ARTICULATE NON EST REX – 3 REASONS HIGHER ORDER LEARNING IS BEYOND THE MOAT

For the past two months or so, I’ve been writing high profile video scripts and storyboarding in a group whose company is synonymous with the 2008 economic collapse. That they made a recovery and paid back most of their bailout money is a testament to leadership and perseverance. But I wish those same qualities extended to training, for here, little was produced that could be considered responsible online education. Like most subjective or creative ventures, it comes down to choices. Beginning with objectives for what learners should take away and then demonstrates in their performance, to the design process and finally the software used to build courseware always determine the instructional yield at the end. When you desire higher order learning; that is information that actually teaches beyond mere recall, then how you design and what software you select for development define your expectations most clearly. If you’re happy to live and feed at the bottom—and by this I mean the lowest end of the taxonomy, providing simple information transfer or at best skills and recall that ask little of the learner you can default to what is easiest. You know, and accept training not education as your outcome. Reminds me of Lewis Grizzard’s humorous tome “Shoot Low Boys, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies.” And for training, the contemporary tool of choice is Articulate.

Low-Level Learning Cheats the Learner
What I call ‘low-level’ elearning is the product of 3 conditions; the desire to move content to delivery as fast as possible, using the most basic software tools from which this can be accomplished, and lastly if something important is being tee’d up online but the development tool isn’t up to the task, the organization puts up fierce resistance to deliver learning in a different medium.

I harbor a patent dislike for packaged authoring tools like Articulate. Popular to the point of ubiquity, one can quickly see why since with very little instruction a learning designer can become a learning developer. Them that invents can own the means of production. It’s highly seductive, relatively cheap in price and learning overhead. Nothing wrong with that except for three insurmountable issues: The first being Articulate and other analogues, encourages anyone to believe they know how to create learning. This attitude diminishes expectations of what learning could be to what the tool will allow it to be. Not to get too deep in the weeds here but learning and instructional design is a discipline that requires significant education to get it right and be of some use. From my vantage point, training managers effective at face-to-face instruction believed they knew how to translate that form into online instruction. Furthermore, having no grasp of how to build let alone interpret a storyboard never held back their opinion about how a screen (which they continued to call slides after that infamous program that serves as an anchor for Articulate) should be populated. The comparison might be a dentist who decides to attempt heart surgery. I mean they are both doctors, right? So the tool invites simplistic, often poorly constructed, and wrongly paced learning as a composite of (I’ll call them by their right name) template screens that the ill prepared but titled deign as adequate. That’s how you get training, not education.

Armor Plated Articulate
Let’s keep I mind there is a learning-industrial complex surrounding Articulate. Thus sycophants, add-ons, templates, coaches, workshops, companies offer training that ensure it has become and maintains its self-righteous place as the default program for delivering low-end elearning. This is one moat you cannot easily cross. It’s well insulated from attack, whether from learning or economic exigencies.

Articulate provides very limited options in terms of interfaces, screen designs, and interactivities (there are 10 out of the box – like drag and drops and the like) that cause developers to suspend inventive screen design to push material out on tight schedules. I observed talented developers, who knew all the nuances and ‘tricks’ to fool Articulate into executing pretty neat operations for which it was not designed curse the heaven’s when a day’s worth of work crashed. At one point I ordered up a truly engaging interactive and the developer with whom I worked finally resorted to a mash up of Flash squeezed into an Articulate shell to create the most creative piece to come out of the that shop. Perhaps this is why Storyline is starting to gain traction. It is not linked to that (as yet unnamed) Microsoft Office program but it does offer the option to forsake templates and move towards more free form development. Plus it migrates to either Flash or HTML5. Of course, companies have beaucoup dollars invested in Articulate and the people to run it so this will be a bottom up migration. A revolution of the learning proletariat perhaps.

Managers Who Say ‘Good Enough’
Finally, management claiming to be realistic about scheduling and resources insisted what came out of that workgroup was good enough—better than anything the company had ever seen to that point. I refer you to the Grizzard quote. Understanding the limits of the tool, and recognizing that trying to re-educate internal executive clients was a losing proposition both politically and temporally, as the group manager let the learning product slither out the cubicle. Yet every single piece of courseware was—long after the storyboard had been approved and the course firmly digital, was picked over and redesigned. Now I ask anyone who knows anything about elearning if that is not a severe contraindication to all that good production means. And I blame this partially on Articulate; if clients think a course can be knocked together with such ease then what’s the big deal about modifying whole chunks of screens. It’s the inmates running the asylum.

Overall, results were measured by the number of courses that made it from a facilitators guide to the LMS at the lowest possible costs measured against production hours, stock photography purchases and additional matter—music or more robust narration for example. No accounting for redevelopment that, by most metrics costs ten times the amount to modify if quality assurance in the storyboard stage were respected. But the concept was foreign—it was let the client see it in its finished form and then we can negotiate changes. Duh?

The Ubiquity of Easy
Perhaps I thought this whole situation was an anomaly and that most other large firms including learning vendors reserved their higher concepts and critical thinking demands for courseware using Flash and HTML5. Not so. I asked former clients and employers how they were building projects and more than 60% said when necessary, they had assigned junior level designers and developers, or instructional designers who had expertise with Articulate—or, to be fair other templatized programs to produce complete courses. When I dove a bit deeper and asked what types of content and at what level of cognitive learning were they building with PowerPoint based tools (there, I said it) they admitted these were – to use one phrase – quick and dirty but they could at least turn a small profit and churn dollars through the company.

In the final result we have a process that insists good enough is, well… good enough, a tool that allows that attitude to flourish even when it the process demonstrates it is inefficient and a disregard for any other options that could improve results even if Articulate remained the developer tool of choice. This is a systematic failure. But for all that, plus missed deadlines and costs incurred by backwards facing repair work, the organization was impressed enough with the visual look and the rolling out of low-level content to be satisfied. There was never any attempt to examine how much or what was ever learned—no one knows (though I suspect) these courses simply replaced stand up training and there singular benefit was only one of scale. You know, less trainers, more viewers in multiple geos, But I’ll bet my reputation the conversion of ILT to this form of online instruction will be revealed as the equivalent of the emperor with no clothes. There’s no learning there, only screens of information; a low-level target for sure.

The Third Way
Let me close this distressing topic by referencing Edward Tufte. I can recall reading his famous treatise, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” where he advocated this idea: Instead of spewing out bulleted slides, especially for complex information, it would be better to produce a high end print piece which would delve into the nuances of a topic and—my insert here—distribute it the same way courseware takes wing—online and accessed from an LMS or Portal. True there might not be any interactivities but—and this is a biggie—with the groundswell acceptance of infographics and the ability of people to ‘get it’ visually without a ton of text, perhaps we have a third way of delivering information. Add to that the capacity of infographics when designed with interactive components (using the newer Adobe program suite) there’s a better model now available. Moreover, combining a good written treatise with high-end infographics seems to me a much better way to offer meaningful information than the kerplunk I hear every time someone tells me they are fluent in Articulate. That, to me, telegraphs all I need to know about the depth and quality of the learning. Better to design a Word doc with good graphics then obey the regal law imposed by rules bound tools like Articulate.

