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

31 December 2008

Rethinking Learning Styles

Clark @ 9:52 AM

I’ve pointed out the problems with learning styles in the past, but I want to rethink them with you, as we took quite a positive out of them in a unique way.  This was back in 99-2000, when I led a project developing an intelligently adaptive learning system (Intellectricity ™; inspired by Joe Miller‘s vision of a system that respected who you were as a learner).  The system took a unique approach, adapting on the basis of who you were as a learner instead of your demonstrated domain knowledge (though it did that, too, though not like an intelligent tutoring system).

To do this, I looked long and hard at learning styles, including Jonassen & Grabowksi’s uncritical compendium, and (the other) John Carroll’s Cognitive Factor Analysis research.  I decided then what I still do now, that essentially all of the learning style instruments are garbage.  It’s not just me saying this, but so does a commissioned study by the Learning and Skills Research Centre.  And, as I previously reported, psychologist Daniel Willingham says we shouldn’t adapt learning to styles. So, is there anything to salvage?

I want to say yes.  The obvious reason is to recognize that learners do differ, and help learning designers be mindful of that.  And there are some insights.  For example, take Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.  When I was investigating learning styles, I didn’t like having bimodal dimensions, say where you’re either an introvert or an extrovert. The problem is, those are so context-dependent that you could be an introvert in the classroom, and an extrovert in the lunchroom.  Or even topic by topic.  I liked that Gardner assesses how social (interpersonal) you are separate from how independent (intrapersonal) you are. That became one of our principles when I challenged our psychometrician and our senior cognitive scientist to argue contrary, and they agreed with me.

So we took a different approach.  Starting from a premise of how learners differ in regards to learning, we made it more a competency than a characteristic: “how good are you at learning socially” (and I’d now add Marcia Conner‘s distinction of small group versus large group) separate from “how good are you at learning on your own”.

We ended up developing 31 different characteristics to evaluate, and chose the 9 we expected to have the most leverage into the first version of the system (which we got up and running).  These were across cognitive, affective (read: personality, e.g. the big 5 psychological traits), and conative (motivation, anxiety or ‘safety’, etc).  We had the system adapt on the basis of these competencies, not in changing the media to accommodate styles, but looking at different sequencing between (what I argue are the important characteristics) of example, concept, practice, etc.

We also believed that many if not all of these learning competencies could be improved, and designed strategies to develop skills over time. The premise did require a long-term relationship with the system, but that was our goal anyway.

The point here being that if, instead of fixed characteristics, we think of a suite of malleable learning competencies as a way in which our learners can differ, we gain two things.  First, we find ways we can support learners who have weaknesses in particular learning competencies (dealing with visual data representations, for example), and second, we can develop them in those competencies as well (which goes hand in hand with Michelle Martin & Tony Karrer’s Work Literacy).

It’s also a tangible investment in organizational competency, and potentially the only real leverage an organization can have, going forward.  Think: learning skills instead of learning styles, and develop your learners accordingly!

30 December 2008

Predictions for 2009

Clark @ 11:57 AM

Over at eLearn Magazine, Lisa Neal Gualtieri gets elearning predictions for 2009, and they’re reliably interesting. Here’re mine:

The ordinary: Mobile will emerge, not as a major upheaval, but quietly infiltrating our learning experiences. We’ll see more use of games (er, Immersive Learning Simulations) as a powerful learning opportunity, and tools to make it easier to develop. Social networking will become the ‘go to’ option to drive performance improvements.

The extraordinary: Semantics will arise; we’ll start realizing the power of consistent tagging, and start being able to meta-process content to do smart things on our behalf.  And we’ll start seeing cloud-hosting as a new vehicle for learning services.

I’ve been over-optimistic in the past, for example continuing to believe mobile will make it’s appearance (and it is, but not in the big leap I hoped).  It’s quietly appearing, but interest isn’t matching the potential I’ve described in various places.  I’m not sure if that’s due to a lack of awareness of the potential, or perceptions of the barriers: too many platforms, insufficient tools.

