Can Learning learn from the news industry?

[Pre-opening remark: this is a long read.]

I shall open with a statement of the obvious. It is incumbent upon us to seek guidance, inspiration and ideas from outside of our industries. This should not be exclusive behaviour, we all have much to learn from our immediate colleagues too. Very often, however, there are things happening further afield which will help us identify where to make a first incision to cut through the predictable momentum of the status quo. For the learning industries, grappling with digital changes, I think content businesses have some instructive examples to offer.

As I develop this idea, I would like to offer a pre-emptive defence my obviousness. Many of us may have these thoughts and be struggling to make these changes already – I am not claiming novelty. Yet, one visit to the exhibition floor of an eLearning related trade show demonstrates that the impetus to change is not evenly distributed. The floorspace is dominated by LMS vendors (of many stripes), authoring tool providers and content agencies. This is where the money resides and where the customers budgets are pointed. It can be hard to see where innovation might come from.

In my past, I have spent time in the search engine industry and in broadcast media (including news media). There are lessons for the learning world from both, I believe. It is the news business, as a content endeavour, that I would like to look at though to see where a lesson or two for learning types may reside.

Grappling with SEO and displacement

I recall representing search engines at a media conference in the early 2000’s. The audience was mainly journalists and traditional media owners. They were unanimously frustrated by the low ranking their stories and content received in search results. SEO was a new discipline and the conventional wisdom stated that established media brands are trusted and should be prominent. Very often bloggers and independent content publishers would win out, with higher ranking due to the linking and meta data they instinctively applied as they worked. It was more relevant.

This was an unpopular conclusion to offer to the audience. It still resonates now, despite traditional media addressing the issue, in the main. For learning content producers and publishers, the lesson is about respecting the modes of discovery of your audience. We are not the only people defining relevance and our audience’s definition is always the right one. How many times has an “unofficial” YouTube video beaten out the genuine article, carefully created by approved experts and risen to the top of the ranking?

The destination, a destination or no destination?

Whatever traditional or mainstream news media is, it has an ongoing struggle with finding and retaining an audience. Historically, a news business had its paper, broadcast channels, website outlets and later, apps. The commercial logic required driving as large an audience as possible to these channels and keeping it there. (Website home pages were paramount resources at this time). Now news businesses need to find their traffic in a constantly evolving landscape in which social media have outstripped search by some margin as sources of news.  A website, or content portal if you like, is only one location for users. Other places need to be cultivated, such as WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages, as points of consumption or as distribution points to the central mothership. Content businesses have also grown with no dedicated destination on YouTube, for example. News services are also experimenting with only publishing on social media outlets, although the economics are unsteady, so far. News businesses have recognised that stories need to be found where audiences live, rather than persuading them t ive where you publish.

The learning world can look to these experiments and responses as useful options. Learning folks do like to produce content and content portals offer a seemingly endless repository for our creations. It is difficult, however, to make a learning resource an habitual destination. The imperative to find users and place content where they work and spend time is pressing. Distributing and promoting content across social channels is crucial, as is cross publishing on intranets, knowledge management services and emails. Arguably, as long as content usage is measured and the user can attribute it accurately to the creator, it does not matter where they find it and use it. This tide is too strong to fight.

One client is already moving their events activity onto Facebook Workplace, following the greater popularity and response on that platform. Service your audience where they reside.

It is not your community, it’s theirs

Most journalists I have worked with have been in thrall to Twitter and probably still are. It changed their game entirely. They arrived late to Facebook as a news resource but have started to get to grips with it as it swallows the world and other social platforms. In the earlier days of social networks, media owners and journalists used the networks as distribution channels only, favouring a one way pattern of usage over conversation. Gradually, as social media wisdom grew and depth of activity and loyalty could be more accurately measured, the realisation dawned that users prefer to be involved and are in control. These are not broadcast channels. Readership and community are not the same things.

Learning professionals are alive to social media and a great deal of thought and activity is focused on these platform as indispensable tools for learning. We do need to be alive to that broadcast mode of use still, I fear. Social tools are not only content distribution tools. At their best they are conversational and we cannot own that conversation in the way we may claim ownership of other spaces. Any social space that users appear in is theirs as much as ours and clumsy attempts at control need to be avoided. I suspect this is a greater risk in corporate social environments where ownership can be distorted simpley by the presence of the logo at the top of the screen.

