Saturday, December 31

SimWord of the Day: The Fifth Paradox of Educational Simulations

When educational simulations are first created, they are heavy on simulation elements, and casual players complain they are too hard.

Over iterations, as a result of the complaints, educational simulations are made easier and more fun, and serious players then complain they are not deep enough.

(By the way, for those who are tracking Star Wars Galaxies, this is playing out exactly as such).

Thursday, December 29

Software as Service: What are the Four Pillars for Elearning?

As I get ready for the new year and a new job, I find myself with more time for deep thinking. I've stumbled on to a really interesting framework for thinking about enterprise elearning. Phil Wainewright of ZDnet wrote about a recent presentation by JP Rangaswami, CIO at top global investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW). Rangaswami is recognized as a leader, early adopter and advance thinker in enterprise information technology.

In his presentation, Rangswami calls out the four pillars of "enterprise 3.0":
  • Publishing
  • Discovery
  • fulfillment
  • Conversation
This could be a very interesting framework for thinking about learning and training applications. Here are some of my comments interspersed with italicized quotes from Wainewrights original post on The four pillars of enterprise 3.0.

Publishing- Any application that generates data will act as though it's a content publisher...

Hmm, this sounds a lot like authoring tools and LCMS/LMS products.

The significance of this is that it reduces all of these applications to the level of raw feed generators: "You can't differentiate, it's just content."

OK, here is where I see elearning being different; the interaction, the instructional design and the context seem more crucial than for your average IT application. Then again, maybe elearning is more like Conversation (see below).

Discovery- This is the application that gives everyone a "Google experience" -- a single, homogenous database where everything is stored and where everything is discoverable.

Though the LMS was intended to be this, it clearly isn't. There is too much critical learning/knowledge tucked away in help systems, informal learning, etc.

Rangaswami noted that how you implement security can easily get in the way of this objective. Make it too much of a fortress and the risk is "we put the data in that worst nightmare of walled gardens: ours."
To me, Rangaswami's observation on security applies to the LMS in general because it isn't a "daily portal" for most people and isn't always on and easy to access; it has become a walled garden.

Fulfilment- This is the application that makes things happen, most notably for customers.

The training professional's customer is a learner. Here, as in other businesses, the capability to provide identity management, roles, personalization, and contextual choices is critical.

Conversation- All the channels of collaboration between people, either inside the organization or beyond its walls.

This is really interesting. It hits on collaborative learning and reaching the extended organization (channel partners, suppliers, distributors, and customers). Very interesting to think about how web conferencing and VoIP will emerge in the learning & training "Conversation".

Right now, I'm not sure how authoring tools and LMS offering will handle these sorts of conversations. Historically they have been broadcast, not dialog. Though some may say threaded discussions and virtual classrooms are dialog, I see them as heavily moderated dialogs at best.

All-in-all, this an interesting framework for analyzing and architecting elearning solutions, that I will make use of regardless of the technical uses of SOA and web services for elearning.

Wednesday, December 28

What will You Remember about 2005?

During December and January, many blogs and websites publish their reviews of the year that has passed. Some publish the "best of" and "worst of." Others catalog the biggest surprises or greatest disappointments. I thought that it would be most in the spirit of LCB to ask our readers to share what you feel 2005 was about in our world. What was significant about 2005 in the learning and elearning world. Was it the consolidation of the LMS industry? The emergence of Web2.0 technologies and their impact on learning? How about lessons learned about workplace preparedness from Katrina? Or that one shining moment when one learner "got it" because of something you did?

Please share your reflections on the past year with us. I know I've forgotten much about what's happened around me and that your memories will trigger memories I'd rather remember than forget.

SimWord of the Day: The Fourth Paradox of Educational Simulations

Things that seem simple, narrow, and isolated when "taught" through traditional linear means are deep, complex, and extendable when taught through simulations.

Let's call this the "Tilt principle."

When playing pinball, you can nudge the machine a little bit to keep the ball from going out of play. But if you nudge the machine too hard, you will "Tilt" the machine, ending that play.

That is incredibly easy to write. It is incredibly easy for a student to "learn" that statement to the point that they could write it on a test.

But to nudge a pinball machine at the right time takes skill and practice. Even the best pinball player in the world cannot always do it perfectly. The ace player might also take more risks with nudging when there is more at stake.

If you built a machine to teach pinball nudging, any traditional instructor would say, "that seems like a lot of work to teach what is essentially one simple statement." If you were becoming a pinball expert, however, you would absolutely need the deeper approach.

Now, obviously, no one cares about pinball.

But given that
  • all Big Skills have a nudge component (how hard and when do you push your team, dealing with difficult people, getting the right amount of funding),
  • the simple theories take a lot of practice to implement, and that
  • the simplist rules when learned intuitively are as powerful as the most complex process,

...our entire concept of curricula and knowledge changes.

SimWord of the Day: Probe

  • Maps, be they physical or conceptual, have dark spots - places that we don't know and probably should.
  • Thousands of great new drugs and other technologies are possible, but not "found" yet.
  • New business processes are being developed.
  • Marketers have a phrase "you've never tasted your favorite cereal."

The concept of probing (alien encounters aside) involves diverting resources from a life-as-usual process-optimization strategy and taking a risk on finding something better.

In real life, we don't know what we don't know. We often think what we are doing is the only option. Sims can make this unknown space obvious, such as the blank idea bars in Virtual Leader. We can make the act of probing an obvious one, such as "press here to probe," or require a bit more of finessing typical in real life.

Regardless, a well designed sim in almost any Big Skill area should make people constantly think, what am I missing?

Tuesday, December 27

SimWord of the Day: Habituation

  1. The process of habituating or the state of being habituated.
    1. Physiological tolerance to a drug resulting from repeated use.
    2. Psychological dependence on a drug.
  2. Psychology. The decline of a conditioned response following repeated exposure to the conditioned stimulus.


1. transitive verb

make somebody used to something:
to accustom a person or animal to something through prolonged and regular exposure ( formal )
People living in cities become habituated to crowds.

2. transitive and intransitive verb

psychology learn to ignore stimulus:
to learn not to respond to a stimulus that is frequently repeated, or teach a person or animal to do this

[16th century. <> habituat-, past participle of habituare "bring into a state" <> habitus (see habit)]

Monday, December 26

SimWord of the Day: Higher Level Patterns/ Emergence

When capturing what domain experts know/do for a simulation, one has to interview/watch for high level patterns. What are the patterns that they see play out time and time again, and what are the variations of that pattern?
  • There are basic patterns, like bell curves.
  • There are higher-level patterns, like people hiring other people that are similar to them, or the fact that new technology is always over-hyped.
Systems theorists have a library of patterns like Success to the Successful, tragedy of commons, and escalation.
From a sim perspective, however, patterns are a might tricky.
  • There is always the hope that they emerge organically from a portfolio of well-designed rules.
  • More often, they have to be firm-wired into the units and maps.
  • Easiest, they can be hard-wired into level design.

And then there is need to understand how domain experts encourage good patterns and correct bad patterns.

Patterns are often easy to write about or diagram in linear content. But it is only in context that there true power and treachery become appreciated.

Sunday, December 25

SimWord of the Day: After Action Reviews (AARs)

We are using computer games as a beacon to rethink domain expertise and how to better share it. But one area of critical pedagogy that computer games poorly role-modeled is after-action reviews.

AARs are sessions to step outside of the real-time engagements, typically after heightened activity, to better understand what happened, and what should have happened.

And like all pedagogy that supports sims, they also should be used in real life.

AARs include:
  • raw material, such as recordings/timelines,
  • analysis (what happened at a thematic level),
  • coaching (how to get better results next time, and perhaps how to transfer to real life, from the perspective of an expert),
  • evaluation (how ready the player is to handle the real situation), and even
  • game elements like a high score to spur competition and replay.

AARs ultimately requires a combination of human and comptuer intervention, but one or the other can do in a pinch.

