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

31 May 2017

A learning meta-story

Clark @ 8:03 am

Been thinking about how to generate meaningful learning in optimal (read: concise but effective) ways. And a lot of what I’ve been thinking about involves contextualized meaningful practice (no surprise there, eh?).  So how might this play out?  Thought I’d use a story to convey the experience I’m thinking of:

Pat logs on to the system, and notes that it’s time to take a crack at the next assignment.  In it is a setup with a role for Pat to play.  The story details a business situation: the organization, it’s current status, and a situation that’s occurred that requires an action.  The details are exaggerated, so it’s a dire situation with a lot riding on the outcome. The instructions are phrased in the form of an email directly from the CEO, with pointers to some folks to talk to for assistance.

The necessity is for Pat to create a plan to address the need.  In this case, it’s a marketing plan for a new product that has been the focus of most of the organization’s effort.  With old products facing receding sales, this product has to succeed.  The existing plan, legacy of a departed individual, is ‘old school’ and an up-to-date approach is needed.  The indicated need is heavily aligned with this week’s topic of social-media marketing.

Pat starts work to create a document to send to the CEO. This includes making ‘calls’ (viewing videos of quick messages from the various roles involved including the product manager, the financial officer) to find out the parameters which are in play and to get expert knowledge.  There are also some marketing materials available. 

In previous assignments there were support tools about creating documents and about marketing plans, but this time such support isn’t available.  Pat realizes that this being a more advanced cut through the topic, it’s time to start taking ownership of the process.  The CEO has asked for an interim plan report before creating the entire marketing plan, and Pat uses previous materials and adapts them to create the  plan.

Pat will get feedback from the CEO to incorporate in the plan before putting together the final submission.  Ultimately, the success of the plan will be presented, and then feedback on the details of Pat’s submission.  The document creation will be evaluated separately and in the context of previous documents required across this particular topic and previous ones, while the marketing plan itself will be evaluated in terms of it’s response to the context. 

Several things to note here. The contextualized performance requirement isn’t unique, of course.  This very much draws upon similar work seen in Roger Schank’s Story-Centered Curriculum and Goal-Based Scenarios. It differs in that subsequent assignments might use totally separate story settings.  It’s similar also to work like Bransford, et al’s Anchored Instruction.  The notion of embedding performance in context reflects research that shows abstract instruction doesn’t transfer as well. My own proposal (research, anyone?) is that the story should complete before the conceptual feedback is presented, or indeed that the story outcome includes the conceptual feedback in an intrinsic way.

The second important thing is that the document creation details are assessed separately, and tracked across other such assignments that might appear anywhere. The point is to develop meta-skills like digital document creation (and others such as presentations, working in groups, research, etc) as well as the domain skills.

I believe that we need learners to create complex work products that are challenging to auto-mark, because the outcomes are necessary.  This means that you need people in the learning loop; totally asynchronous isn’t going to work to develop rich capabilities. I’m trying to figure out ways to approximate that with as little human intervention as possible because pragmatically we have more learning to achieve than we have resources to achieve that (at least until we get our priorities right ;).


30 May 2017

Deliberate Practice

Clark @ 8:03 am

A colleague pointed me to a intense critique of master’s programs in Instructional Design, and it raised several issues for me. So, I thought it’d be worth discussing.  The issue is that the program didn’t provide any practice in designing courses from go to whoa, it was all about theory. In the comments, many people talk about how the programs they went did include projects, but this raises issues around the role of programs as well as what practice means.

Is a master’s supposed to be about skill-building?  Is it job training?  In the original academic model, I’d argue that an advanced degree would be to augment your experience with some theory.  E.g. if you were an accountant, or an engineer, or even a designer, with experience under your belt, you’d go for a master’s to serve as reflection in developing the concepts you perform under.  You might (and should) apply them, but that’s not the focus.

David Merrill has made the case that there should be bachelor’s programs in ID, and I think this makes sense.  And maybe that’s where you’d actually get the hands-on experience designing courses.  Of course, the reality is that many master’s (and even bachelor’s degrees) have become vocational training. Which raises the second issue.

Then the question becomes: how much practice?  Indeed, if I need to develop a practical skill, I need to perform the skills.  And too much of education and training, just doesn’t do it.  The author talked about deliberate practice: where you focus on one element with a coach there to critique your performance.  It could be faked problems, or a real apprenticeship, but it’s a tight coupling between designed action and guided reflection (what instruction needs to be).

