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Learning and Schrodinger’s Cat: Bringing content back from obsolescence

10 Oct

My father is a mathematician, and my brother studied physics and engineering. My nephew is in doctoral work in plasma physics, and my father-in-law is an active MIT alum. There are many, many things I do not have in common with these family members: My MA is in SE Asian studies and political science, and I stay firmly on the social side of sciences. (And to be fair, social science – even economics – is not science in any real sense.)

However, I was exposed to topology (oh! those bubbles and spheres!), imaginary numbers and game-playing machines much earlier than most. As much as I shied away from the sciences most of my life, I am grateful for the exposure. I learned early about Euclid and Napier (who was, in fact, not a shepherd), and plowed my way through Gödel, Escher and Bach at much too early an age.

What was I saying…?

Oh, yes, a cat. Schrodinger’s cat! I heard about this sad little cat an early age. The image of the poor creature exposed to lethal radioactivity never left me. But in fact, I later learned, it was

Failure Confetti Comics

Failure Confetti Comics

only a theoretical exercise, not an actual live-animal experiment (I think!), as a way to illustrate the Uncertainty Principle and the related Observer Effect. Both of these arise from quantum physics, and point out the disambiguation that something can exist in two simultaneous states, and/or change states as a result of the act of being observed.

“Learning is the Work”

I’ve read this quote so often in the last 18 months that I am unsure of correct attribution (heck, maybe it was me!), but I read it most recently on Harold Jarche’s blog. I certainly agree. In the modern workplace, resting as it does on a dynamic digital platform and shape-shifting networks, we can no longer rely on our knowledge or expertise. Access to content (information) is the lifeblood of our work, be it in a colleague’s mind or data in the cloud. (Or, as Charles Jennings points out, even residing with our competitors.)

Given the fluidity of our Learning Age, when instructional designers and trainers secure content, chunk it to be easily understood and applied, and deliver it back via e-learning or synchronous training, I would argue that very act changes the state of the content, and certainly the context in which it resides.

Yes, cleaving content from application and setting it up as received knowledge certainly changes the way we see it. And, the way we apply it. The cat may die under our manipulation. The content is either useful or not, applicable or not, advantageous or not. But once we pick it up, process it, and deliver it, it may not be the same as when we found it.

The very act of training removes content from its “natural habitat,” unnaturally elevates certain things over others that in actual application may be just as useful, and creates an altered perception of the very same content – a kind of Observer Effect.

Stay close to the machine

This is not to suggest that there is no place for training, e-learning programs and learner engagement initiatives. In fact, I rather like my job! It is a call to be thoughtful, conscientious and limited in the approaches we use. Keep learning as close to the machine as possible, to borrow a concept from computer programmers. Remove learning activities as little as possible from the tasks that people perform. Needless elaboration and unnecessary barriers placed in a way that separates learning from the work, rather than making learning a part of the work, should be used sparingly and purposefully. Mathematicians speak of an elegant proof, with as little elaboration as possible. In similar fashion, we necessarily curate content for our learners, but we need to be aware as to the effect that has and limit distortions.

As I’ve discussed before, learning practitioners should embed learning activities into the work (aka, performance support), and reciprocally direct work activities and social connections into training activities and eLearning courses. If not, we run the danger of creating altered perceptions in our learners’ minds: “Oh yeah, that’s the training way, but in the real world…” Yes, as soon as we observe it as something other than what it is (our work!), we evaluate and apply the content differently, too.

Poor kitty.

P.S. Yes, I love Calvin and Hobbes, and am aware of the alive-dead dynamic.

P.P.S. I hope to see you at #DevLearn2014! I’ll be talking about this topic and related ideas in Concurrent Session 609.

Forget the Content: It’s the people you need to align

31 Jul

“All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they are now getting.” –Tom Northrup

Implementing a learning program is a serious challenge, and as often as not (more often than not?) the program fails to deliver the anticipated results even with sufficient budget and organizational support. There are, of course, many reasons why learning programs fail. In most cases, the first place evaluators look is at the content. If only the content were better, more relevant, or more useful, people would learn and apply it. In my experience, content is rarely the culprit. If there’s one thing good instructional designers and eLearning practitioners have down, it’s SME engagement and creating good learning objectives. Even if the content were not as robust as it could or should be, that’s rarely the barrier.