Regem ut mortuum esse.

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Scenarios Are Mini Dramas…Not a Glorified Q and A.

Contrary to many articles published lately, scenarios are not written questions with a supposition or proposition followed by questions. They are micro dramas that bring learners onto the screen and compel interaction. Once in, learner needs to work his way out.

One my mantras I have consistency followed is that elearning is an analogue to a television drama. Using this core belief, the components that make up a show can be modified to enhance, if not totally structure an online course experience. Too often, I visit learning that is frankly weak even if it has all the requisite objectives, structure, and guiding scaffold, e.g. ADDIE by example. Whether in Captivate, Articulate, or a full-blown Flash/HTML course too many learning experiences are dry to the mind, dull to the eye and dead to the ear. If this indicative of a general lack of imagination on the part of learning designers, ID’s or constraints place by clients it matters not. The results are courses that are outwardly pushed at learners rather than trying to entice learners and pull them in to the story.

In many examples of courseware, scenarios are one component of a learning experience. While there are many interpretations of the word, there are very few differences in how, as a learning technique, it has been applied. So let me tell you what I think a scenario isn’t:

  • Not a series of questions with multiple answers that try to engender thinking
  • Not a brief explanation of a situation and then questions that demonstrate the learner will know what to do
  • Not a grouping of pictures that ask the learner to choose which is the right answer, whether process, action or straight knowledge

A scenario is part of a longer story enriching the experience for learners by placing them inside the course as a full participant. It would be similar to jumping into a movie while it’s being shown and working your way out again by uttering a magic word. Only in the case of learning, it would mean meeting a challenge as a role player and by actions, words, and deeds, demonstrating competence in order to move ahead in the course. When used at its full strength, which I’ll explain next, it is almost in the realm of gamification; the hot thing in learning now.

The Elements of a Real Scenario
Let’s begin where we always should and that’s with the outcomes we are seeking; not just for the course, but for each scenario. It’s imperative to establish very specific outcomes and their key performance indicators (KPIs) in the design brief. The latter are necessary for evaluating variables like degree of success, number of attempts, quality of corrections and other metrics that will determine whether the actor can go on to the next scene or stay on for take 21.

Based on these outcomes we can now get creative by spinning a situation or state of being into which the learner will be placed. We will need a setting and/or space and the other actors in this little drama.

By example, we might start like this:

  1. Establishing a locale, setting or space
    Providing a visualization of a realistic environment is essential. This is the stage where the action takes place. In fact, consider more than one virtual space; activities amongst actors, like in a film rely on multiple sets to help tell and sell the story. Place your emphasis on detail. If you watch ‘Mad Men’ you’ll know the efforts Matthew Weiner goes to establish a real feel for the era by inhabiting a set that goes to the smallest detail; a stapler, pencils, clothes hooks…nothing is too small so the place rings true. You may not need to be that fanatic, but it’s a point to remember. Whether you use static images or illustrations, Flash or movies strive for reality.
  2. The actors in this drama must be typical so they can be instantly recognized as a ‘type’. No need to take this to extremes—not every CFO wears neither a three-piece suit nor every creative thick nerd glasses. But try to stick to type. And this goes for their speaking (VO or audio) which should use appropriate technical or professional speak…with some exceptions. When selling learning for example, resist putting abbreviations in a person’s mouth before it’s made clear. For instance, say ‘instructor led training’ before saying ILT.
  3. The action is moved by dialogue but it starts a problem that needs to be addressed. The best prologues have a sense of urgency and can be spoken by one or more persons. And be specific about stage directions as well. If you don’t know how to direct a camera or the proper terms than learn them. You are, remember writing a drama, and even if the budget won’t allow complete customization the many details can be established in less costly ways.
    • (CFO, Stephen, in his office speaking to his marketing manager) (CU – close up on his face)
      “Bob, we need to get our numbers up to meet projections and our sale people are not closing. I’ve spoke to Rona and she is meeting with her account execs today. What do you think about bringing in some training, live, virtual, or online? We have less than 60 days to turn this around.”
      (MS – medium shot where we see Bob gesturing towards Stephen)
      I agree we can’t let this slide. I’m actually sitting in on the meeting and I’ll drive the conversation in that direction. Frankly, I don’t know if our people are saying the right things about our products or their not selling right. But I’ll get back to you ASAP.

4. Making it real often depends on the media and budget. Another consideration is real estate; how many screens can be appropriated without intruding on time constraints.Here is the hierarchy of scenario media by cost:

  • Low Cost:
    Stock images with voice over. To make this work look for stock images that feature the same people in multiple poses. Moreover, make sure you use a variety of voices as well. All too often, a scenario becomes a simple narration of a scene. If the content would benefit from a narrator, ensure that voice is different from all the others. Also, you can drop actors into different backgrounds (settings, like above) using Photoshop to create a transparent background. Having a good ID with top-notch skills makes this a quick operation. Now you can place actors in the best possible office, or warehouse or field site and approximate reality. Lastly use special effects by moving people across the screen; even if it looks phony, it works
  • Medium Cost. Using an illustrator allows you to design any setting and any look for your actors. While pricier your work can begin to establish a branded look and feel and with voice over’s adding the final touch you can create a unique scenario
  • High Cost. There are stock video places where you might find enough content to tell a real story. However, this technique works best when combined with either of the other forms. Multiple media heightens interest and it compels learners to stay focused on the action.
  • Custom video. Clearly the most expensive but usually the most effective form of scenario building. Actually, you’d be making a small movie only interrupted by questions or other actions. You would design stops in the action and perhaps bring in a narrator, on screen, to describe the action to come or review what has just taken place. The learner relates to the narrator and welcomes him as a guide.
  • Multimedia. Mixing forms of media is very effective. Illustration that fades into actual images of the actors is very powerful, just as static images can turn into live action video. Any numbers of combinations are possible; just remember the objectives set forth in the design brief are the target—with apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the medium in not the message.

5. The basic rules of instructional design should include how to use images in scenarios. There are infinite options about how to place objects and people on the screen. Too often scenarios look like home movies with all the action taking place at the same distance from the screen. Everything is in the middle distance. How boring. Add vitality and interest by pushing faces right into the screen dominating the entire frame while other people or the background appears tiny behind the giant face. On the other hand, start a voice speaking before the person enters the picture; and bring an actor from way back into the foreground while talking to someone who is already in the picture. I can’t possibly go in to all the options but I’m sure you get the idea. Variety with a purpose should by your focus.

