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

25 December 2009

Happy Holidays!

Clark @ 7:03 AM


Wishing you and yours the best for the new year!

24 December 2009

The big blindspot

Clark @ 7:14 AM

I was talking with a colleague over lunch the other day about her company, platform, and organizational learning issues.  And something occurred to me: we’re trying to merge onto a freeway right at a blindspot.

In orgs, there’s a real tendency to bucket any discussion of learning into ‘training’, and dismiss it.  You’ve heard me go off again and again about how I think learning includes innovation, creativity, problem-solving, etc, and that’s because I’m trying to make learning the umbrella term for all the good stuff & secret sauce, not automatically shunted off into the realms of cost-center and irrelevance.  And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think training has to be irrelevant (though in practice much of it is). The problem is that those same executives who identify a problem and demand a training solution for it aren’t open to a more discerning analysis of the problem, more enlightened learning practice, or more.  Regardless, it’s easy to get ignored as soon as they hear ‘learning’.

So then you can look at another channel to come in, and the obvious alternative is knowledge management (KM).  Except that, too, has a real easy knee-jerk rejection.  The initial wave of KM had so much hype it could only under-deliver on unrealistic expectations (as has happened before with AI and expert systems, as well as every new management phase).  So, KM also is a difficult sell.

The problem, then, is where do you come in?  What is the fog-penetrating terminology that will help get the C-suite to really ‘get’ that you’re talking about stuff that’s mission-critical?  That’s a big blindspot.  Collective intelligence? I just read that ‘innovation’ as a term is dead.  ‘Social  media’ can bring up bad images as well.  And anything called 2.0 is liable to be seen as hype, whether it’s Web or Enterprise.

The sad thing is, there’s some real ‘there’ there, but it’s an uphill sell.  Any bright ideas about how to market a real-game changer to people who need it, but can’t see it?

23 December 2009


Clark @ 1:49 PM

I love talking with my Internet Time Alliance colleagues, they’re always sparking me to new thoughts.  In our chat, we were talking about learning, and I riffed off Charles’ comment about defining learning to opine that I see learning as a persistent behavior change (in the same context).  It’s very behaviorist-influenced (given that I’m a cognitive/connectionist/constructivist type), but the point is that it needs to manifest.  Otherwise, you get what we cog types call ‘inert knowledge’, you can recite it back on a test, but when it’s relevant in the world it never gets activated!

However, it got me to thinking about individual versus group behavior.  And I realize that there were some key points I take as foundational:

  • that orgs will need innovation
  • that innovation isn’t solitary
  • thus, that improving collective innovation requires collaboration
  • and that collaboration requires culture & infrastructure

I’ve argued before about how the increasing rate of change, capability, and more mean that executing against a total customer experience is only the cost of entry, and that continual innovation will be necessary. Competitors can reproduce a product or service quickly.  Technology advances provide new opportunities to improve products, processes, and services. So, you need continual innovation (which I think of as continual learning, as problem-solving, new {process|product|service} development, creativity, research, etc are all learning).

Now, Keith Sawyer has made the point that, in general, innovation isn’t individual.  In reality, individuals build upon one another’s work continually.  Sure, one person may be responsible for an innovation, but that’s not the way to bet.  Collective intelligence is the way to get the highest and continual output.

As a consequence, collaboration is needed.  The right people need to get together in the right way to address the right problem at the right time.  If you’re not collaborating, you’re suboptimal and therefore vulnerable.  Recognize the attendant issues: you have to be willing to tolerate failure, share mistakes as well as successes, and provide time for reflection!

To do that requires the double context of a supportive culture, and a facilitative infrastructure. There have to be ways to find the right collaborators, to understand the context, to share solutions, to test and evaluate, and to impact the way things are done.  And there have to be rewards for doing so.

That’s both the opportunity and the challenge on the table, and that’s why I hang w/ my posse.  We’d love to talk with you about it.

22 December 2009


Clark @ 7:04 AM

In the conversation with Kris Rockwell of Hybrid Learning I mentioned previously, we talked about the definition of mobile learning.  We both agreed that it wasn’t about loading your average asynchronous elearning course onto the phone, and that it was more about performance support.  Brevity is the soul of mobile, as well as wit.  And I also am happy to think of mobile as an augment to formal learning: reactivating knowledge, distributing practice, contextualizing learning, and even performance capture.  But then we came to the ‘grey’ area of so-called microcourses.

