Fallen from the Grace of Learning, Part 1

March 14, 2011

I don’t mean to mock or disrespect my religious brothers and sisters out there. But if there is a God of Career Bliss out there, then surely I have fallen from grace. Or at least veered down the wrong path. Let me explain.

A few years ago I was super-passionate about the field of adult learning and instructional design. As an instructional designer and learning consultant, I had a keen interest in exploring ways to leverage emerging technologies and social networking to enhance how we learn. I loved designing courses of all sorts. I loved consulting with clients to help prescribe the right blend of learning solutions for their situation. I loved tinkering with tools and techniques, from complex software and working with full scale development teams, to rapid e-learning and do-it-yourself solutions. Of course I sometimes cursed deadlines, writer’s blocks, and crashing software, but I was engaged.

And then I drifted. I moved away from my design and consulting roles and moved into project management. At the time I figured project management was a solid field and a good set of skills to learn. I also thought it might be a good segue into more responsibility and more pay.  And given that the economy was tanking (mid 2008), project management might lead to more options.

Most of this is true. I have certainly gained valuable experience. But there is a flip side.

I joined the PM team at a highly creative e-learning shop. It wasn’t bad at all. Though I wasn’t designing, I was able to leverage my background and still had a part in the creative solution. Then, a year later, I felt I wanted more internal training experience within a large Fortune 500 type company. I was in for a rude awakening.

My current company is a great company, and there are a lot of great people there. But as a PM, that is all I do. In this organization, roles are very segmented and specific. The PM role is very much focused on processes, risks, schedules, and the like. Though I am in a training department, my adult learning and instructional expertise rarely comes into play. In fact, PMs are really expected to be content neutral.

That’s all fine, but it’s not me.  As a role on its own, project management is not where my heart is. I miss the creative and intellectual stimulation of design and consulting.

OK, enough of that. Self-pity is a slippery slope, and boring, too. The moral of the story is this:  Do what you’re passionate about.

Whatever career topics you joyfully read about on your own time or will do for free, do that for pay. Don’t follow some path just because it might lead to more pay or more security. Both are over rated, and probably illusory.

"wrong way" road sign

Have tips or advice for a wayward ID? Wanna share your own story, organizational wisdom, or words of encouragement? I would love to hear from you!

Turns out that was true, and I’ve learned a lot. , and a great way to move into higher levels of management.
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ID Lessons from “The Electric Company”

August 28, 2008

Back when I was a kid I loved watching the TV show “The Electric Company.” The show used funny skits and simple animation to teach elementary aged kids (those who were too old for Sesame Street) reading and writing skills. The show’s theme song promised to “turn it on (and) give you the power.” And they did. The show was highly creative, hip, and open-minded (mixed-race relations, for example). It was good stuff. Recently, being in a nostalgic mood, my wife and I took out a DVD copy of old Electric Company episodes from our local library.

I am in awe and now have a new set of instructional design heroes. Move over Gagne. Like a lot of childen’s education, the show does a great job at explaining complicated things in a simple, fun way that make sense and are easy to apply. A good example is their lesson on “silent e” of the English language.

Pretty cool, huh? Now read what some smart writer on wikipedia wrote about the same topic:

Silent E is a writing convention in English spelling. When reading, the silent letter e at the end of a word signals a specific pronunciation of the preceding vowel letter….

Yawn…..ughhh……OK, that really sucks. If you want to learn more about silent e’s orthographic pattern you can read more here. I’d rather scrape my head on hot Georgia asphalt.

Now, the writer at wikipedia probably wasn’t writing with creative or effective instructional design in mind. But an awful lot of adult educational material reads like that. IDs and other business writers tend to make things too complicated, too long, and too detailed. I guess deep inside, a lot of us secretly think that long explanations with plenty of big words make us sound smarter.

Instead, we need to apply these lessons that The Electric Company writers mastered long before e-learning even existed:

  1. Get to the point.
  2. Keep it simple: Leave out the theory and unnessary explanation.
  3. Show how to do something.
  4. Give lots of examples.
  5. Be light, engaging, and fun.
  6. Don’t be afraid to express yourself in the material. (Its OK to show some personality! Honestly.)

Is it possible to turn adult learners on and bring them the power of The Electric Company?

