Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Avatars behaving badly

Two pieces of déjà vu hit me today, reminding me how ideas get constantly recycled, and how long it can take for some technologies to find a viable application. (Remember "push" technology of ten years ago? Now it's back as RSS). 

First, out of the US election hullabaloo came JibJab media’s Bush-Kerry cartoon, taking the Internet by storm, and racking up 2.5 million hits a day. It’s silly, sophomoric, satirical, and very cool. Second, out of the UK comes the news that customer-friendly ATMs that actually use your name on-screen are finally going to make an appearance in that traditionally techno-skeptic land across the pond.

The connection? In the mid 1990’s I was running a company in London that was pushing the envelope in video-realistic 3D avatar technology. With just two photographs of a person we could create a life-like 3D virtual character that worked on an ordinary PC or over the Internet, complete with facial expressions, moving eyes, blinking, and rather good automatic lip-synching to a voice track.

My goal was to use these avatars in training games, simulations, and online communities (we were working with Worlds Inc. in San Francisco), but in order to pay for their development I was looking for other applications. I tried pitching the talking head to NCR for use in ATMs – it would pick up a text feed, convert it to voice, and synchronize the lips and facial expressions of the ATM character, and address the customer by name. But, partly because it was so real, the effect was a little creepy and developers were not interested. Eight years later ATMs are still text-based, but are finally acknowledging the customer by name.

What about Bush-Kerry? We exhibited at the E3 video games expo in 1996, and to promote the technology we put together a set of give-away screensavers that satirized the candidates in the then-current elections. “Raucous Caucus” featured 3D avatars of Clinton and Dole debating and performing in suitably scandalous sophomoric fashion. Had the Internet been bigger at the time, it would have been huge. Or maybe not – our technology was generations ahead of the Bush-Kerry cartoon du jour, but our content was nowhere near as clever. Talent trounces technology, and substance beats style every time.

One thing that became really obvious as a result of all of the avatar work, was that believability is less about appearance than about behavior. In simulations, a very large portion of your budget can go to replicating look, when getting feel right pays much bigger dividends. People will forgive appearances if the behavior is realistic; but no amount of visual gloss can make up for unconvincing behavior.

Google and substance over style

The Google IPO continues to make headlines. At the anticipated top price of $135 per share (to be determined by an auction), Google will be the most expensive IPO ever, possibly opening at a value of $36 billion. That will make it about the same value as Yahoo and nearly twice as big as Amazon. But when you look at “traditional” corporations, you realize the scale of this event: Google’s market value may be nearly 50% more than General Motors’.

At more than a hundred times its earnings per share, Google’s not a bargain stock. And it’s hard to see how it can be sustained long-term. Yes, they have a great search engine that lots of others are trying to beat, but other search engines are not Google’s only competitor. After all, Google is not really in the search-engine business. It’s mainly in the business of delivering audiences to advertisers. There are a lot of innovators out there trying to grab that traffic.

Most of them are trying to use media-rich content to build audiences for their advertisers, like the magazines and television channels have done before them. Google’s Spartan interface is interesting – it doesn’t need rich media because its “content” (search results) is compelling, customized, timely, relevant, and uncluttered. The same could be said for most RSS feed readers. Those in the e-learning and e-marketing fields for whom style is more important than substance really should take note.

Monday, July 26, 2004

The future of e-learning

Today's newsletter from the UK's TrainingZone featured an article by Amy Finn of Centra, talking about trends in e-learning.

I agree completely with much of what she says, but disagree strongly on parts of it. Such is e-learning..

The industry latched onto “e-learning” as a term a few years ago. But I think it needs to go back to something like “technology-enhanced learning” because e-learning has come to mean (in common use) only a narrow part of the spectrum – usually courses online or live Web-conferencing. The author says that e-learning is here to stay, but it's not. As a term it will die out rapidly (it is already slipping from prominence in the US and Canada) as people realize what a poor descriptor it is of the wide range of things that are happening with technological backing. And as a concept it is evolving so rapidly in so many directions that the e-learning of last year is so different from the technology-enhanced learning of this year, that you can’t really even compare them.

