Friday, July 28, 2006

Learning portals

Some time ago (22 June, in fact), I posted a comment on one of Harold Jarche's posts about the pressing issues of adult learning. Tony Karrer repsonded with a request that I post that comment here, saying "It took me about five posts to say what you just said in about 20 words!". How could my ego resist such a flattering request? So here (somewhat belatedly) it is:

I find that the learning I design these days is looking increasingly like a knowledge portal and less like a course. It’s the putting-life-on-hold thing that makes learning inaccessible to so many busy professionals.

The virtual/RL line blurs

Mark Oehlert has a post about buying a real book in a virtual world with virtual money. I had to read it twice before I figured out how it works, and I'm still not completely sure I've got it right!

Years ago, when Dungeons and Dragons first came to prominence, a story did the rounds about a bunch of students who played this game so much that they became both obsessed and sleep deprived and lost track of the line between the virtual world and the real one. One the players allegedly murdered his parents in RL as a way of accessing his inheritance in order to do/acquire something in the virtual world, having completely overlooked the fact that the RL money (had he got it instead of prison time) could not make the transfer into the virtual world (real money won't buy you that hotel on Fleet Street in a game of Monopoly, either). The story might have been entirely apocryphal, but it was used by many parents to encourage their kids to balance their RL/virtual world experiences.

And here we are, a few years later: buying real things with virtual money.

Plotting relationships

A colleague sent me a link to two sites today, aimed at plotting the human side of relationships online, by contrast with Technorati and Feedster, which plot the "mechanical connections between nodes".

The first of these is called XFN, which stands for XHTML Friends Network, and uses as its starting point, this quote from Tim Berners-Lee:

The web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect — to help people work together — and not as a technical toy. The ultimate goal of the Web is to support and improve our weblike existence in the world. We clump into families, associations, and companies. We develop trust across the miles and distrust around the corner.
It allows individuals to identify the nature of their relationships with those who appear on their blogroll and accommodates the fact that relationships may not always be symmetrical (for example, I may think that you're my friend, while you may view me as an acquaintance.

The second of these is an online presentation called Bridging XHTML, XML and RDF with GRDDL (Gleaning Resource Descriptions from Dialects of Languages).

I'm not sure to what extent the untidiness of human relationships can successfully be defined or plotted within the tidy structures of code, but I'm wading my ignorant way through the material, hoping that it will dawn on me. I'm sure the more technically competent bloggers will make far more rapid progress with the material than I am, and I'd be interested in the thoughts of those fluent in the various MLish dialects.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Too much connectivity, on the other hand

Via George Siemens's weekly blog summary email, I found this article about "homo conexus", the connected man by James Fallows. He spent a period of time living and working entirely online. He made some interesting discoveries and experienced some frustrations along the way, which he sums up in his last two paragraphs:

In practical terms, where does this leave me? With the experiment over, I doubt that I'll use Writely again. (Yes, it does most of what I want in a word processor -- but so does Word, and I can use that when I'm sitting on an airplane. Same for Google Spreadsheets versus Excel.) Maybe I'll check out YouTube when someone sends me an interesting link. I'll look at Wikipedia pages when they come up high in a search and I have a way to double-check any crucial facts. As for MySpace -- nah!

But other applications have come to seem like natural parts of my daily life. Google Calendar is worth the effort -- for the appointments that my wife needs to know about. I find that I leave Google Earth running all day, to check aerial views of a foreign site I've just read about or a neighborhood where I'm meeting someone for lunch. The discount travel broker Kayak has gotten my attention; eBay has retained it, for all the obvious reasons. Flickr is a good way to share photo files with my family -- and keep them from jamming up my computer. I'll continue using Gmail as a backup site for important data files. As Ajax-enabled sites spread, they'll make sites that still require you to hit "refresh" or a "submit" button seem hopelessly out of date. I still don't like the label Web 2.0, I will continue to mock those who say "mash up," and I will never use Dodgeball. But I'm glad for what this experiment has forced me to see.

