The first full day of the conference, and what I wanted to know most was whether Learning 2005 would reach the goals Elliott Masie had set for it. Would it:

  1. Enable high levels of audience participation and knowledge creation.
  2. Avoid vendor-sponsored sales pitches.
  3. Move away from PowerPoint.

On all three counts it failed, but I think I was asking the wrong question. A better question might have been, "Yo Will, did you learn anything?" On that count Day 2 at Learning 2005 was a great success!

Img_1671smallerThe first session I attended was on Myths in our industry. This was the most audience-oriented session I attended in the day, but something seemed to be missing. The audience created a list of myths that were typed and posted on a big screen. We talked about the myths. Unfortunately, we didn’t all agree with the myths, and the discussions generated around each myth were not very enlightening.

Img_1674smaller_1The second session I attended was led by Michael Allen, author of Michael Allen’s Guide to E-Learning, and founder of Allen Interactions. Michael broke the "No PowerPoint" rule, but it was damn well worth it with slides like the one showing "an honest e-learning menu" (at left). Although Michael had a few introductory words, his wisdom and warmth created the perfect environment for an intelligent discussion. His question to prompt audience participation was "Top ten things we know about e-learning?" The audience discussion was fascinating, leading to a series of analogies of e-learning as diet-food, "Where the nutrition and fun is stripped away, but people buy it because they feel they have to" and fast-food, "Where learners are enticed by a meal that satisfies superficially but delivers only empty calories." Someone cited the hopeful sign that the fast food industry has begun to improve its food choices, and so eventually the e-learning field may improve its product as well. Can we wait 50 years like we’ve had to do in McDonald-Land? I don’t think so.

Michael finished the session with a brilliantly elegant demo of an e-learning course Allen Interactions built for Apple on sexual harassment. No video. No audio. Just extremely well-designed scenarios. Apple folks in the room attested to the unusually high marks Apple’s finicky employees have given the program. "They never do this, but we’ve been receiving emails by the tons from employees who found the program really valuable and enjoyable." The trick to this product’s success may have been in the needs-analysis research that the designers did. They found out that (1) most people already think they know about sexual harassment and how to handle it, and (2) they don’t know. The design incorporated scenarios that proved to the learners that they really didn’t know. My only disappointment with this part of the talk, is that I seemed to be only one of the few who found any irony in the fact that it was Arnold Schwarzenegger (the gropinator) who mandated two-hours of sexual harassment training for all California companies.

The next session was an Elliott-led keynote. As it turns out all the keynotes are facilitated by Elliott. And miraculously, that’s a really good thing. Elliott has a real talent as a presenter. He keeps things moving. He incorporates humor, sideshows, fancy technology, and a human touch. He also prevents keynote speakers from delivering canned monologues. Elliott basically interviews everyone. And most of the time it works great.

Img_1678smaller In the first keynote of the day, one of the most notable interchanges involved Vice Admiral Moran of the Navy. Elliott gave him one of only a handful of Learning Pioneer awards distributed at the conference. Moran was very impressive and received the longest sustained applause of the day. His most stunning pronouncement was when he said that the U.S. military constantly had to compete with one of the best learning organizations in the world, Al Qaida. "Al Qaida improves their tactics every ten days. We have to be better than the competition. We have to learn faster than they do." Moran and his team developed ways to get information from the field—for example after a roadside bomb detonates—bring that information back stateside, figure out what it means and then send that information back to the soldiers in the field.

