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

31 May 2009

Facing the new learning era

Clark @ 7:08 AM

Yesterday I ran my learning technology strategy workshop as a preconference event at ASTD’s International Conference.  I had a crowd of about 16 people who represented a range of experience and responsibilities.  The organizations ranged from academic to industry to information and communication companies.  Some were just starting with elearning, and others had quite a bit under their belt.

elearningvaluenet.jpgWhen I went around the room asking what people were hoping to get out of the day, a lot of mentions of LMS and elearning made me realize that the title of “elearning strategy” had perhaps misled people into thinking this was just about courses online, whereas I was going quite a ways further through my performance ecosystem.  I took some time to explain that my vision of learning was far beyond courses, and included problem-solving, innovation, and more.

I did try to spend more time on eLearning and advanced ID than I’d originally intended, but still felt the rest were things they needed to get their minds areound.  As we got beyond the performance focus stage (after Improved ID and eLearning), it became clear we were in pretty much uncharted territory for most.  I continued on, defining each element, giving examples, and working through the costs and benefits. The attendees, perhaps loosened up by my goofy humor (no situation so bad that a bad pun can’t make it worse), were very good about asking questions and challenging me (I like that, either they or I learn something), to make sure a shared understanding developed.

While it was a lot of ‘me talking’, I did have them self-assess where they were (as one later said, he got tired of saying “no” so often) and broke down the steps into action items they could choose to pull into a plan and prioritize.

The outcome was maybe even better than I’d hoped.  As I asked for what folks might have planned for going back, the first three who shared were completely divergent. One was going to focus on performance support, one was going to review their elearning templates, and one was going to take a stab at social media.  This was just what I had hoped, that they’d take where they were and this broader perspective on what the learning function could be, and find the right next step for themselves.

I also loved reading the evaluation sheets afterwards (careful to not know who said what).  I was thrilled to see folks saying (paraphrasing a repeated sentiment): “I’m in awe of how much there is to think about, but really excited about the potential and opportunity to really have an impact”.  They really felt it was valuable, and that’s always what I hope to achieve.  There’s surely room for improvement, and extending it to put in some activities would be an option, but as it is I couldn’t be happier.

28 May 2009

Designing on demand

Clark @ 4:40 PM

Yesterday I had the pleasure of working with a team on a grant to use games as a context to conduct high stakes cognitive assessments.  The cognitive tasks for assessment are remarkably abstract, e.g do this particular discrimination task (ie look at a string of four characters and signal if one is a vowel), sometimes while monitoring another situation or as an attention-distractor from another task, but the tasks that they are matched to range from very expensive to life-saving..  The goal is to establish a baseline, and then look for decrements at particular instances before a crucial task, indicating lack of readiness.

The interesting thing is the challenge of placing these tasks in a meaningful context.  It’s creative, and consequently fun.  It’s also collaborative, and when you get divergent contributors in a safe environment, you can really get productive synergy going.  We got together the night before for a meal and some social lubricants, and the next day spent hours in a conference room discussing, whiteboarding and generally designing.

One of the problems is that there have been diverse project specifications from the granting organization, and lack of access to the intended audience. We had some feedback that there should be minimal ‘story’, and very clearly that if the audience doesn’t perceive value, they can ignore the activity completely.  Also, there were some important constraints on how much we could change the core task without invalidating the deep research base.  Fortunately, a background in cog psych as well as having the minds behind the tests with us allowed a reasonable guess.  Still, a bit of a challenge.

We focused in early on the value, and I brought up that if the cognitive activity produces improvements in ability, that it’s training as well as assessment, and the audience cares very much about being able to do the job.  That hadn’t been determined to date, but may be available.  We also talked about marketing the value, and if the assessment can in this case (as it has in the past) serve as a very accurate predictor of performance (e.g. detecting a decrement in performance without prior knowledge), that may provide the necessary motivation.

When it comes to design, I’ve made a claim before that you can’t give me an objective I can’t design a game for (I reserve the right to raise the objective ‘high’ enough, but have yet to be proved wrong; it’s an outcome of the engaging learning framework), and this isn’t an exception. In fact, we came up with numerous possible settings, originally for what we were told of the mission, and then for a more near-term mission.  We also came up with relative degrees of abstraction from real (e.g. closely aligned to real task) to essentially arbitrary (like Tetris has little correlation to real time).  The fact of the matter is, you can embed meaningful tasks in appropriate contexts, and tune into a game no matter what the objective is.  It just takes systematic creativity (not an oxymoron), as in the heuristics I’ve talked about previously in two spots.

