Saturday, November 20, 2004

Podcasting for non-geek trainers

Podcasting, despite its geeky name, is simple and practical, and has a wide range of potential uses in education and training. Abbreviated from “broadcasting to an iPod”, podcasting is, at its most basic, the distribution of audio content via the internet to mobile audio players. The name is a red herring, because you don’t have to be a Mac user – you can podcast any audio format and play it back on any compatible player, even if it is not mobile. Rarely does my audio go mobile – I prefer to simply listen at my desk. Podcasting lets you listen to content of your choice at a time and place that is convenient. In that regard, it is not much different from the old idea of listening to books-on-tape on your Walkman.

But that is where the resemblance ends. Podcasting uses the same technology that syndicates the content of blogs and news sites, so subscribing to a site and having its content updates automatically fed to your computer is a matter of a few mouse clicks. The technology used to push the text content of a blog to your computer is RSS (Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication). In podcasting, audio files are simply pushed out as attachments to RSS 2.0 feeds, just as documents are sent as attachments to e-mails.

First, you install an RSS feedreader (such as RSSreader or Amphetadesk, both free) on your computer, and nominate the sites whose content you want fed to you. There are tens of thousands of sites that publish their text content in RSS form. A feedreader is a simple tool that automatically finds and downloads content updates from the sites you have chosen to monitor. It will pull down the latest text entries, and can download enclosures embedded in those entries in the form of audio files. This saves you from having to go to each site, dig around to see what is new, and manually download each individual file. (To add my blog to your feed reader, simply drag the orange "XML" chiclet in the column to the right into your feedreader). I scan several dozen favorite sites a couple of times a day in a matter of minutes, a task that would take me hours without a feedreader.

You can be fed audio files by any up-to-date RSS 2.0 feedreader, but it won’t do the work of loading them into your iPod or Rio player. That’s where podcasting aggregators such as iPodder (also free) come in. iPodder will pull down audio files as they are posted to any sites that you have nominated. Further, it will automatically load the files to your mobile audio player, if you have one connected to your computer. Set your system to do a once-a-day scan at midnight, and you simply have to pick up your already-loaded audio player on the way out to your morning jog.

Podcasting allows anyone to record and broadcast anything, to an audience around the world. It’s like DIY global radio with TiVo built in, for a targetable audience. As a trainer, you can distribute content that is current and relevant. Some obvious applications are product or policy updates for your global salesforce, reinforcement for today’s classroom session, or daily micro-reminders from your online computer security course. Less obvious is the potential for capturing and sharing discussions among SMEs on hot issues, or sharing one learning group’s discussion with other groups.

All you need is a website or a blog, and recording software that converts your audio to MP3 format. Audacity (from is good audio software, and it’s completely free. Install it, plug in a microphone, and record. When you are happy with the audio, export it as an MP3 at the push of a button, then upload it to your site as an enclosure to a blog posting. If your blog service does not support enclosures (Blogger, for example), you can still podcast by registering your blog with’s SmartCast, a service that does all the conversions for you, for free. It is really that simple, though it may take a little practice to get file sizes down to reasonable sizes and audio quality just right.

Of course the downside of the ease of podcasting is that everyone who likes the sound of their own voice will be adding to the already crowded blogosphere. But the gems will stand out, and corporate podcasting should be subject to more stringent quality control.

Creative use of podcasting will accelerate the uptake of the training, marketing, and technical blogging that is becoming more common within corporations. Audio is often easier to create, easier to digest, and more appropriate than text. With a little vision and a willingness to experiment, I suspect that podcasting will rapidly find a valuable place in the already crowded chest of tools available to marketers and trainers.

TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 19/11/04

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Phishing: where training, marketing, and security meet

The phishing phenomenon is at epidemic levels, particularly among financial institutions. I like to think that I am acutely aware of dangers such as these (after all, I authored two e-learning courses on security and privacy), but even so I get agitated when I see an e-mail from my bank.

I get half a dozen such e-mails a day urging me to click a link and update my account details. The problem is that though I know they are scam e-mails, but I have to open them just in case they are not. One look at the e-mail's source code tells me immediately I am dealing with yet another attempt to rip me off, so I naturally do not click the link provided. But by then it is too late: the scammer's server has registered that my e-mail client has requested the image for the html e-mail, and my address is confirmed as a "hot" target for future projects related to that particular bank.

