Overcoming Generation Differences When Building Learning: Part 2

When we last visited this topic about a week back I promised to create a visual—a chart of sorts—to encourage learning and instructional designers to consider how generational bias in training delivery. Just looking to start a conversation.

A Quick Review
You might want to pop back to the original article: http://tiny.cc/qpsrax

We know we’re engaging three distinct groups in today’s workplace, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y (Millenials). Each has specific preferences for general communication and they carry over in training as well. Whether creating a training program when all three groups are in the room or accessing courses online demands the learning designer incorporate specific ways of delivering information with the appropriate assets, techniques, and technologies. Initially, we would hope learners, right from the first word or screen, slide or handout, would buy-in and see value; a predisposition that his will be a good experience. During the training, we build formative experiences to keep all groups interested and motivated to continue, committed that the investment in time is worthwhile. Finally we would want participants to exit the training experience appreciating it was translatable into their work life. If this is accomplished, the next training experience will be viewed much more favorably and meet with less resistance.

Acknowledging their generational age, and considering their technological age (how savvy are they to tech) as well as comfort with social media, influences how they will respond to courseware. Though there are three distinct groups, many learners exhibit the preferences for learning outside the generational ‘norm’. These people are to be commended for either learning new technology, appreciating other ways of ‘seeing’ learning or just curious enough to drop a toe in the fast flowing stream of change. We need to depend on these folks to help convert those who tend to be inflexible.

Caveats abound:

  • This is not a fully scientific approach nor based on academic, androgogical research
  • It is the product of crowdsourcing, anecdotal research and discussion with hundreds of learning/instructional designers and clients not to mention intuition
  • My professional experience over thousands of hours of course building across more than twenty verticals and five geos and over 25 years of design have informed these findings, too

I am fully prepared to hear from all quarters. It’s a living document—a work in progress— so send your ideas to rshadrin@wonderfulbrain.com. I’m hoping criticism will help improve this instrument not merely tell me where to get off or how narrow-minded, oblique or stupid this exercise is.

Anyway, someone had to put a stake in the ground. Apparently me. I hope it doesn’t end up in my heart.

Ultimately, the learning designer has to make everyone happy if information transfer is to take place. Elements that ‘favor’ one group more than another will always be necessary. If knowledge, skills and behaviors are to be transmitted, absorbed and used than instructional design should seek balance. Occasionally this compromise is not appreciated nor well tolerated across the generations. Nevertheless, it is absolutely necessary to honor each aspect of the generation’s learning preferences and mitigate those that irritate others. Skillful designers know how to navigate these choppy waters and subtle mixtures of learning preferences can always be developed. Can the design ever be perfect. Well, no. But reasonable learners in all generations can recognize when attempts are made to entice them into a learning experience. And the organization expects each generation, besides tolerance, adapt as necessary to improve performance and solve problems through learning and training experiences.

GenCon

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THE ACCIDENTAL LEARNER

There seems to be a revival of interest about informal learning. I suppose the definitions range from information gleaned from informal sources—everything from Wikipedia to People Magazine to storytelling, to disruptive media like tablets and smartphones. Some suggest it’s content discovered while looking for something else. Kind of like an accidental scavenger, a web surfer. No matter how the information is presented, gathered or used it appears the single best notion is that it was unintentional and/or secondary to the main thrust of what is or was to be learned.

Let me suggest we might think of informal learning as ‘Ad Hoc.’ This is not to say passive though it could be serendipitous – just because you ‘come across’ something worth spending time with doesn’t mean it won’t support formal content. If learning is as brain scientists tell us, empowered by the relationships of ideas, the gymnastics of making connections provides meaning and quite often enrichment; then hurrah for informal learning.

Here’s an example of, at least for me, the best kind of informal learning. My wife and I recently saw Woody Allen’s terrific film, “Midnight in Paris.” Aside from the story and plotline, the director paints the cityscape with a loving hand and inhabits it with characters from the Parisian heyday of the early to mid nineteen twenties. We get to meet Picasso and Dali, Gertrude Stein, the Fitzgeralds and Ernest Hemingway among others. And they are brought to life with dialogue they might have, and in some cases actually spoke. This is particularly true of actor Corey Stoll’s portrayal of Hemingway. Spurred on by his characterization I decided to read ‘A Moveable Feast’ the author’s description of his life in Paris as a young and struggling writer. Then too, the soundtrack with familiar tunes in some cases—and quite arguably—performed as in the case of Cole Porter just as he might at an evening soiree, that made the movie even more potent. So I purchased the soundtrack as well.