Since we don’t yet have access to the audience (though we know who they are), I suggested that we need to mock up several different plausible looks and trial them when they do get access (they’re working on that).  They had talked to some stakeholders, but that’s not reliable, for reasons I related to them.  In the process of designing the Quest game, we talked to the counselors who worked with these ‘at risk’ youth, who suggested this issue was smart shopping and cooking.  Fortunately, we then got to talk to some of the youth themselves, who responded “yeah, that’s important, but what’s really important is…” and proceeded to give us a set of relationships that then became key to the game.  Lesson: don’t just listen to the managers, or just the trainers, or just…all those are important, but they may not be right.

It was easy to consider a number of degrees of story ‘depth’, and visual styles to go with each.  At least, they’re in my head, but I went out and grabbed screenshots of various things that could serve as models.  You want the game mechanics to reflect the cognitive task, but you can wrap a number of different looks round that. We’ll pull together our notes, get some storyboards generated, but we managed to sketch out five separate games for what evidence suggests are likely to be the most important skills.

And that’s the real lesson, that it can be done, reliably and repeatedly.  And that’s important, because if you can’t, then it’s all well and good to talk about the value of games as learning environments, but it’s a waste of time if you don’t have an associated design process.  Fortunately, I can still comfortably say: “learning can, and should, be hard fun“.

22 May 2009


Clark @ 12:11 PM

Several things got up my nose yesterday (and I don’t mean literally :).  I listened in on the Corporate Learning Trends event in the morning, and in the evening participated in #lrnchat.  Don’t get me wrong, both events were great: great presentations organized by Tony Karrer, with examples coordinated by Judy Brown on mobile, Bob Mosher on performance support, Karl Kapp on games & simulations, and Tony on asynchronous elearning (all folks I know and respect); and a great lrnchat session as always with Marcia Conner coordinating fantastic participation by a whole host of great folks.  It’s just that several continuing beliefs surfaced that we’ve really got to address.

The first one was the notion that games and simulations are about tarted up quiz shows.  Let me be clear, these are a last resort!  When you’ve addressed the important decisions, and there’s still some knowledge that absolutely has to be memorized, not looked up, they’re ok.  But they’re not your starting point!  Games should be first thought of as your best practice environment for skills, not knowledge recitation.  What’s going to make a difference in learner (and organizational) performance is not rote knowledge, but meaningful decisions.  That is where games shine.

Ok, as Treena Grevatt pointed out, these ‘frame games’ may serve as the easiest entry point for organizational acceptance, but only if you ‘get it’ really, and are only using them as an entry point to do meaningful stuff.  Otherwise, it’s still lipstick on a pig.

The problem is, we already have a problem with our formal learning being too knowledge focused, and not skill focused, and a tool to make drill and kill easy isn’t going to help us remedy the problem.  So, please: first get that games are really deeply contextualized, immersive, challenging skill practice.  Then, when your analysis has addressed that and there still are knowledge components, bring in the quiz show games.  If you ‘get’ that, then you might use a stealth policy, but only then.

The second problem had to do with mobile learning.  There were still notions that mobile learning could be about courses on a phone  and that there’s not really an audience.  Look, depending on what metrics you pay attention to, the mobile workforce can be anywhere from 20-40% of your workforce.  Sales reps, telecommuters, field engineers, execs, the list goes on. And that doesn’t even tap into the folks who want access for convenience!

And it’s not about courses.  It has been, and can be done, but that’s not the real win.  As an adjunct to a course, absolutely.  Reactivate knowledge (developing learners), update it with podcasts (Chris von Koschembahr had a nice way to interview yourself, controlling the outcome :), review stories, solve problems, review with mentors, etc.

The real win, however (as Judy and Bob both pointed out), is performance support. This can include references, job aids, how to videos, connections to experts, and more.  This is huge, yet people don’t seem to be seeing this opportunity yet.

Mobile is ready for primetime. There are ways to deal with screen sizes, security, and cross-platform differences.  Next to social learning, I reckon it’s the greatest missed opportunity going.

Speaking of performance support, I do have to admit how surprised I was that people were thinking that single sourcing content to populate help systems, manuals, and training was a new idea.  This really isn’t a misconception, it’s just surprising.  I led a project developing such an approach years ago now, and it’s another big opportunity.  Still ahead of the curve, though, more so than the other two.

The point being, the more you tie these together, the greater the synergy: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And having been out saying these things for years, it continues to surprise me that the meme hasn’t propagated any further than it has.  And that’s my learning, that changing minds is a tough job.  But still an important one.  Evangelism, anyone?

