David Guralnick: Learning, Technology, and Design

I’m Interactive, You’re Interactive, We’re All Interactive

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You can’t go far today in the world of corporate e-learning without hearing about “interactivity”–not that this is a new term, but it seems to be absolutely everywhere these days.  Virtually every e-learning tool vendor, custom design/development firm,  or consulting firm claims to help you “make your e-learning interactive.”  There’s a clear reason that seemingly all e-learning vendors cite when touting “interactivity”–interactivity will make your e-learning “fun” and “not boring.”

But what does “interactivity” really mean?

In my experience, interactivity isn’t something that we want to add to a boring online course much in the way we might add salt or hot sauce to flavorless food–instead, we want to start “from scratch”–that is, think about how we can provide learning environments centered around methods that are inherently interactive. Educational research (as noted in my previous post, from John Dewey all the way to the present) supports learning by doing, particularly when it comes to “transfer” of skills–that is, ensuring that the skills someone learns via a learning experience apply to their real-life situation.  When it comes to professional training, applied skills–can you do the job better?–are what really matter.

The great opportunity here is that a well-designed online learning experience can be interactive in a way that learners enjoy and will be effective learning.  Learn-by-doing simulations and appropriate game-like elements can work beautifully.  For example,  my company, Kaleidoscope Learning, created a simulation to teach apartment leasing consultants how to interact with prospective residents in order to convince them to rent an apartment.  There are all sorts of principles behind being a “good” apartment leaser–“Don’t push too hard too soon,” “State the apartment’s features in a positive way,” etc.–but just reading those doesn’t necessarily help you do the job well; the principles aren’t concrete, so it’s not always easy to know when to apply them or if you’re even applying them correctly.  In our simulated environment, the learner interacted with realistic prospects, and got to see who rented an apartment and who didn’t; plus there was a coaching component to help explain what’s going on.  This particular example wasn’t especially new and novel for us, but it worked…and was definitely “interactive” in a way that was integrated into the learning experience, not added on top.

A couple of keys to designing in successful interactivity include:

  • Create authentic tasks:   The apartment simulation works well because the actions the learners take  are realistic and are the types of actions and decisions they’ll need to take in real life.   The relevance to the job is clear, and the learning will transfer.  Sometimes, the connection between a learning experience and what’s learned isn’t quite as direct–for example, a project I was involved in years ago in which kids took simulated “road trips” online and would — through that experience–learn about geography and about the cities they “visited.”  Even then, the task itself was engaging and realistic.
  • Make sure there’s a legitimate purpose to any interactivity.  I once reviewed a course for a retail chain that had a map of the store areas, and the learner could click on each area of the store to get a 1-sentence explanation of it.  The user complaint here was that it was annoying to click–there wasn’t a lot of information, why not just show it all on-screen?  Contrast this with a different course for a different retail chain, in which the learner had to accomplish tasks, such as helping a customer, and used a map of the store to “move” around the store.  This was functional and felt natural to the learner.

In many ways, interactive learning–interacting with other people, interacting with a computer,  interacting with other materials–is generally at the root of a successful learning environment.  But it needs to be thoughtfully-design interactivity.

Written by dguralnick

September 19, 2012 at 2:14 PM

We’re Solving the “Access to Education” Problem–But Is That the Right Problem To Solve?

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There has been a huge movement, particularly in the past year, to provide wider access to education and to educational materials.  We’ve seen the MIT’s OpenCourseware, Stanford’s immensely-popular online artificial intelligence course, and many more–all free, available to anyone, anytime.  And who could argue with “free” and “available anywhere”?  Whatever is it, if it’s free and I can get it anywhere, I’ll take two of them…why not?

As the old song asks, though,  is that all there is?  I’ll certainly agree that access to quality learning experiences is a good thing.  But are we getting carried away with focusing on easy  access at the expense of improving quality?

Educational research has long argued in favor of an active, learning-by-doing approach to learning (this approach was  first articulated by John Dewey in 1902–1902!–and later work by John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, Seymour Papert, Roger Schank (my own Ph.D. advisor, way back when) and others has continued to demonstrate the value of a “doing” approach to learning.  Yet so much of today’s online education takes a traditional, passive, classroom model of teaching (I’m hesitant to even call it a “model of learning”) and simply makes it more widely-accessible. Much of today’s corporate training follows an online “textbook” model–taking text and some graphics, and putting them online in a format in which the learner is asked to read some pages, click the Next button, and eventually take a quiz.  Companies love that their employees can access online training from anywhere, and without any travel/instructor costs for the company, but studies (and we’ve done some) show that this type of learning is seldom effective, particularly in a business context in which job performance, not information recall, is the goal.

Of course there are exceptions to the world I have described above (and I like to think that I’ve been involved myself in designing at least a few of them). There’s  more interest in immersive games for learning, which has the potential to follow sound learn-by-doing concepts. EdX, a joint venture of MIT, Harvard, and now Berkeley,  has received some good press and promises free online courses that include online laboratories and potentially other methods.  So there’s progress.  And giving widespread access to famous researchers and inspiring lecturers in video, for free, is certainly of some value.  But we cannot pretend that the “easily available, high-quality education” problem is solved.

As I write this post,  I think I could have written a lot of the same things (and did) 10 years ago.  In the past decade, we’ve seen huge  technological advances, we’ve seen free and open access to educational materials become widespread–but we haven’t seen the significant growth we need to see in terms of new online educational methods that take advantage of technology to provide better learning experiences, rather than just wider access to the types of learning experiences we’ve had for years.  It’s time to focus on changing this; I’ll write more about my ideas as to how to go about that in future posts.