I also don’t buy the author's notion of "e-learning as a business strategy". E-learning will not “continue to become a driving force in business and industry”. Performance improvement may become a driving force, but e-learning is merely a means. And it will not be that high a profile anyway, because there are many other things which feed into performance improvement. E-learning cannot be a business strategy in itself. Learning should be driven by business strategy, and the appropriate mix of available resources, human and technological, should be deployed to support that business strategy.

That is not to say that learning professionals should not have a seat at the business strategy table – they are appallingly under-represented in my view. But I think we need to think beyond the manifestation of technology-enhanced learning when we look at what is really strategically vital to an organization. The view that “smart organisations know that eLearning is a strategic solution that must be deployed throughout their organization” is stopping short of the mark. Smart organizations know that LEARNING gives them a strategic edge, and should be open to any technology based solution that sharpens or sustains that edge.

The author says there are three elements of the e-learning universe (technology, content, and services), but she left out two that are vital:  processes and people. It’s not simply about technology, content, and services. Admittedly, the lines between these elements get pretty blurred at times, but I believe that the architecture of learning processes is independent of technology and content. And the people that are to learn or provide the learning support are the most vital element in any technology-enhanced design. You are not deploying technology, you are deploying an enhanced capacity to improve performance, and the motivation to do so.

On blended learning, we are on the same page. In my view, all learning is blended. Always has been, always will be. There is very little that any of us learn exclusively through one medium. Blended learning in the “e” sense of the term has often been very successful and continues to improve. This is not because the technology is better, but because those who architect the “formal” blended learning processes are designing learning experiences that map more closely to the way people learn “informally”. We need to see more seamless transition from learning experience to workplace and back, as well as among elements of learning. Blending formal learning experiences with actual work activities and with informal learning processes -- that is integrated learning! Sadly, accountants are the enemy of progress here, because the less discrete an element is, the harder it is to cost it or to calculate an ROI.

Amy Finn's LMS comments are spot-on. The LMS is only part of any solution.  And the same is true of LMS standards such as SCORM. You can paint yourself into a very expensive corner if you view e-learning exclusively through the capabilities of your LMS. Unfortunately, that’s what has happened in many US corporations, and much evolution in e-learning is now on hold while those corporations wait for the paint to dry.

Finally, the author concludes that how your organisation will accept the “new paradigm of e-learning” is key. But it’s not a new paradigm. Paradigms are easily defined, relatively constant, and consequently easy to sell. What organizations have to buy into today is rolling change, constant innovation, continuous revolutionary prototyping. That’s a hard sell to senior executives who view the world through locked-in spreadsheets, annual budgets, formal ROI calculations, inflexible perceptions, and hard-baked ideas about the world they operate in. Breaking through those barriers is our biggest challenge!

Friday, July 23, 2004

In Defense of Emergent Learning

In the E-literate blog, Michael Feldstein has recently had a couple of jabs at the burgeoning interest in emergent learning, as enthusiastically promoted by Jay Cross and others. I suspect that he’s overthinking it and just doesn't get it.

He says “When people talk about “emergent learning” these days, this is not generally what they mean. What they generally mean is some form of rapid consensus-building in which a group of people can share observations and make coordinated decisions without any one person filling the role of executive command and control. “ He goes on “Nevertheless, if we want to figure out how the concept of emergence can (and can’t) be applied to the domains of group decision-making, then we need to get it through our individually thick heads that peer-to-peer education in a networked environment is not the same thing as emergence.”

He’s using “emergent” in the Steven Johnson sense of the increasing collective smartness of dumber parts, as in smart hives of dumb bees or smart brains of dumb neurons. And by that rather narrow use of the term, he’s right – emergent learning is something of an oxymoron. But “emergent learning” is not used in that sense, at least I have never heard it used that way. Those talking about emergent learning are not talking exclusively about how groups of people get smarter by being connected with each other, though it’s part of the discussion. And they are certainly not talking about rapid consensus-building.

