Thursday, December 23, 2010

L&D Strategy: Report to HR or Operations?

Last week I came across this post: An operational attitude towards learning on Karyn's erratic learning journey blog.  In it, Karyn Romeis expresses the point of view that Learning & Development departments should be moved out of HR and report up through operations.  This got my attention because at my company we are currently doing the opposite.  Our Learning & Development functions are being consolidated and moved from the business units into a Shared Services model that will report up through HR.  While I agree with Karyn's point that,  "L&D's job is all about performance, and performance is an operational thing."   I don't think it is necessary to report up through operations to be an effective business partner to them.  Throughout my career I have moved back and forth from reporting to HR to reporting directly to the Line of Business leaders that I support.  Having these varied experiences has made me a better all around learning professional.  I understand my business leaders' concerns and priorities and I am able to leverage the development resources available through HR.

In characterizing HR, Karyn makes a point that I don't agree with when she states, "HR is responsible for looking after people: their payroll, their working conditions, their treatment under employment law, etc. and has no direct accountability in terms of the organisation's business objectives."   In my company, the most most important aspects of the HR function are Organization Design, Talent Development, and Workforce Planning.   These are critical to achieving our company's business success.

I do believe that learning should be embedded in the workstream.  I don't see any reason why my department can't accomplish this while we are plugged into HR rather than our business unit leaders.   We are becoming an HR shared service, but we will still be part of our business leaders' extended teams.   Our business is rapidly transforming.  With the amount of change we have going on right now, we are in need of some major talent upgrades, new ways of managing, and there are many new work tasks to be performed.  I think L&D will be better resourced and well-positioned to help address these needs on a global scale operating from within Human Resources where we can easily partner with our Strategic Talent Management and Organizational Development counterparts.  Plus, since all of the learning professionals are coming into this department from the business, we will retain the operational perspective and networks.   Also of note, there are no geographical changes planned.  We will be consolidating into one department under a federated model, but the field based team members will still be embedded in their current locations. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Right Here in Our Own Little Community!

It has been just about four months since our formal instructional design standards committee morphed into the broader and less formal Innovations in Learning Community of Practice.  We are an internal company group that discusses different learning topics through Yammer each month.  At the end of the month, we have a virtual Meet-up to discuss the Yammer posts.  The core of the community is still made up of a handful of instructional designers from within my department, but we've grown modestly (29 members!) as we have widened our focus from instructional design, to workplace learning.  We have been joined by course developers from other learning groups within the company, classroom facilitators, marketing people, and line employees who have no formal role in workplace learning at all.

As a result of our recent growth, three exciting developments have occurred:
  1. The center of the community is shifting - I am pleased to say that community members from outside the original group from my department are taking an active role in the community.  For the first time, the topic discussion at our next virtual Meet-up will led by a community member from another department. 
  2. The "rules" and norms are changing - Not surprisingly, as other group members take an active role in the community, new rules and new norms are developing.   Timelines for discussions are extending and we are changing the format of our next virtual Meet-up a bit.  I couldn't be happier about this.   I was afraid that this was going to be viewed as "Mike's group."  Now I'm beginning to envision a day when I can step back to the fringes and let others take the lead.  I think it is still a ways away, but this is encouraging.
  3. We've attracted "hobbyists" who may want to turn "pro" - This is the most exciting development so far.  Two community members from line positions have reached out to me to discuss possible career opportunities in learning roles.  One of them is an enthusiastic hobbyist who has done a lot of communications work. She was attracted by our discussions about Articulate Presenter and has even gone as far a purchasing a software license so she can practice what she is learning.  The other is currently in a sales role. He is also in the final stages of completing his Master's in Adult Education. Besides adding new flavors to our community, both of these individuals are now on my radar screen for succession planning.
If you are interested in reading about our development up to this point, review these two previous posts:

Deciding between Formal and Informal Learning Approaches
Community Building with Yammer

And of course, tune back in a later date for additional updates.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Guilty of Learning Malpractice

Last week's #lrnchat discussion was on learning malpractice.  I love to join these Thursday night chats as often as I can. Unfortunately, I was unable to make this one.  What a pity.  From the looks of the transcript it was a lively discussion.  I definitely would have been able to contribute to this one.   After 22 years in workplace learning, I have seen just about every form of learning malpractice imaginable.  And I have to admit, that I am guilty of a few transgressions myself over the years.   Let's face it, at times Corporate America can be a tough place for a learning professional.   Business leaders often expect you to take their underperforming employees and run them through a training session as if it was a car wash. They want them to come out on the other side all squeaky clean and ready to go. In this type of environment, it is hard not to commit a few sins.

I wish I could say that after 22 years, I no longer commit learning malpractice. But the best I can do is tell you that I no longer commit felonies.  I'm still guilty of a few misdemeanors now and again.  Sometimes I do things that I know I shouldn't, just to please my internal clients.   My rationale is that if I commit a minor violation to appease a few key stakeholders, it creates some goodwill that helps us build our relationship.  This way I can get closer to them, their problems, their business issues, and their employee development needs.   I'm willing to make small trade-offs to be able to consult with them on the bigger issues where we can really help them with their business.   Some of you might be cringing as you read this.  You might be thinking, "As learning professionals we should never compromise our standards."  But others of you will relate to what I'm saying.   With the competitive pressures, pace of change, and depletion of resources through downsizings we all face, we do have to pick and choose our battles.

So here I write my latest confession:

Our flagship program is a three-month long onboarding for new sales executives that we first implemented in 2009.  I'm very proud of the work my team has done on this program. It is well designed and well-facilitated.  The metrics for program graduates have consistently been in the desired performance range.  When we first introduced this program, we did all the right things. We thoroughly analyzed the audience, work tasks, and expected outcomes.   We were thoughtful in how we set up our virtual learning environment.  We were diligent in our approach to developing and selecting learning activities.  We had lively discussion and healthy conflict among our stakeholders that helped to strengthen our decision-making.   All of this paid off as the program proved to be both effective, and cost-effective.   That is until this summer when we began rapidly transforming our organization and our workforce.   Suddenly, the number of participants enrolled in each new class began to jump through the roof.  And now we are seeing quite a variety of individuals many of them with very different skills and experiences than that of our original profile.  We had to make quite a lot of adjustments on the fly.   We've made changes to content and activities.  We've increased the maximum class size from 15 to 22 and added 25% more classes to the schedule.  Even with the additional classes we are still hitting our newly raised ceiling of 22 every time.  We've pressed new people into service to facilitate the additional classes with less preparation than we would like them to have had.

On all these counts, I'm guilty of learning malpractice.  But I throw myself on the mercy of the court.   I stayed as closely aligned to my business leaders as I could.  I wanted to stay alert and prepared to make changes as needed, but they just came too fast and too furiously this year.  Our onboarding program now resembles one of my local roads after a Connecticut winter: broken up with cracks and pot holes.  We've been filling them in as best we can, but it is still a bumpy ride for our learners right now.   In November, we are reconvening the team to discuss repaving the road for 2011.  I hope I'll be done serving my time by then.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Must Read: Social Media for Trainers

Jane Bozarth recently published a new book called Social Media for Trainers. I would put it on the list of "essential reads" for anyone in the workplace learning field. Social media and Web 2.0 tools are too important into today's world for the learning community to ignore. Most true learning takes place informally and through peer-to-peer connections. Social media provides a platform to make that happen more easily. If you are really interested in helping people be successful at work or move forward with their development needs, you cannot ignore the power of these tools and their potential for learning.

