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

28 January 2009

Tools and tradeoffs

Clark @ 11:32 AM

Old Site

I’ve been busy updating my website.  The previous version was done by hand in an old version of Adobe’s DreamWeaver, and while it was very light and minimal, it wasn’t very ‘elegant’.  For instance, I’d had one problem that really bugged me, hadn’t been able to fix (though recently I managed to beat it into submission).  I had several options: continue to maintain it, pay someone to do a better job, or find some tool that makes it easy to make reasonable sites.  I got my mitts on a copy of RealMac’s RapidWeaver, and started to play around.

RapidWeaver uses templates: there are quite a few included, and you can pay for more.  I wasn’t completely happy with any, but by systematic exploration (aka messing around), I managed to make one I was happy with. (Recognize that the small size of the screenshots can make the old one look plausible, but it was a bit space-wasting; e.g. it’s still readable at 50%!)  I haven’t dived into the actual design behind the themes, as that takes me somewhere I don’t want to go.  Still, when I’d find things I thought it couldn’t do, I’d look deeper and find it.  It took quite a few attempts to get things the way I liked them, but it’s mostly quite clean.    Yes, I could delve into CSS and PHP and really get a handle on it, but that’s not the best investment of my time, and I could’ve stuck with DreamWeaver.  It’s enough that I understand what they do, without getting into the syntax of a specific site.


New Site

The interesting thing to consider here, however, are the tradeoffs.  I wanted a decent starting point, and the application handling all the background work when I changed things around (like maintaining the navigation bar, adding the cookie crumbs, etc).  I didn’t want to have to tweak everything myself. If I were a professional web designer, I’d want power tools; if I were an amateur I’d want hand-holding.  As it is, I want something in-between.  RapidWeaver does a relatively elegant job of providing simplicity upfront but letting you open up the hood and mess about inside.  I had to get deep into the program to get done some things I wanted to get done, but it’s output is better than I was getting on my own.  Note that if you use it’s built-in ‘text and image’ pages, I don’t like how it looks.  I went to HTML pages (which I can handle).

The more general lesson is that there are no right answers, only tradeoffs.  Ideally, you get more power as you take on more learning.  Andrea diSessa termed this ‘incremental advantage’, where well-designed tool environments give you more power as a direct outcome of your willingness to explore.  HyperCard had this, as you could start with just draw tools, but then explore fields, buttons, and backgrounds (before you hit the ‘HyperTalk’ programming language wall).

There’s been notable progress in providing power tools (though too many people don’t even know about the concept of ‘styles’), but there’s still a pretty linear relationship between learning and power.  For example, as I have mentioned before, everyone wants the full game development tool that doesn’t require programming, though I argue it can’t exist.  It’s nice (and all too rare) when you get an elegant segue from templates through to being able to open up the underpinnings.

Understanding the tradeoff between ease of use and power is important in bringing knowledge, information, and tools to your learners, as well as your own learning tools.  You’ll want good defaults, and then the ability to customize.  Some of our tools are still not doing a good job of that, and the tutorials still tend to be focused on either product features or rote procedures, instead of helping you understand the software model underneath.  We could do a lot better!

Back to your user goals: you’ve got to know what you’re trying to do, how much you’re willing to learn about it, and live within what that gives you.  And I’d like feedback on the new website.   Put on your ‘potential customer’ goggles, prepared with what you’d want to know, and have a look; I welcome feedback to improve it!

23 January 2009

Disruption and Adaptation

Clark @ 3:21 PM

I was pointed by Harold Jarche to Dave Snowden talking about the coming age and the characteristics of what it will take. He documents a shift from mechanistic to systematic, and posits that the coming age is chaotic, requiring a new approach.  Dave terms this ‘praxis‘, a continual cycle of experimenting on the basis of theory and reflecting, rather than pre-determined approaches.

Harold wondered whether this counted as meta-learning, and I’d have to say yes.  You not only are looking at the outcomes of your intervention, but you’ve got to be paying attention to your process, and revising the theory and the practice as well as the problem-solving.  It may seem like an awful lot of overhead, but these skills become practiced, and the outcomes are far better in the long run.