More typically, they are using emergent in the sense that most dictionaries would define it – coming into being or coming into notice. What they are looking at is how emerging technologies (and unexpected applications of them) are changing learning strategies, learning organization, learning implementation, and generally changing the way we go about learning as individuals and as organizations. Learning, and the way it is promulgated, is evolving visibly as it becomes a persistent survival skill. And we need to understand what is happening so that we can recognize it, influence those developments, or leverage any emergent opportunities. (That is, opportunities that are coming into being or becoming recognizable). One of the challenges of emergent learning (and I guess of business generally these days) is to recognize what among all of the chaos coming at us is significant and to exploit it before it is a speck in the rear view mirror.

One of the interests of emergent learning does have to do with connectedness, leveraging the power of collective knowledge and experience in ways that were not possible before, discovering how technology-enhanced collaboration can help to improve performance, and trying to make sense of the way technologies are impacting informal learning.

But I don’t think anyone is looking to emergent learning as a way to create some kind of hive-like smartness in worker bees. The opposite is true – collaborative technologies allow individuals and cross-discipline teams to become more valuable and more prominent, as the employing hive and its collective knowledge become less structured, less hierarchical, and more porous.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Are virtual workers damaging their careers?

This article from Information Week reports a Stanford study that claims virtual workers fear they may be making themselves redundant. First, they fear that by giving away all their hard-won knowledge and insights they diminish their personal worth. Second, they fear that being virtual reduces their ability to learn from their peers.
Both notions are false, being based on false presumptions about virtual teams. Or, should I say, being based on false presumptions about how virtual teams have to be. Virtual collaboration has surely come a long way since the days of client-server spoke-and-hub workgroups.
Stanford's Margaret Neale is quoted as saying "If your knowledge, not to mention the tricks and tips it has taken years to learn, is deposited in a database for all to access, does the organization still need you?" But the essence of collaborative virtual groups is networked knowledge, not centralized knowledge. Putting knowledge into a central database is old-school library-think KM, which assumed that in order for knowledge to be available it had to be centralized, cataloged, and indexed.
And while you may be able to capture some of the knowledge of a virtual team in a database, the tacit or implicit knowledge -- that expertise derived from experience in applying explicit knowledge -- has proven very hard to capture in any formal, structured, or easily-usable way. You can't put it in a database. And even if you could, it would have a very short half-life because, unlike explicit knowledge, tacit knowledge evolves at the pace of the environment that spawns it.
The other notion, that by being virtual you lose the ability to learn from others, is equally odd. The fears of virtual workers may be real, and in many instances the way in which organizations structure and facilitate virtual work groups may validate those fears. But there is no reason why members of virtual teams cannot actually enjoy significant advantages over their office-bound counterparts. I'm not talking about the obvious things like convenience, time-saving, travel-saving and so on. I'm talking about the ability to accelerate your individual learning through exposure to a much more intimate, more diverse, more available set of communication relationships than you can ever have in a crowded meeting room. Not only do virtual team members get to be closer (in mind) to their colleagues, they get to share their own expertise and tacit knowledge in a way that is more direct, more attributable, and more visible than it might be in face-to-face meetings. How can this be bad for your career?
Margaret Neale comes up with this gem: "Technology has the potential to destabilize the relationship between organizations and employees" YES! And that, surely, is a good thing. The disintermediation of hierarchies of control, and the mutation of silos of knowledge into spheres of influence, are common themes in my presentations. It's happening, at a pace that scares those who use an organigram as a security blanket. But organizations need to understand it, embrace it, foster it, and try to influence it to their advantage, rather than fighting it, or worse -- denying that it is happening.
The Stanford report was put together by Margaret Neale (Professor of Organizations and Dispute Resolution at Stanford), Terri Griffith of the School of Business at Santa Clara University and John Sawyer of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware. Their paper, titled "Virtualness and Knowledge in Teams: Managing the Love Triangle of Organizations, Individuals, and Information Technology," was published in the Stanford MIS Quarterly in June 2003. Why the report has only now hit the newswires is baffling.

Friday, July 16, 2004

How Web-savvy are your employees?

