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

27 March 2014

Manifesting in practice extended

Clark @ 8:25 AM

In my last post, I wrote about the first step you should take to move to Serious eLearning, which was making deeper practice.  Particularly under the constraints of not rocking the boat.  Here I want to talk about where you go from there.  There are several followup steps you should take after (hopefully) success at the beginning.  My big three are: aligning with the practice, extending the practice, and evaluating what is being done.

1. So, if you took the advice to make more meaningful and applied practice within the constraints of many existing workplaces (order-taking, content dump, ‘just do it’), you next want to be creating content aligned with helping the learner succeed at the practice. Once you have those practice questions, you should trim all that material to just what they’ll need to be able to make those decisions.

This also means stripping away unnecessary content, jettisoning the nice-to-know, trimming down the prose (we overwrite).  By stripping away the content, you can work in more practice and still meet the (nonsensical) criteria of time in seat.  And you’ll have to fight the forces of ‘it has to be in there’, but it’s a worthy fight, and part of the education of the organization that needs to occur.

Get some war stories from your SMEs while you’re working (or fighting) with them.  Those should be your examples, and guide your practice design. But if you can’t, you’ll just have to do the best you can. Make the introduction help learners see what they’ll be able to do afterwards.  All this fits within the standard format, so you should be able to get away with it and still be taking a stab at improving what you’re doing.

2. The second step is to extend practice. I mean this in two ways. For one, massed practice dissipates quickly, and you want practice spaced out over time. This may be a somewhat hard sell, yet it’s really required for learning to stick. Another part of the organization’s education.  You should be developing some extra content at development time for streaming out over time, but breaking up your course so that the hour of seat time is 30 or 40 mins up front, and then 20 or 30 mins of followup spread out over days and with repeated practice will make learning stick way more than not.  And if it matters, you should (if it doesn’t, why bother?).

The second way to extend it is to work on the meaningfulness of your practice.  Ideally, practice would be deep, simulations or at least scenarios.  The situations that will most define company success are, I will suggest, in complex contexts. To deal with those, you need practice in complex contexts: serious games or at least scenarios.  And don’t make them boring, exaggerate so that the practice is as motivating as the real world situation is.  Ultimately, you’d like learners creating solutions to real world problems like creating business deliverables, or performing in immersive environments, not answering multiple choice questions!  And extending the experience socially: whether just reflecting on the experience together, or better yet, collaborative problem solving.

3. Finally, you should start measuring what you’re doing in important ways.  This, too, will require educating your organization.  But you shouldn’t assume your first efforts are working.  You want to start with the change in the business that needs improving (e.g. performance consulting and Kirkpatrick level 4), then figure out what performance by  individuals would lead to that business change, and then develop your learning objectives and practice to get people able to do that performance. And then measure whether they can, and whether it leads to performance changes in the workplace, and ultimately changes in the business metrics. This will require working with the business units to get their data, but ultimately that’s how you become strategic.

Of course, you should be measuring your own work, and similarly if your interventions are as efficient as possible.  But those should only happen after you’re having an impact.  Measuring your efficiency (“our costs per seat time are at the industry average”) without knowing whether you have an impact is delusional. Are your estimates of time to accomplish accurate?  Are you using resources efficiently? Are people finding your experiences to be ‘hard fun’?  These matter after the question of: “are we helping the organizations needs?”

So, between the previous post and this, hopefully you have some concrete ideas about how even in the most constrained circumstances you can start improving your learning design.  And the Manifesto supporting principles go into more depth on this, if you need help.  So, does this provide some guidance on how to get started?  Ready to sign on?  And, perhaps more importantly, what further questions do you have?

26 March 2014

Manifesting in practice extremis

Clark @ 8:27 AM

Yesterday, I posted about what we might like to see from folks, by role, in terms of the Manifesto.  The other question to be answered is how to do this in the typical current situation where there’s little support for doing things differently.  Let me take a worst-case scenario and try to take a very practical approach. This isn’t an answer for the pulpit, but is for the folks who put all this in the ‘too hard’ basket.

So, worst case: you’re going to still get a shower of PPTs and PDFs and be expected to make a course out of it, maybe (if you’re lucky) with a bit of SME access.  And no one cares if it makes a difference, it’s just “do this”.  And, first, you have my deepest sympathies. We’re hoping the manifesto changes this, but sometimes we have to start with where you live, eh?  Recognize that the following is not PoliticallyCorrect™; I’m going outside the principled response to give you an initial kickstart.

The short version is that you’ve got to put meaningful practice in there.  You need an experience that sets up a story, requires a choice using the knowledge, and lets the learner see the consequences.  That’s the thing that has the most impact, and you’ll want several.  This will have far more impact than a knowledge test.  To do that isn’t too complex.