Look at performance where it matters: flight, warfare, medicine. You’re gradually scaffolded from simple practice to complex. Heck, if I want to learn fire-fighting, rather than a classroom and then one go at a burning building, I’d rather have a simple building, then gradually ramp up the complexity (victims, second stories, inflammables, …).  All with some instructor yelling at me when I screwed up!  Yes, there’d be content, with animations about how fire spreads, and some facts about smoke inhalation and the like, but the focus would be on performing.

And this holds true for job skills whether it’s vocational training or university (which is increasingly being expected to prepare people for jobs).  Accounting?  Analyze statements for biz problems, make recommendations for reallocation, etc. Quite a bit, that drives you to the content.

My take-home: if you have real practice, you need reflection. If you don’t, you need real practice first. Focused practice. Intense practice.  Scaling-up practice!  We need to get our ratios right.   If you’re needing skills, then make sure you’ve got good practice up front.

24 May 2017

Grappling with Groups

Clark @ 8:03 am

I’m a fan of the power of social learning. When people get together (and the process is managed right), the outcomes of a negotiated understanding can be powerful.  However, in designing learning, working in groups has some real negative perceptions and realities. The open question is: what to do?

The problems are well-known. As my kids complained, on group projects some team members will reliably slack, letting the most driven student do the work.  Even with a commitment, there can be differences in working style: getting started early versus preferring to do it under pressure.

Some things have been tried. When I assigned group projects, I told my students I expected them to do equal work, and would grade accordingly. If it didn’t end up being the case, they were to each write up a report on what each team member did, including themselves. Others require this, regardless, and that sounds like a smart way to make concrete a requirement for contribution.

One thing to be addressed is invigilation. Is the work being tracked in any way?  If they’re working in a collaborative environment that tracks contributions via versioning or some other way, then there’s a trail of work that can be scrutinized. Extra work, to be sure, but it’d serve as a tie-breaker if there was some question about contribution.

Another issue is support for working in groups. When I first assigned group work, it became clear that they didn’t know how (?!?!).  So I wrote up a little guide to doing group work, and those problems subsided.  Working together is a skill that shouldn’t be taken for granted. There should be some explicit statement of expectations if you can’t determine whether there’s reliable prior experience. (Certainly, it seems that the teachers weren’t providing guidance or oversight, in the case of my kids.)

As an aside: make sure the students know why you’re asking them to work in groups. I’ve learned that learners will be much more willing to undertake what you assign if you explain the rationale that justifies your choice!

Then there’s them question of just when group work makes sense. Given that the value-added benefit is the negotiated understanding, it would make sense to do that when the material is complex, and there’s a risk of an individual taking a unique, incomplete, and or imperfect understanding. At times when you want to assess an individual’s ability to deliver, you wouldn’t want a group project!

There’s also the issue of the nature of the task.  Are you just having them come to a shared understanding in representing their thinking (e.g. a response to a question) or actually produce a work product of some sort (a video, presentation, report, etc).  If you can get what you need with less effort, you shouldn’t assign a more complex project.

Which brings up the issue of the scope of the work. I would expect that the more imposing the total amount of work is, the more it would invoke those with time or effort concerns to be lulled to the lazy side.  Keeping the scope small might contribute to a greater willingness to participate.

Breaking up the deliverables is one way to manage student effort. If you have interim deliverables, it helps manage the process and the time.  Certainly, early in a curriculum, you could provide this scaffolding (and make it explicit), and then gradually hand off responsibility for the learners to internalize the self-management. (Meta-learning!)

Breaking it up can also manage to address the contribution. If individual submissions are required before group ones, you can at least have the learners having had to contribute thought before sharing and creating a greater understanding.

Finally, there’s the issue of group work in an independent schedule. In a cohort model (scheduled timetable) it’s easy, but otherwise, how do you do it?  If there’s ‘critical mass’, you can have learners arrange to meet with anyone available. If there’re more, you could even have them indicate working style preferences: quick, early, what media channels. Otherwise, it’s more challenging (or a non-issue, just don’t do it).

There are lots of issues and potential solutions for addressing group work.  I can’t say I’ve found an easy solution, despite having wrestled with it. I think it’s important, so I’m curious what you’ve tried and found out!