The second place that we turn to is the learning design. Was the instruction not designed with the learner in mind? Was it not well “chunked” or paced? Was it not interactive and with appropriate scenarios and learner challenges? These are all good questions, and can often lead to useful ameliorations. If the topic is not perceived to be relevant or immediately applicable to the learner, transferable learning is unlikely to happen. Again, good learning designers will have avoided these problems in the first place, or be very good at seeing those flaws at an early implementation stage.

This post boils down to what the Serious eLearning Manifesto addresses.

This posts boils down to what the Serious eLearning Manifesto addresses.

The last place we focus the blame is on the learner. Or, perhaps better stated, the last place we publicly lay the blame is on the learner, though we are all well aware of some deep-seated variety of, “These folks will never get it, but we can say we’ve tried.” Leaving aside the misplaced emphasis on “getting it” rather than “doing it,” we are left that the learner is actually where the breakdown occurs.

If we think that’s the case, it remains the instructional designer’s problem to fix. The problem is NOT that people won’t or can’t learn, and transfer that learning. The problem is that we haven’t asked them to do so in a meaningful way.

Work with people, not the content.

Information (content) is there for all. Learning is individually motivated, but also takes place in a social framework. If you give a music lover a new music player whose features are not so obviously designed as to be transparent (now there’s an interesting topic!), she will learn how to use it in a matter of minutes and be expert in a handful of hours. There’s no need for an instructional course. Why? The conditions are right for learning:

  • There is intrinsic motivation to figure it out.
  • The usefulness of taking the time to learn it is obvious (if it’s not, forget it).
  • The learner feels empowered to take the time to learn it; no people or forces are aligned that implicitly or explicitly say you’re wasting your time or that you don’t need to know it (or if there are, contrarian rebellion can be a useful force!).
  • There is an immediately (if perhaps only implied) social aspect to learning it; she’ll be one of the “cool kids” or will want to share the player—and her knowledge of it—with others.

The answer is not in our courseware, but in our design of the learning space. Empower learners to learn, provide the supports and freedom that encourage personal and social learning, and leave the tools and topics you want them to explore on the table.

Learning happens, every day. We just need to understand how to direct that in ways that benefit our learners and organizations. If our efforts are not yielding the desired results, examine the organization that is delivering those results.

Learning Space Means Anyplace

24 Jul

Two related stories came to my attention today, and it put a frame around what’s been on the top of my mind lately: learning spaces.

The first story came from the heart (ehem… Hart) of the online learning world: The Centre for Learning & Performance Technology (@C4PLT). Jane Hart recently published her annual survey of Learning in the Workplace. For those of us in Training and especially in eLearning, the results should be a wakeup call. eLearning and formal training are not very highly valued.

From Centre for Learning & Perfromance Technologies, 2014.

From Centre for Learning & Perfromance Technologies, 2014.

The second story comes from the American heartland. Kansas City is constructing a new school, driven by an admirably forward-thinking school district. No lockers, no long corridors, scant few “industrial” classrooms with rows of desks, and fitted with “maker spaces.” What will students do in those spaces? The principal rather bravely answered, “Who knows?”

What both of these seemingly disparate stories illuminate is that our ideas about learning need to change. Learning is not an event. Learning is not bound by a specific space, or a specific time. Learning, be it for students or workers, formal or informal, is going to be learner-driven and anchored in creativity and connection.

Actually, let me restate the paragraph above: Not only do our ideas about learning need to change, our practice must also. In a world where information is plentiful and readily available, in which knowledge need not rely on few experts but the availability of the plentiful experienced, consideration for space should be one of our leading design factors.

Space is not bound by walls, media, platform or geographic place. Space is also not tethered to time. (OK, this is getting a little woo-woo for some, I know, but I’m almost done.) Learning space is about connection, conversation, trust and creativity. The reasons eLearning is failing in organizations is because learning is not an event, it’s a constant process that needs nurture and occasional direction. The reason it is failing in classrooms is because students have the answers at their fingertips, but lack the ability and creative license to ask the right questions.

Why aren’t most training and eLearning programs preceived as valuable? Because they don’t provide value, in part because they are not developed for the rigors of space and time.

It’s time to unleash the spaces – online spaces, mental spaces, emotional spaces – that will allow individuals to pursue their passions and organizations to follow where those passions lead within a broader, elastic strategic vision. (Wait, doesn’t that sounds kind of like Google? Yes, I guess it does.)

