Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Defining learning design

I have often felt that defining a learning designer's role is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Especially when I am trying to explain to an "outsider" what it is that I do. However, I think I might have just found a new favourite blogger in the shape of Patrick Dunn of Networked Learning Design, who goes a long way towards giving the role some shape. I am just disappointed that I couldn't find an RSS feed to the blog so that I could subscribe (happy to be proved wrong, by the way).

Thanks to Mark Berthelemy who emailed me the link to this post about the learning designer as an architect. The fact that the link came from Mark is no coincidence: we work together on the same team: he as a solutions architect, while I am a learning designer. The boundary between his role and mine has never really been clear. There are things that I think I should so and things I will need Mark to do. These are unlikely to mirror exactly the things he thinks he should do and the things he needs me to do. I confess I am probably the more precious of the two when there is overlap.

However, I have a tendency to approach each project with a sense of panic that I have no idea how to do this. In my more objective moments, I see this as a good thing. Each new project is a whole voyage of discovery. A new adventure with a new destination. What are the learner's needs? What do we want the learner's experience to be? What tools are there out there that will help us achieve that? Which of those tools will work within the client company's constraints? How are we going to engage the learner? And a host of other questions. I have no interest in duplicating the last project for the new client. As Patrick Dunn suggests, we can use patterns and prompts to get the creative juices flowing, but who wants to get stuck in a mechanistic re-use rut? Bleagh!

Kathy Sierra: Randomness and Serendipity

There is a disadvantage to Kathy's enormously popular blog, Creating Passionate Users, and that is that the comments come in so thick and fast, there isn't really the opportunity for a genuine exchange of ideas. Blogs with readers in the hundreds still generate conversation in response to their posts. Blogs with readers in their thousands, markedly less so. When yours is comment number 32, you know that there is scant chance that the blog owner will read it, much less engage with it (Kathy is more diligent than most at this), but the chances of other readers reading and engaging with your comment are even more remote. Hence any comment you make is likely to become a unidirectional salvo.

As a consequence, while Kathy's posts very often strike a chord with me, I seldom comment on them. Kathy is one of those bloggers you really feel you get to know as a person, since she writes passionately (well duh! with a blog name like that), and she shares personal experiences and insights. In spite of not commenting very often, I remain a passionate reader of since we have a shared passion for the ultimate client, the end-user. Although our user audiences differ, the principle remains the same.

After all that preamble, I would like to draw attention to this post: Add a little more random to your product. As a designer of learning resources, I increasingly find that it is necessary to "add more random". The learner is less patient with linear navigation and increasingly wants to explore. Providing the means for a learner-driven adventure in information is tougher, but more rewarding. I am especially keen to create resources that can be used after the initial learning/familiarisation exercise as a random reference resource.

The allegory isn't perfect, but think of a dictionary - and I don't care whether that dictionary is online or taking up six inches of shelf space. Very few people actually sit and read a dictionary (some do, and I say: whatever floats your boat, friend!), however, most homes and offices have one. When a person wants to check the spelling of a word, they reach for the dictionary, check it out, type/write the word and move on. When a kid has just learned to swear and wants to see if the f-word is listed in so august and respectable a publication, he and his mates will sit giggling over the thing for hours as they seek out ever ruder words, little realising the enormous (completely legitimate, totally un-profane) learning exercise they're undertaking. When you encounter an unfamiliar word, you reach for the dictionary, check out the meaning and move on with the thing you were reading. Reaching for the dictionary is a reflex action. Why? Because it delivers the goods so much of the time that it makes it a sensible option.

That's my goal. That's the kind of resource I want to build: Ms Manager sitting in her office faced with a situation she has never encountered before. I'd like her to be reaching for the learning resource we created for her, finding her answer and moving on with her life. Not because it bigs me up in any way, but because then the resource is fulfilling its raison d'etre.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Web 3.0

Okay - we're at the extreme reaches of my knowledge and understanding here, and the air is thin! You have been warned.

This article
appeared in the Daily Yomiuri last week. It attempts to identify Web 3.0, a task about which it says, "The first thing to understand about Web 3.0 is that there is little general agreement about what it really means, even among the experts". A blogger in my blogroll recently dipped a toe in this water recently - I could have sworn it was Vicki Davis, but I now can't find the post. However, this is a topic that has had a fair amount of coverage in the blogosphere lately. Check out the following posts, some of which overloaded the wiring in my low voltage brain:

Wikipedia, it seems, has different ideas - the Web 3.0 page has been "deleted, and protected to prevent re-creation." Who got to make that call, I wonder?

I might be wa-ay off beam here, but it seems to me that metatagging is going to play a huge role in 3.0. But surely metatags are applied by the people who publish the material, and who's to say that the material they publish is accurate - or event that the metatags are appropriate?