23 May 2017

Some new elearning companies ;)

Clark @ 8:03 am

As I continue to track what’s happening, I get the opportunity to review a wide number of products and services. While tracking them all would be a full-time job, occasionally some offer new ideas.  Here’s a collection of those that have piqued my interest of late:

Sisters eLearning: these folks are taking a kinder, gentler approach to their products and marketing their services.  Their signature offering is a suite of templates for your elearning featuring cooperative play.  Their approach in their custom development is quiet and classy. This is reflected in the way they promote themselves at conferences: they all wear mauve polos and sing beautiful a capella.  Instead of giveaways, they quietly provide free home-baked mini-muffins for all.

Yalms: these folks are offering the ‘post-LMS’. It’s not an LMS, and instead offers course management, hosting, and tracking.  It addresses compliance, and checks a whole suite of boxes such as media portals, social, and many non-LMS things including xAPI. Don’t confuse them with an LMS; they’re beyond that!

MicroBrain: this company has developed a system that makes it easy to take your existing courses and chunk them up into little bits. Then it pushes them out on a schedule. It’s a serendipity model, where there’s a chance it just might be the right bit at the right time, which is certainly better than your existing elearning. Most importantly, it’s mobile!

OffDevPeeps: these folks a full suite of technology development services including mobile, AR, VR, micro, macro, long, short, and anything else you want, all done at a competitive cost. If you are focused on the ‘fast’ and ‘cheap’ side of the trilogy, these are the folks to talk to. Coming soon to an inbox near you!

DanceDanceLearn: provides a completely unique offering. They have developed an authoring tool that makes it easy for you to animate dancers moving in precise formations that spell out content. They also have a synchronized swimming version.  Your content can be even more engaging!

There, I hope you’ll find these of interest, and consider checking them out.

Any relation between the companies portrayed and real entities is purely coincidental.  #couldntstopmyself #allinfun

18 May 2017

Disruptive Innovation

Clark @ 8:06 am

I recently came across a document (PDF) about disruptive innovation based upon Clayton Christensen’s models, which I’d heard about but hadn’t really penetrated. This one was presented around higher education innovation (a topic I’ve some familiarity with ;), so it provided a good basis for me to explore the story.  It had some interesting features that are worth portraying, and then some implications for my thoughts on innovation, so I thought I’d share.

The model’s premise is that disruption requires two major things: a technology enabler and a business model innovation.  That is, there has to be a way to deliver this new advance, and it has to be coupled with a way to capitalize on the benefits.  It can’t just be a new technology in an existing business model, as that’s merely the traditional competitive innovation. Similarly, a new business model around existing technology is still within  competitive advancement.

A related requirement is to have a new entity ready to capitalize. This quote captured me: “In those few instances in which the leader in one generation became the leader in the next disruptive one, the company did so by setting up a completely autonomous business unit…”  You can’t do disruption from inside the game.  Even if you’re a player, you have to liberate resources to start anew.

Which is quite different than most innovation. Typical innovation is ‘within the box’.  This comes from having an environment where people can experiment, share, be exposed to new ideas, and allowing it to incubate (ferment/percolate) over time.  And this is a good thing. Disruptive innovation makes new industries, new companies, etc.  And that’s also good (except, perhaps, for the disrupted).  The point being that both innovations are valuable, but different.

It’s not clear to me what happens when an internal innovation comes up with an idea that’s really disruptive. Clearly, if the idea clears the hurdles of complacency and inertia, you’d probably want to spin it off.  But most innovations just need a fair airing and trialing to get traction (though depending on scope, a bit of change management might be useful).

I encourage innovation, and creating the environment where it can happen. It’s valuable even in established businesses, and a fair bit is known about how to create an environment where it can flourish.  So, what can we innovate about innovation?

16 May 2017

A ‘Critical Friend’?

Clark @ 8:01 am

I’m participating in an engagement, and they were struggling to define my role. Someone mentioned that I’m serving as a ‘critical friend’, and the others cottoned on to it.  I hadn’t heard that term so I explored, and liked what I found. Thought I’d share it.

So, ‘critical friend‘ is a term that originated in the education sector. The prevailing definition is:

a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critiques of a person’s work as a friend. A critical friend takes the time to fully understand the context of the work presented and the outcomes that the person or group is working toward. The friend is an advocate for the success of that work.

What’s key to me is that the role involves being committed to the success of the endeavor, but also being provocative. The latter is about asking the hard questions and bringing in outside input that wouldn’t likely be considered otherwise. And I believe, based upon what I’ve dug into for innovation, that this is a valuable role.