Trust and fakery

What the news industry is now wrestling with in the world of social media is more existential. Trust is eroding rapidly as accusations of fakery and willful falsehood pollute public life. Expertise might not reliably signal authority as accusations of vested interest and bias are bandied around with little or no support. Troubling times. Fact checking and verification, once hygiene factors in journalistic production and investigation, are now services for readers.

As yet, the implications for learning are unclear (unclear to me anyway). Academics are freely targeted as sources of undesirable and unreliable ideas, their credentials treated with some suspicion. False prophets and bots are stinking up the world of news as we start to trust what we prefer and are manipulated in sophisticated ways. I have heard anecdotal evidence of mistrust of ‘corporate postings’ on workplace social platforms alongside the more frequent challenges against usefulness and relevance. Learning folks need to be alive to this change. We are right to value social tools and we need to guard their value in the gathering gloom. How expertise is presented needs some careful attention – direct access to experts is not the innocent experience it once was. Perhaps fact checking and verification signals can become part of the experience?

Breaking news

With each technological advance, news organisations have needed to respond to what “current” means. The daily news cycle is a quaint memory, replaced by rolling news and now by immediate coverage of events from smart phone touting witnesses as a matter of course. The definition of up to date is pretty much up to the minute now. Journalists are torn between speed of coverage and value and accuracy in reporting.

Learning professionals are unlikely to need to be current in quite this way. There is a growing pressure, though, from what users judge as new. Whilst we should not be too easily lead by a common definition of current, we probably don’t want to be drawn into defensive positions against curating old news either. I suspect this balance will need to be struck and re-struck as we feel our way forward. As always, the users definition of what is fresh and current will prevail, as usual, they are right.

Who is a journalist anyway?

This is probably the most troubling challenge for news organisations. The training and experience required to earn journalistic credentials are no longer a requisite in writing/videoing/recording, sharing and commenting on ‘the news’. We are all makers and spreaders of news now. There is little or no difference between a Facebook posting from a family member and one from the newsroom. We can all produce, post and share text, video and audio at a moments notice with checking with an editor or filing our copy. The news is now spread without the need for news organisations or the workforce the employ. We are as more likely to see a Tweet and video from a breaking news story or event before a news organisation can get there (with the attendant problems of verification and veracity).

What is the meaningful role of a new business in these circumstances? Commentary, analysis and sense-making seem like solid territory on which to build and useful new roles for the editorial brains to play. News businesses are now routinely packaging social media content from witnesses as part of their coverage – adding commentary and recognising that no workforce can compete with this newsgathering reach.

Learning professionals need to think hard about this. Not too long ago, it was harder to learn something without the intervention of a learning specialist and the services we manage. The reverse is now becoming true as learning services become less significant – even for the learning folks ourselves. It is easy to find reliable and well produced instructional content, expertise and experience is available directly and the formality of linear courses and events are ageing quickly. I believe that getting out of the way is a valuable response. Finding the equivalent activity to analysis and sense making is probably a good answer to mimic the news organisations but these are very different patterns of production and intervention.

Content shapes and sizes

Content formats are not what they used to be for journalists. An article for a newspaper website has been nudged into new shapes by blogs, a film for a TV outlet had to make way for viewing on the web and then on the phone. Everything needs to be shareable. The smartphone is the primary consumption device and one of the most useful tools for gathering and producing news content. Vertical video is now a thing (a real horror for the broadcast journalist).  And, everything is getting shorter. (Much shorter than this blog).

Many editorial voices have bemoaned the reduction of news stories to bitesize chunks to fit these new modes of use. Most have also realised the strength of the tide and swum with it in the end. News outlets have tried Vine, SnapChat, Facebook Live and will continue to try the next big thing.

Learning folks are alive to these developments, of course, but I fear that we are still deeply wedded to the course in the LMS as our primary format. It does not really work any more (if it ever did). We need to find new formats that respect the need for brevity and portability and also draw users in to experiences that justify greater attention over time. The advent of the long read (or its renaissance) indicates demand for the role of considered commentator and guide – a valuable role beyond breaking news stories. The rise of the playlist seems like a good nook to explore as well – Spotify is establishing a new role in the music industry alongside broadcast radio. We seem to like it, so far.The editorial voice can be expressed in a different context, not needing to carry the creation of the entire narrative.

