Training, Leading, and Creativity

June 19, 2010

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert earlier this week wrote about how those who helped cause the worst financial crisis we’ve faced since the Great Depression remain “unfazed by reality” and are attempting to make it worse. They are, he suggested, creating reductions in the state and local services that are instrumental to building the economy.

He quotes a Northern California school district chief who, rather than seeking creative solutions to a terrible situation, is trying to balance a budget by laying off teachers and health aids, increasing the number of students within classrooms, decreasing the number of days students spend in school each year, and closing school libraries.

“Similar decisions, potentially devastating to the lives of individuals and families and poisonous to the effort to rebuild the economy, are being made by state and local officials from one coast to the other, “ Herbert writes. “For the federal government to stand by like a disinterested onlooker as this carnage plays out would be crazy.”

That’s all too familiar to those of us watching vacancies in businesses and nonprofit agencies go unfilled; watching first-rate trainer-teacher-learners losing their jobs or struggling to find work when the organizations for which they work lose their funding; and watching those who remain behind, employed and overwhelmed by increasing workloads and decreases in pay and benefits.

But we can’t afford to hunker down—we never could, and we certainly don’t have the luxury of pulling back now and waiting for things to improve before we seek creative responses to the challenges our communities are facing. The need for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance to step up to the plate and assume roles of leadership within the organizations we serve remains as strong as it has ever been. We need to position ourselves to be leaders seeking solutions rather than part of the crowd sitting so high in the bleachers that our voices cannot be heard and our actions cannot be seen.

If the companies, agencies, and groups we serve can no longer afford to hire outside instructors to meet our colleagues’ learning needs, we need to find innovative, inexpensive ways to draw from the expertise of those already within our organizations. If organizations continue to struggle to free up employees to attend training sessions with “release time”—an awful term when you think of it; it implies that learning is a perk, something less than essential to every employee’s efforts—then we need to find ways to provide learning opportunities which are stimulating, rewarding, productive, easy to deliver and attend, and offered in ways which keep our colleagues growing in ways that serve themselves as well as the organizations for which they are working.

There’s nothing magic about trying to incorporate learning opportunities into meetings which have already been scheduled for entire work groups, nor is there anything tremendously challenging about setting up optional learning opportunities during pre- and post-work hours as well as during (staggered) lunch breaks—something as simple as a series of “lessons at lunch” in which colleagues share valuable tricks and tips on how to better function in our ever-changing workplaces or view and discuss podcasts (webcasts) and other online offerings. Let’s set up LinkedIn discussion groups to allow for the sharing of learning opportunities when learners are ready to take advantage of those opportunities, not just when we are available to provide them face-to-face or in synchronous online learning sessions. Let’s use Skype and Google Chat and other innovative online resources to quickly reach those who are not geographically accessible. And let’s draw from the expertise available from organizations including the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and blogs such as ALA Learning.

Workplace learning and development remains as important as ever. We are in a position to make a difference even in the worst of times. For us to stand by as onlookers would, as Herbert said in the context of his recent column, be nothing short of crazy.

N.B.–Those attending the American Library Association’s annual conference in Washington DC are invited to join Paul and colleagues Maurice Coleman, Sandra Smith, and Louise Whitaker for a discussion of “Library Trainers as Leaders” on Sunday, June 27, 2010 from 10:30 am – noon in Washington Conference Center Room 201. Paul will also be participating in the ALA Learning Round Table Training Showcase that afternoon from 1:30 – 3:30 pm in the Washington Conference Center Ballroom.


On the Horizon Report: Training-Teaching-Learning Innovations (Part 2 of 2)

February 9, 2010

We will, if the authors (Laurence Johnson, Alan Levine, Rachel Smith, and Sonja Stone) of the 2010 Horizon Report are as accurate as they have been in the past, soon be as proficient in and comfortable with simple augmented reality, gesture-based computing, and visual data analysis as we currently are with other more familiar educational tools and trends.

The report itself suggests that simple augmented reality, “the concept of blending (augmenting) virtual data—information, rich media, and even live action—with what we see in the real world, for the purpose of enhancing the information we can perceive with our senses,” will reach maturity as an educational tool within two or three years. Simple augmented reality, the writers note, “is older than the term itself,” having first been used more than 40 years ago. As is often the case, however, diffusion of innovation has occurred gradually and appears to be working its way into educational settings for “discovery-based learning.” Current applications already include augmented reality in showing learners how to repair cars, interact with books and other physical objects, and work in collaborative learning environments.

