How to open a bottle of wine

Learning, Designing Online Courses Send feedback »  29831 views
How to open a bottle of wine

I was in a meeting today where it was suggested that purchasing organisations could differentiate between potential elearning suppliers by using a standard "problem" as a challenge. A problem like "Create some elearning about how to open a bottle of wine".

There would be no opportunity to ask any questions. In fact, it was even suggested that these elearning materials could be used as demonstration packages for multiple potential buyers.

I'm sorry, but I just don't buy that...

I have any number of tools & techniques at my disposal to create elearning materials about how to open a bottle of wine.

  • Using InDesign, I might create a glossy interactive PDF with a nice, graphically-rich, description of the various steps involved
  • Using Word, I might create a simple step-by-step process, with a few images to support the text
  • Using Xerte, I might create a small HTML5 package which can be tracked in a learning management system
  • Using iMovie and my phone, I might create a 1 minute video with voice-over and put it on Youtube
  • Using Wordpress, I might create a whole website about the history of wine, the role of the sommelier, and why opening it in a particular way is vitally important

As a buyer, how would you decide which is best?

Without the dialogue in advance of building the materials, it's impossible to know which is the right one.

Questions you might want to ask are:

  • Do your learners like wine?
  • Have they come across wine before?
  • What about the people that prefer beer, and don't want to change?
  • Do you need to track usage?
  • Do you have a Learning Management System?
  • Do your learners need performance support or do they need to have their thinking about wine changed?
  • Where will the learners need to get to the materials? Will they be at their desks? Or out and about?
  • How soon do you need it?
  • Do you have a budget for good-looking graphical design?
  • Do you have a learning management system? Do you need to track learner activity?

In choosing between providers, it's not about the product, it's about the process that generates the product.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Sustainable open education

Open Source, Education reform 1 feedback »  12640 views

First published on the East Midlands Learning Technologists blog.

There’s a lot of debate around at the moment about MOOC’s (Massive Online Open Courses) in all their variants. In particular, there’s the question about how they can continue with no obvious business model?

It’s the same for any “open” project, whether it’s open source software or open courses. The project must have a business model that ensures its long-term viability for people to trust that it’s worth investing time and effort into.

There are as many business models as there are open projects. What’s key is that the people developing the project are able to treat it as their “work” and not just “hobby”. This means that need to be paid for the time they invest in the project – whether that’s immediately, or at some point in the future.

One particular favourite of mine comes from a Management Consultancy in the US: Manager Tools.

Go to their website and you will find one of the best management development resources available in the English-speaking world (my opinion). Most of that is given for free, without even requiring any sort of registration. With about 85,000 downloads per week, you get an indication of how useful their materials are.

This has been going on for many years, and the resource is continually added to. It’s good stuff. High-quality. And immediately useful. They’ve invested considerable time and money into making it.

What the Manager Tools team have done is realise that generic content needs to be free. That’s just how the internet works.

But people are prepared to pay for the stuff that is bespoke to them. And, if they know it’s going to be high-quality, they’ll pay a lot of money.

By giving away their content, Manager Tools have demonstrated their capability. You know what you’re going to get from them.

More than that, the team have built up a community of over 37,000 people who have chosen to register and take part in their open forums.

Having built up a reputation for good, useful advice, the Manager Tools team have been able to realise its value in three ways:

  1. By hosting expensive, high quality, medium-scale, conferences where participants are able to put into practice the guidance in the materials whilst being observed by experienced coaches.
  2. By providing bespoke consultancy services for organisations wishing to improve their management practices.
  3. By creating bundles of materials that can be purchased to support the free materials.

So, what’s the challenge for our education & training organisations today (whether F/HE or workplace)?

  • What are we doing to prove our capability with our target market? There’s no point just telling them what we can do, we need to demonstrate it – in the open, for free.
  • What are people prepared to pay for? In education & training, I would argue that this probably consists of qualifications with a good reputation and materials & advice that are bespoke to the individual or their team. The days of costly, generic, mass-market education and training are numbered. Instead, we should perhaps be thinking about providing no-cost education & training to the mass market, and focus on selling to the long tail.