So what I’m doing is getting to know the situation, rapidly consuming lots of documents, interviewing people, and sitting in on other information gathering sessions, to get to know what’s up. Then I’m floating some ideas that I think they really need to consider. The ideas are contrary to the path they’re planning on but I’ve buttressed them with some strong arguments. They make not take on all of them, but at least they’ll have explicitly considered them.

I’ve played this role specifically in a number of different situations (in fact, in some sense you could consider most of my engagements to have at least a facet of this).  I like to think that my 30+ years of work across cognition, technology, learning, design, and organizational implementation, with corporations, education institutions, government agencies, and not-for-profits, as well as my stockpiling of models, means I’ll generate some lateral and valuable thoughts in almost any situation. That’s certainly been the case to date.  And I really do want to help people achieve their goals.

It’s a fun, though challenging role. You have to get up to speed quickly, and be willing to offer ideas. I pride myself on also being able to suggest ways to accomplish ideas that aren’t obviously implementable at the first go (all part of Quinnovation ;).

When you’re looking at some change, getting some critical friend support on principle is a good idea. People challenging you for your own best interest isn’t always easy, but the outcomes are pretty much always worth it.  So, who’s your critical friend?

10 May 2017

Designing Microlearning

Clark @ 8:04 am

Yesterday, I clarified what I meant about microlearning. Earlier, I wrote about designing microlearning, but what I was really talking about was the design of spaced learning. So how should you design the type of microlearning I really feel is valuable?

To set the stage, here’re we’re talking about layering learning on performance in a context. However, it’s more than just performance support. Performance support would be providing a set of steps (in whatever ways: series of static photos, video, etc) or supporting those steps (checklist, lookup table, etc).  And again, this is a good thing, but microlearning, I contend, is more.

To make it learning, what you really need is to support developing an ability to understand the rationale behind the steps, to support adapting the steps in different situations. Yes, you can do this in performance support as well, but here we’re talking about models

What (causal) models give us is a way to explain what has happened, and predict what will happen.  When we make these available around performing a task, we unpack the rationale. We want to provide an understanding behind the rote steps, to support adaptation of the process in difference situations. We also provide a basis for regenerating missing steps.

Now, we can also be providing examples, e.g. how the model plays out in different contexts. If what the learner is doing now can change under certain circumstances, elaborating how the model guides performing differently in different context provides the ability to transfer that understanding.

The design process, then, would be to identify the model guiding the performance (e..g. why we do things in this order, and it might be an interplay between structural constraints (we have to remove this screw first because…) and causal ones (this is the chemical that catalyzes the process).  We need to identify and determine how to represent.

Once we’ve identified the task, and the associated models, we then need to make these available through the context. And here’s why I’m excited about augmented reality, it’s an obvious way to make the model visible. Quite simply, it can be layered on top of the task itself!   Imagine that the workings behind what you’re doing are available if you want. That you can explore more as you wish, or not, and simply accept the magic ;).

The actual task is the practice, but I’m suggesting providing a model explaining why it’s done this way is the minimum, and providing examples for a representative sample of other appropriate contexts provides support when it’s a richer performance.  Delivered, to be clear, in the context itself. Still, this is what I think really constitutes microlearning.  So what say you?

9 May 2017

Clarifying Microlearning

Clark @ 8:05 am

I was honored to learn that a respected professor of educational technology liked my definition of micro-learning, such that he presented it as a recent conference.  He asked if I still agreed with it, and I looked back at what I’d written more recently. What I found was that I’d suggested some alternate interpretations, so I thought it worthwhile to be absolutely clear about it.

So, the definition he cited was:

Microlearning is a small, but complete, learning experience, layered on top of the task learners are engaged in, designed to help learners learn how to perform the task.

And I agree with this, with a caveat. In the article, I’d said that it could also be a small complete learning experience, period. My clarification on this is that those are unlikely, and the definition he cited was the most likely, and likely most valuable.

So, I’ve subsequently said (and elaborated on the necessary steps):

What I really think microlearning could and should be is for spaced learning.

Here I’m succumbing to the hype, and trying to put a positive spin on microlearning. Spaced learning is a good thing, it’s just not microlearning. And microlearning really isn’t helping them perform the task in the moment (which is a good thing too), but instead leveraging that moment to also extend their understanding.

No, I like the original definition, where we layer learning on top of a task, leveraging the context and requiring the minimal content to take a task and make it a learning opportunity. That, too, is a good thing. At least I think so. What do you think?