And so…

None of the above observations are new or surprising. Perhaps, it is most useful to consider them as a whole and reflect on the fundamental changes to the operation of news production and publishing. An entire new industry is emerging from the new environment with new businesses offering new products and services. The news organisation is no longer required to own the printing press and the broadcast towers to reach its audience and inform them. Likewise, a learner no longer needs to rely on the mechanisms of a learning organisation to develop skills and understanding. Nor do they need to enlist the services of a trainer or instructional designer.

I think the news industry has travelled further faster and we could do worse than monitoring what they do next. News businesses have a commercial imperative to consider that most learning folks are insulated from. Sources of revenue are under pressure and readership does not match sales in the way it used to. Arguably, we are freer to experiment but slower to do so.

 

Stakeholders beat out users in LMS implementation (of course they do)

I have been nursing this thought for some time now. I managed to spend a little time trying to add some structure to it and see if that helps me think it through more constructively. I belive it did.

Now, in Web 2.0 style (yes I am a traditionalist), I thought I would share it and see what that process might add.

Much is written and spoken about the UX challenges of corporate systems and their implementation. Mcuh of that has dealt with our old friend the LMS. Not much of the commentary is positive. I reckon that the structure of the vendor/customer relationship is, perhaps, the most significant factor in creating that negative sentiment. The poor user is a distant and quiet voice amongst the chorus of sales folks, solutions partners, stakeholders and implementation teams.

I have tried, quite simply I know, to illustrate that in the diagram below. Depending on the size of the organisation, more or fewer of these ingredients might be in place. There is a lot of decision making going on between the bright idea and the recipient of that idea. The needs of the organisation are studiously gathered and arranged. The system is painstakingly designed in the image of those needs. (A cynic might suggest vested interests are at play. I can see the point).

It is then, all too often, implemented at the poor user.

Learning Management Systems – from Vendor to user

LMS chain

The digital consumer market is quite different. The product creator makes the their product available as directly and swiftly to the user as possible. And that’s about it. (I recognise that I have not reflected that economic dynamics of the market here. The ad networks, analytics, optimisation and billings systems are not represented. These, however do not often impact the user value, they signal the user value in the metrics). Meeting user need is central in a fiercely compeitive market for free and paid products – attetnion is always limited, it seems. All other value flows from there.

It is much easier to design a tool a user wants to use when those layers of corporate interest are absent. Hence the universal preference for consumer tools such as Google, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia etc. as Jane Hart reminds us annually. In fact, when those layers of interest are present, I would argue that a product is not made for a user. It is made for the customer. That is where the invoices land after all.

Meanwhile users vote with their clicks and swipes and adopt the consumer tools that have become so familiar to our daily lives, at work and play.

What do you think? Does the diagram look familiar? I am minded to pursue this line of inquiry, so any steering thoughts would be welcome.

 

Making VR predictable

Much of my work in the last twelve months or so has been focused on a broad definition of user experience. By this I mean the more useful and perhaps difficult definition offered by the Nieslen Norman group. It runs thus:

User experience ” encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.”

I am not an interface designer (as any of you with even a passing acquaintance with me will testify). My efforts have been applied to more strategic questions around user experience: what is this thing for? Does anyone need it or feel motivated to use it? If so, can they find it? And so on…These are the broader themes of a genuinely useful experience.

In amongst this work has been the attempt to encourage folks to make their products and content predictable. In a digital context, predictable is good. It equates to ‘easy to use’ (and therefore, not annoying). It means that a system or a service is easy to understand and easy to learn. We can get used to it quickly.

In web and mobile terms, predictability requires using interface and design conventions. (Like predictable, conventional is a compliment as well). These conventions in include:

  • The back button
  • Uniform presentation of links
  • The hamburger menu device
  • Search
  • Consistent navigation and menu options
  • Clicking, swiping and pressing behaviours
  • Opening and closing windows
  • And many more….

Essentially, the advice tends to state that you can earn the right to delight your users if you treat them predictably first. Or, surprise them with care, perhaps. (Learning folks can often fall into the trap of trying to delight and engage users before the predictable foundations are in place. eLearning often falls into this trap).