The very first thing you need to do when you’ve parsed that content is to figure out what, at core, the person who’s going to have this experience should be able to do differently.  What performance aren’t they doing now?  This is problematic, because sometimes the problem isn’t a performance problem, but here I’m assuming you don’t have that leeway. So you’ll have to do some inference.  Yes, it’s a bit more thinking, but you already have to pull out knowledge, so it’s not that different (and gets easier with practice).

Say you’ve gotten product data.  How would they use that?  To sell?  To address objections? To trouble shoot?  Maybe it’s process information you’re working on. What would they do with that? Recognize problems? Take the next step?  If you’re given information on workplace behavior problems? Let them determine whether grey areas exist, or coach people.

You’ll need to make a believable context and precipitative situation, and then ask them to respond. Make it challenging, so that the situation isn’t clear, and the alternative are plausible ways the learner could go wrong.  The SME can help here.  Make the scenario they’re facing and the decisions they must make as representative of the types of problems that they’ll be facing as you can.  And try to have the story play out, e.g. the consequences of their choice be  presented before they get the right answer or feedback about why it’s wrong. There are good reasons for this, but the short version is it’s to help them learn to read the situation when it’s real.

Let’s be clear, this is really just better multiple choice question design!  I say that so you see you’re not going beyond what you already do, you’re just taking a slightly different tack to it.  The point is to work within the parameters of content and questions (for now!), and yet get better outcomes.

Ideally, you’ll find all the plausible application scenarios, and be able to write multiple questions.  If there’s any knowledge they have to know cold, you might have to also test that knowledge, but consider designing a job aid.  (Even if it’s not tested and revised, which it should be, it’s a start on the path.)

There’s more, but that’s a start (more in my next post). Focus on meaningful practice first.  Dress it up. Exaggerate it. But if you put good practice in their path, that’s probably the most valuable change to start with.  There’re lots of steps from there, basically turning it into a learning experience: making everything less dense, more minimal, more focused on performance, adding in more meaningfulness.  And redoing concept, example, introduction, etc.  But the first thing, valuable practice, engages many of the eight values that form the core of the Manifesto: performance focused, meaningful to learners, engagement-driven, authentic contexts, realistic decisions, and real world consequences.

I’ve argued elsewhere that doing better elearning doesn’t take longer, and I believe it.  Start here, and start talking about what you’re doing with your colleagues, bosses, what have you.  Sign on to the Manifesto, and let them know why. And let me know how it goes.

25 March 2014

Manifesting in principle

Clark @ 8:24 AM

The launch of the Manifesto has surfaced at least a couple of issues that are worth addressing. The first asks who the manifesto is for, and what should they do differently.  That’s a principled response.  The second is just how to work differently in the existing situations where the emphasis is on speed.  That’s a more pragmatic response.  There are not necessarily easy answers, but I’ll try.  Today I’ll address the first question, and tomorrow the second.

To the first point, what should the impact be on different sectors?  Will Thalheimer (fellow instigator), laid out some points here.  My thoughts are related:

  • Tool vendors should ensure that their tools can support designers interested in these elements. In particular, in addition to presentation of multimedia content, there needs to be: a)  the ability to provide separate feedback for different choices, b) the ability to have scenario interactions whereby learners can take multistep decision paths mimicking real experiences, and c) the ability to get the necessary evaluation feedback. In reality, the tools aren’t the limitation, though some may make it more challenging than others. The real issue is in the design.
  • We’d like custom content houses (aka elearning solution providers) to try to get their clients to allow them to work against these principles, and then do so. Of course, we’d like them to do so regardless!  I’ve argued in the past that better design doesn’t take longer.  Of course, we realize that clients may not be willing to pay for testing and revision, but that’s the second part…
  • …we’d like purchasers of custom content to ask that their learning experiences meet these standards, and expect and allow in contracts for appropriate processes.  If you’re going to pay for it, get real value!  Purchasers need to become aware that not meeting these standards increases the likelihood that any intervention will be of little use.
  • Similarly, if you’re buying pre-made content (aka shelfware), you should check to see if it also meets these standards.  It’s certainly possible!
  • Managers and executives, whether purchasing or overseeing in-house teams, ideally will be insisting that these standards be met.  They should start revising processes both external (e.g. RFPs) and internal (templates, checklists and reviews) to start meeting these criteria.
  • And designers and developers should start building this into their solutions (within their constraints) while beginning to promote the longer term picture.