I continue to see interest in games, and naturally I’m excited.  There is still a sadly-persistent view that it’s about making it ‘fun’ (e.g. tarted up drill and kill), while the real issue is attaching the features that drive games (challenge, contextualization, focus on important decisions) and lead to better learning.  Still, the awareness is growing, and that’s a good thing.

And I’ve been riffing quite a lot recently about social networking (e.g. here), as my own awareness of the potential has grown (better late than never :).  The whole issues of enabling organizational learning is powerful.  And I’ve also previously opined about elearning 3.0, the semantic web, so I’ll point you there rather than reiterating.

So there you have it, my optimistic predictions. I welcome your thoughts.

22 December 2008

Shopping and thinking and the holidays

Clark @ 10:11 PM

The season is well and truly kicking in.  The kids are out of school this week, and while I’ve got a little bit of work on an interesting client project, we’re also taking time to address the holiday perogatives, and to respond to the affordances of the new kitchen.  That latter is an interesting situation.

We’ve had a very good set of cookware, but it isn’t dishwasher safe. That was OK, as for 13 of the past 22 years, I haven’t had a dishwasher (well, except for yours truly).  Now we do, and I’m beginning to resonate with my Mom’s recent perspective: if it doesn’t go in the dishwasher, it goes!  So, having a new, and effective dishwasher, it’s time to consider whether we need new cookware.

What’s instructive is how we (and, in particular, m’lady) are going about it. Naturally, we checked out the Consumer Reports recommendations (hey, you’re not going to get better offerings if you don’t optimize your information and select accordingly).  It’s one source of digital data I pay for (as I paid for the print, before).  After looking at what’s on sale, asking questions in the store, doing research, we came up with a question over whether the heat transfer needs to go up the sides (3 ply cookware) versus just an even spread across the bottom (bottom inserts: whether aluminum or copper).  M’lady didn’t just take the received information, she went and boiled water for pasta in an existing stainless steel with aluminum insert pan we had, along with an anodized aluminum pan from our existing set.

There are stakes here, as one answer is essentially 300% more costly than the other.  And it’s not just about money, it’s about value for money.  There’s an old saying that you get what you pay for, but it’s also true that you can pay too much for a name.

The larger point I want to make is that there are easy ways to make decisions (what the sales person tells you, what’s cheapest), and more difficult paths (inform yourself about the alternatives). How deep you should dig depends on what matters to you, and how much it costs relative to your resources.  However, unless you do spend some time balancing investment for value, you’ll continue to get product that is the triumph of marketing over matter.

The lesson I’ve learned is pay attention to what you care for.  I don’t care whether it’s Coke ™, Pepsi ™, or generic diet cola.  Give me the cheapest non-calorific caffeine that combines with rum for my evening cuba libre.  On the other hand, I’m mighty particular about my kosher pickles: if it isn’t fully brined & garlic (e.g. Strubs, Bubbies), you’re wasting my time (your mileage is likely to vary :).

The broader point is the matching learning investment with cost and benefit. It’s a prioritization issue that scales from personal spending up to organizational investment. I reckon the principles scale as does the need.  It’s  about being smart about how to gather information, and consequently it’s about learning to learn.  And you should know how I feel about that!

And, as the holidays  are intruding into my mindspace, I reckon I’ll have fewer posts until I get back into a working mindset sometime in the new year.  Until then, in case I don’t have another chance (as I tell my kids when I travel): Be Good, Stay Safe, & Have Fun!  Have great holidays, and here’s hoping the new year is our best yet.

19 December 2008

Thinking & Learning

Clark @ 4:32 PM

Today I stumbled across two interesting articles.  Both talk about some relevant research on learning, and coincidentally, both are by folks I know.