The book covers how to use social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, blogs and wikis - and a few others - for learning purposes. Each of the key tools is given its own chapter. Each chapter begins with a description of the tool in a nutshell, a deeper look into the tool, advantages and disadvantages of selecting one tool over another, how and why you might use some of the tools together, and why you might choose one tool over another. Then the chapters provide a barrage of ideas and practical ways the tool being covered can be used for learning purposes. There are suggestions on how to use the tools as primary vehicles for learning and how to use them to supplement or extend programs or courses (that are delivered in the classroom or through other media) by using the social media tools for pre-work, intercession work and post work.

If you are not a social media user already, the book will help you get started. If you are a familiar with social media tools, but haven't used them for learning, you will be amazed at how many learning activities are possible. Of course, not all of them will be right for every learning situation or workplace culture, but there is enough here to choose from so everyone can come away with at least one or two practical ideas.

Here are a few quick hits I picked up about some of the tools:

- Learners can use Twitter to talk to an expert. You can follow anyone with a Twitter account and if you reach out to an author or expert about their work, many are happy to respond.

- For me the biggest surprise in the book is how versatile Facebook is. I generally have only used Facebook for personal connections and favor other social media tools for work purposes, but Facebook has so many capabilities that it can be used to for everything from communication to course management.

Blogs - These can be great tools for learning reflection. But you must keep in mind, blogs are heavily dependent on writing skills. If that doesn't match your audience profile, blogs may not be the way to go.

Wikis - Unlike the other tools which are primarily set up for comment and response interactions, wikis allow true collaboration. Learners can jointly create pages such as shared class notes for FAQs.

There is so much more in the book.  Get it.  Read it.  Use it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Thinking too much...about Personal Knowledge Management

I came across this comic today while exploring links on Twitter.  It captures how I feel some days very well.  There is so much knowledge sharing going on in the web 2.0 world that it seems impossible that anyone could keep it all in their head without it exploding.

Head Explode

Thank goodness for bookmarking sites like, digg, and diigo that help us with personal knowledge management.  Although - I find that the people in my network alone have enough to share to keep me overloaded for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Community Building with Yammer

I always have to remind myself that whenever we try new approaches to learning at work things start slowly, build gradually, eventually gain momentum, and ultimately become institutionalized.  Right now I am in the "starts slowly" phase with my attempt to create a Community of Practice out of a loosely formed group of people who are interested in workplace learning at my company.

But isn't that the way an online community is supposed to form? An individual shares some content online that is of personal interest.  Others with common interests discover it and share similar content of their own.  Conversations begin to flow about it.  After a while one person puts up a flag and calls it a group.  That is exactly what is happening with our Innovations in Learning group.  What is the Innovations in Learning group?

It is a Yammer-based Community of Practice group open to anyone in my company who is interested in workplace learning. The group primarily comprises learning professionals but we encourage anyone interested in learning to join the conversations.  We decided to focus on a new topic each month using Yammer for discussion and sharing resources, links, and articles.  At the end of each month, we have a virtual Meet-up using Microsoft Live Meeting. Our topic for September is Video Conferencing. We will discuss the topic asynchronously throughout the month. Our Meet-up is scheduled for September 24.  A week before the Meet-up I will send meeting invitations to all group members through Yammer.   I'll include the discussion questions that we will go through during the Meet-up.

We had our first Meet-up in August.  Only six of our 23 members participated in the month-end discussion.  Despite the low turn-out, I'm encouraged.  This is new to everyone.  It was only our first meeting.  As I said earlier, we are in the "starts slowly" phase.  I know the momentum will build and that ultimately our community will thrive.   Once the members of our group get comfortable with the process, I envision us replicating it to foster learning communities around other topics that are important in our company.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Pros and Cons of Podcasting

I have never been one to get too excited over podcasts.   I know there are a good number of people who like to listen to audio content on their mobile devices or while driving in the car.  Me?  I prefer to listen to something like Pink Floyd or the Grateful Dead when I have a little down time, so podcasts have never been my thing.   That being said, they do have their place among delivery media.  And since most of my learners are sales and service professionals who do spend a lot of time in their cars, I have had my team create a podcast library of downloadable resources for "learning on the go."

This week in the class that I'm currently taking at FSU, we discussed the benefits and limitations of podcasts as a medium for learning.  As good collaborative learners do, we created some very nice lists.   I thought they had a lot of good points, so I'm reprinting them here:

Potential Benefits of Using Audio Podcasts 
  1. Portability e.g. easy to load on an iPod or similar device and consume content on the fly
  2. Well suited for distributing content that doesn't require visual support e.g. facts, opinions, and the like
  3. Good for audiences who need information on the fly - salespeople and service people who spend a lot of time in cars can listen as they drive
  4. Good for content that is audio-oriented, such as learning a language, subtle or sensitive communication topics, learning how to play music, or create sound effects
  5. Make better sense of computer images when accompanied by audio by providing an explanation
  6. Encourage deeper thought when providing audio instruction by asking questions. (Not a benefit unique to audio podcasts?)
  7. Audio-only podcasts can be fairly inexpensive to produce (microphone, software)
  8. Audio-only podcasts allow students who have dyslexia the opportunity to learn material without being hindered by the challenges of reading words on a page (this was from our reading of Harris and Park, 2008)
  9. Can Provide specific customization of information to be learned by the learner as a stand alone, or in addition to original instruction
  10. Audio materials can be presented in multiple languages, to target a larger, more diverse audience of learners
  11. Podcasts can be used to reinforce lecture concepts
  12. Students can work at their own pace, starting and stopping when necessary, and replaying key points of the lecture/podcast as they deem necessary
  13. Good for relaying repeated information, leaving teachers more time for higher level instruction (i.e. podcast library or museum tour, as mentioned in the Harris and Park article)
  14. Podcasts are a medium that teens/younger students can identify with and be motivated to use
  15. Because sound effects are accessible in the public domain, you can create a unique environment that matches the sound and feeling of the content being taught fairly inexpensively vs. trying to create a classroom or video experience
  16. Hearing a voice and providing an "eye" break is a huge benefit to online learning. With all the book, article, online reading, sometimes it is nice to have a voice and a "eye" break
  17. Provides learners the opportunity to review and re-review information an unlimited number of times 
Potential Limitations of Using Audio Podcast
  1. Not well suited for complex subjects that necessitate visual support to fully comprehend e.g. mathematics for example
  2. Violates Mayer's multimedia effect when not designed correctly
  3. Can only be effective for short topics
  4. Passive medium
  5. Does not support learning if students are not attentive, therefore the audio must keep the student involved, e.g. asking questions (similar to & elaboration of item 4)
  6. The loss of non-verbal cues (body language, supportive material)from the speaker may affect the intent of the message/speaker
  7. Aural memory is limited in the retention of information, but this can be overcome in audio-only instruction by the learner being able to control the audio presentation by pausing and replaying the information
  8. Audio files take up a lot of space on a computer's hard drive
  9. Some people are visual/kinesthetic learners, that is they learn primarily by seeing someone do something or doing it themselves
  10. Audio output quality is only as good as its weakest component, which is often the system's speakers. It was pointed out that high quality sound it a necessity for us aging listeners and for those with other hearing losses
  11. Lacks feedback. Learner is unable to ask questions or clarify information being presented
  12. If targeted toward a specific audience, some previous knowledge of the subject matter is assumed(Difficult to gear toward a universal audience)
  13. Does not allow for multiple representations of the material, only auditory
  14. Audio only podcasts may be longer than necessary if using words to describe a concept that a picture could teach faster
  15. Requires an audio output device, which may not be present on all computers (no speakers on some public-access machines in offices, libraries, etc.)
  16. If the learner is not as proficient in the spoken language, it could be limiting especially when accents and territorial dialect are added in to the mix
  17. Does not allow for nonverbal cues (already listed in item 6)
This list comes to you courtesy of the Fall 2010 EME6415 class at Florida State University.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Instructional Design is Not Dying

