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.

Learn to love your tools

Old tools
Not so long ago I was at a conference, and I went to see a session being jointly presented by an elearning supplier and their client (a large organisation, represented by someone with the job title of Elearning Manager). The client gave a good introduction to the business issues they had faced and the problems they set out to solve, before handing over to the supplier to talk abut how this was done. The troubling thing was that the client handed over the presentation by saying something like “of course I don’t understand how any of this techy stuff works, so let me pass you over to someone who does”.
It would be nice to think that this was a joke, but I know that it wasn’t. I’ve met a good number of people with responsibility for learning, who almost wear it as a badge of honour that they know nothing about technology – probably because they are aware that this lack of knowledge is an issue and making a joke of it is the easiest way to deal with it.
I sympathise with anyone in this situation. In a world in which it appears that digital content is all around us, and everyone and everything is online, it can be difficult to admit that you don’t actually know what’s going on.1
For me, it’s critical that people with responsibility for learning understand more about how digital learning content is created. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to code, create interactive scenarios, build websites or make videos (although some of these things could certainly be advantageous), but they should understand how these things are done.

  • Trainers can benefit by being able to produce better assets to use in the classroom.
  • Instructional designers can benefit by better understanding how to combine different media in their content.
  • Managers can benefit by being better able to manage the relationship with their suppliers, and with people producing content in house.

When I started out as a trainer it was a given that we all knew how to use a flipchart and an overhead projector, because they were the tools of the trade.
Today the tools of the trade includes video, slides, podcasts, quizzes, tutorials, interactive content, web sites, mobile apps, PDFs and so much more. We need to learn to love our tools and the first step to doing that is to understand them.

  1. This isn’t limited to learning. I recently met someone that runs a completely online business, who confided with me that he had never actually logged in to his own online store as he was afraid he might break something. 

Utilising the experts

Helping hand
One of the hardest professional skills to master is understanding your own limitations. Once you’ve got to grips with that, you then need to call upon the right people for help. Our recent redesign of the Onlignment website and brand is a case in point.
Here is an insight into the problem we faced. The four of us all shared brief lists of websites that we admire. Below you can see four websites we cited, one from each of us. I’m not going to tell you who chose which but you’re welcome to guess.
What do these websites have in common? Not a great deal.
Was this a problem? Not really.
Why not? Because we knew that we would be wasting our time if we spent valuable days and weeks arguing over whose entirely subjective opinion was best. Instead we enlisted the help of a graphic designer and asked him to help us find a solution that worked for us all.
It’s nice to think that you can do it all yourself but sometimes it’s in your own interests, or the interests of a client, to understand where bringing in outside expertise can make a difference. The opinion and talents of someone for whom you have professional respect can obviously massively improve your end product, but it can also result in a much smoother and more enjoyable creative process for you or your client.
In the end, Gary, the graphic designer, listened to our thoughts on what the company meant to us, and what we wanted it to mean to other people. He considered our various visual preferences, provided us with four options to choose from and a design was born. (Relatively painless) magic. We built the website in-house, as this was well within our wheelhouse of expertise and here you are, enjoying it.
I think the size of our company also affected our approach. If I were operating as a one-woman band I would have had three options –

  1. Use an off-the-shelf website design
  2. Build something myself from scratch or
  3. Ask someone else to build it for me.

Time, talent and resource constraints would most likely have led me to use an off-the-shelf solution.
If I were in charge of commissioning a new website for a large company or organisation, my options might have been different. I would most likely have discounted the build-it-myself and off-the-shelf options and would have either brought in external help or gone to an in-house team with the relevant skills and remit.
Most small businesses are unlikely to have sufficient resources to create a media/brand/web team so how would you ensure the best outcomes for your projects? Thinking about my own experiences, these are the answers I would give:

  • Recognise when to utilise the experts
  • Build a network of trusted suppliers whose skills complement your work and needs
  • Make those experts part of your team by taking the time to keep in touch with them between projects


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.

Lessons From Learning Ukulele

I’ve been playing the ukulele for a while now1, but decided recently that it was time for some proper lessons. It’s the first time in a while that I’ve participated in any kind of formal face to face learning and it’s been useful not just as a budding ukelelist but also because of what I’ve learned (or been reminded) about what makes a great learning activity.
Each of the seven points below can be applied to learning and mastering anything.