We have been providing e-learning courses in various areas of "Web savviness" for a few years now -- targeted primarily at the layperson -- and it is clear to me from the majority of learner reactions that (to most users) the Web is simply a tool based on magic. Not gee-wiz magic or scary magic, just plain old stuff-just-happens magic. People are curious to understand more about how it all happens, but rarely make the effort because they assume it is all too complex to get a handle on. When they get more comfortable with it, the light bulbs go off and they see the potential.

Just as there is a big difference between those who know and understand cars and those who simply drive them, I think there is a very wide "digital divide" between those who are Web savvy and those who simply use the Web a lot. Those for whom driving is a job know about vehicles, those who drive TO their job tend to be less interested. But the Internet pervades our jobs today, so understanding it is actually rather important. And I am not just talking about using search engines.
The complexity of the magic just gets harder to deal with as internetwoking rises above the Web and mutates into a bigger, less browser-centric environment of autonomous devices and mobile access points. Miniature RFID radio price tags on products in your supermarket; smartphones and smart vending machines; wireless hotspots; GPS chips in your car, your cellphone, and (if you believe the Mexican prosecutors) your arm; home appliances that talk to each other, and to you; and a million new implications for making ordinary business processes more efficient and organizations more competitive.

For companies, having most of their employees with a superficial (or superstitious) grasp of the wired world can be a significant handicap, or even a strategic threat. For individuals, this naïveté is not necessarily harmful, just inefficient. It is not till they get hit by their first virus, or find data or identities stolen, or see their role outsourced to someone who came up with a better way to do it, that both companies and individuals realize the value of being smarter. It is usually an expensive lesson.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Thinking outside the course

I have spent many years trying to get trainers to see the broader potential of the Web and to stop seeing e-learning merely as “courses online”. What is required is a conceptual breakthrough, not a bigger budget – indeed, creating dynamic e-learning experiences is often much cheaper than building "conventional" online courses. Naturally, “what” you are teaching and “who” you are teaching has a bearing on the learning models and media you will need to use, and equally obviously if you need to use simulations of software applications text is not going to be much help.

But there is no reason a company should delay providing e-learning till all of its technology choices have been made, and its tools and infrastructure purchased and implemented. In fact, purchasing your tools before you have any experience in designing and implementing e-learning on a shoe-string can cause you to make some expensive mistakes.
Striving for perfection in learning (particularly in e-learning) is admirable but irrelevant if your focus is on the tools instead of on the learning experience. Pedagogy idealogues are often way too willing to yield to technology idealogues. Your choice of learning model should dictate your choice of development tools, not the other way around. And if you don’t have or can’t afford the ideal tools your model calls for, instead of compromising on the model you should first try to compromise on the tools.  The test is always going to be what combination of learning model and development tools best achieves the learning objectives.

I simply don’t believe that creating an effective online or blended learning experience requires a complete dedicated e-learning technology infrastructure to be in place. And a major early investment in a particular toolset can cause tunnel vision, which is why I discourage it! Your learning strategy should accommodate revolutionary prototyping, in which you build and burn then re-build, starting small and working toward evolving a pragmatic set of intervention models. The ASTD forum that sparked this rant is a simple type of text-based dynamic online learning environment, as are discussion groups like trdev and ODnet, and blogs such as Internet Time. None of these require sophisticated technology infrastructures, or even much techno-competence, and the tools are often free. And, with a little creativity (not the visual kind, the learning structure kind), such tools can be used in whole or in part to rapidly build effective online learning solutions. Such solutions may not be what you want to stick with, but they can get you moving up the learning curve, and will inform the way you choose and use a more “technological” infrastructure in the medium term.

I certainly do not advocate the use of PowerPoint as an e-learning development tool in isolation (though it can be quite effective in WebEx-type scenarios). Nor do I advocate text-only as an ideal online learning medium. But I DO advocate using whatever tools you have at your disposal in whatever combinations if they will help to create a learning experience that will achieve its objectives.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Text-based page-turners revisited

Don’t confuse the medium with the message, or the expression with the experience.

Most first-generation e-learning out there is ineffective garbage. But the fault lies more with the design of the learning experience, than with the fact that the content is primarily accessed through text and images. I acknowledge the need to address learning needs and use effective means to do so. But I am just not so ready to throw text and images out the window as a foundation for the communication of knowledge. Build on that foundation by all means. But build on it with layers of useful learning experiences, not simply with more exotic media.

