Monday, June 28, 2010

My Thoughts on Geetha Krishnan's session on Learning and Technology

I had this great opportunity of being at the right place, at the right time. What am I referring to? I got an opportunity to attend Geetha Krishnan's session at Kern during my one week long visit to Hyderabad. Geetha conducted a dynamite session where he introduced teasers that made us to think about several aspects of learning and technology. You can read (must read, actually) what was discussed during the session here. Now, given below are the truths and my response to these. 

1. Learner's real world is full of distractions.
Do we really assume that the we have the learner's undivided attention? We sure do. We think we have designed an absolutely compelling, thought provoking, visually appealing training program that will glue the learners to their seats. Keeping our massive egos aside, let us accept the truth. For the learner, this is 'just another training program.' There I have said it! They will do any or all of the following as they take your training program - take calls, chat, check their mails, scratch their head, think about what they are going to eat for dinner, talk to a colleague, wonder how long your training program is going to last, and so on. Think about it. We have done all these and more when we were in school/college. Why should our learners be any different? So, what can we do?
  1. Take your content dump and attack it with a butcher's knife. Chop out all the unnecessary things, slice out extra information, keep information that is directly linked to the learning objectives.
  2. Ensure that you keep your course as close to the learner's reality as possible. Why? Because this increases their chances of remembering it. During the session, Geetha mentioned that it is important that the content is 'familiar to the learner' but not 'obvious to the learner.' Don't teach him things he already knows. But, ensure that what you teach him is very close to his world. 
  3. Design the course keeping in mind the learner's work and work environment. For example, we had to design training on grooming and personality development for sales executives of a retail store. They had to stop everything they did to attend to a customer. Therefore, we designed really short learning nuggets for them. On the other hand, in a very recent project, we were told that the learner will take this training program in the first three months of joining. First three months are totally dedicated to training, therefore, we know for sure that they will not be interrupted by customers.
  4. The advantage of eLearning is that they can revisit it whenever they want to. Therefore, do not expect them to remember everything. Ensure that the most important information registers. 
  5. Strike an emotional chord. The higher the impact of training, the more interested they are going to be. 
  6. Understand them before you design for them. Find out what makes them tick, what inspires them. During the session, Geetha Krishnan mentioned that he was not a big fan of usability testing as people tell you what you want to hear. I think any form of testing is an attempt in the right direction. Whether controlled or not, you are making an attempt to design for your learner. And if the interviews are conducted right, people are going to give you valuable information. 
2. Learners in eLearning are quasi-customers
First and foremost, I think it is great if teams truly design eLearning based on mental models of the learners. In most cases, it is typically the mental models of clients and IDs (or their bosses) that the team keeps in mind. Learner diversities can be kept in mind by doing extensive research during learner analysis. At Kern, we do contextual inquiry, mystery shopping (for sales related roles), interviews, observations, and secondary research to understand who our learners truly are. Based on the learner profiles, we also create learner personae if we see contradictory or a variety of prominent traits and characteristics. While I agree, that a trainer in a classroom has 30 participants in front of him and he needs to cater to different mindsets. I don't think this is any less true in online training. Having said that, I must accept that I have had a chance to meet and talk to learners in 90% of my projects. Some others are just not as lucky. 

Also, I have attended training programs where the trainers have a very sketchy idea of who their participants are. They gauge the learner's reaction for half the day and then change their training style to meet the learner's needs. While it is great that these trainers think on their feet and quickly undo any damage done, I think half a day is crucial and if you don't make the right impression immediately, you have already been judged. Also, in most classroom sessions, you have only two days and therefore, half a day is a long time. Understanding who the learners are and how they will react to your program has to happen much earlier.

3. Faculty considers technology to be their enemy.
Why? Because they are worried that technology will make them redundant? They think that they may not be able to provide ALL the information a learner may need? They are scared of parting with 'their' content? Your guess is as good as mine. Another interesting thought that jumped to my mind is... why do ID's love technology? Because it gives them more control? It gives an opportunity to try fancy things or do things differently?

4. If technology helps people learn, what do ID's do?
As Geetha mentions, technology is only the 'way' a training module is delivered and ID the 'how'. Technology plays a crucial role in the learning experiences and therefore, must be selected carefully. Instead of the client telling you that they need an eLearning course, it should be derived from the learner's needs. It is not about using the latest technology to awe the learner. It is about using the most effective technology to deliver your training. Remember the technology that inspires you, may just scare your learner off. For a project, we wanted to introduce web 2.0 tools to encourage discussion and informal learning. But, during concept testing, we realized that our learners were not comfortable sharing their opinions out in the open. Therefore, technology must be decided based on the learner's needs/attitudes.

This doesn't mean that we continue doing things the way we have been doing for ages. If we do not explore newer technology, how will we know the learner's reaction to it? Ensure that you do your research well, involve your learners, seek their feedback/opinion regularly. Geetha mentions that faculty love their content most. Do IDs love their technology and tools most? What do you think?