20 May 2009

Mapping the learning space

Clark @ 2:14 PM

In trialing a mind-mapping tool on my iPhone, I started mapping the ‘performance ecosystem’ space. I carried it over to my desktop tool (not literally, the free version doesn’t seem to export), and started elaborating.  I got to this point, and think it’s not too bad a top-level cut, with the caveats that a) each of those nodes unpacks even further, let alone each leaf, and b) that I haven’t even tried to capture the cross links, e.g. between performance support and mobile, between mobile and content model, etc.


Here’s the same as an outline (ok, Stephen? :):

Learning Architecture
❑    Performance Support
▼❑    Job Aids
•    ❑    Information Design
▼❑    Portals
•    ❑    Information Architecture
▼❑    Interactives
•    ❑    EPSS

❑    Formal
▼❑    Delivery
•    ❑    F2F
•    ❑    Synch
•    ❑    Asynch
▼❑    Deeper ID
•    ❑    Emotional
•    ❑    Cognitive

❑    Social Learning
▼❑    Identify
•    ❑    Profile
▼❑    Chat
•    ❑    Microblog
•    ❑    IM
▼❑    Journal
•    ❑    Blog
▼❑    Discuss
•    ❑    Forums
▼❑    Collab
•    ❑    Wikis

❑    Integrated Architecture
▼❑    Content Model
•    ❑    Semantics
▼❑    Governance
•    ❑    Lifecycle
▼❑    Systems
•    ❑    KM
•    ❑    LMS
•    ❑    CMS

❑    Mobile
▼❑    Access
▼❑    Designed
▼❑    Contextualized

❑    Concepts
▼❑    Culture
•    ❑    Leadership
•    ❑    Processes & Policies
•    ❑    Supportive Environment
▼❑    Expertise
•    ❑    Levels
•    ❑    Development
▼❑    Meta-learning
•    ❑    Skills
•    ❑    Awareness

Definitely a ‘learning out loud’ work-in-progress.  Feedback welcome!

19 May 2009

Developing Learners

Clark @ 1:47 PM

Charles Jennings makes a brilliant observation about how Learning & Development folks are taking the wrong path in his post: When the Game’s Up. He points out that L&D practitioners are focused on Instructor Led Training, and:

ILT may be helpful for some change management and big-picture ‘concept’ development, but it is demonstrably the least effective and certainly the least efficient approach for most learning that’s required.

In short, we’re just not doing what we need to be doing.  I was revisting my previous thoughts on slow learning and distributed learning, and I realize we’re missing a major perspective.  We seem to have two extremes on the continuum: the ‘event’ or informal learning.  There’s more.

I had a tour of Q2Learning‘s environment today, courtesy of John Darling, and while I’m not conducting a thorough point by point evaluation, one element struck me as relevant.  Their platform’s ‘DNA’ came from social learnng, but their formal model (client driven) is based upon proficiency, and if not mandating, certainly enables what they call a ‘proficiency’ approach.

mixedassessmentlearningmapWhat I like about it is it takes a longer term view of skills. The sample he showed (and of course I realize it’s presented in the best light) was a learning map for a course, but with lots of components spread out over time (sample map shown).  There’s a priori assessment, content, activities with managers, etc.; a mix of activity, practice, reflection, just the sort of model we should be designing.  We know spaced practice matters, with reactivation, reflection, etc. It’s also valuable to go  back to the workplace, and then check-in later to see how things are going.  It’s a fuller picture of what learning’s about.

John mentioned some need formal features, such as the ability to assign journals as an activity, and similarly assign posting to a discussion board and then commenting on other posts (and tracking this!).  Given that these were two of three activities I used in my own online course (and mentioned here), I asked about the third activity: assigning group work (e.g. collaborating through a wiki) and handling the submission.  It wasn’t there, but could be added as another of their templates of ‘activities’.

The important thing, to me, is the point that a system to support formal learning should be able to link together and track a sequence of activities that develop a person over time, not just through an ‘event’ perspective.  Integrating the same social tools from the informal side also provides hope that there can be an elegant segue from the formal to the informal.

We agreed that one of the problems on the informal side is assuming that people are skilled at self-learning (or even group learning, I’ll add), and that we shouldn’t take it for granted.

All told, I think it’s an important different perspective on learning to think about developing people along a continuum, not a ‘spray and pray’ approach to learning.  Now, to only get the L&D function to start looking beyond their zone of comfort, and into the area of relevance.  Otherwise, we’d be better off, as Charles suggests, taking the training money and letting them spend it at the pub, at least reducing their stress and developing some morale!

13 May 2009

Where’s the money?