Over the summer I ran a workshop on UX for a group of developers and designers who are making VR applications. This was a fascinating journey. Those conventions and the solid ground of predictability are not yet present. The conventions have yet to emerge. Tricky times for designers trying translate creative ideas into a usable VR package.

Marco Faccini and I discussed this problem at some length at Learning Live (do ask him, he knows more about it than I do). How best to guide a user through a VR experience? There is the equipment to consider, the selection of the application on the platform, opening, starting, orientation, interface isntructions…All this before the user gets into your carefully designed experience. The user can be tired out by this complexity, expending thinking energy on how to do stuff as well as what to do and what happened as a result.

Much VR needs to be explained before it is used. This can lapse back into the territory of needing to teach a user how to use a learning experience. “Tap the button on the side of the headset”, “focus the cross on the start logo” etc… (learning folks may well like this trip back to the future, I fear). Unpredictability carries a price for developers and an overhead of effort for users.

There are gaming conventions out there which many developers rely on to establish familiarity in VR applications. How many regular PC/console games are there in a corporate context though? Enough to be confident that those techniques will stick?  prehaps there is data available to support these decisions.

There is a further commercial implication of VR in a workplace setting. Many customers will need educating about the technology and how it can best be used. In this territory, familiarity for a customer may be the dreaded “course” which is a very weak metaphor for good VR (IMHO). A game is a good metaphor, of course, but good gaming experiences are costly and not easy to achieve. I would be even less confident that a customer will be able to accurately represent the response and needs of their colleagues in a VR environment. Stakeholders find it hard enough to reflect real user needs for a web page.

There is no substitute for trying things out and learning about VR from, erm, real experience. This can make for a complicated sales process though, on the agency side.

I am confident about the utility of VR as an option in the digital learning mix. It’s time is coming I am sure. One herald of the time arriving will be that it feels predictable as well as exciting.

 

Digital or hide! – technology hiding places in a digital world

A couple of things have given me pause in my digital convictions in the last few weeks. As a traveller on the information superhighway in the mid to late 1990s and then a journeyman of the Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 eras (I’m not sure it matters what they mean either), the notion of being digital and getting into digital just seemed obvious. Why wasn’t everyone doing it? There was nowhere to hide. “Digital or die!” we yelled in smug tones. I think the sentiment still stands but it’s not as cut and dried – or rather, I now see that it is not as cut and dried.

The thing is, hiding places from digital seem to be really commonplace. They may be diminishing but there are still plenty around. Some of them offer camouflage and plenty of food drink for a good long while as well. Many folk are still holed up in them. Maybe the call should be “Digital or hide!”.

Being digital or becoming digital is obvious. There really is no excuse. The problem is, doing it properly is really quite hard and involves quite a lot of work for quite a lot of people. It also involves change. Hence the hiding. Change is a great thing to hide from. For a while.

I have referenced this article before and will do so again: “It’s change management. It’s not complicated; it’s just hard.”   It is a great description of the skills, practices and attitudes to genuinely make digital change work well. It describes the different factions in the Obama campaign of 2012 and the hiding places of teams who are convinced of their world view. Everyone had plenty to learn and it was painful at times and valuable all of the time.

In more recent years, I have been involved with Learning and Development and L&D folk. I have wondered why the industry has changed so little despite the use of so much technology and so much use of the word Digital. My hypothesis (for today at least) is that technology has become a place to hide for L&D in a digital world. The exhibition floor of the Learning Technologies event is dominated by various forms of LMS vendors, content authoring tools and systems and eLearning content suppliers. At the risk of sweeping generalisation, these are technological developments to simplify and add efficiency to training. They are technological places in which teams and departments can hide from digital change.

In the digital world (perhaps in any world) we are not learners, we are workers or doers. This is well summarised in this piece by David James surveying the landscape on the 10th anniversary of the iPhone. Learning and Development is stuck (or hiding) in the act of making learning for digital users who are trying to get things done. Ever increasingly we get those things done with simple personal tools on our hand-held computers.