At the moment, when I want to know something, I type in keywords and get a list of publications which contain those words - even when they don't actually relate to each other in any meaningful way. Under this system, I briefly scan the most promising looking of these and decide for myself, based on a process I couldn't begin to understand, let alone describe (but which may well have something to do with George Siemens's theory of connectivism) whether the material is valid and reliable.

From what I hear, in 3.0. I should be able to type in a question, rather than a series of keywords. What I'm not quite clear on is whether 3.0 is going to present me with a shorter list of publications, each of which is an accurate match to the context of my words or, whether it will go one step further and provide me with a definitive answer gleaned from the content of the sites trawled. To my limited imagination, the latter sounds like pie in the sky. The former sounds a big enough ask!

In order to be able to achieve the former, my search engine will have to make sense of my question, and align it accurately with the metatags of the published material online in order to make the matches. The latter would seem to require an in-depth grasp of content that I can't even begin to get my head around!

What worries me a bit is what will happen to the process of assessing material for validity and reliability. Having said that, at a stretch I can handle the idea of 3.0 handling validity, but reliability?

Hoo boy - I see another steep learning curve looming on the horizon!

Virtual embassies

As I read the posts in my aggregator every morning certain words are guaranteed to jump out at me. Predictably, these are words that relate to aspects of my personal and/or cultural history. Perhaps I've finally identified a tendency of mine to which I can apply the word atavistic. By extension, I also prick up my eyes, so to speak, when encountering words that relate to my husband's personal and/or cultural history.

Hence my heightened interest when I encountered this post from Mark Oehlert with the word Sweden in the title. I have never ventured into the world of Second Life, but I have been interested to note how it is gaining traction with a most unlikely audience. I have heard of organisations creating SL info portals. Obviously recognising that SL provides access to a market with money to spend, not just a bunch of teenaged computer nerds (I apologise for the stereotype - but I don't think it's a million miles from most people's unconscious assumptions). It seems like a good PR exercise. After all, companies have been creating websites for years to reach the audience of people who venture out into the www.

I was fascinated when Mark attended an SL book signing, bought the book with SL money (sorry - I don't know the proper name for the official currency) and received a hard copy of it through the mail. I also read recently of the sorts of money some people were making selling SL characters, assets and accessories on eBay.

The lines are blurring. I can fully understand Sweden's thinking behing the SL embassy. Their physical embassies have a presence online via websites which serve as an information portal. Why not then a virtual embassy in SL? What I wonder is, can you apply for a visa via the SL embassy and then receive the hard copy via the post? And if so, would you pay for it with SL money or the currency of the country in which the embassy is based?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Some things don't work online!

This morning I discovered something that hasn't worked online: candlelit romance.

Tuesdays I work at home. Because my laptop has recently decided not to maintain connection to my wifi, I am compelled to do this on the family PC until such time as the problem is solved (by someone more techie than me!). This morning, I find that my efforts are somewhat hampered by the large quantities of wax all over the keyboard! It seems my younger son was attempting to romance the current object of his affections via msn-by-candleight last night. You have to give him credit for originality, but the resultant conjoining of some of the keys is a tad inconvenient, to say the least.

If anyone out there has successfully managed to foster an atmosphere of romance online, I would appreciate any tips that you might have that I can pass on to my son.

Oh, and if anyone knows how to get wax out of a keyboard...

Thursday, January 18, 2007


So England hasn't quite finished dishing up quirky weather conditions (see my previous post about the wet drought). Today the wind is blowing so hard that all the rail services from London have been suspended. And guess where I am!

I don't normally work in London, but today I stood in for my ailing boss (who must for the first time be even just a little grateful for his condition) and ran a workshop for some colleagues. Afterwards, I took a rare opportunity to have lunch with my husband - what a civilised way to spend an hour! Then it was time to make my way home, except I arrived at Euston station to be greeted with an unbroken line of CANCELLED CANCELLED CANCELLED across the schedule. I made my way back to my husband's office, where he set me up in a corner with Internet access. From here, I was able to catch up with my emails and blog subscriptions. I love the fact that, in a completely strange environment, I can still be "in the office".

Of course, I don't love the fact that there is still no way home for the foreseeable future. Our two sons are reacting very differently to the prospect of a night without the parents in the house.

Anybody know a way I could email myself home?

Writing skills

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A very wet drought

England is in the grips of a drought. It's the wettest drought in recorded history. I kid you not. Many parts of the country have had hosepipe bans. Yet it has been piddling down very Englishly for days on end. Driving the 20 miles (32kms) to work last week, I passed whole pastures that were underwater.

