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

30 October 2009

Extremophiles & Organizational Agility

Clark @ 11:29 AM

CreatingLearningCultureWebA number of years ago, I co-wrote a chapter with Eileen Clegg called The Agility Factor, that appeared in Marcia Conner & James Clawson’s excellent collection of organizational culture articles in the book Creating a Learning Culture. The focus of the book was on empowering organizations to be nimble in a context of increasing change.

Eileen’s husband is a marine scientist studying deep sea vents and the creatures that live there.  In biology, organisms that can live in such extreme heat, or in bitter cold, or extreme salinity, etc., are known as extremophiles.  They have a number of mechanisms that allow them to succeed, including stronger ionic bonds, sensing and reacting to changes in the environment, special proteins for extreme circumstances, inoculation mechanisms to cope with toxins, and special partnerships.

In the chapter, we talked about organizational equivalents to these extremophile mechanisms, including tolerating diversity, monitoring the environment, extreme mentoring, and more.  We’re talking about it tonite at a special event, and I reread the article to see what we said then and to reflect on it in light of the subsequent years of experience.  I saw several ways in which to augment the thinking we had then.

In thinking about ionic bonds, it’s not only about the diversity (polarity) adding strength, but it strikes me that it’s also about alignment.  Diversity is particularly valuable when the different abilities and experiences are pulling in the same direction.  It’s important to share and inspire a belief in what the vision is.

On the topic of sensing the environment, I’m reminded of the result from the CLO survey Jay Cross and I did to accompany our Chief Meta-Learning Officer article, where 60% of those who responded thought that their people weren’t talking about talk about the outside trends that shape their business.  If people aren’t aware, they can’t adapt!  There must be support for individuals to not only self-improve, but to be connected the broader trends in their fields and the organization’s area of endeavor.

Starting from the heat-shock proteins that kick in when things are extreme, I’m mindful of how we need a shift from information presentation or skill-creation to learning facilitation and mentoring.  Organizations can’t provide everything employees need anymore, but they can provide support for developing skills for learning, and coping. I’m reminded of how Outward Bound got started, where older mariners were surviving situations that younger, presumably healthier ones weren’t.  Which reinforces the call for more ubiquitous mentoring that we argued for back then.

The inoculation approach to toxins sparks two thoughts.  One, while we need to tolerate diversity in experience and skills, I suspect we can’t tolerate those who do not buy into the vision and the mission.  In my own experience, I’ve seen how the naysayers can undermine organizational effectiveness.  Yet incorporating new approaches can be extraordinarily valuable. As I’ve argued before, the approach to take is not to try to appropriate so-called best practices, but instead to understand and contextualize best principles.

And finally, in thinking about symbiosis, one of the revelations has been to see the benefits organizations have found by increasing their dialog not only internally, but externally with partners and customers.  The advantages of more transparency and communication, if coupled with a sincere desire to truly listen and respond, are considerable.

It’s always a revelation to re-read something written several years ago and reflect on your thinking then.  I’m always amazed (and, mostly, pleased) with what I find.  Organizations need to reinforce their culture and learning mechanisms to make themselves more agile and more resilient, and that adaptation is possible on principled grounds.

Presenting in a networked age

Clark @ 7:01 AM

The Learning Circuit’s Big Question this month has to do with the increasing prevalence of internet access during presentations.  The context is that during presentations it’s certainly possible that your audience is multi-tasking, and the question is; what are the implications?  In live presentations, the increasing prevalence of wi-fi or phone data means laptops and/or smartphones can be online, and in virtual ones there’s typically a number of other applications available at the same time.

The audience can be doing things related to the presentation, like live-blogging it, tweeting it, or taking notes (I’ve been known to mindmap a keynote a time or two).  They could even be looking up words or phrases mentioned by the speaker, or the speaker’s bio, or related material.  Alternatively, they can be doing other things, like checking email, surfing the web, or other, unrelated, activities.  Particularly in online presentations, there could  actually be live chatting going on in a side-channel.

Are these activities valuable to the listener? Are they valuable to the presenter?  Certainly, note taking is (though it doesn’t take connectivity).  There’re results on this, particularly if you’re re-representing the material in different ways (mind maps, or paraphrasing).  Blogging is, effectively, note-taking so should be valuable too, and tweeting may also be valuable (any studies?  Research topic!).  Certainly looking up things you don’t know so you process the rest of the material could also be valuable if it doesn’t take too long.  And the reprocessing and seeing others’ thoughts from chat could be valuable.  Even playing solitaire can be an advantage to listening, if you’re taking up some extra cognitive cycles that might otherwise lead you off into related thoughts but away from the presentation (likely only true if it’s just audio).