An alumni bulletin mentioned research done by Hal Pashler (who was a new professor while I was a grad student; I was a teaching assistant for him, and he let me give my first lecture in his class), and talks about the intervals necessary for successful learning.  Will Thalheimer has done a great job publicizing how we need to space learning out, and this research was interesting for the the length of time recommended.

The study provided obscure information (true but unusual), with an initial study, subsequent re-study, and then a test, with varying intervals between the study periods, and between the second study and the test (up to a year).  The article implied the results for studying (no new news: cramming doesn’t work), but the implications for organizational learning.  The interesting result is the potential length of time between studying and performance.

“If you want to remember information for just a week, it is probably best if study sessions are spaced out over a day or two.  On the other hand, if you want to remember information for a year, it is best for learning to be spaced out over about a month.”

Extrapolating from the results, he added, “it seems plausible that whenever the goal is for someone to remember information over a lifetime, it is probably best for them to be re-exposed to it over a number of years.”

“The results imply,” said Pashler, “that instruction that packs a lot of learning into a short period is likely to be extremely inefficient, at least for remembering factual information.”

This latter isn’t new information, but does fly in the face of much formal training conducted on behalf of organizations.  We’ve got to stop massing our information in single event workshops, and starting preparing, reactivating, and reactivating again for anything that isn’t performed daily.

Moving from learning to thinking and doing (it’s not about learning after all), the second one concerns research done by Jonathan Schooler (who was a new faculty member where I was doing my post-doc; we published some work we did together with one of his PhD students).  Schooler’s work has been looking at day-dreaming, and found that it’s not a unitary thing, but actually has a couple of different modes, which differ in whether you’re not aware you’re daydreaming or are, instead, mindful of it.  The latter is to be preferred.

In the one where you’re aware you are daydreaming, you can mentally simulate situations and plan what might happen and how to respond, or review what did happen and consider alternatives.  This works for social situations as well as other forms of interactions.  And the results are beneficial: “people who engage in more daydreaming score higher on experimental measures of creativity, which require people to make a set of unusual connections.”

This is what I mean when I talk about reflection, and in the coming times of increasing change and decreasing knowledge half-life, the ability to be creative will increasingly be a competitive advantage.  So, as I’ve said before, do try to make time for reflection.  It works!

17 December 2008

Economic Catastrophe (& more culture)

Clark @ 5:19 PM

I’m finding it hard today to be positive after listening to a couple of well-reasoned analyses of our economic crisis.  One analyzes the current economic crisis, explaining the complex economic structures created and unregulated (admittedly a US perspective).  The other is an “Inconvenient Truth” on the larger economic picture here in the US.  If you have to watch one, however, I’ll recommend the latter as more important.  Our childrens’, and our country’s future are at stake.  So let’s see if I can spin some gold out of this mess.

I’ve already talked about investing in culture, and I want to reiterate and elaborate on that message.  I listened to a free webinar the other day via the Institute for Corporate Productivity, where they’d done a survey on companies and asked about their culture. There was good news in their results: there was a significant correlation between the assessment of cultural elements surveyed and the success of the company.  And bad: not many companies scored highly on all eight.  A couple of factors stood out; areas for improvement included: generating trust among employees, encouraging innovation, nimbleness of the organization, and empowering workers to do their best.

Actually, I take it as good news; first that culture matters, as it’s an area a learning person can have a role in, and second that there is room for improvement, so you can have an impact.  The important issue is to become aware that culture matters, and take positive steps to improve the situation.

And there are concrete steps you can take.  You need to identify what your culture should be, and currently is, and address the delta.  In this post about making an innovative ecosystem (part of a performance ecosystem; pointed to on Twitter, btw I’m @Quinnovator), there are a number of prescriptions.  Diversity is to be supported, small experiments are valuable, nimbleness rules.  In support of that you need people to feel safe to experiment, collaborate to success (innovations typically are not the output of an individual but of a group, as Keith Sawyer tells us), etc.