Clark @ 8:20 AM

I had lunch with John Darling of Q2Learning today.  They’ve got an interesting positioning, going beyond just learning events to a learning experience with a stated goal of achieving proficiency.  I’d known him from before through the eLearning Forum, but we’d never really sat down and talked.  We’d gotten connected via TogetherLearn, and naturally our conversation ranged around formalizing informal learning.

We were talking about a conversation he had with a CFO, where the CFO estimated about 3% of their budget was going to training, and admitted that they needed 20-25% improvement in their ability.  Obviously, there are issues of whether traditional training could have that big an impact, but clearly there’s a mismatch.

Now, I believe that learning is more than skilling up to some minimal baseline.  I believe it encompasses the information access to support performance, mentoring from the top end of novice through practitioner, and communication and collaboration that supports problem-solving and innovation.  And the associated skills.  Not only do novel inquiries and problems get dealt with, but new products, services, customer experiences, and more are the outcome of the full performance ecosystem.

There are two obvious questions here: where would an organization get 20-25% performance improvement?  Not just from training, I’ll wager.  You need to create a more coherent learnscape, where people are continually moving to the center of their communities of practice, where more people are effective learners, self-learners, and together-learners, where the cultural values and learning skills are as explicit as the organizational goals and individual roles.  I’d suggest that you’ll get more from wrapping structure around informal than investing purely in formal!  (Which is not to say that formal isn’t needed, though if it’s no better than most of the training that’s out there, it may as well not be done…)

The other question is: where’s the money?  I want to suggest that when it gets into problem-solving, innovation, etc, it goes beyond a training budget to operations and R&D.  R&D will undoubtedly have some infrastructure costs, but I’ll suggest that the innovation and problem-solving skills that are supported across the organization will have a substantial impact on R&D outcomes as well as more operational metrics.  Similarly, operations has some ancillary costs, but support costs should be minimized by  both empowering staff to augment their resources and sharing their learnings. For that matter, marketing gets into the picture when you consider bringing customers into the learning equation (they will self-help if they can with a reasonable amount of effort!).

My point is that we’re thinking about organizational learning wrong, and consequently we’re thinking wrong about outcomes and budgets wrong as well.  Training departments are often encouraged to be strategic. What I want to suggest is strategic, at the organizational level, is thinking of learning as a continuum from formal to exploration, and recognizing that it is an increasing contribution to organizational success.

In short, we don’t deserve a budget if we’re not contributing to real outcomes, and the outcomes that matter are going to shift from mere ability to excellence, from following the procedure to solving problems, from product life-cycles to customized solutions.

So get strategic, and start thinking about systemic support for ‘learning’.  You’ll get the budget you deserve, so deserve a meaningful budget!

12 May 2009

Visualizing the Change

Clark @ 7:15 AM

Over at the TogetherLearn blog, I’ve posted an article about another way to think about the benefits of social learning.  I’ve been concerned that the talk about chaos and emergent practice may seem too ephemeral to hard-nosed business decision makers, so I tried to make the goal concrete, or at least visual.

Then, of course, the important thing is the path to get there.  Check it out!

11 May 2009

Teachers, read this book!

Clark @ 1:53 PM

I’ve been reading a few books about schools, since my lad’s made the transition from elementary to middle school and it’s been a bit of a battle.  When he’s being set assignments like coloring in a poster on math facts, I’m a wee bit concerned.  John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down was a wakeup call (he won NY teacher of the year for a couple of years, and insightfully (and incitefully) criticizes our current school system.  So, when I noticed that Daniel Willingham (who’ve I talked about before) had a book out, I checked it out.

His Why Don’t Students Like School sounded like another tirade against schools, but it’s more positive than that. The subtitle tells you more: “A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for your classroom”.  It follows a format of:

  • question related to successful learning through teaching
  • the cogntive science research that underpins this question
  • specific recommendations for improving teaching

Fortunately, I could just skim the second part, which is the meat of the book, courtesy of my own PhD in cognitive science, and it was review.  But what really struck home was how he (as reviewers repeatedly point out) uses “clear and compelling language” to help the audience really understand what’s important.  He’s got great examples, and makes a large chunk of cognitive research comprehensible.  Which is not to say it’s a light read, but it’s accessible and clear.

More importantly, the third part of each chapter, his conclusions, are very concrete and actionable. If teachers followed these guidelines, they’d have happier learners and better learning outcomes.  What more do you want?  (Ok, well, curriculum reform, but this is aimed at teachers.)

