Testing for Instructional Designers — A Common Mistake

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Somebody sent me a link to a YouTube video today — a video created to explain to laypeople what instructional design is. Most of it was reasonable, until it gave the following example, narrated as follows:

“… and testing is created to clear up confusion and make sure learners got it right.”


Something is obviously wrong here — something an instructional designer ought to know. What is it?

Scroll down for the answer…

Before you scroll down, come up with your own answer…

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Answer: 

The test question is devoid of real-world context. Instead of asking a text-based question, we could provide an image and ask them to point to the access panel.

Better yet, we could have them work on a simulated real-world task and follow steps that would enable them to complete the simulated task only if they used the access panel as part of their task completion.

Better yet, we could have them work on an actual real-world task… et cetera…

Better yet, we might first ask ourselves whether anybody really needs to “LEARN” where the access panel is — or would they just find it on their own without being trained or tested on it?

Better yet, we might first ask ourselves whether we really need a course in the first place. Maybe we’d be better off to create a performance-support tool that would take them through troubleshooting steps — with zero or very little training required.

Better yet, we might first ask ourselves whether we could design our equipment so that technicians don’t need training or performance support.

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Or we could ask ourselves existential questions about the meaning and potency of instructional design, about whether a career devoted to helping people learn work skills is worthy to be our life’s work…

Or we could just get back to work and crank out that test…

SMILE…

 

 

The Two-World Theory of Workplace Learning — Critiqued!

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Today, industry luminary and social-media advocate Jane Hart wrote an incendiary blog post claiming that “the world of L&D [Learning and Development] is splitting in two.” According to Jane there are good guys and bad guys.

The bad guys are the “Traditionalists.” Here is some of what Jane says about them:

  • They cling onto 20th century views of Training & Development.”
  • They believe they know what is best for their people.”
  • They disregard the fact that most people are bored to tears sitting in a classroom or studying an e-learning course at their desktop.”
  • They miss the big picture – the fact that learning is much more than courses, but involves continuously acquiring new knowledge and skills as part of everyday work.”
  • They don’t understand that the world has changed.”

Fighting words? Yes! Insulting words? Yes! Painting with too broad a brush? Yes! Maybe just to make a point? Probably!

Still, Jane’s message is clear. Traditionalists are incompetent fools who must be eradicated because of the evil they are doing.

Fortunately, galloping in on white horses we have “Modern Workplace Learning (MWL) practitioners.” These enlightened souls are doing the following, according to Jane:

  • “They are rejecting the creation of expensive, sophisticated e-learning content and preferring to build short, flexible, modern resources (where required) that people can access when they need them. AND they are also encouraging social content (or employee-generated content) – particularly social video – because they know that people know best what works for them.”
  • They are ditching their LMS (or perhaps just hanging on to it to manage some regulatory training) – because they recognise it is a white elephant – and it doesn’t help them understand the only valid indicator of learning success, how performance has changed and improved.”
  • They are moving to a performance-driven world – helping groups find their own solutions to problems – ones that they really need, will value, and actually use, and recognise that these solutions are often ones they organise and manage themselves.”
  • They are working with managers to help them develop their people on the ground – and see the success of these initiatives in terms of impact on job performance.”
  • They are helping individuals take responsibility for their own learning and personal development – so that they continuously grow and improve, and hence become valuable employees in the workplace.”
  • They are supporting teams as they work together using enterprise social platforms – in order to underpin the natural sharing within the group, and improve team learning.” 

Points of Agreement

I agree with Jane in a number of ways. Many of the practices we use in workplace learning are ineffective.

Here are some points of agreement:

  1. Too much of our training is ineffective!
  2. Too often training and/or elearning are seen as the only answer!
  3. Too often we don’t think of how we, as learning professionals, can leverage on the job learning.
  4. Too often we default to solutions that try to support performance primarily by helping people learn — when performance assistance would be preferable.
  5. Too often we believe that we have to promote an approved organizational knowledge, when we might be better off to let our fellow workers develop and share their own knowledge.
  6. Too often we don’t utilize new technologies in an effort to provide more effective learning experiences.
  7. Too often we don’t leverage managers to support on-the-job learning.
  8. Too often we don’t focus on how to improve performance.

Impassioned Disagreement

As someone who has enjoyed the stage with Jane in the past, and who knows that she’s an incredibly lovely person, I doubt that she means to cast aspersions on a whole cohort of dedicated learning-and-performance professionals.

Where I get knocked off my saddle is the oversimplifications encouraged in the long-running debate between the traditionalist black hats and the informal-learning-through-social-media white hats! Pitting these groups against each other is besides the point!