Things aren’t slowing down.  I was reflecting earlier today on how quickly the ‘iClones‘ came after the announcement of the iPhone.  Things are moving faster, we’re being showered with more and more information, and asked to do more and more with less.  Most importantly, the fundamental game changes, where a whole industry is upended by a disruptive innovation, are getting so frequent that there is no longer a period in which to adapt to a steady state: change is the steady state.

Everything of any value at work will be adapting to change and solving problems. The processes you’d execute against will be out of date by the time they’re codified.  You’ll instead be applying frameworks, and monitoring the results while you refine the models and your approach.

At a personal level, this means meta-learning: learning on an ongoing basis, developing your learning skills and continually problem solving.  It’ll also mean collaborating, as it’s no longer sufficient to assume you can do it yourself; there’s power in numbers, when managed right.  So you’ll also have to develop and evolve not only personal learning, but learning to learn with others.  (That’s one of things Harold, Jay, Jane and I are working on via TogetherLearn.)

This naturally implies the skills of larger groups of people, and at the organizational level it means continuing to experiment as well, and providing the tools and the space to learn.  It also means being systematic and continuous about review.  (Doug Engelbart, ahead of the curve as always, has even suggested another level, where nodes of meta-learning collaborate to review the meta-learning!)

It’s attitudinal, too, as you’ve got to keep it from being scary, and let yourself remember that learning is fun.  As Raph Koster tells us, learning is fun (at least until we kill that thought with schooling).  So, let’s start having fun!

22 January 2009

Less than words

Clark @ 2:35 PM

Yesterday, while I was posting on how words could be transcended by presentation, there was an ongoing twitfest on terms that have become overused and, consequently, meaningless.  It started when Jane Bozarth asked what ‘instructionally sound’ meant, then Cammy Bean chimed in with ‘rich’, Steve Sorden added ‘robust’, and it went downhill from there.

I responded to Jane’s initial query that instructionally sound cynically meant following the ID cookie cutter, but ideally meant following what’s known about how people learn.  I similarly tried to distinguish the hyped version of engaging (gratuitous media use) from a more principled one (challenging, contextualized, meaningful, etc).  (I had to do the latter, given I’ve got the word engaging in my book title.)

Other overused terms mentioned include: adaptive, brain-based. game-like, comprehensive, interactive, compelling, & robust.  Yet, behind most of these are important concepts (ok, game-like is hype, and Daniel Willingham’s put a bucket of cold water on brain-based).  I should’ve added ‘personalized’ when a demo of an elearning authoring suite I sat through yesterday could capture the learner’s name and use it to print a ‘personalized’ certificate at the end.

And that’s the problem: important concepts are co-opted for marketing by using the most trivially qualifying meaning of the term to justify touting it as an instance.  Similarly, clicking to move on is, apparently, interactive.  Ahem.  It’s like the marketers don’t want to give us any credit for having a brain. (Though, sadly, from what I see, there does seem to be some lack of awareness of the deeper principles behind learning.)  I invoke the Cluetrain, and ask elearning vendors to get on board.

So, before you listen to the next pitch from a vendor, get your Official eLearning Buzzword Bingo™ card, make sure you know what the terms mean, and challenge them to ensure that they a) really understand the concept, and b) really have the capability.  You win when you catch them out; a smarter market is a better market. Ok, let’s play!

21 January 2009

More than words

Clark @ 2:00 PM

Monday was the US celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, and on Tuesday was the inauguration of the first African American president of the United States.  That’s an awesome juxtaposition; that’s change, baby!  I not only found it wonderful, but informative.

As background, I was highly trained to write in a very logical progression, choosing careful vocabulary, and in an objective manner. That’s a side-effect of graduate school and an academic career (one of my previous lives).  It mostly needs to be that way for scientific reasons, but for non-specialists, it’s way too dry.  I also read quite critically, serving on conference program and thesis committees, and on the editorial board for an academic journal. I have had some subsequent experience in writing more generally: for articles, for online learning, and even some marketing material.  And some formal training on speaking, for communicating.  I like to believe I’m not bad, but I always want to get better.

In that context, as I read the text of Martin Luther King’s speech as transcribed in my local newspaper, I was struck by what seemed outright florid prose: “seared in the flames of withering injustice”, “joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity”, etc.  If it was marketing, you’d pan it as over-the-top.  “This is a famous talk?”, I wondered.

