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 The liberty from the editorial barons has been replaced by a tyranny of filter bubbles and an emerging fake news industry.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?


This product must be installed by a competent person

It is Sunday afternoon and I have just laid fragile claim to some masculine territory. It is a minor triumph by any standards and no triumph at all by many. However, as an office worker, who has been a keyboard warrior since work began, I will take my emotional sustenance as I can. My achievement was fitting one of these and one of these all on my own. I celebrate because I am anxious of electricity. I don’t really understand how it works but I do know it is dangerous and invisible.

I read the minute instruction leaflet that came with the equipment. It was clear that “the product must be fitted by a competent person”. Was that me? Am I competent? An important choice to make here. I read ahead to see what step I needed to be competent in. Some wire cord cutting, shaving of plastic, joining of wires to fittings and putting it back together. All of this was to be preceded by TURNING EVERYTHING OFF FIRST. If I could, I think I would have disabled the entire electricity supply of my postcode. You can’t be too safe.

I judged that I could be competent at this task.

I satisfied myself with switching off the lighting circuit upstairs and wearing rubber soled slippers. As I proceeded, I realised that there was only really one way of fulfilling my task. There were probably a few options to complete it more or less well. But, to get it working, one set of steps would cover it. Quite a well designed product then.

One thing I did not do, which I would normally, was checking the advice of a surrogate dad on YouTube. You know the fellow: impressive tool belt and a great deal of kit at his disposal. A sign of confidence in my competence. No father figure needed for me.

It all passed off well and the new light fitting is working well. My son can see his work space clearly again (another excuse removed). Thousands of light fittings are out there fitted by the self diagnosing competent electrician I reckon.

If I were at work I suspect some form of diagnostic would be in play. Some questions about my understanding of electricity and electrical equipment. A quiz on my knowledge of tools and their appropriate modes of use. A risk assessment, for sure (insurance policies are exacting). Ideally, some way of having a go in a safe space.  A record of my achievement of sufficient mastery would be needed. What would have slowed the whole thing down and raised the expense is the involvement of a third party in judging my competence. Most tasks in most work can be done by most people with sensible support and some trust to figure it out (with a surrogate parent at hand – often called a friend or colleague).

I now have my eye on the light fittings downstairs. My competence is growing.




A learning bubble?

A quick thought…

A few weeks ago, I posted about the head office bubble. A place where central office functionaries talk to each other about people in their organisation without talking to them.

Returning form holiday and catching up with a few folks, I think there is an L&D bubble. This is a place where L&D folks congregate and talk to each other about learners and learning without talking to learners. Or, we talk about learning rather than about doing. We are preoccupied with designing and delivering learning – it’s in the job title.

I am uncertain that these learners exist. There are plenty of people trying to get things done, find things out, figure things out, get better at things, understand new things. There are plenty of problems to solve and plenty of scope to help people solve them. (There is also plenty of scope to get out of their way and let them solve them on their own). I don’t think people think of this as learning though. I think that’s what we call it in the bubble.

They aren’t trying to learn they are tying to get things done. The learning is by the by.

Outside of the bubble people have networks, not personal learning networks. They have information sources not learning sources. They have contacts and people who help. They don’t have subject matter experts. They research subjects and gather useful information. They don’t embark on learning journeys. And they never use an LMS unless they have to. They don’t know what an LMS is. When we use the ‘L’ word we create the bubble.

What do you think? Is there a bubble? Or is this just post-holiday blues?

Whose training record is it anyway?

Some time ago, a friend and colleague suggested this topic. I agreed and then time overtook me and I missed the moment. A conversation yesterday jogged my memory and the theme rose again. So, thank you Karen Moran, if you still have the patience to stick with me, for what was a good idea.

The theme is disruption. (I know. I know. It always is. Sometimes it is hard to get away from it). To be a little more helpful, the disruption of the recording of training and education. The higher education world is struggling to respond to the idea that a three year degree is weak signal of the value and capability of a candidate or employee – add the £27,000 fees to that and the pressure for higher education to pay off is aggressive. Breaking degrees down to smaller and more descriptive qualifications that match economic needs is a valid response. Smaller credit bearing learning ‘moments’ would be easier to participate in, beyond higher education, too. Separating the learning from the credentialing will help this. Smaller, cheaper courses with employment requirements designed in will become more common: “we should put learning from all sources on equal footing and assess it through an independent approach”

There is a clear logic and trend towards this outcome. But, where does that record of education reside? With the issuers of the credentials? Yes. A centrally recorded, managed and verified repository seems like a necessity to help deal with false claims and mendacity (the CV will never overcome it alone). But this is not enough. I want my own record too, one where I can add context and experience that does not carry a credential. I want to show projects I worked on, teams I was in, technology I know about, documents I have written. I want this to carry the context of my working network too. It needs to be public, at least to have the potential to be public. (Maybe even blogs could be included?) LinkedIn are moving into this territory, to claim the place as the professional profile of record for the global workforce. The purchase of Lynda.com may help cement that case. I’m sure Microsoft will be pleased to support as well.