He covers a lot of ground.  In nine chapters (this isn’t a long book, just deep and relevant), he covers motivation, learning styles, cognitive skills, and more. He answers the core questions and the ancillary questions that emerge. And, no, I don’t agree with him on quite all of it (e.g. on making content meaningful, he’s concerned that too familiar or interesting tasks may overwhelm the intrinsic lesson), but I suspect we’d find if we sat down that we’re agreeing furiously.

I have to say that if all my children’s teachers read this book, their schooling would be a lot better.  If all our children’s teachers read this book, schools would be a lot better.  So, if you’re a teacher, read this book.  If you work with teachers, know teachers, or influence teachers, get them to read this book.  And if you  design learning experiences, even if you don’t actually teach, you should read this book.

Cognitive science research oriented towards making better learning, in a digestable form.  It doesn’t get much better than this.  I have no higher praise for a book than “I wish I’d written it”, and I do.  Highly recommended.

8 May 2009

Systems-Thinking, Models, & Chaos

Clark @ 4:28 PM

In a conversation I had yesterday, we were talking about how not enough people were using systems-thinking. I realize schools don’t prepare for it sufficiently, but it also made me think about why it’s so necessary.

Cynefin_frameworkGetting back to my riff on chaos, if things are getting more random, as such would predict (e.g. in the complex or chaotic quadrants of the Cynefin model), our existing processes are less likely to work.  Off-the-shelf solutions won’t cut it, and you’ll need to be looking for matching patterns that will give you some guidance about how to act.  However, the relevant models may come from unexpected places.  That’s been the source of much innovation, and a motivation for me in my model collecting and generating.

It comes back to reasoning, and one of the most powerful tools we have is analogical reasoning.That’s a model that taps into our cognitive architecture’s orientation towards pattern-matching, and helping pull up a good match.  My Ph.D. was focused on improving analogical reasoning because of the power such reasoning has.

Which is the reason I continue to believe in the power of models.  These are frameworks and tools with analytical power that help explain and predict the world.  (Increasingly, I’m realizing the power of visual representations of such models as well.)

I believe that an experimental attitude and a rich suite of models are the tools that will prevail in the future, comprehending the problem and looking for matching models to see whether they can help, when things are new.  This is the stuff of innovation: it’s blue ocean strategy, it’s when you’re moving into new areas or taking on new responsibilities, it’s the cynefin framework itself.

Some things in the learning field are reasonably well understood (if not widely distributed nor well practiced) such as ID and information architecture.  Others are still emergent: certainly for social media, we’re seeing that it takes time and the advantages of some prior experience; mobile is still emergent; and content models are a new area as well.  The point being, I think that developing a capability for flexible problem-solving is a necessity going forward, and it may take that flexible problem-solving to get there!

6 May 2009

Networked organizations

Clark @ 4:46 PM

Last night I went to hear Ross Dawson speak on the Future of the Enterprise.  His points resonated with a lot of what I and my TogetherLearn colleagues have been saying about the changes we’re seeing.  I really do think that some changes are in the air.

chaosfractalRoss reiterated the notion that the current context is a state of increasing change.  Things are moving faster, and the chaotic reality underpinning our existence is being brought into highlight more and more.  He talked about how commoditization is a driving economic factor, the fact that others can reproduce what you create quickly, so there’s incredible pressure to have to build more on top.  I afterward asked him and he supported my contention that optimal execution is only the price of entry, and that continual innovation and delivering a seamless customer experience will be the differentiator.

He asked a series of five questions at the end, and one was how we got people to participate.  Verna Allee suggested leadership would be even more critical. Another attendee thought that companies would have to offer compelling experiences for employees as well.  I do think that helping individuals comprehend the vision, letting them figure out how to achieve the necessary goal, and creating an empowering environment are critical.

Another question had to do with how organizations would be structured going forward.  Ross made a clever reference to how the word ‘corporation’ comes from corpus, or body, and that organizations now were much more a distributed enterprise: networks of employees, suppliers, clients, partners, contractors, etc.  “The organization is just a persistent network.”

A point made was that all that matters are relationships and knowledge, particularly when manufacturing can be ‘on demand’, and that mass participation creates value. If the organization is a network, and all these participants generate the value, organizations have to support networking for knowledge work, getting contributions from empowered learners.  To cope in this age of increasing disruptive influences, it’s critical.

It’s time for organizations to get serious about providing infrastructure that supports workers networking, communicating, collaborating, problem-solving, innovating, learning.  Coupled with a supportive culture and clear vision, it’s the wave of the future.  Ross thought that in five years time, the new organizational imperatives would be clear.  That doesn’t give you a lot of time to get moving, and you really ought to begin last week if you want to be a leader, not a late adopter.

Get moving, or get help!

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