Then yesterday I heard President Obama’s inauguration speech, and joined in on tweeting my favorite bits (“judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy”).  It was, quite simply, inspiring.  Afterward, a tweet pointed me to a blog comparing this inauguration speech with ex-President Bush’s farewell address.  This wasn’t a fair comparison (and he’s subsequently updated the post to compare the first inauguration speech of Bush with Obama’s, and it’s very interesting), but it caused me to go back and look at the talk transcript.

Once again, in print, we see what reads like slightly-purple prose: “rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace”, “gathering clouds and raging storms”.  It seems too much, when read, but when I pictured it as being spoken, it has a whole different effect.  That’s important.

Reading and listening are different, and we (should) write differently for each.  It’s difficult in elearning, when we are often required to have written transcripts of all audio.  We have to strike a balance in that instance. But we tend to overwrite; I can take pretty much any designer’s prose and hack 40% off (including my own first pass :).

So how can words that seem over the top on the page come across so sincere and important face-to-face?  It has to do with the delivery, the transparent sincerity and obvious passion.  And that’s the lesson.

For me, I have a personal passion for learning and technology to help individuals and organizations achieve their goals; it’s what I’m here to do.  I talk about putting emotion into learning, too, but I don’t practice it in my speaking as well as I could, and should.  I do use humor, but I need to put more passion into my speaking.  And, with the inspiration from yesterday, I will.

More broadly, however, is something I heard Lance Secretan say: “don’t just motivate, inspire”.  It’s something I try to bake into elearning introductions, inspiring interest in the coming materials. I don’t see it enough, and I think it can be ramped up more than we do.  The clients and the SMEs say that we can’t treat such material in this way, but I think the audiences prefer it.  It’s got to be authentic, but when it is, it’s amazing!

I find that people are most often in the learning field not by default, but by choice; they like creating a difference.  Despite the challenges to doing what you really believe is good work, you persevere, because it matters.  Tap into that passion, and let it show in your work.  Tap into the passions of others when you’re channeling a SME, and let that show.  To the SME, the topic is interesting, so find their passion and channel that, not just the knowledge.  It’s one of my tricks in learning design, and I hope it will become one of yours.  Here’s to better learning!

16 January 2009

Usability and Learnability

Clark @ 4:28 PM

Palm has just announced the Palm Prē as a new smartphone, and it’s got a fair bit of things right.  Like the iPhone it’s got a touchscreen, but adds a keyboard.  And GPS, WiFi, etc.  However, that’s not what I’m on about, but instead key things, like usability.  And there’s a lesson here that I’ve talked about before but I want to generalize it a bit.

To start at the beginning, when Jeff Hawkins designed the first Palm, he cut a block of wood to the size he wanted as a form factor, and then took it with him wherever he went, asking himself “what would I do with this if I could have it make me more effective”.  He ended up with a core list of features that still defines Personal Information Management (PIM) today. Those were Contacts/Addresses, Calendar/DateBook, ToDos, & Memos/Notes.  He added a few essential elements to be ultimately satisfactory and keep from repeating the problems that had plagued earlier attempts at a PDA: synchronizing with your desktop computer, instant on,  rock-solid stability, and absolute simplicity.  The latter got codified into the Zen of Palm.

So what’s the Prē offering that are steps ahead?  Several things. For one, it’s integrated all the message you can get, SMS, IM, eMail into one place to respond.  And all email accounts into one inbox.  Multiple applications can run at one, and it’s easy to switch between them.  It syncs into the ‘cloud’, automatically.  It’s not out yet, so it’s hard to confirm all the facts (does it have a good phone?), but we can also assume it has memos and ToDos, as it has already been reported as having as cut/copy/paste.

There are two lessons here.  The first is about how to gather your requirements.  It was inspired to spend the time walking around with the brick.  And it’s not obvious how the design process led to the new interface, but they’ve made huge steps in terms of what people need.  It drives me nuts to have to switch apps on the iPhone and have lost the context when I return. It makes me crazy to have to use so many taps to get between my different mailboxes.

This analysis is critical.  I was talking yesterday in an online session about how to do information gathering, and it’s got to be more than SMEs; you’ve got to talk to managers of the people performing, you’ve got to talk to the ‘consumers’ of the learned behavior (not the learners, but those impacted by the learner’s skills after the training), you want to look at the context; ideally you watch them. In usability, we used to talk about anthropological methods or ethnography (real or ‘fake’), and contextual and partipatory inquiry.  You’ve got to really get to know the problem to get the right answer.