In a sim context, AAR's should also be used often enough to force users to think about performances, and then give them the opportunity to try again.

I wrote in Learning By Doing, "in the military, After Action Reviews (AARs)) are very big deals, the same way that air is a very big deal." I can hope this will eventually be true not only of all sims, but all intense real experiences as well.

Saturday, December 24

SimWord of the Day: Trigger

Triggers are almost the opposite of primary variables. While primary variables tick up or tick down, always ready to be corrected and for which compensated, triggers are "all or nothing" events.

When studying what an expert knows/does, the question is, "what are events that if happen are (at least temporarily) irreversable and that change the dynamics? "

In the game world, this might include your characterer, after losing health (a primary variable), finally dies (a trigger).
  • In the real world, after working hard to improve productivity (a primary variable), you might get a promotion (a trigger).
  • After working hard to figure out a solution with a perspective client (a primary variable), you might get the contract (a trigger).
  • After building support for your bill (a primary variable), you might get a favorable vote (a trigger).
Of course there are bad tiggers as well: losing a big client, or having a facctory break down.

Triggers and primary variables go hand in hand. Talking about one without talking about the other misses the point.

Friday, December 23

SimWord of the Day: Map

A map is part of any simworld, that influences the visual experience of the player, level design, type of knowledge captured, and also the play/know/do.

  • There are maze structures: the goal is to travel to the right spot (or spots), or get something (like a ball) to the right spot, sometimes even learning what the right spot is.
  • There are territory structures: the goal is to control as much as possible, or to control the right spots. This could be marketspace as well as Poland.
  • There are ecosystems structures: the goal is to get a thriving set of interdependencies. Most of the sim and tycoon games go here.
  • There are arenas, where teams or individuals just do combat.
  • There are workbench structures: the goal is to build something that works.
  • There are conceptual structures, such as in the form of 2X2 grids or Zachman structures.
  • There are analogy structures, such as using a virtual museum to provide access to a mess of objects.

And of course there are combinations of all of the above.

Different places have different conditions, worth, value, ease of mobility, etc.

Maps are one of the trickiest areas for building business simulations. Many Big Skills, such as project management, security, innovation, relationship management, don't have easy corresponding maps.

And yet maps already are a critical tool of business (and all) communication. And as the next generations of more visual thinkers, they will only increase in relevancy, both in the context of sims, and outside.

Wednesday, December 21

The Most Important ingredient in Formal Learning

I used to say that the most important ingredient in a formal learning program is motivation of the students. Having poured through thousands of results of recent big skills programs, I think the most important ingredient is the honesty of the students.

Honesty is the genuine awareness of strengths and weaknesses, and then the impact of their strengths and weaknesses.

I have also found that honesty and sense of humor can go hand in hand. While not all people with a sense of humor have honesty, almost everyone who is honest has a great sense of humor.
I have also found that some cultures crush honesty. Some cultures pounce on any sign of weakness. Some people and groups are defensive. These cultures tend to evolve and grow the least, although they get stuff done in the short term.

Any individual and organization should, by the way, balance introspection and action. But any training program of big skills requires that kernel of honesty.

Tuesday, December 20

SimWord of the Day: The Third Paradox of Educational Simulations

You can't even begin to understand a sim by watching someone else play it, you have to play it yourself.

Monday, December 19

Training is NOT Snakeoil

After reflecting upon the recent topic of Snakeoil for a while I have decided that it simply does not jive with the facts.

Laurie Bassi's research shows that organizations that make large investments in training do much better than others. This is because training has both a direct and indirect effect upon the organization:

  • The direct effect is that employees have the skills and competencies they need to do their jobs.
  • The indirect, and perhaps more important effects, are that employees:
    • Are less likely to leave (provided that leaders are effective and wages are competitive).
    • Develop valuable relationships with customers.

Her research is so powerful, that it actually shows that organizations that make large investments in training return 16.3% per year, compared with 10.7 for the S&P 500 index.

In the Human Equation, Jeffery Pfeffer writes that "Virtually all descriptions of high performance management practices emphasize training, and the amount of training provided by commitment as opposed to control-orientated management is substantial" (p85).

On the very next page Pfeffer writes that in times of economic stringency, many U.S. organizations reduce training to make profit goals. Why? Because if we as trainers have no faith, then why should the decision-makers?

Yet training works! It is one of the best predictors of organizational success! So why do we on the inside, who perhaps should know better, bash training just as readily as those on the outside? Perhaps because we deal with the most complicated organization of matter in the known universe -- the human brain.

The brain struggling to understand the brain is society trying to explain itself. - Colin Blakemore

Training works...but not as we always predict...and the reason we cannot always predict it is because we are trying to get a set number of neurons in the human brain to light up at exactly the right time...yet we are not quite sure which neurons actually need to light up...a complicated thing training is indeed...yet for the most part, we do quite well...thats pretty good since we are learning ourselves...and the most exciting part is that we are not there yet...we are still learning...

SimWord of the Day: Tech Tree

The point of these SimWord entries is to suggest that we are developing new tools for capturing domain knowledge and new language for describing how we engage the world.

Does this matter to the formal learning industries? I believe there is nothing more important. If we can't capture more of what an expert knows/does, our industry is stuck telling people how to use the newest ERP tool or memorize a list of facts.

Given all of that, another interesting structure is the Tech Tree.

Here are a tech trees from two games, Civilization IV and Alpha Centauri.

A tech tree is a list of technologies in a game/sim, that have to be uncovered in order. Discovering the alphabet comes before widespread literacy. And it might take discoveries in different areas to lead to one key advancement, just as the one key advancement can open up many doors.

As players are engaged in a game/sim, one decision is where to put research resources to unlock both short and longer term advantages.

SimWord of the Day: The First Paradox of Educational Simulations

The first paradox is that people learn more from the underlying systems and interface in an educational simulation than from the story or wrapper. This is also called the "Killing Kings" paradox, as people who play chess don't learn how to kill kings, but they do learn some high level strategy. Playing a violent computer game does not teach transferable "killing" skills, but more likely the underlying systems and relationships.

The corollary is also true. Most students learn more in classrooms in how to accomplish/game courses (which over the years they master at multiple levels) than the actual subject matter.

SimWord of the Day: The Second Paradox of Educational Simulations

According to the Second Paradox, educational simulations can never be completely comprehensive and accurate, because once a perfect simulation model can be created, the process can be automated, and therefore formal learning is not necessary.

SimWord of the Day: Primary Variables/Balanced Scorecard

Multiple measurable criteria for success. For example, given a walk in the woods, primary variables might be fun, safety, low cost, and exercise.

A collection of primary variables should be optimized, should be reinforcing in the long terms, but sometimes they conflict with each other in the short term. Primary variables are often influenced indirectly, such as by tweaking secondary or tertiary variables. Buying good hiking boots might increase safety but add cost. The more expensive boots, the higher the safety but higher the added cost.

The concept of "Primary variables" is often called "balanced score cards" in the consulting world, and built into "systems dynamics" in the type of simulations called "interactive spreadsheets."

SimWord of the Day: Actuators/Units

Computer games are filled with actuators.

Actuators turn one resource into another. They might turn money into customer satisfaction. They might turn research into finished products. They can be bought, built, placed, and upgraded. They might require a constant stream of resources (fixed costs) and/or variable. They can be destroyed, or shut down. They might have some advantage if geographically positioned close to map-based resources or close to other actuators.

There is a special case of actuators called units. Units typically can move. They have some form of Artificial Intelligence. They can scout around. They can perform different types of work, often depending on their specialty. They can be given priorities. They can swarm. They move at different speeds, and have different capabilities. They can also be distracted, and do things that were once useful but no longer.

What is amazing is that when talking to CEO's of large and very large organizations, they use much the same language. They think about capabilities. They think about optimizing. They think about value chains. They try to take money and time out of processes. They are always interested in replacing unpredictability with predictability. They are interested in opening up new avenues.