I don't know exactly how old Fallows is, but he has kids in their 20's, so I estimate that he must be at least knocking on 50 - more or less within my own generation. I would be interested to see the experiment repeated with a digital native. I wonder how their experiences would compare. Would their frustrations be the same? For example, would a 20-year-old be frustrated by the fact that Writely can't be used on an aeroplane, or would they use that time to catch up with a few downloaded podcasts?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Connectivity: ah, this is the life!

Today, I am working in my garden. I have an extension cord to take care of the power supply, wi-fi to take care of connectivity, a sun umbrella to take care of the glare on the screen, a glass of lime Coke (other beverages are available:-)) to take care of the heat and the thirst, and I'm "in the office".

My laptop is on the patio table, back to back with my husband's (he's on leave, but he's trying to resolve a problem in the New York office). The boys are indoors, playing on their PS2, the cats are rolling gleefully on the flagstones. The neighbours' kids are swimming in their pool, making delicious splashing sounds. The garden smells strongly of the conifers my sons were trimming back yesterday. Drifting in from next door is the tantalising aroma of another neighbour's cooking (I think the wife is Thai, and the smells from her kitchen would back that theory up) And in amongst these sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations, I am unravelling the intricacies of a system for which I must design learning materials. Life is sweet indeed.

As I look back over the career path that has led me here, I contrast this working experience with that of being considered late for work if I forgot to sign the register before 8:30 (regardless of what time I actually got into the office); with that of being expected to be in the office while authoring a user manual, in spite of the distractions that slowed down my work rate. I know that this always-on connectivity has brought with it many negatives (such as those my husband is experiencing as he spends a day of his precious, well-earned leave in discussion with staff in London and New York), but, for today, my experience is purely positive.

Contented sigh.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Virtual characters in elearning

Thanks to Mark Oehlert for this heads up. Codebaby offers a virtual character solution to add interactive, animated characters to elearning materials. They are quite sophisticated. It might be worth a look - some of our clients may have an interest in a feature like this. I haven't been able to identify what breadth of range is available. So far, I have only encountered female characters, and they have all had very strong North American accents. I presumed male characters could also be created, but I had less confidence that different accents were on offer. A UK audience is likely to baulk at an American/Canadian character presenting their learning material - particularly in the public sector.

Running through their online seminar, I learned that the customer decides on the gender and design of the character and can either choose or supply the voice. This takes care of all the variables that bothered me. However, that leaves one fairly large obstacle. Distance. I wonder if there are similar offers available in the UK.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Online whiteboard

Thanks to Mark Oehlert for this steer.

I am smitten! General Electric has developed an online whiteboard that I can use and share with up to two others. I can see this coming in very handy when next I have to discuss some "look and feel" issue with someone over the phone. So we can discuss our ideas, drawing on this whiteboard all the while. Then, when we're done, we can print it out. This is just so cool.

The one thing I haven't figured out how to do yet, is erase something. Perhaps there is a tool for that, and I've just missed it.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Death by meetings

Ouch. 'Nuff said. You know what's sad? I know people like this!


Kathy Sierra on Usability and Fun

Kathy Sierra is one of my all-time favourite bloggers. Her blog title (Creating Passionate Users) is very apt, considering the level of her own passion. While she moves in very different circles from me, many of the points she makes translate perfectly to the world of a learning designer. Today's post is about usability and fun, and makes a compelling argument (as Kathy usually does!). It was well-timed, too, since we recently had a team day at work, and one of the sessions dealt with usability, touching on the same Jakob Nielsen points that Kathy mentions.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Elgg blog saves the day

As well as this blog, I have a few others that address different issues. Like this one, most of these are Blogger blogs. One is the family blog intended to keep far flung friends and family up to speed with what's going on in the Romeis household. I regularly post news of achievements, milestones and heartbreaks and include pictures fairly often. The blog has risen to the occasion for these purposes.

Recently, I tried to include a video clip of my elder son achieving his personal best with the javelin in the county trials. I failed dismally, but filed the failure on my things-to-learn-how-to-do pile. That post wound up being text only, since I had taken no stills of the occasion.

Last week, my younger son took part in the class concert which marked the end of the school year and the end of primary school. Since my husband was in New York on business at the time, I took a video recording of the little guy playing bass with his young rock band, and tried to upload that to the blog. Another dose of failure.