Instructional Design has been on mind lately. Having just finished reflecting on my first year experiences as a blogger and as a member of the web 2.0 learning community, I realize that a lot of my focus over the last year has been on informal learning topics. I started this blog as a way to explore web 2.0 tools, partly to educate myself, and partly to contribute and share what I could with others about my experiences as I attempt to integrate these technologies into workplace learning. This got me thinking about how little of my explorations have been focused on instructional design for formal learning. Then I read this blog post Is Instructional Design Dying? over at the eLearning Authority this morning which compelled me to write this tonight.

I’ve been working in learning & development roles for a number of years. First and foremost I consider myself to be an instructional designer. And while I admit that I no longer spend as much of my time involved in rigorous design these days, it informs everything that I do. Yes, we are in the non-linear age of elearning programs and informal learning but does that mean we should abandon systems thinking? Just because we develop elearning rapidly, it doesn’t mean we have to do it poorly. Don’t we still need to analyze tasks and learner behavior to know what needs to go into a rapid elearning course? And even though we may not be able to prescribe the path our learners take as they pursue their learning goals through informal means, can’t we still be thoughtful and creative about what we place in their path?

Like many who are using rapid elearning tools today, early in my career my approach to instructional design was based on intuition. Trial and error was my course development process. I remember my excitement when I first encountered the Dick & Carey model. It allowed me to be more deliberate in my approach to design and my results were consistently better.

Some people criticize the Dick & Carey model for being too rigid and inflexible for learning in today’s world. To those people I would say, “It’s a model.” It is a representation of our reality, but it is not our reality. It is up to us as learning professionals to bring insight, flexibility, and creativity to the design process.

A few years ago, I gave away my copy of The Systematic Design of Instruction - a great reference book on how to apply the Dick & Carey model - to a new staff member in my department who was just beginning her career as a course developer. Earlier this year, I bought a new copy for myself because even though things are changing, it is still important to my work.  But if I come across another enthusiastic novice course developer, I just might give this copy away too.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Happy Anniversary to Many Ways to Learn!

Incredible as it may seem (to me anyway) today is the one year anniversary of the Many Ways to Learn blog. I posted my first entry on August 7, 2009. At the time, every training journal, magazine and newsletter was loaded with articles about social media. (It seems they still are!) Up until then, I had been indifferent to social media. My only experience with it was a half completed profile and a dozen connections on Linkedin, and watching my kids connect with their friends on Facebook. But after being bombarded and bludgeoned with articles on how social media was the biggest thing to hit the training industry since the advent of elearning, I thought I’d better investigate it. So I simultaneously started this blog, created a Twitter account, completed my profile on LinkedIn and began reaching out to people to see what would happen. It was going to be my own mini social experiment.

Not knowing what to expect, I approached all of this with a bit of skepticism. My perception of social media was that people were wasting time tweeting things like, “I’m taking a shower now” or “I’m moving from the couch to the loveseat.” At that time, I had no understanding of the value it could bring. I enjoyed writing the blog entries, but I never thought anyone would actually read them.

Here it is one year later. As I reflect on my social media experiences over this last year, I’d have to say they have been both fruitful and satisfying. Here are a few things, I have learned:

  • People are interested in what I have to say – incredible as it may seem to me, people do read my blog. Not by the thousands, but a by the hundreds each month. Each time I publish a new post, I get a spike in readers so I know I have a few subscribers out there. It is good to know that I can contribute to other people’s learning and enjoyment in at least some small way.
  • There are many thriving virtual communities – whatever you may be interested in, there are people out there who are interested in the same things. I love instructional design. I’ve been lucky enough to find a community of people who are interested in workplace learning. Many of them now are my Twitter and LinkedIn contacts. It is great to have people to talk to who are genuinely interested in what I like to do. My family and friends are bored to death by the things I write about in this blog.
  • Hobbyists, not professionals, make up the heart of virtual communities – within each community you will find experts, enthusiastic novices, and everything in between. And while there are many professionals on line, they are not the ones who do the bulk of the information sharing. Since they sell their content and expertise, they can’t really give it all away. On the other side of the coin, the hobbyists have no profit motive so they are free to share whatever they like.
  • Social media enables you to connect directly to thought leader and experts – the amazing thing about social media is that you can connect with just about anyone. Thought leaders, authors, and even celebrities (if you so choose) will not only accept you as a follower, but in some cases will follow you back. It is great to be able to discuss a topic with the person who originated the idea or wrote the book. Prior to social media, this ease of access was not possible.
  • There are no geographic boundaries on the connection possibilities – this is an obvious one but it is still worth mentioning. I live in Connecticut but I have social media contacts that I regularly engage with all over the country, in Canada, the UK, Germany, India and Australia. How wonderful is that?
  • Twitter can lead to real business opportunities – Some social media contacts can be converted into face-to-face business contacts. I recently hired a vendor to deliver Virtual Team Building training for a group of our managers who I met because she was following me on Twitter. I’ve had other contacts deliver proposals for services I might consider using in the future.
  • There are a myriad of web 2.0 tools out there, and many of them are free – there is way more to the Web 2.0 world than just blogging and tweeting. Thank goodness for people like Jane Hart, who aggregate lists of tools to save the rest of us the leg work.
  • It is possible to effectively collaborate at a distance – I manage a virtual team. I’m in Connecticut. I have two team members in Georgia, one in Ohio and one in Florida. We are able to work together at a distance by sharing our desktops, storing files in shared workspaces, and using online collaboration tools.
  • Real learning does take place through social media – I’m living proof of that. A year ago I knew nothing about social media. Now I use several different tools to regularly to connect with people inside and outside my company. I’m doing things inside my company that I learned from my external social media connections and experiences. The informal learning that takes place online is real and powerful.
There are probably a million other things I could list here, but I won’t - at least not now. One year into this “experiment” I am convinced that I’d be crazy to give it up. The connections I’ve made through social media are too valuable to cast aside. I contribute to the online learning community and I get a lot out of it too. Plus, I’m having fun!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Using Social Media for Learning

