Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Assumptions underlying online learning

One of the fundamental assumptions of all training (except perhaps on-the-job training) is that people have the ability to port contexts. In other words, they can see and understand and get good at something in a training context, and can then apply that learning where it is supposed to be applied -- in the different context of their work. This ability to transfer is probably uniquely human -- you can show Fido videos of someone throwing a ball for a dog all day, but when you then throw the first real ball for him he'll look at you as if you are mad.

In an online mode, unless you are teaching computer-related skills, perhaps we call for a greater leap of the imagination than in a classroom mode. Everything we see and do is in two dimensions on a flat screen. Making the leap from the truly virtual online world to the totally real workplace world may be heroic for some. Or maybe not -- the past few years have seen such a surge in computer proficiency that maybe people feel more comfortable than they did before.

On a more practical note, there's a bunch of assumptions. Sometimes we make them, other times we are smart enough not to assume, others we design around.

We often assume that online learners have a lot more ability to concentrate than they do in reality. We assume a relatively quiet interruption-free learning environment. We assume that they have the will and the motivation to push through the work without a classroom pace-setter. We assume people want to work at their own pace in a time convenient to them, rather than being led by someone else's schedule. We assume that learners are comfortable with all of the alarming personal privacy issues that online learning potentially exposes them to. We tend to assume a particular technology platform for online learners (operating system, browser version, plug-ins, bandwidth, performance) that in my experience is often way off the mark. We assume people read e-mails. We assume people want to take the courses they are taking. We assume either that they need to be led down a predetermined path mapped out by an instructional designer, or that they want to be able to find their own way. We assume that they want to finish what they started. And we assume that all of the unscripted "fuzzy learning" that fills up the white spaces in the classroom activities is either irrelevant or somehow handled better online.

Oh, and we assume that it all works, technically and pedagogically, because nobody tests software fully before it gets to the customer :-)

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Revealing the deeper talent set

Most large corporations are proud of their "human resource" or "human capital" management abilities, yet I have so often found that very little is known about the qualities, experiences, interests, and talents that exist within those resources. People are hired to do a particular job, only the relevant qualifications become memorialized somewhere in a HR database, and that becomes who they are, the only face the company sees.

Back in the 1980's there were movements to create more transparent, multidimensional databases of personnel, particularly among multinationals who were always moving people from one country to another. But even those systems logged only the dimensions that the company thought relevant.

Tip of the iceberg is a good way to look at it -- what we see of each employee is only the bit that we care to shine a light on. Yet the talent pool in every company is probably a hundred times more valuable than the surface value of those assets. We seem to skim the surface, looking only at the familiar or the apparently relevant. This lapse is systemic, and it is personal. How many employees feel that their immediate manager undervalues them, dismisses their not- immediately-applicable qualities and experiences, and looks only at their immediate field of expertise? How many of us can remember all the stuff that our direct reports put on their resumes back when we hired them? And anyone applying for a job has only a couple of pages in which to describe their qualifications, so usually leaves out the rest of the iceberg anyway.

We will pay a couple of hundred dollars for a royalty-free stock photo, or we'll lay out a couple of thousand to commission a photographer to shoot something specific for us. But how many gifted photographers are there already on the payroll? How many musicians, artists, writers, linguists, web-designers, technicians, videographers are hiding within the mild-mannered accountants and call-center staff? And if we are looking for management or marketing or leadership, how many experienced and passionate community leaders, volunteers, mentors, lobbyists, activists, organizers, are secretly leading double lives as programmers or line workers?

Seems to me that, without invading anyone's privacy, some of the emergent social networking tools might help a company find out what kind of resources it REALLY has at its disposal.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Writing skills training

If you need help with this, I suggest you contact CDI (Communications Development Inc.)-- Brad Olander is the person to talk with (tel. 202.721.0350 ). CDI is a very competent and experienced group specializing in training report writers in clarity and structure. They do classroom work and have something online as well. They do a lot of work for operations like the World Bank, and they are local to the DC area.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Blogs and RSS

Like most things these days, the blog is not a static beast -- the ways the tools are used are evolving all the time, and one year from now today's blogs will probably look quaint.

There are lots of places to go to get started, and the blognoscenti provide plenty of links. A good basic RSS streamer that can get you up and running in minutes is Amphetadesk.