In some parts of the country the hosepipe ban was lifted. I had a mental image of people dashing out in their wellies to stand in an inch of water and water their gardens with hosepipes. Hmm. Perhaps not. They would be more likely to use the hosepipes to syphon the water off into the drains!

In some parts of the country, the hosepipe ban remains in force. Last night on the news, some poor woman from the water company had drawn the short straw and had to try to explain to the news-watching public why this was the case. Of course it had to do with the reserves - these need to be built up so that there is enough water put by for the summer. But when the water table is so high that rivers have burst their banks left and right, it's hard to imagine that the reserves are anything other than overflowing.

The footage consisted of the woman sitting in stationary position, explaining the matter. With this approach, I don't think the authorities are going to persuade the general public to take the drought seriously, when the evidence of their eyes tells them a very different story.

So how does this relate to the world of learning, knowledge and information? The information we give to people must make sense with what they already know, or what they can see for themselves. If it doesn't, we are going to have to work really hard, not only to provide more information as to why this is the case, but to get them to accept this information and shift their paradigms as a consequence... and that's a hard sell. Those good old fashioned barriers to learning are notoriously hard to shift when they are self-erected-and-maintained.

I was thinking about how this water company representative might have communicated her message more convincingly and thought of this:

  • Pictures of the flooded pastures and valleys - commentary to the effect that anyone seeing this sight could be forgiven for thinking that there was a surplus of water in England right now
  • Picture of underground water reserves - commentary to the effect that the water supply that feeds our homes and our industries is drawn from here. When it is full, it looks like this (archive picture or graphical representation). Right now, it looks like this (picture of marker, or graphical representation). In order to get through the coming summer, we need at least this much (picture/graphic)
  • Brief, simple chalk-and-talk type explanation of why all this above ground water doesn't automatically mean full underground reserves
  • Specifics - in order to get the water we need
    • it will take at least 3/2/17/whatever more days/decades/weeks of heavy rain in the right areas,
    • these areas are x, y and z,
    • the forecast for those areas for the next few days is good/bad/indifferent.
I could be way off beam here, but I can't help thinking that anything would have been more convincing than a lady in a pretty dress telling a waterlogged England that there is a drought on and we should all conserve water.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The big question for January: speed v quality

Tony Karrer has persuaded me that I have input to make on this month's Big Question, namely:

What are the trade offs between quality learning programs and rapid e-learning and how do you decide?
I thought I would duck it, since I have thus far not had any exposure to rapid e-learning per se, but Tony felt differently. He said:
"Karyn - the question is not as much about "Rapid eLearning" as it is about speed vs. quality. And I'm psychic, so I know you face that issue on almost every project you do. :)"
And, in a way, he is right, of course. I have been in this field in its various guises for 20 years now and although my involvement with e-learning only goes back two years or so, the challenge of quality v speed has been ever present. If I were to be flippant, I would probably say: quality every time.

Like anyone (I presume), I prefer to be given enough time and budget to produce a learning resource that will do the job, while looking good. Impress the learner while meeting his needs, why not? Of course, it's easy to say that when time is short we focus on functionality and forget form, and this is what the client usually suggests when proposing a gasp-inducing timeframe. The sad reality is that functionality takes wa-ay longer than form to produce. And I speak as one for whom form is important.

The bitter pill is that, when the schedule (or the budget for that matter) is tight, scoping has to be very tight and some things just ain't gonna happen! There is a serious risk of cutting corners in the analysis and scoping phase of the project, but I suggest that this is false economy. When I'm under time pressure I am even more in need of a tight scope in order to produce an effective resource within the limits placed upon me.

Even when the schedule is tight, the end product must WORK. It must deliver the goods, or it has been time (and therefore money) wasted.

One of the biggest frustrations when there are tight schedules is access to SMEs and stakeholders. Since they have different priorities (usually the day job), they can sometimes take their sweet time getting back to me! It is very important to have a good rapport with these folks.

So I would suggest that the following factors are required:
  • A diligent, somewhat ruthless analysis
  • A tight scope - signed off in blood, for preference ;-)
  • A resourceful, comprehensive design that will enable a quick build...
  • The tools to achieve a quick build (products like exe or Etomite are good for elearning materials)
  • Fast turnaround times on edits and amends
  • Easy access to and excellent rapport with SMEs (no "us and them)
  • QA that focuses first on functionality and then on form
  • A team that cares about the learner
  • A team that is prepared to send out for pizza and get the job done
  • A mutually accepted and respected process of change requests
In summary, I guess that while I grudgingly accept that some measure of quality will be lost when tight schedules are in place, some damage control is possible. At the end of the day it's about the user, though - intuitive access/navigation is non-negotiable, and the product must deliver the goods. If this is not possible within the constraints, I guess we need to qualify out of the running for the job. I recognise that internal providers don't have the luxury of this option, so perhaps some assertiveness training wouldn't go amiss - learning to say no without losing your job!