My previous PowerPoint comment was more about perceptions of the mode of instruction than about the tool itself. You can’t assume that anyone following a relatively linear mode of teaching is merely putting pictures and text on a screen. What matters is how mentally engaging the experience is, not whether its primary visual form is text and pictures. Further, you can’t assume that because “interaction” in the trivial sense that I hear most ISD people use it (animation, sounds, games, bright shiny objects) is absent from a particular experience, that the mind of the learner cannot be productively engaged with the subject matter. You can use text and images as a primary mode of communication, and reinforce it with real-world application exercises, practice, feedback and so on – and, more often than not, even in the most gratuitously lavish production, those vital activities tend to be briefed and de-briefed using (gasp) text!

Admittedly, it is harder to craft a good sentence than to code a jumping frog, but that’s no reason to dis the written word. Don’t knock the potential of text as a means of communication. It’s making a major come-back in people’s lives.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Creative use of existing technologies

There’s a real sense of elitist anti-powerpointism among people who think of themselves as e-learning professionals. But, really, if PowerPoint is considered good enough for 90% of ILT interventions, why have such disdain for that paradigm online? Just because you can do more in the way of multimedia and nonlinearity online doesn’t mean you should.

I have for years been advocating the use of simple, affordable, working, rapid-results familiar technologies in e-learning as a viable alternative to the “industry” dogma that if e-learning is not “produced” by instructional designers using proprietary tools it’s not good. Canned learning “products” may be appropriate for some subject matter, but for much of what people need to learn, there may be better, faster, cheaper ways to go.

Before qualified instructional designers get upset, I have no beef with that profession. But I suspect that many of the practices, if not some of the principles of ISD, as taught at any point in time, have a rather limited half-life in a field that is evolving as dynamically as the one we find ourselves in. In my view, e-learning has become a sort of self-sustaining pseudo-specialization, with barriers to entry built on sand by vendors and practitioners who really don’t want to have to perpetually reinvent themselves.

Quality learning is not about sophisticated tools, entertained learners, flashy production values, minutely mapped-out processes, or enhanced trainer job satisfaction. What matters is whether or not a learner achieves the desired improvement in performance as a result of the learning experience; and whether that experience was provided on time and within budget. Those last two items have often been major weaknesses in the concept of “e-learning as canned productions” – it can take months and tens of thousands of dollars to produce a single course. By the time it rolls out, the context has changed, the content is outdated, and you’ll never pump enough learners through it to justify the cost before you have to ditch it and start again.

If e-learning or blended learning is the right way to go in a particular instance, you can cut budgets and development times to negligible levels. Use established technologies like e-mail, PowerPoint, threaded discussions, chatrooms. Add to them relatively simple and free/cheap emerging tools like Web conferencing, online presentations, blogging, and social networking. Weave in people who are SMEs, expert practitioners, managers, or learner peers as mentors, facilitators, learning buddies, or devil’s advocates. Make learning part of the workplace and the workflow instead of some specialized activity that you have to escape from reality to engage in. Some tools that are useful are PowerPoint, Breeze (or its cheaper and instantly usable competitors like Aculearn), Spoke, Blogger, Moveable Type, iChat.

Without spending much time or money, you can create e-learning experiences and online learning environments that are cheap, rapidly developed, secure, highly targeted, always current, always relevant, and very effective. But to accomplish this you have to be willing to drop the notion that content and sculpted learning paths are king. And you have to be willing to yield to a less controlled learning process where “learning management” is less about micro-tracking learner activity and more about return on expectation, holistic and fuzzy as it may seem.

And vendors of products that produce and manage canned courses will not thank you for it :-)

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Searching for an LMS?

Do not let 'what is available' dictate the functionality that you need. There are dozens (probably hundreds) of LMSs out there, and the one you pick should be the one that does the things you NEED it to do, not the one that does lots of things that are cool. So don't buy features, buy benefits that mean something to you. And don't fall into the trap of screening LMSs by factors that may not be important to you just because those factors seem to be in vogue right now (e.g. "if it's not SCORM conformant I won't consider it") .

