Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Wikis as learning tools

In yesterday's Online Learning News and Reviews newsletter, (unfortunately not posted to the internet yet) Chris McGrath, co-creator of ThoughtFarmer provides some interesting insights into how business can establish wikis as a collaborative learning tool. His company provides assistance in establishing wiki-inspired enterprise collaboration platforms. He offers the following nuggets on getting a wiki started and generating participation.
  1. Getting Started
    • Choose a wiki platform that IT will approve. "Will your IT department allow company data to be stored off-site? Can you use open-source software?" The IT department of one of McGrath's clients, for example, required Windows-based software that could be installed inside the corporate firewall.
    • Choose a wiki platform that suits the technical aptitude of your users. "Many wikis use 'wiki mark-up,' a kind of language that allows users to add formatting and links to their pages. Technical users love it, but business users often find it intimidating."
    • What's the relationship between your wiki and your intranet? "If your wiki 'is' your intranet, you'll want it to support a broad range of features -- like a home page, news, and an employee directory."

  2. Generating Participation
    • Establish an information framework. "A wiki starts as a blank slate. To get it going, you'll need to create a logical information hierarchy and seed it with information."
    • Get senior people to take the lead. "If members of the senior management team use the wiki, others will quickly follow."
    • Signal users when pages change. "Provide an alert mechanism that signals users when certain pages change. This keeps the discussion going when a wiki page gets interesting."
For companies like the one I work for this could be a new source of revenue for two reasons: 1) the software used for establishing wikis is new and most IT departments are two swamped with the day in and day out problems related to company networks to learn how to set up and maintain a wiki. We could contract to provide this service similar to how we provide assistance establishing an LMS. 2) Wikis are generally populated with procedures and best practices that are inevitably buried in the heads of best practitioners as tribal knowledge. Getting these subject matter experts to put this information down in writing is often difficult for a variety of reasons, just as we develop elearning courses based on subject matter interviews and written documentation, so too could we provide initial assistanc in populating the wiki.

Just a thought for the day.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Exercising the brain

Dr. Ellen Weber writes at Brain Based Business:
Did you know your brain needs regular workouts if you are to create ... say ... the top computer design for your firm? Your brain has three main parts to be challenged on a daily basis: the cerebrum, the brain stem, and the cerebellum.
She then provides an exercise regime for each of the three elements. I'm not sure how "scientific" her recommendations are, or whether she offered them with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, but it is certainly an interesting concept.

How to Resolve Broken Things

So Brent Schlenker posted twice at his blog Corporate eLearning Development about this video of a presentation by Seth Godin at the Gel 2006 conference. Seth discusses--with rather humorous examples--how, as a society, we accidentally and/or on purpose produce "broken things," things that are not user friendly or are just down right confusing.

Seth's basic premise is that there are a number of reasons we let broken things get into the public hands which he sums up with seven general reasons (which he freely admits he came up with off the top of his head) which are:
  1. Not my job
  2. Selfish jerks
  3. The world changed
  4. I don't know
  5. I'm not a fish
  6. Contradictions
  7. Broken on purpose
It's unfortunate, but I see these broken things appearing in the training world. Going forward I will look at each one of these in detail, and I think the number one reason it is broken is Seth's third point: The World Changed.

There has been a great deal of discussion over the value of formal learning and informal learning. In the weekly podcast of the Yi-Tan Community Call titled Informal Learners Everywhere, Jay Cross defined formal learning as a bus ride that has a structured course while informal learning is like riding a bicycle where you control the course you take. (Forgive the puns.)

As stated in the Yi-Tan podcast. The training world is functioning in the framework of the 20th century industrial age, when everything was mass produced and as Henry Ford stated with his Model T, "You can have it in any color, as long as it's black." So management now views training as an "event" in which you herd people onto the bus (a classroom or seat in front of a computer monitor) and you take them on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. When they exit the ride they are trained. It's magic!

But as Jay Cross points out, the corporate style of mass training is unusual to humans. We have crawled up from the primordial ooze learning the hard way--by trial and error. As knowledge was accumulated within the community it was passed on from elders to the young, an early form of classroom training. But it was knowledge needed to survive and it was passed on when the youth of the community needed it to contribute to the success of the community. And that is the key being able to practice immediately what was learned and if they made a mistake or got confused then they could turn to their elders, who often were working beside them, for assistance.

In today's training environment, we are teaching soft skills, hard skills, procedural issues, all types of skills. Some of the training events are engaging while others are downright boring. The unifying factor is that often the learner is sent back to his or her job site and has no opportunity to practice what they heard in the classroom. Of course that is often out of the trainer's hands, all he or she can do is to encourage them to practice. So they don't get to practice a particular skill immediately. When the time comes to use that skill their only hope is to ask their manager or track down an expert with tribal knowledge to share.