There's probably a lot more I should have mentioned and I'm quite likely to have omitted points that are so vital and integral as to be invisible...

Monday, January 08, 2007


So it seems Ruth Kelly, Former UK Education Secretary, is sending one of her kids (a child with substantial learning difficulties" to a private school.

Opinion is divided in the Labour Government as to whether this is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. Tony Blair supports her right to choose the school that she feels will best meet her child's needs (Tony Blair himself has come in for criticism in the past regarding his choice of school for his own children). One Labour MP, however, told her "You should set an example as a minister and support your local school."

If he is able to be a politician first and a parent second, good luck to him. Ms Kelly is quoted as having said "Like any parent, my first thought was to do the right thing for my child." I'm with her: family first, career second. End of.

But for those whose finances don't allow them the luxury of that choice, it is sad that the state school systems are inadequate. The fact that the members of the government themselves are opting out of the education system that the rest of us must make do with is an indictment indeed.

Assessments in elearning

Tony Karrer has posted an interesting look at assessment in elearning, citing Will Thalheimer's post on the subject. Sadly, this reflects my own take on the matter, and not just in respect of elearning, but I find that fewer and fewer instructor-led courses are using anything more than happy sheets.

In my last job, I introduced level 2 - level 1 was already in place, and it was seen as being pretty "out there" to take it to the next level. They patted themselves on the back for being so progressive.

I had a go at getting level 3 in place, but this required the cooperation of line managers so it was pretty patchy. Those who cared about learning and development bought into it, but they were in the minority.

As for level 4... Every time I raised the subject, I got shot down in flames. I was assured I didn't need to produce ROI - my job was secure. There was no way I could get them to drop the knowing smiles and understand the benefits of researching the ROI of the learning I was developing - especially since it was all totally new stuff.

Ironically, within months of my leaving, my replacement was made redundant and advised that it had been a mistake to have an in-house training programme. Without evidence of ROI, she had no evidence to the contrary. All we had was the large collection of emails the staff had sent me before I left, highlighting the difference the learning had made to them, which wasn't considered valid. Secure, huh?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

New year's resolution... of sorts

Okay, let me admit right up front that I'm not that hot on New Year's resolutions per se. That said, my family and I like to spend New Year's day lunch time reflecting on the highs and lows of the past year and setting some goals for the year ahead. Since I had come down with a thumping case of eyeball-aching 'flu the day before, I found it difficult to stay focused. So we postponed the discussion to this weekend. That has given me time to think...

About 18 months ago I took my current job. For 18 years I had been a classroom-based trainer. For all that time, my role had encompassed the whole gamut of the learning cycle: TNA, design, development, delivery, implementation, evaluation, mentoring, coaching, make the tea, drink the tea... I was immersed in the world of my learners. I loved it and I was good at it, very good at it (if I do say so myself - I have the unsolicited testimonials to back up my boast, scouts' honour).

But I was getting frustrated in my last job. I wanted to introduce some online learning, a portal, some short e-snippets. But he-who-signed-the-cheque wasn't having any: it wasn't the right culture or climate, apparently. So I sought for and found a job that would broaden my experience to include elearning. My current title is Blended Learning Solutions Designer. A bit of a misnomer, really, since I have somehow gotten stuck in an eddy of elearning. I design the elearning component of blended solutions and very seldom get a look in to the workshops, the mentoring, the coaching, and as for contact with the learners (aside from the SMEs)... Try as we might, we have been unable to persuade our clients to let us in beyond a rather narrow remit.

This year, I am determined to change that. I don't want out. I want in. In to designing the blended learning solution as my title suggests. In to contact with the learner - how do I evaluate the effectiveness of my designs without that? In to helping people overcome challenges in the workplace. I don't want to be a vendor, I want to be a provider. I might not work in an educational institution, but I am a teacher nonetheless, and I miss teaching.

Vicki Davis refers to teaching as a noble calling. I think it might actually be a state of being, rather than a titular thing. It might just be the Lemsip talking, but this year I think I need to find a way to re-release the teacher within.

Any suggestions???

Perspective on the wisdom of crowds

An excellent post from Kathy Sierra on this subject. It has been one that has given me the yips for some time. I have enormous problems with the idea of striving towards excellence by adopting the behaviours of swarming creatures (in spite of the fact that I admire their accomplishments). I also have problems discerning any wisdom in the behaviour of crowds at soccer matches. It's good to see someone with Kathy's credibility putting it into perspective.