Learning and Skills Group Summer Conference

Some thoughts on the Learning and Skills Group Summer Forum below – there was a sense of being critical of current practice throughout the day so I’ve tried to add in some of my own commentary [in square brackets] alongside the main points of what happened.


Donald Taylor introduced the Summer Forum with a call to action for the day: take the opportunity of coming together to be critical of the profession.  He asked the delegates to consider where they were with their goals from January.  A couple of the usual issues were garnered from the audience:

  • Don’t let technology drive the agenda [I am never sure on this one, I have come into L&D from the Learning Technology side and would say that I am happy for my practice to at least be inspired by technology]
  • Don’t just be order takers for learning events (response = just say ‘No!’)

He quickly led on to the opening keynote:

Open – how we will work, live and learn in the future from @davidpriceobe.

This started with a video summary of his book:

His take on ‘Open’ being as in the picture, a set of values, technological realities and modes.

Open definition
What Does OPEN Mean?

There was then a bunch of stats for the negative impact disengagement is having on economies due to productivity, increased numbers of sick days, lack of innovation (direct correlation), etc.  [This line of argument will be fairly familiar to anyone following the business press,] the insinuation being that organizations do not match up with the open and social way we now live our lives.  [I would say this is partly true but there are plenty of others who have argued tangentially about disengagement – for example, the idea that university education for more has simply raised expectations whilst work has become less interesting, the rise of human-computer interaction over person-to-person, etc.]

Disintermediation was looked at as a destroyer of jobs, with the economic value of knowledge declining although the social value increases.  [Again this can be questioned as an argument, yes the music industry has reformed but now bands make money from concerts and royalties over actual sales, journalists work independently or found blogging dynasties, etc.] The recent anti-Uber movement among London taxi drivers can be seen as just the latest of a whole raft of these disrupted industries [of course the impact on education/learning has been talked about for a while too, disintermediation being a key part of the keynote at ALT-C 2011].  We all now live in a world where we need to make sure everything is not equal, otherwise our work will go to the lowest bidder on Elance.com or be lost in some other way [he mentioned his children are working in the IT industry via sites such as Elance].

6 'myths' not to emerge from the 'knowledge revolution'
The world is not turning out as promised

Implications for L&D include a need to make work placed learning more powerful to tackle disengagement and consider the implications of disintermediation, for example do less induction with a base upskilling followed by a focus on the job (and less on corporate/L&D centric content).  At the same time learning is becoming more democratic via social and disintermediation, ‘6 Imperatives of Social Learning’:

  1. do it yourself (autonomy).
  2. do it now (immediacy) [including a mention for the quick hit dopamine rush you get from responses on social media, which were a theme at BETT2014].
  3. do it with friends (collegiality) – meet-up around MOOCs, importance of community and communication, etc.
  4. do it for fun (playfulness) Hard Fun idea – games are only fun if they are challenging, learning needs to remember this.
  5. do unto others (generosity).
  6. do it for the world to see (high visibility) change from ground up – do not ask permission (example of ‘change day’ in the NHS and the related ‘School for Healthcare Radicals’ [i.e. you can change big organizations via the power of their people]) also examples of putting up bad practice to show power of good practice.

The audience was asked how many of these six we actually support in our L&D efforts [I suspect not many in most cases].

He then went into an entertaining story about ‘The Claw’ and the power of social media.  The basic gist being that a car thief (‘The Claw’) was caught via social media and use of web tools, the story also allowing to show a certain amount of the creativity of web, meme, culture and misinformation via Wikipedia.  Here’s somewhat sensationalist coverage from CTV (misuse of technology terms in traditional media and all).

This all happened at a speed the police could not operate at, the implication being that the web has sped up communication and we need to take on that challenge. [However, it was another example where it sounded like his kids had flagged the story to him.  This is fine, but a few stories only really illuminate what is possible – such as another of his examples where he had met a young Indian golf prodigy who had self taught via YouTube videos of Tiger Woods].

The implication of all of this for learning is about ensuring that you/your organization can learn faster than competitors, this is the only sustainable competitive advantage.  Answers to many questions will be in the network, need to support this internally [presumably via Enterprise Social Networks, etc] and help staff develop their external networks [I would argue this really hinges on Information Literacy which most organizations ignore].  The argument was made that the really successful companies, as featured in his book, have ‘open learning environments’, characteristics of which include:

  1. hierarchies and silos replaced by machine shop culture
  2. unorthodoxy and diversity are encouraged (e.g. Valve’s induction manual including cartoony pictures)
  3. learning via tinkering
  4. social and horizontal (hackathons etc)
  5. learners free to roam (3m had free time % at work long before Google – results included the birth of the post-it note via two unrelated bits of independent research)
  6. free to fail (WD40 banned word “fail”, “learning moments” shared instead)

[it is difficult to challenge too many of these points but, in a corporate environment, there is of course an implication that this would take major change for many organizations].