I will try to swerve a rant by restating the sentiment I opened with. These changes are hard to respond to and pervasive. Whole systems and language are at stake. One possible step we could start to take is to apply some of those simple personal productivity steps to our work. Use the tools we know and love as users and apply them as workers. Not to make learning but to help people with their working problems. This might be some content, pointing to content, connecting people, offering safe spaces to experiment. There are many, many possibilities, of course. All are worthy of consideration.

Firstly, however, we need to seriously ask if we are hiding behind something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An LMS for the open web? Not for me, thanks

Yes. This is another post about the LMS. A perennial feature of any learning commentators blog. I return to theme this week following a call with Don Taylor about leading a session at the Learning Technologies Summer Forum on designing good user experiences for digital learning. Something practical about good and bad practice is required. As I turned the theme over in my mind in drafting some talking points, I realised that I was essentially listing reasons not to use an LMS. Yes. This is that kind of post.

Since landing on planet L&D, I have tried to understand why nothing like the Learning Management System and its raison d’etre, the eLearning course, exist on the open web. In the roughly twenty years of evolutionary experimentation in the venture capital funded laboratories of the web there has been no meaningful sighting of an LMS-like product or service. If these tools are the best of the available solutions to the learning potential available online, then where are the public equivalents?

Similar services do exist to make courses available on the web (or course like packages of learning content). Masterclass is a really interesting example of the type – an explicit course provision product with closed, commercial access to exclsuive courses. This makes sense, I suspect, to provider and learner alike. It is the closed part that works best here. Register for an account and pay for the course. It’s a very simple, paid access LMS. The value for the payment is access to the course and experience. What is the user value for an open access LMS on the web, however? What extra benefit would I receive from use of that system? It certainly not search or browse – Google is pretty good for that. Recommendation is well handled via social media, as is discussion and commentary. Access to expertise is available and in large part is free, although I fancy this may change over the coming years. Of course, none of this is tracked but I don’t think LMS data is used by learners anyway (is it?).

At the heart of my LMS misgivings is basically that lack of user need. A service like that would attract little or no funding in a world where generating a large , loyal user base (i.e. millions) is the oxygen of investment. The value in the LMS is the for the learning provider: allocating courses to learners, managing access and tracking and reporting on completions. From a user perspective the LMS typically erects barriers to learning content. It then controls the experience of the content once accessed.

The gradual emergence of the Learning Record Store might shift movement in a more positive direction but I suspect it will be adopted by LMS operators as a means of dragging open content into the closed LMS domain. Open Badges also play a part in creating a location or system for recording and displaying learning achievement and activity in the wild – there is more hope here I feel as the education sector starts to consider these kinds of services. (I fear, though, that they have also been bacterially infected by the faddish application of another new buzz-tool: gamification).

Find things out. Get things done.

At one point of my BBC career I held the title of Director, Intranet Refresh Programme. The team I worked with were tasked with refreshing and re-presenting the entire corporate intranet (take a role like that with care is my advice). We had a working motto for the new product “It will always help users find things out and get things done”. This is the kind of utility value that good open digital learning tools should have too. They are designed to answer those needs as defined by the user and available at the moment of need with minimal or no barriers to access. An LMS is a long route round to the need of getting something done.

All of this is not to say that there is no value in the LMS. The idea of recording behaviour in a learning system is excellent. If only that data were then put to the use of the learner. This is where LinkedIn Learning Solutions could play a role as the place where open learning resources can be collected and reflected upon in a social context, gathering value in the user profile. Early days for this development, perhaps but there is something to pursue there clearly The utility for the user being the management of their profile and its value to a marketplace they chose to participate in.

None of this is intended to caim that there is not a role for the LMS in corporate learning. There are too many of them around for that argument to hold water. The value (and there is a fair amount to contend with), however, is for the orgnanisation rather than the user. That is why we, as users, don’t chose to use them.

 

 

 

Avoid The CEO Button

Stakeholders can always present problems in the design process. They have opinions. They often have clout and seniority. They rarely have real user insight, however. Treat senior stakeholders with care, the more senior they are the less they are likely to know about user context and genuine user needs.

How many of us have published content topped with a video of the CEO/VP/Director telling the audience how important what they are about to do is? I suspect that we all have. There is a reason that the advertising industry does not resort to this tactic. No one cares.

