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

17 December 2014

Why L&D?

Clark @ 8:33 am

One of the concerns I hear is whether L&D still has a role.  The litany is that they’re so far out of touch with their organization, and science, that it’s probably  better to let them die an unnatural death than to try to save them. The prevailing attitude of this extreme view is that the Enterprise Social Network is the natural successor to the LMS, and it’s going to come from operations or IT rather than L&D.  And, given that I’m on record suggesting that we revolutionize L&D rather than ignoring it, it makes sense to justify why.  And while I’ve had other arguments, a really good argument comes from my thesis advisor, Don Norman.

Don’s on a new mission, something he calls DesignX, which is scaling up design processes to deal with “complex socio-technological systems”.   And he recently wrote an article about why DesignX that put out a good case why L&D as well.  Before I get there, however, I want to point out two other facets of his argument.

The first is that often design has to go beyond science. That is, while you use science when you can, when you can’t you use theory inferences, intuition, and more to fill in the gaps, which you hope you’ll find out later (based upon later science, or your own data) was the right choice.  I’ve often had to do this in my designs, where, for instance, I think research hasn’t gone quite far enough in understanding engagement.  I’m not in a research position as of now, so I can’t do the research myself, but I continue to look at what can be useful.  And this is true of moving L&D forward. While we have some good directions and examples, we’re still ahead of documented research.  He points out that system science and service thinking are science based, but suggests design needs to come in beyond those approaches.   To the extent L&D can, it should draw from science, but also theory and keep moving forward regardless.

His other important point is, to me, that he is talking about systems.  He points out that design as a craft works well on simple areas, but where he wants to scale design is to the level of systemic solutions.  A noble goal, and here too I think this is an approach L&D needs to consider as well.  We have to go beyond point solutions – training, job aids, etc – to performance ecosystems, and this won’t come without a different mindset.

Perhaps the most interesting one, the one that triggered this post, however, was a point on why designers are needed.  His point is that others have focuses on efficiency and effectiveness, but he argued that designers have empathy for the users as well.  And I think this is really important.  As I used to say the budding software engineers I was teaching interface design to: “don’t trust your intuition, you don’t think like normal people”.  And similarly, the reason I want L&D in the equation is that they (should) be the ones who really understand how we think, work, and learn, and consequently they should be the ones facilitating performance and development. It takes an empathy with users to facilitate them through change, to help them deal with fears and anxieties dealing with new systems, to understand what a good learning culture is and help foster it.

Who else would you want to be guiding an organization in achieving effectiveness in a humane way?   So Don’s provided, to me, a good point on why we might still want L&D (well, P&D really ;) in the organization. Well, as long as they also addressing the bigger picture and not just pushing info dump and knowledge test.  Does this make sense to you?

#itashare #revolutionizelnd

16 December 2014

Challenges in engaging learning

Clark @ 8:05 am

I’ve been working on moving a team to deeper learning design.  The goal is to practice what I preach, and make sure that the learning design is competency-aligned, activity-based, and model-driven.  Yet, doing it in a pragmatic way.

And this hasn’t been without it’s challenges.  I presented to the team my vision, we worked out a process, and started coaching the team during development.  In retrospect, this wasn’t proactive enough.  There were a few other hiccups.

We’re currently engaged in a much tighter cycle of development and revision, and now feel we’re getting close to the level of effectiveness and engagement we need.  Whether a) it’s really better, and b) whether we can replicate it yet scale it as well is an open question.

At core are a few elements. For one, a rabid focus on what learners are doing is key.  What do they need to be able to do, and what contexts do they need to do it in?

The competency-alignment focus is on the key tasks that they have to do in the workplace, and making sure we’re preparing them across pre-class, in-class, and post-class activities to develop that ability.  A key focus is having them make the decision in the learning experience that they’ll have to make afterward.

I’m also pushing very hard on making sure that there are models behind the decisions.  I’m trying hard to avoid arbitrary categorizations, and find the principles that drove those categorizations.

Note that all this is not easy.  Getting the models is hard when the resources provided don’t include that information.  Avoiding presenting just knowledge and definitions is hard work.  The tools we use make certain interactions easy, and other ones not so easy.  We have to map meaningful decisions into what the tools support.  We end up making  tradeoffs, as do we all.  It’s good, but not as good as it could be.  We’ll get better, but we do want to run in a practical fashion as well.

