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.




Let’s get beneath the shiny micro surface too

I have noticed a fair amount about micro learning this last week. I suspect it was always there but the algorithms placed it better for me. I am a fan of it (or what I think it to be). The idea of short, simple and relevant content to help me work things out and support rehearsal is what the web has always done so well.

It’s less obvious that it is still being done so well though. This excellent piece from Seth Godin brought that into clearer focus.

We can survive if we eat candy for an entire day, but if we put the greenmarkets out of business along the way, all that’s left is candy.

Candy is lovely. But only candy is unhealthy. Not only for the eater but for the production system too. The healthy alternatives are starved of income and wither. This is now a existential problem for news providers. Frothy clickbait seems to be the only model that advertising can support. It is training a generation (may generations) of information consumers to expect little to no effort in their diet. Small gobbets of low fibre information roll effortlessly across the feeds of our media world and reinforce the notion that effort and enquiry might not be required.

So, whilst I will champion the short, relevant content slice falling exactly at the point of need, I aso intend to return to the thought provoking and challenging experiences that call for attention and reward great effort. A long read is often a good read and the Godfather II repays the concentrated time spent after all those years.

My A level English lecturer always emphasised to his room of teenage students that “great art requires great effort” (most often when he was trying to encourage focus on TS Eliot). As usual, my seventeen year old perception cold not make as much of that as it now can. The point stands though. Micro learning or miro content, or whatever, is undeniably useful and probably a good tool for most requirements. But not at the expense of substance.

My A level lecturer was not crude enough to use the “must try harder” evaluation but I think it may also be a useful catchphrase to warn against the current information malaise.

Bubbles, filters, fakery and social limits

I need some help. This filter bubble idea is really eating away at me.

The promise of open and direct communication with everyone or anyone at any moment gripped me with some excitement for many years. Having worked in digital advertising and in broadcasting for large portions of my professional life, I found the revolution of personal media to be genuinely thrilling.  Finally, the ramparts of corporate communications would be breached. The imperial editors and commissioners would be dethroned. We, the blogging people, would transform the production and access of information. It would be ours. Mine. To do with as we wished.

I think, for a while, this was true. Twitter really fueled this change. Everyone had a broadcast voice. Truth was spoken to power and intermediaries were dissed. For me, Stephen Fry, reaching one million followers on Twitter was a seminal moment. Here was someone who could now reach his global audience without the need of an agent, a distributor or a schedule. An inversion of the old ways. He became storyteller, agent, publisher, producer, distributor and promoter. All from one keyboard.

Those were the good old days of Twitter. That was before the trolls infected the blood of the organism. Before the anger and bitterness broke – wave after wave. That ability to create and communicate directly also produced the ability to shout, abuse and hate directly.  Many of us may have experienced a glancing blow from this force over the years. I imagine many of us are luckier than someone like Leslie Jones, however. She dared to be female and black and in a sci-fi movie. Twitter was violently unhappy.

Meanwhile, in media and learning circles, Facebook was not taken so seriously. Few of the journalists I worked with were much bothered by it. (They were entranced by Twitter, however). Belatedly, most of us now stand in awe at the power of the business. Facebook is more than a window on the world. It is the world. The liberty from the editorial barons has been replaced by a tyranny of filter bubbles and an emerging fake news industry. The wonderful ability for the internet to connect us with like minds has become fly paper, sticking those like minds together.

The Facebook alchemy that creates the glue binding us to our bubbles is obscure. We know it reacts to likes and shares. To attention. Bringing us more of what we seem to enjoy. How it is done is hard to discern. The fraction we see of our feeds is both pleasing to us and profitable for Facebook. It is no more true of all the content created than the editors slice was of the news available in the broadcast model.

I did think that social media offered us the chance to learn directly from all. That seemed so natural to me. The poverty of deep interaction never really worried me. Most of us are pretty happy with pictures of our kids, our food and holidays. Profundity is rare for a reason. This never stopped social media from being interesting and useful though. I could and still can learn simply and quickly from an array of experts at the swipe of a screen.

A number of calls have been made to strengthen the role of the ‘curator’ in the social world. A class of folk who can verify the data and warn the unguarded against fakery, abuse and howling anger. This is a worthy aim but no better than the editorial fiefdoms of old, I fear. This is an expensive solution too – these are new roles. Educators and learning professionals see a role here – mediating, trimming and cleaning the social world of their learners. This feels like grasping hold of the past a little too tightly in search of a relevant role. It also seems very difficult to achieve. How do we qualify for these roles? How do we know best or better?

I would rather we found means of raising the social tide above the effluent line and finding new sources of value in that always-on, direct access world. This probably means educating each other, supporting constructive behaviour and sharing beyond our bubbles. (That last one is really hard to sustain). Will we be rewarded for good social citizenship?

I can’t tell now whether I am jaded or optimistic. What do you think? Is there a problem to fix or do I just need a bit of a rest?


Listening makes it personal

I am now a pretty well embedded Spotify user. As a keen music fan (with excellent taste), I probably listen to more music than I have ever done. Much of this music is new to me. Combined with the seemingly endless trove of tunes on YouTube, I am experiencing a renaissance in my music education. The digital revolution is troubling the industry but for listeners, there has never been a better time. For curious listeners there has never been a better chance to strike out in new directions  – some of them in glorious South London.

Spotify is not unique in the use of data to offer a listener a ‘better’ discovery experience. It is very good at it though and has worked hard to understand what we like in a playlist. The Daily Mix is their most recent step to keep ahead of the growing competition. This is what big data can do when clearly focused on user needs and acting in constant response to them.

