Workplace Learning and Performance: Optimism and Responsibility

May 5, 2011

Learning executives across the United States are more optimistic about the training industry than at any other time since ASTD (the American Society for Training & Development) began issuing its quarterly Learning Executives Confidence Index highlights reports two years ago, the latest summary shows.

The news is not particularly astonishing; the project began around the same time the worst recession most of us have faced began. It does, however, reflect the improvements many of us have been noticing over the past year in workplace learning and performance opportunities.

Nine out of ten of the 354 respondents to the invitation-only survey “expect the same or better performance for their [workplace learning and performance] industry in the next 6 months,” and seven out of ten expect “moderate to substantial improvements” (p. 5).

More than four out of ten respondents anticipate “increased expenditures on outsourced or external services to aid in the learning function in the coming months of 2011. Outsourced or external services include such expenses as consultation services, content development, content and software licenses, and workshops and training programs delivered by external providers” (p. 8).

Two-thirds of the respondents think the use of e-learning will “moderately or substantially” increase during the next six months, and they see a similar increase in the use of Web 2.0 technology—again, not surprising given the number of social networking tools such as Twitter, Skype, blogs, and podcasting tools used as vehicles for delivery of learning opportunities.

This is far from insignificant; workplace learning and performance, according to ASTD’s “2010 State of the Industry Report,” is a $125.8 billion industry annually (p. 5 of the “State of the Industry Report”). It’s an important part of our overall commitment to lifelong learning. And, as ASTD representatives playfully note, it’s part of an effort designed to “create a world that works better.”

In spite of the encouraging news documented in the quarterly Confidence Index report, there is no time for complacency here. The way we learn and the way we offer learning opportunities is changing in response to the availability of online tools, and continuing economic pressures hinder learners’ opportunities to travel to attend face-to-face learning sessions (p. 9 of the Confidence Index report). There are also plenty of examples of stultifyingly ineffective face-to-face and online learning offerings that diminish rather than encourage learners’ enthusiasm, as any of us who regularly attend training sessions can confirm.

On the other hand, there are plenty of organizations like the more than 125 ASTD chapters across the United States and the national society itself that offer learning opportunities for trainer-teacher-learners interested in improving our knowledge, skills, and ability to meet workplace learning and performance needs.

The responsibility to engage in actions that would merit and nurture the optimism expressed by those 354 learning executives who contributed to the 2011 First Quarter Learning Executives Confidence Index report remains firmly in our hands.


Innovations in Social Learning: From Print-based to Digital Environments

May 2, 2011

When a classmate introduced me to Michael Wesch’s 4.5-minute video The Machine Is Us/ing Us on YouTube a few years ago, I sat in stunned silence for quite a while. Because it introduced me to Web 2.0 in a uniquely visceral way. Showed me that the world had changed significantly while I had been asleep intellectually and socially. And because I knew I would be working through the thoughts inspired by that brief video for months, if not years, to come.

I had the same reaction two nights ago when I finally made the time to watch the online archived version of the MacArthur Foundation’s 100-minute Panel Discussion on Re-Imagining Learning in the 21st Century and immediately followed a link to see Digital Media: New Learners of the 21st Century,  the 50-minute PBS program which is at the heart of the Panel Discussion program.

To say that all trainer-teacher-learners should watch, think about, and discuss how the content of these two beautifully interwoven presentations is already affecting what we do is to underplay the significance of programs’ content.

Both presentations are forward-looking, as suggested by inclusion of John Dewey’s reminder that “If we teach today’s students as we did yesterday’s, we are robbing them of tomorrow.” And both shows document the growing impact of what Karen Cator, Director of the office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education, calls the transition from print-based classroom learning to a digital learning environment in one of her contributions to Panel Discussion.

While the focus of both programs is on education for students not yet in college, the message for all of us is: if we don’t learn from how these students—members of our future workplace learning and performance audience—are learning and if we don’t effectively apply those social learning techniques to what we are offering our adult learners, we’re going to become obsolete as learning leaders.

Cator—just one of several first-rate and thoughtful Panel Discussion presenters—overtly reminds us that “We have an incredible opportunity to transform learning into a deeply social experience, one that can leverage mobile technologies, social networking, and digital content. We can leverage the long tail of interest and design education environments that include prior experience, outside-of-school experience, multiple languages, families, the community, all the places that students live and breathe…”

It’s a change many of us are noticing as we acknowledge and attempt to foster the growth of new onsite and online spaces in our lives—social learning centers (also referred to as learning environments). And both programs—the Panel Discussion and Learners of the 21st Century—provide plenty of encouragement for those efforts by showcasing five innovative programs and projects.