CEO Button Image
The CEO Button – to be avoided at all costs

There is an interesting O’Reilly Design Podcast featuring Tom Greever, in which I first heard the phrase The CEO Button. This is a great shorthand for those features and content in a product or project which really stink the place up and undermine relevance and utility. They arrive because the stakeholder has a view of what they want user to want. A view of what the ideal world should look like and the right turn of phrase to express it. This is the UX equivalent of Seagull Management. It is also one of the reasons why choice of colour can consume senior stakeholders, it’s an area they feel comfortable with and can express a clear opinion on.

So, how to avoid the guano?

I think this is where the design team (or learning team if that’s what you are called) need to demonstrate a clear ownership of user insight and evidence. Approach stakeholders with a clear articulation of the project, demonstrate business awareness but focus clearly on the evidence you have gathered from users. Describe the world of the user form your observations. Demonstrate your empathy (for you have plenty). Use the language of users (quote them, or film them if you can). Show the decisions you have taken and always refer to testing. Tell the story of how you arrived at your decisions, weaving the data through the tale.

Finally, tell the stakeholder that you have a roadmap to develop and their wisdom may best be reflected when the functional needs are met. They would not like their wisdom to be dragged down into the realms of mere utility would they?

As a last resort, monitor the clicks on the CEO Button or the Director video views and seek leave to remove it based on that evidence.

 

 

 

Digital Literacy – teach it or speak proper?

This is another reflection on my time at Learning Technologies 2017. Much fat was chewed and I find myself with interesting matters to reflect on again.

Today I find my mind orbiting the theme of digital literacy. This was a phrase I had not heard before in the conference (my lack of attention I suspect). Digital capability or competence has come up many times before. Most often and tiringly, as a deficiency in L&D teams. There was an echo of fragile confidence in teams, colleagues and ourselves to create solid digital experiences for learners. Adding to the anecdotal evidence, I would say that this was less of an issue this year (from my own anecdote digest). There was much concern still about the digital literacy of senior managers and of IT departments but less about ourselves. Progress of a sort.

Digital literacy is a stalwart from the lexicon of my BBC days, when we would fret over how best to raise levels and close the digital capability gaps in the UK population. With typical BBC hubris, we would assume a central position in campaigns and march out to educate the populace. In fact, I think the iPlayer has done more to raise the bar of digital confidence nd understanding than any social action campaign by the BBC. It offers a service that people understand and is designed to stick to it. A well designed product with a singular use case is alway a solid foundation to bring any doubters on board. “Watching the favourite telly shows you missed” is a good call to action and remains so.

Facebook has changed the game of digital confidence for users. At least the combination of the Faceboook mobile app and smartphone adoption have. It has been common to worry about older users and their confidence in taking digital steps. Huge numbers of the over 65s are regularly sharing and commenting now. This platform has been responsible, in part, for a couple high profile elections amongst these demographics. Again, a well designed product for a clear use. We can worry less about those further reaches of demography for our content and services if we design well. Or just use Facebook, maybe. If we speak the language of our users in the conversational spaces they gather themselves, we will seem literate to them and can become useful and interesting to them.

On the other hand ( and typing this from a position of a certain age) I find my own levels of literacy undermined by Snapchat. Like many of my anxious contemporaries, I have had a go to see what all the fuss is about. To see what the youngsters are on about and to cling to connection with my ageing kids. It went quite badly and I confess that I don’t like Snapping very much. It leaves me with furrowed brow. As an interesting twist in product design, I am being designed out of the service. Or at least it is designed with no regard for me whatsoever. It’s kind of deliberately confusing. The UI and design is consciously tricky apparently, particularly for us older folks who have grown up with certain usability conventions. Successfully confusing, I might add. These features may evolve as the business needs to demonstrate a revenue model that ad executives can be confident of. We shall see…

Besides these demographic challenges and positions, there are more serious literacy chasms to cross. The pressing digital literacy challenges are now privacy, security, safety and the small matters of truth and trust. These are real challenges to gather around and support. (Use of Facebook becomes a little more problematic on all of these fronts). How we judge veracity of information, who knows what about us and why, where does our identity reside, can we keep it safe from harm? These are the pressing literacies we need to rehearse and develop. They are hard work too. Few services are designed to make these issues transparent.

I am no clearer now than I was when I started typing. Back to literacy school for me.