Yeah, yeah. I know. Adult learners are different. I studied the theory and know the rules. But are we that much different? Not so much. Sure, sometimes what we need to teach is complicated and dry by nature. But too often we tend to bore victims learners with text heavy e-learning. We can do better. We can be light, simple, engaging, fun, and still reach adult learners. Don’t believe me?

Check out this Common Craft video explaining what a wiki is:

Notice that the video embodies some of the same pointers I took from the Electric Company: to the point, fun, engaging, and simple. No long-winded explanations. Good stuff!

So, think about the last boring e-learning you sat though (or created!). How could you apply the Electric Company lessons to YOUR course? How can you make learning a bit more fun and expressive? It might be worth a gamble. Go ahead….turn ’em on. Give ’em the power!

Need some musical motivation? Get turned on with the groovy theme song.


Rapid e-Learning Challenge: Day 3

July 2, 2008

Since my introduction to lean management began over the past year, I have come to realize how dreadfully lacking in documented standards and procedures most training and e-learning groups are (and most all administrative functions!). I’m trying to change that for my immediate work environment by establishing not just some best practices around e-learning, but also baseline processes and a structure for kaizen (continuous improvement). I have a lot of learning (and unlearning) to do.

In his book “Workplace Managment,” Taiichi Ohno, co-founder of the Toyota Production System, wrote: “…it will be difficult to establish a standard if you are trying to achieve ‘the best way.’ This is a big mistake. Document exactly what you are doing now.”

It’s easy to state the ideal way, the way it is “supposed” to be done, and call that “our process.” Think ADDIE, fellow designers. But the reality is we don’t always follow it. We usually add all sorts of other non-value-added steps. Or we do the steps out of order, which causes another kind of waste. By following the TPS way, we instead start with listing the actual steps. Then we can more accurately observe waste and work toward improvement.

My storyboarding process was supposed to look something like this:

  1. Storyboard each screen on a slide in PPT
  2. Find graphics
  3. Develop screens

Instead, it looked more like this:

  1. Storyboard a few screens
  2. Look for cool graphics on-line
  3. Put cool graphics on screen to see how they look
  4. Change graphic to gray scale and see if it looks better
  5. Storyboard another screen
  6. Etc.

Can you see the extra steps there? These out-of-order, extra steps add to the time line and the cost. If I had been doing this for a client on a fixed fee basis, it would have reduced my profit margin. And if I were charging per-hour, I should be asking, “Is the customer willing to pay for this?” But that’s another post.

 


Who Has Time for a Second Life?

June 14, 2008

This month’s Big Question at Learning Circuits is really three different questions around virtual world sensation Second Life.

I really couldn’t get past the first question: “In what situations, do you believe it makes sense to develop a learning experience that will be delivered within Second Life?”

My own knee jerk response to this is: “Second Life?  Hell, I barely have time and money for first life learning!” Sure, there are some interesting possibilities for SL, especially along the lines of the Plymouth example Tony Karrer describes. While SL has some awesome potential and applications, it is too time-consuming to figure how to design for it, and even more challenging for technically unsavvy audiences like the one I design for.

When I evaluate the right tool for e-learning, I think about where it fits in with a model similar to the one Clive Shepard recently posted about. He describes a model for delivering e-learning in three tiers, develped by Nick Shackleton-Jones.

pyramid400x286

At the top is high-end content that, due to it’s complexity, is expensive and often sponsored by top management (due to its expense and development time). At the bottom is user-generated content, social learning stuff. In the middle is the typical e-learning projects like tutorial, software sims, e-presentations, and the like.

So, in this model, it seems that SL kinda fits in at all three levels, depending on the design. But it’s complexity and steep learning curve (i.e., expensive!) puts it at smack at the top (I think). I don’t see how to reconcile this. I work for a huge company with a small learning group, and an even smaller e-learning team: ME!!!! I have to think hard about finding a big bang for my limited buck.

Right now, I am spending most of my time creating middle-tier e-learning. I’d like to move toward more user generated content. I can vision a much greater return on selling the power of blogs and wikis than I can virtual world tools like Second Life. Someday, maybe. Not today.

For now, I’m putting Second LIfe on hold and getting back to Real Life: A cold brew has my name on it at my favorite Seattle brew pub, where I will plan my next real life NW hike here:

Sign on Dungeness Spit, Olympic Peninsula, WA


Designing for conversation, not content

May 19, 2008

Is content king? Apparently most instructional designers think so. Maybe that mindset is why we end up with so much boring training- both classroom and online. No doubt content is important. But too often IDs spend too much time word-smithing and tweaking content at the expense of engaging design that gets people talking. Talking? Yeah, you know, conversation.