There’s Quest to Learn, a school for digital kids. The Digital Youth Network and its fabulous YOUMedia collaboration for teens with the Chicago Public Library. The Smithsonian Institute’s digital scavenger hunt. Middleton Alternative Senior High’s augmented reality project in Middleton, Wisconsin. And the Science Leadership Academy sponsored by Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.

And there are the voices of the students themselves. Engaged. Confident. More articulate and innovative than many people twice or three times their age. And the sort of people all of us should very much look forward to working with very soon in our own workplaces and learning environments.


Social Learning Centers: When Fourth Place Is a Winner

March 23, 2011

The creation of social learning centers as the important fourth place in our lives took another wonderful leap forward today with a successful attempt to create a blended—onsite/online—fourth place extending from Washington DC to San Francisco.

It wasn’t flawless. And it wasn’t always pretty. But, as colleague and co-presenter Maurice Coleman noted to appreciative laughter from participants, we learn as much from failure as we learn from our successes.

For those of you who feel as if you just walked into the second act of a play in progress, let’s take one step back before making the obvious leaps forward: Ray Oldenburg, more than two decades ago, used his book The Great Good Place to define the three important places in our lives. In that pre-World Wide Web period, those places were physical (onsite) sites: home as the first place, work as the second place, and our treasured community meeting places playing the role of the third place—the great good place.

The idea for a fourth place—the community gathering place for social learning—sprouted from a rapidly planted seed in August 2010 during an episode of Maurice’s biweekly T is for Training podcast. By the end of that T is for Training conversation, we had decided that a perfect place to spread the idea was the annual Computers in Libraries conference—which we finally were able to do today.

Our experiment onsite in Washington DC was far from perfect. But by the end of the 45-minute session that Maurice, T is for Training colleague Jill Hurst-Wahl, and I designed, we had in many ways exceeded our goal, for we not only described the fourth place, we created an onsite-online fourth place that, with any luck, will continue to exist and expand. (Jill’s summary of the session is included on her Digitization 101 blog in a posting dated March 24, 2011.)

Maurice and Jill were onsite; I planned to deliver my portion of the presentation, via Skype, from San Francisco. We talked about how libraries as social learning spaces could be developed in existing library buildings or online. Or in outdoor settings (gardens, if gardening was the object of a learning lesson). Or even in refurbished shipping containers if an organization wanted to combine recycling with learning. We also talked about the various ways learning is delivered online these days: through formal well-planed courses and webinars as well as informally through chat, through Twitter, and through Skype.

The denouement was to be the moment when we called attention to how Skype and Twitter were being used live, during the presentation, to draw our online colleagues into the onsite learning venue at the conference. And it almost worked out that way—except that the Skype section was far diminished by an unexpectedly bad Internet connection at the conference site.

And that, surprisingly enough, was when all the planning and creativity that went into the presentation paid off, for when we realized that the Skype section wasn’t going to work, Maurice used his copy of the slides and script I had prepared and he delivered the live portion of my presentation. And while Jill was moving forward with her part of the session, I turned to the conference Twitter feed to see if anyone was actually tweeting what was happening. Which, of course, someone was. So by using Twitter to reach that audience member, I was able to determine what was happening onsite; Maurice and I established a typed-chat connection via Skype since my audio feed was less than what was acceptable to us; and Maurice used the webcam on his Netbook to allow me to see and hear the two of them in action for the remainder of the session.

The result was that we jury-rigged exactly what we had set out to do through our rehearsals—a learning space that combined onsite and online participants; a combination of live presentation, Skype, and Twitter to allow all of us to engage in a learning session; and a demonstration of how this particular fourth place might continue to exist if any of us decide to come back together via Twitter, Skype, or face to face.

There were signs, even before our time together ended, that we were on our way to having made a difference. One participant wrote, via Twitter, that he is “gonna get an empty shipping container (for free), set it up in Brooklyn Park, & invite community to make it a 4th learning space.”

For more of the conversation, please visit the overall conference Twitter record at #cil11 and look for postings during the second half of the day on March 23, 2011. Tweeters included @librarycourtney, @meerkatdon,  @mgkrause (who posted, from a different session, “This was so basic—wish I had gone to the 4th place talk to hear about tech shops!”),and @jeanjeanniec. Slide and speaker notes from the portions Jill and I prepared are also available online for those who want to explore the idea of social learning centers as fourth place.