I remember not too long ago when it was claimed that “training is dead,” that “training departments will disappear,” that “all learning is social,” that “social-media is the answer,” etc…

What is often forgotten is that the only thing that really matters is the human cognitive architecture. If our learning events and workplace situations don’t align with that architecture, learning will suffer.

Oversimplifications that Hurt the Learning Field

  1. Learners know how they learn best so we should let them figure it out.
    Learners, as research shows, often do NOT know how they learn best, so it may be counterproductive not to figure out ways to support them in learning.
  2. Learning can be shortened because all learners need to do is look it up.
    Sometimes learners have a known learning need that can be solved with a quick burst of information. BUT NOT ALL LEARNING is like this! Much of learning requires a deeper, longer experience. Much of learning requires more practice, more practical experience, etc. Because of these needs, much of learning requires support from honest-to-goodness learning professionals.
  3. All training and elearning is boring!
    Really? This is obviously NOT true, even if much of it could be lots better.
  4. That people can always be trusted to create their own content!
    This is sometimes true and sometimes not. Indeed, sometimes people get stuff wrong (sometimes dangerously wrong). Sometimes experts actually have expertise that us normal people don’t have.
  5. That using some sort of enterprise social platform is always effective, or is always more effective, or is easy to use to create successful learning.
    Really? Haven’t you heard more than one or two horror stories — or failed efforts? Wiki’s that weren’t populated. Blogs that fizzled. SharePoint sites that were isolated from users who could use the information. Forums where less than 1% of folks are involved. Et cetera… And let’s not forget, these social-learning platforms tend to be much better at just-in-time learning than in long-term deeper learning (not totally, but usually).
  6. That on-the-job learning is easy to leverage.
    Let’s face it, formal training is MUCH EASIER to leverage than on-the-job learning. On-the-job learning is messy and hard to reach. It’s also hard to understand all the forces involved in on-the-job learning. And what’s ironic is that there is already a group that is in a position to influence on-the-job learning. The technical term is “managers.”
  7. Crowds of people always have more wisdom than single individuals.
    This may be one of the stupidest memes floating around our field right now. Sounds sexy. Sounds right. But not when you look into the world around us. I might suggest recent presidential candidate debates here in the United States as evidence. Clearly, the smartest ideas don’t always rise to prominence!
  8. Traditional learning professionals have nothing of value to offer.
    Since I’m on the front lines in stating that our field is under-professionalized, I probably am the last one who should be critiquing this critique, but it strikes me as a gross simplification — if not grossly unfair. Human learning is exponentially more complex than rocket science, so none of us have a monopoly on learning wisdom. I’m a big proponent of research-based and evidence-based practice, and yet neither research nor other forms of evidence are always omniscient. Almost every time I teach, talk to clients, read a book, read a research article, or read the newspaper, I learn more about learning. I’ve learned a ton from traditional learning professionals. I’ve also learned a ton from social-learning advocates.

 

Summary

In today’s world, there are simply too many echo-chambers — places which are comfortable, which reinforce our preconceptions, which encourage us to demonize and close off avenues to our own improvement.

We in the learning field need to leave echo-chambers to our political brethren where they will do less damage (Ha!). We have to test our assumptions, utilize the research, and develop effective evaluation tools to really test the success of our learning interventions. We have to be open, but not too-easily hoodwinked by claims and shared perceptions.

Hail to the traditionalists and the social-learning evangelists!

 

Follow-up!

Clark Quinn wrote an excellent blog post to reconcile the visions promoted by Jane and Will.

 

Share!

If you want to share this discussion with others, here are the links:

  • Jane’s Provocative Blog Post:
    • http://www.c4lpt.co.uk/blog/2015/11/12/the-ld-world-is-splitting-in-two/
  • Will’s Spirited Critique:
    • http://www.willatworklearning.com/2015/11/the-two-world-theory-of-workplace-learning-critiqued.html
  • Clark’s Reconciliation:
    • http://blog.learnlets.com/?p=4655#comment-821615

 

 

Practice Firms — Giving People Real-World Experience

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Today’s New York Times has a fascinating article on the mostly European concept of practice firms. As the name implies, practice firms give people practice in doing work.

This seems to align well with the research on learning that suggests that learning in a realistic context, getting lots of retrieval practice and feedback, and many repetitions spaced over time can be the most effective way to learn. Of course, the context and practice and feedback have to be well-designed and aligned with the future work of the learner.

Interestingly, there is an organization that is solely devoted to the concept. EUROPEN-PEN International is the worldwide practice enterprise network. The network consists of over 7,500 Practice Enterprises in more than 40 countries. It has a FaceBook page and a website.