Of course, we realize that there are real world challenges. The first is that the internal elearning unit will have to be working with the business units about taking a richer and more meaningful approach.   Those units may not be ready to consider this!  The ‘order taker’ mentality has become rife in the industry, and it’s hard for a L&D unit to suddenly change the rules of engagement.  It will take some education around the workplace, but to ensure that the efforts are really leading to meaningful change mean it’s critical.

The second caveat is that not all of these elements will be addressable from day 1.  While we’d love that to be the case, we recognize that some things will be easier than others.  Focusing on meaningful objectives and, relatedly, meaningful practice are the two first priorities.  (While I suspect my colleagues might instead champion measurement, I’m hopeful that making more meaningful practice will drive better outcomes. Then, there’ll be a natural desire to check the impact.) When the meaningful focus is accomplished, trimming extraneous content becomes easier.

The goal is to hit the core eight values first, as these are the biggest gaps we see, and integrate many of the principles: performance focused, meaningful to learners, individualized challenges, engagement-driven, authentic contexts, realistic decisions, real-world consequences, and spaced practice.  With those, you’ve got a real start on making a difference.  And that’s what we’re about, eh?  We hope you’ll sign on!

21 March 2014

Cathy Davidson #LSCon Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 9:19 AM

Cathy Davidson gave us an informative, engaging, and inspirational talk talking about how we’re mismatching industrial approaches in an information era. She gave us data about how we work and why much of what we do isn’t aligned, along with the simple and effective approach of think-pair-share. Very worthwhile.


20 March 2014

Douglas Merrill #LSCon Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 7:07 AM

Douglas Merrill gave an entertaining and idiosyncratic presentation about data-driven decisions. Peppered with many amusing anecdotes about good and bad uses of data, he inspired us to do better.


19 March 2014

Soren Kaplan #LSCon Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 6:51 AM

Soren Kaplan gave a keynote on innovation that nicely pulled together a number of strands around how to break through some of our cognitive traps.


18 March 2014

Serious Conversation

Clark @ 5:25 AM

We’ve already received the first request for an article on the Serious eLearning Manifesto, and it sparked a realization.  We (my co-conspirators are Will Thalheimer, Julie Dirksen, and Michael Allen) launched the manifesto last week, and we really hope you’ll have a serious look at them.  More, we hope you’ll find a way to follow them, and join your colleagues in signing on.

What has to happen now is people need to look at them, debate the difficulties in following them, and start thinking about how to move forward. We don’t want people just to sign on, we want them to put the principles into practice. You may not be able to get to all from the beginning, but we’re hoping to drive systematic change towards good elearning.

The Manifesto, if you haven’t seen it, touts eight values of serious elearning over what we see too often, focusing on the biggest gaps.  The values are backed up by 22 principles pulled from the research. And we’ve been already been called out for it perhaps being too ‘instructor’ driven, not social or constructivist enough.  To be fair, we’ve also already had some strong support, and not just from our esteemed trustees, but signatories as well.

And I don’t want to address the issues (yet), what we want to have happen is to get the debate started.  So I didn’t accept the opportunity to write (yet another) article, instead I said that we’d rather respond to an article talking about the challenges.  We want to engage this as dialog, not a diatribe.  Been there, done that, you can see it on the site ;).

So, please, have a look, think about what it would mean, consider the barriers, and let’s see if, together, we can start figuring out how to lift the floor (not close off the ceiling).


13 March 2014

Smarts: content or system?

Clark @ 7:07 AM

I wrote up my visit to the Intelligent Content conference for eLearnMag, but one topic I didn’t raise was an unanswered question I raised during the conference: should the ‘smarts’ be in the content or the system?  Which is the best way to adapt?

Now the obvious answer is the system. Making content smart would require a bunch of additional elements to the content. There would have to be logic to sense conditions and make changes. Simple adaptation could be built in, but it would be hard to revise them if you had new information.  Having  well-defined content and letting the system use contextual information to choose the content is the typical system used in the industry.

Let’s consider the alternative for a minute, however.  If the content were adaptive, it wouldn’t matter what system it was running on, it would deliver the same capability.  For example you could run under SCORM and still have the smart behavior.  And you can’t adapt with a system if you’ve monolithic learning objects that contain the whole experience.

And, at the time I led a team building an adaptive learning engine, we did see adaptive content. However, we chose to have more finely granulated content, down to individual practice items, separate examples, concepts, and more.  Even our introductions were going to have separate elements.  We believed that if we had finely articulated content models, and rich tagging, we could change the rules that were running in the system, and get new adaptive behaviors across all the content with only requiring new rules in one place.

And if new tags were needed on the content objects, we could write programs to add necessary tags rather than have to hand-address every object.  In the smart content approach, if you want to change the adaptation, you’re getting into the internals of every content piece.