Hidden Garden Steps: When Social Networking Supports an Onsite-Online Community

March 20, 2011

Creating a community-based, volunteer-managed, neighborhood beautification project while strengthening the sense of community in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District took an interesting turn a few days ago: one of our volunteer supporters for the Hidden Garden Steps project went online with a charming—and obviously effective—fundraising effort to help move the $300,000 project forward.

The initiative by the volunteer—Sherry Boschert, who lives with her partner near the Steps—is not only engagingly straightforward. It is also very much in the spirit of the Hidden Garden Steps effort, which relies on a loosely structured organizing committee coordinating a San Francisco Parks Trust project to bring existing neighborhood individuals, groups, and business owners together in a collaborative effort to complete the project on 16th Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton streets.

Boschert did her research by talking with the project artists (Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher) at a recent fundraising and marketing event hosted by Crepevine owner Majed Fakouri. She also, at the same event, met with organizing committee member Licia Wells for a quick brainstorming session about various aspects of her idea to bring members of the Inner Sunset GLBT community together to raise $5,000 to support the creation and installation of the Diablo Fairly Lantern tile element of the Steps project. Then Boschert, a writer and activist who has lived in the neighborhood for two decades, used the Kickstarter online fundraising platform to post the video she created.

Within 24 hours, the posting had already attracted three donors who contributed more than 10 percent of the $5,000 goal for that one piece of the overall Hidden Garden Steps effort. And she has already offered to show others how to engage in similar efforts on behalf of the Steps.

There is plenty to admire and to learn from here, and it reminds us of the importance of combining face-to-face and online efforts seamlessly. Boschert became interested in the Hidden Garden Steps project as a result of organizing committee members’ efforts to collected collect signatures on petitions in early 2010. She remained interested as organizing committee members held monthly meetings to create an effective project infrastructure throughout 2010; created local interest through flyers posted throughout the neighborhood and through rudimentary Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts; began formal fundraising efforts in early 2011; and began scheduling public events in volunteers’ homes, at Crepevine, and other settings.

The result of the organizing committee’s efforts, so far, has been a flow of more than $20,000 in donations not only from San Franciscans but also from San Franciscans’ friends, relatives, and colleagues in other parts of the United States.

Boschert, on her Kickstarter page and in the video, creates the sense of warmth, engagement, and fun that is at the heart of the entire project: “This Kickstarter project is raising funds specifically to sponsor one element in the design—the Diablo Fairy Lantern flower—and to recognize the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) residents of the Sunset District who live near both sets of steps.

“Why GLBTs? The Sunset has a reputation for being one of the city’s most conservative, straight districts, but GLBT people have always lived here too. We want to give back to the community by supporting this gorgeous project, and we will place one tile near the Diablo Fairy Lantern with the name of our social group, Out in the Fog.

“Why the Fairy Lantern? (I don’t really have to explain that, do I?) Because it’s beautiful. Here’s what the Fairy Lantern looks like in the design, and here’s what it looks like in real life. Like I said — gorgeous.”

And as we move forward with our efforts to bring the entire project to fruition, it’s worth the time it takes to acknowledge something else equally gorgeous: the spirit of community that inspires people like Boschert to carve time out of their very busy schedules to engage in positive actions. And make us smile.

N.B.: This is the second in an ongoing series to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. Next: Local Libraries’ Involvement in the Hidden Garden Steps Project.


Reports from the Field: “Getting Started With e-Learning 2.0”

February 6, 2011

To move beyond the common practice of seeing e-learning as little more than a way to save money in workplace learning and performance (training) programs, we need go no further than Patti Shank’s “Getting Started with e-Learning 2.0,” a first-rate report published by the eLearning Guild in late 2010.

Drawing from survey responses submitted by more than 850 Guild members—professionals working in e-learning—the report provides an intriguing snapshot of how social media tools are—or aren’t—being used in online learning and, more importantly, provides information about the “top five strategies that respondents feel they need for success with e-Learning 2.0 approaches”: “good content, upper management endorsement, user assistance, piloting, and testimonials” (p. 4).

We know from the beginning of this Guild publication that we’re among colleagues interested in learning. In talking about the increasing tendency to incorporate social networking tools including wikis, blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, social bookmarking sites such as Delicious and Diigo, and others into online learning opportunities, the writer asks and answers a basic question—“Are these good learning opportunities? You betcha!” (p. 6)—and then delivers a cohesive and easy-to-follow summary of the eLearning Guild survey documentation supporting her conclusion.

The good news for trainers, teachers, and learners is that “social media has become a very big deal” and that its use is continuing to increase rapidly (p. 8). The not-so-good news is that most respondents “don’t feel a great deal of pressure to implement these approaches” (p. 14) and “more than 25% of respondents are making only limited use of e-Learning 2.0 approaches or researching how other organizations are using it” (p. 4).