According to this CNET article 7 out of 10 people who go online have received phishing e-mails, and 15 percent of those have successfully been duped into providing personal information.

That is a lot of people in anyone's customer base. The absolute cost of reparations to victimized customers is one thing. The impact on a brand that is repeatedly abused by phishers is another. Credibility is eroded, and consumer confidence in dealing with the company behind the brand dissipates. Technology may help sometime down the line. In the meantime, the best a company can do is to educate its customers.

Who is best placed to provide that education? Marketing, Training, IT, Customer Relations? Surely this is one issue to which all parties should commit their best minds. Marketing people are good at building awareness and stimulating customers to act, but they are not the best at providing a learning experience. Trainers can provide a great learning experience, but need to work with the subject matter expertise of IT people. And customer relations people can do a reasonable job of reactively hand-holding nervous customers, but need marketing to handle the pro-active side of the process.

I have talked with customer relations people at my bank. I have talked with people in the fraud department. I have received mailings from (I assume) the marketing or legal people, on the subject of phishing. None of them do anywhere near a decent job of informing me of what it is I have to look out for, what consequences I have to fear, or what course of action is open to me if I do fall victim.

Get the trainers involved. Educating your customers is something that trainers are doing more and more of in other areas. Shouldn't they get posted to the front lines on this one?

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Intellectual property and the internet

A trainer’s life is spent neck-deep in intellectual property. Everything we read, every process we teach, every concept we quote, every idea we apply, every training experience we design, every paper we write oozes with intellectual property. The laws which control what we can do with it have always been simple in concept but complex in the details.

Unless you create the work for your employer on company time, or you are a work-for-hire contractor, you automatically acquire copyright over anything that you write, draw or photograph. You don’t need to register your work (or even assert copyright overtly) to have the legal right to decide how others can use it. In fact the law acts as a lockbox by default: unless you specifically grant someone a defined right to use your material, they may not copy it or make derivatives of it, for any purpose. Beyond that, it gets murky and lawyers have to get involved.

So how do you grant limited rights to your work without abdicating all your rights and without having to engage a lawyer to sign an agreement with each and every person who would like to exploit it? Or, if you want to use someone else’s material, how do you do so legally without having to negotiate a contract?

It’s easy, if the work is published under a Creative Commons (CC) license, using a choice of easily-understood licenses available online for free. Founded by a Stanford law professor, and fueled by the blogging explosion, Creative Commons has been around in the US since 2001. CC licenses are popular among those who write online, create music, or publish their art or photography online, and it has taken hold in the offline world too.

Till recently, the carefully-crafted legalese behind the licenses invoked American law and American legal language. Now, as of November 1, there is a UK version of Creative Commons. Over the coming year, local legal versions will roll out in more than 60 countries.

Everything I write online (with the exception of things I do for other people) is published under a Creative Commons license that gives anyone the right to re-publish the work and/or derivatives of it on condition that I am acknowledged. No need to contact me, no need to ask permission, no need to talk to my lawyer. I could have chosen a CC license with more liberal or more restrictive conditions, simply by clicking the appropriate buttons when I selected it online at the Creative Commons site

Anyone finding my independent writing on the internet sees a CC icon and, by clicking on it, can know immediately what use-restrictions exist. Here’s the really clever part: because licensed work links back to Creative Commons, their search engine can find material whose legal status matches your needs. Looking for a game to use as an ice-breaker or a photo of an Olympic champion? Creative Commons might deliver what you need in a way that cuts through the legal red tape.

There is already a lot of Creative Commons licensed content available online, and that pool expands daily as individuals and organizations endorse the concept. One of the latest on board is the BBC, who are building the “Creative Archive” in which substantial amounts of BBC archive material will be made available for downloading and use. That’s going to be a treasure trove of audio, video, and photographic material for educators and trainers.

It’s the philosophy behind Creative Commons that appeals to me most. No, not the notion of making lawyers less necessary (though I am all for that), but the idea of making more and more readily re-usable learning material available online. Not in the restrictive SCORM sense, but in the sense of people’s thoughts, experiences, favourite tools and techniques, published in whatever informal way they see fit. The more generous we are with our own ideas, the more we will ultimately benefit from those of others. To me, this is the still-untapped power of the internet.

