Last week, I started thinking about my personal "elevator pitch".
The short version is currently: I work at the interface of people, organisations and technology - challenging the status quo, and pushing for improvements in all three.
But that needs filling out, so here goes...
It's important to have people who can act as a "translator" between IT people, learning & development specialists, and organisation managers. That's where I tend to sit.
It is primarily a communication role; preparing documents, articles, presentations, videos, workshops etc.
Sometimes it's proactive - trying to help create understanding, and sharing knowledge, between the different groups around things such as security, usability, learning theory and design, and change management. By necessity, this includes considerable amounts of research and reading to keep up to date with the changing environments.
And sometimes it's reactive, responding to the needs of the different groups and ensuring that effective communication takes place between them. This can include project management, requirements gathering, procurement support, sales support, supplier liaison, training and user support, and much more...
I support these communication pathways across organisational boundaries - working with people from both internal & external suppliers and customers (both prospective and current). Again, by necessity, this means working in multiple contexts, across the public, private and charity sectors, including formal and workplace education.
That's why building and maintaining an effective network is essential to me, and why I subscribe wholeheartedly to a connectivist approach to my own development.
Principles of connectivism
- Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
- Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
- Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
- Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
- Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
- Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
- Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
- Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.
When you take exams, you're told to carefully read every question, and particularly the rubric at the beginning of the exam, which explains how the exam is going to work.
Even then, people don't read the questions properly.
When you're working on a screen it's even worse. According to people like Jacob Neilsen, most people really don't read what's in front of them. Instead they scan, picking out individual words and sentences.
As well as headings and bullets, users expect to be able to scan for links, and to be able to know quickly where those links will take them. It's a concept known as "scent".
When we give them a link that just says "here", or even "click here", it contains no information or scent about where that link will take them. And because the user is scanning the page, they are unlikely to read the information to either side of the link which does explain it. Or if they do, it's only because they've had to.
Your job, as an interface designer, is to make life easier for the user, and to remove barriers to usage. Forcing them to read where they would normally scan is unhelpful and inconsiderate.
Instead of the "Click here" link, provide a link that is explicit about where the user will go, or what will happen. For example: "Continue reading", "More information", "Location map"
For some designers, that's counter-intuitive, and can feel almost too abrupt or impolite. But actually it's the opposite. You are helping your users - and they will thank you for it.
If you really want to design your websites and applications for usability, then get hold of Don't Make Me Think, by Steve Krug. It's one of the best books I know on the subject!
It's difficult to explain to people quite what I do at work, so I'm trying to pull some ideas together. Any contributions gladly received!
... a short summary used to quickly and simply define a product, service, or organization and its value proposition. The name "elevator pitch" reflects the idea that it should be possible to deliver the summary in the time span of an elevator ride, or approximately thirty seconds to two minutes.
How's this for size:
I work at the interface of people, organisations and technology - challenging the status quo, and pushing for improvements in all three.
I kept wanting to add stuff, which then needed more adding to make it meaningful, so have tried to keep it simple and open. I'd welcome any feedback though.
This year, I was only able to attend the Learning Technologies conference for one day.
Previous learning technology-related conferences that I've attended (not just Learning Technologies) have suffered from one major problem: They have not made best use of my time as a delegate.
Being face-to-face with someone is a rare opportunity, and incredibly valuable. Yet we waste it on things that could be done just as effectively without requiring long-distance travel and hotel stays.
What I want to do in that time is to take part in conversations - even if that's just listening in. It's the interaction between people that can only be done in a face-to-face environment which is worth paying for.
So, this year, I decided to forego the pleasure of any of the conference sessions (except my own, of course - which I tried to make as interactive as possible!)
Instead, I spent the day taking the opportunity to:
- catch up with contacts from LinkedIn and Twitter - including seeing my friends from Xyleme, it was a very pleasant surprise seeing them over from Colorado
- connect with current and potential suppliers
- lead one of Towards Maturity's Exchanges on the exhibition floor - where a group of us basically held an impromptu Action Learning session, digging into a problem raised by one of the participants
- have group conversations about the interface between learning and technology
This was by far the best use of the limited time I had, and by far the most useful conference I'd been to. I didn't come away with many new ideas, but, then, I get those on a daily basis through my RSS Reader and Twitter account. What did happen, through those conversations, was a refinement of my own ideas as they get knocked about by other people.
If I get invited to run a session at another conference, I would like to run it completely differently. Rather than trying to squeeze short interactions into a presentation format, instead, I would like to work on the assumption that people are already up-to-date with my present thinking on the topic in question. Then we could build the whole session around facilitated conversations with each other.
And if was running a conference like this, I would ask all my experts to publish their content somewhere in advance, and focus less on presentation, and far more on questions and conversation.
It's all about practising what we preach as learning professionals!