And as I like to say, when computer gamers and CEO's agree on reification frameworks, can business schools and corporate training groups be far behind? (Actually, I never said that before, and I had to look up the word reification, but you get the idea.)

Sunday, December 18

SimWord of the Day: Rush (or Tank Rush)

For those of you who play Real Time Strategy games, to rush is to, early on in a scenario, build a large, mobile army and attack an opponent, hopefully catching them unaware while they are still building up their infrastructure.

This term is increasingly used in real business situations, both for people internally planning to get support for their idea "let's do an email rush before the report is released," and externally, "it is not enough to be an early mover. We have to do a tank rush to dominate the store shelves."

This is typically an all or nothing strategy, that if fails, leaves the attacker in a vulnerable situation.

Wednesday, December 14

Flawed Self-Assessment?

According to most studies, about 70% of what we learn is done informally. Yet according to other studies, peoples' notions about what they learn tend to correlate only 0.2 to 0.3 with performance.

If we cannot accurately assess ourselves, then how do we know we have mastered what we set out to do when we are learning informally?

A New Language to Describe the Knowledge of Experts

As I get sucked into conversations about simulations with developers and researchers, both here in the states and in other countries, I am increasingly aware of the influence of the languages of several different communities.

Critical words and phrases are coming from computer game design, project management, computer programming, nutrition, engineering, TQM, environmentalism, systems theory, even golf coaching.

There is a new pidgin emerging - a new language for capturing domain expertise.

At the highest level, it ties together systems with interface with story.

Below that, it involves constructs like transformers (things that turn one resource into another), communities, units (autonoma with competencies and will), mapped spaces (from geographical to conceptual), interface design, perspectives (how different people see the world), and more detailed views of work (from producing widgets on one end to problem solving processes and innovation on the other).

If people are interested, I will share more detailed notes with this community.

Monday, December 5

SimJournal: THE Question for designing an interface to a real time simulation

Obviously, if you have seen Virtual Leader, you know I am a strong believer in real-time interfaces for educational simulations. Like computer games, they tap emotions, give users a sense of timing, and provide the opportunity for very rich interactions. Unlike computer games, however, they must facilitate the transfer of skills and perspectives from the artificial environment to a real environment.

I find this concept of "making interfaces part of the learning" the most difficult to convey when working with clients, and I am guessing others here have the same problem. I hope this helps.

The first level question from simulation designers to a subject matter expert is typically:
  • What are common problems novices make? What are common problems experts make?
But to that, I have started asking another pair, a second level pair, of questions:
  • When is doing the same thing a little harder or a little softer, or a little earlier or a little later, make all the difference between success and failure?

The concept that the subject matter experts fill in for "thing" becomes a critical component of the interface.

Just a few examples I recently heard. If it is...

  • "bring one of the two arguing people outside the room to let them cool off" or
  • "send flowers" or
  • "stop the process to review safety issues" or
  • "set up a focus group to get customer feedback" or
  • "bring in higher levels of management" or
  • "give our bonuses" or
  • "go out with the customer to build the relationship" or
  • "make an acquisition" or
  • "speed up the presentation" or
  • "have the security team spend more time surveying the area with the broken window"

...then those options had better be possible through the interface, and not just as a binary option (i.e. press the button), but also as an analog option (i.e. hold down longer for more impact).

This is all part of the new language of interactivity, something I hope will move from archaic today to mainstream within a few years.

Sunday, December 4

A Nice Example of a Workbook Wiki

A client asked me to find a good example of a wiki that taught people how to use a specific application (Wikipedia is overwhelming to most, and due to the vastness, not a great example for smaller implementations). The best I found was this, for learning how to use Python. While most here may not be interested in Python, I think it is worth a look to see how content is structured.
Again, I personally find the imperfections satisfying, as it reflects a reality not a vision, and what the client could reasonably hope to achieve.

Friday, December 2

The scarcity of attention rule

Fred Wilson, a well known VC, covers on his blog a topic that I think is very relevant to the field of learning:
The overabundance of information leads to a scarcity of attention

"What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it." (Computers, Communications and the Public Interest, pages 40-41, Martin Greenberger, ed., The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.)

Wow, that is a very very interesting statement.

Only several years ago there were not a lot of online courses available. Since then the technology has matured to the point where almost anyone can create and publish content (just look at blogs!). Now companies have access to libraries with thousands of courses. But all to often I see people searching Google first, looking for answers and getting thousands of search results (informal learning) or having mind-numbing access to those thousands of online courses through enterprise libraries (formal learning), both of which are resulting in a quick-hit, good luck knowing how 'right' the answer is, learning experience.

Frankly it scares me how many people take the Internet at face value. Yes, Google, Wikipedia, blogs etc are all great sources but there is little in way of context to help judge it's value.

But on the other hand I find myself not really needing to 'learn' something but rather 'find and discard' an answer, knowing that I can always dig it up again later if need be. Heck my world seems to be changing so quickly that I'm lucky if I can find the answer to my question in one place as I often have to pull it together from several sources.

Jay Cross says that 80% of learning is informal and I wonder how much of that informal learning is being done by Internet searching. Maybe the first course every person should take should be on effective online search techniques and how to assemble knowledge from multiple sources of varying quality.

Do you agree?
- is there simply too much information, stored in containers like courses, out there? (is Google the new incarnation of the learning object repository?)
- How do we in the learning industry prune away the excess but still ensure that it is relevant to each learner and not overly generic? (is it our job to do the pruning or do things like tags, social networking and RSS enable each learner to do the pruning their own way)
- if learning is now truly able to be continuous then how do we create effective learning experiences that can span across multiple delivery mediums independent of time? (anything published on the Internet will last forever especially with search engine caching)
- are we to become knowledge navigators to our learners? (equipping our learners with tools versus content like courses and saying 'the answer is out there, now go forth and find it'?)

Wednesday, November 30

Off to the Wiki!

Well! Hopefully revisiting Sam's We Are the Problem: We're Selling Snake Oil post and the comments that followed got your juices flowing. Or maybe it took David Grebow's blunt Back to the Future post from yesterday to get you fired up. But hopefully you have an opinion on the current state and future of our profession. So get fired up and head over to the Beyond the Blog Discussion Wiki we've set up to have some fun debating the issue. Maybe we'll even come up with a solution or two by the end of the whole shebang!

The other posts which were a part of Snake Oil Revisited:
Snake Oil Revisited

Summary of Original Post

Summary of Original Comments

And a post from Australia that also summarizes the original post and comments Special Report: Is Training Snake Oil?

Evolution of E-Learning

I feel a need to chime in. I think the whole e-learning space has gone through an evolution in the last 4-5 years, and we've created a four-stage taxonomy to describe it (

In stage 1 (Getting Started) organizations adopt e-learning to save money. And yes, e-learning does reduce the cost per delivery of instructional hour. But we now have data to prove that in reality e-learning does not save money, it increase reach and range. Costs which were variable (instructors) become fixed (LMS and infrastructure), allowing greater reach - but total costs dont go down. Most organizations spend a year or two in this phase and they often start with catalog programs.

In stage 2 (Expansion) organizations expand, they build lots of custom programs (beyond the typical catalog content) and start implementing blended programs. They realize they need an LMS, so they bite the bullet and implement something. Yes, the LMS market is evolving and LMS systems do not do everything, but they do manage learning programs well. Here they find that the demand for online content far outweighs capacity and organizations start to realize that much of what they build is not being consumed.

This leads to stage 3: (Integrate and Align). In this stage the organization now realizes they have so much content available that it has grown out of hand, and they spend time on competency-based learning, more focused job-related content, integration with the performance management process, and perhaps the implementation of an enterprise-wide LMS. This is the toughest stage, and I think most mature organizations are here today. At this stage organizations realize that their e-learning programs are more than programs, they are "content" which can be reused and repurposed for many uses. They also realize that the traditional concept of an online course must be complemented by communities of practice, coaching, and other forms of online support.