Download it for free

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Training Haiku

Several years ago, someone ran a competition for "haiku computer error messages" that produced some real gems that I still remember:

Yesterday it worked
Today it is not working
Windows is like that

Everything is gone;
Your life's work has been destroyed.
Squeeze trigger (yes/no)?

It would be fascinating to see some training/learning/development/OD/PIC haiku.

Learning is asking.
Which wrench is the right one
to hammer in the nail?

Blogs and RSS

many of the concepts and functionality that enable blogging have been around in one form or another for a long time.

What may be new, though perhaps not revolutionary, in the context of "knowledge power" is the ease with which blogs allow ordinary human beings (hopefully with real knowledge and experience) to publish their thinking to a broad audience. You don't need to be an HTML expert or a Webmaster or a content management guru or a geek of any kind to get your ideas out there in, literally, minutes. This is what good technology should be like - invisible to the user.

The added benefit of RSS is that if you want to benefit from the fresh content of a particular blogger without going to his/her site several times a day, your RSS feed will bring you the updates. You can also use RSS as a kind of always-on search engine which looks for new dynamically-served stuff inside all the RSS-equipped blogs on the Web, and serves it to you when available. Ordinary search engines are really poor at finding dynamic content, really slow to acknowledge it, and quite hopeless at making it readily available.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Surviving info explosion: Journalism, blogs, and workplace learning

Journalism and T&D both ride the same wave. Both try to gain clarity in their field of knowledge, which is an increasingly difficult thing to do. The explosion of knowledge (yes, much of it junk info) is a phenomenon that trainers, learners, and journalists have to find ways to filter. Learners often turn to trainers to help them stay ahead of their game, not only in providing relevant raw knowledge but also in helping to learn how to apply it in the development of skills.

The information explosion is not a myth. According to a UC Berkley study published last year, more information has been produced in the past five years than in the total of all of previous human history. An Exabyte is a billion Gigabytes. We produced 23 Exabytes of new information in 2002 -- double that produced three years earlier. That's 3.6 Gigabytes per person per year. Much of it is fog, much is ephemeral and never stored, and a big chunk of it (400,000 Terabytes in 2002, or 40 times the Library of Congress print collection) is in e-mail, and nearly as much again is in Instant Messaging. Even looking at more 'solid' information (that actually stored in some medium or other), in 2002 we produced 800 Megabytes per member of the human race.

While blogs add to the fog, many also cut through it. Journalists are supposed to highlight relevant important information, provide analysis and tell us what it means, and (sometimes) what we should do about it or how we can apply it. Trainers, in a corporate world beset by rolling change, are often expected to play a similar role. I wonder, though, about the role of educators. Should not one of our educational priorities be to teach people how to deal with this information explosion, how to learn at an accelerating pace for life? Or should we be teaching people to STOP PRODUCING ALL THIS STUFF.

As an aside, and not wishing to be too Zen, if I write a blog and nobody reads it, does it really exist as information?

I'm going to buy stock in Johnson & Johnson, or whoever it is that makes Tylenol.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Blogs - what's the big deal?

Some see blogs as no different from personal Websites, and decry their textiness. Blogs are not Web sites, communities, FAQ boards or newsgroups. They are a little different in many respects. They may be fads in that the way Web-log tools are typically invoked today is unikely to be the way they are invoked tomorrow. But these days the capacity for rapid evolution is a key to viability. The inherent contradiction of techno-fads is that built-in rapid-redundancy is how they stay alive.

And don't knock text on the Internet. E-mail (text) is still the biggest single application of the Internet. Text in books, newspapers, and magazines is still quite common too, and most of us do not refuse to read a book because it has no pictures. Text may not be cool, but it's a pretty good tool for communication.

People will read what appeals to them. If a blog is unsophisticated and tries to target a sophisticated audience, it's not going to get much traffic. And, as with anything you see on the Web, read in your local newspaper, or hear on a press conference, you have to be ready to use your own cr@p-detector.

As a 'serious journalist' (i.e. one who makes a living primarily from traditional media), John Dvorak's perspective on blogs is bound to be a little patronising, or even defensive. But, apart from the masses who put up short-lived vanity blogs (e.g. those that publish their own poetry), Dvorak acknowledges that there are some very useful blogs around in the public domain. Closed-group corporate blogs are even more relevant and useful, but you are not likely to ever get access to them.