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.

Design for users not for learners

This thought has been rattling around my mind for some time now. Possibly for years, in fact. It was nudged to the front by a recent debate about the merit of user needs analysis versus learning needs analysis. The LNA acronym is a foundational feature of the L&D world. It is a given. Thus, not having one feels like a high stakes risk.

To be clear, the debate I was part of did not consist of any denial of an LNA. The conversation turned around how helpful one is without broader understanding of user needs. To be even clearer, the context of discussion was the best route to researching a digital learning experience. Knowing what folks need or want to learn is crucial – universal agreement in that one. Also a universally emerging realisation hung in the air that is is not enough.

LNA is necessary but not sufficient. I think this was our conclusion. We need to know what the learning needs are but more than that, we need to know why. What does the learner need the learning for? Learning itself is rarely the goal. It is a route to another destination. Often a requisite route but not the whole deal. Think of the ocean of ‘How to..’ videos on YouTube. They are not there for the sake of learning. They help us get stuff done.

This is where a solid and proper user experience analysis offers a stronger foundation. UX, properly considered, will discover, analyse and define the entire experience that satisfies a user need. Hopefully, only one need. Or, one at a time. Moments of learning and knowledge acquisition will be in there, amongst other elements. Things like, discovery (with it’s own foundation, search), reading, watching, listening, communicating, writing, producing, clicking, swiping, sharing, commenting, saving, to name a few, are also likely to be critical to a helpful experience. These may or may not be learning moments but the learning will not happen without them. The learning will not happen without a well designed and focused whole experience – a problem solved or a need met.

Knowing how these tools and behaviours fit together will start to shape a good UX outcome. What the content is and how it can be used is likely to shape a good learning outcome within that. I think (still thinking see) that learning design (and learning designers) needs to extend its reach and start to take UX design into account. This is what is fashionably called design thinking these days. As with any good fashion, this discipline or method or way of thinking has been around for 20 years or so by now. Only more recently has it been packaged to seem like a trend. I am too old to be fashionable but old enough to recognise the value of this method throughout my (digital) working life.

Learning on the web – Can it be as simple as that?

I was reminded of one of my early exchanges of views on arrival in the BBC this week. I was curious about the deliberation of the commissioning process and about the edifice that was being created under the learning banner. Coming, as I had, from the rapid fire and restless world of search, this all seemed like a lot of trouble and effort. Having “had my ass handed to me” (as my indelicate US colleagues would say) by Google for seven years, left an impression. An impression of simplicity, function over form, relevance and speed.

There isn’t much, if anything. you can’t learn from a combination of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube.

My recollection is of saying something like “there isn’t much, if anything, you can’t learn from a combination of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube”. I had not been around for long and was struck by how quiet the room had become. In my prior life (as in my current one) this would have been heard as another remark along the lines of “Is there nothing that Google can’t win at?”. That was not the thrust of my point. I was trying to open the idea that an edifice for learning was already there. The curation problem had been solved (in the late 1990s). The content production system was built. Why all the effort to replicate this within the corporation. Not just that corporation, but any corporation.

I remembered this exchange on Thursday over lunch and then later over tea (yes, I took tea and will do so again). Both conversations were about the corporate learning world being trapped in a mode of planning and production. A world that focuses on creating and recreating infrastructure that is better made in the open to publish content that is already there, in the open. And to publish it into a Portal – a digital product format that lost currency around the turn of the century.

I know that security is a major concern for many. Not all sectors are liberal enough to exploit these, now historic, changes. Not everyone is allowed YouTube at work. That will change and we need to help make it change. The temptation to hide behind policy is powerful – it is warm and dry there. I doubt for too long, though. The revolutionary change in learner behaviour came from the outside and the change in providers to corporates will come form the outside too. I suspect new customers with different budgets will open the doors for them. 



The LMS market – bigger and better or just bigger?

In a bid to keep pace with developments, I have been reading a few research reports and papers on various themes of the eLearning industry. The visit to Learning Technologies is still running through my mind as I continue an attempt to complete my mental sketch of the status of the market. It is clear that the industry is growing – getting bigger. Bigger trade shows, bigger stands, more exhibitors. The existing players are consolidating and that acquisition activity indicates a confidence from sources of funding. The current industry is growing. I wonder though, that it is an existing shape getting larger rather than changing shape or developing in new ways?

As providers grow, they are adding features and functions to their systems but are the customers (to say nothing of learners) doing new work with them?

Maybe.  A bit.