E-Learning Adventures Beyond the LMS

To corporate decision-makers, the treasure map of e-learning has an island in the centre, seductively illuminated by those clever marketing folks of the learning software industry, with a big X over the Learning Management System (LMS) right in the middle. Outside of that island is blank space populated only by “here be dragons” warnings.

Given the marketing muscle behind the major LMS developers and their complete dominance of the e-learning space, it’s hardly surprising that many people see an LMS as “the solution” to their future learning needs. But an LMS, as available today, is not a universal solution for a corporation’s e-learning problems. In fact, an LMS is often the albatross around the neck of progress in technology-enhanced learning.

When your concept of learning is LMS-centric, you look for opportunities to implement “a solution” that conforms to that concept, and ignore or marginalize all else. An LMS is, of course, a relevant tool for certain applications. If you want to track learner activities, you need some kind of system. And if you want to make use of much of the available e-course content, you have no choice but to use an LMS – not because the learning requires it, but because the established architecture of the “learning supply chain” requires it.

If the only format in which music is available is on CDs, you have to have a CD player. And because everybody gets a CD player, more music is made available in that format. The industry crystallizes around its dominant technology. But the internet can challenge that. Today, I no longer collect CDs, I collect music. Music does not have to be in store-bought CD format. You can go to live performances or communicate directly with the musicians online; you can download only those tracks that interest you; you can compile and burn your own CDs, or put a thousand songs on an iPod; you can post clips on your blog to share your passion with friends.

IP issues aside, thanks to the internet, you can access and appreciate music in ways that for you, the listener, are so much better than the ways the music industry wants you to access it.

So it should be for learning.

The e-learning industry evolved in a more or less linear fashion from the classroom concept, with some influence from CBT. No imagination went into our application of web technologies, and there was little in the way of challenges to established learning paradigms. That’s perfectly normal in the adoption of new technologies – it takes a while before true innovation can take hold.

Initially, we failed to appreciate that the internet is a vehicle for connecting people with each other, and instead pursued a “learning supply chain” concept that had more in common with the 1970’s music industry than it did with 21st century e-business. We pursued systems that imposed bureaucratic control instead of learner empowerment. In a world hurtling toward distributed internetworking, e-learning was still based on a library-like central-repository concept. The first LMS from Asymetrix (now SumTotal via Click2Learn) was even called Librarian.

Our move from classroom learning to e-learning was less like a move from pony-express to e-mail, than it was from pony-express to bicycle courier.

Learning software vendors still doggedly pursue their vision of reusable learning objects that integrate via a central standards-conformant LMS. Meanwhile, trainers who really want to encourage experience-sharing and dynamic learner-created content are scrambling to understand blogging, RSS, and peer-to-peer networks.

Many LMS vendors don’t “get” learning. Can it really be that they don’t “get” the internet either? Are they so afraid of being non-intermediated that they will fight real progress every step of the way or are they about to help us evolve?

TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 29/10/04

When Blending Doesn't Mix

I had thought the term “blended learning” would die rapidly, not because the concept is not important, but because the expression itself is a misnomer, and the learning experiences so labelled are often a disgrace to the training profession.

The theory is sound: by getting learners to grasp the basics pre-class, we get more time to have richer human interactions in the classroom. But the reality is often less inspiring. Any learning design that uses both online and classroom activities to achieve its objectives is referred to as blended. There is rarely an attempt to “blend” content, contexts, or learning processes. Many of the designs of blended courses that I have seen are, frankly, disjointed and chaotic - a jigsaw puzzle hastily put together in the dark.

Every training and development department that I talk to is pursuing “blending” as a core component of their learning strategy. They talk about saving costs, reducing learner time in the classroom, and cutting trainer workloads. Most have stopped trying to pretend that what they are doing is more effective; the efficiency argument is more credible.

In business we use technology to improve performance, yet so often in learning, we apply technology to give the illusion of progress while silently accepting that the performance result is a step backward. If we are going to use technology, shouldn’t we make the effort to have it actually enhance the learning experience, rather than merely support the cheapening of it?

Real blended learning offers an opportunity to move training away from its isolated course environment and to merge it with the learner’s real-world work, to allow continuous transfer and reinforcement. And, where feasible, blending should blur the lines between an instructor’s role and the role of the learner’s manager.