There are more elements to weave in: layering on some general biz skills is embryonic.  Our use of examples needs to get more systematic.  As does our alignment of learning goal to practice activity.  And we’re struggling to have a slightly less didactic and earnest tone; I haven’t worked hard enough on pushing a bit of humor in, tho’ we are ramping up some exaggeration.  There’s only so much you can focus on at one time.

We’ll be running some student tests next week before presenting to the founder.  Feeling mildly confident that we’ve gotten a decent take on quality learning design with suitable production value, but there is the barrier that the nuances of learning design are subtle. Fingers crossed.

I still believe that, with practice, this becomes habit and easier.  We’ll see.

9 December 2014

My thoughts on tech and training

Clark @ 8:27 am

The eLearning Guild,  in queuing up interest in their Learning Solutions/Performance Ecosystem conference, asked for some thoughts on the role of technology and training.  And, of course, I obliged.  You can see them here.

In short, I said that technology can augment what we already do, serving to fill in gaps between what we desired and what we could deliver, and it also gave us some transformative capabilities.  That is, we can make the face to face time more effective, extend the learning beyond the classroom, and move the classroom beyond the physical space.

The real key, a theme I find myself thumping more and more often, is that we can’t use technology in ineffective ways. We need to use technology in ways that align with how we think, work, and learn.  And that’s all too rare.  We can do amazing things, if: we muster the will and resources, do the due diligence on what would be a principled approach, and then do the cycles of develop and iteration to get us to where the solution is working as it should.

Again, the full thoughts can be found on their blog.


4 December 2014

Getting Models

Clark @ 8:25 am

In trying to shift from a traditional elearning approach to a more enlightened one, a deeper one, you are really talking about viewing things differently, which is non-trivial. And then, even if you know you want to do better, you still need some associated skills. Take, for example, models.

I’ve argued before that models are a better basis for action, for making better decisions.  Arbitrary knowledge is hard to recollect, and consequently brittle.  We need a coherent foundation upon which to base foundations, and arbitrary information doesn’t help.  If I see a ‘click to learn more’, for instance, I have good clue that someone’s presenting arbitrary information.  However, as I concluded in the models article, “It’s not always there, nor even easily inferable.”  Which is a problem that I’ve been wrestling with.  So here’re my interim thoughts.

Others have counseled that not just any Subject Matter Expert (SME) will do.  They may be able to teach material with their stories and experience, and they can certainly do the work, but they may not have a conscious model that’s available to guide novices.  So I’ve head that you have to find one capable. If you don’t, and you don’t have good source material, you’re going to have to do the work yourself.  You might be able to find one in a helpful place like Wikipedia (and please join us in donating to help keep it going, would you please?), but otherwise you’re going to have to do the hard yards.

Say you’re wrestling with a list of things, like attacks on networks, or impacts on blood pressure.  There is a laundry list of them, and there may seem to be no central order.  So what do you do?  Well, in these cases where I don’t have one, I make one.

For instance, in attacks on networks, it seems that the inherent structure of the network provides an overarching framework for vulnerabilities.  Networks can be attacked digitally through password cracking or software vulnerabilities.  The data streams could also be hacked either physically connecting to wires or intercepting wireless signals.  Socially, you can trick people into doing wrong things too.  Similarly with blood pressure, the nature of the system tells us that constricted or less flexible vessels (e.g. from aging) will increase blood pressure. Decreased volume in the system will decrease, etc.

The point is, I’m using the inherent structure to provide a framework that wasn’t given. Is it more than the minimum?  Yes.  But I’ll argue that if you want the information to be available when necessary, or rather that learners will be able to make the right decisions, this is the most valuable thing you can do. And it might take less effort overall, as you can teach the model and support making good inferences more efficiently than teaching all the use cases.

And is this a sufficient approach?  I can’t say that; I haven’t spent enough time on other content. So at this point treat it like a heuristic.  However, it gives you something you can at least take to a SME and have them critique and improve it (which is easier than trying to extract a model whole-cloth ;).

