9:41 am

Tony DeRose opened the second day of DevLearn with a geeky (and intriguing) presentation on the links between math and story in making animation.  With clips and anecdotes he showed how it works, and inspired about how they’re connecting this to STEM.

Tony DeRosa Keynote Mindmap

16 November 2016

Maxwell Planck #DevLearn Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 5:01 pm

Maxwell Planck gave the afternoon keynote for the opening day of DevLearn. He talked about the trajectory of VR, with very interesting reflections on creativity, story, and meaning.

maxwell planck keynote mindmap

Penn Jillette #DevLearn Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 9:45 am

Magician Penn Jillette opened the DevLearn conference with a fascinating presentation on storytelling, telling his story and unpacking magic for us.

Penn Jillette Keynote mindmap

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