Archive for May 2012



Blended Learning Design: Key Practice 1

We believe there are five key practices in designing blended learning programs that map against the levels of competency and learning timeline. The first of these is Discovery: Becoming familiar with key concepts, vocabulary, and procedures. This is part of the basic knowledge level of competency, and can and should be taught during the instructional phase of the blended learning program.

Depending on the content, concepts can be introduced via self-paced instruction, instructor-led training, rich media presentation,  or simple background readings. They can also be introduced via one-on-one coaching, but this is inefficient.

More complex instructional designs can provide a pre-work assessment that lets the learner know what areas they do not know, or more creatively  raise questions in a learner’s mind by posing scenarios that the learner cannot solve, before providing the content.

In any case, the key take aways are that:

  • Disseminating content is only the first step in good instruction (and, honestly, the simplest step)
  • There are several ways to do it
  • It only addresses learning goals related to knowledge of the subject matter, not skillfulness or proficiency

Future posts in this series will address other key practices.

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In designing blended learning programs, we believe there are three key factors to think through: levels of competency, the learning timeline, and five key learning practices. The first factor is levels of competency: Are you teaching for knowledge, skillfulness, or proficiency? This will guide decisions you make on seat time, types of activities, and levels of required interactivity.

You can go with lots of rather complex taxonomies such as Gagne, Bloom, and their more modern colleagues, but we find that as we explain things to our customers who are not learning professionals, this simple set of buckets works pretty well.

Knowledge is the ability to define terms, explain concepts, and list the steps of procedures and processes.

Skillfulness is the ability to apply defined processes and procedures in standard situations.

Proficiency is the understanding of underlying principles enabling adaptation in novel situations and development of new processes and procedures.

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In designing blended learning programs, we believe there are three key factors to think through: levels of competency, the learning timeline, and five key learning practices. The second factor is the learning timeline – what should be taught in the “training event” and what should be learned applying new knowledge and skills on the job?

As we think of it, the instruction phase consists of the training event – the time-limited period devoted to learning new skills. For instance, a one day class, or a 20-minute eLearning module.

The application phase consists of weeks or months where skills are practiced on the job and feedback is obtained in order to apply and reinforce learning.

It’s important not to confuse the one with the other. Often eLearning modules – perfect for instruction – attempt to cover the application phase as well, because the creators believe they will be used as a stand-alone, sole intervention. But having the “post training exercises” built into the eLearning module cannot compare with creating a blended learning program where we ask participants to engage in a series of stretch assignments with feedback from coaches or peers. The take away? Design blended learning activities to fit the timeline. Teach concepts, vocabulary and procedures during the instructional phase, and allow learners to practice them in a safe environment. Apply learning on the job in distinct, separate, application activities.

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Should we “curate” our courses?


A well-kept LMS?

At the HRD 2012 conference, attendees heard that the role of the learning professional is more and more shifting to that of “curator” of content already available to the public, rather than producer of proprietary content for the organization.

Color me skeptical.

Certainly, especially in consumer product fields, there is a great deal to be learned about the markets we serve from the public conversation around products and services.  And certainly, much of what organizational learners need to know around soft skills like negotiation and leadership is available in numerous formats from multiple sources outside the organization.  It’s inefficient to build what we can buy for cheap, or free.

But to the extent that our own organizations have a unique  value proposition, one which is the product of what our colleagues have learned about creating our solution to the problems our clients face, well, that is material which is not available on the open web, and it can’t be bought from vendors.

If our colleagues are to be effective, they need to be spending their time doing their jobs, not meandering  the web looking for serendipitous inspiration. So sure, part of the responsibility of the learning professional is the gathering and vetting of resources available outside the org, and making pointers available to the people who will find them valuable.  (Calling this activity “curation” though, rightfully sets the teeth of professional curators on edge. Real curators are charged not only with the gathering, thoughtful display, and placing in context of artifacts they make available to the public, but also with the preservation of those resources.   To the extent the resources we point to are not our own, we have no power over their preservation.)

We can possibly be forgiven for a lack of concern about preservation. We are not museums.   In the fast-paced environments in which most of us work, the danger is not so much in resources becoming unavailable as it is in their becoming out-of-date!

It seems to me that the most effective learning organization in these times is one which achieves the optimal balance among providing links to existing resources from which our learners will derive value, developing new material which incorporates the latest and greatest iteration of our own organization’s “secret sauce”, and providing opportunities for our colleagues to share what’s going on in the field, in the research lab, and in the executive suite  in the pursuit of delivering that secret sauce.  Challenging our colleagues to make meaning and action from the blend of public, proprietary, and “embedded” knowledge in the organization, and facilitating their efforts to do so, is what we should be doing.

Fortunately, we’ve got better tools than ever for doing so.  Do your online learning tools permit you to build courses which draw on publicly available resources,  along with the “secret sauce” embedded in proprietary job aids, and discussions with colleagues and coaches?  Can you ask your folks to reflect on what they are learning, produce a sample piece of work to demonstrate that understanding, and receive feedback from each other and/or a coach on that work?  Can you include field trips, ride-alongs and other face-to-face out-of-classroom experiences and track the participation of the learners and their coaches in a single, easy-to-administer platform?  If you can’t, you might want to give us a call…

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hand playing piano keyboardMost everything I’ve learned about what it takes to design training solutions that produce any kind of useful result I learned from my piano teacher Miss Kate. The primary reason I picked her as my teacher (really, she picked me) was because she was known for helping “adult” students develop and demonstrate passable proficiency on the piano fairly quickly.