The best courses I have taken (and designed) included strategic use of conversation-based interactions that helped participants learn the content at a deeper level and make it personally relevant. Really well-done learning events, much like well-done messages of any kind,  also tend get talked about outside of the course enviornment.

Because people talk about what is relevant and important to them, we should design with that in mind.  We should design conversation into our courses (live in the classroom, or via blogs, wiki, social networking, etc). And instead of focusing on perfect content, we should figure out how to deliver it in a way that gets the learner talking about it outside the course. That’s where the real applied learning happens.

One way to do that would be to design post-course activities where participants work on projects in the field, and share their results with one another via blogs, for example. A conversation/collaboration strategy doesn’t have to be 2.0 tools only, of course. As Janet Clarey recently said, the challenge is to blend the best aspects of our current learning environments with the social learning technologies that support learning.

Back in 2006, Corey Doctorow pointed out that “Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.” While he is referring to media business (specifically Disney), we should be looking at training design, too.

Is content king? Maybe, but I say the ace of spades is conversation.

What do you think?


Pushing the envelope: Requiring blogging for learning

May 16, 2008

Tony Karrer asked an interesting question earlier this week: Should blogging be mandatory (in contexts such as attending conferences, formal learning setting, and sustained learning activities). The post generated a great discussion and a lot of points were raised. Not surprisingly, most of us in the conversation seem to object to anything “mandatory.” But now I am wondering if maybe some form of mandatory blogging isn’t a bad idea. After all, there are a lot of mandatory things in the learning world. Examples from my own career:

  • Taking training courses, I have had to complete certain assignments, often involving some sort of report
  • In various projects, I often have had to report out to colleagues on problem-solving results, project status, lessons learned, etc.
  • For personal development goals (such as reading educational books, attending lectures or conferences) I have had to write a report and email it to the team, or give a presentation.

All of these were “mandatory,” although that word may not have been used. They were required because there is some understanding of the importance of sharing knowledge. We all benefit from sharing lessons learned and knowledge newly acquired.

So, isn’t blogging the same thing? It is just another tool for doing what people have always done: connect and share. But blogging has some new benefits for learning organizations: Being on-line and storable, they potentially become a powerful way of storing tribal knowledge and having it searchable and retrievable by others now and in the future. And unlike Word reports sent via email, blogs are much better for creating conversation and further learning from one another….and those conversations, too, becomes storable and searchable.

How cool is that?

So maybe we should require blogging in certain contexts. It’s a powerful tool for learning. And as learning professionals, we really should be pushing the envelope with new technologies and helping our organizations become flexible, strong, learning organizations. We need to push the power of “We learning.”


Hello, Stranger

April 22, 2008

 This blog is another voice in the online, dynamic conversation around workplace learning. There are broadly three things on my mind these days that have me excited (yes, I’m a geek like that):  Emerging technologies, informal learning, and “lean.”  While there is a great deal of talk about Web 2.0 and other technologies implications on learning, I haven’t seen too much talk about how we might apply lean principles to instructional design.

First things first.

Things are changing. Not just the technologies, but assumptions and mindsets. Web 2.0 is empowering a new way of learning. This new way is one that lets ME decide what I want to learn, when I want to learn it, and connect with whomever I want (or whomever wants to connect with me!) to share ideas. I don’t have to wait for some training director or departmental boss to dictate what, how, when. While there is certainly a place for that and for formal, push-from-the-top training, there is a great need to balance that with informal and “pull-from-where-I-am-now” learning.

Speaking of “pull,”  what is Lean and why should you care?

“Lean” is short for “Lean manufacturing” and is a process management philosophy that grew out of the “Toyota Production System. ”  Lean thinking is powerful stuff and has transformed the way a lot of companies in the manufacturing world operate. Some of the core principles focus on waste reduction and continous problem-solving by all team members, pull processing, flow and visual control. While the concepts and tools were developed for manufacturing processes, they have been applied to administrative and office processes with amazingly effective results.

As an instructional designer and learning consultant, it didn’t take long before I started seeing implications for workplace learning and instructional design. Like what? Well, that’s what I’ll be gabbing about in the days ahead, sharing what I know and hopefully learning some stuff from you as well.

’til then, Happy Learning….