On the other hand, it might also add an intrusive overhead. Multi-tasking has been shown to provide a performance decrement.  Related activities help, but unrelated activities will hinder the ability to process. It may be that you can get so caught up in the chat, or the search to comprehend a term, that you lose the thread of the discussion.  And if it’s complex, the cognitive overhead might prevent you from actually being unable to make the necessary links.  Certainly the tasks that aren’t content related are an intrusion.

So what’s to do?  There are possible actions on both the part of the presenter/organizer, and on the part of the audience. For the audience, it’s got to be a personal responsibility to know how you learn best, and take appropriate steps. If note-taking helps you focus and elaborate, do so.  If tweeting, blogging, or mind-mapping does so, rock on.  If you really need to focus: put away the laptop and phone and focus!  It’s for your benefit!  Really, the same is for students.  Now, individuals may not be as self-aware as we may desire, but that’s a separate topic that needs to be taken care of in the appropriate context.

For the presenters or organizers, as the most onerous step they could prevent wi-fi access.  However, increasingly others are benefitting from the tweets from conferences and the blogging as well.  I think that’s overly draconian, an implicit sign of distrust.  If the presentation doesn’t match the audience interests, they should be able to vote with their feet or their minds.  As I told a medical school faculty years ago, you can’t force them to attend, taking away the internet might make them resort to doodling or daydreaming but while you can lead a learner to learning you can’t make them think.  It’s up to the presenter to present relevant material in an engaging manner.

As a presenter, you can actually use these channels to your advantage.  As a webinar presenter, I like having a live chat tool.  I monitor it, and use it to ask questions. In the last presentation I gave, it was awkward when a moderator had to read me the questions from the audience, and I couldn’t ask a general question an just survey the stream.   I realize it’s difficult to both present and monitor a chat stream, and not all presenters can do it, so having a moderator can be a benefit. But stifling that flow of discussion could be a bane to those who learn better that way.

I haven’t had a tweet stream monitor in a live presentation yet, and it could be harder to pay attention to it, so again a moderator could help.  In smaller sessions you can have interaction with the audience, but in larger presentations, it might take someone to follow it and summarize, though having a monitor that the presenter could see easily could also work.

However, it seems to me that you can’t force people to pay attention with or without technology, providing a rich suite of ways for people to process the information is valuable, and it can be a valuable source of feedback during the presentation.

Which leads to the new skills: for audiences, to know how you best process presentations and take responsibility for getting the most out of it; for presenters to improve their presentation skills to ensure value to the audience and support richer forms of interaction with the audiences; for moderators to track and summarize audience feedback in various forms; and for organizers to support these new channels.

There’s no point in trying to stifle technology affordances, the real key is to take advantage of them. If we have to learn, adjust, and accommodate, it’d be awful boring otherwise!  :)

29 October 2009

Teacher preparation, and more

Clark @ 10:02 AM

Karl Kapp wrote a post about Bill Gates’ latest move via the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation.  In it, he notes the complexities that these announcements overlook.  Echoing his sentiments, I wrote a rather long comment that I decided to reproduce here (with some context in [square brackets]):

Karl, this article backs up the point about the problems of a one-dimensional focus for incentives [cf teacher bonuses for test scores].

I’d suggest, that, worse, test scores aren’t measuring the important skills (cf Jonassen on relation between school problems and real world needs, Downes and others on competencies vs knowledge, etc). [As I’ve also argued, knowledge isn’t enough, and competencies are the critical differentiator going forward.]

I’ve argued that our ‘man on the moon’ project should be an entire K12 curriculum online (which *would* be a set of common academic standards), but overall, I worry a bit when someone can wield this much influence based upon his wallet. Just because he knows how to flog software (triumph of marketing over matter), doesn’t qualify him as an educational expert, and here it may be politics trumps policy.

I agree with reform in Teacher Ed programs, but if it’s not coupled with other reforms, it still won’t work. [Like standards, administrative policies, and more]

It’s complex, and like so many situations there are solutions that are simple, obvious, compelling, but wrong. We need to go to the mat with this, not toss off homilies. Thanks for the pointers!

26 October 2009

Mobile Learning

Clark @ 8:01 AM

In addition to speaking on mobile design with David Metcal at the Mobile Learning Jam at DevLearn, and with Richard Clark on pragmatic mobile development, I’ve got a contract with Pfeiffer for a mobile learning book.  Yep, I’m writing another book.  Flat learning curve, eh?