I have mentioned the possibility in the past, sort of on faith rather than having thought through the actual design.  Kris mentioned cited a colleague who talks about “2 minute courses” (which I can’t find on the interweb), but I really have to wonder what it might really mean.  What learning objectives could we meet that way?  I can see small chunks of content delivery, but that’s more learning augment than course.

To me, a full course has to have an introduction to reactivate relevant knowledge, a model presented to guide performance, an example that shows how the concept gets applied in context, and a chance to practice applying the concept to another context.  Finally, some post-practice reflection and  closing of the learning experience should occur.

If it’s less than that, e.g. the learner’s primed because it’s in the moment, the information is pared down to the minimum to successfully get the learner past the immediate point, it’s performance support.  Or, if the learner’s motivated and receptive already, and it’s just an information update, not a new skill, then again I don’t think of it as a course.

On the other hand, it may be that just a rethink of something they’ve been doing, a ‘tuning’ of an approach, could make sense.  Or, perhaps, regular mini-presentations and small practices of a different way to look at the same thing.  Though that might be distributed learning, not a mini-course, which would be OK.

So I’m okay if it’s just a semantic thing, and we’re talking learning augment or performance support.  And, I’m willing to think there might be limited learning topics that a quick cartoon, a simple model, an illustrated example (comic strip, brief animation), and a single practice (read: multiple choice question) with feedback that’s also a summary might work.  But none are springing to mind.

So, are there cases you can think of that would qualify?  Is microlearning for real?

21 December 2009

Content Models and Mobile Delivery

Clark @ 7:03 AM

On Friday, I had the pleasure of a conversation of Kris Rockwell, CEO of Hybrid Learning for my in-process mobile learning book. I’d sought him out because of how he was developing mobile.  Using content models to separate out the content from how it gets rendered for display, he’s creating more flexibility across devices. This combines two of my passions, and is part of a performance ecosystem strategy.

Hybrid uses DITA, a standard for wrapping definition around content, to develop their content.  He presented powerful arguments to use this open source topic-based approach.  For one, being open source, you’re not locked in to a proprietary format, yet backed by IBM it’s well supported.  Second, it’s lightweight, compared to say S1000D (which I hadn’t heard of). And, of course, it’s portable across systems, meaning your solution doesn’t die even if your vendor does!

The use of a specification for such description around the content being developed is something I argue for regardless of mobile delivery or not.  When you wrap more rigor, and more semantic granularity around your development process, you’re well on your way to an organized content governance process.  For instance, if you design into a template even for the quick one-off requests that often come through the door in learning units, you are more likely to be able to reuse that content elsewhere, and, conversely, draw upon available content to shorten the development time. Done properly, the if you update the source one place, the changes should propagate throughout the relevant content!   There are lots of cost efficiencies being found in documentation with this approach, and it should percolate into elearning as well.

What Kris is also finding, however, is a real advantage in content portability  across mobile devices. Content so developed can easily be re-rendered for different devices, if they don’t already have the capability to hand.  He argues convincingly that designing for a device is a bad approach, and designing for device-independent delivery gives you the power not only to hit more platforms but also more flexibility for new platforms that emerge.  In short, your content development costs are amortized across more delivery options and ‘future-proofed’.

There was a lot more of interest in the conversation, including layered exploration (a “drill down” navigation style) and the potential for ordinary cell phones (dumbphones) to be viable delivers of instruction.  But that’s a topic for another day.  The take home for today, however, is think content models as well as mobile.

17 December 2009

Virtual Worlds Value Proposition

Clark @ 7:17 AM

In prepping for tomorrow nights #lrnchat, Marcia Conner was asking about the value proposition of virtual worlds. I ripped out a screed and lobbed it, but thought I’d share it here as well:

At core, I believe the essential affordances of the virtual world are 3D/spatial, and social.  There are lower-overhead social environments (but…which I’ll get back to).  However, many of our more challenging tasks are 3D visualization (e.g. work of Liz Tancred in medicine, Hollan & Hutchins on steamships). Also, contextualization can be really critical, and immersion may be better.  So, for formal learning in particular domains, virtual environments really make a lot of sense.  Now you still might not need a social one, so let’s get back to that.