The world of Training and corporate L&D needs to respond more thoughtfully. asAs workers are increasingly mobile and decreasingly company-loyal, a fragmented series of learning record  scattered across LMS systems of the past becomes more impediment than irritation. The increasingly freelance workforce needs a solution as well. Companies will want to retain their training records but need to set them free for workers to apply them outside of the corporate boundary. The Experience API deserves applause for enabling the addition of learning context from other experiences beyond the LMS (webinars, workshops, books, blogs, conferences can paint a much more subtle and useful picture of a person). So far, the application of the learning record store has been corporate or institutional (please do let me know where I am wrong – a meaningfully open LRS feels like an important development to share). So, an LMS morphs to include, or become, an LRS. There is still a personal angle missing. Is it truly my record?

Is there a real opportunity here? Are we ready for personal professional profiles that carry accredited learning evidence? I think we are. The momentum behind Open Badges seems to support it. Smaller credentials accumulated as we work and learn feels like a good answer or will LinkedIn just swallow it all up?


Bundles of training or unbundles of learning

Having started, I think this theme will require more than one post. This should be read as an introduction to the theme. Or maybe a ramble through its foothills.

A little self diagnosis to start. When an idea finds me, or a way of explaining things, I tend to see it everywhere. I am not a practising scientist and there is a real risk that I am suffering from confirmation bias. (If so, I am not alone, I believe). Having shared that reservation, I will do what the all aspiring theorists do and proceed regardless. The theory upon which I currently travel is that of unbundling and the opportunities and value that it seems to present for so many traditional activities and areas of commerce.

What I mean by unbundling, or I think I mean, is the breaking of what seemed to be inextricable bonds and connections in a product or service, allowing a consumer or user to only use the element they wish to. So, rather than buying a whole package of stuff, we are able to only buy or use the parts we want.

An oft quoted example of this is the music industry which rose and rose on the bundle of music tracks called the album, consisting of a series of individual songs which could only be purchased with the each other in a bundle (remember that kids?). That bundle of songs was decided on by the music companies, funded by music labels, produced through advance payments (in the main) and marketed by the companies too. A complex and expensive distribution chain, inextricably linked to the format of consumption (the record or tape) kept a check on the supply of recorded music. Music companies decided what was good, what was to be supported and what was to be produced (that explains the 1980s). The artist took most of the risk. Along comes the internet and the famous Napster moment and the bundle bubble is burst. Immediately, access to only the song we wanted was granted. The album was dealt a extinction level blow.

Technology helps of course: broadband, the MP3 format,  smartphones and WiFi all hastened and shaped the intervening years. Reliable streaming, for example, has made subscription to music services viable and the idea of buying music unit by unit feels old fashioned quite quickly. The music industry is now reorganising (or panicking afresh) around access to recorded music rather than ownership of bundles of it. There are some pretty substantial economic consequences unfolding too. Users of YouTube will recognise the revelation of being able to listen to almost anything you can think of for free. (Except for Prince, who really did take control of his catalogue with the zeal of someone who has seen his neighbours inviting burglars for a sleepover).

Many fields of economic activity are reeling form the impact, or threat, of unbundling. The clearest examples though are what are now known as content businesses; broadcasters are struggling with the irrelevance of TV channels, publishers are struggling with new formats (encyclopaedia anyone?), newspapers struggle with a readership interested in stories not the branded bundles they are wrapped in and, of course, higher education is starting to belatedly awake to the world around it.

This is my theme (at last I hear you cry, if indeed you have read this far). I have been spending professional time in and around the world of higher education in the last month or so. From my previous distance I could not detect the winds of change starting to blow so easily. Different international territories are feeling the draught in different places but there are themes whistling around everywhere. At the centre of all of this is the economic value of a degree and its use a predictor of employment opportunity and effectiveness.