The talk finished with a quote from Jefferson which amounted to a call for action on openness in learning, [personally I preferred his preceding use of the original World Wide Web logo to remind everyone that it has now developed to allow people to fulfill that early hope]:

World Wide Web logo
Early WWW logo

Session 1 Three tech trends that could change learning forever (Donald Clark)
[The last time I saw DonC at a conference the person who sat next to me walked out in disgust at the volume of swear words, it doesn’t offend me in that way but his ‘angry man’ persona was on show again during this session]

He started by criticizing the comment made in DonT’s opening session, arguing that only in education/learning conferences do people say “it’s not about the tech, it is about the” learning.  His argument is that tech dominates all industries, not least learning, for example Google has transformed how everyone learns [true but, of course, Google wasn’t the first decent search engine].  The suggestion was that academics, in particular, snear at what they do not know, but you should only be able to criticize what you know about [fair to an extent but everyone criticizes things they ‘think’ they know about, just look at the 1000s of comments posted to the Web from armchair fans everywhere during the World Cup].

Instead of this anti-tech stance the argument was that, from axes to mobile phones, humankind has always loved the latest technology [again a fair point in general but education has had its fingers burned more than once by tech white elephants, not a problem if we had unlimited budgets but even corporate L&D would struggle to spend money on everything we would like these days].

Donald Clark on stage at LSG Summer Conference 2014
Donald Clark lets rip

He then ran, very quickly, through 2500 years of learning theory.  His overall point being that ultimately nothing has changed…we still lecture like Plato’s Academy [yes, but there is plenty of good non-lecture stuff happening too].  His website has holistic coverage of the theorists and influencers he mentioned – http://www.planblearning.com/Articles/Learning_theorists/.  [There were some valid points but more could have been said on who he things we should still hold in esteem (Dewey for Learning by Doing, for example) rather than so much time on the charlatans, especially those ideas which have already been well debunked like ‘learning styles’.  Ultimately the takeaway, for me, was that there remains no real answer – when I studied education in my two masters courses it was clear to me, even then, that some of the theory was very much of its time and some just rubbish.  However, everyone is different and some structures (I still like Blooms taxonomy) are there to really just help formalize the world (but I would agree that there needs to be more serious research along the lines of psychology and neuroscience).]  He criticized the use of anecdotes as evidence [including the open keynote’s Indian golfer example] and that we have also adopted aspects of theory badly, like including learning objectives on everything [personally I find them useful as a learner if they are well written but I take his point] and Gagne’s nine steps which when used for eLearning just make it boring [I would say that really depends on the ‘eLearning’, a SCORM package maybe – a collection of resources potentially less so].

Overall he was largely critical of the importance given to social in the opening keynote [whilst I would agree that solo learning and independent study can be great the keynote was as much about the loss of the middle man (teaching yourself via YouTube, etc) as it was social].  From his 2500 years history he picked out three ideas that seem true (and three related technologies):

  1. Personalized learning.
    • Google is a pedagogic shift for the species, answers to questions when you need them.  Hyperlinks are key and are ignored by most page-turning eLearning.  Technology trend that is offering the potential solution is Adaptive Learning. A lot of rubbish data in learning (and where it is, like PISA, its tweaked for certain purposes).  However, starting to learn from web companies to make better use of algorithms – Cogbooks given as an example [which actually looks very good as a tool starting to deliver the long talked about promise in this area] of an adaptive learning system (includes ability to know where you’ve been and get you back on track when needed).
  2. Lifelong learning.
    • MOOCs will not replace universities but they will be open and demand led [I think I noted this correctly, it is obviously contestable how ‘open’ they are and many are currently ego led rather than demand led, although I acknowledge that should change over time].  High dropout rates do not matter, it is the ‘drop-in’ that counts – social of limited importance, more about content delivery than discussion boards [totally agree, people can take out what they want or simply ignore the course if they find they are too busy with other things – this is how I use MOOCs, ‘resource not course’].  MOOCs – L&D teams should be using them as a free source of content and to identifying high performing, self motivated, learners.
  3. Learning by doing.  Power in simulations.
    • Oculus Rift.  More expensive acquisition for Facebook than Google buying YouTube, noticeable that Facebook’s press release had educational uses as one reason behind the purchase.  For $300  have the potential to make existing simulations far more realistic, examples already being built for safety training, a full 3D care home simulator, etc. [The presentation title, of course, included ‘could’ and I wonder if the Oculus will really stop the work of Caspian Learning and other companies being niche or becoming more mainstream.  However, there is certainly potential for a shift for publishers from text to simulations and augmented reality.  Is a virtual world of much more value if you are ‘in’ rather than ‘accessing’ it?]