One of my self-study texts has been the Saffron Interactive report by Edward White, “The LMS: Are we experiencing a sea-change?”  (To read the whole report, I think you need to get in touch with Saffron and request the PDF). It is the fruit of an extensive survey it aims to dig beneath the headline growth of the LMS market from $2.65bn in 2013 to (a forecast) $7.8bn in 2017 (hence the acquisition funding). Whatever the definition of an LMS in those figures, there are a lot more of them and they are a lot bigger. So, all good then?

Not so. The survey asked that nagging satisfaction question about recommendation: “How likely are you to recommend your LMS to a friend?”*  It seems that only 15% answered positively, 57% said they were unlikely to. Yes. That’s right. An industry sector growing by almost 200% in four years (really?) has a satisfied customer base of 15%. As the youngsters say, “what’s up with that?”

Whether there is a sea change on the horizon or not, the providers need to find one. Edward points to user expectations now being set by social media tools and content discovery experiences.  This is an area in which all corporate technologies suffer by comparison with personal tools. There is also an anxiety about the adaptability of these platforms to future needs. This is where the industry growth looks really interesting. Existing services are selling more but, according my highly unscientific scanning of the exhibition floor and other news, the start-up and new entrant scene is still quite modest.

There was no start up zone or innovations space at the Learning Technologies exhibition. That may be a flaw of the organisers or an indication of an immature market. Either way, that looks like it could and should change. There are plenty of dissatisfied customers out there and there seems to be investment funding around too. Smart new players picking off areas of poor performance in incumbent businesses at lower cost and higher quality should be queueing up very soon if they are not already.  That is the familiar pattern of industry evolution in the digital sphere.

Now, where is that drawing board…


* In my world, this would be a most unusual question to ask a friend but I think we get the point.

The Bunker (Another brief thought from Learning Technologies 2016)

Last week, I posted about Slack and the possibilities it offers for learning to be brought into the flow of work via one of the most useful tools of work. To be clear, this was not about Slack as learning system but as a work tool that, naturally, supports the ways we learn as we work. Learning in the work rather than learning at the place, or during the time, of work.

I also mentioned last week that Learning Technologies had a familiar ring to it for me. This familiarity was born, I think, from the training industry interpretation of what “learning technology” means. It seems to refer to the set of technologies that manage the administration, production and tracking (not measurement) of training and development activity. At its most reductive, it is the set of technologies that Learning and Development (training) departments purchase. (This is not the same list of exhibitors that would have been at a “Technologies That People Use to Learn” event).

That purchaser point of view prevails and tends to dominate what is seen as valuable. ROI is calibrated against the usage of these systems and the completion of the things in them. It often reduces to efficiency scores as a result, cost per x unit of completion. The more the systems can manage for the customer, the better that efficiency score will look. So the training/L&D provider has an incentive to use one (or as few systems as possible) to deliver their offer. Couple this with the apparent simplicity of dealing with as few suppliers as possible, or at least, with suppliers that integrate and the impetus to use a single mechanism becomes very powerful. Personally, I think we need to be very wary of the one stop shop that offers all the tools we needs. This is where the LMS purveyors are placing themselves and I believe it is an error. It makes business sense to offer customers the broadest range of ‘solutions’ but the customer logic and the user logic do not meet as elegantly as the brochures suggest. There should be more than one to avoid being lock into the provider view.

If we want to learn in the work we will struggle to achieve that via these monolithic systems and the ecosystem orbiting them. They are learning (training) systems, rarely the tools of work. Bear with me while I explore a modest metaphor…These systems are like bunkers in a landscape, or an Anderson shelter in a garden, designed to solve a problem of the past but with deep foundations, so expensive and messy to remove. We can chose to develop the bunker and offer a more well appointed one. We can decorate it with portals and deal with the damp and darker corners. Whatever we do, we are unlikely to create a chosen destination or a place people want to spend time. All the decor in the world cannot deal with the isolation, the quiet and the dark. It is a lonely place. Most of the bunkers are well guarded too and removing what valuable trinkets we find in them is more work than most of us are prepared to undertake. Bunkers are designed for those who make and buy bunkers not for garden dwellers.

There are many other experiences out there in that landscape though, beyond the bunkers. With care and attention we can craft an environment of social spaces, interesting sites and zones, play areas and places to relax and ponder. A more welcoming product of curious husbandry and constant tending for any visitors to spend time with. There will probably be a bunker in there too somewhere, but with careful landscaping it may not look so bad.



What no Slack? A (brief) thought from Learning Technologies 2016

As many thousands of us are, I am pondering what I made of Learning Technologies 2016. Aside from the fact that it was great to meet some excellent people and have some great conversations, I was struck by two things: size and familiarity. The exhibition was bigger yet again than the previous year. The stands seemed grander and the sheen was brighter. It was also, perhaps, quite familiar. There was a lot of formal learning on show – management systems, a bewildering array of formats to populate them and tools to empower their users with social, analytics and engagement (that was the word of the show for me). 70:20:10 was everywhere too, and somehow, integrated in those systems.