5. Why are marketing and learning the first two industries to explore technologies?
I do not think these industries are insecure. I believe they are early adopters and constant learners. From the learning industry's perspective, it is necessary to explore technology to know whether this will excite the learners, reduce drop out rates, engage them further, make learning more entwined with their work. I think it is important to add newer ways of delivering content to the already existing basket. You can pick from wider range of choices based on your learner's needs and your client's budget. I don't believe that a technology will replace another. I am reminded of this point that Geetha Krishnan brought up - Informal learning and networking will kill eLearning. While I agree that we can not design/control/measure informal learning, I don't believe that eLearning is going to die. Yes, eLearning as we have seen it or understand it, may cease to exist. But, it is not going to die. Secondly, Kern does not believe that eLearning is the only solution. While eLearning is our forte, we do understand that other forms of delivery may just be the answer to our learner's needs. This, I think, is the mark of a learning solutions company.  Informal learning is important. It has always existed. In online training, informal learning can ensure that the learner get an opportunity to share their thoughts and reach out to a wider audience. Having said that, informal learning will continue to take place even if you do not design avenues for it.

6. Adult learners hate eLearning, why?
 I think adult learners hate training, period. It doesn't matter if it is eLearning or classroom training. When delivered at the wrong time to the wrong people, this is the response we are going to get. Discourage clients from implementing 'one size fits all' training programs. Encourage them to understand importance of customization and relevance to learners. Geetha opened my eyes to a very valid point. We teach within a very specific context and this context is typically true for that organization only. But when we design training for our clients, we try and ensure that it meets their organization objectives also. Training vs education is an interesting discussion. I think training meets an immediate need and education a larger need (which may not be obvious to the learner).

7. Training happens at transition points.
Training happens on a verge of a role change. This is why training is necessarily specific to the organization and this immediate need to ensure that they adjust well and quickly. 

Geetha Krishnan also asked why people give so much importance to networking. I think it is the basic social need to be known and to connect. People want to share common experiences and find out what others are up to.

Finally, is learning open-source? This is question Geetha left us to chew on as he ended his session. It left several more queries in my head and I am not sure if I am closer to an answer. Help me out, guys. Learning is open source. Everything is available on the Internet, on the job, and in the social interactions. Learning is also very personal to the learner. He draws his own inferences from the training based on his experiences, attitudes and his motivations or immediate need.

Learning is open source today when you involve the learner in design, development, and implementation process. They have a say in what they are going to learn. They share their opinions and feedback. They have an opportunity to approve/disapprove. They have an opportunity to be more in control of what they learn.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Grays in Learning

I was reading Donald Clark's latest post on Funny Exam Answers. I found the Neils Bohr's incident particularly interesting. Read the post to understand what I am referring to. This had me thinking.

  • Do we always assume that there is only one way to do something or one right answer?
  • When we design assessments, do we fail to take into consideration that there may be more than one right answer?
  • Do we ever consider that the subject we are dealing with may have gray areas and is not necessarily black and white?
  • Do we take into account the fact that there are several variables in a real situation? Are we making it too simplistic and therefore, unusable because we fail to include the various permutations and combination that exist in real life?
  • Do we restrict our learner's imagination and insult their experience by giving them multiple choice questions that keep in mind only one aspect of real life?
  • Do we given them type in answers and then reprimand them for getting a spelling wrong or for not writing things the way we taught them?
I remember an incident from my college days. My English teacher would recite a poetry and would ask us to interpret the meaning of a verse. I would always wonder that there are several interpretations that can be drawn out from poetry. It all depends on the way you look at it. Most of the times, we are going to have different people interpreting different things and very seldom there is one right answer. Also, I think we want our learner to think of several situations. They should be able to apply what they have learnt in different contexts using their discretion, knowledge, and experience. We do not want to make all learners similar by expecting them to behave in the exact same fashion. We want to encourage them to think and make the right choices. Read another post that I had written some time back on Exercises that help reflect on gray areas.

Recently, we developed a small learning nugget on understanding your consumers and positioning a product. This nugget was meant as a refresher for an ILT program. The objective was very clear. The learner should be able to apply what he learnt during the ILT. He should be able to observe the farmer and his realities, identify what type of consumer this is and position a product accordingly. This was the learner's first experience to eLearning. During Learner testing, we realized that they wanted much more. They wanted more cases, they wanted to compare farmers, they wanted more variable factors and increase in complexity. Simplicity is fine, but pointless when it fails to capture the real influencing factors. The common misconception may as well be that simplicity means fewer variables. What I now understand is that multiple variable factors is far more realistic. So is it about simplicity vs. reality? Are we trying to equip the learners to deal with what is real or are we massaging their egos that giving them easy stuff? That's the question that needs to be answered.