Define your LMS needs based on the service you want to provide, the data you want to capture, the reports you want to run, the admin capabilities you want to use, the learning models and learner dynamics you want to support, the authoring systems and processes you want to use, the course vendors you want to be compatible with, the upgrade strategy you want to follow, and the ERP/HRIS systems you want to integrate with.

You'll find something off-the-shelf or ASP delivered that fits your needs. There is nothing especially complicated about coding an LMS, so I'd go beyond that and look at what it might take to develop your LMS internally, or what it might take to have an outside contractor build one for you. From what I have seen, implementing an LMS can cost more than the LMS itself, and the life expectancy of many branded LMSs is low -- in less than three years many companies find they need to get a new one. So having an internally developed LMS, and the expertise in your IT group to maintain and enhance it, may be a logical thing to do.

Opting for an ERP-systems provided LMS is another choice, but many training departments are wary of it. They are skeptical of the learning expertise of SAP or PeopleSoft. They assume they will be expensive and inflexible. And it will mean getting more involved with IT in the purchasing, implementation, and ongoing management phases than many traing people feel comfortable with. Get over it. In the medium term, learning management IS an ERP function, training needs to focus on its training expertise, IT needs to develop its e-learning systems expertise, and the sooner this all comes to pass the better.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Gender of voice-over and e-learning effectiveness

Do we use a male voice or a female voice in our e-learning? Which works better? The advertising industry has done a lot on the question of whether the gender of a voice impacts audience attitude and message retention. "Do we go male or female?" is a decision that has to be made every time an ad is produced. Unfortunately much of the generic gender research never gets published -- possily because of the (incorrect) idea that gender stereotyping is a precondition for such research. And much of the research is very specific to a product/campaign/audience.

It appears that matching the gender of a spokesperson to the gender of the target audience makes the spokesperson more aesily liked; but matching the perceived gender of the product advertised to its spokesperson's gender is more important. (see What if the Energizer Bunny were Female for some interesting insights).

But most studies that I have seen indicate no statistically significant difference between retention by an audience of one gender of content delivered by a voice of another, or the same, gender.

In my experience there are characteristics other than gender that play a much bigger role in engaging a learner audience. Things like dynamism, clarity, 'emotional bonding' with the content, enthusiasm, and perceived subject matter expertise are more important than whether it is a male or a female voice. Of course, so long as the content is not seen (rightly or wrongly) as inappropriate to the gender of the speaker-- sometimes playing to sexual stereotypes is simply helpful to all concerned.

I recommend you do what an ad agency would do, and what I have done often in the past. Select two male and two female voices, have them cut a short demo of the material, and test it on a small group from your target audience to see who they like. Not scientific, but cheap and effective!

Agreed, accent and age are also important. It all depends on the chracteristics of your target audience, and the nature of the content. For example, a British audience will often reject or challenge the validity of the content if it is narrated with an American accent. This sentiment will be stronger in interpersonal skills training than in software tools training. Regional accents also carry with them perceptions of the qualifications of the narrator.

I have found the best combination is a professional voice (preferably with radio broadcast experience) who is also a SME or experienced practitioner, or who at least understands the subject. Most voice-over artists have difficulty conveying expertise or passion for the subject, and can get annoyingly hammy when they try.

But only use someone with no professional voice experience if you are truly desperate.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Level 3 evaluation

We have seen a lot of level 3 success with a Problem Solving & Decision Making blended course that we built for Kepner-Tregoe. Throughout the pre-classroom online portion of the course, each learner interacts asynchronously with both his/her instructor and to a lesser extent with his/her manager. The interaction is around defining real workplace instances in which the rational thinking processes need to be applied, and in working through those applications.

Then, in the classroom portion of the course, those learner-specific workplace applications are practiced and coached intensively, and a few key projects for practically applying the skills are defined.

Then, after the classroom portion, each learner has several weeks in which to document those applications back at the workplace for both the instructor and the manager, who are available where necessary for further coaching and advice. The course is not completed till both sign off on those documented projects.