As Spotify grows, it is becoming interesting to ancillary businesses (a little like Twitter was before it lost it’s commercial way). Songkick is a really smart example of this. As a ticket vendor, the business needs to recommend shows and gigs that meet members demands and tastes. In my personal experience as a subscriber to many email lists of concerts and tickets, I have tired of the poor matching and spammy recommendations. “Customers who liked this also liked that…”. Very often I am not one of the customers in that first premise. The conclusion is therefore clumsy and unhelpful. The bad matching makes it worse.

Songkick overcomes this with a simple inference. “You have listened to that band. Would like to go and see their show?”. My Spotify habits make it clear what I like. Very clear. I may have listened by accident or my playlist may have been hijacked by a family member. Even in this case, it’s a fair punt on their behalf and someone I live with may want to go.

This is a simple and obvious point, I know. It is a simple and obvious lesson (I know that too). It does seem very hard for corporate product owners to take it in though. We struggle to overcome the belief that we know best. That we have a more valuable view of what a personal experience should be and manage it accordingly. This is the stakeholder view. It is a foggy view because it is not the users view. As we struggle with creating valuable personal products and services, we need to focus on where the personal value lies. We also need to recognise at what height the benchmark of comparison is set.


Open or closed? If your content is not open it had better be valuable.

Perhaps there is something of a hippy lurking inside…I seem to have a tendency to prefer openness. I don’t mean that open is always best or that everything should always be open. That decision, as usual, would depend on many factors and an inevitable act of faith somewhere along the line. I mean that my preference is for openness. The possibilities of making the most of resources and connections are greater when circumstances around them are open. More connections, more content = greater potential. Simple, no?

On arriving in the learning world from the world of search I was a strong proponent of openness of learning content (which could be any content in many ways). The open access to knowledge seemed to take care of everything at that time. From my current vantage, I see things slightly differently. Probably.

Good learning products will add value to the content they present to learners. This may be achieved by aiding discovery, organisation, context, recommendation or re-use. It is no longer enough to assume that, in the act of producing content, my organisation (whichever it is) has made it valuable. A good commissioning test for all of our content is to see what you can find via Google on the same topic before you start. Assuming  that you can, the next question to ask is whether it is being made more valuable in any of those ways listed above. The curation argument alone is insufficient now, I think. (Unless your curation is better than Google, that is).

When content cannot be accessed without access to your product, that product experience had better be good enough to warrant the restriction.

When content cannot be accessed without access to your product, that product had better be good enough to warrant that restriction. The enduring example of the Kahn Academy is instructive here. Built on YouTube videos, in the main, there is no controlled access to the individual films. These are freely available (openly, if you must). The value of using them in the Kahn ecosystem is from various points: the context of the levels they are presented in, the signal of quality and relevance of that context, the feedback of the tutors, the scaffolding of the self-paced learning and so on…The curious among us can still view the Beauty of Algebra if we are so moved. Freely and openly, in fact.

The social age we are now creating has added a level of sophistication to this in recent years. The social value – the value of connectedness – that we can add to content is also quite freely available in a number of dramatically successful platforms. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Tumblr etc. all offer us access to expertise, peer comment and authority in a very direct way. They can add social signals of value to all of that freely available content. The bar for value of the learning content in our own products is raised even further as a result.

Why I have stepped back from a diet of total freedom is the effort it can place on the leaner to find everything and and make sense of it. That can be a demanding pressure for busy folks who are not always confident of their subject expertise. The access to that expertise on social channels is keeping my mind open though. There may still be a little bit of hippy lurking…

More on this topic after the CIPD show I suspect.





Face to face and anonymous – and sliding

On Thursday I was lucky to be invited to speak at the Chief Digital Office Forum.  Many interesting stories were told from a genuinely broad range of organisations grappling with digital transformation.Whilst, as expected, the orbit was set around best practice we passed many tales of errors, bloopers and the unexpected. It was really refreshing in that respect. In a area of endeavour which is genuinely new and proven approaches are mythical, sharing mistakes is even more instructive. Take not conference producers; these are the lessons we really want to hear about.

The conference producers chose to use to offer an app for delegates with the schedule, speaker bios and venue information. It was also used to mange audience interaction during the sessions, its principle purpose. The polling function was sued a little but the interesting application was the Q&A function. I’m sure this is nothing new to many of you but it struck me in few ways that I had not really considered before.

One of the great benefits was to the introverted amongst us. We could type in a question as it formed in our minds whilst listening to a talk. No need to raise your hand in the auditorium, wait for the microphone, check it is on and then offer your query. The option to question speakers anonymously further emboldened attendees. It also encouraged more controversial questions than we might have heard I suspect. Whilst hard to judge, I think there were more questions overall as well. A better return on our investment for attendees and speaker alike.

A record of questions is automatically gathered in the app which could be valuable to speakers and producers in researching and honing events.

There were some odd results as well though. The experience of reading the questions from the screen and trying to answer them felt somewhat remote to me, as a speaker. Like a live performance webinar, inferring and interpreting the meaning of a question from text rather than from the tone and inflection of the enquirer. Very few of us write as we speak. (Some of use write with greater purpose and consideration, I know. Some don’t, however, and meaning was missed somewhere).

As an audience member the dynamic of the Q&A sessions was different too. It felt like more watching and slightly less like taking part or being part of the crowd.

The value of an event is the presence of us all in the room together. Introducing the digital component in this way may not have made the most of that. Flipping the classroom (or the speech) is a powerful idea and care needs to be taken to retain the value of face to face dialogue in the room.

I do like and hope to continue to see it and use it. It made me think though about what we might miss when we draw more effort towards the supercomputer in our hand.