Bringing In the Learner
While scenarios are interesting and often entertaining, they are not passive. The best results are obtained through interactive elements. Most often, this works by stopping the action until the learner causes it to start again that results from their completion of specific actions.

Here’s a sample of actions:

  1. Selecting a physical action for the virtual you; go to this office; enter the shipping center, load the truck, inspect the device and ensure it is functioning
  2. Choosing the appropriate phrase, selling point, technical language or procedure
  3. Answering direct questions; correcting an erroneous response
  4. Participating in a discussion and offering a suggestion that brings consensus
  5. Completing a form or using an application correctly
  6. Following the next step in process

Scenarios are essentially rehearsals for real events and offer the practice needed to begin forming good habits. It follows that if the responses are correct, the scenario can move ahead. If wrong, the scenario can branch into a remedial loop where the concept(s) are explained using other examples or rationale. NOTE: If there are multiple correct responses, a scenario can have branches that extend the scenario along different paths too, like a game model.

Finally, the scenario continues until the objectives have been met. Managers depend on the structure of the scenario to know competence has been achieved when either multiple correct responses during the scenario have been achieved, or there is a final, summative problem the learner correctly completes. It is imperative learners take away the knowledge, skills and behaviors they need to be more effective in the workplace.

Too many volumes and guides teaching instructional design relegate scenarios to just another technique to be trotted out in a few circumstances. In actuality, the more dynamic and exciting the scenarios, and the more kinds offered, the more television-like the courseware becomes. And because this is two-way, participatory television it has all the components of good story telling with the participation of the learner as a primary actor. We know when learners interact in multiple ways their immediate understanding is high and the application of what was learned is used successfully on the job. That leads to performance improvement…and that is the ultimate goal of any learning system.

TITHING FOR TEACHERS: FOR A LEGACY OF EXCELLENCE, A LIFETIME OF TANGIBLE THANKS

This is National Teacher Appreciation Week, an opportunity to celebrate great teachers. While attention is focused let me float an outrageous idea. Though I don’t have the workings of this proposal completely flushed out I hope to instigate a dialogue and let you continue the conversation.

I believe teachers are underpaid. And underappreciated. Let me back up a sec: What brought this top of mind are commercials currently airing (and somewhat self-aggrandizing) for the energy industry. You might have seen them, featuring successful—and not unattractive—young professional engineers whose physics and math teachers opened their minds to a world in which they could exploit their passion inspired by their teachers that led to a career and a life.

What if there was a way to address the inequities, in the process refurbishing education as a noble art and science and do it in such a way that avoids new taxes or municipal funding?

Here’s what I believe to be a logical method of rewarding those kinds of instructors: Why not set up a system of tithing; a tangible way former students who by admission found a life because of a memorable teacher. Let’s adopt a method to turn over a very modest amount of money per ex-student, now contributor to a teacher or teachers. Not to the school or district—but directly. These endowments would be a royalty, a supplemental contribution to the teacher(s) who has gone beyond. Just think, the average major subject high school teacher sees over 4500 youngsters in a 30-year career; an elementary teacher, 900. If only a few students, who believe one or more teachers added to their lives would pony up a stipend, then teachers would not only reap a personal gain that would improve their economic station, but set the country on notice that we honor and will reward great teaching. The well-known educational ripple effect (“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Henry Adams) would be a paradigm for the nation. What a culture change. No matter the political party, there’s no downside to supporting this. Well, maybe not all politicians would agree, especially the ones who had all bad teachers, right?

In the short term, such a plan resolves very specific wants:

  • Adjusting salaries to make teaching a more fiscally viable profession
  • Addressing teacher evaluations currently based either on formal and mostly contractual agreements or high stakes test results; both of which are flawed metrics
  • Diminishing the overplayed hand of the unions to level the playing field where mediocre and superlative instructors are paid equally based on years of service and graduate credit hours for courses having no bearing on instructional quality

In the long term, we establish a system that will drive teacher’s efforts to create instruction that is more dynamic and draw out a more humanistic approach to the treatment of students. That’s not an accusation that teachers as a group do not try to develop quality lessons nor are they deficient in humanity. However, we’ve all been students and can recall quite clearly those teachers who had the kindness and compassion any parent would hope was doled out to their child during the school day. But we can also recall the harridans, shrews, and malcontents among a faculty to whom teaching was a job to be endured and gave over as little of themselves as they could get away with. So posit this:

  • A 20-year biology teacher whose total salary based on service and coursework is $60,000 per year.
  • Next door, also teaching biology, the teacher is receiving $60,000 but based on voluntary ex-student contributions, her royalties are yielding an annualized, additional $12,000.

What does that say to teachers, the school and district and community?

Moreover, it becomes part of a teacher’s portfolio of merit they can take with them if they decide to shop around for another position in marketplace for excellence outside their current district.

The mechanics, as I said are in the formative stage banging around in my head. Case in point; I would like a value metric to balance these anomalies:

  • Rewarding an elementary school teacher who inspired you to think more of yourself but had no direct connection (though some psychologists would disagree) with your choice of career.
  • K-6 teachers see a disproportionately smaller cadre of students but arguably can be more formative shaping a child and effective at saving one in crisis.
  • What about a teacher who mentors students but is not their actual teacher? He supported and counseled youngsters helping them overcome their self-doubts, lack of confidence, sense of otherness and enabled them to grow in to good spouses, parents and wage earners; how do we apportion those contributions?
  • What about special education, teachers of the arts and other specialties who in some settings have very few students.

Maybe this system would be unfairly slanted and biased against these professionals unless we look for a way to design in equity. Something to chew on.

So here’s how this might work:
Every year in the Valley School District 700 students graduate. Assuming they go straight to work or on to higher education, whether technical training or a collegiate experience they will be wage earners.
Let’s just say the IRS, attaches form 1200A, Education Contribution Benefit Designation to every return. This document is a rubric with these elements:

  • A space to name teacher(s)
  • A series of metrics, say a Likert scale (1-5 or NA) where they could identify and rate teachers based on objective criteria. For instance, did the teacher on line 21 provide you with the information you needed to be hired in the field/job you sought. Or did the teacher prepare you for acceptance into a higher education program. Did the teacher help you create a portfolio or college essay that allowed you entry into your field of study?
  • Another series of metrics would be subjective, though not less important. Any psychometrican can compose, scale, and provide weight with regard to the value of these traits. For instance, did the teacher in line 24 provide the emotional support you needed when you were in crisis? Did s/he mentor you influencing you in a positive way that has made you a better person? Can you appreciate the differences among cultures, countries, and people unlike yourself?
  • A space for supporting statements whether written by the constituent donor or other material provided as evidence the teacher is eligible for a contribution benefit.
  • A space to work out the amount designated to be apportioned to the named teacher(s).
  • Perhaps none of the above except the name of the teacher and the amount to be contributed.