So I set about learning how to get it right. First of all, I found a site called Videodesk that would allow me to host video clips (forgive me if I'm wrong, but I seem restricted to photographs on Flickr) free of charge. My first attempt was abortive because, the limit was 5MB, and I hadn't even noticed that my clip was a whopping 23MB.

New learning objective: learn how to use the video editing software that came with the camera to lift a small sample. Okay - got that (sort of). Upload video. Done. Embed video into blog post. Hmmm.

I faithfully copied the piece of code provided and then went to embed it into my post. No go. I got error message after error message. I knew from experience that shouting "But why????" at a computer yields no response, but I tried it anyway. Predictably: no response.

I was about ready to give up, when a little bell rang at the back of my mind. Elgg. A colleague and I once ran a workshop in blogging for some local authority education consultants and we used Elgg for the exercise. Elgg blogs have a "My Files" feature.

I created a new blog for the family, uploaded the video clip and linked to it from a post. Hey presto and voila!

Of course, by this time my husband had returned from New York and watched the clips in full, but the rest of the family and friends were able to check it out and we've had fantastic responses to it... and calls for more of the same. While Blogger suits my purposes for most of my blogs, if I am to honour the family's calls for more visual material, I suspect that I will be using Elgg for the family news from now on.

Perhaps I can now belatedly immortalise my elder son's achievements with the javelin (which his Dad was there to see in person, hence the comparitive lack of urgency).

Friday, July 14, 2006

Pigeon holes and perceptions

As online courses become more the exception than the norm for the way learning solutions are structured, I find I deal with a variety of reactions when I propose the sort of learner-driven "black bag of knowledge" approach I've posted about before on this blog. People tend to have a preconceived notion about things and have to change gear when something doesn't behave the way they expected. Forced out of their nice safe comfort zone of things they have taken for granted, the initial response is often resistance, as people imagine all manner of worst case scenarios. Sometimes we need to demonstrate something in context for people to believe that it will work.

I think the whole DOPA issue may well have arisen due to assumptions being made by people who haven't observed social media at work in the classroom context.

For the past few months, my husband and I have had to tolerate umpteen people asking us when we were going to get our younger son's hair cut (he sports - by choice - shoulder length curls). I presume that he has had to put up with even more of this. Our view is that it's only hair, it's his hair and there are more important things to fight about, which is exactly what we have said on countless occasions.

Last night, he played the bass guitar with a band in his end-of-year, end-of-key-stage school concert. He put together his own outfit (suit trousers, basketball boots, a white shirt with the top button undone and a tie with the knot halfway down his chest) and totally carried it off. After the concert, more than one person commented on how much he looked the part of a bassist (I had to agree: he had it all going on, down to all the right "moves") and how good he was. I asked one of his new-found (adult) fans what she thought of his hair. She declared it "totally cool" and begged me not to force him to have it cut (as if!).

So when people see him as a 12 year old church-going school boy, they find his hair inappropriate, but when they shift their paradigms and see him as the bass player of a preteen rock band, it's a different story.

Like my son, we are up against it as we try to persuade people that putting the control of learning into the hands of the learner is a Good Thing. Once they see it in context, the penny may drop, but we still have to get them to let us put it in place so that they can see it....

It all comes back to control. I am happy to relinquish control of his hairstyle to my son. Management faces the same challenge in terms of the control of what, when and how learners learn.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

It's not about always getting it right - it's about fixing it when you don't

Whether we like it or not, most of us are involved in customer service of one sort or another. In my current job the old adage "the customer is always right" is somewhat blurred, because part of my job is to help the customer find an answer that will work or help the customer to see why what he thinks he wants won't work. I enjoy being on this side of the service equation. Cheesy as it may sound, I enjoy the notion of adding value, of being of use, of providing something that makes the user say, "Cool!".

It is on the other side of the equation where I have less enjoyable experiences. I confess that I am probably one of the worst customers on the planet. This is partly because I have a chip on my shoulder and partly because I worked as a customer service consultant/trainer for several years.