For a long time I have bewailed the poor quality of many of the elearning interventions that are used within the workplace. There are very few examples that I can honestly say would really make a difference - and by that I mean have a lasting impact on behaviours or performance.
Partly that's to do with the way the interventions are designed, and partly it's down to how they are implemented.
[Please note: I am using the word "intervention" deliberately, because I believe that elearning is (or should be) far, far richer than its seemingly accepted definition of a SCORM-packaged bundle of HTML and Flash content.]
If, as an industry, we can highlight demonstrably effective design and implementation practices, so that they become the accepted standard, we will, hopefully, be one step closer helping our clients make much better use of the online environment than currently.
NB. Improved effectiveness does not equate to a higher price. As I hope I demonstrated in my post on cost-effective video-based learning.
Here are some of the key points and questions to get us thinking:
However important we think our learning interventions are, to the majority of learners they are likely to feel like, at best, an imposition, and, at worst, an irrelevant waste of time.
There are things that we need to address even before learners get to our carefully crafted materials. If we don't deal with them, then we will have wasted our own time and money.
Removing the blockers
You need to do everything possible to remove any technical difficulties that will stop people getting to your learning materials.
There are two possible routes to this:
- Provide support
- Make sure the technology used is as simple and user-friendly as possible
Question: How often do we compensate for poorly designed systems with support desks and FAQs?
People will only learn if they are motivated to do so. For many, they will be extrinsically motivated (using techniques like reward, punishment and coercion), but really, we should be trying to move toward intrinsic motivation, where people do things out of interest, a sense of autonomy, or enjoyment.
Unless we deal with the blockers and motivation, we might as well not waste our money on trying to get people to learn!
Question: What works to motivate people to learn?
We all behave in different ways in different situations. When dealing with learning interventions, it's the task of the designer, or facilitator, to make sure that participants understand, and accept, the conventions, standards and practices that will be needed.
When people come into a new situation, and don't understand how things work, they will quickly lose any motivation they came with. This applies to books, elearning modules, online discussions, classroom training etc. All of these have certain conventions attached that new participants will need to align to very quickly.
Question: Think of a learning intervention. What did you do to help people learn the social norms? (Note - it doesn't have to be an explicit explanation!)
Effective communication is at the heart of learning activity. Whether it's one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many. It's our job, as facilitators of learning, to make sure that communication is made as easy as possible, and as clear as possible.
As soon as a learner becomes awash in a sea of information, or, even worse, adrift in an information desert, it often becomes easier to just give up.
Effective communication is partly about the content, and how it's presented. But it's also about timing.
Every learning intervention should come with a communications plan, where you set out how and when you will communicate with the learners.
It's about giving people the information they need, just when they need it to push them onto the next stage.
Question: What one thing could you do to improve communication around your learning programmes?
It's very easy, even when you have highly motivated learners and no blockers, to stifle learners' engagement. Particularly so if their managers aren't aligned with the way the learning intervention needs to work.
So, you need to be working with the managers, so they can set the right expectations with their teams, so they can promote the value of the learning activity, and so they will give permission for people to spend valuable time working on learning.
Question: What is the best approach to take with managers to get them to support and promote learning?
Credit: Many of the ideas in this presentation are based on the early parts of Gilly Salmon's Five Stage Model.
Writing down what I am thinking about is one of the most valuable ways to crystallise my thoughts and reflect on my learning.
Writing it down on a public blog allows me to get feedback which then feeds into further thinking and reflection.
Personally, I'd be quite lost without my blog now. It's been part of my life for over seven years.
Whilst doing some research for a school I'm supporting informally, I've come across some great resources to help organisations and individuals get started out on incorporating blogging (or learning journals - if that sounds better) into their thinking and learning processes.
The key one is 64 interesting ideas for class blog posts, which was a collaborative project organised by Tom Barrett via Twitter. It's a Google Doc containing great ideas to kick start your blogging habit. Although it's aimed at the school classroom, there's no reason some of the ideas can't translate into corporate learning, or Further and Higher Education.
Of course, blogs don't have to be written down. They could be presented as photos, audio, video or even animation. The main thing is that there has to be some thinking activity taking place to analyse, collate, organise, reflect, evaluate or synthesise. Without some or all of that, all you're doing is just acting as a conduit for other people's thinking, and not learning anything yourself.
It's the "holy grail" of workplace learning professionals - for their interventions with individuals to have a direct impact on the organisation as a whole.
All the time that learning is seen as something that's separate to work, that link is somewhat tenuous.
Sometimes it will be necessary to send an individual away for an extended period of time, to develop new skills or absorb new ideas. That's fine, as long as they are able to immediately practice those skills, or implement those ideas when they get back to work. If they don't, then much of the investment made in them will be wasted. This is primarily down to simple forgetting, but also a diminution of confidence that takes place when you take away the support structures of the "course".