The overhead is high with virtual worlds on the social issue, so ordinarily I’d not put much weight on value proposition for informal learning, but…  two things are swaying me.  One is the ability to represent yourself as you’d like to be perceived, not as nature has provided.  The other is the ephemeral ‘presence’ and the context.  Can we make a more ambient environment to meet virtually, and be fully present (in a sense). Somehow there’s less intermediation through a virtual world than through a social networking site (with practice).

And one more thing in the informal side:  collaborative 3D creation.  This is, to me, the real untapped opportunity, but it may require both better interfaces, and more people with more experience.

Now, there’s certainly a business case for learning in virtual worlds *where* there’s an environment that really  needs 3D or contextualization, but does it need to be massively social (versus a constrained environment just for education, built in something like ThinkingWorlds)?

And we know there’s a business case for social, but is the overhead of virtual worlds worth it?

However, when we put these two together, adding the power of social learning onto the formal 3D/spatial, and in the social adding the ephemeral ‘presence’ *and* then consider the possibility of 3D spatial collaboration (model building, not just diagram building), and amortize the overhead over a long term organizational uptake, I’m beginning to think that it may just have crossed the threshold.

That is, for formal learning, 3D and contextualization is really underestimated.  For social learning, presence and representation may be underrated.  And the combination may have emergent benefits.

In short, I think the social learning value of virtual worlds may have broader application than I’ve been giving credit for.  Which isn’t even to mention what could come from bridging the social network across virtual, desktop, and even mobile!  So, what say you?

15 December 2009

The Great eLearning Garbage Vortex

Clark @ 1:24 PM

Norbert Hockenberry here, reporting on a giant floating patch of elearning that has recently been discovered.  Like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, this has been created by discarded material being gathered by oceanic currents into a giant mess.

Unlike the Pacific patch, this isn’t an environmental disaster so much as a economic and social catastrophe.  The waste of organizational resources, and learner time, is tragic.  Seldom has so much been done, for so many, for so little gain.

What is the cause of this mess?  Two main things: bad design, and mismanagement.

Bad Design

First, bad design means that the content has no actual impact on performance.  Typically, it’s delivered too far away from the time of need, and not reinforced, so it’s liable to have been forgotten when needed.

Even if it is available, it probably won’t get activated.  The content is usually developed as a knowledge dump and recitation, which is well-known to lead to ‘inert knowledge’. Truly, a pathetic misuse of resources.


Good content development practices also imply content management and governance.  Too often we see neither.

Content isn’t well articulated, starting from the objectives, and the development isn’t carefully articulated within a curriculum let alone across the curriculum, so consequently the content is limited in reuse and repurposing. Often, it can’t even be found for updating!  So, when information changes, the content is tossed away.

The flip-side is similar: content that has reached it’s ‘use by’ date isn’t culled from the available contents, and hangs around, making it hard for more useful content to live a full life.  Without content management and governance, content lies around in limbo, rather than be properly recycled or composted.

What can be done?

The clear implication is to start with proper content management up front, following good design principles, and establishing governance across the policy.  Content shouldn’t be developed without a clear view of it’s lifecycle and planned processes for getting maximum advantage and then disposing of it in appropriate ways.

This is Norbert Hockenberry, asking you to help prevent such disasters, and invest wisely in content development. Start with a focus on meaningful impacts, have a development process that supports good design, and has a clear intention about how to develop, access, and make content available for the learner.  Responsibly reuse, update, or appropriately dismiss content that is no longer functional in it’s current state.  It’s just being responsible!

12 December 2009

Future of the training department

Clark @ 8:03 AM

Entreprise Collaborative, a cross-cultural endeavor bridging English and French to provide a jumping off point on organizational collective intelligence (and co-led by my Internet Time Alliance colleague Harold Jarche), is launching a blog carnival.  The first topic is: the future of the training department in the Collaborative Enterprise.