Setting the Course: Do we still need e-learning courses?

8 Jun

I’ll start with this: I’m an instructional designer (ID) and e-learning guy. When I have less than 60 seconds to explain what I do to the semi-interested, I usually talk about courses. You know–complete the course, do the learning check, and get back to your life. I have been of a mindset lately that courses are a pretty poor way to learn. If you’ve been reading these posts with any frequency you’ll already know that I’m much more interested in the social, informal, and learner-directed activities. I absolutely believe that’s the direction we should be headed.


From: Tom Kuhlmann – The Rapid E-Learning Blog. Thanks, Tom!

I remarked rather flippantly to a colleague the other day, “I’ll be happy if I never have to build another course.” I meant it, in part selfishly (they can be tedious to produce) and in part philosophically. But since then I’ve been thinking: Is there still a place for courses? Those SCORM-compliant nuggets with a beginning and an end, with narratives built-in and easy navigation throughout? I mean, I’ve worked on hundreds of courses in my 20 years in ID, and I am truly proud of several of them.

I think I have to walk back from my flippancy just a bit. After a few days chewing on it, I think courses are part of (but not the whole) solution to a learning need:

  • Where compliance is absolutely (legally) necessary, such as HIPAA, fiduciary laws or the like: If you must have it on file for an auditor that you’ve reviewed something, and there is an expectation that it will change your behavior in some way, a course makes sense.
  • When learning how to use a tool or software application or system, and the course can be as much of an immersive simulation as possible.
  • Where there are no other means to model interpersonal communication, such as a remote sales team, working with volunteers, physician-patient conversations or social workers on home visits. It is best to do these in person, but sometimes that isn’t possible. These should also be as immersive and branching as possible.

That’s really about it. For almost every other need I can think of, I would lean toward creating some other kind of learning experience that includes some combination of research, curation, sharing and coaching. And, when you are creating courses, don’t rest on the ways you’ve been doing. Rethink anew how to best deliver the content to be as useful as possible to the learner. The Serious eLearning Manifesto is a good starting point for each project.


Learning in a Connected Workplace: But connected to what, exactly?

5 May

Workplace learning. If your mind fills with images of shuffling off to a conference room to “do the training,” you share the attitude of a large share of learners, I’m afraid. Luckily for us, we’re e-learning folks, so we know better. Learners don’t have to shuffle anywhere anymore. They can “do the training” right at their desk.


If we are satisfied with delivering e-learning courses, 2004 called and wants it’s training program back. If we rely solely on delivered courses, we are losing ground and selling our learners, organizations, and ourselves short. E-learning is great (or should be), and it’s not going anywhere. However, we have to think beyond e-learning development to become true instructional design and adult learning facilitators. You know all too well the two major shifts of the last decade:

  • Information now streams at your learners’ fingertips, constantly on and maddeningly (and wonderfully) distracting.
  • Work is no longer only task-driven, but also learning- and innovation-driven.

That software training you’re working on? Or leadership training? Sales training? Compliance training? You-name-it training? Someone else has already created it, probably better, whether it’s off the shelf or up on Not only that, there are Twitter hashtags and Facebook threads and meme jokes and outright snarkiness out there about your very topic. And here’s the irony: You want the kind of learners who will find it! They are engaged and curious, and they have at least enough initiative to forward a funny poster. The capacity for nearly anyone to find information on nearly anything is inspiring and horrifying. Our job as learning professionals is to help people harness the flow, teaching them how to evaluate, store, share, and use what they find.

Which leads to the second point: Learning is not a separate part of the calendar, or even a set-aside part of the day.

LEAP Ahead Conference: Portland, Ore., June 25-26

LEAP Ahead Conference: Portland, Ore., June 25-26

Modern working is learning. The latest headlines, industry trends, job tools, and data points are essential to helping workers succeed in almost any industry. We’re all knowledge workers now, and to be a knowledge worker is to be a constantly learning worker. If we fail to learn and convert that learning into innovation, not just as an organization but as individuals, we’re being left behind by those who do.

The same is all too true for those of us in the e-learning game. What have we been learning? What innovations are we implementing? And how are we sharing it? Let’s find out! Join me as we dive into this topic at LEAP Ahead in Portland next month.

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