The second part is getting the right usability in place, and it’s not trivial.  Koreen Olbrish goes off on instructional design being dead, and I think the problem is really that people follow a cookie cutter approach instead of being critically aware (hence my Deeper ID presentations).  I think that is true for too much (e.g. I recently had the same <expletive deleted> experience with a stupid phone number field in another online form) of practices.  You might by chance get it right, but why do people skimp on any component of a project?  Get the right skills for all components!

Yes, I live in the real world too, and know we can’t always use all the resources we should, but then test the solution first.  I say that you have to test usability before you can test for any learning effect, because if it’s not working, how do you know if it’s problems with the interface design or the instructional design?

So, at a surface level, we have to make it possible for people to interact with our elearning solutions, easily mapping their goals to the available affordances at the interface. This goes further however.  It’s also the underlying architecture.  Portals go wrong not only because they’re so many of them that users can’t figure out where to go, but also because they often are organized according to one persons thoughts, and there are likely to be more than one way to think about the organization.  Good portals provide several different ways to browse, and an ability to search as well.

When we move beyond the elearning ‘course’, to portals, and eCommunity/social networking, we need to think about how these tie together not only conceptually, but also from a usability perspective.  What we don’t want, and likely can’t afford, is having our workers avoiding our technical support because we didn’t make it comprehensible and usable. It’s an extra burden to take this into account, but I reckon it’s as much a job of learning technology design as is project management, understanding how people learn, the communicative properties of media, and more.  This isn’t a place for amateurs, because learning is just too darned important!

14 January 2009

The Quiver & The Gun

Clark @ 10:03 AM

(No, I’m not talking about weapons, or anthropological determination, sorry :).

Organizations have to be nimble; the environment we face is more like sitting in the ocean waiting to ride the ever-changing waves than it is striding down a concrete road.  Increasingly, in these chaotic times, changes are unpredictable.  There are changing tides, swells, weather, and the resulting waves.  You’d rather ride them than be tossed by them, but what do you do?  When it comes to waves, how do surfers cope, and what are the implications?

Beginning surfers typically have a board, a solution for riding waves.  And that’s ok, because there’re a limited number of wave conditions they should go out in.  Sometimes they get a good board for general small wave conditions, but sometimes for a variety of mistaken reasons they get something like a gun.  A gun is a board specifically for big fast waves.  It’s a board if you’re surfing on the North Shore of Oahu in winter. Not for beginners.

More experienced surfers start accumulating a quiver of boards for different conditions. Short boards, long boards, and a gun, etc.  Depending on their budget, storage space, and commitment to surfing, they could have two to as many as 8.  The pros have quivers in the teens, but they get them free and on-demand.  They’ll check the conditions, and then choose the appropriate board.

The analogy is that when you’re moving from just beginning to being able to adapt to a changing environment, you  need to have a suite of tools that provide the flexibility you need.  There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, just as there isn’t the perfect board.  There are boards that suit a wide variety of conditions, and if you’re small, cash-strapped, or whatever you may have to make do with one tool with most of the necessary capabilities, but when you’re serious, you need industrial-strength tools.

With my TogetherLearn colleagues, we’ve been evaluating tools for a while, and we’re not happy with any one. Consequently, we’ve a quiver of tools we use for different purposes, and we’re continually scanning for one that feature either better integration, or a more elegant delivery of capabilities.

There’s more, of course.  Experienced surfers sit and watch the waves for a while, choose a board, and then when they’re out they’re scanning the horizon for swells, and moving to get optimal position.  Once they’re riding, they’re watching how the wave changes and making spontaneous decisions.  Sometimes they come in and pick a different board before going back out.

And that’s before you figure out how to choose tools that suit your organization, proactively adapt your culture, and align with your business goals.  Surfers who want to get better get out in the water more, get more experience, and experiment.  Surfers who want to get better quickly get coaching.

I reckon the business environment is going to get more turbulent, and organizations are going to have to be more flexible, more nimble, be able to adapt and move faster.  That requires faster and more effective problem-solving.  We know that innovation isn’t the product of one person, but of collaboration and ongoing work, by people who are motivated and supported.  You need the right culture and the right infrastructure  to support that collaboration.  What’s your strategy?