I’ve written before about the changes I see coming for organizations (e.g. here), and they’re driven by the changes I am seeing in business and in society.  Things are moving faster, and this has all sorts of consequences: it means that change is occurring more frequently, information is doubling, our competition is more aggressive, and more.  Really, we’re unmasking the chaos that we’ve been able to cover with observed patterns, and explain away the excepti0ns. Well, now the patterns are changing fast enough that we can’t expect to be able to plan, prepare and execute to succeed. We have to be more nimble, more agile.  In short, we have to move away from depending on formal learning to be able to cope, and we need a new solution.

The solution is to empower individuals so that they’re pulling together.  No longer can a few do the thinking for everyone, as we see in a hierarchical organization. Instead, we need to make sure everyone understands what the overall goal is, and have them work together to achieve it.  We need to tap into the collective intelligence of the entire organization. This is a redefinition of learning as performance, incorporating problem-solving, innovation, creativity, design, research, and more.

That means a number of things: we need to be explicit about goals, transparent about processes, supportive about collaborative skills, and proactive in creating a culture that fosters and nurtures the necessary approaches.  This doesn’t come for free.  Who is responsible for ensuring this works?

In some organizations it’s the information services group, or the knowledge management group.  And they certainly should be on board; ideally you don’t want a hodgepodge of different systems to do the same thing, you want a coordinated environment that supports lessons learned in one area to be easily shareable elsewhere in the organization.  At core, however, I believe that folks who understand learning have to be part of the picture.  They may not own it, but they need to be actively facilitating across the organization.

And this, to me, defines the future of  the training department.  It can no longer be just about courses.  It’s got to include performance support, and informal learning. It’s got to be about culture, and learning together skills, and facilitating productive information interchange and productive interactions. We have technologies now to empower user-generated content, collaboration and more, but the associated skills are being assumed, which is a mistake.  The ability to use these tools will continually need updating and support.

This should not be threatening or anxiety-inducing!  Training used to be important, as skilled workers were critical.  As we’ve automated more work and started developing training for more knowledge work without adapting our methods (and, consequently, making generally dreadful learning experiences), the training role is less and less seen as worthwhile. The opportunity to reestablish a strategic role in the organization should be viewed with excitement, and taken up as the gift it is!

So, I see the future of the training department being as learning facilitators, and the path there to be to take on more and more of that role.  In the future, I reckon, learning facilitators will be partners with the technology infrastructure units in providing an innovation infrastructure, a performance ecosystem.  These facilitators will be (virtually) distributed across the enterprise just as the technology infrastructure is.  Yes, there’s likely some re-skilling involved, but it beats irrelevancy, or worse.  Here’s to redefinition!

8 December 2009

Creating meaningful experiences

Clark @ 7:03 AM

What if the learner’s experience was ‘hard fun’: challenging, but engaging, yielding a desirable experience, not just an event to be tolerated, OR what is learning experience design?

Can you imagine creating a ‘course’ that wins raving fans?  It’s about designing learning that is not only effective but seriously engaging.  I believe that this is not only doable, but doable under real world constraints.

Let me start with this bit of the wikipedia definition of experience design:

the practice of designing…with a focus placed on the quality of the user experience…, with less emphasis placed on increasing and improving functionality

That is, experience design is about creating a user experience, not just focusing on their goals, but thinking about the process as well.   And that’s, to me, what is largely ignored in creating elearning is thinking about process from the learner’s perspective. There are really two components: what we need to accomplish, and what we’d like the learner to experience.

Our first goal still has to look at the learning need, and identify an objective that we’d like learners to meet, but even that we need to rethink.  We may have constraints on delivery environment, resources, and more that we have to address as well, but that’s not the barrier.  The barrier is the mistake of focusing on knowledge-level objectives, not on meaningful skill change.  Let me be very clear: one of the real components of creating a learning experience is ensuring that we develop, and communicate, a learning objective that the learner will ‘get’ is important and meaningful to them.  And we have to take on the responsibility for making that happen.

Then, we need to design an experience that accomplishes that goal, but in a way that yields a worthwhile experience.  I’ve talked before about the emotional trajectory we might want the learner to go through.  It should start with a (potentially wry) recognition that this is needed, some initial anxiety but a cautious optimism, etc.  We want the learner to gradually develop confidence in their ability, and even some excitement about the experience and the outcome.  We’d like them to leave with no anxiety about the learning, and a sense of accomplishment.  There are a lot of components I’ve talked about along the way, but at core it’s about addressing motivation, expectations, and concerns.