White papers, articles and bare-faced adverts

Personal 1 feedback »  4911 views

OK. I understand that people need to make a living, and to do that they employ marketing techniques to get their particular brand or message across.

But... I've just read an article from a recent tradeshow magazine that purported to be a useful resource for people selecting a new system to support learning. Funnily enough, all the "best practices" recommended in the article could be found in the author's company's own product.

Over the years, I've come across a few people that I know write useful, balanced and objective white-papers and articles. I've learnt who to trust, and who to just ignore - not because of the individuals concerned, but because of the motives of their employers.

In general, look for independence, and where that doesn't exist, read between the lines!

Packt publishing special offer

Books Send feedback »  5486 views

My friends at @packtpub have 50% deal on all ebooks until 17/10/13. Use the discount code COL50.

I've got a number of their books already. They're usually pretty good.

Sorry, this is a bit of an advert, but I hope it's useful to regular readers.

Disclosure: I'm getting a couple of free ebooks out of publishing this link.

ELN Open Source day

Presentations & Workshops Send feedback »  10092 views

I'm looking forward to the Elearning Network's Open Source day on July 12th.

If you can get to Birmingham that day, and you've got any questions about open source software in learning, then it will be well worth attending.

Highlights include:

  • Mark Aberdour providing an introduction to open source elearning tools
  • Barry Sampson speaking on "Open Source LMS - Wouldya? Couldya? Shouldya?"
  • A panel session with leading practitioners in this area: Ross McKenzie, Ken Ingram, and Tom Phethean, as well as Mark Aberdour & Barry Sampson
  • A series of short practical workshops

It's the workshops that I'm most excited about. It'll be a chance to play, to experiment, and to dig into the topics discussed in the morning:

I'm sure we'll also be talking about Kineo's recent press release about their open source authoring tool project.

The event is kindly sponsored by our friends at eFront, who's LMS is definitely worth a look at if you're wanting something like Moodle but less focussed on formal education.

Book review: Yammer starter

Reviews, Books Send feedback »  10894 views

It's been a while since my last post, mainly down to working on a couple of projects that have completely taken over. I was prompted to write this one, though, when the guys from Packt Publishing asked if I would review their latest book on Yammer.

Packt Publishing have achieved a great reputation for putting out books just at the point when they are going to be needed by more than just the early adopters of a particular technology.

That is true of this book, Yammer Starter. Yammer, the enterprise social network tool now owned by Microsoft is starting to go mainstream, alongside its competitors like Socialcast and Salesforce Chatter. As well as the bottom-up, slightly subversive, activities which have driven their adoption to date, we are now seeing senior managers, even at Board level, pushing for their use.

Partly this is a matter of "keeping up with the Joneses", but there are real business benefits to be had from social networking tools like these. Primarily, they are fantastic at breaking down internal, organisational silos, and allowing information to flow between them. I've, personally, seen this happen in a sales context with questions and answers about products and clients moving between sales teams that wouldn't have taken place in any other way.

But, to the book...

Before reading it, I had certain expectations about what would be included in a book like this. Back in 2010, I wrote my own Yammer Best Practice Guide, and Yammer have also created an array of support materials in their Yammer Success Center.

I was looking for things like:

  • What Yammer can bring to an organisation
  • Ideas on how to roll out Yammer organisation-wide
  • A explanation of what Yammer can bring to an individual (the "what's in it for me" question)
  • Guidelines on "best practice" in using the system
  • How to pre-empt, and subsequently deal with, the occasional lapses in netiquette that will occur
  • The role of the community facilitator

Given the rapid rate of change of any SaaS tool like Yammer, I would not expect detail descriptions of functionality or step-by-step instructions. These would only be current and accurate for a very short time, and therefore not appropriate to put into a book format.

The book itself is very short, and only available in eBook format (PDF, PacktLib, ePub and Mobi). At £3.39 or thereabouts, it's not going to break the bank, but then it's also not going to have much detail.

It has all the basic functionality you'd expect from an eBook; table of contents etc. So, no problems there.

Things do go a bit awry on the first page though...