I put together this presentation for a Web 2.0 class I'm taking at Florida State University. It presents a process for learning through social media, an example of how the process works based on my personal experiences, and an invitation to connect with me to share bookmarks on Check it out and let me know what you think. If you want to add me to your network on you can find me here.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Leader of the (not too distant) Future

One of the books on my summer reading list was The 2020 Workplace by Jeanne C. Meister & Karie Willyerd.   As many books have done before, it focuses on the changing demographics of the workplace.  What is different this time around is that the focus is not on differences of race or ethnicity,  rather it is on generational differences.  Much of the book is based on two global surveys: one conducted with working professionals; the other with employers.  One of key points highlighted in chapter 2 is that the 2020 workplace will host five generations workers at the same time. Millenials (those born between 1977 and 1997) will comprise the bulk of the workforce (47%).  They will be sharing the workplace mainly with Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and members of Generation X (1965-1976), along with a handful of Traditionalists (born prior to 1946) and Generation 2020 (born after 1997).

My daughter is working as an intern at my company this summer.  In two years she will graduate college and join me in the full-time work force.   Two years later my son will graduate and join us as well.  The two of them have very different thoughts and expectations about work and learning than I do.  As I watch how they interact with their friends, I try to imagine what it will be like when their generation becomes the dominant presence in work place.  The implications for how we will need to prepare for generational differences in approaches to learning, communication, and working together in general are profound.  This got me thinking, "how managing is going to need to change?"

In chapter 7 of the book, titled Accelerated Leadership, Meister & Willyerd provide some answers. They present an integrated model of leadership and management that describes the kind of leader that will be needed and some of the behaviors that will be required in the course of managing.  The five leadership areas they identify are as follows:
  1. Collaborative Mind-set - leaders will need to be comfortable engaging in inclusive decision-making, networked leadership and soliciting feedback.
  2. Developer of People - leaders will need to mentor and coach their teams, provide honest feedback, career guidance and learning opportunities.
  3. Digitally Confident - leaders will need to be able to use technology to connect to employees - and customers.
  4. Global Citizen - leaders will need to have a diverse mind-set, be able to work well cross-culturally, and exhibit social responsibility.
  5. Anticipates and Builds for the Future - leaders will need to champion innovation and build accountability across levels to bring about the desired future state.
With many Boomers exiting the work force over the next decade, and the relatively small number of Generation Xers that there are in the first place, many of the 2020 leadership positions will need to be filled by Millenials.  So not only will we have to figure out how to lead this generation, but we will have to figure out how to be led by them.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Social Media Tools within Social Media Tools

I recently came across a Twitter post from @simbeckhampson which brought me to this Youtube video.  It is a video of Paul Simbeck-Hampson in Bavaria demonstrating Amplify which is an autopost tool that automatically posts something you've written in one social media to another, or several others.   For example, you can post something on Amplify and have it simultaneously (well nearly) posted to Facebook, Twitter and other networks.

But the really cool thing about this demo is how many social media tools are being used here at once.  Paul is demonstrating the power of Amplify connectivity in Second Life by showing how a post made there can get across to multiple networks with one hit.  He shows us his Twitter feed and Facebook feed and a few others along the way.  He then posts the whole thing on Youtube, and now you are reading about it in a blog. Pretty cool stuff!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Good Read: Here Comes Everybody

This summer I'm taking a class on Web 2.0-based Learning and Performance at Florida State University.  As part of the course requirements, I'm currently reading the book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, by Clay Shirky. So far it is a great read.  I wish I had it on my radar screen sooner. The first few chapters are interesting. Shirky uses sociological and economic points-of-view along with common sense examples to explain the growth of online communities.  I'm not even half way through the book yet, but what I've read so far has really brought into perspective how large an impact Web 2.0 tools have had, and will continue to have on how we organize and interact with each other in online communities.  A few key points, I've found interesting so far:

  • Levels of involvement in the Web 2.0 world can be viewed as rungs on a ladder.  The first rung is sharing, the second is cooperation, and the third is collective action.   Collective action empowers communities to bring about change.
  • Groups grow in levels of complexity faster than they grow in size.  The more people there are in a group, the more relationships there are among those people.
  • The growth of personal publishing and communities in the Web 2.0 world can be largely attributed to the drastic collapse of costs that have previously made it impractical.  Think about the effort it would take to organize photo sharing around a specific event.  Now people take their pictures and post them and by using common tags they can all be brought together.
  • Social media used in the workplace fosters a knowledge sharing that is neither directed by management nor driven by profit motives. Instead it is driven by personal interest, which may sometimes benefit a company economically. 
  • Personal communication and formal publishing are blurred in the Web 2.0 world.  I'm a huge hockey fan, I get a lot of my news from following hockey writers on their blogs and on twitter along with reading their articles published through formal media outlets.
  • In the past, organizations could only do what was practical. There options were limited to taking institutional action on something or no action.  Social media tools provide a new alternative; action by loosely structured groups.
  • Web 2.0 tools have enabled the mass amateurization of fields such as journalism and photography.  Someone who is in the right place at the right time may be able to capture a great picture or a story to share even though they are not a professional.
  • Sharing proceeds gathering in the Web 2.0 world.  Traditionally it was the other way around. Communities were formed by people gathering together and then sharing information.
Some of these points may seem obvious, but I find a few of them to be quite profound.   They are helping me reframe my thinking around how I might foster online communities and informal learning opportunities in my work.  Although I haven't finished the book yet, I was too excited not to share some of what I read so far.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Learning vs. Recruiting: Who Would Win a Social Media War?

As someone who is focused on management development, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to capitalize on social media to promote informal learning inside my company. With many of the other learning people in my company focused on formal course development or delivery, I sometimes feel like I’m alone in this endeavor. This caused me to reflect on where the learning community in general is in the cycle of social media adoption. As a point of reference, I thought about this question in comparison to our HR counterparts, particularly those who are involved in recruiting. Here is what I’ve concluded:

"If learning people faced recruiting people in a social media war, the learning people would lose."

We would lose because we don’t have the numbers and because it is not in the forefront of our minds as we approach our work.

Although this is not scientific, here is the evidence on which I base my conclusion:

Point #1 - I recently attended the Technology Assisted Learning Conference in Chicago. It was co-located with the Social Media for Recruitment Conference. The conference organizers set up a monitor and a special twitter hashtag (#socialrecruitment) for the recruiter conference, but did not do this for the learning conference. Granted, the title of the recruiter conference was “Social Media for Recruitment”, but the title of the learning conference was “Technology Assisted Learning.” Shouldn’t it have at least been a consideration that a social media hookup would be needed or wanted by learning conference attendees?

