Why I ran a 5-day course

making stuff
It had been something like ten years since I’d run a course that lasted a whole week. After all, nobody has time to spend so long away from work any more, do they? And anyway, five days is far too long to be spent in formal learning mode, which is why we have blends. So, what went wrong?
I’ve become more and settled in my learning beliefs recently. For example, I’m pretty convinced that:

  • Novices have a very limited capacity for new information.
  • On the other hand, we can all sustain our attention over very long periods when we’re engaged in critical problem-solving challenges.
  • The biggest shortcoming in most skills training is a lack of practice.

So, when the opportunity arose, I decided to go ahead and design a 5-day workshop that would adhere to these principles (in fact it’s a blend, but the workshop is the biggest element). The only subject that I felt comfortable with addressing over this period was the design of digital learning content. Why? Because content design is a craft skill that requires lots of practice working in teams with plentiful opportunities for feedback. And it’s a skill that can be developed very much through a process of guided discovery – having a go and then reflecting on the results. While theory comes into it, its value is very much secondary to practice.
Over the course of the five days we explored many forms of digital content from simple slide shows to articles, podcasts, videos, screencasts, tutorials and scenarios. Working in small groups, each participant was able to create a portfolio of eight different pieces of content. Along the way we stored the insights in a 50-tips wiki.
What amazed me was just how different the atmosphere was from a typical workshop focused on ideas. Because people were involved in practical activities they came in early, worked all the hours available and put in their hearts and souls. We did take breathers to explore topics from a more abstract perspective and we enjoyed meeting up with expert practitioners (a graphic designer, an audio engineer, a video cameraman and an instructional designer) who came in to talk about what they did. But mostly people were involved in making stuff and, when that’s the focus, five days is hardly enough.
The CIPD Digital Learning Design Programme runs again in 2015 on 2 February (London), 22 June (Manchester), 7 September (London) and 23 November (London) and can also be run on an in-company basis.

Compliance or competence? Choose your target

A few years back, I had the opportunity to take on a consultancy assignment in deepest Africa. Before I could go, I had to complete an e-learning course around issues of health, safety and security. As I found out, in some parts of the world safety and security are very important issues, with real risk of deadly diseases, kidnappings, muggings, not to mention getting caught up in wars or terrorist incidents. There’s a lot that can go wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing.
As you can imagine, this is a fascinating topic and the course could have been really interesting and engaging. It might even have worked if it had been properly positioned and reinforced.
The trouble is, this was a compulsory course, followed by a very long test which I had to pass if I was to continue with the assignment. The game became beating the system – passing the test with the least possible effort. I failed in this respect because I didn’t pass the test first time round. It was a good job I had written down the answers to the more tricky questions, so I wouldn’t mess up a second time.
And, of course, I had forgotten everything I had ‘learned’ within a few days.
What could have been a highly intriguing exploration of issues likely to have a very real impact on my personal well-being became a rather frustrating chore to be finished as quickly as possible.
To be fair, my client was, in this case, probably really looking to increase the competence of its employees and sub-contractors in dealing with issues of safety and security. What they got was compliance, i.e. people who could pass a quiz. Compliance training is carried out in order to meet a regulatory requirement or to reduce a risk of legal liability. Training must be seen to have taken place. Real learning is a bonus. Competence-based training, on the other hand, is focused on performance – making sure employees can do their job properly.
Compliance training is designed to be as efficient as possible – that means cheap, quick and non-disruptive. Whereas competency-based training is designed to be as effective as possible. In other words, it works.
So, why is compliance-based training not effective? Well, firstly it is compulsory, which causes resentment – a ‘teach-me-if-you-can’ mentality.
It tends to start with the assumption that the learner is guilty (of discrimination, of poor security, etc.) until proven innocent, which causes defensiveness. And most compliance training involves testing, which causes stress.
Resentment, defensiveness and stress are not so good for learning.
Compliance training also damages e-learning. Here’s why: (1) learners are resistant so (2) trainers hate training it so (3) they use e-learning instead so (4) now learners hate e-learning
To ensure competence, an intervention needs to cover all the bases:

  • First of all, it needs to encourage an emotional reaction, so the learner cares about the subject in question
  • it should present the absolute minimum of technical information – no more, in fact, than the learner needs to start working with the new ideas for themselves
  • it should provide plenty of examples, including those tough marginal cases
  • it should allow the learner ample opportunity for practice, safe from danger and from the risk of embarrassment (which is where simulations and scenarios come in handy)
  • the learner must be supported in applying what they have learned to the job, perhaps by coaching, by reference information available on demand, or through communities of practice;
  • And managers need to reinforce the new behaviours by modelling the skills themselves and by providing rewards through the performance management system.

By contrast, a typical compliance programme does this:

  • Present the policies and procedures
  • Test knowledge of policies and procedures
  • As a result, most compliance training is like drinking from a fire hose.

Compliance training only works as a tick-box exercise – it doesn’t result in changed behaviour (and it damages the reputation of
e-learning). To really make a difference, the emphasis needs to shift to competence: a more sophisticated and costly blend of activities, but with a strong chance of success.
But success really is worth striving for: less discrimination, fewer accidents, fewer security issues, fewer security lapses, fewer legal claims, fewer PR disasters.