Choose the right mode and method

I’m something of an introvert and my preference is generally to learn on my own – from books, videos or online content. Joining a group of local learners was not a natural choice for me, but it’s turned out to be exactly the right decision. Video lessons can be great, but with something as practical as learning a musical instrument it’s hard to beat the experience of in person teaching from an experienced musician.

Social context matters

We were expected to play (and sing!) from the start and doing that as part of a group feels much easier than it would be solo. You’re much less exposed when the occasional duff notes and poor singing are covered by the rest of the group.
The group is a mix of beginners and improvers and within those two categories I think it would be fair to say that we’re a mixed ability group. Everyone is supportive of everyone else and we each have things to learn from the others (even if sometimes it’s how not to do something).

Make loud mistakes

I think it was natural that some of us were quite hesitant when we first started playing, but the advice we were given was simple – it’s better to make loud mistakes than to be timidly perfect. If you want to get good at anything you’ve got to have a go, and that means making mistakes. Approaching it with energy and enthusiasm might make those mistakes louder, but it will also make them more obvious to you and the sooner you recognise them the sooner you’ll overcome them.

You need solid foundations

I wasn’t the only one who had previously tried learning from self study materials and a few of us shared stories of getting demotivated because we were trying to do things that we simply didn’t have the skill to do. These early lessons have focused on the basics and understanding and mastering those builds confidence. This would have been much harder to do without the direction of an experienced teacher, which brings me nicely to…

Honest feedback is necessary

Right up front we were told that we would get blunt feedback; and that really matters. The benefit of making mistakes early on is to be able to learn from and rectify them – there’s no point practicing doing something the wrong way.

Practice, practice, practice

The lessons take place once a week and are a mixture of learning new things and then practicing them. We probably spend 5% of the time being told how to do something, 5% having a go at something (a new chord or strum) and then 80% actually playing songs that include those chords and strums. Of course, it would be ridiculous to think that we could learn to play just by coming to the weekly lessons. You have to commit the time between lessons to practice. And then practice some more.

You’re a musician now

One thing that really struck me was when the teacher said:

You’re a musician now. You’re not trying to be a musician. The moment you picked up the ukulele and started playing you became a musician. Think like one.

This is so true of learning anything. If you want to be a singer, think like a singer. If you want to be a leader, think like a leader. If you want to be a coder, think like a coder. By taking action you start to become what it is you want to be.2
Ukuele image: creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by kevin1024

  1. By which I mean I would occasionally strum tunelessly along to tutorial videos on YouTube. 
  2. In case anyone reading this wants to be a surgeon or an airline pilot, keep in mind that taking action can be starting the learning process. It doesn’t mean grabbing a scalpel and practicing on your friends and family, or asking if you can have a go at flying the plane next time you head off on holiday… 

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.

What If The Problem Is You?

In 2013 I’m celebrating a notable personal milestone – it’s been ten years since I entered the world of elearning. In that time I’ve seen many things change (where do I start?) but sadly some things stay the same, and the L&D department is often one of them.
In a previous post I mentioned the Corporate Leadership Council’s L&D Team Capabilities Survey, which Charles Jennings had referred to at the 2012 Learning Technologies Conference.
According to the survey, when asked if they would recommend working with L&D, barely 14% of corporate leaders said yes, they would actively do so. Of the remainder, 34% had no strong opinion and just over half would actually recommend not working with L&D.
And they’ve given us the reason why; the same report states that less than a quarter of line management were satisfied with L&D’s impact on achieving business outcomes.
Stop reading for a moment and let that sink in.
More than half of the manager’s surveyed would recommend not working with L&D and over three quarters were dissatisfied with L&D’s impact on business outcomes.
The root of this is a lack of ownership on the part of L&D. This isn’t about ownership for designing and delivering a piece of training, or of creating a good piece of content and giving a good experience. It’s about sharing in the ownership and responsibility for delivering actual performance results.
Real Partners
How do we do that? For a start, we act as partners.
I do need to qualify this; I’m not talking about a change of job title, I’m talking about a change of behaviour. There are plenty of people who have gone from being a Training Manager to an L&D Managers to an L&D Business Partner without any significant change to the role they play.
This is about real partnership, and real partners;
* Are equal in their status
* Involved in the decision making process
* Aligned to the organisational plan
Again, this isn’t about job titles. No one needs to give you permission to start acting like a partner instead of an order taker (and let’s be clear, that’s the choice). Do you want to be an order taker forever? Being a partner is hard work. It certainly takes more effort than being an order taker and it’s more risky because it requires you to take on your share of responsibility for the success or failure of the business.
As L&D specialists, everything we do should be working towards achieving the organisation’s goals. When someone comes to talk to us about a perceived learning need, it’s those business terms that we should be discussing their requirements;