I thought I could discern a difference in the pitch of these offers from learning in the work place and learning in the work. The mechanisms and tools outlined above are for the workplace. They are for me as a working learner (if there is a difference from any other kind of learner). Perhaps for learning in work time if mobile. They are learning tools and are at a distance from the activity of work. It may well be that my scanning of the show was too superficial and I missed the offers that help me to learn with my work. In my work tools.

One of the most interesting discussions, in a corridor of course, I was part of was around the idea of creating learning content for distribution. So, rather then herding learners to a portal (boy, I dislike that word) or perhaps, in addition to that, we should produce content for placement and pulling into work tools. This is closer to the way news publishers are approaching social tools, writing stories for the ecosystem of social finding and consuming as well as for the news destination. News consumers spend more time in social products than anywhere else and anticipate finding relevant stories there. So, publishers are targeting those spaces with appropriate content.

The communication and collaboration tool Slack looks like it could develop in this direction, if it hasn’t already. I think it is a really interesting indication of how things may start to change for team members. It is a simple tool, with elegant UI and built around messaging (everyone’s favourite communication mode). It also supports sharing of content and material simply and quickly – images, video, audio etc. – and naturally offers the ability to comment and discuss. Users can easily invite each other to groups and channels and to private or invitation only IM chat groups. It is an obvious place to inject learning comments and content amongst the content of the work at hand. This gives it a huge relevance advantage. It’s inherently social too as we are all becoming.

It is not a silver bullet but…it’s free to use, unless you want the analytics and integration power of the commercial product. Free to try anyway. Worth a try too.

Learning, training, control and choice.

[Warning, this post is something of a stream].

“Control is to training as choice is to learning”.

This is a fair summary of how I saw the world of L&D on first entry about five or six years ago. Granted, this is an enormously simplified characterisation and I have variously agreed and disagreed with it over those years as I have learned more. Control and choice both have their place. Nevertheless I find myself agreeing with the sentiment more these days. Much of my time is spent at present redefining and representing digital content and services for people to use when learning. This activity is all focused on solving user problems and providing a user service. This is very different from conversations about training systems where process and integration loom large. (Calling them learning systems does not really change the point).

I will return to this theme again as it is a constant preoccupation. I find I am continually turning over the idea that learning mixed with technology is more successful than training mixed with technology. Training is not wrong or poor. But there are better ways. I will rehearse some ideas below. I think thus and in no particular order:

  • All the best digital products are at the command of their user (individual user), rather than a stakeholder
  • Well designed digital tools are managed to constantly develop to satisfy their users’ needs, their design is not finished
  • This last point is not true of training systems
  • As user needs change, a learning product will change to meet those new choices
  • This is not true of training systems
  • An LMS is a training system, not a learning system. It only really deals with one content format – the course.
  • An LMS is designed for assigning activity to a user – it is not designed for user choice.
  • A learner is trying to either find something out or get something done and exploring how to do that, this not always true of training courses.
  • Good digital learning tools allow users to work though a framework in their own manner (e.g. GCSE Bitesize curriculum revision content) – they are designed around user choice.
    • Lack of control does not mean lack of order or framework, this is important, if not vital, to learner success
  • There is nothing on the open web like an LMS – there seems to be little appetite to use them by choice.
  • Similarly, there is nothing on the open web like an “eLearning course” – there seems to be little appetite to use them by choice
  • There are myriad learning products available all over the digital landscape – we routinely chose them although they are not provided by learning organisations
    • (I am thinking of, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Worpdpress, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, iTunes, Evernote…I will not go on with this list).
  • As a point of principle, assigning something to someone means that the assingee is not a user – they are a recipient, or perhaps an operator.
  • A training system or tool is likely to be designed around the needs of stakeholders and corporate buyer needs – these needs may, or may not, be the same as the user
  • A (good) learning tool is designed only for a user
  • A good learning tool offers the learner (user) control and use of the data created in the product – it is the users’ data
  • This is particularly true of social products and services where individual identity, communication and collaboration create the value of the service
  • A good digital tool does not expose process to the user – nobody elects to run a process (someone else’s process even less so)

To repeat my caveat, control is neither bad or unwelcome. Sometimes it is necessary. It is overused and has become inherent to training systems, however. Choice is likely to be better at any time and learner behaviour is rapidly changing to expect choice to be primary.