Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Exam time again :o(

With one son busy with GCSE exams and the other with A2 levels, I am surrounded by the detritus of exam-time at the moment. Both my sons' girlfriends are also busy with GCSEs, which simply adds and extra dimension to the stress. Snapping and sniping and the occasional bout of near-hysterical laughter at nothing-in-particular are the order of the day.

I have shared before my antipathy towards exams as a means of testing competency in a subject, and we once again find ourselves reaffirming our every negative feeling on the matter.

My younger son recently sat a maths paper, the first half of which was based around a single scenario. Sadly for him, he didn't understand the initial scenario, so half the total marks for the paper were placed beyond his reach in one fell swoop. Students were presented with a quadrilateral of some kind and given information about a 'transection'. My son is familiar with the word 'transect' in daily language, but assumed that, in this case, it was a mathematical term with associated formulae and methodologies and so forth that he had somehow missed (like integration, for example).

Can you imagine his mounting stress as question after question referred back to this diagram that he simply couldn't fathom? Mentally adding up the marks that he was effectively barred from earning must have been gut-wrenching when he had been doing so well in the subject to date. By the time he reached the first question unrelated to the mystery diagram, his stress levels were through the roof and he could barely think straight. He knew he had to get practically full marks for the rest of the paper to be in with a hope of passing, and this placed him under additional pressure.

My elder son had a very similar experience last year with a statistics paper which centred largely around a single case-study. He got 37% for that paper, after having fared better in stats than any other subject throughout the year. He promptly betook himself to a tutor (okay, we betook him... and paid the extortionate rates) and got an A on the resit. He didn't learn any more about stats from the tutor. He learnt about exam papers... and went from 37% to 80+% in the space of a couple of months.

Now let's think how that scenario might play out in the work place (or anywhere else in 'real life'). Somebody gives you a diagram or a scenario and tells you to perform certain calculations on it which are pertinent to the situation. You can't figure out the diagram/scenario. What do you do? Well, quite clearly, you get some assistance. You ask someone to explain it to you. You look on YouTube or Google or Wikipedia. You look up unknown words in a dictionary. You phone a friend. You ask the audience. Whatever.

Then you perform the calculations and present them back to the person who needed them. Or you buy the floor tiles. Or supply the correct does of the required medication.

Nobody locks you in a sensory deprivation chamber and expects you to do it all on your tod from memory.


So irrelevant.

Pet topics at LSG10UK

Yesterday was the Learning & Skills Group members conference (do I sound Very Important if I mention that I am a founder member?), when over 400 people gathered for a follow up event to the Learning Technologies conference held in January.

If you follow me on Twitter, you will have been inundated with my observations of some of the sessions already. Internet access in the main auditorium was (as always) patchy at best, so I was unable to share much from the sessions that took place there. In fact, perhaps this is an appropriate place to mention that, of the two most recent conferences I have attended, I experienced better connection in Lusaka than I did in London!

One of the things I often note about conferences is that the speakers tend to say things that I have been saying for years... only when I say them, no-one pays the blindest bit of attention. However, when luminaries like Charles Jennings and Jay Cross say them, they cause a huge stir. During discussions with my neighbour in Charles's session, I found that I am not alone in this. It's frustrating for us nobodies!

As always, a few of my pet topics came up. Learner empowerment. Permanent beta (aka rolling with the punches). ROI. Aligning with the business.

Jay's keynote addressed the subject matter of his new book, Work(ing) Smarter. He talked about the speed of data generation and touched on the power of the individual to change the market, citing the example of United Breaks Guitars. Even though I had seen it before, and even though country and western music sets my teeth on edge, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being with people watching the story unfold for the first time. That YouTube video has taken over 8.5 million hits, and United's share price took a massive hit of its own as a result. Never question the power of the individual to change things! He touched on cluetrain manifesto, and I was surprised at the relatively low number of hands raised in answer to his question as to how many had read it.

This addresses the fact that people react very publicly to things. We might think it's a bit rude, or a bit unfair or a bit whatever, when people express their disapproval for all the world to see on FB and/or Twitter, but that attitude isn't going to change anything. We simply have to face up to the fact that that is how the world works now (as predicted by cluetrain) and develop strategies to engage with a public that has a voice and isn't afraid to use it.

As I have been saying for a long time now, if we adopt the attitude that all learning/staff training/call it what you will must be officially developed, sourced and/or sanctioned by the L&D department, we will forever be running to catch up, and we will turn what should be an empowering service into a bottle neck. Several times yesterday, we were reminded that L&D should serve the business. That we should talk in the language of the stakeholders and serve the agenda of the organisation, instead of talking the language of learning to support the agenda of the L&D department.