Now there might also be the case that there just isn’t an organizing principle (I’m willing to concede that, for now…). Then, you may  need simply to ask your learners to do some meaningful processing on the material.  Look, if you’re presenting it, then you’re expecting them to remember it. Presenting arbitrary information isn’t going to do that. If they need to remember it, have them process it.  Otherwise, why present it at all?

Now, this is only necessary when you’re trying to do formal learning; it might be that you don’t have to get it in folks heads and can put it in the world. Do it if you can.   But I believe that what will make a bigger difference for learners, for performers, will be the ability to make better decisions. And, in our increasingly turbulent times that will come from models, not rote information.  So please, if you’re doing formal learning, do it right, and get the models you need. Beg, borrow, steal, or make, but get them.  Please?

25 November 2014

Transformative Experiences

Clark @ 8:05 am

I’ve had the pleasure last week of keynoting Charles Sturt University’s annual Education conference.  They’re in the process of rethinking what their learning experience should be, and I talked about the changes we’re trying to make at the Wadhwani Foundation.

I was reminded of previous conversations about learning experience design and the transformative experience.   And I have argued in the past that what would make an optimal value proposition (yes, I used that phrase) in a learning market would be to offer a transformative learning experience.  Note that this is not just about the formal learning experience, but has two additional components.

Now, it does start with a killer learning experience.  That is, activity-based, competency-driven, model-guided, with lean and compelling content.  Learners need role-plays and simulations to be immersed in practice, and scaffolded with reflection to develop their flexible ability to apply these abilities going forward.  But wait, there’s more!

As a complement, there needs to be a focus on developing the learner as well as their skills. That is, layering on the 21st Century skills: the ability to communicate, lead, problem-solve, analyze, learn, and more.  These need to be included and developed across the learning experience.  So learners not only get the skills they need to succeed now, but to adapt as things change.

The third element is to be a partner in their success.  That is, don’t give them a chance to sink or swim on the basis of the content, but to look for ways in which learners might be struggling with other issues, and work hard to ensure they succeed.

I reckon that anyone capable of developing and delivering on this model provides a model that others can only emulate, not improve upon.  We’re working on the first two initially at the Foundation, and hopefully we’ll get to the latter soon.  But I reckon it’d be great if this were the model all were aspiring to.  Here’s hoping!



18 November 2014

L&D and working out loud #wolweek

Clark @ 6:15 am

This week is Working Out Loud week, and I can’t but come out in support of a principle that I think is going to be key to organizational success. And, I think, L&D has a key role to play.

The benefits from working out loud are many. Personally, documenting what you’re doing serves as a reminder to yourself and awareness for others. The real power comes, however, from taking that next level: documenting not just what you’re doing, but why. This helps you in reflecting on your own work, and being clear in your thinking. Moreover, sharing your thinking gives you a second benefit in getting others’ input which can really improve the outcome.

In addition, it gives others a couple of benefits. They get to know what you’re up to, so it’s easier to align, but if your thinking is any good, it gives them the chance to learn from how you think.

So what is the role of L&D here? I’ll suggest there are two major roles: facilitating the skills and enabling the culture.

First, don’t assume folks know what working out loud means. And even if they do, they may not be good at it in terms of knowing how to indicate the underlying thinking. And they likely will want feedback and encouragement. First, L&D needs to model it, practicing what they preach. They need to make sure the tools are easily available and awareness is shared. Execs need to be shown the benefit and encouraged to model the behavior too. And L&D will have to trumpet the benefits, accomplishments, and encourage the behavior.

None of this is really likely to succeed if you don’t have a supportive culture. In a Miranda organization, no one is going to share. Instead, you need the elements of a learning organization: the environment has to value diversity, be open to new ideas, provide time for reflection, and most of all be safe. And L&D has to understand the benefits and continue to promote them, identify problems, and work to resolve them.

Note that this is not something you manage or control. The attitude here has to be one of nourishing aka (seed, feed, and weed). You may track it, and you want to be looking for things to support or behaviors to improve, but the goal is to develop a vibrant community of sharing, not squelching anything that violates the hierarchy.

Working out loud benefits the individual and the organization in a healthy environment. Getting the environment right, and facilitating the practice, are valuable contributions, and ones that L&D can, and should, contribute to.