We call Stage 4 Learning on Demand. This is the stage which vendors like to write about but few organizations have yet reached. At this stage companies have to build or buy a true content management system and they develop standards for content development. These standards enable searchable learning and the deployment of small pieces of content, rather than complete courses. The problem most organizations have today is that they are locked in stage 2 or 3 and find that it will take 2-3 years to "unlock" their content to get to stage 4. Nevertheless I believe this is inevitable, and we talk with many organizations working hard right now to implement an on-demand learning model.

Throughout these stages, vendors tend to try to fit their products and solutions. Some vendors try to stay true to the market they serve, others try to create visions of reaching across all four stages. For each stage there are challenges and opportunities, and frankly I have not found any organization that can jump from Stage 1 to Stage 4 in less than 3-4 years. I recommend anyone trying to understand all these trends to read our report, it is designed simply to help people understand this complex space and form a basis for making decisions.

Tuesday, November 29

Summary of Original Snake Oil Comments

Initially, the thought of summarizing the 60 comments that came in reaction to Sam Adkins’ Snake Oil post was daunting. But the reality turned out to be a joy. As I worked my way through the 39 pages of comment for the 3rd time over the weekend, I felt some how privileged to be taking the time to listen to such passionate, well reasoned arguments. A comment by Peter Isackson seems, at least at first, to be delighted with the diverse dialogue:

Sherlock says you are what you sell. Godfrey says you are what you design. And Dave says you are what you get lost in. I think Godfrey would agree with the even more existential proposition that you are what you learn and that, as a training professional, it’s also possible to sell what you learn (once you have learned it).

Peter also happened to hit upon four of the major themes ran throughout the comments.


First Sherlock (one of those masked bloggers who give the Blogosphere some of it’s character) chimed in with a post in what I’m calling “What’s wrong with snake oil” theme. He takes a pragmatic, but somewhat cynical position by saying, “I've long since stopped thinking in terms of learning - these days I see myself as a solution provider. I sell things that appeal to training managers, regardless of whether or not they ACTUALLY work!!!” I almost like his, ‘hey I’m just a guy trying to get by” tone. Almost.

Frank Hughes too has a cynical read on the situation but takes it much more negative tone that was more inline with Sam’s thinking. Frank said,” Most trainers/teachers want to be a star, standing in front of a class, no matter how effective it is. Most managers want to "track" their employees learning, and the only way to do that is with formal classroom and elearning courses. Most employees like classroom classes not because they learn, but because they are social occasions that get them away from their desk.” Ouch!

Then there were a few folks that fell in line with Beth Friedman who said that of course we’re selling snake oil. It’s early in the game for elearning. It’s still new to us.

Graeme Dobson summed up yet another group who said:

My experience shows the old 80:20 rule applies - that is only 20% of performance problems are fixable or should be addressed by a training solution.
So you see it doesn't really matter how good (or bad) a training method is - if you apply it to those 80% of performance problems where training is the wrong solution IT WON"T WORK!


Godfrey Parkin chimed in with, “My point is that “training” is not at fault, but the design and implementation of it is clearly (on aggregate) inadequate.” Lisa Galarneau agrees, “Sure a lot of what professes to be training is terrible, but he end result is simply reflective of the approach.”

Jack Pierce rallies to the defense of the designers by pointing out a program he’s involved with that had trained almost 40,000 learners in two years with 95% reporting greater sales, better product understanding. “What’s the secret?” he asks. I’d say an understanding of the user, combined with an understanding of the technology, and hard work.”

Vicky Fisher (processes) and Jennifer Turner (salaries) blame cuts to design budgets as to blame.

Howard Davis says that he holds hope for eLearning and Blended Learning, but not the way they are being used. “The irony of course is that even with our latest tech tools we’re still stuck in using ineffective teaching and training models.” Marcuss Oslander agrees, “A delivery mechanism is only as good as the material it intends to deliver. We need to lighten up—to stretch the technology—to make learning fun!”

Although, I think my Blogmeister’s Choice award for best metaphor goes to Keith with this one, “Would you use a Ferrari to go to the store?? Maybe, but would you use the Ferrari to take all the neigbourhood kids to soccer. I guess not. It remains a question of the right tool for the job.”


Godfrey Parkin points out that first generation products seldom live up to the expectations set for them. He continues by saying, “The internetworked world gives us an opportunity to rewire the corporate mind, and to change from within the way an organization thinks and behaves. To me, that is the real promise of e-learning. And I think we will all survive the snake-oil phase of our evolution.”

“Only when the corporate training world gets back to the basics and understands that each student has a unique learning style and that only a training approach that recognizes that fact will succeed, will we, the instructional designers and trainers, also succeed,” was the challenge C. Michael Hecht set down for us.

Chris Brannigan says there’re a cause waiting for a leader and tries to recruit Sam! “Thus we come back to us - what can we, the 'believers' (in some cases) or 'committed citizens' do to break the complacency? Do we want to? I think that a lot (enough) of practitioners would. Articles like yours may herald the start.


Right after the quote from Peter Isackson that I used to open this post he adds,

The irony of our business – and the terrible paradox Sam has highlighted -- is that efficiency rather than performance dictates its inexorable law: it’s better to invest in designing and selling than in learning about what customers really need. Profitability dictates that we should spend our time and money on marketing what we’ve already designed (or decided to design) than to discover what we should be designing…. So before we can “learn” anything that will go towards meeting the “need” for learning, we find ourselves in the position of “teaching” the buyers to believe in our goods, from which we’ve learned nothing (apart from how best to market them).

Vicky Fisher seemed to like that answer, “I wholeheartedly agree with Peter. There are learning products out there that suck, and there are (some) learning products out there that work.”

And David Fisher piles on, “The economics and vested interests of classroom training make it difficult for training suppliers to reengineer their offering to really be blended. Adding in non-integrated e-content cannot compensate for this. In this form, it will inevitably fail.”

The last nail in the coffin comes from Alan Stewart, “Why are we taking the heat for the failure of providers to give our organizations/clients the learning solutions they really need. If you're not sure what the need is then aim for a solution that delivers 'Just-in-Time', 'Just-Enough' and 'Just-for-Me' learning and you won't go far wrong. Like any market, training/e-learning etc. providers are demand-driven so perhaps its time we started to be more demanding.

Now don’t you feel better? Those big bad vendors can’t hurt us any more!

DEFINITIONS: Can We Agee about what We’re Talking About

Finally, the last of the most common theme we’ve chosen to tease out of the original debate is an age old one in argumentation – definitions. Some commenter accuse Sam of having too narrow of a focus when talking about training or elearning. Other terms that were discussed as having been ill defined included: blended learning, training, what should be evaluated, e-content vs. e-learning, mentoring, etc.

These five categories composed a great portion of the discussion two years ago so we thought they’d be great topics to renew a discussion around. Tomorrow we will introduce the Learning Circuits Blog’s Beyond the Blog Discussion Wiki in which Don Clark, David Grebow, Godfrey Parkin, Mark Oehlert, and myself will moderate discussion around each of these topics for however long you which to discuss them.

So check out the new wing of LCB tomorrow!

Friday, November 18

Summary of Original Snake Oil Post

“We are the Problem: We’re Selling Snake Oil” came at time of great tumult in the workplace learning world. The bubble had popped and promising companies were disappearing, dramatically being downsized, or being acquired by larger competitors. At the same LMS/LCMS’s were being adopted by company after company as the backbone of renewed investments in learning. More frequently, the top-ranked learning official was being given a seat at the corporate strategy table. But the now expected performance metrics to demonstrate the value of training were hard or impossible to develop. When metrics were attainable, they weren’t always supportive of the learning function’s plans.