None of this is difficult to achieve technologically, but means thinking outside of the normal content-centric mindset of traditional instructional design. It also needs learners, instructors, and managers to embrace a less simplistic view of what their own involvement in learning can be. The result may actually demand more time, not less, from learners, instructors, or managers. But the reduction in time-to-competence and time-to-business-impact are likely to outweigh any increase in personal involvement required by the blend. And because the learning is so intimately merged with each learner’s workflow, the output – the impact on the business – can be easier to observe and measure. This is particularly true if managers have been “blended” into the process of developing learners’ abilities to meaningfully apply the learning in practice.

A blended solution can incorporate self-paced work, online instructor support, supervisor involvement, peer group involvement, classroom sessions building on job-specific pre-work assignments, ongoing application assignments moderated online by mentors and managers, community threads and chat tools, and dynamic libraries of relevant materials. While clearly overkill for basic training, such an approach is ideal for things like core management methodologies and soft skills such as sales and customer service.

If you get the right learning design, expectations, and management systems, you can achieve greater efficiency. And you can do it by increasing the outputs, not simply by cutting the inputs. Ultimately, that variation on blending has to be good for corporate competitiveness.

TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 8/10/04

Friday, November 12, 2004

Automotive advertising awards time

The International Automotive Advertising Awards (IAAA), modestly self-described as "advertising's most turbulent, creative, and challenging arena" is still accepting nominations for the 2004 awards. There are 118 categories, which pretty much guarantees that everyone's a winner.

Sadly, my favorite TV ad for the Corvette got pulled because too many people thought it encouraged kids to joy-ride.

My personal "best of" nomination goes to Audi for their brilliant use of dynamic Flash in a viral campaign for the A3 Sportback. They sent individuals a personalized e-mail pointing them to a movie online which featured a Minority Report-like engineer using a futuristic computer system to discover that the DNA of the Audi is a perfect match to the DNA of person viewing the video. How cool was it to see Godfrey Parkin scrolling across the screen? And of course you could submit the name and e-mail address of all your friends so that they too would get their very own personalized movie. Forsprung durch Technik, all the way.

Problem is, there's no category for trans-media strokes of genius like this. There's "Print" and "Television" and "Newspaper" of course, a unique category for every type of vehicle you can imagine. And in the more interactive area there's a section labeled "Interactive Media":
86. Corporate Web Site
87. Brand Web Site
88. Microsite
89. Retail/Sales Web Site
90. Web Promotion / Event
91. Simple Banners (link only)
92. Rich Media Banners
93. Interactive Kiosks

Maybe microsite would cover it, or web promotion. But it's hardly adequate.

Why is it that advertising awards are usually classified by the medium in which they play out and the product category into which the advertised brand falls? What happened to customer focus, or even business performance? I have yet to see an award category like "market share gained" or "enquiries produced" or "attitudes changed" or "conversation generated" or "return on investment". Maybe it's because these award events are for the ad industry by the ad industry, and accountability for business results is rarely part of the brief.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

8 billion pages on the web...

If you are a search engine index, size matters. MSN and Google have each been positioning themselves as having the largest coverage of the web, but today's numbers announced in the Washington Post seem pretty conclusive. At least for today.

MSN has a mere 5 billion web pages in its index. Google, more than 8 billion. Yahoo? Well, their position is probably that size is less important than relevance.

E-learning recovery predicted

Information Week is previewing a report due to be released by IDC next week which forecasts an upturn in the fortunes of "the e-learning industry". Without seeing the actual study it's hard to judge the conclusions, but quoted remarks from the analyst concerned make me suspect it's going to be another one of those annoyingly superficial studies that have characterized e-learning since day one.

According to the article the global market for corporate e-learning will grow 27 percent a year over the next four years. That means that the e-learning market will grow world-wide from an estimated $6.5 billion last year to over $21 billion by 2008.

According to IDC the main drivers of e-learning growth will be compliance training, particularly in areas such as Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA. You have to wonder where they get comments like that from. Surely the real growth in the worldwide market will take place outside of the US in those countries just now hitting the internet penetration levels the US was at a few years ago? And I don't see Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA being applicable outside American borders (unless IDC is privy to some secret invasion plans).

I have come to take forecasts such as this (as well as the market size estimates) with a pinch of salt. No two companies in the forecasting business have ever agreed on a definition of what e-learning is, let alone a definition of what "the industry" includes. Not long ago, forecasts for e-learning's growth included predicted growth in the sales of routers and internetworking hardware. It was John Chambers at Cisco who produced the nonsensical statement, much touted by e-learning systems vendors, that e-learning was going to be such a killer app it would make e-mail look like a rounding error. I guess it sold him a few more routers, though.