11 November 2014

Learning Problem-solving

Clark @ 8:33 am

While I loved his presentation, his advocacy for science, and his style, I had a problem with one thing Neil deGrasse Tyson said during his talk. Now, he’s working on getting deeper into learning, but this wasn’t off the cuff, this was his presentation (and he says he doesn’t say things publicly until he’s ready). So while it may be that he skipped the details, I can’t. (He’s an astrophysicist, I’m the cognitive engineer ;)

His statement, as I recall and mapped,  said that math wires brains to solve problems. And yes, with two caveats.  There’s an old canard that they used to teach Latin because it taught you how to think, and it actually didn’t work that way. The ability to learn Latin taught you Latin, but not how to think or learn, unless something else happened.   Having Latin isn’t a bad thing, but it’s not obviously a part of a modern curriculum.

Similarly, doing math problems isn’t necessarily going to teach you how to do more general problem-solving.  Particularly doing the type of abstract math problems that are the basis of No Child Left Untested, er Behind.  What you’ll learn is how to do abstract math problems, which isn’t part of most job descriptions these days.  Now, if you want to learn to solve meaningful math problems, you have to be given meaningful math problems, as the late David Jonassen told us.  And the feedback has to include the problem-solving process, not just the math!

Moreover, if you want to generalize to other problem-solving, like science or engineering, you need explicit scaffolding to reflect on the process and the generality across domains.  So you  need some problem-solving in other domains to abstract and generalize across.  Otherwise, you’ll get good at solving real world math problems, which is necessary but not sufficient.  I remember my child’s 2nd grade teacher who was talking about the process they emphasized for writing – draft, get feedback, review, refine – and I pointed out that was good for other domains as well: math, drawing, etc.  I saw the light go on.  And that’s the point, generalizing is valuable  in learning, and facilitating that generalization is valuable in teaching.

I laud the efforts to help folks understand why math and science are important, but you can’t let people go away thinking that doing abstract math problems is a valuable activity.  Let’s get the details right, and really accelerate our outcomes.

6 November 2014

Taking note

Clark @ 8:08 am

A colleague pointed me to this article that posited the benefits of digital note-taking.  While I agree, I want to take it further.  There are some non-0bvious factors in note taking.

As the article points out, there are numerous benefits possible by taking notes digitally.  They can be saved and reviewed, have text and/or sketches and/or images (even video too), be shared, revised, elaborated with audio both to add to notes and to read back the prose, and more.  Auto-correct is also valuable.  And I absolutely believe all this is valuable.  But there’s more.

One thing the article touched on is the value of structure.  Whether outlining, where indents capture relationships, or networks similarly, capturing that structure means valuable processing by the note-taker. Interestingly, graphical frameworks can support cycles or cross references in the structure better than outlines can (I once was called out that there was no additional value to mindmaps over outlines, and this is one area where they are superior).

However, as the article noted, research has shown that taking verbatim notes doesn’t help. You have to actively reprocess the information, extracting structure through outlines or networks, and paraphrasing what you hear instead of parroting it. This is the real value of note taking.  You need to be actively engaged.

Note-taking also helps keep that engagement. The mindmaps that I frequently post started as a way for me to listen better.   My brain can be somewhat lateral (an understatement; a benefit for Quinnovating, but a problem for listening to presentations), and if someone says something interesting, by the time I’ve explored the thought and returned, I’ve lost the plot. Mindmapping was a way to occupy enough extra cognitive overhead to keep my mind from sparking off.  It just so happens that when I posted one, it drew significant interest (read: hits), and so I’ve continued it for me, the audience, and the events.

Interestingly, the benefit of the note taking can persist even if the notes aren’t reviewed; the act of note-taking with the extra processing in paraphrasing is valuable in itself.  I once asked an audience how many took notes, and many hands went up. I then asked how many read the notes afterwards, and the result was significantly less.  Yet that’s not a bad thing!

So, take notes that reprocess the information presented.  Then, review them if useful.  But give yourself the benefit of the processing, if nothing else.

5 November 2014

#DevLearn 14 Reflections

Clark @ 9:57 am

This past week I was at the always great DevLearn conference, the biggest and arguably best yet.  There were some hiccups in my attendance, as several blocks of time were taken up with various commitments both work and personal, so for instance I didn’t really get a chance to peruse the expo at all.  Yet I attended keynotes and sessions, as well as presenting, and hobnobbed with folks both familiar and new.