This is hardly breaking news to those of us who enjoy and are involved in onsite and online education: there are still so many poorly organized and poorly presented workplace learning and performance offerings that it’s not surprising to find skeptical rather than enthusiastic presenters and learners. It also remains true that those trying their first webinar or online course are unlikely to give the medium a second chance if what they face is poorly designed PowerPoint presentations and sessions that lack the levels of engagement that lead to effective learning and the positive change that should follow.

Shank provides concise descriptions and suggested applications for blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, and other aspects of social networking that are becoming part of our online learning toolkit. She also offers useful sections on learning benefits (the fact that learning is socially grounded, so social networking tools are a natural match for the learning process—p. 26), challenges (managers and supervisors who see social networking tools as detracting from rather than adding to the value of their training programs and overall ability to conduct business—pp. 26-30), and results (sharing ideas across departments, improving team collaboration, increasing creativity and problem-solving—p. 31).

Three pages of online references and a two-page glossary round out this useful and learning-centric report, leaving us not only with encouragement about the positive impact e-learning is having, but also with sobering thoughts about how much more there is to accomplish before we have reached our—and its—full potential.

Next: ASTD’s Most Recent “State of the Industry” Report


ALA 2011 Midwinter Meeting: Trainers, Starfish, and Levels of Engagement in an Onsite-Online World

January 7, 2011

It wasn’t all that long ago that many of us involved in workplace learning and performance saw our face-to-face and online communities as nonintersecting elements of our lives. Face-to-face contact was perceived to somehow be more rewarding, offering deeper, richer relationships than those we had online.

Having dinner last night with a small group of ALA Learning Round Table colleagues who are here in San Diego to attend the 2011 American Library Association (ALA) midwinter meeting reminded me once again how far we’ve come. What became a tradition of gathering a few of us involved in learning opportunities for or within libraries for an evening of dinner and conversation spiced abundantly with an exchange of ideas and resources has, over the past few years, evolved into an opportunity to create and sustain a third place not defined by a physical geographical location—and it really continues to grow through the online contacts we maintain throughout the year.

What in Ray Oldenburg’s concept of The Great Good Place was a world comprised of our home as our first place, work as our second place, and a third place comprised of the treasured community site where we, our friends, and colleagues come and go has, in the age of Web 2.0 and online communities facilitated through social networking tools, come full circle. We now have a third place which can begin either face to face or online, be nurtured through frequent and productive online exchanges—meetings, online chats, regularly scheduled conversations on themes of interest to all participants—and also include those face-to-face encounters in physical settings which change from month to month and year to year depending on where members of the community find themselves crossing paths.

More importantly, the result of this sort of fluid and flexible community which moves back and forth between physical and virtual encounters produces the sort of development and exchange of ideas that Frans Johansson so effectively describes in his The Medici Effect—a tribute to what happens when people of differing backgrounds meet, exchange ideas, and, through their intersection, develop and disseminate new ideas.

Which is exactly what happened again last night. The five of us who were able to extend our continuing long-distance conversations did not arrive with an agenda—that’s neither third place nor Medici Effect thinking. And we did not limit ourselves to discussing what is happening in workplace learning and development or in libraries, although those are the common threads which originally brought us all together. The conversation actually began as many third-place conversations do: with comments about issues that are on our minds, including the anger and frustration we feel that basic social issues such as finding ways to do more than feel bad when we see homeless people sleeping on the streets of the cities which are our homes are not being addressed while members of our national legislature read the American Constitution to each other.

And here’s where our onsite-online third place took an interesting Medici Effect twist: one of our colleagues mentioned that out of her personal frustration came the practice of having a bag of groceries in her car so that when she is running errands and comes across someone in need of food, she has something she can give them.  It seems to be an inadequate response to a huge problem, she suggested, but it serves as a step in the right direction of remaining engaged with members of her own community.  Another colleague present for our third-place gathering jumped in with what she called the story—dare we use the word parable here?—of the girl and the starfish: a young girl, spotting thousands of starfish being washed up on a beach, began throwing some back into the water and, when questioned why she was addressing such an insurmountably large challenge with an action that seemed so insignificant, responded that it wasn’t insignificant to the starfish that she saved.