Point #2 - I occasionally post questions on the Chief Learning Officer discussion forum. When I have posted questions about traditional topics such as learning metrics, I’ve gotten at least a few responses. But when I asked the questions, “Are you using web 2.0 tools for learning?” and “Are you using microblogging as a learning tool?” I got zero responses. I posed a similar question on an ASTD discussion forum. After five months the post finally garnered a reply. It was someone commenting how disappointing it was that I had no replies to date. He further went on to say, “The lack of response here seems to show that in general we as a population are a little behind the times.”

Point #3 - I am a member of several LinkedIn groups. On occasion when I write blog entries that I think will be of interest to members of those groups, I share the links to my blog posts. Two groups that I belong to are called, “Social Media and the Learning Function” and Social Media in Organizations” (which was formerly titled Social Media in HR). I get a lot of comments and traffic from HR group, but rarely if ever have I seen a comment on one of my posts from the Learning Function group.

Point #4 - As a final kicker, not long ago my local ASTD Chapter hosted an excellent and informative meeting on social media usage. Our guest speaker who led the discussion was… a recruiter.

I know there is a solid core of learning professionals who are active in social media who I would gladly follow into battle. But there are many others who have yet to take up the sword.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

This Week at the Technology Assisted Learning Conference...

I spent the first half of this week in Chicago at Corporate University's Technology Assisted Learning Conference.  The conference was small, but impactful.  It provided a nice mix of presentations by industry thought leaders pointing out near-horizon future directions, and case examples from practitioners who are making good use of currently available technologies for their learners today.  As an added benefit, the conference was co-located with Social Media for Recruitment. Both conferences' schedules were aligned to allow for networking.   And although the conference was small, it did attract a wide range of attendees, including participants from a variety of industries (Finance, Real Estate, Technology) and geographies (Saudi Arabia, The Netherlands).  I was proud to be listed among a great group of speakers that included Allison Rossett, Tony O'Driscoll, and Charles Beckham each of whom delivered presentations that lived up to expectations to be the highlights of the event.

Dr. Rossett started things off with a keynote address on creating engaging elearning.  She shared practical advice organized into a list of "5 Essentials" which I summarized in my notes as:  The Right Stuff (relevant content), Guidance (providing certainty through clear navigation and instructions), Active (setting the level of challenge in the zone of proximal development), Relationships and Connectivity (capturing the power of the social experience), and There When Needed (clear, accessible, nothing unrelated).  Shortly afterwards, Tony O'Driscoll took the podium to bring us all into the immersive world of Learning in 3D as described in the book he co-authored with Karl Kapp (who's pre-conference workshop I unfortunately missed.)  Towards the end of the day Charles Beckham walked us through applications for the new social learning community platform, Jambok.

These were the expected highlights of the event.   However, sandwiched in and around these presentations were case studies highlighting technology applications in learning from a variety of companies.  I got to kick things off in the opening slot on day two with a case on our virtual approach to onboarding.  It was such a pleasure to be able to share the work we are doing with others in the learning community.  With that out of the way, I enjoyed presentations highlighting practices at The Nielsen Company (global learning community of practice), Harley Davidson (global elearning translation and deployment - and very high on the cool factor), excellRx, Inc. (using avatars - without making them too creepy!), AIMCO (creating cheap, effective, viral video) and others.

All in all, it was a blast.  This was Corporate University's first Technology Assisted Learning Conference.  I have a feeling it is an event that will grow in popularity over time.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Using Yammer for Learning

 If you are a reader of this blog, you know that I have written a few posts about my experiences with Yammer and how my team uses it to encourage and foster informal learning in my company. Having read a few of my entries, the kind folks over at Yammer invited me to take a turn as guest blogger.

Check out the post over at the Yammer blog: Try Yammer; Maybe You'll Learn Something

You can also review my previous entries about Yammer in this blog: @dorothy there's no place like home #ozSocial Media Strategy for Learning, Formalizing Informal Learning and Yammering On; Others Yammer Back 

Yammer is increasingly becoming an important part of the way we work in my company.  It has also challenged us to think about how people learn in a hyper-connected world.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Coaching Remote Employees Can Be Quite a Ride

My son just got his driver's license.  I was nervous when he went out to take his road test because it was a rainy day with wet road conditions.  But no matter; in the weeks leading up to his test, we spent plenty of time in the car together, so he was ready.   I'd done the same thing with my daughter two years earlier.  I used the same approach with both of them but the experience was very different.   When my daughter was learning to drive, she verbalized everything she was thinking and feeling and asked me a lot of questions.  I always knew where should stood and what help she needed from me.   With my son, it was just the opposite.   We would get in the car and drive together in silence.  Every once in a while I would ask him, "How is it going?"  or "What questions to do you have?"   Most often he'd reply by saying, "I'm good" and would continue driving. 

One day as we drove a long in silence, I started to think about work.  In the last few months, we have been doing a lot of work helping managers who are leading virtual teams.   This is something that I think about a lot.  I've written about it twice before: in January and again in April of this year.  On this particular day, I was thinking about the challenges managers face in trying to coach remote workers. Coaching employees in general can be a challenge, but being separated by distance (and perhaps time) adds another level to the challenge.

I began to think about what it would be like for a manager who had to coach remote employees who had personalities like my two children.   A manager coaching someone like my daughter would probably welcome the feedback.  She certainly gives you enough to work with, but there is always the danger of getting off track.  On the other hand, a manager coaching someone like my son might find his silences difficult to interpret from a distance.  This got me thinking about how important it is for us to continually reinforce the advice we provide to our managers who coach remote employees.   Here are some of the key points we try to drive home with them:
  1. Use a Combination of Scheduled and Impromptu Coaching Sessions - It is important to have regularly scheduled coaching sessions with remote employees.   But don't pass up an opportunity to pick up the phone in between sessions when there is something important to discuss.
  2. Use Technology Tools to Keep You on the Same Page - In this day and age, there are a lot more technology options than just using the telephone.  Use web conferencing tools, wikis, or blogs for shared note taking.   If possible, use webcams with a service such as Skype to allow a more "face-to-face" type interaction.
  3. Start, but don't Stop with Results - You probably have metrics and performance indicators that will make discussing work outputs with your employee feel very natural, but don't stop there.  Use performance results as a jumping off point into a deeper discussion about work activity and resource needs.
  4. Listen Carefully to Your Employee - It is important to stay focused on your employee during remote coaching sessions.   Busy managers must avoid the temptation to multi-task.   Use active listening techniques such as clarifying, paraphrasing and giving feedback.
  5. Probe Silences - Don't allow silences, hesitancies or unreturned phone calls to go unexplored.  Unlike driving lessons with my son, managers of remote employees don't have the advantage of actually seeing what is going on to compensate for what is not being said.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Deciding between Formal and Informal Approaches

Our department has recently gone through - let's call it a bit of a "refresh."   As a result of this, we have been lucky enough to fill three positions with people who have instructional design skills and experience.   This is a nice supplement to the folks who are doing course development work in the department already.   Now we have a nice mix of experienced and novice developers.  We have some full-time instructional designers.  We also have instructors and facilitators who do some part-time course development work.   In any event, with the three new additions I'm excited by the capabilities we now have on the team.   Now I'm trying to figure out the best way to help the new people learn about our company and our processes. At the same time, I need to consider how we can do more to develop our novice course developers.