Right behind augmented reality is gesture-based computing, according to our Horizon Report colleagues: “In schools where the Microsoft Surface has been installed in study areas, staff report that students naturally gravitate to the devices when they want to work together to study collaboratively.”  Those familiar with TED talks have already seen the MIT Media Lab demonstration of the Sixth Sense gesture-based system which shows where we might be headed with this technology, and Georgia Tech University researchers “have developed gesture-based games designed to help deaf children learn sign language,” the Horizon Report writers note.

We come full circle in our exploration of overwhelming amounts of information when we reach the final of the six trends explored: visual data analysis, a way to “make it possible for almost anyone with an analytical bent to easily interpret all sorts of data.” Tools including Many Eyes, Wordle, Flowing Data, and Gapminder are already available to trainer-teacher-learners, and they are helping us spot patterns which might otherwise remain hidden.

“The promise for teaching and learning is further afield,” the Horizon Report authors tell us, “but because of the intuitive ways in which it can expose intricate relationships to even the unitiated, there is tremendous opportunity to integrate visual data analysis into undergraduate research, even in survey courses.”

What this suggests, of course, is that those of us involved in workplace learning and performance need to see the simple augmented reality writing on the virtual wall: if students—future employees in the workplaces that we serve—are already using these resources in their educational endeavors, we are going to have to be equally adept at and comfortable with these tools if we’re going to be prepared to meet their workplace learning needs.


On the Horizon Report: Training-Teaching-Learning Innovations (Part 1 of 2)

February 7, 2010

Because training-teaching-learning never ends, we’re continually inundated by a flood of information and innovations which threaten to overwhelm us. When something as stimulating as The Horizon Report: 2010 Edition comes our way, I’m completely willing to dive in without thinking about whether I’ll ever come back up for air.

This annual collaborative report produced by the New Media Consortium and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative uses conversations with “hundreds of technology professionals, campus technologists, faculty leaders from colleges and universities, and representatives of leading corporations” and the work of an advisory board to identify those technology tools and trends most likely to have an impact on education over a five-year horizon. The results are as much a road map as they are an e-learning experience in and of themselves.

For those who work diligently to follow tech trends, some of what appears in the report—mobile computing, open content, and electronic books–may seem already to be old news, while other concepts—simple augmented reality, gesture-based computing, and visual data analysis—may be somewhat or entirely new. But exploring the report offers new twists even to the most familiar of information as the writers document what they call “the particular relevance of [each] topic to education, creativity, or research.” The results are worth whatever time it takes us to absorb them.

One of the many impressive elements of the annual reports is the way the authors (Laurence Johnson, Alan Levine, Rachel Smith, and Sonja Stone) use what they describe. The 2010 report, for example, describes the growth of visual data analysis as an educational tool; the New Media Consortium then, on its own website and with little fanfare, provides an example of visual data analysis using Wordle: “a word cloud, which gives a visual representation” of the themes which have been most prominently featured in all seven of the annual [Horizon] reports. Those of us who are immersed in reading and producing blogs are obviously familiar with tag clouds, but what our New Media Consortium colleagues have produced here as a supplement to a free online “boxed set” of all seven Horizon reports adds a stunningly beautiful and inspirational twist to what has become commonplace for us.

Another impressive element is the often overlooked e-learning potential of the hyperlinks—provided within the report—to other learning resources. Having called attention recently to the potential for online learning provided via innovative websites such Smarthistory and even through well organized archives on blogs such as one created and maintained by Lori Reed, I was particularly ready to pursue the opportunities provided by the “in practice” and “for further reading” sections following each description of the six horizon technologies explored in the 2010 report. Like any good online bibliography, these sections serve as rudimentary knowledge management systems that lead us to additional information when we are ready to pursue it—just-in-time learning at its best.

What better way to control that flood so that we as trainer-teacher-learners have a chance to swim rather than to sink?

Next: Horizon 2010 Technologies


Transformative and Reflective Life-long Learning (Part 3 of 3)

January 31, 2010

If we want to provide effective learning opportunities, we need to build reflection into the process from the beginning and encourage learners to participate in setting their own learning goals.

A third critically important element of successful transformative and reflective learning involves acknowledging and remembering that learning is a process, not an event, and that processes, as we know, require participation, and follow-up if they are going to be successful.

The approach De Anza College Distance Learning Center staff take through the “Distance Learning Questionnaire” they adopted many years ago from the PBS-Adult Learning Service leaves us with a first-rate example of what we should all be considering. Although it is designed to help students determine whether they are ready to engage in online learning, it also serves to remind workplace learning and performance professionals that we have an equally important role to play in preparing ourselves and those with whom we work to build foundations for success from the beginning.

What is wonderful about the questionnaire is that it asks questions designed to provoke thought and reflection: How important and time-sensitive is the prospective learning experience to the learner? Do the learner’s habits lend themselves to success in an online learning environment?  