It was into this environment that Sam Adkins post on the evening of November 16, 2003 was published. Sam’s post was actually a collaboration between several people - a calculated attempt to stir up a sleepy profession which was struggling with some of the realities mentioned above. The post raised concern about the emerging trends in workplace learning. Sam’s intent was to publish a second post that woud provide suggestions and predictions of what the future held for our profession. Due to the overwhelming reaction to the first post, the second post was never written.

The original post can be found either by
  • using this link Snake Oil Post.


  • going to the LCB Archives in the side bar on the right of the LCB home
    page. In the 2003 dropdown menu click on November.

What follows is a summary of the original post as it appeared two years ago.
Sam began with 4 simple, but powerful statements:

· Training does not work.
· eLearning does not work.
· Blending Learning does not work.
· Knowledge Management does not work.

We are the source of the problem because we are selling snake oil. It doesn’t work but there is still plenty of money in it.

The sole measure of training’s effectiveness in the corporate setting, according to Adkins, “is rated on whether you save or make money (or both) for the company. Your value as ‘intellectual capital’ rests exclusively on that.”

In the remainder of the post he gives is evidence in each of the four areas identified as not working above. Here we present very brief summaries of his arguments. For detail, please see the original post.

Training – 80-90% of training fails to make it through to on the job application. This is compounded with Bloom’s data that demonstrated that students who receive one-on-one instruction perform two standard deviations better than students in traditional classrooms. Training is both inefficient and ineffective.

eLearning – Dropout rates = 70-80% and we continue to ignore this. Adkins posits several reasons for these high dropout rates:
It is learning product that is incompatible with the workplace
it is generally meant as “do-it-in-your-own-time”, not on the job
While the vending machines (LMS/LCMS) work perfectly, they are vending snake oil.
Adkins identifies six learning form factors that comprise the eLearning market:
Text Based was seeing success when using XML to fuse this content directly into the workflow.
eBook accelerating at 6 to 8 times the rate of traditional print texts.
Contextual Collaboration (IM, chat, webconferencing, expertise mining or presence awareness) 40-50% of knowledge needed is on the heads of other workers.
Simulation – Gartner estimated by 2006 over 70% of elearning would be simulation. Adkins asks why call it elearning when it’s really simulations.
Wireless - handhelds had initial success in streamlining business processes causing efficiency gains and eliminating error rates.
Workflow Learning - business process management systems were selling like hotcakes while courseware products were suffering from lower demand and cheaper outsourcing offering.

Blended Learning - is only snake oil rebottled in to different containers. But it’s still snake oil.

Knowledge Management – Knowledge cannot be housed in hardware or software and then moved about. What was being put forward as knowledge management are migrating to expertise management, social networking, advanced data visualization and enterprise content management.

Adkins concluded with a statement saying that the technology vendors were not doomed to, if they move to the new tools like Simulations and workflow learning.

Next in Beyond the Blog: The Reaction

Thursday, November 17

Snake Oil - Revisited | Beyond the Blog

Two years ago today, a post to a quite little blog rocked the training and development world. The quiet little blog was Learning Circuits Blog and the post was by Sam Adkins. In his post entitled “We are the Problem: We’re Selling Snake Oil, Sam outlined how much of what eLearning had set out to accomplish and had claimed to have accomplished was all “snake oil.”

His post angered and scared many. But it also intrigued and emboldened many others who saw a need for our profession to change. Emails were sent to colleagues saying ‘you’ve got to go read this article.’ Passions ignited to protect training/learning professionals or to tear them down. Blame was spread around to everyone – it was the vendors/designers/theorists/customers/our/the technology’s fault – depending on who was commenting.

When it was all said and done, there were 60 comments in reaction to Sam’s “Snake Oil” post. To put this in perspective, the other 283 posts to Learning Circuits Blog between May 2002 and the end of October 2005 have averaged 3.19 comments per post. The list of commentors includes many of the thought leaders in our industry – Jay Cross, David Grebow, C. Michael Hecht, Tom Abele, Godfrey Parkin, Fred Nickols, Jerry Ash, Diana Royce Smith, etc.

What did he say? What was the reaction? Has it had any impact in the past two years? How does Sam feel now? These are all questions we will be answering in Learning Circuits Blog’s first Beyond the Blog.

In a comment on November 19, 2005; Andrew Williams wrote, “hopefully we will all look back on this provocation/post in a couple of years and view this as an inflection point in the industry.” All too often, we don’t come back to reflect on key moments. But that’s exactly what we will do in the next couple of weeks with your help.

Here’s what you can expect from Beyond the Blog over the next week:

  • Today - This general introduction to the Snake Oil Revisited Beyond the Blog
  • 11/18 (Fri) – Revisit Sam’s post
  • 11/28 (Mon) – Revisit the comments and the themes that arose through them
  • 11/29 (Tues) – Are we still selling snake oil? Over the past two years have things improved? worsened?
  • 11/30 (Weds) – Launch of thematic discussion wikis focusing on the themes

Each of the discussion wikis will be moderated by a member of the LCB Blog Squad.

From that point on, Beyond the Blog: Snake Oil Revisited will live as long as the discussions continue to develop. We’ll give you opportunities to vote in mini polls, create mini panel sessions, present content – text, graphic or podcasts to enhance the debates – whatever is doable and makes the debate more robust. We’ll be tracking all the activity in the summary box in the sidebar of LCB. And if you see the value in this debate and want your friends and colleagues to know about it, we will even have a Beyond the Blog: Snake Oil Revisited logo that you can cut and paste onto your own website.

It is our hope that you will feel free to jump into what should be a collection of spirited discussions about what we have been, what were today and what we will or won’t be as a profession in the future. It’s our hunch that by the time that glittery ball drops in Times Square in six weeks or so, we all will have learned something about ourselves, our colleagues, and perhaps what the new year holds for us.

Tuesday, November 15

Beyond the Blog

One of the unfortunate effects of the traditional Post-Comments format of a blog is that topics tend to be focused upon only as long as they stay in the #1 position on the blog’s front page. This is tough enough for some individually written blogs to manage. But it is a far greater issue with a team blog like Learning Circuits Blog. The result is a very fragmented seemingly haphazard coverage of topics.

Tomorrow we will launch our first effort to break away from the Post-Comments format with a feature entitled “Beyond the Blog. Beyond the Blog will appears several times a year focusing on different major topics of current interest to the learning community. This feature will break from the Post-Comment format in a effort to create a more sustained set of discussions and activities. Furthermore, each Beyond the Blog event will follow a format appropriate to the content and context of the conversation. We’ll provide different ways for you to interact with the Blog Squad and each other.

We hope you will find the first of our Beyond the Blog features stimulating, edifying, and ultimately motivational to re-think the way you learn and the ways you ask your clients to learn.

If you do, then we will have begun to fulfill our mission to use collaborative environments, like blogs, to help you learn like you’ve never learned before.

Saturday, November 5

Corporate informal learning culture

Dave Grebow sees a danger in meddling with the processes of informal learning, and I have to agree. But I contend that it’s also possible to be pro-active without meddling. The aim in all cases is to respect informality but because the efficacy of the means employed doesn’t depend on elaborate control systems, those means should be theoretically less difficult to implement. The real and very formal challenge is to “teach” decision-makers what to do because everything revolves around a gradual but radical transformation of corporate culture.

If we're going to "teach" (whether through training or publishing), we need some ideas. I have a few of my own and have borrowed others from various places. To kick off the brainstorming, here are a some suggestions (remembering that no one idea will get us very far; to succeed you need to commit to the full monty):

  • Begin modifying the physical (and virtual) working environment with the idea of moving away from a functional individual productivity model to a social model (this is sometimes done for other reasons and the two objectives can be made to merge).
  • Encourage collaboration through the widest variety of means.
  • Don’t conduct any formal training without envisaging some form of mentoring, including peer mentoring.
  • For the mentoring provide a permanent collaborative learning environment that can be used for purely personal purposes as well as official or unofficial collaboration (storage of documents, data, links with other communication tools such as audio or video conferencing).
  • Do some formal training, especially at the managerial level, on the complementarity of formal and informal goals.
  • Define what I would call “evolutionary learning themes” that can be informally monitored over time by line managers, but without fixing pre-determined objectives (and devise ways of accounting for their evolution). No reporting… other than collaborative!
  • Start talking about long-term learning projects without any specific constraints attached to them.
  • Refer all formal training events or activities to long-term projects (a variation of the e-portfolio concept).
  • Appoint not a “CLO” (as intimidating as a CEO or CFO), but rather a Learning Culture Coordinator (and Communicator).
  • Start thinking about performance support systems.

