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

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!


  1. This is, IMHO, a very important observation, one that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the last few months. It’s useful when there is not consensus among researchers. . .flourishing of ideas, etc. . . .but when there *is* consensus, ought there not to be some way that that consensus is communicated to those who use/implement the research? To continue with your example Clark, how did “brain based learning” gain such traction in education while going FAR beyond what the basic researchers would claim for their field? This is, to me, a systemic problem worthy of very serious thought.

    Comment by Dan Willingham — 22 January 2009 @ 4:44 PM

  2. I think that is the way of bureaucracy-driven institutions (whether public or private) – they take a long time to be convinced of a concept, and once one finally catches on it gets reduced to a catchphrase that gets bandied about until it loses all meaning. Mostly, I think, because such institutions can’t figure out how to actually implement the original meeting.

    Comment by Breanna Hite — 22 January 2009 @ 8:17 PM

  3. When most people look at a finished product — a self-paced course, a serious game, a well-designed job aid — they see the surface. It’s much harder to see the analysis that went into that finished product. (I grew up in Detroit, where they knew a lot about the value of sheet metal.)

    It’s not really stupidity at work, but it’s often oversimplification, I think. Okay, XYZ was a good (effective) learning experience, so things that look like XYZ will be — meaning, they’ll have sound, slick graphics, and they’ll use my name to personalize.

    “Brain-based learning” just plain sounds good, at least until you ask yourself what alternative forms of learning there are (muscle memory, maybe). It’s too long and complex a chain for most people to keep in mind, so it gets collapsed. I’m afraid “brain based learning,” like learning styles and that simpleminded nonsense about remembering 10% of what you read, will be around for ages.

    Comment by Dave Ferguson — 23 January 2009 @ 4:05 AM

  4. er, make that “terms”…

    Comment by Jane Bozarth — 23 January 2009 @ 4:24 AM

  5. Wow, some very intriguing and serious comments.
    Dan, the difference is between researchers/colleagues, and marketers. I think educators are hungry for eye-opening frameworks, and unfortunately not sufficiently discriminating.
    Breanna, I think, hits on some of it. They are an easily communicated meme (sound bite logo, clear proposition), even it if it’s flawed. It’s better than what they’ve had, and no one’s connected the dots for them, they’ve no foundation or context to evaluate. It sounds important!
    And, frankly, some folks will overhype to get attention and/or rewards.

    Comment by Clark — 23 January 2009 @ 8:09 AM

  6. In a competitive market, companies have to sound like they know what they’re talking about. So what do they do? They go out and check what everyone else is saying and then make sure they’re saying it too. And thus, a buzzword is born.

    Comment by Cammy Bean — 23 January 2009 @ 8:30 AM

  7. Jane, ok, ok (pedant :).
    Cammy, yep, say it even if they don’t comprehend it. Sigh.

    Comment by Clark — 23 January 2009 @ 8:38 AM

  8. Well, it’s conference season – need to get a few bingo cards together and start playing for real!

    Comment by Dan R — 23 January 2009 @ 8:57 AM

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