If you teach for 30 years, regardless of level or subject you will have influenced, not just taught content to thousands of youngsters who are now adults and hopefully earning a living. Every year the numbers of ex-students enters the workforce and are added to the roles of possible ‘donors.’ Kind of like compound interest!

I would propose each contributor/donor be obligated for life, with contingencies of course. This serves two purposes; contributing is understood as a very serious commitment with long range consequence and contributions end only if the individual is out of work or retires; furthermore, it ensures the amount cannot fluctuate downward (unless circumstances such as the above occur) so the teacher can budget and rely on that income well in to retirement. Most importantly, I believe the contributor can add a teacher’s name at any time for as we mature it is only from a distance do we begin to fathom the impact a teacher has had on our lives.

OK, some of you might define this plan as merit pay or reimbursement of extraordinary value. Others will see it as a ‘tip’ –a surcharge for what should have been the norm in the first place. I see it more like a legacy reward for a lifetime of great service recognized by customers… AND an immediate way to shake up the profession by the scholars hood and wake up potential. We can declare non too subtlety that, with some inspiration, even if in the form of—gasp—money, teachers can be moved to higher levels of overall performance. Finally it shakes up the worst offenders in the education realm—schools of education whose teacher prep programs are at the least out of touch… and at the worst criminally deficient allowing virtually anyone who pays tuition, is drawing breath and can prep for the tests into the classroom. You know the adage…what do they call the one who finishes last in medical school…doctor.

That’s the plan. Talk about it, argue over it, but don’t pass it by. We rank far below even the poorest countries on many education scales of measurement. I believe a major reason is teaching and our myopic view of schools. The public coffers are empty and education at all levels is being starved. Here’s a place to jump into the dialogue. Or not, but I hope for better. Lastly, I believe I have the chops to write this; I taught K-12, was a university professor and a school administrator in urban settings. I’ve seen education from inside and as a corporate educator working with schools throughout the world.

I’ll end on a positive note. I want to thank Miss Libman my first grade teacher at PS 194 in Brooklyn for her compassion and humanity. Miss Nurnberg who found my talent for art in grade 6 and allowed me extra time at the easel, also at PS 194. Frank Pelligrini who insisted I not turn in less than perfect work and rejected much of my efforts until I got it right, and last but not least, Dr. Peter Bohan, now gone, whose inspiration and love of subject made me a life-long learner and seeker. I would gladly tithe to any and all.

FEAR OF BRANDING – 10.1 Reasons to Move On

Mulling over branding and applying logic to emotion has become more meaningful to me on a professional and personal basis. In some engagements, I’m compelled to live within the ecology of a company’s personality that is expressed in many ways through its brand. And on a personal level, who has not been bombarded into submission in to formulate a noteworthy and memorable—not to say powerful and compelling brand: can’t communicate your value instantaneously without being commoditized. Let’s face it; anyone who has read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio, or had prior knowledge of SJs commitment to establishing, protecting, and defending the vision and personality of Apple learned what an oath of fealty to branding means.

This whole scenario brings back the idea of corporate culture.
The fundamental concept is a company has a belief system and a vision as the basis from which a brand is established. We accept a brand as the vocal, linguistic, and visual embodiment of what the company claims and promises. Far too often organizations for too many reasons compromise their brand when their products fail to live up to the brand promise—or the brand overstates what the company is capable of producing. In either case the disconnect leads to distrust of the company and its products. So if your outfit claims it backs its products with outstanding customer service, any encounter that is less than 110% remarkable means the customer has lost faith in the product and all your branding goes out the window. Remember that branding carries the emotional promise of taking care of the customer at all stages of the life cycle of the product. Relate this to corporate culture where inside the organization says it stands for X but carries out its internal affairs with its employees as minus X. Then the culture devolves to what it really is, not what management claims it to be.

Branding has two major components
One, company claims and values as they appear in advertising and public relations and the other being the product that should express claims the company makes as the physical manifestation or promise of performance of its values. Most companies spend big telling you who they are and what they believe. Look at the logos and tag lines, advertising and websites of the Fortune 100, and even those of your neighborhood dentist. Striving to be known for something to differentiate from competitors. The question is can the company deliver and is the dentist painless like he claims.

When Jobs claimed, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” and ensured that ‘Think Different” was not “Think Differently, “ he was defining branding as the core attitude pervasive at Apple. By manically guarding every aspect of design and production, Jobs ensured that simplicity would lead to products (that were and are) sensuous and easy to use. Apple is first encountered through bright white ads and web sites that set the stage for the products, to the intuitively understandable and pleasurable—from the anticipation of opening the box to the touch and feel of every product including the Apple stores. Jobs branded Apple a total immersion experience. Not many companies have a CEO who can be that hands-on let alone fanatic. But the point is, stating what the company is and producing products must be in sync at the atomic level.

An interesting business challenge arises when an existing company desires to change its brand. Moreover, it is a difficult challenge; it’s going in to the DNA of any enterprise and rearranging its genetic structure and then nurturing, announcing and bringing this new version of itself to the public. However, many companies take a hard look and must re-brand; not to do so would be organizational complacency and that can lead to early death.

Moreover, there is a conundrum.
When is good enough brand not good enough anymore? What are the metrics and key performance indicators that say, ‘change now’ to convince bean counters of the necessity of the expenses accrued by such change? There’s a lot of brand thought that relies on intuition, a pill not easily swallowed by many business folks. Whether the brand change is evolutionary or revolutionary, it can’t be just aesthetics whether you make products or render services. Once again it’s worth noting Apple built great products not just because it had a good design universe held by the gravitational force of Steve Jobs; to think this way makes you only half-right. It’s what Jobs and his select team believed design should do and be that molded blobs of plastic in to iPods. To be clear we’re NOT just talking about the logo—I’m referring to the entire backbone of a company vision. How these are expressed through a multitude of verbal, visual, and written modalities…and in some cases products, are the medium communicating the message.

After a bit of noodling around and research as well, here’s a list that might help clarify when the time is right to address your brand. This is in no way comprehensive nor highly nuanced. Nevertheless, if it sparks ideas there’s plenty of information out there to put a fine point on things.

Address your brand when:
1. Your reputation is diminishing prospect or customer activity
2. The scope of the business changes
3. There is a lack of internal or external understanding or clarity of what the business does or what its products promise
4. The company or products require repositioning
5. There has been meaningful innovation in the product line
6. The competition has caught up, is about to or has surpassed you
7. You want to attract a new segment of buyers and need them to listen
8. Company values are, or have shifted; new ownership or management need to assert a shift in the business
9. The value exchange principle is askew: does the product deliver value in excess of its price or must the firm deliver products at a price in excess of their cost. If the latter, branding might be a primary way of introducing the ‘new’ company values and therefore its commercial model
10. The brand—and its visual appearance has gone bland and dated so no matter how new or innovative your products, customers have to overcome the ‘hurdle of history’ before they’ll trust the new products or service
10.1 Finally, when your efforts have determined the essence of your vision and mission and there is a   disconnect between what you believe you are and what your outward facing information communicates, bring in objective experts to untangle the gibberish.