Finally, don’t go looking for vendors of the latest ILMS (Informal Learning Management Systems)! You can bet they'll be lining up for sales appointments as soon as they see decision-makers committed to the concept. They'll be far worse than the "formal learning developers" Dave has warned us about.

Friday, November 4

Searching for Competitive Information

How many organizations about which you know do competitive analysis in the area of formal learning programs? "Competitor X is killing us in the marketplace, and they do program Y?" My gut feel is not that many, but I would love to hear about examples where they do.

Tuesday, November 1

Characteristics of Formal and Informal Learning Episodes

Allen Tough, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, focused his research on the adult's successful efforts to learn and change; and in particular the 70% that are self-guided without relying much on professionals or institutions (informal learning). During his research, he discovered that people spend an average of 15 hours per week learning on their own.

In the late 1970s, Patrick Penland, a library school professor at the University of Pittsburgh, became quite interested in Tough's research. He performed a survey in which a section of it pertains to why learners prefer to learn on their own, rather than in a class or course. The main reasons, in ranking order, are:

  1. Desire to set my own learning pace.
  2. Desire to use my own style of learning.
  3. I wanted to keep the learning strategy flexible and easy to change.
  4. Desire to put my own structure on the learning project.
  5. I didn't know of any class that taught what I wanted to know.
  6. I wanted to learn this right away and couldn't wait until a class might start.
  7. Lack of time to engage in a group learning program.
  8. I don't like a formal classroom situation with a teacher.
  9. I don't have enough money for a course or class.
  10. Transportation to a class is too hard or expensive.

What is interesting about the survey is that for the most part, it is not that learners lack resources or hate attending formal classes, for these items are at the bottom of the rankings, but rather they prefer being in charge of their own learning.

In addition, the top items in the rankings show that while learners prefer to take charge of their own learning, it does not mean that they enjoy solitary learning. Tough discovered that within each informal learning episode (where the primary motivation is to gain and retain certain knowledge and skill on a task or thing), the average learner interacts with an average of 10 people. In fact, there may actually be more social interactions during informal learning episodes than there are in classrooms. Thus, we begin to get a picture of why blended learning became the next step in the elearning evolutionary process.

While the last two items pertain to a lack of resources, the first eight items show a desire to take charge (learner control) of one's own learning episodes. These eight "design" characteristics control or impact most learning episodes:

  1. Desire to set my own learning pace = self-pace.
  2. Desire to use my own style of learning = personalized.
  3. I wanted to keep the learning strategy flexible and easy to change = tactical.
  4. Desire to put my own structure on the learning project = empowerment.
  5. I didn't know of any class that taught what I wanted to know = complex.
  6. I wanted to learn this right away and couldn't wait until a class might start = just-in-time.
  7. Lack of time to engage in a group learning program = flexibility
  8. I don't like a formal classroom situation with a teacher = casual.

The chart below shows each learner control characteristic that leads to informal learning and its opposite -- the corresponding designer control characteristic that leads to formal learning.

Click to Enlarge

Note that these characteristics are not set in stone, but rather they are the norm. This is because formal and informal learning episodes borrow from each other, for example, some formal classrooms are self-paced and some informal learning episodes are off-the-shelf.

With the focus nowadays turning more towards the learner, learning characteristics from both the informal and formal sides have naturally gotten more informal. At times, this has interesting consequences, for example, focusing on learning style preferences, which are often incorrect for the type of learning taking place, rather than a style that will actually enhance the learning taking place.

How do you see the joining of formal and informal learning episodes?

Sunday, October 30

Navigating the Lag of Death

Technology is always, at best, two steps forward, one step back. But the more comfortable you are with the technology, the more you can take advantage of the good and mitigate the bad (although too much comfort can blind you to the bad, but that's another point).
One of the trickiest parts of producing a learning program is to navigate what I will call the lag of death. This is the difference (or delta, if I am feeling insecure) between the comfort level of learning program sponsors and learning program users.
Typically, the less mature technology people have a greater comfort in short term predictability, command and control, processes, certification, ease of use, eveness of distribution, and risk mitigation. The more mature technology people have a greater belief in communities, engagement, richness of experience, and short term chaos leading to long term order, uneven distribution, and person responsibility.
Navigating this lag of death is tricky, high stakes, and critical. But it increasingly has to be done if we are to thrive.

* note: this chart is a back-of-the-napkin sketch, more thematic than specific. I look forward to enriching it based on the comments of others.

Saturday, October 29

Googlizing Learning

I'm not sure if Googlizing is a word but the way this steam engine is rolling I'm sure it will be soon.

David Grebow's recent post (Wait a minute, let me Google it ...) really got me thinking and since I hate the fact that comments do not get seen by those receving RSS feeds of this blog I decided to do a follow-on post rather than a comment.

Breaking News! Google is doing all kinds of interesting stuff, much of which will have an impact on learning. One of their latest endeavors is Google Base:
Google Base is Google’s database into which you can add all types of content. We’ll host your content and make it searchable online for free.
Sounds like a potential learning object repository to me. Read more about it. Couple this with their free Google Desktop (to index and search your computer and intranet files) and you may have a pretty decent knowledge management solution.

No doubt about it, Google is great especially when it comes to connectng people to content. However, as a learning resource, it falls quite short. Fundamentally the quality of the content is often suspect for just because something appears on a web page does not mean that it is correct. And ironically today's search engines are almost too good - there is simply too much content available now.

To me learning is always made up of content AND collaboration. I learn more from reading a book and discussing it than just simply reading it.
Content + Collaboration = Learning
(see my post on Search sucks - where's the context?)

So you can see where I'm going to go with this ... Google needs to add a way to explicitly rate the content (Google's PageRank implicitly ranks the popularity of a web page) and Google needs to add a way for people to add comments to the web page links that result from a search query.

"Who creates it? Who maintains it?"
Easy. Those who use Google. They have the option to rate the pages and the option to leave a comment. Google has a large enough (massive) user base to make this work. Think of this as a 'people filter'.

This ability to connect people to people through content I think is critical. I often go to and read the book reviews for I what to know what actual people think of the content. Those that have validated identities I trust more than those that don't. A search is not always going to give me the answer I am looking for - this approach gives me the option to tap into the collective knowledge of other users.

Content is so Web 1.0; People is Web 2.0. (grin) Google has the opportunity to start connecting people to people - let's see if they will take advantage of it.

Is this the poor man's version of Jay Cross' workflow learning? What do you think - is Google becoming the best way for rapid, informal learning?

Friday, October 28

Virtual Classrooms and Virtually No Data

Face it, you generally can't see participants' faces in a virtual classroom. How do we know they are getting it? Are they sorting spam in Outlook or checking sports scores on

I remember quite a few high school & university classes where class participation counted as a relatively significant part of your grade. With most integrations between virtual classrooms and LMS products it seems like launching the classroom URL is about all that is tracked.

This strikes me as the equivalent of getting credit for class participation by walking in the door. At least some of the better integrations check to see that you didn't walk out (leave the meeting URL) before the end of class, or they have a "completion" threshold of some sort (percentage of meeting actual duration or, minimum time spent in the session).