When our department was first formed (a few transformation projects ago!), we set up an instructional design standards committee.   I chair this committee.  Our work thus far has focused on outlining a course development process to ensure quality, consistency and efficiency for the learning programs that are produced in our department.   To that end we created a Course Development Map which breaks down our internal instructional design process into four phases:  proposal, design and development, implementation, and course maintenance.   The map outlines the steps in each phase and includes links to tools that can be used to complete some of the steps.   Along with the Course Development Map, we also created an Instructional Design Standards performance support tool to help specifically with developing instruction.  It includes guidelines for writing and evaluating objectives, suggestions for activities and interactions, skins for e-learning, templates for ILT workbooks and leaders' guides, and guidelines for fonts and graphics that align with our corporate branding and color schemes.

Okay, so here is my dilemma:

Our new instructional designers are all enthusiastic about contributing to the team.  All three have asked to join the committee.  We already have sufficient representation from each of the sub-teams in our department.  I'm concerned that if these new people join, the committee will become too large an ineffective.  This got me thinking: our process and standards are already in place.  We do tweak them from time-to-time based on feedback collected during various design projects, but we haven't made any major process changes in a while.  Perhaps we no longer need the top-down approach.  Instead of the committee, we might form a Community of Practice that would allow everyone to contribute and share best practices around instructional design and learn informally.  Our novice designers could learn from our experts; our new employees could learn from our tenured ones.

But is this really a better approach?  The new employees and novices might need more structure and defined learning goals.

It seems that my situation mirrors the discussions about whether or not to use formal or informal learning.   Similar to the tools created by our committee, formal learning is a great way to help novices learn the ropes.  It is structured, with clearly defined outcomes, timelines, and measures.  With this approach we can be sure our new designers will learn the things we want them to know.  On the other hand, the Community of Practice approach promotes informal learning.  It is natural, fluid and voluntary.  The outcomes are not as clearly defined but that may encourage deeper investment, learning beyond our minimum requirements, and creation of new knowledge.

 So, if you were in my place what would you do?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Exploring the Elements of Online Communication

Although we are all connecting with each other online through one medium or another, there is really a small, finite set of content elements that make up the core of what we communicate.  Over at his excellent blog Clive on Learning, Clive Sheperd writes that "all online communication, whether that’s published content, live online events or social media, make use of the same key media elements: text, audio, images, animation and video."  He has put together an e-book of some of his blog posts that cover these media elements to help e-learning designers, virtual classroom facilitators, and online communicators in general to know how and when to use each of these elements to construct effective online communication.

For each element he describes what it is good for, what it is not so good for, how it should be optimized for online delivery, how it combines with the other elements, and how it is represented online.

It makes a handy little reference tool.  And if you are not into e-books, don't worry.  He has assembled the original blog posts with links on a single page so you can access the information that way as well.

Follow the link to Clive's blog below to check it out:

Clive on Learning: Media Chemistry – exploring the elements of online communication

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Who Leads Workplace Collaboration?

Last week a cancellation in my calendar afforded me the opportunity to attend the Chief Learning Officer webinar titled, Enterprise Collaboration: Can You Connect Social Learning and Business Performance? As with most lunchtime webinars, I approached this one with tempered expectations. I go into these things with the hope that I might pick up at least a gem of an idea, or something that sparks my thinking. This session delivered both. Presenters Eric Bruner and Butler Newman of RWD alternated taking the lead on describing the culture shift taking place (or that should be taking place!) in learning and organizations related to the use of social media for business performance.

After walking us through a slide reminding us of Josh Bersin's Evolution of Corporate Learning, from the 1990's through today, they uncovered the gem of the day as they began describing what a collaborative performance workplace looks like. The description contained three key components:

Process Centered Collaboration (PCC) - characterized as taking place directly in the workflow, where workers can get persistent, formal and informal help, in context, to create transparent knowledge - but, in which participation is optional.

Communities of Practice (CoP) - described as being business-driven groups, formed across organizational boundaries that have a common focus, performing measureable, process-related work.

Communities of Interest (CoI) - described as interest-based groups, formed around an area of common focus for the benefit of the individuals or the community - again, in which participation is optional.

So if you wanted to draw this up as a formula, you could say:

Collaborative Culture = PCC + CoP + CoI

As the session continued Eric and Butler went on to talk about key roles in the collaborative work environment. The two obvious ones are community manager and technology steward. Then they followed up the gem, with the spark: They began talking about the leadership needed to sustain performance in the collaborative work environment. They stated that the CLO is in the best position to think about social media integration and therefore has to be the vanguard leader for collaboration in the business. I thought that was interesting. I had always thought someone in Marketing or IT would be best suited to take the lead in the social media arena, but after they said it, it immediately made sense. Who could be better than a learning person to grasp the necessary organizational context, process performance, and people readiness needed to launch and sustain a collaborative work environment?

As the webinar wound down, the presenters shared how the CLO would fulfill that role. It would be done by:
  • providing strong communication
  • becoming the community builder
  • embracing user-generated content (still a tough one in many organizations)
  • managing top-down; engaging all stakeholders along the way
  • making sure that process-centered collaboration is in the work flow; not appended on to it.
For those of us who work in corporate learning organizations, it certainly does throw a challenge our way.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Virtual Team Leadership

One of the topics that has become an important component of the management training we conduct at my company is Leading Virtual Teams.  With the growing trends of agile and mobile workers, it seems to be an issue that comes up in every management training needs analysis we do these days. Ultimately, it ends up as a key component in the training we deliver and the follow-up coaching we provide.

I am constantly browsing for resources on virtual team leadership that I can share with managers in my company.  I recently came across the presentation below on SlideShare. It is from Camille Preston at AIM Leadership.  It is more of a mini-eBook than a presentation.  The core content is built around four things that virtual leaders need to do:
  1. Care to Collaborate
  2. Connect to Communicate
  3. Filter to Focus
  4. Pause for Perspective
The gist of the message is that "to be effective, virtual leaders learn who they are working with, what matters most to that person, and how to set that person up to be successful."  They do this through focus and reflection.   Check it out:

Saturday, April 3, 2010

New Skills for Instructional Designers

The annual Learning Solutions 2010 Conference put on by Learning Solutions Magazine and the eLearning Guild was held this week in Orlando.   Think of it as sort of a "spring break for elearning geeks."  Unfortunately it was not in the cards for me to attend.   But no matter; in this age of social media, it is pretty easy to pick up the highlights of an event through twitter, YouTube, SlideShare, etc.  So the only thing you really miss is the opportunity to say hello to friends that you haven't seen in a while, or colleagues that you have only met on line.

