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My Top 10 (and a half) Learning Tools, 2015

7 Jul

Jane Hart, at the Center For Learning & Performance Technologies (@C4LPT), is a leading contributor to our industry (used in the broadest sense). One of the many contributions she makes is to compile a yearly list of “Top 100 Learning Tools.” She compiles this list by aggregating contributors’ Top 10 lists, which can be submitted in a number of ways including her online form.

She also invites folks to make it transparent by blogging or tweeting them. This is the first year I have chosen to do it this way, in the spirit of transparency and #WOL (Working Out Loud/Show Your Work).

I encourage you to contribute your list by whatever method suits you, and join me recognizing Jane for her ongoing contributions from which we all benefit.

My Top 10 Learning Tools of 2015:

  1. Twitter: I was far from an early adopter, but now it is hard to imagine maintaining my own learning and professional development without it. I learn via my Twitter feed every day.
  2. Google Search: I suspect there is not much need for commentary here, other than to say it remains for now the best search for what I look for, and how I wish to find it. That could change in the future.
  3. Google Docs/Drive/Sites: For everyday collaboration and transparent cooperation, these have become my go-to tools. There is a lot of room for improvement, but their wide acceptance makes them very useful.
  4. WordPress Blog: I write first and foremost to help clarify my own thinking and combine ideas together to see if they stick that way. But, the benefit of knowing that others read this blog and occasionally respond to it makes it a focused learning activity for me. Others feel the same about their “visible thinking” on their blog.
  5. Scoop.It: I maintain a page on which I clip articles, posts and images, and have built a reasonable following of others I follow there and who follow me. Not as robust a feed as Twitter, but more focused and topical. I have found that for me it works better than other similar tools (, Pinterest, etc.), especially the feature that allows me to comment on each clip, quoting or summarizing why I thought it “scoop worthy.”
  6. MS PowerPoint: We love it. We hate it. We use it, time and time again. I use it to create learning graphics, too – such are my poor graphic design skills.
  7. Evernote: I have had a hot-and-cold relationship with Evernote over the years. I am quick to recommend it as a universal tool for clipping, tagging, note-taking and sharing, but I also go a full month at times without touching it. I will say this: In my periods of high productivity I use Evernote a lot. I’m uncertain of the causal relationship, though.
  8. YouTube: I find myself drifting to YouTube when I need to see how to do something specific, but also for the general hunt-and-peck drifting to see what I might find. There is so much of… everything! The good, the bad, and the ugly. But when I do find something great, I love that it’s there.
  9. Adobe Captivate: It is less and less frequent, but when we do need an animation or software capture with narration/annotation, we use Captivate. I’m not prepared to defend it against competitors; it’s simply the one we use now.
  10. LinkedIn: I spend a lot of time thinking negative thoughts about LinkedIn, but the fact remains that I come across useful and thoughtful posts and links there on a regular basis.
  11. (10a) eLearning Guild/Learning Solutions Magazine: In terms of my own professional development, the guild remains central to my activities. While I have argued publicly that they drop the “e” (The Learning Guild), the publications, events (DevLearn!), and community remain vibrant and extremely relevant.

State Your Purpose: A few words about webinars

2 Jan

A speaker. A podium. A slide set. Information to disseminate. This is a fine scenario, and it is the paradigm on which webinars are built.

A: I have information.

B: You want that information.

C: I will share that information.

However, I think we all agree that the majority of webinars go off the rails pretty quickly. The reason for webinar-fail can be mostly categorized in five buckets:

  1. Poor presentation skills. There are many great resources to improve public speaking, slide design, and delivery. I rather like Slide:ology and The Webinar Manifesto, among many other great resources. Some folks are just not cut out for public speaking. There’s no shame in that. However, this is not my concern here.
  2. Technical problems. Yes, it happens, but not as often as you might think. Learn your platform and plan for worst-case events. That’s not my area of expertise.
  3. Poor understanding of the medium. A webinar compels participants to sit at their computer, watch and listen. That’s a personal-space environment. Don’t expect learners to pay attention for more than 15 minutes if they are not at their own screen, headphones on or in a very quiet room, alone. Groups gathered together to “watch” the webinar—unless it is a highly produced presentation experience, a là Apple introducing the iPad—will fail. (And, don’t get me started on anything that is planned for more than 60 minutes!) This is an oft-misunderstood element, and there is a lot of literature on how we act in groups versus as individuals, but that’s not what has my attention today.
  4. Wasted time. I attended a webinar recently of genuine interest, planned for an hour. There were 15 minutes of housekeeping, introductions, bios, and “setup.” Really? I can read bios and setup before, or after. Get to the topic! They lost me at “I’ll allow each of the four speakers to introduce themselves.” Again, I refer you to The Webinar Manifesto and numerous other books, blogs, articles, videos, and (yes!) webinars.
  5. Designers conflate dissemination, instruction, and learning. This is what I want to talk about.

Dissemination ≠ Instruction

As trainers are fond of saying: Telling Ain’t Training! If you’d like to share some news, build excitement for an initiative, or get all your scattered team members on the same project timeline, webinars are extremely useful. But if you’d like to train folks on the new CRM, or regulatory process, or how to avoid slips, trips, and falls in the warehouse, there are much better ways. At best, a webinar is part of a larger program. There is a reason that the phrase I’ve told you a hundred times! is so common. Telling is for the teller’s benefit, not the ones being told.