Remember that Yammer is a web-based system. You get to it using your browser. There's nothing to install or download (unless you use the mobile/desktop apps - which are just useful extras, not essential). So I really don't understand why the author starts the book with a section on how to download and install Yammer? I may just be being picky, but using language like this right at the start doesn't bode well for the rest of the book. I would have much preferred this section be called "Setting up" rather than "Installation"...

Apart from that, the rest of the book contains a lot of information, useful to someone who is entirely new to Yammer (although it would help to have a little bit of a background in Facebook, Google+ or Twitter to understand some of the references).

There are a few too many screenshots and lists of instructions for me to be comfortable with the longevity of the book. It will need updating the next time Yammer makes a change to their interface. But, I suppose that's just part of the business model for this sort of publication.

The author does use a lot of examples to give context to the generic practice he's discussing. This is useful, as without such illustrations it can be hard to visualise what a tool like Yammer can offer.

He has organised the book around Yammer's functions, which is a common practice in such publications. It would have been nice to see it organised around business problems, such as "How can we organise information in Yammer?" or "How do I find out who X works for?" which then lead onto discussions of functionality.

The reasons for using each piece of functionality are mentioned briefly, but I don't feel there's enough in the book that addresses the "What's in it for me?" question, nor is there any consideration of Best Practices. The author is majoring on what can be done with the tool, rather than why it should be done or whether it should be done at all...

There is also no discussion of how to roll out Yammer into an organisation, and how to move from a bottom-up Yammer implementation (where a bunch of enthusiasts start using it for free) to an officially-sanctioned part of the organisation's communication toolkit.

To be honest, there's not much in this book that you cannot get from either Yammer's comprehensive Help Center or from their Success Center (which is full of ideas and materials to get your Yammer network off to a flying start).

However, if you want something that you can read offline, perhaps whilst travelling, then (apart from the installation issue mentioned earlier) this eBook would be an ideal starter guide. Use it as an overview of what's possible and then go back to your network to try it out.

Just remember that Yammer, like all social networks, cannot be controlled. People need to be persuaded and excited rather than instructed. As soon as you try to lock it down, or dictate how it should be used, your people will either choose not to use it, or simply bypass your rules. None of this is mentioned in the book, so you will need to read it in conjunction with Yammer's "Essentials for Success" too.


I have not received any payment for making this review, nor have Packt seen, or asked to see, the review before it was posted.

I did, however, receive a free copy of the eBook version for the purpose of writing the review.

The right conditions for learning

Learning 1 feedback »  10151 views

Jay Cross, many moons ago, likened the job of a learning designer to that of a gardener. Yet too often, we treat learning as if it was a part in a machine.

Just like plants, people are complicated. Each individual needs just the right combination of external conditions, previous history, genetics and nutrients in order to flourish. The gardener's role is to help get the right plant in the right place and provide the necessary environment for growth.

(At that point the analogy can fall down - especially when you get into pruning!)

We have an endemic problem in our society - in that a love of learning for its own sake, and the self-motivation needed for effective learning are educated out of us at school. If you don't believe that, then watch Sir Ken Robinson's talk below.

Yet all of us are natural learners. From birth, we've been absorbing as much as we can take. Given the right conditions - of encouragement, challenge, modelling behaviour and access to expertise - we develop and grow intellectually, emotionally and physically.

Then "society" determines that there are certain things that need to take priority over others, and we go to school to be taught by the experts, and tested to make sure the experts are doing their jobs right. However much those experts want to develop and nurture the children in their care, they are constrained by society at large.

The huge majority of people are highly able language learners. We've done it once and can communicate effectively in one language. At school, in general in the UK, we fail dismally at language learning (going by the lack of ability most people have in a second language when they leave school). But all it takes is the right environment and a bit of external motivation (eg. I must communicate if I want food!) In other countries, where the motivation is higher and the environment more conducive, learning a second, third or even fourth language is the norm. It's actually very little to do with the teaching techniques - it's much more about the conditions.

There's probably little we can do to change schools and education - given the weight of public opinion that is stuck with Victorian ideas about learning. But let's not accept those ideas in the workplace.