The keynotes were arguably even better than before, and a high bar had already been set.

Neil deGrasse Tyson was eloquent and passionate about the need for science and the lack of match between school and life.    I had a quibble about his statement that doing math teaches problem-solving, as it takes the right type of problems (and Common Core is a step in the right direction) and it takes explicit scaffolding.  Still, his message was powerful and well-communicated. He also made an unexpected connection between Women’s Liberation and the decline of school quality that I hadn’t considered.

Beau Lotto also spoke, linking how our past experience alters our perception to necessary changes in learning.  While I was familiar with the beginning point of perception (a fundamental part of cognitive science, my doctoral field), he took it in very interesting and useful direction in an engaging and inspiring way.  His take-home message: teach not how to see but how to look, was succinct and apt.

Finally, Belinda Parmar took on the challenge of women in technology, and documented how small changes can make a big difference. Given the madness of #gamergate, the discussion was a useful reminder of inequity in many fields and for many.  She left lots of time to have a meaningful discussion about the issues, a nice touch.

Owing to the commitments both personal and speaking, I didn’t get to see many sessions. I had the usual situation of  good ones, and a not-so-good one (though I admit my criteria is kind of high).  I like that the Guild balances known speakers and topics with taking some chances on both.  I also note that most of the known speakers are those folks I respect that continue to think ahead and bring new perspectives, even if in a track representing their work.  As a consequence, the overall quality is always very high.

And the associated events continue to improve.  The DemoFest was almost too big this year, so many examples that it’s hard to start looking at them as you want to be fair and see all but it’s just too monumental. Of course, the Guild had a guide that grouped them, so you could drill down into the ones you wanted to see.  The expo reception was a success as well, and the various snack breaks suited the opportunity to mingle.  I kept missing the ice cream, but perhaps that’s for the best.

I was pleased to have the biggest turnout yet for a workshop, and take the interest in elearning strategy as an indicator that the revolution is taking hold.  The attendees were faced with the breadth of things to consider across advanced ID, performance support, eCommunity, backend integration, decoupled delivery, and then were led through the process of identifying elements and steps in the strategy.  The informal feedback was that, while daunted by the scope, they were excited by the potential and recognizing the need to begin.  The fact that the Guild is holding the Learning Ecosystem conference and their release of a new and quite good white paper by Marc Rosenberg and Steve Foreman are further evidence that awareness is growing.   Marc and Steve carve up the world a little differently than I do, but we say similar things about what’s important.

I am also pleased that Mobile interest continues to grow, as evidenced by the large audience at our mobile panel, where I was joined by other mLearnCon advisory board members Robert Gadd, Sarah Gilbert, and Chad Udell.  They provide nicely differing viewpoints, with Sarah representing the irreverent designer, Robert the pragmatic systems perspective, and Chad the advanced technology view, to complement my more conceptual approach.  We largely agree, but represent different ways of communicating and thinking about the topic. (Sarah and I will be joined by Nick Floro for ATD’s mLearnNow event in New Orleans next week).

I also talked about trying to change the pedagogy of elearning in the Wadhwani Foundation, the approach we’re taking and the challenges we face.  The goal I’m involved in is job skilling, and consequently there’s a real need and a real opportunity.  What I’m fighting for is to make meaningful practice as a way to achieve real outcomes.  We have some positive steps and some missteps, but I think we have the chance to have a real impact. It’s a work in progress, and fingers crossed.

So what did I learn?  The good news is that the audience is getting smarter, wanting more depth in their approaches and breadth in what they address. The bad news appears to be that the view of ‘information dump & knowledge test = learning’ is still all too prevalent. We’re making progress, but too slowly (ok, so perhaps patience isn’t my strong suit ;).  If you haven’t, please do check out the Serious eLearning Manifesto to get some guidance about what I’m talking about (with my colleagues Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, and Will Thalheimer).  And now there’s an app for that!

If you want to get your mind around the forefront of learning technology, at least in the organizational space, DevLearn is the place to be.


31 October 2014

Belinda Parmar #DevLearn Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 11:38 am

Belinda Parmar addressed the critical question of women in tech in a poignant way, pointing out that the small stuff is important: language, imagery, context. She concluded with small actions including new job description language and better female involvement in product development.


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