Becoming a digital learning content designer

This is an annotated version of the presentation I gave at the Learning & Development Show in London, which launched the CIPD’s new Digital Learning Content Design programme, which I will be delivering.
[slideshare id=34474322&doc=becomingadigitallearningcontentdesigner-annotated-140509042701-phpapp02]

The year of the blend

Next year is the year of the blend. In January 2015, Onlignment will be revealing its More Than Blended Learning approach, with a new book, tools, videos and a variety of other ways to help you build your blended learning skills.
This year we will also be re-launching our much neglected blog as one part of a new website. The past year we’ve been so busy working for clients, we’ve not been able to devote the time we would like to sharing our ideas and telling you what we’re up to. We have exciting plans to put that right, so please be patient.

20. Why the majority of learning will take place online

Designing blended solutions
The networked computer rather complicates the choice of learning media, primarily because the Internet accommodates both synchronous and asynchronous communication. If, as a learner, you want to collaborate with your peers in real-time, you can do so with all sorts of tools from simple text chat, to online telephony using tools like Skype, through to sophisticated web conferencing systems which provide a virtual classroom experience.
On the other hand, if, as a learner, you demand the flexibility to learn as and when you wish, you can enjoy all the advantages of offline media with the added ability to connect with others at your own pace through forums, social networks, blogs and wikis. Already the Internet combines many of the benefits of face-to-face and offline media. Maybe one day it will surpass them both.
The Internet will transform learning above all because of its scalability. Sites such as the Khan Academy, providing video tuition in maths and science, have already reached more than 100 million learners. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are making it possible to deliver higher education to tens of thousands of students at a time, at a tiny fraction of the cost of an on-campus education.
Online learning will soon become the default option, at least for adults, but that does not mean it can or should be universal. We have already discussed the special benefits that can be attributed to learning face-to-face. And, until ultra-fast broadband is universally available on all devices, we will still need to carry some of our learning materials around with us.

A little pragmatism

Systematic approaches are rarely followed to the letter in the real world – after all, let’s face it, life’s just too short. What’s important is that when we cut corners, we do so consciously, applying the main principles with common sense and a great deal of pragmatism. My Blended Learning Cookbook is laden with examples of typical learning problems and uncomplicated blended solutions. If you find it hard (or simply too boring) to apply the systematic approach, you’re welcome to copy any of the recipes that you find relevant to your experience. The end result should be the same – more effective, efficient learning interventions.
That brings this series to an end. All of the posts in the series will be included in the third edition of the Blended Learning Cookbook, due to be published later on in 2013. This will include more detailed analyses of the various decision options and a revised set of recipes. We also hope to produce a video summarising our approach to blended learning.
Until then it’s over to you. Please share your blended learning experiences, whether or not you are applying our suggested approach.

19. Why we shouldn’t write-off offline media

Designing blended solutions
Offline media can be simply defined by the fact that you do not need to be online to consume the content. The first example of an offline medium was the printed page, which did, of course, revolutionise learning. In the twentieth century we also found ways to record and distribute sounds and moving pictures, using an assortment of tapes, films and discs.
Sales of ‘collectible’ media – books, CDs and DVDs – seem to be in terminal decline as we increasingly choose to download the books, music and films we want and to store these on hard drives and portable devices. However, the consumption of these media remains offline. We can still read our Kindles and listen to our MP3 files when there are no Internet connections available – and that’s more often than we think.
Offline media are essentially asynchronous, in that the parties to the communication do not have to be available at the same time. As a learner, asynchronous communication provides you with the greatest flexibility – you can learn what you want, as fast or slow as you want, as often as you want and wherever you want. More importantly, you are under no pressure to respond: you have as much time as you want to reflect on the content that you consume and to form a response. And reflection is as important a part of learning as action.
Next up:  Why the majority of learning will take place online

18. Why some learning simply must be face-to-face

Designing blended solutions
It might seem strange to classify face-to-face communication as a medium, because no technology is required to act as an intermediary between sender and receiver. However we define it, we must not ignore it because for thousands of years it was the default means for delivery of any sort of learning experience. Now, of course, we have many more choices, so is face-to-face learning still important?
First of all, face-to-face communication is synchronous; it takes place in real-time, requiring all participants to be available simultaneously. Synchronous communication has immediacy: it allows the learner to get quick answers to questions and speedy feedback on their performance; it permits teachers and trainers to respond rapidly to emerging situations; it allows for free-flowing discussion. Synchronous communication has an important place in many blended solutions.
Of course some learning activities only really make practical sense face-to-face. Obvious examples are where it is vital that teachers and learners can quickly pick up on the nuances of body language, such as when practising interpersonal skills; or where learners need to interact with the physical world, such as when driving or operating equipment. These circumstances might well mean that a face-to-face element to a solution is essential, whether in a classroom or on-the-job. Which is not to say that other elements of the solution must also be face-to-face.
There is no doubt that a really well-delivered face-to-face event is a memorable experience, even if this is a rare occasion. Think of all the music you listen to: how much of this is in a concert hall or other live venue? What about the drama you watch? How much of this is in a theatre rather than on TV or at the cinema? The same goes for sport: how much of this do you see in a stadium rather than in an armchair? It’s perfectly adequate for many of our everyday learning activities to be online, even if these are not life-changing experiences.
Next up:  Why we shouldn’t write-off offline media