3 May 2017

To LMS or not to LMS

Clark @ 8:11 am

A colleague recently asked (in general, not me specifically) whether there’s a role for LMS functions. Her query was about the value of having a place to see (recommended) courses, to track your development, etc. And that led me to ponder, and here’s my thinking:

My question is where to draw the line. Should you do social learning in the LMS version of that, or have a separate system? If using the LMS for social around courses (a good thing), how do you handle the handoff to the social tool used for teams and communities?  It would seem to make sense to use the regular tool in the courses as well, to make it part of the habit.

Similarly, should you host non-course resources in the LMS or out in a portal (which is employee-focused, not siloed)? Maybe the courses also make more sense in the portal, tracked with xAPI?  I think I’d like to track self-learning, via accessing videos and documents the same as I would formal learning with courses: I want to be able to correlate them with business to test the outputs of experiments in changes.

Again, how should I be handling signups for things?  I handle signups for all sorts of things via tools like Eventbrite.  Is asking to signup for a training, with a waiting list, different than other events such as a team party?

Now, for representing your learning, is that an LMS role, or an LRS dashboard, or…?  From a broader perspective, is it talent management or performance management or…?

I’m not saying an LMS doesn’t make sense, but it seems like it’s a minor tool at best, not the central organizing function.  I get that it’s not a learning management system, but a course management system, but is that the right metaphor?  Do we want a learning tracking system instead, and is that what an LMS if or could be for?

When we start making a continuum between formal and informal learning, what’s the right suite of tools? I want to find courses and other things through a federated search of *all* resources. And I want to track many things besides course completions, because those courses should have real world-related assignments, so they’re tracked as work, not learning. Or both. And I want to track things that we’re developing through coaching, or continuing development through coaching and stretch assignments. Is that an LMS, or…?

I have no agenda to put the LMS out of business, as long as it makes sense in modern workplace learning. However, we want to use the right tool for the right job, and create an ecosystem that supports us doing the right thing.  I don’t have an obvious answer, I’m just trying on a rethink (yes, thinking out loud ;), and wondering what your thoughts are.  So, what is the right way to think about this? Do you see a uniquely valuable aggregation of services that makes sense? (And I may have to dig in deeper and think about the essential components and map them out, then we can determine what the right suites of functions are to fulfill those needs.)

2 May 2017

To show or not to show (and when)

Clark @ 8:04 am

At an event the other evening, showing various career technology tools, someone said something that I thought was just wrong. I asked afterwards, and then explained why I thought it was wrong. The response was “well, there can be different ways to go about it”. And frankly, there really can’t.  Think for yourself about why I might say so, and then let me show you why.

The trigger was a design program talking about their design courses. And the representative was saying that once a learner had created a project, it was shown to everybody. Which sounds good, since ‘sharing is caring’, or at least it’s a good example of working out loud. And, in general, this is a good idea. But I think it’s not in learning.

In brainstorming (e.g. informal learning), we know that sharing before others have had their chance to think, it can color their output. This limits the exploration of the total possible space of opportunities that would come from a diverse team. Hearing another response likely will limit that spaces that might get explored. Instead, the goal is to diverge before converging.

And so, too, in learning. I’ve argued for assignment submission systems that only allow you to see the other submissions once you’ve submitted your own. Until you’ve struggled yourself with the challenge, you won’t  get the most out of seeing how others have solved the situation.

If you immediately share the first submission, it may affect those who aren’t that far along yet. Some may even end up holding off to see what others do! This undermines the integrity of the assignment. One explanation that was given was to provide guidance to others, but that, to me, is the role of the assignment specification.

There is, however, real value in seeing the other submissions once you’ve completed yours. Seeing other approaches helps broaden the understanding. Better yet is to have discussion on them, as when critiquing others (constructively) you internalize the monitoring. This discussion also provides the opportunity to experiment with working out loud that eventually develops good working habits.

(I’ve similarly argued, by the way, that ‘rollover’ questions -where the answer is shown once you move your pointer over the question- don’t lead to any meaningful learning. If you haven’t made the mental effort to commit to a response, it won’t stick as well.)

So I believe that, if you’re developing people’s ability to do, you have a responsibility to do so in the most advantageous way. That includes making effort to use the best approach to sharing assignments. I was surprised (and dismayed) to see someone arguing to the contrary! I implore you to do the details on the approaches you work, for your learners’, and the learning’s, sake.

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