Monday, November 08, 2004

The official new definition of marketing

The American Marketing Association has redefined "marketing", replacing an old definition that was all about the four P's with something that seems to parody the worst aspects of consultant-speak. Can this be a joke? Sadly, no it's not. Some consultants seem to love it's customer-relationship-centric implications. Real marketers must be cringing.

The old definition
Marketing is the process of planning and executing conception, pricing, promotion and distribution of goods, ideas and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organizational goals.
is replaced by this new definition
Marketing is an organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating and delivering value to customers and for managing customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders.

I hate it. It’s all fluff and motherhood. It uses vague trendy-speak language that NO self-respecting marketer would use in describing their own products, services, or concepts. Imagine briefing an agency to put together a campaign to communicate this new-fangled marketing concept. Imagine trying to get agency creatives to understand what marketing is using the definition provided.

“Er, well it’s an organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating and delivering value to customers and for managing customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders.”

“Yes, but what IS it? What does it look like? What does it DO?”

“Um. You’re the creative folks. You figure it out. We just do the marketing.”

1) It’s a lot less useful than the previous definition in that the vague description could apply to many functions in an organization. The definition does not talk about what marketing IS or DOES in any meaningful way, nor does it describe its goals in a way that would make sense to someone who had never heard of marketing before.

2) Marketing is not just an “organizational” function and set of processes. Marketing’s philosophy and disciplines (neither gets a mention) apply to many fields outside of the formal organization.

3) The new definition implies, by omission, that the job of marketing has no conceptual, perceptive, or persuasive role. Marketing does NOT start with “creating” but with seeking to understand your market and competitors, and conceptualizing products, services, or experiences that will meet the needs of those markets.

4) Is the role of marketing really to “manage customer relationships”? Perhaps, at a very abstract high level. But for this to be the case in reality, you’d have to have Customer Service, Production, Sales, and every other department that has any impact on customers reporting in to Marketing. For most real-world marketing professionals, that’s a dream that is never going to come true.

My thanks to Jennifer Rice's blog for pointing out this change that the American Marketing Association seems to have sneaked out rather than launching. Oh dear.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Online ads get one dollar in twelve

How important currently is online advertising to marketers? I guess you have to look where the money goes to get a meaningful answer. Yesterday the American Advertising Federation released the results of a survey that showed that eight percent of adspend by the major marketers is going online. They project that the proportion will increase to 17 percent within three years.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Campfires in cyberspace

There is a must-read paper by David Thornburg at the International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, titled Campfires in Cyberspace.

Thornburg talks about the importance of storytelling as an instructional medium, something which most instructional designers (or those who manage them) have yet to get their heads around. In a paper rich in metaphors, Thornburg describes three learning spaces: campfires, watering holes, and caves, which are the most relevant and appropriate places to share information, conversation, concept, and context.

His emphasis in this paper is on storytelling.
One of the distinguishing features of humans is that we are storytellers. In fact, with the possible exception of certain marine mammals, we may be the only storytelling species in existence. This capacity of humans is so important that Jean Houston has referred to myth as the DNA of the human psyche.

While storytelling, and the environments that foster it, are sadly ignored by those responsible for creating and enabling learning experiences, Thornburg does not see this as a problem. In his view people will find a way to do what they need to do whether or not the formal gatekeepers make it easy for them.
First, and make no mistake here, all three sacred learning spaces will have analogs in cyberspace. If they don't, then cyberspace will cease to exist as a domain of interaction among humans. Those using the new media will create their own analogs for these learning places, even if they are not designed into the system.

I have often said that the proportion of corporate learning that takes place informally is not only significantly larger than that which takes place formally, but that unless trainers start to “get” the internet, people will use the web to their advantage in ways which may end up disintermediating formal trainers completely. Whenever I have made that argument I have been focused on advocating experience sharing and peer-to-peer communication within communities of practice, which is in effect all about storytelling. But maybe my concepts to date have been too formal. Thornburg’s notion is much more liberated.

Maybe it is because he is not himself immersed in today’s technologies. Reading between the lines of his paper, his perceptions appear in many instances to be outdated, and his content simply old. His references to the internet and to multimedia read as if he were writing in 1996, not 2004. But while his grasp of technologies may not be too current, his conceptual framework is timeless.