I did a quick search to see if there was an scientific research on the use of practice firms, but I didn’t uncover anything definitive…If you know of scientific research, or other rigorous evidence, let me know…

 

 

Safety, Learning Design, and Organizational Culture

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As a learning consultant, I've been called into workplaces to do work-learning audits specifically focused on safety. Unfortunately, what I've seen too often are poor safety-learning practices. People often talk a good game of safety, but their practices are just not effective. Let me give you one example. I was at a manufacturing plant and was told that all team meetings talked about safety. However, what I saw at actual team meetings was a perfunctory exhalation about safety that was likely to have zero effect on actual safety outcomes. Seriously, many team leaders would say something pithy like "10 fingers, 10 toes" and that would be it!!

To be truly effective, safety messages have to follow the principles of all good learning design. Specifically, safety messages have to be context-based. They have to refer to actual workplace situations, and get employees to visualize and anticipate safety-critical situations and the actions that are needed in those situations. Safety messages also have to prompt employees to retrieve these situation-action links and do that in a manner that is repeated in various ways over time.

Recently, while teaching a workshop, one of the participants told a great story about how General Electric has built a set of cultural expectations that propel safety. The author–who wants to remain anonymous–wrote up the following overview of what he/she observed at GE.

I have had the pleasure to conduct training for the field service organization at GE.  One key aspect of the field service organization is safety.  A seemly simple task of lifting a heavy object with a crane can easily result in fatality by a shift in the chain causing the object to swing out of control.  During my work I was impressed with the relentless focus on safety, which was not just in words, but in action.  I thought it would be useful to share an example of how safety is built into their culture.

Each day of a training session, or any meeting for that matter, always started with a safety moment.  This discussion focused on the potential safety issues that could come up, and precautions that need to be followed.  I would start the training by having the hotel facility manager come in and cover the emergency procedures.  If I failed to start any training session in this manner, a participant would, without exception, come to me during the first break indicating that we forgot the safety briefing.  Unlike other organization where I would be asked to show a safety video, and people would count sheep until it ended, this safety briefing was seen as important to all the participants. 

At the start of each training day, and after lunch, a participant would be assigned to share a safety moment in their work that enabled someone to avoid a potential injury.  There was never a problem getting participants to accept responsibility for conducting one of these safety moments.  In fact, after sharing their experience, there was always a round of applause from the other participants.  This consistent practice, and positive reception by individuals of all levels helps to foster a strong safety culture within the organization.

In talking with the author of this observation, I was amazed at how deeply ingrained a culture of safety was in this GE environment. From this example, here are lessons learned–many of which will be relevant even to those who are not dealing with safety, but who are focused on performance-improvement in general.

  1. They focused on specific safety issues and situations.
  2. They focused on safety ubiquitiuosly, not just in training and not just when it was "safety time."
  3. People bought into the importance of safety–they didn't just go through the motions.
  4. There were expecations that safety discussions were scheduled into everything.
  5. Many people wanted to volunteer to lead safety discussions–not just people designated as safety officers.
  6. People really appreciated the safety discussions–and they showed their appreciation.
  7. Management was not the only driver of safety.
  8. Safety messages were repeated, and spaced over time.

Special thanks to the anonymous author and to GE for demonstrating that safety can be inculcated into workplace practice.

Learning Landscape Model Video

The Learning Landscape Model is a research-based model—evolved over the last decade—that can be used to guide workplace learning-and-performance designs, discussions, and explorations.

It is based on the fundamental cognitive architectures of learning, remembering, and prompting as three distinct cognitive operations, all of which are needed to maximize workplace learning-and-performance results. While previous models have often forgotten forgetting or forgotten prompting mechanisms (like job aids), the Learning Landscape is complete. Perhaps more importantly, it is actionable, for example, it can be utilized to have productive discussions between us as learning professionals and our business partners. Finally, the Learning Landscape Model can be used to improve learning measurement significantly over the 4-levels or roi models.

Check out the video of the Learning Landscape Model…

Or utilize this link if your filters don't allow YouTube…

New Management Ideas. Yes, They Should Be Central to Learning-and-Performance.

If we in the learning-and-performance field are serious about on-the-job learning (a much better term than "informal learning"), we need to be serious about how managers in organizations do their work, and specifically about how they guide learning on the job (and incidentally how they use formal training initiatives to enable and improve on-the-job learning).

Recently, a group of leading management thinkers got together to re-imagine management.

Here is a brief blog post on their thinking. It is well worth some reflection.