One of the sessions that caught my attention was titled New Skills for Instructional Designers presented by Cammy Bean, Koreen Olbrish, and Ellen Wagner.  They introduced a fresh take on the skills used by instructional designers depicted in the four-quadrant diagram above.  It incorporates Learning & Performance, Creativity, Technology, and Business Insight to describe the role.  Essentially, their message is "to be an instructional design professional, you need to attend to all four quadrants."

I was able to piece together a few items related to their presentation:

Here is a description of the four quadrants, courtesy of Claudine Caro's blog:

I = Learning, Pedagogy & Assessment
  • Adult learning theory
  • Instructional Design theory
  • Assessment and quizzes
  • Curriculum Design
  • Defining learning objectives
 D = Creativity & Production
  • Facilitation/ instructors
  • Writing
  • Video Production
  • Audio
  • Graphics Design
  • Games Design
  • Animation
 I = Business Intelligence
  • Business needs assessment/analysis
  • ROI
  • A seat at the C-level table
  • Project Management
T = Architecture & Implementation
  • Authoring Tools
  • Programming
  • Learning Management Systems
  • QA
  • Tracking and Reporting

Check out the presentation deck from their session, courtesy of SlideShare:

 And check out Ellen Wagner delivering her segment of the presentation on the Secret Handshakes of Instructional Design, courtesy of YouTube.

I thank these folks for their great presentation. I think we are going to be seeing and hearing more discussion about this set of skills in the near future.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Horizon Report: Technologies to Watch

In my last blog entry, I wrote about the trends described in The Horizon Report (2010 Edition) that are driving the technology adoptions that are anticipated to rapidly increase over the next five years.  In this post, I'd like to share a few thoughts about the six emerging technologies that, according to the report, will be entering the mainstream in that timeframe.

The report places the six technologies along three adoption horizons:  near-term horizon (within one year), second-adoption horizon (within two to three years), and far-term horizon (within four to five years).

Technologies to Watch over the Next Year

Mobile Computing - Oh, those smart phones!  The masses can now connect to the internet wirelessly from virtually anywhere.  They are cheaper and easier to carry around than laptops.   These portable devices have tremendous implications for workplace learning.   I know people have been talking about them for a few years now, but I truly believe the report is on the money by predicting this is the year we will start to see mobile learning move beyond a handful of trendsetters and into common usage by training departments.  And of course, within a few days we will start to see people who don't mind shelling out $500 toting around the new heavily hyped iPad.

Open Content - I would think this trend has probably made many college administrators very nervous.  Why enroll in an expensive university program when information is everywhere for the taking?  But since many prestigious institutions are fostering this trend, they must know what they are doing.  The Horizon Report lists this as one of its less-than-one-year-to-adoption technologies, but I don't think it will impact the workplace so quickly.   I think it will take corporate learning departments a little bit longer to figure out how to harness and repackage of all the free content that is out there in ways that will make sense for their workers.

Technologies to Watch over the Next Two to Three Years

Electronic Books How about these things? I'm a train commuter. I used to love to read over people's shoulders. Books and newspapers articles always seem more interesting when someone else is reading them. But every day more of the train crowd is switching to Kindle readers and the like.  It's just not the same.  You have to be at just the right angle to see the screen.  So, there goes one of my hobbies! But seriously, what a great tool for workers to use to carry around reference material, policy information and anything else they might need for just-in-time performance support.

Simple Augmented Reality - Simple, huh?   A few years ago, I had a training vendor come in to demonstrate their capabilities with augmented reality.  They had done a lot of work creating training programs for the Navy to help people learn various functions on nuclear submarines.  Very impressive stuff!  I was thinking we could use the same approach to create virtual models of our products to train our service department on installation and equipment repair.  It seemed pretty advanced for its time.  Since the Horizon Report lists mainstream use of augmented reality as two to three years away, I guess it was.

Technologies to Watch over the Next Four to Five Years

Gesture-based Computing - Imagine what version 7.0 of the Nintendo Wii will be like.  Imagine us doing away with keyboards and mouses (mice?) as input devices for our computers.   Interfacing with our personal computers will probably be very much like Tom Cruise's experiences in Steven Spielberg's film Minority Report.  The computers will respond to our natural movements and facial expressions.   It gives whole new meaning to the idea of a workplace training simulation.

Visual Data Analysis - According to the Horizon Report, visual data analysis is characterized by "its focus on making use of pattern matching skills that seem to be hard-wired into the human brain" and by the way in which it "facilitates the work of teams working in concert to tease out meaning from complex sets of information."    And,  "it allows for the interactive manipulation of variables in real time."  - Nuff said.  Call me in five years on this one!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Look to the Horizon (Report)

I recently picked up a link to The Horizon Report (2010 Edition) from one of the people I follow on Twitter.  Each year the report identifies and describes six emerging technologies that are predicted to have an impact on the academic world and/or the learning industry within the next five years.   The report further divides this adoption period into three phases: near-term horizon (within one year), second adoption horizon (within two to three years), and far-term horizon (within four to five years).   It also identifies key trends that drive adoption of the emerging technologies that are predicted go mainstream in the five-year period.  I found this section of the report interesting.  Clearly, the trends they describe are upon us now.  In this blog entry,  I'd like to share those trends, and some thoughts on their impact.

Key Trends Driving Technology Adoption over the Next Five Years

The abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the internet is increasingly challenging us to revisit our roles as educators in sense-making, coaching, and credentialling.

This statement was obviously written with the context of academic institutions in mind, particularly when thinking about credentialling.  Getting a college degree has been the baseline requirement for any career-minded individual for decades.  Yet, when graduates arrive in the workplace, they are often in need of additional training.  In the world of instructional design, there is an ongoing debate that pops up from time-to-time about the value or necessity of having a degree in the field.  I wrote about this issue back in December.  A year earlier in her wonderful blog Learning Visions, Cammie Bean, speaking about a gathering of instructional designers at DevLearn '09 wrote:   "Of the 25 plus IDs in the room, only two had advanced degrees in ID.  Most people found themselves in the role of ID somewhat by accident – by 'discovering that I had a knack,' demonstrating an affinity for ID, by being a good teacher, etc."  Many people who support the position that a degree in instructional design is not necessary make the argument that a motivated individual can learn everything they need through hands-on experience coupled with an informal education provided by books, articles, blogs and other internet sources.  The ability to get that kind of education in almost any field is rapidly increasing.  In the workplace,  employees no longer look for a company training catalog when they have knowledge gaps.  They turn to Google or Wikipedia as a jumping off point to quickly find the resources they need.

People expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want to.

Telecommuting, virtual teams, and agile worker programs are becoming commonplace. My company has had telecommuters for a long time.  I have been managing a virtual team for a few years now.     Last year, my company began piloting an agile worker program in several places.  This program is expected to grow rapidly over the next few years.  It is only logical that employees who work virtually will expect to learn virtually.  Our focus has to be on creating virtual learning environments to support this need.

The technologies we use are increasingly cloud-based, and our notions of IT support are decentralized.