At too many enterprises, the desire to simply change advertising and collateral forestalling a brand renaissance hobbles what could be a life-saving adjustment. Case in point: Consider a firm that enjoys a modest commercial success. One competitor with a brilliant branding strategy—from language to design—but not necessarily a better solution—has better sales results. As we know all too often the perception of a company’s products is compared to the competition’s even before the products are viewed side by side. Even if unspoken the perception has taken hold in the buyer’s mind about which is the better product. In real terms, this means objections must be overcome even before selling begins. Prospects require re-education before solutions can stand on equal ground. Think of the cost in terms of effort and maybe lost opportunities.

Companies often cannot see an immediate payoff from a reconstituted brand. There is no direct bottom line profit to be measured in a relatively short period. However, over time, a rebranded enterprise has more clarity about who they are, and perhaps, what and how they should be making. However, armed with fresh attitudes, language, visuals, and all the other tools needed to gain tactical marketplace advantages prospects have a different understanding of the enterprise. The company’s sunk costs fade and expenditures for routine changes in every area from business cards to training costs demand less time, energy, resources, and money. The tendency will be your client facing associates can step in front of prospects knowing their company is forward thinking and carry on with pride. It’s worth noting while a company might be strictly cognitive, the selling process and sales people are emotional, and a new brand will serve them well at the point of attack. On that basis alone, branding renovation might be worth the effort and capital.

THE TEACHER-BUILT TEXTBOOK REVOLUTION IS HERE: A GIFT TO PROFESSIONALS OR A POX ON INSTRUCTION

In the modern era, the textbook is still the spine from which teachers deliver information. Despite the ubiquity of Wikipedia and the web, most teachers rely on a single source to reference the bulk of instructional material for knowledge transfer to their charges. Some texts are terrific; contemporary information well researched, written and compelling with story-based content attractive to the mass of students. However along with soaring prices, how up-to-date can they be—and how often will new editions replace dated volumes?

Textbooks are generally written by more than one primary author and reviewed by committees of content experts, practitioners in that field, and university educators. They are often generated as often by changes in information in the field as by publishers whose teams of researchers not only scan for the latest information but for the need to sell books.

Which text is selected is as much political as pedagogical; sometimes by fiat resulting from state or national tests to which the textual content must align, or on the local level by committees of educators who select from a narrow range of choices that must satisfy the same requirements. Texts compel teachers adhere to the proscribed curriculum so a higher percentage of students will pass their state’s test. Text selections can, unfortunately become an expression of political or cultural orientation. When school boards—think Texas or Kansas here—demand textbooks align to standardized or ‘high stakes’ tests that themselves are replete with prejudicial, politicized and questionable information the truth dies in the false rhetoric among the vehement and vocal critics of modernism . Darwin, the barometer of scientific objectivism and generally accepted fact, like climate change, Reagonomics, the Civil War, the canon of literature and other hot issues—might be revealed in a realistic and balanced manner in some texts, but meet fierce opposition in these municipalities. In such places you can be sure publishers will accede to the wishes of the textbook purchasers—customers—and modify their product to sell. Put succinctly, in some states, school districts and schools, dinosaurs died and became oil, yet in those same oil-producing states, dinosaurs were domesticated as transportation.

Into the fray steps the software, Apple’s iBooks Author:

“So, the big story is really about how this effects the billion(s) dollar industry of textbook publishing. Apples iBooks will sell for no more than $14.99. So, if the publishers are looking to keep their profits at current levels that most likely means someone is going to get cut out of the deal. It’s obvious that someone is the author. But the good news is that with a free authoring tool and the iTunes/iBook marketplace, I think the authors may end up getting the better end of this deal.
I’ve been it for several years now but I’ll say it again, “Teachers will be the next millionaires.” (Emphasis by the author) With today’s technologies, and the new technologies just around the corner, there is no reason why a great teacher couldn’t produce content for sale, and mentor students for a fee, and make a very good living.” (“Apple Announces Textbook Revolution.” www.elearndev.blogspot.com, 19 January 2012)

At first blush, this seems fantastic. Taken from a purely instructional perspective, the ability to create a multimedia text that will surely fascinate this generation of learners and incorporate disruptive technologies is profound. Kids live in this world every minute. Finally school catches up to real life. Wow! Couple this with online sharing and collaborative ventures and we are in reach of best in class teaching and reference materials. Note the author quoted above (Brent Schlenker in this case, a very sharp educator and aware blogger) grows misty over ‘great teachers’ producing ‘great textbooks.’ This presumes only great teachers will master the tools and build terrific texts–up to the minute, media rich and iconic.

What about the mediocre teacher who also has the technical chops to produce a compelling volume? Even if their books are clearly viewed as insipid, who is to say they won’t be adopted somewhere? The contrarian in me (a former teacher, administrator, university professor and state consultant—and textbook author) worries that we may be launching a confabulation of substandard information produced by competent software manipulators with substandard or politicized content. And where will teachers get the energy and time to organize and design and develop unique interactive texts. Even with the relative simplicity of the tools. It’s possible they’ll default to the lowest common denominator amongst content to push out material viz, rapid elearning, to speak to students in their ‘umwelt’ and that looks close to entertainment or at best edutainment.

Schools of education are totally in the Stone Age here so don’t expect teachers to experience development techniques to help them become instructional designers. Not all teachers are good writers, nor have they been trained in the profundities and nuances of graphic and interactive design. Besides the very real daily issues of keeping groups of students on task and in line are still job one in most classrooms.

Here’s a rubric that I believe tosses into the ring a way in which to examine what teacher-built texts could be.

It’s certainly not comprehensive, rather a point of departure. I’d like to start some dialogues here, look forward to a debate about the realities that will eventually present themselves as the tools roll out, and teachers commit to self-authoring. So I’ve drawn my line in the sand. I hope great teachers can not only master the technology but gain the time to produce first-rate contemporary texts—ones that can change as real facts become known. And students will be the real beneficiaries to the extant they can respond in kind by building their own materials questioning and inventing other realities. But it’s all too likely that without standards that had better evolve quickly, there’s an equal chance given the history of school progressivism, teacher built texts can be equal to the worst produced by publishers.

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.

DELIVERING IN THE 3.0 WORLD

I’m the owner and managing director of Wonderful Brain LLC. We offer custom learning solutions, knowledge & content management and program/project professional services with enthusiastic leadership to drive or support business strategies resulting in compelling user experiences, people performance, and major profitability.