A good virtual classroom facilitator or instructor draws the participants into the content with chat, pools, simulations and all sorts of interactions. But how is that tracked or managed? I might remember the names of a few active participants, but then again eyewitness reports aren't always accurate. Allowing the instructor or leader to enter a value or description for participation after the fact is a start, but how about automating this too.

Could we have integrations that reported back individual's quiz scores from virtual classes, a participation status indicated by upstream VoIP, frequencies or length of chat entries, questions asked?

Is anybody else wanting more real data from virtual classes? What data would you want and how would you foresee using these reports?

Tom King, Macromedia

Tuesday, October 25

Dead Elephants in the E-Learning Room

As I work with organizations in developing e-learning, I am increasingly aware of dead elephants in the room, large reference points that we have to avoid because we can't wrap our minds around them. Here are some:
  • When you talk about development time, the context is downloadable flash based mini-games. Flash based mini-games, like this one, can be developed in just a few weeks. And yet they still have critical messages, and higher interactivity.
  • When you talk about manuals and online references, even FAQ's, the dead elephant in the room is Wiki's. Fluid, up to date, organic, they grow faster and are more accurate than most published documents. Wikipedia outgrew the Encylopedia Britannica.
  • When you talk about knowledge management, the hidden context is blogs and podcasts.
  • When you talk about interactivity in e-learning, the spector is of computer games. Clicking a few buttons now and then can just never compare with the total engagement of Halo 2.

What are some other dead elephants?

Monday, October 24

Living off the Land: Capturing The Voice of Experts

In one project on which I am working, I have been asked for a strategy to quickly capture a lot of presentations from a lot of people to share with others.

My first thought was using Centra, but the client always uses the telephone for voice, and I am not sure if they have save capability.

A second option is to use the record voice option in PowerPoint.

A third is to use a tool like Audacity to record an MP3, and then have some one else align that with slides.

Does anyone know of either a great approach, or even great instructions that someone else has prepared to take individuals through this process?

Sunday, October 23

From Illiteracy to Technological Literacy

Despite the heavy investments societies have invested in literacy over the past couple of hundred years, it is no longer pursued by some as a desired educational goal. Mihai Nadin, the author of The Civilization of Illiteracy, writes how the pursuit of it has taken four main branches:


  • for whom literacy is a skill.
  • using it as a means for studying values based on literacy.
  • functioning in a world of prepackaged artifacts.
  • active beyond the limitations of literacy, such as stretching cognitive boundaries or defining new means and methods of communication and interaction.

Writers, editors, and some educators see it as a skill in which they make a living by knowing and applying rules of correct language usage.

Others gain value by exploring the great wealth of writings, poetry, history, and philosophy.

The majority, which is estimated at about 75 percent of the population, view it as an artifact or service, such as the mathematics in a calculator, the writing on a greeting card, or the spelling and writing routines incorporated into word processors.

And finally, groups, such as artists and designers, who actively attempt to push it beyond its limits.

For instructional designers, these four branches of literacy are quite useful in that they help us to identify the type of media preferred by our target audience. In addition, they show the branch that teachers, trainers, educators, instructional designers, etc. must join if they desire to help others learn -- the artists and designers who actively attempt to push it beyond its limits. For it is only by pushing literacy to its limits that we will be able to reach the broadest group of learners possible.

While some may bemoan the decline of literacy, others look forward to the instruments that are slowly, but surely, replacing it, such as audio, visual media, and text messages. While this last medium does sound quite literate at first, it manages to break almost every rule in order to obtain velocity:

Grade schoolers are starting to get laptops and of course literacy skills, such as handwriting and spelling, start to suffer. Yet, there was life before literacy, and there will be life when it declines. Thus, maybe it is better to not look at it as "declining," but rather as being...well...replaced.

Literacy presupposes the existence of a shared symbol system that mediates information between the individual's mind and external events (see Technological Literacy Reconsidered). Thus, just as mathematicians from all over the world can share and understand formulas; savvy cellphone uses can understand the above text message.

The literacy that is shaping the netcitizens of today is technological literacy -- knowledge about what technology is, how it works, what purposes it can serve, and how it can be used efficiently and effectively to achieve specific goals. It encodes and decodes messages via three dimensions:

These three dimensions closely relate to Dyrenfurth's (1991) three dimensions: "Technological literacy is a multidimensional term that necessarily includes the ability to use technology (practical dimension = knowledge), the ability to understand the issues raised by our use of technology (civic dimension = capabilities), and the appreciation for the significance of technology (cultural dimension = thinking & acting)." For more on these dimensions, see the Quicktime movie.

Knowledge acquisition took place at a slow place during the age of literacy. With the advancement of technology, we are no longer at the mercy of language (and the literacies associated with it) as the exchange of complex data via graphics, multimedia. etc., are more appropriate to our faster paced society. Our present knowledge economy is not driven by faster computers, but rather by human cognition embodied in experiences that support further diversification of experiences. And the more means we find to diversify our experiences, then the faster our knowledge acquisition will be.


You can find the The Civilization of Illiteracy in three types of formats:

Dyrenfurth, M. (1991). Technological literacy synthesized. In M. J. Dyrenfurth & M. R. Kozak (Eds.), Technological literacy (40th Yearbook of the Council on Technology Teacher Education, pp. 138 183). Peoria, IL: Macmillan, McGraw-Hill.


[technological literacy]

Thursday, October 20

If it ain't fixed, should we break it?

I hope I didn't sound too much like a Luddite when I wrote " Let’s stop building, advertising and selling systems and technologies that will provide the solution. " My intention isn't to impede progress and continued experimentation. I do believe that the various technologies many of us have been developing for years render vital services and that their impact will grow. I also believe that growth will only become significant when a few cultural changes take place within the world of learning. On the other hand, I don’t believe current conditions are yet favorable for that moment of quantum leap.

My major beef is with the hyper-commercialisation, the “advertising and selling” part rather than the “building” part. Elliot asked some years ago “if we build it, will they come?”. Given the number of items that have been built and delivered, it’s probably safe today to say that the answer is “no” (thanks, Anonymous, for summary of the HCE study). Before we build, however, we need to design. And before we design we need to have an idea of why we are designing (other than the hope of eventually selling it to the select few because the design looks good and exploits this year's augmented processing power).

I believe – as many do -- that more will come out of the Open Source movement than from vendors of systems (who are becoming fewer and fewer, as Ben Watson reminds us). My healthy doubts about what Open Source will ultimately deliver hover around how non-commercial creativity can fare in a vehemently and violently commercial world. But that’s a philosophical and sociological problem, not an educational problem.

Flipcharts actually have evolved in various ways, but the ways of using them by creative trainers have evolved much more than the technology itself. With electronic gadgets, it’s the opposite. The people responsible for making learning happen are deprived of the means of doing anything about it. Moore’s law has taught us that every 18 months someone’s going to deliver to our doorstep (COD, of course) everything we need to solve the problems we are too backward, poor, unorganized or handicapped (in terms of technological savvy) to solve ourselves. If we don’t pay, we’re excluded from the community of “best practice”, which might more accurately be called “best purchase”. The laws of the production/consumer society trump all others. The race for innovation, which should be about creativity and solving real learning problems, is dominated by the rich and lazy, those with the biggest marketing budgets.

It’s no wonder then that trainers and learners – as the CHE study reveals – feel not so much alienated as simply excluded. Still the technology is there to be used and in fact is being used, but with little sense of purpose and, I would submit, a great deal of waste. I guess that’s the price of hype.

Saturday, October 15

Curious about the future of history based simulations?

As I have said before, I hate it when e-learning hacks make superficial, overly-broad analogies to hot trends. "E-learning should be like hybrid cars; Training should be like Ipod Nanos; Lessons learned from FEMA."

Having said that, I love a real analogy. For example, six years ago, I found it very useful to apply experiences with ERPs and CRMs to the then emerging area of LMSs. It did provide real glimpses into the future. As a rule, cold trends actually provide more insight than hot trends.