We thought we had it right, and I still think that, for the reasons above, smart systems are the way to go, coupled with semantically tagged and well-delineated content. Happy to hear alternate proposals!


12 March 2014

Aligning with us

Clark @ 7:06 AM

The main complaint I think I have about the things L&D does isn’t so much that it’s still mired in the industrial age of plan, prepare, and execute, but that it’s just not aligned with how we think, learn, and perform, certainly not for information age organizations.  There are very interesting rethinks in all these areas, and our practices are not aligned.

So, for example, the evidence is that our thinking is not the formal logical thinking that underpins our assumptions of support.  Recent work paints a very different picture of how we think.  We abstract meaning but don’t handle concrete details well, have trouble doing complex thinking and focusing attention, and our thinking is very much influenced by context and the tools we use.

This suggests that we should be looking much more at contextual performance support and providing models, saving formal learning for cases when we really need a significant shift in our understanding and how that plays out in practice.

Similarly, we learn better when we’re emotionally engaged, when we’re equipped with explanatory and predictive models, and when we practice in rich contexts.  We learn better when our misunderstandings are understood, when our practice adjusts for how we are performing, and feedback is individual and richly tied to conceptual models.  We also learn better together, and when our learning to learn skills are also well honed.

Consequently, our learning similarly needs support in attention, rich models, emotional engagement, and deeply contextualized practice with specific feedback.  Our learning isn’t a result of a knowledge dump and a test, and yet that’s most of what see.

And not only do we learn better together, we work better together.  The creative side of our work is enhanced significantly when we are paired with diverse others in a culture of support, and we can make experiments.  And it helps if we understand how our work contributes, and we’re empowered to pursue our goals.

This isn’t a hierarchical management model, it’s about leadership, and culture, and infrastructure.  We need bottom-up contributions and support, not top-down imposition of policies and rigid definitions.

Overall, the way organizations need to work requires aligning all the elements to work with us the way our minds operate.  If we want to optimize outcomes, we need to align both performance and innovation.  Shall we?

11 March 2014


Clark @ 6:32 AM

Wow, you try to do one little thing, and everyone gets all upset!  Well, that’s how it feels, and it’s a real lesson.  So I’ll explain, and then try to clarify.

As I posted, one of the two things I’m pushing is something that’s trying to improve elearning, and we’re having our launch on Thurs, March 13th at noon PT (3ET). To get attention, the four of us (Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, and Will Thalheimer are my con-conspirators) have been teasing the event, trying to build awareness.  And this has turned out to be a problem we didn’t anticipate.

Our goal was to use our names by capitalizing on the situation what while the four of us who, while friends and colleagues, were independent of one another professionally, we had banded together on this initiative. We believed, naively, that people would infer our intentions to be benign. And many did.

Including the trustees we’re so grateful to.  We briefed a handful of respected individuals around the industry (not everyone we could and should, but a representative sample across many sectors that we could work with quickly), and got them to lend their names in support.

So we started our marketing, including the site, a press release, and our social media efforts.  And learned that what was obvious to us wasn’t obvious to others. There were clear concerns that the focus was on us, not on the message, and that our motives were dubious.

We received both private and publicly expressed concerns about our intentions.  Maybe we were trying to promote a book, or a consultancy, or collecting email addresses.  And this was an unpleasant surprise.  When I have a chance to work with people like Michael, Julie, and Will that I respect for their intellect, concern, and integrity, it is painful to have our motives questioned.

Yet it was an clear miscalculation on our parts that our intentions would be obvious to all. As soon as we got wind of the concerns, we discussed how to respond, and as a consequence, we reined in the messages about us on the site.  We removed our pictures from the pre-launch page, and toned down the ‘authors’ page.  Hopefully that’s enough.

Because, the message is the important thing.  Frankly, we’d prefer that the change happens and we get no recognition.    It’s not about us; we’ve got other fish to fry.  We’ve no joint book, no consultancy, and the only reason we’d do anything with any email addresses would be to tell them updates with nothing for sale. We believe that the message would be sullied with any such attempts, and we do not want to risk the chance of undermining the message, and the hoped-for change.

So, a valuable lesson learned about marketing.  Trying to inspire curiosity using a launch event, and trusting to our names beforehand was, in retrospect, too self-aggrandizing.  We probably needed to focus on at least the core of the message, rather than just the mystery of what we were up to.  We still hope you’ll attend, and more importantly agree to try harder on the change we’re agitating for. As to the change? Well, the short answer is better elearning.  For the specifics, you’ll just have to wait :).  BTW, in addition to the launch, at least a subset of us will be discussing the desired change at Learning Solutions session 105 on Wednesday March 19 at 1PM, followed by a Morning Buzz on Thursday.  Hope to see you at one of these!

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