In workplace learning, we tend to focus a lot on the learning intervention itself (whether it's a workshop, an elearning package, a mobile app etc), but spend very little time on fostering the conditions that will encourage learning & development. Our interventions would be so much more effective if they took place in the right conditions. Currently, it's like a gardener applying Miracle Gro, but to plants that are kept in the dark, with no water!

Just like a plant need light, wamth and water. What conditions are best for effective learning & development?

I would argue that the following are essential:

  • a culture where a mistake is treated as a learning point not a failure
  • a management culture built on coaching and challenging to improve
  • access to expertise that people can understand when they need it
  • immersion in the practices, behaviours or knowledge that we are trying to teach

There will be times when the conditions are not quite right, just like a gardener starting out with an uncultivated patch of land. There's no point just adding the Miracle Gro intervention and expecting it to work. A lot of effort will be need to get the other conditions right first.

If you haven't already seen this hugely important TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson, then take 20 minutes to watch it now:

When only face to face will do

Learning Send feedback »  6033 views

Last Saturday, I spent the morning working with a group from Church in the Peak who wanted to learn how to setup and run our PA system.

We started by unpacking all the component parts: the mixing desk, cables, multicore, microphones, mic stands, DI boxes, amplifier and speakers.

Then, using a series of slides containing images of the components and their connections as a guide, we began to connect things together. First off, the keyboard to the mixing desk and a monitor amp, via a DI box.Then onto the mics, making sure we keep things simple by maintaining strict control of which mic goes in which channel.

And then we moved onto the mixing desk. As we worked our way down the channel strip we did a bit of theory (loudspeaker dispersion patterns, impedance, clipping, frequency bands, cardioid pickup patterns etc), every time followed by hands-on tweaking to see what each bit did. As we "played" this led to further learning opportunities. For example, when pushing up the mid-range EQ control, we got feedback, so we then looked at how feedback could be kept under control.

All the time we brought it back to our own particular context; considering the room we meet in, where the speakers and mixing desk are located, and how to make it work best for the musicians, speakers, contributors and congregation.

At the end, there was another practical exercise - putting it all away tidily. With a particular focus on how to roll up cables so they don't kink!

Now, given my background and profession, you might expect me to argue that part of this could have been done online. Well, yes, probably a lot of the theory, and maybe some assessment could have been done away from the training session. And I will be putting some follow-up resources online for people to look at. But, really, in this case there was no substitute for real, hands-on practice.

To achieve the same results with a totally online experience would require a somewhat expensive simulation. A bit of a waste when there are only ten people to be trained.

But what if I was working with, say, 20 churches. Would that change the balance?

Quite probably. In that case, I would put a lot more effort into creating some generic resources that could be applied in multiple contexts. Ideally these would be put into practice in safe environments supported by coaches. But most churches don't have that luxury. Often the only time the PA comes out is on a Sunday when it has to work, and it has to work without mishap. Although the church is a very forgiving environment (well, it should be... given what we're about!) there's a limit to what people will put up with in terms of squeaks, crackles and dead microphones.

So, you have to give people time to play, and that's where the face-to-face workshop comes in. If it was only used for getting across the theory and answering questions, then face to face is unnecessary, but as a place to try out new ideas and to practice with immediate "feedback", it is unrivalled.

What about you? Are there cases in your workplaces where only face to face will work? How do you analyse and justify your choice of learning environment? How do you design learning opportunities so that the face-time supports and enhances the online time, and vice versa?

Christmas Linebacker

Personal Send feedback »  3944 views

In our house we're starting to gear up for Christmas big style... presents, decorations, food, wine, carol service preparation .... Phew!

The Christmas Linebacker pops up each year to remind us, rather forcibly, that these are all trimmings - and pretty meaningless ones to boot.

via The Opinionated Vicar

Characteristics of good elearning

Learning, Designing Online Courses, Psychology 2 feedbacks »  7057 views

You may as well ask "What makes a good book?" when thinking about the characteristics of good elearning. It depends on what it's trying to achieve, who it's aimed at, and the context in which it will be used. Are we talking about a novel, a textbook, a reference, a coffee table book, a children's picture book, etc?