Seriously, I’m excited about the opportunity, because I’ve been on the stump for mobile for years, and think the market is right for mobile to finally contribute to organizational performance like I’ve believed since I wrote an article on the topic back in 2001.  Consequently, I’m glad that Pfeiffer thinks the time is right for a practical book on the subject.

To make it a practical book, however, I need input. I hope to talk to some of the experts in the field, but I also want to hear from you. What do you think should be covered? What are your concerns?  What are your hot-button issues?  In short, what would be required to make the mlearning book for those of you charged with designing learning solutions?  I don’t want to write a book for the sake of writing a book, I want to provide a useful guide.  Please, let me know.  Comments here are welcome, or other forms of contact, are welcome as well.  Thanks!

25 October 2009

The Future of Organizational Learning event

Clark @ 2:57 PM

At the upcoming DevLearn conference, Jay Cross and I are holding a pre-conference workshop titled: Be the Future of Organizational Learning: Become a Chief Meta-Learning Officer. We already know we’ve got critical mass in terms of signups, so we’re excited about the possibilities, but we really want to do our best to ensure we  deliver a valuable experience.

clark-quinnBased on the principles from our CLO article on the topic, we’re intending to make it a real hands-on, wrestling with the issues, talking about specifics, and bolstering the discussion with data from close to 200 respondents to the survey that was associated with the article.  We want attendees to not only be informed, but empowered to go back to their organizations and make a meaningful impact.

Though we’ve ideas on what we think is important, we’d really like to hear what you’re expecting, are concerned with, would like to see, etc.

There’s a social networking site for DevLearn, and I’ve created a group for this session. I’d welcome you going there and beginning to talk up things like what you’re seeing, what you’re worried about, and what you’d like to get out of the session.  Of course, you’re welcome to comment here, too.

I’ll be speaking also on the topic in a concurrent session as well, on mobile design with David Metcalf in Judy Brown’s Mobile Learning Jam, and with Richard Clark on pragmatic mobile development, but those are topics for another post.

I’ve always found eLearning Guild events to be worthwhile, and given the lineup I think this one will be as good as ever.  Hope to see you in the workshop, or at least at the conference.

23 October 2009

Business Significance and Best Principles

Clark @ 8:44 AM

Businesses need research.  They may need it at the pure research level, whether following, sponsoring, or conducting pure research, but they definitely need it internally.  Regularly, reliably, repeatably. And not just in core products and services, but in internal operations, core things like how organizations learn.

To be clear what I mean, organizations need to explore other ways to do things: new ideas, better processes, new tools.  The continual exploration of improvements is what drives innovation, and of course, success.  And what I don’t mean is pure research, it’s very much what I think of as action research.

At core, I see it as viewing a particular problem, looking at principles that provide insight how to address it, determining what would be a successful outcome, developing a draft approach, and tuning it until you either determine it’s a success (or not).  At the end, you should use your learnings from the exercise to reflect back upon the principles, and refine them and your understanding.

Note that the criteria for success or not does not have to be ‘statistically significant’.  When I was leading a team developing an advanced system, I said we needed “business significance”: results good enough to provide us an advantage. These were trained scientists, but they got what I meant.

Also, I’m not talking about looking at ‘best practices’, but instead proposing an approach of best principles.  As I’ve previously mentioned, they may not work in  your context.  Now, if you look at those best practices and abstract out the underlying principles, linking them to the broader body of knowledge, then you’re using them intelligently.  While practices are hard to adapt to a new context, principles, having already been abstracted, are easier to apply, and the underlying conceptualization has been performed to draw upon previously existing knowledge.

You may find it useful to bring in some expertise around those best principles to help determine a particular approach.  Of course, organizations should be giving their employees time to keep up with the latest thinking, so they’re able to keep track of, and tap into, the best principles going around, but that doesn’t always happen: 60% of those who filled out our CLO survey said that their people didn’t talk about outside trends that shaped their business, and 77% admitted that their people weren’t growing fast enough to keep up with the needs of the business.

The point being, organizations should be regularly looking to principle for the problems and needs they’re facing, making experiments and tuning while testing the outcomes against their business needs, and steadily improving.  Even failures, if lessons are learned (and shared) are valuable.  Are you exploiting best principles to business significance, and increasing competitiveness?