 

WHAT I LEARNED AT CHRISTMAS

Let me make this clear at the outset; my birth family are the tribe of the Old Testament so my father’s association with the Christmas holiday was learned from coworkers, Nat ‘King’ Cole, the tree at Rockefeller Center and New York fragrant with good cheer – often lubricated with smoky liquids around the 25th. That is until he had grandchildren. This was of course the divine gift my wife and I delivered to him – most likely our lifetime’s crowning achievement.

My dad was a typographer, a craft job a composing lines of text in metal. His company on 45th Street in Manhattan set type for all the advertising agencies whose ads were designed in the day and required production overnight to be ready the next morning for inclusion in print publications. My father worked his way up from compositor to general manager owing not just to his skill on the stick, but with people especially. He was, in a word, a schmoozer. This made him the perfect guy to close sales over steaks and drinks at the Palm. In this he was, as always successful. It also provided him with, shall we say gifts, from very grateful vendors who enjoyed the contracts he would award.

During the year, often at odd times, I’d get a call, “Rich, do you need a new guitar, camera, slide projector, TV, frig, etc.” The same largesse extended to his wide coterie of childhood friends whose businesses did not offer such ‘perks.’ And to my wife, whom he called Red (Irish, as you may expect) anything she wanted. The point is he was disposed to spread his good fortune rather than scrooge all for himself.

Nowhere was this truer than at Christmas, an excuse for even his exceptional level of gift giving. And to whom better than my son and later my daughter. Not only his grandchildren for whom most share great love, my dad was excessive to the point of nuttiness. Perhaps his love had a psychological component. He was proud I had become a high school teacher after a short stint as an advertising creative, and owned a house (he always rented – how could such a busy man take on the responsibilities of drywall). He saw my talent in design and always had his employees set type for me in my little logo design/graphics business that added a bit to the family coffers – and said to my mother I was as talented as the art director’s whose work he ‘marked up’ from agencies like Young and Rubicam, BBD&O and Grey. In my gifted young son…his grandson, he saw what could be. Failing with my sister whose troubles he could not fix, he found a second chance with my daughter, who born with physical problems fought to live and thrive and at three was a both adorable and to his sentimental heart required the presence of a grand-champion.

Anyway, that’s the back-story.

The moral—and I’ll get it over with now—is that giving is an expression of not what you should offer—but all you must share no matter the cost in dollars, whether affordable or not. Time is fixed, but love expands. Memories become more powerful in the telling long after the actual events.

So Christmas at my house went like this—and I can assure you this is 100% true.

The week prior to the ‘day’ my wife, my son, maybe 8 years old at this telling (though this went on for 10 years) and my daughter 3, would bundle up and drive to the volunteer fire company lot and buy a tree. Though our living room had 12-foot ceilings, my wife whose love of the holiday exceeded her sense of geometry inevitably drove me to buy a 13-foot tree. Roped to the top of our station wagon (no SUVs yet) we trekked home where I proceeded to heft this coniferous beast (an enemy at the time) to the backyard where I could perform surgical machinations supervised by Mrs. Dr DeBakey. The tree had to be shaped just so but still touch the ceiling, always scratching off a coat of paint. And there had to be room for the angel. Decorating would begin. Jan, my wife, who has a way with home design things had very particular regulations, plus a host of antique ornaments handed down from generations past as well as our own rather eclectic (Surfing Santa) collection. Everyone participated but me, exhausted from cropping, schlepping, and balancing one hundred pounds of asymmetric tree that required guy wires to hold it steady. Music played and the job was happily concluded—always to spectacular results.

Then the event: Grandma and Grandpa arriving on the 24th. Grand kudos heaped on my wife for the spectacular house and tree. A wonderful meal, a little television, and then the ritual of putting the kids to bed. I always reserved this privilege. ‘The Night Before Christmas’ was our ritual.

The four of us adults would be tired. Dad, as always was planning to sleep with my son, no matter the size of the bed—both of them waiting for the sleigh bell. (I would do the honors with a real one later in the night). But before…

Mom:”Now Richard, we didn’t go crazy this year. It’s getting out of hand you know… The presents are on the back seat of the Buick so you might as well get them.”
Dad: Cornering me in the kitchen, sotto voce: “Everything is in the trunk; some of the toys have to be assembled.” (Thanks Pop. I never got to bed before 3am. Ever). You ever see the size of a 1977 Buick LeSabre trunk? Let’s keep in mind the Mafia found it useful in disposing the formerly alive. And I became, by default an expert in building Big Wheels, drum sets with missing parts, doll houses and furniture, Star Wars kits, hockey goals, miniature train sets, you get the picture. Dad had neither patience nor tool sense.He made up for it in the size of his heart.

Cut to the sound of jingling bells and my father and son giggling in bed—except for his rasp you wouldn’t know who the bigger kid was. Then finally, Christmas morning.

Picture this…A giant tree with lower branches completely pushed aside—a living room completely covered with gifts—virtually no floor space left.

Mom: Looking at my father. “Are you out of your mind? What is this…where did this come from. My God, Shad this is crazy. I swear you’ll spoil these kids. You’re ridiculous, crazy. I can’t believe you…blah, blah, blah.
Dad: A sheepish look for her, a twinkle in his blue eyes and devil set mouth. I’m sure he thought, ‘”Heh heh, beat you again. This is what grandchildren are about and you don’t get it—but look what I did. Hah!”

A staircase with a bend, pajama feet pounding down, and heads craning around the corner to see what Santa brought. And there he was. Santa standing back, arms akimbo, laughing more than the kids. Bursting with joy. Never said a word but how good the kids were and how Santa knew it. At that moment and for days after, that look and feeling sustained everyone reminding us the joy of the holiday was not just in the giving but in the love of the giving and the special sense that one person, imbued with goodness, wit and immaturity—could make every single Christmas special.

That was my Dad. He was, and will always be, Santa. Never to be replaced but for memories which grow stronger, and brighter every year. Though my kids are grown and have kids of their own—and our grandchildren, there is no contest to best the Olympian holidays my father choreographed. Though meant for my young children, his spirit continues to enrich us today. Which is why on this Christmas, this Jew, descended from another Jew tries to keep Christmas a special moment. It’s true I fail; there is some of my mother in me…and that made my Dad all the more special as the paragon of unfettered love. You know as well as I, the toys were for fun and laughs a temporary thing. The miracle was a great spirit touching one man who touched anyone else who could and would pay attention.

GAMIFICATION – PLAYING AT (NOT) LEARNING

When I first heard the term ‘gamification’* I had the sensation of a spider wiggling down my shirt at a picnic. It’s in the same league as ‘monetization’ and ‘level set’ and, ‘incubator’, words coined to make professionals sound, well, professional. I’m not against jargon in general; shortcuts are good if they are pithy and have substance. Not so ‘gamification.’ Defined originally as ‘funware’, it demeans both game playing and education. For the most part, game playing aims at developing recall. For lower level objectives, I suppose this would be tolerable if it weren’t distracting from higher-level intellectual outcomes.