Written by dguralnick

September 14, 2012 at 3:09 PM

Why Won’t Those Damn Employees Just Listen?

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In talking with managers in a variety of companies in different industries, I often hear a familiar refrain: “We’ve told our employees what to do, but they just don’t do it!  What’s wrong with them? Why can’t they just do what they’re told?”

Here’s a story taken (and paraphrased) from Chip and Dan Heath’s terrific book Switch (p. 184): A management consultant named Peter Bregman was consulting to a company who had just moved from a paper-based timesheet system to a new, online system.  They rolled out a training course and then expected everyone to use the new, online system.  But most people kept submitting paper forms, ignoring the new system.  As a next step, management ordered that all employees use the online  system, it was mandatory.  Still, only half the people followed the plan.  Finally, management considered withholding people’s paychecks unless they used the new system!  Fortunately, Bergman convinced them to look deeper into why people weren’t using the new system, instead of just assuming that their employees were just stubborn. When they did some interviews, they found that people found the new system difficult to use–and then when they observed the system in use, they saw that the “wizard” that was supposed to make the data-entry process easier just made it confusing.  They simplified the system, allowing people to fill out traditional forms online, and all was well.  Within a few weeks, everyone was using the new system.

That’s quite a story, and, among other things, shows the effects that poorly-designed technology can have on an organization.  But one of the key points here is that the company’s management initially thought that what the staff needed was “knowledge”–we just need to tell them what to do, and they’ll do it.   As it turns out, what looks like a “knowledge” problem isn’t always a knowledge problem.

I’ve heard similar stories from companies I have consulted to many times:  Employees have been trained and re-trained–why won’t they just do what they’re supposed to do?  And why do we have so many employees with bad attitudes?  While the “answer” to such a question isn’t always clear-cut, here are a number of potential reasons:

  • People didn’t really grasp the concepts or skills that were intended to be taught.  Sure, it’s all well and good to say that people were “taught,” or “trained”–but that could mean lots of things.  Did people learn in a way that was active and in which skills would transfer to on-the-job-performance?  Much of the narrator-driven e-learning we still see in companies today tends to be ineffective.
  • The real-life task is perceived as unnecessarily cumbersome or difficult.  This is what we saw in the Heath brothers’ story about the online timesheets, possibly along with the above point.  People in the Heath story weren’t being stubborn for the sake of being stubborn, they just found the new system hard, and annoying, to use.
  • Cultural issues–“everyone” follows a different process.  This is probably a topic for a post of its own, with some supporting research cited, but for now let’s just mention this one:  even if a certain process is mandated by, say, headquarters, there may be historical reasons why people do things a different way, and people will tend to fit in with their peers in such a situation.  Sometimes, their peers also have a better process than HQ requires, but that’s also a post for another day.
  • New habits have not been reinforced.   This is especially relevant when rolling out a new or changed process:  people may have learned and even internalized the new way to do things, but when they’re in “automated” mode in real life, they could easily fall back into old habits unless other actions are taken to help people remember the “new” habit, or to change the environment to make the new ways of doing things seamless.  This is another topic that deserves its own post…

At its root, corporate training really is about changing behavior–which is a lot broader than just “training” or “teaching,” especially in today’s world.  In order to see new employees perform well right out of the gate, or current employees improve their performance or follow a new process, we need more than just traditional education–we need to think about the company culture, about what motivates people, about having processes that make it easy to do things the right way.  At the same time, we need to be careful about dismissing people as just “bad employees”–sure, some people are just not the right fit for a job or are just not going to do well no matter what, but I’d argue that in most cases, if you set people up to succeed, they will.  So there’s a high note on which to end this post!

Written by dguralnick

August 28, 2012 at 5:52 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Isn’t it Time to Move Past the “Information Age”?

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We’re well into the Information Age.  And we’re in the Web 2.0 Age, in some form or another.  All of which, taken together, tells us that virtually any piece of information that anyone might care about can be found online–you can either Google it or, if that fails, use your social networks to find someone who knows.  And there you go–all information, all the time.  So companies are asking themselves why they even need training anymore–can’t you just find out anything you need to know?

On the surface, the “just-look-it-up” approach has some merit–in fact, I’ve often found in my consulting work that companies tend to do more training than needed and not enough just-in-time performance support, to help people while they are on the job.  But all of this discussion really brings us to a different question:  when we look at training, is that all there is?  Does training–or education, for that matter–simply mean “getting information”?  Is information all you really need to perform a task?

Think about a task you perform in everyday life, such as driving a car, and how you first learned to drive.  While the knowledge of information is certainly necessary–at a minimum, you need to know how the car’s controls work, you need to know the laws regarding driving, such as stop signs and traffic lights–it seems far from sufficient!  Imagine being asked to drive a car–for real, on a road under normal conditions, with other cars, pedestrians, etc.–if all you “knew” was the relevant information about cars.  You’d have a lot of information, but would you know what to do with it?  Would all of those facts in your head, even assuming you remembered them all, enable you to successfully drive?  Of course not–along with facts, you’d need to understand concepts (How does a car work, at least from the driver’s perspective?  How should you interact with other drivers? ), and you’d need to practice (imagine if the first time you got behind the wheel of a car, you drove on a highway).

Now suppose you’re a new salesperson for a high-tech company, or a cashier at a retail store, or a technician at a cable company–you may well need some training, at least in the ways to perform your job according to your company’s special cases and best practices. But that training should come in a form that helps you acquire skills, not just recall information.

Isn’t it time we moved past the “Information Age”  and started applying all of that information?

Written by dguralnick

August 14, 2012 at 1:36 PM

Posted in Uncategorized