At the time, I was about as adult as I could stand at fifty years old.  After several conversations where she grilled me on my level of seriousness, she decided she’d take me on if I promised to do exactly what she told me to do.  No exceptions.  It was a long-term aspiration of mine to learn how to make some decent music.  So, I agreed to her terms.

Surprisingly, not only did Miss Kate’s methods work in terms of helping me get good enough to entertain myself but, I learned some invaluable lessons about what it takes to create effective speed-to-proficiency workplace training solutions.

Kate’s Four (4) Essential Elements for Speed-to-Proficiency
#1 – Right Content/Material
In Kate’s world of music, right content meant several things:

  • Appropriate level of complexity and difficulty to provide an optimal stretch for the student.
  • Just enough new stuff to keep the student engaged but not overwhelmed
  • Music the student could relate to.

When I tried to apply Kate’s “Right Content” principle to the world of workplace learning I noticed several things that typically are done that sabotage the effectiveness of many training efforts:

  • Kitchen Sinking – Since, most of the time, we only have one shot at training a particular subject, we saturate the learner with too much content. Unfortunately, in those situations the learner is often overwhelmed and most of the content leaks out of their brain.  The learning would stick a heck of a lot better if content were broken down into smaller chunks and delivered over time vs. in a one-shot event.
  • Content Too General – Often times, there isn’t sufficient attention paid to transposing important conceptual material into terms and situations where the learner can see the direct relevance/application of the content to the world they live in.

#2 – Correct Practice
Kate had a number of rules about how I was to practice:

  • Mastery takes consistent practice – practice every day for no more than an hour.  (She actually preferred around 30-45 min.)
  • No mistakes — When learning new concepts/material slow it down enough so that I could play it correctly.  The theory being that making it ok to make mistakes when learning something for the first time means the student has to both learn the new stuff and unlearn what they practiced wrong.
  • Practice patiently – proficiency will come.

The key learnings for my corporate training life I derived from her correct practice methods were:

  • Developing true proficiency in any complex capability arena is a progressive learn-do-learn process – Learn a little, do a little, learn a little, do a little, etc., etc.
  • If the end-game is proficiency, do not leave practice to chance – build sufficient practice opportunities into the end-to-end learning design – in the classroom, but most importantly practice on the job.

Expert Monitoring & Reinforcement
Kate is a masterful coach. Like all great coaches she knows how to weave in the teaching with the coaching.  A typical lesson with her looked like the following:
Phase 1:  Show What I’d Learned — Our sessions always started with me playing what I’d been working on. Even though there was always lots for Kate to pick apart, on but she was very adroit at the art at catching me doing something right and focusing any corrective criticism one or two areas.
Phase II:  New Stuff — Next she introduced some new concepts or material (max 10-15 min) and had me get the feel of the new stuff. In the instruction phase she focused on making sure I understood intellectually the what and why behind what I was about to learn.
Phase III:  General Q&A – She wrapped up every session by encouraging me to ask any questions I had, talk about aspirations/frustrations and set some goals for the next week.

I didn’t recognize the importance of the regular monitoring and reinforcement by a coach until after Kate moved out of the area and I was left to my own devices to continue developing my ability to play.  Even though my aspiration was still there, my discipline wavered and my progress definitely slowed down.  I discovered that there is something about knowing that I had to demonstrate progress to someone else that accelerated the learning process for me.

It was also when I was working with Kate that I was hit with a blinding flash of the obvious.  It finally dawned on me that the vast majority of corporate training has absolutely no structured follow-through monitoring and reinforcement process built into it.  No follow-through, no adoption.

To make things even worse, in the corporate world just having a coach often isn’t enough.   Experience shows that unless a learner’s boss is paying attention to and reinforcing their people’s development of new knowledge and skills the odds of the desired new knowledge and skills being applied on the job are very low.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that without follow-through, little, if any, learning transfer takes place.  But, because it is a challenge to get our customers to approve investing the resources in doing training correctly, too many of us proceed merrily ahead producing event-based trainings (i.e. ILT, Virtual Classroom & Web Modules) that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of producing any kind of real capability shift vs blended learning processes that include the requisite kinds follow-through activities and then bemoan the fact that training isn’t valued.

Kate realized that if her students didn’t experience consistently getting better they would stop paying her fees altogether.  We workplace learning professionals would be wise to adopt the same view.

Enabling Environment
The last element was the learning environment itself.  Kate was also a fanatic about having the learning environment set up and outfitted with the different tools needed for the learning task at hand.  (e.g. piano tuned, paper & pencil for notes/notation, tape recorder, metronome, CDs of music being learned, etc.)

In the workplace learning arena a major part of people’s learning environment is the technology infrastructure used to support/enable learning.  Unfortunately, the majority of learning management systems in use today are designed to support traditional event-based training (which doesn’t produce much at all in terms of speed-to-proficiency).

The type of learning systems needed to support proficiency based processes are systems that make it possible to both seamlessly weave together the entire range of different types of learning activities and provide the ability to provide the nature of monitoring, tracking and feedback required to ensure the kind of application, reinforcement and coaching takes place to make the learning stick.  We at Q2 are very proud to be one of the first learning system providers to bring this type of next generation full-featured Social Blended Learning System to the market.

Our learning system is called the xPERT eCampus.   If you would like to learn more about it, we would love to talk to you about it.
I’d also like to thank Miss Kate for opening up the world of music to me and, as important, for opening up my eyes to what needs to be done to improve how learning takes place in the workplace.

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