That is where the Web 2.0 world comes into play. In his article: A Web 2.0 Tour for the Enterprise, Shiv Singh paints a picture of how Web 2.0 tools can take, what has in the past been a local tribal knowledge repository and expand it to an entire multinational company.
What Web 2.0 values should be corporate values? The more collaborative the employees of a company are, the more successful the company becomes over time. Employees that collaborate efficiently by leveraging each other’s intellect and resources create stronger and more successful products.
This is training and learning in its mot basic form. Its the creation of virtual trade unions where masters and apprentices can meet and talk and learn from one another.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Thought for the day, take 2

It's an unusually cool, wet, and all around dreary day here in Connecticut. I just finished my weekend chores and sat down to check my email. Along with the typical spam I discover I have received a comment from one of my posts. My first thought is "Cool! Somebody took the time to read me."

Then I opened the email, read it, and it started my head spinning. It was from Dr. Tony Karrer, who runs his own elearning blog at eLearning Technology and he hit me with a interesting question in reference to my post on August 23rd "Thought for the day. In that post I discussed my realization that as an instructional designer I am often put in the position of learning the content informally in order to create a formal learning engagement. Dr. Karrer posed this question to me.
I think your post here is great (and I'm glad that some of my previous posts helped spark your return to blogging) ... but can I be so bold as to challenge your question: "The question is how do we develop formal learning processes that are more informal in nature and hence more likely to stay in the learner's mind."

Or is it how we can support modes that are more like the mode you've been in while you've been informally learning. In other words, are you going to create resources that support a course OR are you going to create resources that support smaller bursts of learning on particular items? Which would have helped you more during your investigation of wiring?

And I'm honestly interested in your answer.
Well, I have two responses, one is what I consider the ideal and the other is reality.

First, the ideal. In an ideal world I would like to be able to create resources that support smaller bursts of learning on particular items. These types of resources would have and actually did help me in my investigation. For a newbie to electrical systems, Wikipedia provided an excellent starting point. Then my subject matter expert pointed me to a site run by the Siemens corporation that provides open learning courses about electrical installations. The site is, of course, geared to promoting Siemens products, but it still proved to be a great learning site. For elearning to be truly effective it needs to be accessible quickly and needs to be chunked so that the critical piece of learning is easily located.

Reality, at least in my company, seems to be the creation of big, bulky one hour (or more) courses that are housed on the customer's learning management system (LMS). Once on the LMS it is only accessible if the learner is registered to take the course. By the time I become involved in a project decisions on the structure of the course and its location have already been made. Corporations still like this approach because it gives them the illusion of control over their employees' learning. In reality it is just an illusion since most real learning occurs when they learner has an opportunity to actually apply what they have learned. The only thing the LMS approach accomplishes is to provide a means to measure the learner's short term memory by testing them at the end of a lesson. Someone (I forget who) called this type of training throwing stuff up against the wall and seeing how much sticks.

The big question is, how do we educate the decision makers on the folly of locking up learning in an LMS? I think part of the problem lies with the elearning salespeople and customer managers who do not understand the new possibilities. If they do not know, the companies that are employing us to design their elearning solutions (or considering us for employment) cannot be educated. One of my goals with exploring informal avenues such as blogs and podcasting is to try and educate them so we can in turn educate our customers.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Thought for the day

Yesterday I spent most of the day writing the narrative text for an online course I am developing about electrical wiring. This course is on the fast track--the whole rapid elearning process--so I had already interviewed my SME and he is on travel and unavailable for the rest of the week.
Heck I even found myself examining the electrical wiring in my own home, studying the junction boxes, examining the different types of cable employed and for what purposes. I was even itching to take the cover off of my circuit breaker box, but I thought better of it. I don't think my wife would be amused if I accidentally electrocuted myself.
That is when it dawned on me. Here I was practicing informal learning, gathering data, consulting various online resources, and searching out answers for gaps in my understanding without any formal structure. And I was doing it to achieve a work goal: the creation of a formal learning program. And that is what every instructional designer worth his or her salt does day in and day out.
And that is what informal learning is all about. It's about gathering information when you need it. My father-in-law, a brilliant engineer, has been trying to teach me about electrical wiring for years. Unfortunately without a pressing need to know the information I allowed his lectures to go in one ear and out the other. All of us have so much information coming at us during every minute of every day it is impossible to absorb and apply it all. We naturally filter out what at the moment is perceived as unnecessary. It is only when we truly need knowledge in order to use it that we internalize what we see, hear, or read.
The question is how do we develop formal learning processes that are more informal in nature and hence more likely to stay in the learner's mind.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Online Foreign language courses