I'm pretty fierce when I don't the level of service I feel I should, simply because I am the customer, because I'm spending my hard-earned money with a provider. This is unfortunate in the UK, where levels of customer service are dire. I have been sworn at, told to f*** back to whatever country it is that I come from, asked who the heck I think I am. All of these are inexcusable. I don't expect perfection - we're all human, we're all going to get it wrong from time to time. What I do expect is that when someone blows it, they have a mechanism in place both to make it right and to compensate me to keep me sweet. I am genuinely not interested in hearing that a witch-hunt was conducted and the person at fault has been burnt at the stake. What I want is a solution and a peace offering.

Recently, our broadband connection at home went down. We made several calls to the provider, waiting up to 49 minutes on at least one occasion (we have a timer on the phone) for someone to take the call. We were advised that the fault would be recorded and escalated to an engineer. Promises were given and broken regarding time frames. I pointed out that, when my phone line goes down, BT gives me 1 month's free line rental for every day without service, and asked if similar compensation was on offer. Apparently not, because broadband is not a guaranteed service. I can't understand how it is legal to continue to charge someone for a service you are not providing... especially since the fault must have been at their end (in spite of their repeated assertions that our router must be damaged). I know this because they were - eventually - able to fix re-establish the connection without coming to the house at all. Hmm.

I had similar problems last week with a hire car that turned out not to have a valid road tax disk. Several calls yielded vast quantities of verbal shrugging, leaving me to suggest solutions which were agreed to but not delivered. Was the next hire free of charge or a better model of car to make up for it? Quite the contrary - it was smaller and had no air conditioning.

This is more Kathy Sierra's turf than mine, and has little to do with learning per se. Nevertheless, none of us is excused and I am adamant that when (not if) you blow it, you have to make up for it so completely that you take the user by surprise and keep them at the koolaid point. So when I have to explain to my client why what he wants isn't going to work, I have to suggest an alternative that works even better. And then, just as an added bonus, I could include a little something extra that he didn't expect. And when something I deliver doesn't work as it should, I have to fix it - preferably before I'm asked.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Games and simulations

On Friday, two colleagues and I attended an eLearning Network conference entitled "What can e-learning take from games and simulations?"

Just as an aside: this was the first anniversary of the 7/7 London suicide bombings and the police presence was very conspicuous at every station - both tube and mainline. Due to signal failure on our own line, we had to travel in from another station which feeds into one of the affected stations. The colleague travelling with me was not prepared to chance the tubes. I guess being a South African has deadened my senses somewhat, since I was quite prepared to do so. However, out of respect for her concerns, we opted for a cab instead... like most of London, apparently!

We arrived a little late for the first session, but were able to pick it up from there.

Session 1: Ron Edwards - Ambient Performance. Considering Adding Games to you Learning Mix? Ron talked from the perspective of someone involved in developing (and playing!) games. He discussed simulations and augmented reality (simulation "painted" over existing backgrounds). He outlined the growing popularity of online gaming and the reasons for this phenomenon.

He argued that games afforded people a fun, safe environment in which to practise new skills. Games provided engagement for the learner until all learning objects have been covered. Online multiplayer games afforded the opportunity to engage in team work.

His suggestion was to consider what problem it is you are setting out to solve and to match the learning needs to the approach being used. Of course, the next step would be the standard cost/benefit analysis, and he advised that we start small and grow with success. The resultant flow would be as shown in this diagram.

Session 2: Alan Samuel, TATA Interactive; Sue Honore, Ashridge College; Mark Frank, Training Synergy - Panel Discussion.
The unnerving thing was that the panel seemed to be no further forward than many of the members of the audience and it was unclear what it was that we could expect to take away from that session. What was even more worrying was that both the chairman and the next scheduled speaker on the programme expressed an agnostic attitude toward the benefit of games in learning.

Session 3: Nick Rushby, Conation Technologies. Nick was one the professed agnostics. He started off his session by stating that people have always learned from play and that we have only (comparitively) recently begun to be able to quantify what and how we learn. True. He then asked the audience to call out some examples of games. These ranged from ice hockey to Tetris to tiddlywinks. We were called upon to list some of the skills learned from such games. Similarly, we were asked to call out names if simulations and to identify skills acquired from these. His argument was that skills learned in games do not transfer to other areas of life. Learning teamwork skills in football, he contended, did not teach teamwork in an office environment. I was left wondering if non verbal reasoning (a skill learned and practiced in many of the games mentioned) is not a transferrable skill, why so much emphasis is placed on this ability in schools.