So, organizations that focus on positive cultures succeed better.  I reckon that’s going to be even more true in truly rough times.  What are you doing to increase your contribution to organizational success?

15 December 2008

Words of Wisdom*

Clark @ 11:23 AM

L&D speaking:

We got into elearning when there were scattered experiments going on around the organization.  Of course we stopped those, as we need a coordinated approach.  We want to grow in a controlled way.

Our first move was, of course, to purchase an LMS.  A good LMS is like a fine automobile, with lots of capabilities to handle all conditions.  We selected the top of the line, to last a long time.  Two years ago it was up and running.  Our vendor was very helpful, taking the necessary time to have it optimally integrated with our IT system.  Our IT group changed the infrastructure a year ago, to *open source*  (I don’t know what they were thinking), but fortunately my vendor says that they’d be happy to help change the installation to work with the new services architecture.

We found out that some years ago a competency modeling exercise had been done, so we were able to populate the LMS with the roles, and the associated competencies.  Now our people can look up interesting roles from back then, and see what competencies are required. Then we realized we needed content about those competencies, so we went for the greatest volume per dollar.  You’ve got to have all the content you can to hopefully match up with those competencies.

It became clear that the off the shelf content didn’t cover our proprietary processes, so we needed to develop our own content.  We got a full fledged authoring suite and asked our trainers to develop courses.  They’ve become very good at taking those PDFs and PowerPoints and putting them up online with quiz questions.  Of course we have pre-tests so we can show a delta and validate our work.  It’s amazing how quick we can crank one of these out!  We’ve got to find more content to transform, as our team is just too efficient at it.  Now we’re looking at PowerPoint plugins.  We’re getting more flexible, too.  We used to have SMEs give workshops, and those were attended, so we’ve purchased virtual presentation software to allow our SMEs to present online.  Who needs all this rapid eLearning stuff?  And that LMS makes it easy to schedule the presentations!

We’re doing some more trendy things as well.  Right now games are hot, and we found that one of our loading dock personnel was a talented game designer. He’d taken a popular FPS (whatever that means) and built our offices in it, where you wandered around the premises and shot zombies (who represented managers).  We got him to scatter the words of the company mission around the premises, and you pick them up and bring them to headquarters, and when you collect them all there’s another game where you organize them into the mission statement, and then you win the game.  There’re still zombies running around to shoot, but now we label them as the competition.

We’re also aware of the excitement about virtual worlds, and so we’re porting the game into Second Life.  We can’t figure out how to build zombies, so we’re paying our employees to act like zombies ‘in world’.  It’s a bit of incentive to work hard so you can earn a chance to play as a zombie.

While our focus is formal learning, we recognize that all needs may not be able to be met by courses.  We’ve checked with various departments to see if they’ve got portals of information.  So, to get product information, you go to the sales site, er, or is that engineering?  No matter, what’s important is that the information is out there, and we provide links to all the portals (there’re hundreds) for all the courses.  However, we need to be focused: the information people need should be available internally, and if there’s a need, they can ask us to fill it. We strictly firewall off access to the outside, as we don’t want people getting information that hasn’t been vetted internally.

We’re also working on mobile deployment.  We’ve captured the CEO speaking at the latest shareholder meeting, and we’ve made available an audio for listening in the car  His vision of the firm, like that of his forefathers, helps us understand just why the firm is as it is.  It’s available on our portal for downloading.  For a next step, we are trying to convert it to video.  We’ve also developed a full ethics course for delivery on mobile phones.  There’s the content to read, and then a quiz that can be uploaded back to our LMS.  It’s required, so we’re getting some interest.

We recognize the importance of community.  Beyond the phone, we have email, and we’re trialing this new ‘instant messaging’.  We continue to track new directions.  There’s a lot of new TLAs out there, XML, DITA, SCORM, etc.  Frankly, we’re trying to find someone who knows this stuff.

