For the Learning 2005 conference, starting today in Orlando within the movie-set sterility the Disney empire, Elliott Masie of the Masie Center has promised a new type of training-industry conference. No Powerpoints. No exhibit halls. No more conference sessions dominated by vendors and consultants. Instead, Elliott has promised to experiment with the medium, create a community-dominated discussion where conference-goers can learn from each other.

Will this effort at innovation succeed or fall flat?

Certainly, most conferences in the training and e-learning space are a mixed bag. Some excellent sessions. Some engaging. Some spewing misinformation. Some spewing platitudes. But the real problem with most conferences is that there is no way to validate the information learned—and since the information is largely vendor-driven, the information is a bit suspect in the first place.

Can a "1500-heads-are-better-than-one" format work? We shall see. I have my doubts. How will we know whether an idea put forward is a good one or not? How will we know whether the person with the idea is a genius or a nut?

In preparing to come to the conference, I have been impressed with the meeting and interactive technologies in place, though I admit to not fully understanding them. Learning 2005 has a "learning wiki" enabling conference participants to connect with each other, comment on the sessions, etc. As of today however, not much communication has occurred between the participants. This should increase once the sessions plant the seeds for discussion, but not too much prework has been done.

Img_1668_smaller_1 In tonight’s Keynote, Elliott told some jokes, talked to a humorous computer-generated talking head (very impressive if really computer-generated, but I’m betting on a human comedian behind the funny banter), interviewed a 19-year old intern to show us how different this generation is (one data point, isn’t it?), gave money and awards to a couple of non-profits, gave an award to CNN for their innovative learning design (which seemed to be for one-on-one coaching, but couldn’t really be, could it?), and talked with the Chairman and Founder of Boston Scientific, John Abele, who offered the best learning tidbits of the evening.

Abele started by answering Elliott’s query about why CEO’s worry about learning by saying that it is very simple from a business perspective, "If we can’t do learning better and faster, someone else will." Twice Abele mentioned the importance of give and take to get to wisdom. He talked about a live-demonstration course Boston Scientific developed to change the way the marketplace (doctors and medical institutions) viewed the company’s new medical methods. The amazing thing about the course was that they invited the world’s best surgeons to witness real surgeries and vote on what to do next by using a vote-response system. One example he cited was asking the doctors whether the medical device ought to be inserted half an inch more into the heart. The discussions and arguments that went on were a great learning vehicle. To augment these sessions, the commentators were chosen for being contrarians.

Abele also gave us the audience advice on choosing a doctor if we’re going in for surgery. Ask the doctor what research papers show the benefits of the surgery, and what research papers show that the procedure doesn’t work that well. Again, the benefits of experts fighting it out.

Finally, Abele talked about how doctors these days are beginning to do simulated surgeries on real people. If you have an abdominal aneurysms, your doctor may "take pictures" of the aneurysm and then basically perform your surgery on your images before he or she does surgery on you. What a great way of aligning the learning and performance contexts, a research topic I’ve written about many times.

Elliott’s main theme in his remarks is that the world is faster and more confusing then ever. Learning design must move from 18 weeks to 18 hours. That’s almost an exact quote, by the way.

The keynote was two hours long, but felt longer. Still, it was much better than listening to some celebrity deliver a canned speech, with no learning content to speak of.

I give Elliott lots of credit for this experiment. Whether it’s a noble effort, an ingenious publicity stunt, or both, I’m looking forward to the sunrise when we get down to the audience-generated learning.