Actually, we might even shoot for more: a transformative experience, where the learner leaves with an awareness of a fundamental shift in their understanding of the world, with new perspectives and attitudes to accompany their changed vocabulary and capabilities.  People look for those in many ways in their life; we should deliver.

This does not come from applying traditional instructional design to an interview with a SME (or even a Subject Matter Network, as I’m increasingly hearing and inclined to agree).  As I defined it before, learning design is the intersection of learning, information, and experience design.  It takes a broad awareness of how we learn, incorporating viewpoints behavior, cognitive, constructive, connective, and more.  It takes an awareness of how we experience: media effects on cognition and emotion, and of the dramatic arts.  And most of all, it takes creativity and vision.

However, that does not mean it can’t be developed reliably and repeatably, on a pragmatic basis.   It just means you have to approach it anew.  It take expertise, and a team with the requisite complementary skill sets, and organizational support. And commitment.  What will work will depend on the context and goals (best principles, not best practices), but I will suggest that with good content development processes, a sound design approach, and a will to achieve more than the ordinary.  This is doable on a scalable basis, but we have to be willing to take the necessary steps.  Are you ready to take your learning to the next level, and create experiences?

7 December 2009

Blurring boundaries

Clark @ 1:28 PM

I just downloaded a couple of new apps onto my iPhone. Okay, so one was a free trial of a game, but the other was a really interesting offering, and it led to some thoughts about organizational silos and new functionality.

The app was a new release by ATT called Mark the Spot, that lets you report the occurrence and location of a problem with your coverage.  This is a new way to interact with customers, allowing them to serve as a agent of “can you hear me now”-style coverage evaluation.  Given that they’ve just turned up as the lowest rated carrier of the major four here in the US, according to leading consumer champion Consumer Reports, it’s a step in the right direction.

Now this is an instance of considering a broader reach of engagement in our conversations tapping into collective intelligence. As I’ve been learning with my colleagues in the Internet Time Alliance, tapping into collective intelligence goes beyond conversations internally to include partners and customers.   It’s also a broader interpretation of learning, in the senses that I argue we need to consider, including problem-solving, innovation, etc.  And it’s mobile.

So here’s the question I pondered: is this tech support?  Marketing?  And what occurred to me is that it just isn’t really easy to categorize.  It’s a dialog with the customer, gathering data about coverage, which could be seen as market research.  They can also extend it via a call into a issue resolution exercise (ok, so the app doesn’t really make the call for you but could and should: “click to send the data and be connected to a representative”) .  You could even bake in some trouble-shooting support as a performance support exercise.

The approach, and the potential, crosses boundaries in terms of the benefits and how it must be supported organizationally.  We’re beginning to see a new notion of mashup that combines functionalities that might normally be seen in separate organizational areas, but from a customer perspective, they’re linked. And  we’re seeing a hybrid of communication capabilities, linking the data capabilities of an app with voice, and even media files (e.g. some trouble-shooting information).

Around 1999, the CEO of Cisco, John Chambers, opined that elearning was going to be so big that email would seem like a rounding error.  I think that it’s not just about education over the internet, but it’s really about the broader picture of learning including performance support, social learning, and it’s not just the desktop internet, but it’s mobile apps, and more.  The full performance ecosystem isn’t just within the organization, but it’s external as well. It’s what your company builds for you, what your ‘providers’ build for you (device, service, etc), and, ultimately, how you integrate that into your personal learning network.

The implications are huge.  How to organizations realign to make meaningful information environments for their employees, partners, and customers?  How do we skill up society to take advantage and shape this environment for the benefit of all?  And how do we develop ourselves to manage and optimize the environment to help us achieve our goals?

I think we are seeing an inflection point that will trump email, but it’s not about education, it’s about the broad intersection between people’s goals and our technology infrastructure.  And our role in that, as designers of learning experiences and performance ecosystems.  We have a fair bit of understanding of cognition and social interaction, and increasing experience with different technology capabilities.  Now it’s time to put that all to work to start creating meaningful new opportunities. Who’s game?

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