22 October 2009

Publish or Perish

Clark @ 5:29 PM

I wrote an opinion piece over at the eLearn online magazine on the challenges educational publishers face and some ideas about the changes in thinking (and skills) they need.  I welcome your thoughts.

21 October 2009

The Formal/Informal Continuum

Clark @ 8:01 AM

In some client work I’m doing, I’m helping out an effort to establish a Web 2.0, social, informal, [enter your own bizbuzz phrase here] strategy.  Despite the hype, this looks to be a real value proposition for them.  They’ve serious needs in terms of deep knowledge retiring, acquisitions to integrate into a streamlined operation, and more.

As a consequence, I’ve been talking to folks within this large organization who are embarked on various social media efforts.  Some are instituted from different organizations, like under the CIO, and others have emerged from the learning function with the organization.  The interesting thing is how the actions are blurring the notion that there are tight boundaries between formal and informal.

In two separate cases, the solution emerged as a realization that the ability of the learning organization to continue to meet the growing rate of change (both in the rate of changes, and the increasing complexity), is not keeping up with the need.  There’s also a recognition that empowering the users to take control is a real opportunity. In one case, they’re rolling out a wiki that they’re initially populating, but are already in the process of devolving access and the ability to contribute.  In another, they’re making accessible the resources for users to choose what to film or software activity to capture, to make their own little ‘learnlets’ and make available.

Is this performance support? Is this formal learning? Is this social or informal learning?  It doesn’t matter! What matters is that these are areas where the learning function can and should contribute!  However, it’s blurring the line between control of learning design, responsibility for curriculum, and more.  And this isn’t an abrogation of responsibility, but instead a necessary extension of the learning function scope, on principle, and a pragmatic response to a changing world.

There was a separate instance where the KM group was developing a wiki for similar needs, e.g. the growing body of knowledge.  However, there were two reasons why they could benefit from the learning function as well. For one, they’re focusing on developing rich semantic underpinnings that will facilitate smart search and rule-driven complex behaviors (read: opportunistic and customized information).  This is great and important work (I love this stuff, it’s Web 3.0), but they won’t actually be putting in useful information for another year!  There’s an immediate need that needs to be addressed here.  The second one comes from when they are ready to move forward; they’ll benefit from the learning function’s experience in both gathering knowledge and in supporting rolling out access to the learners themselves.

There was also a definite recognition that the proliferation of resources was a problem to make accessible, and to govern the lifecycle of, and to message the updates. These are clearly central roles, and require an understanding of learning. And more. I’ve argued that learning designers need to understand information architecture and information design as well, and this only reinforces that message, but, those fields share much foundational knowledge and the extension isn’t onerous.

The bigger picture is to go beyond the individual initiatives, figure out ways to scale the approaches enterprise-wide, to make the breadth of resources systematically organized, and to remove redundancies and inefficiencies. By coordinating the technical sophistication of the Information Services group with the learning function (and other strategic alliances), this organization has a real opportunity to tap into the collective intelligence of it’s employees, and get a handle on the continuous innovation that will be required in the increasingly competitive market.  But it only happens by some systematic work to streamline the effort, otherwise there will still be bottlenecks to effectiveness and redundancies to hamper efficiency.

There’s still a role for formal at one end, and I haven’t really exposed the alternative mechanisms supporting the far end of collaboration, but here I wanted to focus on the gray area in the middle and the necessity of not trying to artificially create a boundary.

15 October 2009

Game-based meta-cognitive coaching

Clark @ 8:01 AM

Many years ago, I read of some work being done by Valerie Shute and Jeffrey Bonar that I later got a chance to actually play a (very small) role in (and even later got to work with Valerie, definitely world-class talent).  They had developed three separate tutoring environments (geometric optics, economics, electrical circuits), yet the tutoring engine was essentially the same across all three, not domain specific.  The clever thing they were doing was tutoring on exploration skills, varying one variable at a time, making reasonable increments in values to graph trends, etc.

Subsequent to that, I got involved again in games for learning. What naturally occurred to me was that you could put the same sort of meta-cognitive skill tutoring in a game environment, as you have to digitally create all the elements you’d need to track anyways for the game reasons, and it could be a layer on top.  While this would work in a single game (and we did put a small version into the Quest game), it would be even better on top of a game engine.  I even proposed it as a research project, but the grant reviewers thought that while  a good idea, it was too ambitious (ahead of my time and underestimated :).