He used as an example, his own experience of the night before, playing Formula 1 on a PlayStation. Because the controls bore no resemblance to those in a real formula 1 car, he argued that he had not acquired any transferrable skills. I found this to be a strange conclusion to draw. First off, the PlayStation game did not hold itself up as a learning environment - it is purely designed for fun. Secondly, the sort of controls that do duplicate those of a formula 1 car can be obtained, if a more "real" experience is required.

He displayed charts showing the difference in effectiveness between simulation learning and what he termed real world learning, with simulation learning lagging behind. Apart from hard skills, such as driving or flying, I was hard pressed to think of examples of real world learning. Possibly mentoring? Even JIT learning and coaching tend to require a momentary suspension of reality as the skill is acquired. Classroom based learning, online learning - these are not the real world. These are artificial environments providing the learner with a safe space to get to grips with a new skill before applying it in the real world.

Most useful in this session was an audience member's point about the comparitive cost of failure in the real world as opposed to a simulation. When failure in the real world stands to cost vast fortunes or result in loss of life or damage to the environment, even costly simulation must surely pay for itself.

Nick, however, made a valid point that in order to sell gaming as a learning concept, we are going to have to come up with a stronger argument than that it is fun and engaging.

Session 4: Martine Parry, Kezos and Serious Games Conference. Martine addressed the thinking behind the use of the term "serious games". To my mind it was a semantic issue. We have used quizzes and games in learning since time out of mind, why should the transfer online be taboo? If we were proposing to replace an entire learning programme with a game, then I could understand the concern. But, unless I have completely misunderstood the matter, the idea is to introduce this additional approach into the blend.

Martine showed a selection of games, of varying degrees of sophistication. Apparently, of the organisations polled, 70% say they will introduce games-based learning in the next 2-5 years. She emphasised the need for collaboration between e-learning providers and games producers in order to develop games that are both engaging and effective.

Session 5: Kevin Corti, PixeLearning. Kevin talked about the need to address andragogy , not just pedagogy, through learning. The learner population is changing, and we need to address their changing requirements. He referred to the advantages of an administator being able to track user progress. As a developer of learning games, he listed several practical issues that need to be considered, such as whether off-the-shelf or bespoke games are required, licensing issues, assessment criteria, accreditation, etc. He pointed out that games are not designed to teach theory, but to provide an environment in which the theory can be tested and practised.

He, too, emphasised the need for collaboration between the learning designer and the games designer, for the same reason as Maxine gave.

My own view is that we need to stop limiting ourselves to thinking of games as being sophisticated simulations. Games include a far wider range of options. Then, if we remind ourselves of the quizzes that have been used in online learning for years, the transition to games-based-learning becomes less radical.

We also need to remember that the game is not intended to replace all existing learning materials, but to enhance the blend.

I also think that the real problem is not that we think people won't learn anything from games, but that we won't be able to control what it is that they learn... and therein lies the rub. It's going to be a little tricky to persuade someone to invest large sums of money in a learning solution that is going to provide an indefinable outcome.

I will be e-mailing a link to this post to the two colleagues who attended this conference with me. No doubt their perspective will be very different from mine, so perhaps they will provide their own insight in the form of comments....

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

More about painful learning

Thanks to Harold Jarche for commenting on my post about the pain of learning, and pointing to Mark Oehlert's post about the pain of change. Although Mark's is a short-sweet-and-to-the-point post that doesn't go into great depth, some interesting points are made. I was interested in two of the points particularly, namely:

  • Behaviourism doesn't work, and
  • Humanism is overrated.
My own experience tends to bear this out. Both those approaches seem to me to be somewhat patronising, and the adult learner at any rate is neither motivated nor engaged that way. People learn for many of the same reasons they give up smoking, go on diet or start exercising. They want to do it for themselves, because they have identified that it would be the better off for it. They have to believe that the pain/discomfort/inconvenience/withdrawal symptoms are going to be worth it in the end.