In my experience, there are three ways to alleviate this problem:
- Extend your interventions into a longer period of time, so that they include post-course elements, such as coaching, just-in-time support materials, just-in-time support people, action learning sets etc.
- Cut your interventions into much, much smaller chunks, delivered over a longer period of time, so that they can be used, and then put into practice immediately.
- Build the interventions into chunks that can be used at the point of need - whether on a self-service basis, or as part of coaching, support or management. There's no point giving someone a book on using Word, if all they need is the chapter that explains how to use stylesheets. And there's no point giving them that chapter if no-one asks how they're getting on with stylesheets in their work.
These methods aren't mutually exclusive. But the key thing to remember is that real learning takes time and ongoing reinforcement.
The neuro-science that every learning professional needs to know: http://www.brainrules.net/the-rules
I'm part of the generation of people that had to teach ourselves how to use computers. The classrooms had machines like the BBC Micro, and RM 380Z, with very little software (if any), and few teachers that had a clue what to do with them. Similarly our homes had Sinclair Spectrums, ZX81's and Commodore 64's. I even had a Commodore PET (image below) at one point. The common factor with all of these is that, on booting up, they just came up with something as helpful as:
Just look at that 300 baud tape deck!
Image credit: Wikipedia
We learnt how to program by typing code in from magazines and then working through it to solve all the problems - in a very similar way to children learning a spoken language: mimic and then trial and error. In fact, very similar to the way this modern Python programming book works.
It's this that launched the games and software industry in the UK, and I expect elsewhere too.
But then computers started getting more "friendly". They came pre-populated with software that lets you carry out tasks like word-processing and data manipulation. The focus, in schools, turned to understanding how to best use those software tools, rather than how to make new tools.
It's like we've ended up with people able to drive in the safe environment of the left-hand lane (UK & a few other countries only!) of a motorway, but with very little idea of how to make use of all three lanes, or what to do if there's a crash up ahead, and no knowledge whatsoever of how the car actually works or how to tweak it so it can go off-road.
This approach has led to ICT becoming a very functional (boring), and unchallenging subject at school. Whereas it could be highly creative, full of opportunities to develop transferable skills in problem-solving and logical thought.
I'm not fussed about changing the name from ICT to computing, computer science or whatever. But we do need to make sure that it includes both the functional skills (eg. how to add a new post to your blog) and the computing skills (eg. the concept of write-once / read-many that is used in stylesheets, programming, and database design).
So many people have written on this subject already (including this excellent summary from Daniel Stucke - an assistant headteacher in Manchester), but I'm so glad Michael Gove has made the decision to push schools towards more of a computing approach. It's one of the few things he's done that I agree with! My only worry is that, as with many of the specialist subjects, there will be a severe lack of suitably confident teachers to take up the challenge - especially now that ICT will not have have any formal programme of study in the national curriculum.
Perhaps it's time, again, to provide the equipment (eg. the new, very cheap and very small, Raspberry Pi computer for kids - which seems to be all over the media this week) and let the students get on with it themselves. Given appropriate challenges - even competition - and access to each other's ideas through social media, there's no reason the new generation of computer scientists can't grow from the ashes of the current ICT lesson.
With ICT, almost more than any other subject, you could argue the case for totally individualised learning, with teachers/coaches located anywhere - setting challenges and giving support. In fact, they don't need to be teachers. Just look at any large open-source project and you'll find people doing just that: identifying problems, setting challenges, and providing support. It's a highly scaleable model - based on a meritocracy, rather than any sort of qualification, or even age. The schools just need to be there to monitor and encourage...
As businesses scale-up their operations they have to standardise on things like technology platforms and processes.
But where does that leave innovation - which is essential for companies to maintain their competitive edge?
Standardisation is all about minimising risk whilst maximising throughput. It makes sense, but it can lead to unwieldy systems that are like oil tankers when asked to make changes.
Compare this to small start-up companies, which change direction like a champion downhill bike rider. (If you don't know what this is like, see the amazing video below!) They try things out, often with little regard to the risks, which are small at this stage in their development.
The challenge is for small start-ups to learn some of the standardisation practices of the large companies (otherwise they'll remain forever small), and for the large companies to adopt some of the innovation techniques of the small companies, without compromising on risk.
For the large companies, it's not just about allowing time to communication and innovate (like Google). It's also about providing test-beds where ideas can be tried out in safe ways. Sometimes these will need to be client-facing - as long as you've got a good enough relationship with the client so that they know they're acting as beta testers.
For the small companies, it's about identifying the things you do that can be replicated and documented so that, as you grow, new people can slot in easily. It's things like this that will make you attractive to the larger clients.