12 January 2009

eLearn Mag predictions

Clark @ 4:02 PM

eLearning Magazine’s 2009 predictions are now up, including those of yours truly.  It’s a fascinating look of optimism, pessimism, and viewpoints from a lot of different perspectives.  It’s also an impressive array of thinkers (myself excluded), many are folks I follow through blogs and/or tweets.  It’s a thought-provoking list and I recommend give it a look.

By my (informal) count, one of the major predictions is the rise of social networking. I think that’s a no brainer, as I’ve been going off on this quite a bit recently.  The reasons mimic what you might think: big benefits, but also because it’s low cost.  It’s also strategic: covering more of learners’ needs.  The economic climate is definitely a factor in many of the comments.

Consequently another common theme is an increase in online learning, as a cost effective method, although there is some differences of opinion on whether the quality will rise or fall.  Certainly we have more powerful tools, but I continue to be amazed at how little of good design seems to be known.

The predictions go off in more directions from there.  Some are focused on the cloud, some on open learning and open software.  There are recommendations as well, such as governments would do well to sponsor more elearning, and that universities need to focus more on what’s important.  There is also a heartening focus beyond corporate and higher ed, focusing into the developing world.

There are only a few comments on mobile, interestingly, and a few on the semantic web.  Which isn’t surprising, really, as they’re still a bit out of the mainstream, and in tough times the fringes tend to get neglected.  (Speaking of mobile, BTW, the Palm Pre’ is truly exciting if only for seeming to get almost everything right.)

Whether or not any of the predictions come to pass, it’s a broad view of what could be, and particularly the optimistic views provide some insight into what’s coming sooner or later.  It’s some great thinking, and we all can use that as a spark from time to time. Check it out!

6 January 2009

learning inside ™?

Clark @ 12:08 PM

I was just reading the posts on the MacWorld Keynote by Phil Shiller, and saw some interesting themes in comments: empowering users, and learning as a key selling item.  These are certainly worth expl0ring.

On the TUAW coverage, they made the comment “Y’know, it seems like iMovie and iPhoto are now designed to repair human failings.”  They were referring to how iMovie could remove any handheld jitters in your movies, and how iPhoto could do some autotagging both geographically and based upon face recognition.  That really struck me as a fantastic product advantage: it makes you better.  It doesn’t improve your skillset, but it allows you to create better outcomes: it’s performance support.

Which is a different solution, but one that is often a more apt one than providing a training course.  People sometimes want to learn how to do it themselves, and other times they are just as happy to have a smart system partner with them to reduce their cognitive load and still produce superior results.  Hence the ‘performance focus’ stage in my strategic approach. It’s part of an overall approach, and also of a performance ecosystem.  I hope it’s in your repertoire.

The other interesting announcement came from their music application: GarageBand.  In it, they now have tutorials on guitar and keyboards; introductory videos built in to teach you instrument basics.  In addition to being able to edit music tracks to create songs, you can learn how to play two versatile instruments.  (For a fee, you can go on and get popular stars to teach you about one of their favorite songs.).  As one of the commenters noted on the iPhone Blog livecast: “Garage Band Instructor beats Guitar Hero”.  And my lad has become an avid Guitar Hero player since he got it for Christmas, yet this may grab his attention.

The deeper meaning harkens back to something I’ve talked about before, the Transformation Economy.  Beyond wanting to have ‘experiences’, we can have experiences that transform us (in ways we value).  Now, I can’t say how compelling the experience with these tutorials will be (yet; I am strongly compelled to get the upgrade); despite Apple’s typically superior comprehension of user experience, there’s no reason to believe they get interactive learning experience yet (e.g they didn’t consult me :).

It’s a real opportunity, however, to have the new “intel inside ™” be “learning inside ™“.  Wouldn’t that be cool?  Too many products in my experience decouple learning, and consequently risk consumer dissatisfaction.  But a second step up from learning the product is learning new skills in the environment.

Sure, there were some other thrills for me: an iPhone app that allows you to control your Keynote preso (unfortunately, only by WiFi apparently), and having outlines in Pages (I write in outlines). I reckon I’ll be forking over for upgrades.  But the big ones were those performance support features, and the learning built into a consumer app.  I think the former is an interesting perspective on consumer value, and the latter could be a major market shift.  What do you think?

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