Archive for February 2007

I’ve been thinking about last month’s Learning Circuits Big Question “What are the trade-offs between quality learning programs and rapid e-learning and how do you decide?” At Q2, we don’t usually think about what we’re doing as rapid e-learning (REL), since most REL seems to focus on the quick creation of content objects that have little if any instructional design behind them. Then I realized that we’ve actually been engaged in a rapid blended learning project for building proficiency in pharmaceutical sales reps.

Our customer needed to move from their traditional face-to-face training mode to e-learning, but was concerned that simply converting the training program’s lectures into e-learning modules via Articulate would not build the type of proficiency that would drive sales. So they mapped what they did in class into a blended learning program that had a very simple, yet effective, design.

They stuck with their Articulate e-learning modules on subjects such as anatomy and physiology, product insert information, research studies, competitor information, marketing message, and sales strategy. But they didn’t attempt to put “interaction” into the program via simple Articulate games or multiple choice quizzes.

Instead, the created a learning map where each e-learning module was followed by a worksheet. Some of the worksheets had more objective questions, like “what are the two primary counter-indications of the product,” and some had more “subjective” ones, like “in situation A, how would you get the central marketing message across so that the physician can best hear it?” Regional sales managers were used as the coaches for the program, and they certified completion of each worksheet – else learners had to resubmit it.  On two “subjective” questions, small groups of learners had an opportunity to view each others’ answers and comment on them.

We did this in our eCampus platform, so that the SCORM objects, coached worksheets, and learner feedback all appeared in an integrated learning map, and were all tracked and administered in one place, and learners were automatically divided into small groups. This made things easier, of course, but the same technique could be used with discussion forums or even email in a pinch.

The speed came in both the two-week development cycle and the two-week delivery time, thus reducing time to proficiency to a month. And this was for developing and assessing skills for immediate on-the-job use – not just ensuring that everyone watched a bunch of PowerPoint slides with audio. I wonder if in our rush to rapid  e-learning we should consider dropping back and spending a little more time in the development and delivery process, with the view of achieving business benefits sooner…

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I was recently working with an instructional designer to create a series of learning courses using our xPERT eCampus program. We were creating the design specifications and she commented to me, “It seem like I am using an awful lot of discussion types of activities. Should I be looking at some different activities to spice it up for the learners?”

The answer, I told her, depends on what she’s trying to do – engage people with the content, or engage people with each other ABOUT the content.

While our blended learning programs have ways of doing both, my money is generally on the second – getting people to engage with each other, because conversations around content seem to drive learning way more than the content itself.

Sexy? Not really. But when it comes to learning, sexy isn’t necessarily better. A VNUNet article points to high-end e-learning as not delivering the learning goods, partially because it focuses more on the “glam” factor than on the learning process itself.

Certainly, there is a place for e-learning, and given the choice between a page-turner and a high-end, customized simulation I would take the glitzy option every time, but unless it’s supported by additional activity, the chances of e-learning content getting translated into action (that is, behavioral change) is generally slim.

Of course, that’s a challenge, because supporting learning requires an ongoing investment of time and resources, not to mention the money required to develop the content in the first place. But without the commitment to smarten up the learning process in general by engaging people in on-going learning conversations, organizations are reducing their e-learning to just another pretty face – fun to look at, but nothing that a learner will take home.

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What Questions Should We Be Asking?

bigquestionLearning Circuits asks us to ponder our pondering this month.

I love it when a group I’m a part of gets around to asking this question. It was one on which I was raised, by a wise mother of 4 little girls who knew that spending a lot of time and energy on answering the wrong question can create a great deal of heat and bad feelings, but wind up being a little light on producing any useful results.  Mom would walk into the middle of some heated battle among us and ask “what is the question?” and immediately, we’d go silent, because often, the question had devolved into something that anybody who subjected it to a moment’s reflection, even a 10 year old, could see was a blind alley.

For those of us whose incomes depend on the willingness of others to invest in training efforts, some questions are very difficult to ask, because they risk revealing that our services are not needed.  But truly, unless we ask the hard ones, we’re sort of shooting everybody in the foot, because it’s not really possible to build sustainable success on brilliant answers to the wrong question!

So here’s my hit parade for questions we should be asking:

What problem are we trying to solve?

Frequently, in organizational initiatives, there’s less consensus around this question than there might first appear.  While the company’s CLO may approach us because she needs to trim her budget and needs to find a way to move an established audience through established programs at less expense,  when we talk to others in the company, we sometimes find that other management team members believe that the problem is that current training initiatives are not creating the cultural change they believe is necessary, while subject matter experts think the problem is that established training programs do not adequately reflect the changes in the competitive environment which trainees face once they leave training.  The training audience may believe that the problem is that they are not being given adequate time to digest new material.

It’s not possible to design a solution which will meet the needs of stakeholders unless we first know just what those needs are perceived to be.  Often, there are tradeoffs to be made, and needs/desires of one group which must be de-prioritized to make sure higher priority needs are met.   Knowing whose ox will be gored by the solution proposal is critical to making a case for the proposal which acknowledges the  concerns of all stakeholders.

Is this a problem which lends itself to a training-based solution?

Bill tells the story of an organization which called him in to do some motivation work. It seems that everyone in an office had been informed that the office was to be closed in the next three months, and that they would all lose their jobs as a result of this change.  Productivity dropped like a rock.  So someone had the idea to have an expert come in to work on employee motivation.

Obviously, it is not possible to create motivating forces out of thin air – all you can do is alert people to the conditions which actually exist which reward good work.  This was a case for some other solution, maybe a performance bonus.