We’re careful to know our areas of responsibility.  When someone wants to talk expertise directories, or other KM-type activities, we point them to IT. Wikis and blogs?  We’ve no time for a drunken Hawaiian party.  Our responsibility ends at formal learning.  Informal learning is an oxymoron.

You’ve got to ensure you’ve got an adequate budget, and then you fiercely protect it.  Don’t spend money unless it will make you look good; better to hoard than to squander.  New technologies need to be touched to demonstrate to management that you’re on top of industry trends, but going overboard can ruin a career. At the end of the day, you need to find out what the executives are hearing about, and make sure you are doing something with it.  Your job is to respond.

In conclusion, we’ve implemented a centralized system of eLearning. We’ve got it all there if people are interested.  Now it’s up to the managers to get their people to use it.  Little pockets of experimentation keep popping up outside our control, but we’re pretty good about stopping those and informing them about our capabilities.  Thanks for your time.

Any resemblance to any person purely coincidental; any resemblance to any organization purely intentional.

12 December 2008

Learning Organization Dimensions

Clark @ 10:13 AM

After my post on Improving Organizational Learning Infrastructure, Daan Assen suggested that it was too limited in reference to the broader Learning Organization picture.  That’s valuable feedback, because I really mean it to be the learning organization culture and the technology infrastructure, the latter of which isn’t included traditionally in the learning organization work.  Clearly the label has some issues, as Stacy Doolittle also opined, suggesting architecture may be a better word than infrastructure.  Still, I’m not convinced that infrastructure isn’t the most inclusive term. Anyone have an opinion?

The reason I mention this, however, is that Daan pointed me to some work by Garvin & Edmondson that provides some nice characteristics of a learning organization.  It starts with three factors, a supportive environment, concrete processes and practices, and a leadership that reinforces learning.  I think this is a nice breakdown.

These components break up further, so for instance, a supportive learning environment is composed of: psychological safety, openness to new ideas, appreciation of differences, and time for reflection.  That latter one really strikes a chord with me, as that was a major barrier back when we were trying to get traction on meta-learning (and we’re not giving up!).

Concrete processes and practices breaks up into experimentation, information collection and analysis, and education and training.  I note that it doesn’t seem to capture more about informal learning than just providing the environment, and no mention is made of tools or infrastructure.  They may well have reasons for that, but it’s important to me to consider not only the environment, policies, and leadership, but also the channels.

Still, the particular focus on the supportive learning environment is a nice characterization.  You need safety, openness, appreciation, and reflection.  And your social networking tools will make very concrete any gaps in those.  When you see folks not sharing, not tolerating, and not having time, you know you’ve got a barrier.  It’s a mirror to see your organization.  So, what do you see looking back at you?

10 December 2008

Collective intelligence patterns

Clark @ 8:42 AM

I had the good fortune to get to meet Tom Malone way back when he was working on what makes computer games fun (cited in my book).  I stopped by PARC (then the geek’s Mecca), and got to bask in the environment that produced the GUI on top of Doug Engelbart’s mouse.

I knew Tom then went on to be a thought leader out of the Sloan School of Management, studying office work and then higher levels of activity, leading to a recent book “The Future of Work”.  I happened to meet him again at an event at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, and he was gracious enough to remember me and discuss his work (I challenged him about his ‘guilds’, since they still can’t get reasonable healthcare that businesses can get, don’t get me started).

I mention this backstory to show the trajectory of thought leadership he’s had (and yet still remain a really nice guy).  He just spoke at the celebration of Doug Engelbart’s work, and while I couldn’t attend, I was looking for blog postings and found his slide deck.

You (should) know I like models, and he’s gone beyond talking about how web 2.0 social networking can facilitate work, to actually analyze and distill some underlying principles. In his presentation on The Landscape of Collective Intelligence, he comes up with four characteristics of design patterns (or genes, as he calls them): What (strategy), Who (staffing), How (structure & process), & Why (incentives/alignment).  This is a really nice systematic breakdown into patterns tied to real examples.