So “How weed out bull* from profession?” – he argued against the CIPD, such organizations being part of the problem in reinforcing existing problems (including in train the trainer courses, lecturing people in PGCE courses, etc.)  Anecdotes in opening session only about tiny number of people [again this was a little bit off as the golf example was that anyone could do something similar in terms of self motivated learning], need to enable learning at scale via tech not about getting people into a room.  Need to break number focus, mentioned HSBC internal conference where he almost walked out before his invited presentation as the opening session included the number of dinners served on training courses [hilarious if true but I can believe it considering the numbers/justification game that seems to obsess support services].  Real change comes from managers, [that is who need to use as conduit].  Need to identify the expertise in your L&D team and back it with meaningful data.  Training around compliance, ethics, etc has had no impact in banks (as so many collapsed/proved corrupt) – how can we justify ourselves in this world?  Need training to actually make an impact.  Get on with the change, stop looking for reasons to do something.

Session 2 – Transforming organizational learning or Small changes to modernize the Workplace Learning Environment from Jane Hart considered how we can modernize learning to catch up with the changes that have come from the web.

The 100 tools for learning survey has shown patterns and change over time.  Results largely about ‘social’ tools, people use them to find solutions for professional learning [yes but I also use things like Google Drive in very private ways, tools which have social elements should not be presumed be ‘social solutions’ all the time].

There were various questions via Poll Everywhere to have the group reflect on how things have changed for them.  My long text response was that learning is now “anytime, anywhere” and this is what we have to support.

When we use informal and social tools to learn something, such as Youtube, we do not want to study the problem, we do not need a test, we do not (often) need to remember the solution as can come back to it as needed.  Therefore, why do we still inflict such constraints on our learners [my answer would be that because L&D is dominated by ‘trainers’ rather than people who consider the operational and organizational use of information]?  Result is that people build professional personal learning networks (often first point of call) rather than relying on traditional sources of ‘learning’.

There was a poll for how important learning types are and company training/eLearning trails learning from others and keeping up-to-date via the web [I would argue this is about information and literacy as much as traditional L&D and this is too often ignored], we need to recognize this. This was backed up with stats from the Learner Voice research showing the disconnect between learners and L&D departments.

The concept of ‘Trojan Mice’ was introduced [which I really liked] of little changes which can be made without big noise, and can always be called a ‘pilot’ if they then created negative repercussions.  6 features of change we could tackle when back into the day job:

  1. autonomy (people like choice)
  2. small and short (not huge events)
  3. continuous (recognize that when away from formal workplace learning we are still learning, including without realizing it)
  4. on demand (access at point of need)
  5. social (from people without the ‘authorative voice’ with balance for knowledge sharing and other voices)
  6. anywhere on any device.

[a little like some of the points in the opening keynote these make sense but I have wondered how many L&D departments have ended up digging themselves into a hole of big course branding via the ‘Corporate University’ branding approach.]

Jane captured thoughts from the group via http://padlet.com/jane_hart/smallchanges for changes people could make.  She then ran through a number of suggestions (here are the slides) which were difficult to disagree with [but, as the talk’s title suggested, would be difficult to get any buyin from many organizations – hence the mice].

Session 3 – Design Thinking

I’ve heard a lot about Design Thinking as an approach to problem solving so this workshop was a useful introduction. Some of the key takeaways for me:

  • we are labeled as ‘creative’ or not at an early age, this is a real problem and we should encourage everyone to nurture their curiosity (including embracing experiments and being willing to fail)
  • design thinking is about bringing the creative/experimenting mindset into processes (although it does mean different things to different people)
  • throughout the process you need to flick between divergent and convergent thinking
  • need to think about the environment a problem exists in – empathy
  • iterative process [steps themselves not that different to ADDIE and other models] but largely about the mindset
  • come up with ‘how might we?’ questions to solve identified problem statements
  • there were a number of points around how best to come up with ideas (‘brain writing’ best to avoid ideas being shouted down in ‘storming’ sessions). Key is deferring judgment and encouraging wild ideas
  • be curious – borrow, adapt, re-purpose (including a nice example of hospitals learning from F1 pit crews to improve close-quarters working and communication)
  • evaluate prototypes via ‘I Like’, ‘I Wish’ and ‘What If’
  • http://www.scoop.it/t/big-idea.

The session used this guide from Stanford as a resource throughout: http://dschool.stanford.edu/use-our-methods/the-bootcamp-bootleg/

Author: iangardnergb

My name is Ian Gardner and I am interested in various topics that can be seen as related to learning, technology and information. To see what I am reading elsewhere, follow me on The Old Reader (I.gardner.gb) and/or Twitter (@iangardnergb).

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