Let’s add up the ‘learning’ from a movie I intended to watch for entertainment only.

  1. A study of Parisian architecture from photographic angles and perspectives not seen in guidebooks, documentaries or even after a couple of visits.
  2. Information about art and artists, music and musicians, writers and their works.
  3. How the relationships all of these young and vibrant talents thrown together, that made what Stein coined the ‘lost generation’ such a roiling pot of creativity.
  4. Finally, the effect of this environment and people on the protagonist with whom we as an audience bond transported in a personal way.

Anyway, we went to see a movie for pleasure. However, I was encouraged to study the writing and music of the time and received enrichment and delight.

Is this informal learning? In a sense yes because the information I sought afterward was assembled organically and from curiosity. So is that a bad thing? Is the learning less important or salient? No, if you want to learn what you want to learn. When there is great enjoyment, the endorphins kick in and there is potential for exponential personal growth. Everything will have meaning to the learner.

Tablets and smartphones have made made information more readily available; time and space mean even less. If you’re intrigued about a topic then follow a thread until you are sated by a sense of completion or as has been known to happen, sensory overload.

Once we formalize the process of learning and form expectations, objectives, outcomes, KPIs, and other performance measures two things happen. The core information is delivered in a linear and focused way so it can be measured and the the opportunity to ‘drift,’ that is find casual connections is diminished. One might be told to look elsewhere for examples and so on, but nonetheless it’s scripted. There’s no denying we have to learn things we might not find particularly entertaining or mind expanding. There’s no adrenaline rush from studying topics of minimal interest even when they have career importance and possibly tied to an extrinsic reward. Nevertheless it must be done. Even if there is useful information on the periphery learners are not encouraged to seek it out.

In the field of education, one of the latest trends is that of open courses, called MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses). Such courses are based on the theory of connectivism and on a network where a lot of  people are doing independent but interrelated work. It’s collaboration on a global scale. Generally, everyone is working to assemble knowledge and learn about a particular topic but individuals are free to come at it from any angle. In this way, the subject is examined from multiples of different approaches. The content is infused and enriched. I wonder if MOOCs are the beginning of a hybrid of formal and informal learning.

Could this be a model for schools?
In most secondary schools, separate classes and courses compartmentalize instruction. Students have no one place to put their learning’s together to make a cogent whole. The relationship of one course’s content to another’s goes unexplored—there is neither opportunity nor invitation for reflection. Instead of individual courses we might allow for the type of learning…based on discovery… that will resonate with students, inform them factually and humanistically. Just like “Midnight in Paris,” was a nucleus from which students set off on explorations of culture, history, literature, art, and architecture, each strand could then be explored in depth, individually. In fact, what made Paris the center of creativity in the twenties was in some part the result of the First World War, so there’s another even more potent theme just waiting to be revealed. Of course, this mean school needs to be reinvented and there really is no interest in a meaningful reconstitution of education. But let’s not get into that.

The Corporate Venue
This might be tougher, especially if the topic is narrow, technical, and the skills learned must be applied in a direct and rigid way. In addition, this is often necessary. Learning to run an application, program a website, or design a manufacturing process to take costs from production offers few opportunities for exploration of happenstance. And yet, ask anyone who programs in code how they get into a zone and become fabulously productive for a given and fixed period of time. What sets this the ball in motion? Creativity is spurred on, we know, when there is a deep emotional response or a rich intellectual insight within the grasp of an individual. Could it be the distillation of informal and passive explorations can provide this jump-start? Moreover, if so, how will corporate educators adjust for that kind of opportunity, the kind that seeks to spur on creativity on a wholesale basis? I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn the greatest creators in the past few decades have emerged not from formalized training programs in education settings but rather from the fringes of experience earned by ‘messing around’ with ‘stuff’ that captivated and later drove them to explore more formally ways to capitalize on their ideas.

And so…
I’m afraid I’ve raised more questions than provided answers. I suppose that keeps in the spirit of informal learning though. We do know that both formal and informal education is important and each has utility. If I pose any argument it’s that in our rush to inject learners with information we leave out experiences that will not only make the learning more colorful and retentive but we perpetuate the perception that there are two kinds of learning; formal for school and work and informal for pleasure and personal growth. And that’s just unfortunate.

