Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Who says learning should be fun?

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I am becoming increasingly exasperated by the extent to which “fun” is specified as a requirement of learning design. In fact, it is frequently the only need that is clearly expressed.

Now, I understand the general idea that if people don’t enjoy the training, they are less likely to give it high smile-sheet ratings, or recommend it to a colleague. But are they less likely to learn if the process is not liberally peppered with “fun” experiences?

In theory, we learn best when we are relaxed and in harmony with our learning environment. A good trainer can set the tone and help create the most appropriate atmosphere. Ice-breakers contribute to that state, and are particularly helpful for skeptical learners, those uncomfortable in learning situations, and inexperienced trainers.

But training does not have to be entertaining.

E-learning’s rise has brought this issue to the fore. The constant admonition from instructional designers that e-learning has to be punctuated every couple of minutes with “interactivity” is one of the saddest mantras of our time. It’s like the American notion that food cannot be palatable unless you smother it with ketchup. If you are working with training that is bland and dry, by all means bring on the sauce. But would it not be better to make the training itself more engaging in the first place?

The distinction between engagement and interactivity is crucial, and it’s one that many instructional designers – and those who commission the development work – do not appear to understand. Engagement is intense mental absorption; interactivity is often just busyness or sugar-coating. It is vitally important that learners be engaged. Interactivity, entertainment, and fun can contribute to cognitive engagement. They can equally well distract from it.

There are possibly three causes for the boom in gratuitous fun in learning: managers want motivational experiences disguised as training; instructional designers lack the skills or imagination to architect inherently engaging learning experiences; and trainers seek high smile-sheet scores and possibly a release from their own boredom.

Managers: Too often, when managers commission training, what they really want is a motivation activity. I can't tell you how often, for instance, I have heard the whine: "We can't make people take that course online, because we'd lose out on the motivation, energizing, bonding, or social interaction that we get from the classroom course."

My response is to challenge the learning objectives: if the primary desired output of the "event" is all that warm fuzzy stuff, then why pretend to be running a training course? It is far more cost effective to structure a motivation session that achieves those goals, and does not come out of the training budget. (Through my focus on sales and marketing, I have designed and run many such events, some of them wild or lavish, and all of them very effective, but I have never called them "training" events). Naturally, if the self-discovery or bonding is germane to the learning (in, say, leadership training or some interpersonal skills training) then it may be relevant and appropriate.

But too often the kind of feel-good factor that is called for in training is (once again) training being abused as a surrogate for good management.

Instructional designers: Many learning experiences are atrociously conceived. The designer has to work with unrealistic timelines, limited subject matter knowledge, poorly specified learning objectives, and myopic supervision, as well as limitations or constraints in the way the training is to be implemented.

The expedient approach often taken is a linear exposition of content, made less dull by the frequent insertion of bits of fun. “We’ll do an icebreaker at the start, a game here, bring out the Lego over there, run a video here, chuck in some role-playing and a bit of team competition intermittently, and make the tests like Who Wants to be a Millionaire. ‘Triple Bottom Line Accounting for HR Professionals’ will never have been so much fun! Who cares if a week later the only thing they remember is the egg-dropping contest?”

Instructional designers need to look beyond the smile sheet for their inspiration, and companies need to stop hiring as ISD's people whose only pedagogical qualification is a mechanical competence in Macromedia's tools.

Trainers: From a trainer's perspective, "having fun" can be an acceptable way to leaven the densest of subject matter, so long as it does not distract from the learning goals. And, because in too many companies the smile sheet ratings are the primary indicator of how good a trainer is at his/her job, "fun" is welcome. It is often true that a learning experience becomes less engaging for the trainer the more engaging it is for the learner. If you are running the same course over and over again, the entertaining components serve to keep you from putting yourself to sleep.

From a learner's perspective, those who do not really want to participate in the learning experience in the first place may be distracted, if not seduced, by the injection of "fun" components; those who really want to learn ask themselves why they are wasting time on irrelevant padding.

Fun can be very constructive. Well-designed entertaining experiences that are relevant and fully integrated into the learning process can work as powerful illustrations of concepts or living analogies. If the fun is designed as an effective instructional process, contributing to the achievement of specific learning objectives, I'll opt for fun over dull any day. But if it is gratuitous, I won't waste my time, or that of learners, by indulging in it.

Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 21 Oct 2005

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A child's view of tomorrow's learning

The US Departments of Commerce and Education recently commissioned a study of more than 160,000 school-goers from kindergarten to Grade 12 to explore their views on technology for learning. The report has just been released, and it makes compelling reading.
Why do the views of these Newmils matter? They see the world, and interact with it, differently from earlier generations. Today’s US K-12 pupils were born into digital technologies. They intuitively integrate things like computers, the web, instant messaging, cell phones, and e-mail into their daily lives.

I’ve not seen more recent data, but way back in 2002 children aged 13-17 were already spending more time accessing digital media than they did watching television. For the US, that was a huge milestone. (Of course, TV is a digital technology these days, so there goes another useful trend line.) By 2002, every classroom in every public school had internet access, and nine out of ten 5–17-year-olds used computers. According to their parents, more than a third of children ages 2-5 went on-line, up from only 6% in 2000. By now it is safe to say that the internet and other digital technologies are ubiquitous for the youth of America.

The study asked this digitally savvy group what they would like to see invented that would help kids learn in the future. Then the authors of the study consolidated the results and came up with a description of the vision that school-goers have for the future.
I’ll quote the report verbatim:
Every student would use a small, handheld wireless computer that is voice activated. The computer would offer high-speed access to a kid-friendly Internet, populated with websites that are safe, designed specifically for use by students, with no pop-up ads. Using this device, students would complete most of their in-school work and homework, as well as take online classes both at school and at home. Students would use the small computer to play mathematics-learning games and read interactive e-textbooks. In completing their schoolwork, students would work closely and routinely with an intelligent digital tutor, and tap a knowledge utility to obtain factual answers to questions they pose. In their history studies, students could participate in 3-D virtual reality-based historic re-enactments.

Now to me this sounds bland and unimaginative, almost status quo, not at all the kind of creative or exciting thing that kids should be coming up with. It sounds like something a committee of adults would produce one evening over tea and biscuits. And indeed, that is effectively what seems to have happened. All of the spontaneous innovative ideas produced by 160,000 kids were filtered, sanitized, and compromised by a committee of "analysts" who stripped all of the freshness out of them and boiled them down into this pedestrian, adult, government departmental interpretation of a child’s vision.

The authors admit to throwing out all but 8,000 responses, and then only looking at those that met their pre-determined criteria of "meaningfulness". Beyond the summary, they do provide a few actual examples of real responses to illustrate their conclusions and in those carefully selected comments lie some clues to the gold that was not mined.

There were numerous requests for pocket-sized multi-functional computers linked wirelessly to the web, pre-loaded with text books. The next evolution of the iPod Nano perhaps, or an extension of the iTunes-web-enabled mobile phone.

The kids in this study talked about wanting automated learning, straight to the mind, using teaching-hats or smart helmets, cable connections in the head, or wireless chips implanted in the brain. I remember as a child wishing that I could put on headphones before going to sleep, flip a switch on a cassette player, and wake up the next day with all of my schoolwork already remembered. It seems that is an enduring desire in the species, only the technology gets updated. Learning is like losing weight and getting fit: we all want the end result, but the process we have to go through is so unpleasant that many of us will avoid it if we can.

While this report appears to be written by those who only see what they want to see and can only understand that which fits their current frame of reference, I may be wrong. If the responses are really as broadly unimaginative as they are represented to be, maybe that’s just further evidence of the challenge faced by technology developers: even kids can’t visualize what they can’t conceive; they really do not know what they need or want until they see it.

I hope that the original responses to this survey have not been discarded and will be made available for other analysts. You can download a copy here.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Blackboard + WebCT = swan song for the LMS industry

So Blackboard is to acquire (sorry, merge with) WebCT. Does it mean anything, other than to all those folks who will soon be looking for jobs?

What we are seeing is simply further implosion of the dedicated e-learning technology industry. The more oligopolistic this market becomes, the more generic it becomes, and the less able it is to sustain the pretense of any meaningful differential advantage. As open source systems undermine it from below (particularly in the academic arena) and ERP systems make it redundant from above (particularly in the corporate arena), the less relevant this relatively small software market segment becomes.

Hence the increasing investor wariness. Soon to be followed by more enthusiastic uptake of what I have been advocating for ten years now – educators, trainers, and especially learners will start to focus less on the means and more on the end, invoking whatever technologies happen to be mainstream to facilitate whatever learning experience is most appropriate to them. IT departments will find it easier to wrest away from training departments the decisions about enabling technologies, and learning information flows will move out of their relatively proprietary niche and finally become fully integrated with the rest of the corporate nervous system.

The openness and dynamism of the web will finally be allowed to permeate the thinking of the learning establishment, and Model-T e-learning will succumb to a flood of performance-driven innovation.