Here's a great example of the learning capabilities offered by the web. The FSI Language Courses is a site that offers language courses, originally developed for the United States government and are " in the public domain."
Each lesson contains a downloadable mp3 audio file as well as a .pdf lesson. They currently offer courses in:
  • Chinese
  • Cantonese
  • French
  • German
  • Greek
  • Portuguese
  • Serbo-Croatian
  • Spanish
  • Turkish
Hat tip: Lifehacker

Learning and Net Neutrality

When I restarted my blog I vowed to myself that I would not get involved in politics. I tried focusing on politics in my first attempt at blogging (inspired by Instapundit), but I found that, while I enjoyed reading about it and discussing it with other people, it became rather tedious from a writing perspective. That said...
I am going to break my vow temporarily to reflect on the Net Neutrality bill that is before Congress currently. I just read a terrific synopsis of the issue by Mike Godwin, titled: Taxi! -- How Net Neutrality Imitates New York Cabs which got me thinking about its impact on the concept of just-in-time learning. The core of Godwin's argument is the following:
For me, the helpful metaphor is to think about taxicabs in the Big Apple. Anyone who has frequently used taxicabs in New York City is aware that there are some kinds of tiered pricing in some of these services. For example, fares during peak commuting hours may be higher, and there may particular charges associated with using toll bridges and tunnels. But one can imagine what riding in taxicabs might be like if taxicab operators had freedom to discriminate based on where a passenger was going or what he or she planned to do after getting there. Taxicab companies might be tempted under such a circumstances to cut special deals — to provide better rates and/or service to someone traveling to Radio City Music Hall rather than to the Museum of Modern Art simply because the former had a commercial partnership with the taxicab company.
That got me to thinking about the darker side of this concept. If Godwin's take on the net neutrality argument is true, then a taxicab company may also opt to exclude venturing into certain sections of the city because of crime rate. Why risk your driver and/or his/her fares earned when you don't have to?
From a learning perspective, the idea of just-in-time learning is the ability to search the web for information you need. You can then post this information (with links and proper refernce) to your blog, wiki, or other internet means. But if the likes of SBC were to have the ability to require payment from sites to allow SBC's customers to access that site then you are limiting learning capabilities. It's creating a bottleneck that shouldn't exist, but would definitely turn the whole concept of the internet, as it was orginally formulated, on its head.
I for one am going to get off my duff and research this some more to make sure my facts are straight and then contact my congressional representatives to voice my opinion.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The future of elearning

So after a hiatus of about 12 months I am reawakening my blog. This time I have a purpose. Inspired by what I have read about the next wave of elearning here and here I have decided that I need to enter the world of Web 2.0.

What has become apparent to me is that when classroom-based training in the corporate world opted to fire the "sage-on-the-stage" and replace him with the "guide-on-the-side", the former found refuge in the elearning world.

The top-down style of the old sage thrived and continues to thrive in the elearning world where the learners cannot talk back because there is no one to talk back to, except the computer terminal. This is a double-edged sword because while the sage unencumbered by learners interrupting his dissertation, he does not have the feedback loop that lets him know when he might have failed to offer salient information.

This may have been acceptable for the past 20 years because the workforce he was addressing was unaccustomed to two-way communication on the computer screen. But a generation that has been raised with computers linked by the Internet, cellular telephones equipped with instant messaging, and sophisticated gaming consoles are entering the workforce and I don't believe they will stand for this. They will want and create electronic networks and the corporate world will need to grasp and get out in front of this. Stephen Downes in his article, eLearning 2.0, for eLearn Magazine, writes:

One trend that has captured the attention of numerous pundits is the changing nature of Internet users themselves. Sometimes called "digital natives" and sometimes called "n-gen," these new users approach work, learning and play in new ways [2].

They absorb information quickly, in images and video as well as text, from multiple sources simultaneously. They operate at "twitch speed," expecting instant responses and feedback. They prefer random "on-demand" access to media, expect to be in constant communication with their friends (who may be next door or around the world), and they are as likely to create their own media (or download someone else's) as to purchase a book or a CD [3].
This is the world my industry and corporations everywhere need to join. We don't necessarily need to retire the sage-on-the-stage, but we do need to give him new responsibilities, duties that require him to appear at a moment's notice in a variety of venues. This new world is what I wish to explore.

Entering Web 2.0

Testing the capabilities of my blogger site.