The great thing about doing this sort of thing online is that you can capture solid cases and metrics of practical workplace application, and demonstrate relevant and targeted value of the training immediately.

Of course, it's more difficult to do in some subject matters than others.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Ideas v. their description

An idea is not its description, despite what many writers may think. I am involved in the creation and communication of ideas -- have been for decades -- yet I have no difficulty in separating an idea from the words used to describe it. In fact, I am convinced that often the creator of an idea is not the best person to communicate it to a wider audience. I can think of countless instances from my own experience where truly gifted and brilliant thinkers (academics, marketing people, trainers, business leaders) have been atrocious communicators. And where truly gifted communicators have had atrocious ideas.

That's why the famous have ghost writers. That's why politicians have speechwriters. That's why entrepreneurs employ marketing communications professionals, who employ copywriters (not copyrighters :-)). It's a rare individual who has the talent to both create transformative ideas and to communicate them effectively - perhaps that is why such people become household names. But they are the exception, not the rule. If your words are worthy of your ideas, and vice versa, copyright fulfils its original function.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Ideas v. their packaging

I could re-express someone else's thought half a dozen times, never infringing on their copyright. Some rewrites might be more elegant or effective. My words might be those that carry their idea to a broad audience. Their words have died. But their idea lives on. They just don't get any credit for it. If the original ideas are good, they can successfully transcend the original means of expression -- to the detriment of the original thinker's ability to profit from them.

With rare exceptions, a significant idea exists independently of the medium in which it is expressed. But an inconsequential idea is dependent on its medium of expression. The harder it is to separate an idea from its expression, the less significant is the idea. No matter how many volumes you write about an
inconsequential idea, you cannot turn it into something important.

Copyright protects only your expression of the idea, whether it was your idea to start with or not. It does not protect the original thought. A transformative idea is inherently likely to be purloined and proliferated;
yet original thinkers continue to publish their work. If they did not, the world would be a much poorer place.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Storyboarding tools

I have worked with several storyboarding tools (especially when I was in the games development business), the most basic of which is StoryBoard Quick from PowerProduction.

Though it is designed for video production pre-viz work, it is cheap ($170?), flexible, really easy to use, and can be applied to just about anything. It's particularly useful if you want to sketch out ideas but (like me) can't draw -- it has a large library of characters and objects, and lets you import your own images and screen shots as well.

With a little imagination you can get a lot of storyboarding done in PowerPoint or Visio, so long as you are not looking for help with creating sketches or artwork. This is fine for mapping out simple process flows from one screen to another, using text, simple connectors and cut-and-paste screen captures. With Visio everyone has to have a copy of the program in order to read the files, and that can get expensive. Most people have PowerPoint already.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

SMEs and Experienced Practitioners

There is a big difference between SMEs and experienced practitioners (EPs). SMEs are helpful in the creation of courses because their knowledge is realtively structured and easy to distill. You get content and theory from SMEs. EPs are helpful in the design of learning processes and in the implementation of learning because they have a wealth of practical experience and fuzzy tacit knowledge to draw on. You get context, relevance, and reality-focus from EPs.

I have used EPs very successfully as online instructors, particularly in reactive asynchronous or chatroom type modes where they add great value to the learning - I'd think twice about using them in ILT or Webcast modes.

Friday, July 02, 2004

E-learning development time

I am often asked what the ballpark development time is for an hour of e-learning. Industry “studies” like that from the E-learning Guild are not much help. According to a Guild study a while back, the average development period for an hour of “complex” e-learning (containing animation, streaming media, and navigation options) allegedly averages 276 hours. This is frankly absurd. But it points out the difficulty inherent in the question: what exactly are you talking about when you say "an hour of eLearning"? And what are you including in the concept of "development time?

This question was asked often in those early days of e-learning. Here's one of my responses, still valid today, to a similar question from 2001:

You are not going to find any meaningful ballpark figures for e-learning development costs, because e-learning can mean anything you want it to mean. This forum is a powerful dynamic e-learning medium, yet it costs virtually nothing to produce. A course full of spinning logos and burning icons and professional video can be a dire learning medium that cost millions to produce and gets outdated rapidly. Remember also that there are a range of hidden costs in any e-learning venture.