The questionnaire immediately offers guidance to those who complete it. Achieve an appropriate score on that questionnaire and it appears you are ready to proceed. On the other hand, if your score is lower than successful learners achieve, the advice is straightforward: “you may need to make a few adjustments in your schedule and study habits to succeed” or, for those with the lowest scores, “distance learning may not currently be the best alternative for you; talk to your counselor.” Hard advice, yet very helpful to all involved if we’re looking for long-term results.

A final link, from the top of the page, leads readers to a page where the questionnaire, the scoring guidelines, and an explanation of the results are all available, and this is where the real learning and reflection opportunities are for prospective learners. Among the explanations and the tips offered are that “Distance Learning courses give students greater freedom of scheduling, but they can require more self-discipline than on-campus classes,” and “Distance Learning requires at least as much time as on-campus courses. Students surveyed say that Distance Learning courses are as hard or harder than on campus courses.”

If forewarned is truly forearmed, De Anza College staff and instructors are doing a great job of preparing everyone for learning successes, and there’s a lot all of us can learn from their example as we carve out time for our own reflective moments.


E-Learning Innovations, Lori Reed, and Destination Learning

January 28, 2010

We seem, in many ways, to be in a training-teaching-learning renaissance. The stunning burst of creativity among workplace learning and performance practitioners—what we colloquially and inadequately call “trainers”—is virtually nonstop, exhilarating, and just plain fun to watch.

Experimentation with ways to deliver effective online learning is abundant, and Lori Reed, a close colleague and cherished co-writer who serves as Learning & Development Coordinator for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library (among other things), has just provided another wonderful example of where we might and should be going.

Like Beth Harris and Steven Zucker at Smarthistory.org, Reed has started with a blog and innovatively manipulated it to create a visually attractive and dynamic website (“Destination Learning”) offering numerous learning opportunities which are available to us at the moment we need them and in a format which makes them incredibly easy to navigate.

If you’re looking for well reasoned and heartfelt writing—the centerpiece of any great blog–she consistently meets your expectations by delivering pieces like her introductory posting on the new site, where she considers her transition from thinking and working on training to “focusing more on the end result—performance and answering the question of how…we improve the services and quality of service we provide to our customers.”

Those in search of other training-teaching-learning resources will find plenty on her Curriculum Vitae page, where links to published articles, educational presentations, and webinars are included among the standard background information about her own skills and expertise.

But what is most innovative here is something rarely seen on blogs, which often become dumping grounds rather than useable repositories of retrievable resource because of inconsistent or non-existent tagging or other clues as to what resides within the site. Reed’s archives begin with the sort of admirably simple and user-centric set of explanations great trainers provide:

“Categories are sorted alphabetically.

“Hierarchical categories are grouped and indented under their parent category.

“Reports are listed once only, under the category they are first shown.

“A count (in brackets) is given of comments received against individual reports.

“The number of reports under each category is given (in brackets) after each category name. “Reports may be filed under more than one category and are included in the total for all categories under which they are filed, but are not included in a parent category’s total.”

We then find ourselves on familiar ground via an alphabetized index, by category, to every piece posted on the blog. If we are looking for articles about customer service, we easily find them grouped under that heading. The same is true for “instructional design,” “learning,” “learning 2.0,” “online learning,” and a variety of other topics. Simply clicking on any of those headings leads you to the titles of various articles she has written on those topics, and each title provides a direct link to the individual piece.

What we have here, therefore, is the same sort of creative hybrid available on the Smart History website: a living, constantly evolving, and free-ranging combination of a traditional printed work on a broad topic; a wiki (via readers’ comments); a blog; and a knowledge management system providing learning opportunities at the moment of need. In other words, a masterful lesson by a master trainer on how to master the organization of information in a compelling and assessable fashion for all trainer-teacher-learners.

Let’s see how long it takes the rest of us to catch up.


Transformative and Reflective Life-long Learning (Part 1 of 3)

January 25, 2010

Listening to Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training interview with Bamboo Project blogger Michele Martin about learning, Web 2.0 (online social networking), and a variety of other topics, I was struck by a passing reference she makes to the need for reflection in learning: “One of the things that I find from a learning perspective that is often missing is the whole notion of reflection. We’re just not really great with reflection…and social media, to some extent, can support it…”

What’s notable is not that someone is lamenting the lack of reflection in contemporary learning, but that so many of us recognize and comment on it yet somehow don’t seem able to foster it to a large degree in workplace learning and performance programs.