Getting Close to the Ground

Notwithstanding the imperatives of cultural expectations, by the time a kids are in high school their trajectory has much been dialed in: College, training of some sort, the military, or work. There are subsets of each; the junior college to build a reputable GPA to get into a four-year school or a career that demands certification of some sort, vocational training institutes for technical knowledge and skills for local employment, or military service born of patriotism, money for college or, particularly in this economy, a lack of options.

So there’s been this pecking order going on for more than sixty or more years. College for the boardroom, classroom, higher academic pursuits like law and medicine; technicians who draw blood, troubleshoot computers and provide public service from police to municipal workers of all types, and tradespeople who through a ‘connection’ can apprentice through a union sponsored program or intern with a generous business owner.

But what about ‘those’ kids barely who after barely graduating from high school, are now sitting home or hanging with friends playing video games, no job in sight, and no skills for sale. Moreover, as time progresses whatever skills they might have had are aging out. They fell through the cracks these kids, no idea how extricate themselves from the bottom and every day less and less self respect. You’ve seen them; the single mother, the nineteen to twenty five year old whose vision of the future just doesn’t exist, out on probation, the chronically unemployed whose craft is gone forever when the hammer and vise was replaced by the keyboard, the iPad and cheap overseas labor. These are the ‘losers’; with no jobs they hang out scratching for change at some meaningless job (if they’re lucky) while living communally. Some have returned to, or never left home, relocated to the basement now that their bedroom is a home office.

As an alternative, sensing an opportunity to do good (for money) arrives on the scene the online training institute to try to fill this void. With a low threshold for admittance, plus one-to-one counseling, applicants also find a friendly financial aid department that helps them get the loans and grant money to set them on a path to a future. For their money (to be paid back of course) they receive their textbooks and a computer. All the courses or programs are focused straight at jobs and careers. Some are frighteningly fundamental: Keyboarding as a course in 2011? As it was explained to me, many of the younger students are whizzes at World of Warcraft, but can’t send email or surf the web—let alone write with Microsoft Word. They have never owned a computer.

These ‘institutes’ (a bit overinflated to imbue solemnity) are a reasonable alternative to being a ‘loser’ wouldn’t you say? It’s what I call ‘close to the ground’ education. Learn ‘right now’ material for the most contemporary and in demand employment sector, get educated or certified fast and go get a job. The best of these schools have a placement operation—well connected to businesses, nationally and locally, since students are online everywhere and matching graduates to employers should be job 1. Because learning starts with simple core material, virtually guaranteeing success, formerly ‘anti-students’ will hang on as their achievement becomes habitual.

If the story is well told and marketed in the right communities operations like this can sweep up those youngsters, single moms, potential petty criminals, people looking for a way up and out who were left behind.

And I agree with the entire premise but for one prickly issue. The curriculum, for the vast majority of courses are products of textbooks remodeled for online delivery by…I don’t know…a teacher, course developer, practitioner in the field? This practice includes lifting tests as well. Consider that some phlebotomists might be good online teachers and even help write a meaningful and realistic course, but what would be the odds? In a world where, with some serious due diligence a course can be created from online sources, how can that be defensible if only as cutting corners get programs to market fast. BTW this new educational domain is reinvigorating the bottom line for textbook publishers.

So my reservations—a demand for more course development rigor and a change in the delivery of instruction—should be addressed. At some point, after these schools are at moving at full charge, and I hope they do, educators are going to come a-knockin’ and they will not like what they see.

My prescription is very simple. The material a field practitioner writes must be shaped into learning by a certified educator (the model we know best – instructional designer and SME) to create viable courseware. The curriculum for each school that accepts or helps funnel federal money as loans to students must be accredited for academic programs and audited regularly like high school regional reviews. And why must all instruction be online? Surely, with a bit of effort administrators can discover ways to make the courseware include humans—even if only as out-of-class experiences.

What would I want to measure as benchmarks of success? How many students in a certificated course have graduated, what is the drop out percentage/rate and most importantly, how many graduates are working. This is not only a fair longitudinal study; I would offer the same challenge to America’s high schools.

It’s an imperfect model at present. However, those institutes with which I am familiar are working towards meeting higher standards. Don’t let my liberal tendencies fool you—there’s nothing wrong with making money when offering opportunities for success. Even a bit noble actually. No other initiative has made any substantial change for the educationally disenfranchised, and touted there’s a glimpse of a future. Raise the quality of these institutes, tighten alliances with businesses, raise awareness and market the heck out of them in every community. One of the highest callings of all enterprises is the specter of hope. Since the government is fighting among itself, and the Department of Education can’t get its act together, let private enterprise have a go. At this point, there is little to lose and much to gain.