The next regular session I attended was led by one of the learning industry’s most expansive thinkers, Jay Cross, who is writing a book on informal learning. Although sometimes I find Jay’s ideas completely nuts, I like his work because it pushes against our old boundaries and forces us to rethink what we’re doing. Jay is a collector of ideas and inspirations. In fact, his talk got me thinking about informal learning and how to make sense of what it is and what it can do for us. Here is a sampling of those ideas:

  1. One key distinction is between intentional and non-intentional informal learning. Non-intentional learning is important because humans are cue-reactive entities. The question is can we design learning and workplace situations to prompt informal learning.
  2. How much can we use social traditions or human tendencies to engender group-enabled learning. For example, if I know Sally is interested in learning objects, I can send her articles on that topic that I encounter. Can we build technologies or ways of working that prompt this sort of thing?
  3. How to we handle the information-validation problem when learning happens from the ground up? What ideas do we trust? What ideas do we discard? How to we build structures into out informal learning to facilitate the rise of the good information?
  4. Jay presented a pie-chart, which I see everywhere, showing how formal learning is just a small part of the pie and informal learning is the dominant form of learning. I’d like to know how that data was created. How does one measure such a thing? But even if accepted at face value, we need to know how much of informal learning is under our control ("our" could be us as learning designers, or us as learners). One person in the audience wondered whether we should worry that creating intentional informal learning might hurt the more organic informal learning.
  5. How do we measure this beast? (So that we’re sure we are making things better, not worse).
  6. Jay offered an interesting thought (which I concur with) that experts aren’t always the best teachers because they may not know how they do what they do, they may be so advanced that they can’t bring it down to the level that it would be understood, etc. Jay’s implication was that the masses will do fine in creating information, but maybe the expert is needed in this process at some point.
  7. Can we prime learners to learn in future situations when they encounter relevant stimuli in their environments? Obviously we can. Research on learning objectives demonstrates that in formal learning situations—where they actually prompt attention on relevant stimuli. And research I did as a grad student at Columbia (research on infogoals—information acquisition goals) found that priming people with questions about certain objects in their day to day environments, spurred them to learn more about those objects in the week following the questioning.

Img_1682smallerBy the way, Jay was the only presenter, besides Elliott, to avoid PowerPoint’s, which you can verify in the picture.

During the next session slot, I experienced two horrible sessions, having to leave the first session halfway through the time. It was simply a sales presentation with no audience participation at all.

The second session scared me even more, where the topic was compliance training, and one of the panelists said she really didn’t care if one of her learners got help taking the assessment.

I asked a question about whether the compliance assessments were delivered immediately at the end of learning, and all the panelists said yes. They understood the dangers of that, but couldn’t conceive that it would be logistically possible to do it any other way. These were intelligent folks and I had a chance to talk one-on-one with several of them after the session. They helped me understand how difficult it would be, but I hold out hope that we can brainstorm a way out of this fix. The bottom line is that a test immediately after learning cannot predict how well the learners will be able to remember the information on the job.

I think I’m discovering that too much took place today to write about it so thoroughly. And there is sleep that is needed. Anyway, let me highlight a few other things.

Grant Thornton, the fifth-largest accounting firm, won an award because they changed the way they choose their partners (the owners of the firm). Instead of interviews and secret decision-making meetings, they opened up the process and invited potential partner candidates into a "Partner Candidate Program" where they provide the candidates with learning-and-performance opportunities. It has been a great success and one of the key reasons is that it enables the current partners to "get many more data points on each candidate." A great idea, especially when we know that interviewing is inherently a poor selection method.

Steve Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You, gave insightful perspective on online gaming. For example, I wouldn’t have guessed that the number one demographic segment that plays games online is women aged 40 to 60. They play board games and card games online. I also didn’t really understand the complexity of the video games that kids play these days, or how very few of the most popular games are actually violent in nature.

Frances Hesselbein was also a keynote speaker and we sang happy birthday to her twice. Elliott did a wonderful job of connecting on a human level to this ancient leadership guru. She was funny and wise, and the whole interaction reminded us all that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Img_1693smallerTo summarize my learning day, I was humbled at how much there is to know. And thanks to Elliott and the awards he distributed, the donations he made to charitable organizations, the way he reminded us of the human element in what we do, I was proud to be a part of our learning community and inspired to keep up the hard work.

And yes, that is Elliott on his Segway.