Is this the right time for this initiative?

Even when you’ve identified the problem set and the stakeholders, and determined that training is the most likely approach to solve the issues at hand, timing remains a critical factor.

In our experience, it does not pay to attempt to launch a training program in December.  Whether it’s holiday distractions or just the pressures of getting things done before year-end, people just don’t seem willing to put energy into training in the twelfth month.

Training designed to help people cope with a major reorganization can make for tricky timing.  Ideally, the affected folks would be trained before they take on their new responsibilities.  But realistically, who will be going where is often in flux right up until the last minute, and knotty personnel issues often complicate things.  The first weeks in a new position, however, are often too chaotic to make for a good training environment.

Nothing dooms a training initiative faster than a lack of will on the part of managers to free their reports from their other responsibilities in order to train. For online initiatives, this is an even bigger risk, because there is a perception that because the training is “right there” on the desktop, learners can just “squeeze it in” around their other responsibilities.

If now is not a good time to free people to train, then it’s better to just admit to that reality than to put learners in a bind by requiring a performance for which they have not been given sufficient resources.

Facing Reality

The guy who said “you can pay me now, or you can pay me later” was right. It’s scary  to ask questions which have the potential to rule out doing business right now.  But the risks of taking business which threaten to  result in ill-conceived or failed initiatives are many, and the rewards of screening for projects which have a high chance of success are not only those of developing a reputation for integrity.  There’s something to be said for saving oneself for the fun stuff, and working where you really have a chance to make a difference!

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We’re having a planning meeting at Q2 this week. For a team which does most of its work together on the phone and in team discussion spaces, its a real treat to have the luxury of meeting face-to-face, of being able to riff back and forth and have that energy that people together bring to human enterprise.  I’m really looking forward to this meeting!

I’m on the road today, blogging from the airport thanks to the ubiquity of wi-fi.  And because airports are loud, and phone conversations from them are not that easy, I find myself working pretty much the way I always do. Checking the team site for the stuff we’re supposed to read to prepare for our meetings, posting about weather issues affecting my arrival time, IMing to get access to those of our sites which are protected from foreign IP’s so I can set some new stuff up.

I’ve got some magazines, too, for that enforced lids-down time which is part of the airborne experience. But it’s amazing how at home that wireless connection — and virtual “places” where the people I know and depend upon can reliably be found, helps me be whereever I am. I’ll call home this evening, to hear about everyone’s day with full voice bandwidth, but I’ll probably still see my teenaged daughter on AIM later on and we’ll do the “virtual tuck-in” routine we developed a few years ago for such occasions.  I’ll be able to check in on some of my online friends, too.

Some days, all these tools feel overwhelming. Today they are a comfort.

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Assignment: Successful COP

We’ve all had experience working on an important project. Maybe it was one which was going to have the attention of the movers and shakers, or one which was going to decide whether we get the business. Or maybe, it was one which was going to decide our grade for the semester.

If we’ve been fortunate, what’s required for success of the project has been spelled out explicitly.  Or if it hasn’t been, we’ve been able to ask the right questions and get a clear idea of what the audience who will be judging success is looking for.

How many of us, though, have given thought to how we might communicate to the members of our online communities of practice just what they need to do to make the initiative a success? Given that the participants are often both the creators and the judges of the quality of such spaces, perhaps leaving such issues undiscussed is risky!

My pal Bryan Alexander, who is the new-tech guru at NITLE, is always on the lookout for innovative uses of technology in academia. He recently pointed us to a nifty assignment put out by Kathleen Fitzpatrick , associate professor of media and English studies at Pomona college.

Academic instructors teaching classes in the use of online media have some useful things to teach us about developing rubrics for success online.  Of course, they have the luxury of wielding the gradebook over the heads of their students. Few COP administrators enjoy that level of authority over their audience!

Still, what if participation in our online spaces had to meet the criteria put forth here?


From MarxWiki

For the students of Media Studies/English 149:

Remember, this wiki constitutes part of your coursework for the semester. In order to receive a passing grade for this part of the course, each of you must create a minimum of 10 new entries for the wiki, and you must be an active editor of already-existing pages. That’s in order to pass: in order to get an A for this project, you must demonstrate a generous commitment to the wiki, writing entries that are not merely factually correct but also interesting and helpful, you must actively seek out ways to improve and expand upon the information contained here, and you must do all of this with an attention to quality.

That attention to quality includes the quality of your prose: accuracy of grammar, spelling, and other formal writing issues count.

If you have any questions about this project, or your involvement in it, please see me. –KF

What would it mean to the health of your COP if each participant made 10 substantive posts in the next 13 weeks?  What if half of those were expanding upon or refining the posts of others? And wow, what if making a “generous commitment” to the COP were rewarded with your workplace’s equivalent of an “A”?

Is your COP an important project?  Is it worth the investment of time from each member? If it’s not, then perhaps now is just not the time for this initiative.

But if the management of your organization thinks it’s time to invest in an online COP, perhaps making the concept of “active participation” more concrete by developing a set of assigned tasks, completion of which will be noted in the individual’s annual performance evaluation, might be one way to make clarify that contributing to the success of the COP is not a “virtual” task, but a real one! It might also reassure your “A” members that they aren’t “talking too much” but actively contributing in a way which is deeply appreciated by their organization, and encourage your shyer ones to join in. Nothing is quicker to silence a crowd than uncertainty.  A clear understanding of what’s expected may be just the shot in the arm your COP members need.

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