For clarity, Games are well-crafted stories built in digital form with learning objectives frequently placing the learner in real life decision-making situations. They use the best practices of education and peda-androgogy and because they are dynamic and built to the same standard as say ‘World of Warcraft’ I find them admirable. I wish there were more and were applied with greater frequency but they are, as you might expect rather pricey.

Gamification is not Games. They’ve be clearly invented by instructional designers/educators in lust with technology. I have a wonderful cliff near my house they can be lobbed off. Its parallel in the public school universe is extrinsic reward schemes granted to students for showing up for class on time, good behavior and completing homework. In other words…as I see it, bribery. (I know this is contentious). I know there are many gamification fans and supporters out there and I respect your desire to improve public and corporate education. Just prove that the time, energy and money pays quality learning dividends and I’ll rethink my position.

VALUE

Let’s set the record straight: If game design is used to make learning through technology more interactive and engaging, count me a fan. When gamification means achievement badges, reputation points and virtual currency, contests, Farmville, or systems for rewarding the acquisition of knowledge or skills—especially in a professional enterprise—I raise an eyebrow at the quality of employees and the (lack of) management resources that sees the need to move them to action with these techniques. A little immature, don’t you think? Reward systems are best used, and have been employed as marketing tools by product managers and marketers to move stuff off the shelves or entice people into chasing a purchase. Wrapping this around new metrics like ‘engagement analytics’ purveyors believe they can empirically demonstrate positive results—commercial and educational. Gaming is a tool that’s become a practice morphed into an industry with commercial drivers. (By the way, note I have not given any space to naming these enterprises…I’m not shilling for them. Look them up if you’d like but don’t be swayed by the hot graphics, testimonials and the robust claims).

Frequent readers of this blog know I am a skeptic. So using any metrics, I challenge Gamification builders to reveal learning performance improvement by users in their real work achieved by Gamification techniques alone. And within a reasonable time period.

A last point: In a learning environment, game interactions become not just exploitations of the basic human trait towards distraction, but will defocus the learner from the real content to be transferred.

*(The term may have been first coined by Nick Pelling in March 2004 for his gamification consultancy startup Conundra Ltd, via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamification). I presume Pellings’ was a commercial venture process.

Seth Godin has recently written, “Knowing about a tool is one thing. Having the guts to use it in a way that brings art to the world is another. Perhaps we need to spend less time learning new tools and more time using them.” (Emphasis is mine).

In any learning environment, this is the common process applied, whether called A.D.D.I.E. or an analogue:

  • There are Problems
  • Preferred solutions are known and become objectified targets
  • Learners acquire knowledge and skills to practice solutions, first guided and then independently
  • They revisit decisions to modify solutions were they learn they have fallen short
  • Recap: A summation of the learner’s solutions aligned to the preferred solutions
  • Look back: Review for changes in performance shortly after the learning and at intervals as necessary

Here is a brief taxonomy of learning techniques in use now and when designed to meet objectives quite useful. They also obviate the need for games and reward systems. Also, while most are part of traditional computer-based elearning they can easily be designed as disruptive, via migration to tablets/smartphones.

Low Level Online Learning Interactions
These are used primarily as checks for understanding, previews, and reviews. Once coded the content can be dropped in matching desired outcomes.

  • They include– Rubber Bands, Fill In’s, Drag & Drops, Matching, and both verbal and visual constructions are typical. The names are generic with many names for similar actions
  • The media has traditionally been Flash when built locally
  • Off the shelf products, e.g. Articulate, Captivate, Camtasia, Lectora, and other rapid authoring tools support basic interactions but are somewhat superficial given the need to employ these in a variety of environments
  • Mass market availability permits any instructional designer with knowledge of the tools to design for a series of learning based checks

Mid Level Interactive Techniques – as Guided Practice

  • Scenarios: For instance: Replication of ‘Office Events,’ Selling, Soft Skills, Application Use (Step by step w/correction)
  • Simulations: For example: Decision Making > On point, real time type action –oriented Sims with feedback loops for self-correction
  • Media: Static Images w/Voice Over, Avatars w/Voice Over, Simple Animations, Flash, HTML5 Most are one-offs where the content is very specialized, e.g., healthcare, though most can be generated using an authoring template.

Higher Level Techniques – Best used when moving from guided to independent practice

  • Virtual Realities w/Active Role Plays as Real Time Events
  • Stop Action Realities – Decision/Crisis Points
  • Real actors/real dialogue, built as a ‘digital shorts’
  • Could be avatars as actors but roles and actions are true to life and specific to the client’ need
    Media: Video, HTML5, Flash
    Quite a few of these become fully realized Games as the content is completely bespoke – custom made for each experience.

SUMMARY

If these are done well, and have meaning and utility for the delivery of knowledge, skills and behaviors, in content as diverse from salespersons to management training, the concept of gamification is superfluous – rendering it cartoonish and beneath the intellectual and cultural status of the learners.

The reality is elearning is best when it is highly interactive with an emphasis on true situations. Gamification, with its emphasis on rewards for achievement is not a learning tool. It is an attempt to motivate; to actually move learners from passivity to those who are committed to the topic at hand. I trust that well designed instruction requires neither badges, awards nor competitive scoring to create effective learning uptake and performance improvement. Let’s do a great job of developing compelling elearning and leave the Gamification on the shelf where it belongs.

WITH REGARDS TO mLEARNING: A CASE IN POINT OR UP IN THE AIR

I promised a colleague a week ago I’d share an experience I had producing a mobile learning project for a major airline. So to him, I apologize for this installment being a bit late…think of it as slow 3G, OK?

A caveat. So many of us are involved in love affairs with the latest technologies sometimes we forget to brake our enthusiasm and learn after too much money and effort that the latest isn’t always the greatest. Case in point is the following true story—a real business event that occurred far back enough that if executed today would be much more powerful because of current technology. Of course, the outcome would not be substantially different because the desired results would still be the same.

A few years back as a VP for a large computer solutions company in New York, one of our account executives specializing in elearning opportunities had managed to seduce a notoriously reticent airline into considering change from their mostly instructor led training to online education. Their target cohort was employees who worked, in their jargon, ‘above the wing.’ This title refers to anyone whose employment had nothing to do with aircraft, maintenance, baggage handling, etc. Instead—and most important to our story—these were the folks customers dealt with at the airport, at check in and on the concourse; ticket agents, gate agents and personnel, support staff and customer service agents assigned at two of their New York City airport locations.