  • How does this align with the organisation’s goals?
  • What are the specific measurable goals in doing this?
  • What will people do differently as a result of this? (Not know, but do)
  • How will things be improved by doing this? (What are the results we expect to see that will tell us if we have succeeded?)

It’s important that people understand what we do, and what we could do – the potential benefits that we can bring to the organisation. We can only do this if we can talk credibly to the rest of the organisation in terms of achieving their goals, not ours. We must be talking about organisational results and not courses run or modules completed.
Of course, we also need to understand what our customers need and want, but that doesn’t mean coming away with a shopping list of functionality in an LMS or a list of courses to deliver – it means getting a real understanding of what they are trying to achieve, so that you (as the learning expert) can offer solutions.
The better you understand what they need to achieve, the better you understand how you can help them, and long term the greater the chance you have of getting their support,
Build Alliances
Partnership is a two way thing, and it isn’t something that just happens at the point someone has a particular training need. We should be proactively building alliances.
Ask yourself;

  • Who can I build alliances with?
  • Who can help me identify the ways in which L&D can demonstrate more business focus?
  • Who can help me to demonstrate our business focussed approach?
  • Who would benefit from the support of a truly business focussed ally within L&D?

There may be some obvious candidates; line managers who you regularly work with, colleagues in IT, senior HR stakeholders, but don’t limit yourself. Look for anyone in the organisation where it would make sense to develop a real solid relationship; People with whom you can align your short, mid and long term goals and share resources.
Influence the Influencers
One of the greatest benefits of forming the right alliances is that we are better able to influence organisational decision making. If you want to establish a really effective L&D department, it doesn’t do any harm to get somebody senior on board as a cheerleader. Especially if we’re starting from the kind of position that the Corporate Leadership Council survey suggests that we might be.
Perhaps it’s obvious, but if you can’t directly influence the decision makers, then try and influence those people that can influence the decision makers. Use those alliances!
There is one other aspect of ownership that we need to cover, and maybe I’m being a little tough, but it’s tough love I promise you!
Stop Making Excuses
We really have to stop making excuses. In my ten years I’ve heard the same excuses trotted out, whether the subject was LMS, elearning content, social learning or using mobile devices.

  • It won’t work here
  • It won’t work with our people
  • IT says we can’t do it

If we’re going to take ownership for results, this just isn’t going to cut it. At the very least we need to make reasoned arguments why these things are or aren’t true.
Let’s just consider the last point; IT says we can’t do it. It’s a pretty common thing to hear, but if you just accept no for an answer, you become the single point of failure. So what do you do?
If we want be a partner, we should be able to develop a mature relationships with IT, one in which we partner with them, but aren’t dependent on them. Even then, it may be that they say no, and for perfectly good reasons, so what else can we do?
We explore the possibilities;
Are there external relationships that can offer us a solution? Do we have suppliers who can do what we need without the requirement for support from IT?
What about the tools you do have? Can you adapt something you already have to do what you need, or at least get close to it?
Or is there an alternative that IT will support. It may not be exactly the same solution but if it gets you closer to the result than you were before, it’s a winner.
Remember we’re also building alliances, so look for mutually beneficial solutions. If you want to install social enterprise platform ‘X’ and IT say no, but you know they really want to build something with collaboration platform ‘Y’, don’t treat it as second best, get on board and find a way to use that and support their goal too.
Clearly, what I’ve said doesn’t apply to everyone in L&D, but be honest with yourself; does any of this sound familiar? If so, it’s not too late to change.

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