So with all of that as a caveat, I would like to present up an analogy that I hope is an example of the second, not first, category.

  • If you want to see how educational simulations will be created to teach history to the K-12 and undergraduate environment, look at the various Star Trek computer games.

Here's why.
  • Star Trek is a series of many, many (far too many?) stories, that cover a coherent timeline, with consistant cultures and technologies. Furthermore, Star Trek events, despite the single brand, have been created by many, many individuals and teams. There are missing links; there are contradictions. This background material is a fairly good analogy of history source material.
  • Game developers have tried to capture the essence of the story in game forms. Star Trek games have more often than not used existing genres (First Person Shooter, Real Time Strategy, now MMORPG). They have often had to go deep (space ship battles in general) over broad (from beginning to end of Wrath of Kahn). Some new genres have been created (Bridge Commander, Starfleet Command). Some games have been created by modding other games (Star Trek mod for Half-Life 2). Some are very complex, developing deep expertise; some could not be more simple. Some just use the high level theme over an existing game (Star Trek pinball or Star Trek trivia game). This maps fairly well to the effort that different developers will probabbly go through to create historical educational sims.
  • Star Trek fans are very engaged in the process. Every new Star Trek game brings heaps of criticism, people trashing the experience as being not accurate enough (What about episode 212 when Captain Yeri fired six photon blasts in less than five seconds), or fun enough, or broad/comprehensive enough. They then mod the experience, in some cases fixing inaccuracies, in some cases making something less accurate but more fun. This maps fairly well to the role of other historians/instructors looking at the experience.

Some Lessons learned:

  • No one sim will capture the entire experience. Sims will often go deep, not broad.
  • The more accurate the sim, the more frustrating it will be to play the first time.
  • The less accurate the sim, the easier it is to game it, but all sims, no matter how accurate, can be gamed at some point. Multi-player games creates environments where people are faster to break the illusion and try to exploit the rules.
  • Debates around specifics are inevitable, but should not be used an excuse to discount the entire experience. 100% accuracy is neither possible nor desirable.
  • Huge holes in source material will be uncovered that were missed by linear thinkers but that are glaring to more dynamic content creators.
  • Creating new genres is more powerful but also more risky than using old ones.
  • Small simple games can be more instructive than super complex ones, especially for teaching about high level relationships.
  • Sims won't replace the source material, but augment it.
  • Time lines are less important than interactions.
  • Communities are key.

I think the real power of educational simulations in K-12 and higher-ed will come when we rethink our curriculum all together. But for those intent on history based educational simulations (and my hat goes off to everyone of you - let me know how I can help!), I think the analogy is a good one.

Wednesday, October 12

consolidation continues - BlackBoard + WebCT & more ...

Wow, consolidation is running rampart in the eLearning space as everyone continues to merge or acquire. Look to your left and look to your right; easily one of those will not be around in six months. Today BlackBoard announced plans to merge with WebCT; the two leading providers in the higher education eLearning space (BlackBoard alone forecasts US$150M+ for their fiscal year).

Now having gone through a "merger" myself (SkillSoft and SmartForce) it sounds like BlackBoard is really acquiring WebCT and it doesn't bode well for WebCT given that there is a tremendous amount of product overlap between the two companies (a similar comparision would be if SkillSoft and NETg, the leading providers in the corporate education space, merged). It also doesn't bode well for WebCT's willingness to play with open source (sorry Harold!) If you are a WebCT employee you may want to dust off your resume with comments like this:
The combined company expects to realize significant efficiencies by leveraging shared development infrastructure, and mitigating duplicative marketing initiatives and administrative expenditures.

This announcement comes on the heels of Saba acquiring Centra. Now this deal makes more sense as Saba continues evolve beyond its Learning Management Software (LMS) roots (Saba recently bought THINQ) by rounding out its services offering. Personally I like its focus on 'on-demand learning' and its Services Oriented Architecture as I think generic content is a tough business to be in. Plus Saba + Centra creates a US$100M revenue company which is not too shabby!

And of course back in August we had WebEx buying and SumTotal (created out of Docent + Click2Learn) buying PathLore as I discussed in this post.

Clark - you need to update your Chart of Consolidations!

The Resulting Big Five: (forecasted annual revenue)
SkillSoft $200M+
NETg $150M-200M?
BlackBoard $150M+
Saba $100M+
SumTotal $100M
* strangely none of the investors like any of these deals as the stocks of the related companies have all dropped when they have announced their news.

So whom do you think will be doing a merger or acquisition next?

What do you think of these recent ones?

Confessions of an e-learning dropout

Six months or so of focusing on a real (rather than a virtual) theme -- in this case, intercultural communication -- led me far away from the specific “culture of e-learning” shared by the participants of this blog, although my intercultural work inevitably involves online deployment. Coming back into the fold by posting a message on this blog is in itself an interesting cultural experience, a kind of re-entry shock.

Having spent so much time with a broadly international crowd of people who spend very little, if any, of theirs speculating about the future of technology for training has allowed me to take some distance and possibly see a few things with more focus. One of the things that strikes me is how linked e-learning culture is to certain trends in the U.S. economy, even though the implications are necessarily global. And if I mention “e-learning culture” it means that I can identify a group of people who share that culture (namely, us) in contrast to all the other groups of people that don’t share it. Which introduces the somewhat embarrassing question of whether e-learning culture is really compatible with other cultures.

Listening to Eliot Masie correctly telling me (through an audio feed) that memory sticks will allow all sorts of things that no one could have imagined made me realize why I seriously doubt that any of what he describes will ever make an impact on learning. I feel exactly the same way about games, simulations and all kinds of “ideal” and idealized content (and I’ve spent twenty years of my life designing, producing and publishing the stuff). It all makes sense… but, when all is said and done, it just doesn’t seem to take off, even though we can usually get it to work (and even prove that it can produce results).

One of the major reasons for failure is culture specific: Eliot’s idea – and many others born out of technological innovation -- supposes learners are social monads, the thought of which is relatively easy to entertain in an individualist culture such as that of the U.S. but unimaginable elsewhere. And even in the U.S. it’s easier to imagine than achieve, because even though our culture teaches us to think of ourselves as monads and our pragmatic sense tells us to try out any promising solution, we actually aren’t monads: we are heavily linked to others through visible and invisible social networks (that, by the way, only vaguely parallel our technical networks). And those networks provide most of our models of behavior, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Looking back at fifty years of technological innovation, what do I see? The only true revolutionary breakthrough in training technology is… the flipchart! It changed things much more than we think (PowerPoint did as well, but in a totally different – and I would say regressive - direction). CBT/multimedia/eLearning has produced a niche market for products and services but bears less resemblance to a revolutionary development in training than it does to the hula-hoop (a great concept, a new and intriguing object, fun to have a go at, a winning topic of conversation, mildly frustrating to start using, possibly addictive in the short term but destined to have a short lifetime). What’s great about the flipchart is that nobody noticed it or talked about it. It arrived stealthily and did its job, allowing us to create, store, distribute and display flexible information in original ways. It also provided a fascinating link to group dynamics, giving trainers a tool to change learners’ perception of the learning environment and the goals associated with it (e.g. by having groups work in parallel and post their results on the wall). It was (and is) absolutely wonderful technology. And using it requires only minimal writing and drawing talents plus a bit of imagination on what to do with the pages. And best of all, no rival vendors telling you that their flipchart has more features than the one you just bought (and should feel guilty about). And no yearly upgrades!

So my suggestion is to do something similar with all our electronic technologies. Adopt and use them because we need them for storage and communication (independently of training) and then just have them around to help those who have something to teach others (formally or informally) get their messages across. Let’s stop building, advertising and selling systems and technologies that will provide the solution. Where Plato banned poets from the Republic, I would ban the vendors. People will end up providing the solution if you let them just use the technology they spontaneously accept for other purposes. Down with the constraints of training-specific technology. And down with instructional design (yeah, Jay, I’m with you as usual).