A few years ago, there was great concern in the corporate world over hackers getting behind our firewalls.  Now, with cloud computing,  we don't seem to care where our information is stored as long as it is protected and it is accessible when we need it.  This drives more people to access information from mobile devices, which in turn drives our need in the learning industry to be able to capitalize on mobile learning.  While this has been talked about for some time, there have only been a handful of "wow" examples of mobile learning in wide use.  I believe this is the year we will move beyond those few "wow" examples and start to see some mainstream usage which will accelarate this trend.

The work of students is increasingly seen as collaborative by nature, and there is more cross-campus collaboration between departments.

I think everyone can agree that the synergy created by collaborative efforts is a great payoff of working in teams.   However, I personally find this trend maddening in the academic world.   When I started my distance learning graduate program a few years ago, I would occasionally have group activities or projects as part of my classes.  Now it seems that each class is one long group project from beginning to end.  I feel like a victim of this trend.  I don't have the flexibility in my life for this type of commitment.  The reason I chose to be a part-time, distance learning student in the first place was so that I could fit in my classwork according to my schedule and availability.  It is a nightmare trying to coordinate schedules with other working professionals who like myself have jobs that involve travel and are trying to balance that with school and family obligations.   On the plus side, this has made me more sensitive as to how we construct and conduct collaborative learning in our training programs.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What Was the Question?

In my last blog entry, Obsessing over Assessment, I recommended choosing question formats that make sense for the level of learning you need to assess. I then went on to discuss the most popular form of test item: the multiple choice question. However, there are other options, and some of them may be more appropriate for use, depending on what you are trying to assess.

Here are five common question types along with a few guidelines as to how and why you would use them.
  1. Short Answer Questions - also known as fill-in-the-blank - are best used to assess basic information that learners need to commit to memory. They are helpful for testing terminology, facts and simple computations. Short answer completion items should have only one brief correct answer. Typically, the blank for completing the statement is placed at the end of the test item. Blank spaces for all items should be equal in size, and should not be any larger than necessary.
  2. True/False Questions – are second in popularity to multiple choice questions. Like multiple choice questions, they require the participant to select a response. In this case, there are only two options: True or False; Yes or No; Agree or Disagree. They are useful when there is a black and white distinction between two alternatives. There can be no gray areas. Well-written True/False questions are usually stated as declarative sentences that focus on a single idea. A common mistake that test writers make is to put two ideas in one statement, requiring both of them to be true in all cases. Another common error is to tip off the answer by including words such as “always” or “never” in the statement, which usually means it is false. And of course, on the downside test participants always have a 50-50 shot at the answer, so they may be likely to venture a guess.
  3. Matching Column Questions - are used to assess content knowledge and associations between ideas. They fit into the category of selection items along with True/False and Multiple Choice. They are constructed by stating the premise for each test item in the first column, and listing options or responses in random order in the second column. Typically, the items in the first column are identified by number, and the response choices in the second column are identified using letters. Some test makers are reluctant to use matching columns because they seem harder to construct than other question types, but they are really very similar in to multiple choice questions. The format of premises and responses is very clear for the test taker, and they are easy to score.
  4. Multiple Choice Questions - are everyone's favorite, and rightly so because they are so versatile. They give you the ability to go beyond testing for facts. You can write multiple choice questions to measure learning outcomes that test for knowledge, comprehension, and application and, to a lesser degree, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. A good multiple choice question includes a clear, well-written premise, and a list of reasonable response choices, one of them being the correct answer (which should not always be choice C!). You can also couple them with reading passages, tables or charts that include the correct answers to assess your test takers ability to interpret important information.
  5. Essay Questions – are useful for assessing how well test takers can analyze, compare, contrast, evaluate, interpret or integrate ideas. The obvious downsides are that they rely heavily on writing skills and they are a challenge to score. Those issues can be minimized by attending to how the questions are written. If the essay question is too open-ended, it leaves it up to the test taker to decide on which direction to go. Instead write questions that ask specific questions. The person participating in the assessment must be able to clearly identify what it is you want to know from them. Give them parameters, by using phrases such as, “provide five ideas on how you would…” or “give three reasons why you would…” You can also provide direction by asking the test taker to “consider the following factors…” when writing a response. Consider identifying word count minimums and maximums so the person will be able to gauge the level of detail expected. Also, for every question you write, make sure you create a model answer to aid scoring.
For more detailed information, check out Tests & Measurement for People Who (Think They) Hate Tests & Measurement by Neil J. Salkind. Part III of his book is called The Tao and How of Testing. It is a great resource for anyone who needs to construct assessments.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Obsessing over Assessment

The law of attraction is at it again. Testing and assessment is running through my mind and it seems to be running through my life as well. There is a certification project currently being implemented in my company that involves training and testing. I am taking a course on Inquiry and Measurement that also involves testing. And, during this week’s #lrnchat, I was drawn in by a discussion thread in which the pros and cons (well, mostly cons) of assessment were being discussed. Why am I so preoccupied with Level 2 of Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Evaluation? It is mostly because of the certification project at work.

Certification is a term that gets thrown around a little too loosely in training departments these days. Put someone through a course and a post-test and BANG, you are certified – or worse, you are not. It is a tricky thing to put together a certification process that is valid and reliable. Very few companies can stand to wait out validation process, so they jump right in and begin training and “certifying” people.

Certifications do not guarantee that the person being certified has learned more than he or she would in a regular training program, but business leaders often feel it is operationally necessary to validate a level of knowledge or skill required to meet goals and targets. If certification is needed or required, here are some things to consider for the assessment process:

Test items should be directly related to learning objectives, which should be directly derived from performance requirements. This may seem obvious but I have seen many tests that have included filler material alongside valid questions.

Test only on important items, not obscure ones. It is not necessary to test someone on small details unless they are critical. Very few corporate employees are doing life-saving work that needs to be tested at a granular level.

Test items should be straight-forward. Don’t try to be tricky. What is the point? It only serves to confuse the learner and adds no value to the assessment.

Choose question formats that make sense for the level of learning you need to assess.  Multiple choice questions are commonly used on knowledge tests because they are easy to score and easy to tie to outcomes – but they are not always easy to write. Good multiple choice questions will have a clear premise in the stem of the question, a correct answer, and reasonable alternative choices. There should not be any throw away responses or convoluted choices such as “a and b, but not c” or “a and c” only. If your test item has more than one correct answer, then rethink the question format. Consider short answer questions or a matching column.

If possible, use randomized test questions. Most learning management systems have this capability. They allow you to create a bank of questions that can be drawn upon at random so that test-takers will be deterred from sharing answers. But don’t make the bank of test questions so large that everyone feels like they are taking a completely different test.

Pilot your test. This is the hard part, because it takes time and patience. You need to let a few people complete the learning experience and take the test to give you the opportunity to analyze the questions. You will want to take a second look at questions that everyone got right, or everyone got wrong, or questions for which many people chose the same incorrect answer.

Create rubrics for skills assessments.  Skills assessment usually requires direct observation.  It is important that all of your assessors are using the same criteria and weights when judging performance.  Validate the process by having multiple assessors review the same performance.  If they are more than a few points off from each other, either redesign the rubric or re-train your assessors.