Nevertheless, I'm going to try...

This thought process started during the recent Midlands Learning Tweetup. During the course of the evening, many topics were covered, but one stuck in my mind... We were trying to come up with examples of good elearning. It's not easy! Especially when "good" means "effective" - ie. they actually help people to learn, to make a lasting change. (See the Elearning Network's Campaign for Effective Elearning)

Anyhow, on reflection, I've come up with three characteristics that might help us to identify effective elearning. (But use them alongside Stephen Downes excellent article on Principles of Effective Elearning)


For any learning experience to be truly effective, people must be motivated to go through that experience. With elearning, when there's often little input from other people to cajole or encourage, that motivation needs be engendered by the materials themselves.

Ideally, the materials would be published in a place and at a time when there's already a desire for them (just like the way a book publisher would market a celebrity chef cookbook at the same time as their TV programme is airing). For example, it'd be great to publish a compliance course on information security just when there's been a major security breach with public consequences!

When that can't happen, it's the designer's job to do everything they can to grab attention as early as possible. Again, just like a book in a bookstore, you need to think about factors like:

  1. Initial reactions to things like the title and the blurb/description - what will make your target user want to click on the link to open the elearning? Using the "Don't make me think" principles (and remembering that people very rarely read what they see on a web page), make sure you use words that will be meaningful to the users.
  2. Do you need to make it look attractive? How much do you need to work on things like art direction - where you create a coherent look and feel? Or is the content in itself going to be enough to attract people?
  3. What is going to keep people with you as they use the materials? What's going to make them want to "click next"? How will you draw them into the story? What will make them stick with it until the end? Is there something to achieve? Something that they can only find out when they get to the end? If you're creating a linear elearning package, then you must think like a screen-writer or an author. Keep giving users something, but keep them wanting more. If you're creating a non-linear package, then think like a game writer. What will be the routes that people will take? What short cuts do you need to put in? What help will they need along the way?
  4. What will make people want to tell their friends/colleagues about the elearning? Think about what people share on the internet... it's usually stuff this is funny, controversial or useful. Which of these categories are you going to work with?

Of course, if your learners already want to learn all you need to do is provide them with instruction and information. But don't necessarily assume that they all have that required level of motivation. Just because you think something is important doesn't mean everyone does!


It's all very well having fun while using elearning materials. But what you're trying to do is get people to change the way they behave or think. For that to occur, good elearning will cause people to reflect on what they currently do/think and start working the way the elearning is suggesting. You actually want to bring in some element of "cognitive dissonance" - putting people in a state where they may end up trying to hold two conflicting ideas.

Often, this brings out some emotion. But, even if people disagree with what the content is saying, at least you've stimulated a reaction. That's better than no reaction at all.

You're wanting people to question what is happening, then to question their own behaviours and thinking, and then to change. In marketing terms, it's the point of "conversion" - The point at which a recipient of a marketing message performs a desired action (MarketingSherpa blog: Conversion defined).


"All sorts of ideas, if left to themselves, are gradually forgotten."

Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology, Chapter VII, Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885)

If you need to be convinced of that, read up on the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, which shows "that humans tend to halve their memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless they consciously review the learned material."

Ebbinghaus's theory, which seems to fit practice very well, is that the speed of forgetting depends on two main factors:

  1. how the memory is represented in the brain
  2. repetition

If the idea is easy to remember - ie. it can be represented through a number of senses (an image, a smell, a sound) and connects into existing memories then repetition is less important.

If the idea is more abstract and less connected to other memories (eg. a phone number) then repetition is essential. "The capacity of memory is initially less than 30 seconds. If we don't repeat the information it disappears." John Medina - Brain Rules: Short Term memory

Just because someone can answer a quiz at the end of your elearning package doesn't mean that they will remember it tomorrow, or even in an hour's time.

Good elearning design incorporates elements that will help users to remember what they're learning, like repetition, connections to previous ideas, and connections to other senses.

But good learning solution design makes sure that repetition is built in across the whole solution, not just a package that may be used for 20 minutes, but also in the pre and post communications, and in any face-to-face or virtual events.

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