17. More and more media to choose from

Designing blended solutions
Technology has dramatically increased the selection of media available to learning professionals. Of course all learning was originally accomplished face-to-face, providing an immediacy to the interaction, a rich sensory experience (you see, you hear, you touch, you smell) and, if you’re lucky enough to be one-on-one, the ultimate in personalisation.
Books, when they arrived, provided the counterbalance, by allowing learners more independence and the ability to control the pace with which they learned. The invention of the telephone provided additional connectivity for learners and tutors working at a distance. Videos, CDs and all their variants made high-quality audio and video available to distance learners.
But perhaps the most significant new technological medium is the networked computer, in all its many forms from desktop PCs to mobile devices. Networks connect learners to three billion other Internet users and countless trillions of web pages. ‘E-learning’ is the rather inadequate name we give to the use of networked computers as a medium to facilitate learning. In practice, it is more a media category than a single medium, because it is capable of supporting a wide variety of different tools and techniques, many of which have almost certainly not yet been invented.
Next up:  Why some learning simply must be face-to-face

16. Only now do we concern ourselves with technologies

Designing blended solutions
In this series of posts (first post here), I describe a simple process for designing blended solutions that are both efficient and effective. This process has three stages: (1) analysing the unique characteristics of the situation in which the solution is to be deployed; (2) selecting the right blend of methods to meet the needs of the situation; and (3) determining the delivery media best suited to these methods. It is to this final stage that we now turn.

Only now do we concern ourselves with technologies

Very few of learning methods are tied to a specific learning medium – they can usually be applied in more than one way, perhaps online, face-to-face, even over the phone. It’s an important aspect of this approach to blended learning that you leave the choice of medium until last. First you establish the methods that you believe will be effective in meeting the demands of your particular situation. Then you select the most appropriate media for delivering these methods, looking to optimise efficiency without compromising on effectiveness. The result of this may be a rich blend of different media; on the other hand, it may be that you choose to use the same medium throughout. This is not important – your goal here is to optimise efficiency, not to introduce variety.
Let’s just pause for a moment to make absolutely clear how methods and media impact on the likely success of your solution. Broadly speaking, methods determine effectiveness – if you choose the right methods, you are likely to achieve your learning objectives.
A great deal of effort has been put into research to test whether the communications media used for learning have a similar impact on effectiveness. Thomas L. Russell undertook an analysis of more than 350 studies conducted over the past 50 or so years, each attempting to compare the effectiveness of one learning medium with another. The title of Russell’s book is The No Significant Difference Phenomenon, which says it all. A meta-analysis of 96 studies, by Sitzmann and others, published in 2006, makes clear that it’s the method, not the delivery medium that makes the difference. When web-based and classroom instruction employing similar methods were compared, there was little or no difference in outcome. That is not to say that the choice of medium is unimportant; it has a big impact on the efficiency and flexibility of the solution, but not its effectiveness.
Needless to say, real-life is not quite that simple. You clearly cannot use any medium to deliver any method – the medium must have the necessary functionality. So, a book is not a suitable medium with which to hold a discussion (although the book might stimulate a discussion) and you are not going to get very far practising first aid skills on a mobile device (although the device may be useful in modelling those skills). Evidently some common sense is required.
Next up:  More and more media to choose from

15. Eating elephants

Designing blended solutions
Some learning requirements are relatively straightforward and it becomes evident very quickly what the most effective methods will be. On the other hand, we also find ourselves designing solutions to much more complex problems, such as inducting new starters, training apprentices or preparing employees to become managers. In these situations it is hard to pick the most appropriate strategies and social contexts because these need to vary as the intervention progresses.
For this reason, as with eating elephants, it pays to take it one bite at a time. Break your programme down into key stages or elements, for example: preparing the learner, presenting learning content, providing opportunities for practice, offering feedback, providing opportunities for reflection and planning, application to the real-job environment, providing on-going support. The exact nature of these stages or elements will vary widely depending on your objectives and your audience. What is important here is that you attempt to separate out those aspects of the learning process that vary in character, because there is a good chance that you’ll benefit from using different strategies and different social contexts for each of the elements. This is where the opportunities arise for blended learning. And if you can’t sensibly break down the learning process for your given situation, that’s not a problem – you can probably save yourself some trouble and use a single approach throughout.

Coming up

Next week, we’ll make decisions about the technologies that will allow us to deliver the methods we have chosen most efficiently. This will be the first time in this series of articles that we have focused in any depth on whether and to what extent we can usefully employ new media. That’s because, however much we love our toys, learning must always come before technology.
Next up:  Only now do we concern ourselves with technology