The reinterest in so-called 21st century skills, the kind Stephen Downes so eloquently calls an Operating System for the Mind, reawakens the opportunity.  These skills are manifested in activity, and require an understanding of the activity to be able to infer approaches and provide feedback. In a well-defined arena like a designed game environment, we can know the goals and possible actions, and start looking for patterns of behavior.

Game engines, with their fixed primitives, make it easier to define what goals are and consequently to specify the particular goals and makes looking for patterns more generally definable.  Thus, in a game, we can see whether the learners’ exploration is systematic, whether their attempts are as informative as possible, and possibly more.

This is also true of virtual worlds, although only when designed with goals (e.g. from a simulation to a scenario, whether tuned into a game or not).  The benefit of a virtual world is, again, the primitives are fixed, simplifying the task of defining goals and actions.

Of course, building particular types of interaction (e.g. social), particular types of clues (e.g. audio versus visual) and looking for patterns can provide deeper opportunities.  Really, such performance is initially an assessment (one of the facets of what we were doing on the Intellectricity project was building a learner characteristic assessment as a game), and that assessment can trigger intervention as a consequence.  For any malleable skill, we have real opportunities.

Given that much of what is necessary are abilities to research , evaluate the quality of sources, design, experiment, create, and more, these environments are a fascinating opportunity.  I’m not in a situation to lead such an initiative, but I still think it’s a worthwhile undertaking.  Anyone ‘game’?

14 October 2009

Ignoring Informal

Clark @ 1:54 PM

I received in the mail an offer for a 3 book set titled Improving Performance in the Workplace.  It’s associated with ISPI, and greatly reflects their Human Performance Technology approach, which I generally laud as going beyond instructional design.  It’s also by Pfeiffer, who is my own publisher, and they’re pretty good as publishers go.  However, I noticed something that really struck me, based upon the work I’ve been doing with my colleagues in the Internet Time Alliance (formerly TogetherLearn).

The first volume is really about assessing needs, and design, and it includes behavioral task analysis and cognitive task analysis, and even talkes about engagement strategies in simulation and gaming, video gaming.  The second volume includes performance interventions, and includes elaerning, coaching, knowledge management, and more (as well as things like incentives, culture, EPSS, feedback, etc.  The third volume’s on measurement and evaluation.

All this is good: these are important topics, and having a definitive handbook about them is a valuable contribution (and priced equivalently, the whole set is bargain-priced at $400).  However, while I don’t have the book to hand to truly evaluate it, it appears that there are some gaps.

In my experience, some issues are not behavioral or cognitive but attitudinal.  Consequently, I’d have thought there might be some coverage.  There was a chapter in Jonassen’s old Handbook on Research in Ed Tech on the topic, and I’ve derived my own approach from that and some other readings. When they get into tools, they seem to miss virtual worlds, and they seem to have a repeat of the straw-man case against discovery environments (many years ago it was recognized that pure discovery wasn’t the go, and guided discovery was developed).  It bugs me that I can’t find the individual authors, but I do recognize the names of one of the editors.   But these aren’t the biggest misses, to me.

Overall, there seems to be no awareness of the whole thrust of social and informal learning.  Ok, so Jay’s book on Informal Learning is relatively new, and the concrete steps may still be being sorted out, but there’s a lot there.  Or perhaps it’s covered in Knowledge Management (after all, Marc Rosenberg’s been deeply involved in ISPI and wrote the Beyond e-Learning book).  Yet it seems a bit buried and muddled, and here’s why:

I’m working with a client now, and one of my tasks is surveying how they’re using social media.  A group responsible for technical training (and they’re an engineering organization) recognized that they weren’t able to keep up with the increasing quantity and quality of changes that were coming.  Rather than do a performance improvement intervention, they realized that another opportunity would be to start putting up information and inviting others to contribute.  They put up a wiki, and first maintained it internally, and then gradually devolved some of the responsibility out to their ‘customers’.

The point is, how does that fit into the traditional paradigm?  And yet, increasingly, we’re seeing and recommending approaches that go beyond the categories that fit here.  I wonder if their metrics include the outputs of enabling innovation.  I wonder if their interventions include expertise finders and collaboration tools. I wonder if their analyses include the benefits of ‘presence’.

Times are changing, faster and faster.  I think these books would’ve been the ideal thing, maybe 5 years ago.  Now, I think they’re emblematic of a training mindset when a larger perspective is needed.  These come into play after you’ve identified that a formal approach is needed.  They use a phrase of a ‘performance landscape’, but their picture doesn’t seem to include the concepts that Jay includes in his ‘learnscape’ and I as the ‘performance ecosystem’.

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