It didn’t take us long to identify the Medici Effect moment in both stories: what was, up to that moment, an individual effort of providing small offerings of food took on greater import through the sharing of the story about the bags of groceries. If even one of us hearing the story adopts the practice of carrying and distributing groceries to those in need, then our colleague’s action has been multiplied and we are one step closer to supporting what she has inspired to the benefit of those who might otherwise not receive the gift of being acknowledged as members of our overall community.

And at a human level, there was even more: one element that makes our third-place/Medici Effect onsite-online community continue to thrive and grow is that there are no overtly closed doors—new members join as quickly as they express interest in becoming part of the overall conversation.

That happened again last night when our wonderful waitress at Mint Downtown Thai restaurant became part of the various conversations we had and, upon learning that we were among the more than 5,000 people spending the next several days in San Diego to attend the ALA midwinter meeting, immediately asked us each to tell her what our favorite books are so she would have more works to explore. Among those suggested: the novels Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett; The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruis Zafón; and The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay, along with the Notzake Shange’s poetry collection For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. And, as is the obligation of any member of a third-place/Medici Effect community, she responded with her own favorites: Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

So, for those of us who were present—including new community member Ashli at Mint Downtown Thai—we had our cake and ate it too: we walked away with encouragement and inspiration to continue doing what we do, and we had the added benefit of being reminded of books we need to read—or reread—as our onsite-online connections continue growing.


Training, Learning, and Collaborating on the Other Side of the Horizon

December 18, 2010

Trainers and other perpetual learners are information junkies. We thrive on what we learn and share. We revel in those moments when boundaries dissolve and we embrace a seamless role of trainer-teacher-learner rather than simply delivering a lesson and hoping that participants in a learning opportunity will remember something that we said.

We, like those whose learning we facilitate, have our cherished sources of information: friends; colleagues; printed newspapers, books, magazines, and their online counterparts; our favorite librarian; and/or the waiter, waitress, or supermarket checkout clerk who calls our attention to what we might not otherwise notice given the demands that information overload puts on us and all we encounter.

There are also the reports without which we would feel diminished. One of those, for me, is the New Media Consortium (NMC) annual Horizon Report, an engaging free online document designed to “chart the landscape of emerging technologies for teaching, learning, and creative inquiry,” as Consortium representatives explain on their website.

To read the main and subsidiary reports inspires thought and action. Writing about the reports has become an annual ritual for me ever since I attended a live Horizon Report presentation in 2008. And to cross over to the other side of the Horizon this year by serving on the 2011 Horizon Report Advisory Board and helping shape the next report—which, of course, I can hardly wait to read when it is released in February 2011—has been an exercise in collaboration which has changed the way I work.

At the heart of the Horizon report process is the wiki that provides a virtual meeting place where Advisory Board members from several different countries asynchronously contribute to the development of the report. The lesson here for all of us as trainer-teacher-learners is at least twofold: a) as participants immersing ourselves in using a tech tool as contributors rather than solely as readers, we educated ourselves and became comfortable with exactly the sort of tech change we were documenting for others, and b) we would not have been nearly as successful as we were without guidance—in this case, from New Media Consortium Chief Executive Officer Larry Johnson and his NMC colleagues, who themselves served as trainer-teacher-mentors throughout the brief and intense period of work.

Larry and other NMC staff, throughout the two-month process, guided us with concise, welcoming, supportive email messages; online tutorials; and instructions on how to approach and complete each step of the process—and then they turned us loose to learn, work, and collaborate. The pleasures of exploring new technology with other Advisory Board members via the wiki never seemed to end, and the serendipitous discovery early in the process that an ALA Learning blog colleague—Lauren Pressley—was among my Advisory Board collaborators once again reminded me how small the world has become through the use of shared online tools.

Workplace collaboration, in this case, went far beyond the structure of the staff and Advisory Board’s contributions to the wiki: the entire process was visible, via that wiki, to anyone who wanted to follow it. When the original list of more than 30 technologies we were exploring was winnowed down to a short list, that information was posted publicly for anyone to view—which means that part of the process was to provide a magnificent resource for anyone interested in exploring the topics on their own. The process, furthermore, has produced a list of online press clippings that is an additional resource for anyone wanting to explore the tech topics that were under discussion during the Advisory Board’s online time together.

For anyone who is still wondering why more and more people are exploring wikis as a first-rate collaboration tool and how they provide effective ways for all of us to work together, the entire Horizon Report process is a complete course within itself. And, like any first-rate learning experience, it leaves us with an expanded toolkit that changes the way we work once we have become engaged.

Ultimately, it leads us to another level of building communities of learning.

N.B.: For more resources about collaboration and building communities, please see “Communities and Collaboration in an Onsite-Online World: An Annotated Bibliography.”


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