Students are asking “will this degree get me the job or the work I want/need?”. Employers are asking “does this degree offer me a clear signal of value of this candidate as an employee (or supplier of work of some sort)?”. (Students are also, increasingly, asking whether they might be better off going straight to the employment market and perhaps, studying at another point or in another way – £9,000 a year is taking its toll).  Part of the answer to these questions is that the whole degree as a bundle may not be as helpful as once thought but parts of it might be. The higher education experience as a whole three or so year on-campus bundle may not work that well any more. The world it was designed to serve is changing around it fundamentally. There is some great stuff in that bundle but maybe not all in one package. Maybe not all in one go. Maybe not even from one supplying institution. “Pick and mix” degree anyone?

Ryan Craig explains this very well in this article and for those who really like this stuff, in this presentation. The idea of a competence model for education is powerful and really will disrupt the market. Employment-ready graduates are what everyone is after, not least graduates themselves and the current system and its bundles is becoming expensively unhelpful in reaching that destination. As a parent of children with higher education on the horizon, I would like to see some more of this kind of thinking come to life.

MOOC providers are one signal of this kind of disruption, offering access to university faculty and teaching directly and often for free. Perhaps not quite a Napster moment but things are afoot. Interestingly, many MOOC platforms are being used for corporate learning purposes. This strikes me as interesting amongst the trends of the L&D world. MOOCs are pretty clearly formal in their endeavours, constructed as linear and with reasonable clear outcomes given and always instructor lead.  One reading of current L&D tea leaves is that formal is less desired and we should be liberated by social tools, curation and our won content. Not very MOOCy, maybe?

What these platforms can do though is solve a design and platform problem for corporates. The best are well designed services with learner needs at heart. They offer direct access to some of the brightest minds and a cohort of like minded students who have also opted in to the course. They can offer social learning in various fashions and in some cases CPD and academic credit. On face value (and further) that beats many corporate eLearning providers on each score.

Hmm. Might these platforms be a good solution to the need for bundles in corporate learning worlds? There is something in there, I think. Nothing in the technology needs a  MOOC to be open, massive or academic. They could be quite specific and modest in scale –  a bundle of the right size maybe?

Alternatively, openness itself could be interesting for corporates to consider. As the work-life line is blurred, learning a professional subject, Big Data perhaps, alongside an international cohort of like minded learners could be very valuable. The ability to share and learn with students from other businesses, geographies and cultures will offer insights into the topic that an internal training course will not support.

More on Training (with the upper case T) as a bundle that can be helpfully undone in a future post.


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.





Predictability needs to be cool

I don’t think I have met anyone who wants to be predictable. All of us nurse hopes that we are special, different or, at least, noteworthy. Some of us are convinced that we are unique and our daring originality should be constantly celebrated. None of us, though, want to be ordinary. Neither do we want our work to be exactly what was expected. We are human after all and these ambitions are the energy of progress and imagination.

This energy causes problems, however, when it comes to digital products and the content that fills them. Digital products, like the stock market, are at their best when they are predictable. When they do what we expect them to do (repeatedly) and respond to our commands in expected ways (repeatedly) we are happy with them. When they are capricious and require attention to operate, we are frustrated and anger swiftly. I don’t believe I am the only person who has tossed my phone aside, vexed beyond repair at a poorly designed tool or app.

It is possible that we try too hard or in the wrong ways in our attempts to engage our users. Engaging experiences are the promised land of our digital world and we rightly try and offer them. I wonder that we are trying to engage at the wrong points. I am not sure that product design should be engaging. It should just be usable. Cunning design is less welcomed than simple design. Anything that requires though to be used is not working well.

In learning services, I have a hunch that problems arise when instructional design and product design bleed together.The convention of simplicity can be lost and users are left to figure things out for themselves. The content controls confuse the experience and then spoil the content itself. Or worse, tricks are introduced to draw the attention of the user beyond their interest in the topic or its treatment. The desire to engage can lay waste to the predictability of the tool and users are lost.

Standards are a great aid to predictability. Standards are not boring or old fashioned. They free the audience to enjoy the service on offer. Mental energy can be focused on the activity itself not on the journey to it. Thus, templates are our friends. Templates for courses, for content pages, for content itself and for the actions users are expected to take. They aid predictability for users and reduce design energy spend on utility. Standards and templates are our friends and we must love and respect them accordingly.

Books are quite predictable experiences and very reliable. They are standard content discovery and consumption devices. They are also as varied as the imagination that fills them. The stories in books can be wildly unpredictable but the books themselves are wonderfully easy to use.

Maybe our digital design needs to be more authorial? Focused more on the stories and less on the tools. There are many examples of great digital tools where the utility has been solved for us already, leaving us free to try and tell a  good tale.