This was, and actually still is, a young airline; established and branded for quality service and a unique series of amenities on their aircraft. Moreover, their preferred hires were/are youthful, adaptive, and enthusiastic. These trainees had the right stuff but lacked knowledge of procedures, policies and in some case behavioral insights into how to deal with all sorts of customers. They were also paid in ‘prestige’ dollars—not too far above minimum wage.

Training on the Fly
After hiring, a cohort of at least thirty trainees would be exposed to a minimum of 45 days in classrooms at their HQ not far from one of the airports. The training and the trainers, based on our observations, were good and often better, effective at conveying all the obvious information and many of the nuances of operating in a regulated environment with the general public. After passing a series of qualifying tests trainees got their uniforms and were sent out to the concourses and ticketing stations for field experience.

So far, so good.
After a week to ten days working in the real environment, meeting all sorts of challenges for which the airline thought they had been prepared, the drop-out rate—that is the number of resignations, topped 35% and sometimes upward of 40%. Extrapolating the training costs, the quant’s figured each loss was worth about $30,000. Each. Yikes. At a minimum, each training class represented a loss of around $300,000. What to do?

To their credit, the trainers devised an exit instrument asking each drop out specifically why they were leaving. In addition, before starting the next series of hires, managers spent much more time at the airport observing the activities of each trainee.

The results were brutal.
Though trainers thought they were preparing new hires to be self-sufficient and make good decisions, they discovered something unusual. While, almost to a person, trainees knew policies and procedures, they were paralyzed when situations veered away from the typical. For instance; while they could modify ticketing and even handle families needing special requirements, passengers who needed to make late changes to their itineraries and other point of attack problems, when a real crisis arose—for which neither they NOR THEIR SEASONED COLLEAGUES had been formally trained, they panicked. In those situations where a resolution came about it was because someone had learned through trial and error, ways to handle the challenge. Realizing no one can be trained to handle every type of emergency; nevertheless, without a substantial set of guidelines the organization was placing too much responsibility on inexperienced…mostly new trainees. Faced with too many nail-biting situations…and realizing neither the romance of air travel nor the respect they had anticipated with the uniform hardly balanced out the anxiety, abuse and low wages, there were substantial resignations.

This was the situation uncovered by my colleague. He also realized that the airline had no real solution—not one that was economically viable. Trainers recognized, to their credit, training had to change in a significant way. But how?

Here is what we proposed
Those parts of the training that worked well, like procedures, regulatory issues, basic airline operations and the roles and tasks for each position should remain in place. However, the time needed to accomplish competence, especially with a new manual and meaningful assessments we would design together, could be reduced if we migrated much of the rote material and built it online. This component would be replete with simulations and scenarios that would build more lifelike experiences into training EARLIER in the process. This would accomplish specific goals; transfer information for use in nominal situations and then prepare trainees for some of the real life challenges they would face on the job. In addition, invite those less committed to bolt before too many training dollars were exhausted. The online experiences would be reinforced with classroom role-plays that were frighteningly realistic. I know…I wrote them.

However, this was still not enough. In challenging situations, not so atypical of life on the concourse, no one could be expected to rise from panic with Zen-like tranquility, and resolve every issue. No, we figured, above the wing personnel needed the kind of manual pilots had when systems were not, shall we say, cooperating.

So we devised as part of the new manual and online learning, a smart help feature with plain language key word searches wherever possible. Using their Palm Pilots (I told you the technology was ‘old), which held the manuals and the full course in memory, trainees and experienced personnel could get immediate answers when called for by keying in simple phrases. In addition, we configured it to learn—so that when a new situation arose it could be posted and all above the wing personnel throughout the system could review it. What we found was that in more than 90% of the cases, some clever or talented employee had a viable answer. This would be added, after tagging, into the course for learning and smart help feature as well.

Here’s a real example
A young mother approaches the ticket counter at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as the late afternoon rush of business travelers started to crowd up the lines. She is pushing a stroller with an infant and has, by the hand, her 3-year-old daughter. She beseeches the ticket agent to move her seats so she can have easier access to the toilets. While the agent is reconfiguring the seating chart, he hears the mother say, “Honey, I told you not to eat that whole hot dog…now your tummy hurts…I know. Well as soon as we get done here, we’ll go get something to drink and go to the bathroom, OK?’ The child says, ‘But mommy I don’t feel so good now…” She then projectile vomits on her mother’s legs, the front of the ticket counter, and for good measure on the shoes of the businessman in the adjacent line.

Let’s just freeze this scene for a moment. Here are some things you should know, and that the gate agent had learned. Firstly, vomit is considered a hazardous substance. Hazmat regulations apply in all cases. Secondly, as we know all too well, the odor is a contagion that can set off ‘sympathetic’ reactions. Finally, the material was on not only the mother, but also airline property, the carpet and another customer.

What does this mean? Most importantly, the agent, even if he knew how to clean it up, and he had the implements to do so, was prevented by law from doing so. He knew that but what could he do? He whipped out his Palm and keyed in one word, “Vomit.” And unfurled before him was the entire procedure for handling such a case beginning with calling for security and a Hazmat team. Furthermore, it instructed him to close down the line, come out from behind the counter, and move everyone away from the affected area. Upon completing each operation, he checked it off the list. Thus, a record was generated of all actions taken. Also, it automatically sent the location of the event and alerted supervisory personnel. Clearly, this accomplished a huge gain in ameliorating a terrible situation, supported the agent preventing HIS panic, averted a larger catastrophe, and projected competence and professionalism manifested before the general public.

To sum up, by changing the training to an integrated education and knowledge management model resulting in just-in-time access to information through mobile learning, the airline not only began to resolve its somewhat informal emergency procedures, but was able, as new trainees were hired, to prepare them with a much more complete repertoire of real-life events to study. Finally, with real time access to help in emergencies, trainees had confidence in the procedures for those real life panic situations. When finally exposed to the concourse, trainees were better prepared for all situations. The retention rate held—only 12% dropped out.

Coda
A change in training management and budget considerations subsequently stalled the growth of the mLearning component. Interestingly, during the ensuing winter, freak snowstorms created havoc and this airline, with few procedures in place to manage a complex reshuffling of both equipment and personnel, could not sustain an angry public and government scrutiny. The CEO was let go, its once highly polished image and reputation for excellence in service tarnished (and— some say has never returned) and passengers loads shrank significantly for a long time. And, sitting in Fort Lauderdale International Airport waiting to see if my plane was one of the few, and last to leave, I watched in horror as the ticket and gate agents were forced to call airport security and then the police to keep order as passengers were panicking and personnel could not contain the chaos. Had our system been in place, a key word search for “grounded aircraft: storm”, would have directed a senior gate agent  to cordon off 3 lines for each of the New York bound flights, and begin to organize anxious passengers and further plan and communicate next steps.

I must admit I found it not a little bit satisfying. Oh, and even better, I did get the last flight out.