Instruction ≠ Learning

Learning happens by, and through, the learner. No matter how sound your instruction, how skilled a teacher, whether in a live classroom, via webinar, or in one-on-one coaching, learning happens when learners take new information or skills, filter and synthesize with their own experience and reference points, and apply it productively. No webinar is going to do that. There are ways to design learning experiences in which learners can demonstrate and apply lessons in real time. It takes good instructional design and a lot of skill to pull off. Alternatively, or in addition, you can observe or measure how the content you deliver is applied. In some cases there are hard metrics, but in most cases assessment will be anecdotal and iterative. You see, learning is a process that is ongoing, not an event. A stand-alone webinar is an event, useful for many things, but not to demonstrate that learning has occurred. If that is your goal … well, some design thinking is in order.

So, the when you plan your next webinar, think through:

  • The objective. If it involves words like teach, train, instruct, or educate, a webinar is at best a piece of a larger instructional program. If it is to inform, prepare, share, discuss, or gather feedback, you’re setting yourself up for success.
  • The attendees’ experience. What will the participants do during your time together? If it is sit and watch, don’t plan for longer than 20 minutes. We live in an interconnected, ultra-distracted world: Holding anyone’s attention longer that it takes to read this post is asking a lot. (If you’ve read this far, thanks!) There are ways to flip the webinar, that is, to do pre-work so that time online together is spent clarifying, discussing, and answering questions (for 20 minutes). Fewer slides, more talk/chat.
  • The purpose. If your purpose really is to train or teach, then design the learning experience. Again, this is not unique to the webinar medium, but participants are especially disinclined to sit through a webinar that is not useful.

A big thank you to Roger Courville, The Virtual Presenter, for his review and suggestions on this post. Check out his excellent blog and get a free copy of his handy book 102 Tips for Online Meetings.

Note to Self: How ’bout a note to all?

29 Dec

We gather for our meeting. Some pull out laptop computers, others prefer pen and paper. We talk over our projects, progress, next steps, risk factors. It’s a scene that plays out every day, to the point where we barely think through the opportunity that each meeting might represent.

We head back to our desks or on to our next meeting. The most organized, resourceful, and determined among us will file notes into whatever organizing system we have devised. Perhaps they’ll reappear in the minutes before the moment of need, either as we work on that project or gather again. Rinse and repeat.

But what if we changed the cycle? What if those meeting notes were out in the open, cataloged for team members and colleagues—and managers and mentees—to find, save, share, and make sense of for their own personal knowledge management (PKM)? I’m proposing that we don’t just save our notes, but use them, share them, integrate them with others, and build both individual and organizational learning.

That kind of transparency has so many benefits:

  • Notes become living documents to add to and glean from.
  • Meetings are more focused, productive, and (maybe) less frequent when show your work/working out loud (#WOL) practices are systemically applied.
  • Managers, stakeholders, and cross-functional coworkers can benefit from knowledge of and insights from the ongoing notes.
  • Potential misunderstandings, cross-purposes, and redundancies can be avoided by sharing freely with teammates.
  • New insights can be found in the notes “feed” from all our of organization’s ongoing work.
  • It helps each of us make better sense of our daily activities.
Open note-taking hits several keys of Working/Learning Out Loud. Click image to read H. Jarche's excellent post  and source for this graphic.

Open note-taking hits several keys of Working/Learning Out Loud. Click image to read H. Jarche’s excellent post and source for this graphic.

I hear misgivings and concerns about this practice all the time, and here’s are the three most common:

  1. We already have too much information coming at us, and I can’t take any more inbox filler. There are many ways to manage information, and I recommend that you skip email notifications of any kind. Instead, use wikis, social feeds, SharePoint, ESNs, Google Docs, some project management and CRM tools, etc. It is not hard, and need not clutter; in fact, sharing this way will make long, substantive email chains unnecessary. Ultimately, this is a de-cluttering exercise.
  2. I don’t have time, and we already have too many reporting requirements. There’s the famous story of the delivery driver who claims he is too busy to change his flat tire as he clunk-a-clunks down the street. This is a new way of working, yes, but it doesn’t really require any new skills—you can simply take notes on a public platform instead of a private one. This may not satisfy your reporting requirements, but it will surely save you time when you have to create those reports, and may even make some reports superfluous.
  3. Isn’t that what a CRM system is supposed to do for us? A social CRM would indeed do this, at least in part. Few of us, however, have access to and use a CRM tool in this way. I certainly don’t. I invite those kind readers who do to let me know about it, for the benefit of all of us.

Heads of state (or their staff) take detailed notes and keep diaries to be made public after their terms of service, so that we might make sense of and learn from their decisions and insights. Few of us, however, deal in statecraft, classified files, or even sensitive information. We can benefit from these insights and knowledge today. As Jane Bozarth rightly says, “Share is the new save.” If you note it, there is a good chance others can benefit from it, too. Please, share the wealth.

In a future post, already in draft, I’ll discuss some tools and processes, and invite others to share how they’ve shared notes. But if you want to share your tips, no need to waitI’ll include them in my post and give you credit (if you’d like it).

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.

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