It’s not as if we’re unaware or it or even unsure as to how to proceed. Those of us familiar with Fort Hill Company’s efforts to create comprehensive leadership training opportunities which draw managers/supervisors and learners together before as well as after learning events take place know that there are great models to be followed and adapted. The Fort Hill Company model is also well documented in Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan’s book The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results; a follow-up manual (Getting Your Money’s Worth from Training & Development) written by Jefferson, Pollock, and Wick is designed to help managers/supervisors and learners better apply what is offered through face-to-face or online learning opportunities.

But the moments of what Jack Mezirow calls “transformative learning” and “critical reflection” seem few and far between in most programs we see and oversee today. Learners often have to fight to obtain release time from work—the very idea that learning is somehow disconnected from or not an integral part of work hints at how deep-rooted a problem we face here—and then often return to worksites where what they learned is not accepted, nourished, or supported. Worse yet, the time to even practice what is learned is seen as a luxury rather than an essential element of the learning process.

As Martin says in different words in her T is for Training interview, one benefit of online learning is that course participants can “engage with and reflect on the course content,” Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt note in Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom (p. 129)—a book which is as fresh and timely as when it was published more than a decade ago. (An updated version was published in 2007.)  The process of making reflection a part of learning, they add, “is a vibrant, dynamic process that is typically not completed when a course ends…the first experience with this process creates a hunger for more and sets the stage for participants to become lifelong, reflective learners” (p. 130).

It all becomes personal—as learning should be—and transformative when we immerse ourselves in a combination of face-to-face and online learning experiences, as I did over the past couple of years. Regardless of whether the courses were online or onsite, the best were the ones that left me hungry for more. Made me continue reading and thinking about books like Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations and Lon Safko and David Brake’s The Social Media Bible: Tactics, Tools, and Strategies for Business Success long after the courses and projects requiring them had ended. And make me appreciative that trainer-teacher-learners like Martin, Palloff, Pratt, and the others mentioned in this article are still among us to remind us what we can accomplish when we are reflective.

Next: Personal Learning Environments and Feral Learning


Skype and Low-Cost E-learning Delivered at the Moment of Need

January 22, 2010

Delivering low- or no-cost e-learning at the moment of need seems to become easier every day through the use of Web 2.0 (online social networking) tools. Having written earlier this month about using Google Chat to deliver a dynamic, interactive, and effective online lesson to journalism students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I found myself experimenting on short notice with Skype as a live delivery tool yesterday for basic Excel and PowerPoint lessons.

The good news is that it worked; the even better news is that the immediate payoff for the learner might be a job she would very much love to have.

Our online learning experience developed after she received a call yesterday afternoon to let her know that she was being invited to interview for a position this afternoon. This appeared to be great news until the interviewer told her that the company needed someone with good Excel and PowerPoint skills. The interviewee/learner in this case had a basic familiarity with both programs, but felt less than confident that she could display proficiency during an interview. I assured her that I would be happy to meet with her face-to-face that evening to cover the basics of both programs, but scheduling conflicts and the fact that we live in different parts of the San Francisco Bay Area made that infeasible. We were at a momentary loss until a wonderful intermediary suggested that we attempt to conduct the lessons via Skype—which proved to be a godsend for both of us.

Making this work required little more than the (free) Skype connection; (inexpensive) webcams and audio-visual capabilities (built into her laptop, add-ons to my PC); a bit of creativity; and a lot of patience from both sides. It also obviously helped that we’re both comfortable with Skype and that she is an incredibly fast learner. We decided we would tackle Excel first, so established the Skype connection and kept the Skype window visible in the lower right-hand corner of our individual computers while we talked back and forth. We then each opened a blank Excel spreadsheet and created a sample budget together in the program so we could use and review the basic functions she would need to understand in her prospective workplace. Each time we completed something together, we would explicitly describe what we were seeing on our screens to be sure that we were creating identical documents. By the end of that hour-long session, we completed the rudimentary sample budget and reviewed the steps we had taken to create it, and she had a working document which she could use for further review, study, and explorations of the program.

After taking a break for a few hours, we returned later in the evening to create a sample PowerPoint presentation comprised of just a few slides with a Beyond Bullet Points approach so she again would learn by creating something useful and, at the same time, visually striking. Following the same procedures proved very effective; when she arrived for her interview this afternoon, she received compliments for having creatively crafted something which highlighted the products produced by her prospective employer.

Although many of us still remain convinced that there is a strong case to be made for face-to-face training in an onsite-online world, it’s equally clear that the term “face-to-face” is rapidly evolving as tools such as Skype create extremely effective opportunities for virtual (and virtually) face-to-face learning if trainer-teacher-learners are willing to experiment and those they help are willing to reach across the rapidly shrinking digital divide with their own equipment or through libraries and other gateways to Internet access.


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