For Who, he distinguishes between a hierarchical arrangement and a crowd, the latter being a more random structure.  He focuses on the latter.  For Why he breaks it out into Money, Love, & Glory.  For What, it’s Create a solution or Decide on an issue.  How is whether you’re having it independent or dependent.  The latter two work out to a nice little matrix with collection, collaboration, many-to-many, and group decision.

I really liked his statement that “failure to get motivational factors right is probably the single greatest cause of failure in collective intelligence experiments”.  That’s insightful, and useful.

The implications for informal learning are obvious, I’ll have to think more about formal learning.  Still, a great foundation for thinking about using networks in productive ways.  Definitely worth a look.

9 December 2008

Investing in Culture

Clark @ 11:44 AM

These are uncertain times, and people are curious how to cope.  A recent webinar announcement from i4pc touted how a American Management Association survey concluded: “one of best ways to avoid becoming victim of the economy is to focus on corporate culture”.  That’s great reinforcement, as culture is one of the components of improving organizational learning infrastructure.  Of course, I recommend you take the broader steps, not just culture, but culture is key.

Marcia Conner’s presentation for the Corporate Learning Trends conference was on steps you could take even without a  budget.  Steps were to be more open, get more experts presenting, and more people contributing value.  It’s all about leveraging the existing corporate capabilities in opportunistic new ways.  Lightweight, high value. But it takes a culture where people value contributions, feel safe to share, trust one another’s opinions and values.

And one of the things social networking does is surface your learning culture.  When you provide the opportunity to share, (see the Social Learning Question Of The Day responses, great ideas about the benefits of social learning), you’ll see whether your culture is really supportive.  Of course, you’ll also have the opportunity to address it.  And social networking is one of the lowest cost investments you can make!

Shutting down capability by laying off divisions means you’ll be lagging when things pick up.  Those who invest in internal capability now will be those poised to capitalize when opportunity resurfaces. Don’t you want that to be your organization?

5 December 2008

Organizational Learning Infrastructure

Clark @ 4:22 PM

In one of my reflection sessions (aka shower), I was thinking what it is I do.  I’ve been branding it ‘elearning strategy’, but it’s really more than that.  It’s about looking at how organizations develop competence, move to excellence, foster innovation, collaboratively problem-solve, etc.  I’ve had a tagline: “making organizations smarter”, and the inevitable (and desired) follow-up is “how do you do that?”.  However, then the easy, and uninteresting answer, is to fall into talking about elearning, performance support, mobile, portals, knowledge management, all that stuff that makes people’s eyes glaze over if they haven’t seen the light.

What I realized today was that what I’m really about is improving organizational learning infrastructure.  It’s Not About The Technology, as Jay says, though that’s a component of it.  It’s about culture, policies, processes, procedures, tools, templates, incentives, and more. It includes courses, and community, and more.  It’s about assessing the current state, identifying some long-term goals (and values), establishing metrics, prioritizing short, medium, and long term term steps, and executing against them, with regular checks.

With culture, it’s about willingness to share, trust, take considered risks, or developing that ability.  It’s about knowledge and skills how to learn alone and together, using the infrastructure.  It’s about populating the performance ecosystem with support.   It’s about identifying competencies in learning through tools and collaboration.  It’s about providing the technology infrastructure that supports finding or making answers. It’s about experimenting, looking for feedback, and iterating (perpetual beta).  It’s at the individual, team, unit, and organizational level.  It’s about being strategic first, then tactical.

There are frameworks, instruments, best practices, and more to move, but it’s definitely time to move.  I think a survival strategy right now is to invest in capability to you’re poised to move once opportunity comes around again.  So, my answer to the question “how do you make organizations smarter?” and new meme is: improving organizational learning infrastructure.  Are you improving?

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