It would be doing Charles Jennings a huge disservice to say that he talked about ROI. He did touch on the subject, though, and it was implicit in so much of what he said. Since it's a pet topic of mine, I probably heard the ROI message louder than anything else he had to say. I like Charles's no nonsense approach. I am only sorry that he and I have never had the opportunity to work together professionally. He reminded us that the value of anything at all is determined by the buyer. The seller may set the price, but it is the buyer who decides whether or not to pay it. When it comes to learning solutions and/or environments, while it may be the HR department or the CFO who signs the cheque in monetary terms, the real buyer is the user, the learner, the consumer (or not) of the koolaid. So producing a series of numbers that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt (or not) that the training is a Good Thing, does not address the needs or represent the opinions of the user populace. Those things do not have numeric values and can therefore not accurately be reflected in the ROI model. How do you attach a number to things like staff morale, for example?

Furthermore, Charles cited research that demonstrated a chasm between CLOs' perception of their roles and the measures of success and the rest of the C-level suite's perception of the CLO's role and the measurement of success. Startlingly, the C-level suite is so accustomed to making huge decisions with a shortage of quantitative data, that they are utterly at ease basing critical decisions on nothing more than experienced intuition. They have little interest in the numbers. ROI is not regarded as important. So, while the CLO is frantically trying to justify his existence, the rest of the CXOs are quite happy to accept on faith that the CLO performs a necessary function within the business are happy to let him get on with it.

I suspect that ROI becomes important when the L&D department is fighting for its life in the face of huge budget cuts. Those numbers will be what are trotted out in a desperate bid for survival. But, if the CXOs make their decisions intuitively, I suspect they are unlikely to be swayed by the numbers at this point.

Charles also produced some figures which explored how senior managers themselves learn. These majored on (ahem) radical ideas like Talking To Peers. The suggestion is that, when solutions to learning and support needs within the organisation are being addressed, those same affordances be made available to the entire staff complement.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Corporate Learning at eLearning Africa

Edit note: Please note that I have just discovered that my carefully recorded voiceovers in the PowerPoint presentation below don't work in SlideShare. If anyone has a suggestion as to how to fix this (since my slides are meaningless without audio), please let me know!

By contrast with ICWE's annual Online Educa in Berlin, eLearning Africa focused predominantly on formal, institutional learning. Corporate learning didn't occupy a lot of space either on the programme or within the venue. Our session was scheduled for what f2f trainers call the graveyard shift (straight after lunch) on the first day, and we did have a few dozers, it has to be said.

The first speaker was Mads Bo-Kristensen from Videnscenter for Integration in Denmark. He spoke about tools in use in Denmark to assist immigrants in gaining proficiency in 'business Danish' to enable them to communicate within the workplace. I can see enormous potential for a tool like this within Africa. It is a hugely multilingual continent. Every country boasts innumerable 'local languages' and speakers of all these languages must work together within large organisations. Quite apart from this, aid workers coming to the continent could fare much better with skills in these local languages.

Next up was Mehdi Tounsi from Gatlin International in France. Mehdi is Algerian and we found immediate synergy in the fact that we hail from African countries that often do not refer to themselves as such... and in the fact that we both consider ourselves African in spite of this. Mehdi spoke about a sustainable and affordable business model for e-enabled learning in Africa.

To my surprise, the challenge to both their presentations came from the young, outspoken delegates who have been educated abroad. One of these told us that Africa is not ready for elearning because the generation currently holding teaching posts had not learned to use computers at school. Another told us that Africa was not culturally suited to elearning. I promised to address both these points in my own presentation. I have recorded more or less the same words over the slides (I didn't really use notes... as usual), so here it is:

During the question and answer session that followed, one of the young bucks was arguing a point about learning, when I realised that he was referring to an academic situation. I tried to explain that I was talking about workplace learning. Learning on the job. The young man knitted his brows and looked at me blankly. And he was not the only one. If it isn't an academic course of study with an accreditation at the end of it, it fell outside of the frame of reference for many of the people present, even though I had so carefully crafted my story about Abi and his workplace learning needs.

The other started up again about his contention that older people in Africa had not encountered computers in school, so I pointed out that I was an older person, educated in Africa without computers... and yet I did this stuff for a living. I was a bit irked that he was prepared to write off his entire continent as beyond e-redemption based on this flimsy fact and it must have showed, because the chairman had to pull me up.

I maintain that social learning absolutely fits with African culture, but like the rest of the world, Africa has to break faith with the idea of the instructor/teacher/whatever as sage on the stage. One teacher in a pre-conference workshop emphasised the social structure of the classroom dynamic and spoke of the need to retain it. This is not unfamiliar territory to those of us who have been championing the social learning cause for a while, but these traditions run perhaps a little deeper in Africa than elsewhere.

One young man informed us in our corporate learning session that we must walk before we can run. I was disappointed. I had hoped that my anecdotes of TV and passenger flights had demonstrated that this was not a requirement.

Who knows? Next year perhaps the ethos will be subtly different.

It is worth noting that there were several delegates on Twitter and Facebook throughout the conference, using these tools with the easy confidence of seasoned social media pundits.