You have to define your individual learning objectives within the context of your overall learning service strategy. Then you have to define the learning model most appropriate to those objectives, given your environment (people, technology, existing classroom budgets, target learner sophistication). Only then, when you know what you want, should you start looking at cost. Internal development may be more expensive than outsourcing, if you factor learning curves into your costs. Send out an RFP to a few vendors and see what comes back, or just talk offline to people on this forum. The range of pricing may further frustrate you, but at least you will have a focused basis for budgeting.

There was a time when developers were happy to quote $10k per completed hour of e-learning. I still hear of vendors doing that, though now the hourly number is often $35k to $75k. But most people have realized how ludicrously risky that concept is, because development costs are not linear -- your first hour is most expensive, subsequent hours can get dramatically cheaper. And 'an hour' can be complex or simple in content, learner activity, technology, context, media used, and so on. An hour of simulation can cost 20 times an hour of text-based application instruction, and may be less effective in the given circumstance.

There are no short cuts – you really have to define the project, scope out the development plan, and cost it accordingly. Even then, you will find a huge range of pricing for the same project because not all vendors or internal development shops are the same. The big e-learning vendors are typically much more expensive (sometimes by a factor of ten or more) than a small specialized development shop that does not carry the same overhead. And, if you are happy to give the work to a multi-talented individual contractor, your costs drop even further. I have seen a client quoted as much as $600k and as little as $25k for the same project.

This has been a long answer to an apparently simple question. The short answer is that any study claiming to give a useful ballpark figure for the development cost of an hour of e-learning and an hour of classroom learning will never be useful to you in real-world budgeting.

In e-learning, as in life, what you want will always cost more than you can afford; what you need may often cost less than you are willing to pay.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

A twist on copyright

Artists, writers, and inventors for thousands of years have known that, if not themselves wealthy, in order to pursue their muse they need a wealthy patron. Wealthy patrons are few and starving artists many, so only the most talented or profound find sponsorship. The lesser talents have to get a real job; the wealthy lesser talents indulge in vanity publishing. It's only in relatively recent times that marginal or niched creators have found viable markets for their efforts. And the Internet has made it even easier for such creators to market their wares, because the cost of production and distribution has dropped dramatically while finding a specialist market has become easier.

Musicians have always relied on a wealthy patron (a record company) to get their work leveraged commercially. Once wealthy themselves, many ditch the record company and seek to control/benefit from their creations directly. Those who can't find a patron in the first place are going online in droves, effectively vanity publishing their work but at very little cost to themselves and free to consumers. Those who strike a chord (if you'll excuse the expression) and find informal fame can jump to the next level and get a recording contract -- but in the beginning they actively encourage the free sharing of their work in order to promote their work. Think of it as an investment of opportunity costs in some hoped-for future return. And this despite the fact that in the music industry it is the recording itself (the expression of the idea) that has value.

In business writing it is surely the idea itself that is important; the expression of it (the published text) is less significant. If all you are doing is regurgitating old ideas and re-labeling old concepts, the text is all you have to sell, and with a bit of hype you probably can sell your books. If you are achieving conceptual breakthroughs with new ideas, you can probably change the world -- and your life -- but the words you use will be secondary to the concepts. That's why copyright is for the expression of ideas, not for ideas themselves. I'd rather produce one transformative idea in my lifetime than copyright a hundred inconsequential books.

Let me stress that I am not advocating un-attributed lifting of other peoples' writing at all. I believe in the value of protecting your intellectual property as far as sensibly possible: I have in the past gone to the expense of taking out several international patents for various software tools, and assert copyright of one form or another (mostly Creative Commons these days) on most things I publish. But you need to look honestly at what it is you are creating and decide how much of it comes from and belongs to you, and how much comes from and belongs to your world.

If creators jealously protect their words, they may condemn their ideas -- and themselves -- to obscurity. And does it make any difference in the world if a marginal thinker has the poor expression of old idea stolen by some other marginal thinker? Maybe, if you believe in the butterfly effect. Oops, maybe that's a copyrighted term. Better call my lawyer.