Archive for November, 2013

In a recent post, I mentioned that the order of the training transaction is currently the wrong way around. We treat learners as passive consumers, and don’t recognise their potential as producers. It’s an idea which is underlined in an excellent recent post by Steve Wheeler, from whom I’ve borrowed the first part of my title (although I suspect that Walter Benjamin got there first). Wheeler points out that:

“The importance of the situatedness of learning at all levels cannot be overemphasised. Some of the strongest experiences and lessons we learn are rooted in authentic contexts, cultures and activities.”

As the frenzy of online consumption that is Black Friday and Cyber Monday approaches, I want to explore the ‘learner as producer’ idea further by taking a look at Not all of us like the site, or the company, but what can its huge popularity teach us about building a more elastic learning experience on an LMS?

Firstly, it’s more-or-less accepted now that for mature organisations, a well-stocked LMS should be a delightful bazaar of learning. Instead of content being ‘pushed’ at them (which sounds pretty unpleasant), users should get to ‘pull’ exactly what they want and mould it into a personal learning experience. Much like an e-learning version of Amazon.  And most people love Amazon, right?

So why doesn’t a visit to your LMS feel as good as a visit to Amazon?

Obviously, even the largest LMS vendors or internal L&D teams don’t have as many graphic designers and web developers on hand as Amazon does. But discounting looks (and looks are important) there’s actually key differences which aren’t immediately obvious.

Firstly, there’s the lack of options and competition. Amazon offers me untold millions of great products. There’s dozens of sellers competing for market share in each category, guaranteeing that any taste will be satisfied. In comparison, the traditional LMS usually offers me one main library of generic content, plus a load of other bits and pieces. Really, L&D is the only ‘seller’ here. Call that a marketplace? It’s more like a cartel!

That said, a monopoly doesn’t automatically break a marketplace (at least not straightaway), or stop consumers buying. There’s something deeper which is broken, and it has more to do with what we are getting out of learners than what we are feeding in.

As people, learners are producers, above all else. Even when a human is ‘idling’ and not working in a job, he or she is still labouring in some way. Especially when we’re having fun, we’re often ‘producing’ something: whether that’s cooking a meal, writing a review or just texting a friend. (And when you think about it, even browsing the internet for several hours ‘produces’ useful data and a tiny dribble of ad revenue.)

From a different angle, then, a service like Amazon is similar to Facebook in that it is a very clever way to leverage unpaid human labour. The primary goal of its design may be to make you buy something, but that depends on the secondary goal: to make you contribute some of your own time (by producing a review, giving a rating, or just browsing). What they are leveraging is known in behavioural economics as the endowment  effect. The more time you spend on Amazon, the more of you it absorbs, and the more ‘sticky’ or elastic it becomes.

It’s easy to forget, but what really makes Amazon valuable to us is the ‘situatedness’ of products on offer: the huge amount of user-generated information available is like an irresistible social wrapping paper. And it turns out that we are the very people who create that situatedness, a service which we provide for free. Clever, isn’t it?

This distinction is where the ‘marketplace’ model of learning management systems really falls down. Assume that your LMS is a place where only L&D ‘produces’, and the learner ‘consumes’, and it will fail.

Instead, we need to learn from Amazon and re-imagine the LMS as the ‘activist-LMS’. That means acknowledging that learning content experiences are basically non-engaging unless they are ‘situated’ and enriched by what I call ‘social-activators’.

Just like a product on Amazon, online learning has to be a social content experience if it is to matter to learners. So how do we get there?

The technical facilitation is not so difficult. The social-constructivist pedagogy of open source platforms like Moodle and Elgg, for example, are designed with learner production in mind. Improvements you could make to any LMS might be as follows:

  • Move the internal blog over to the LMS and allow learners to upload files and course content.
  • Allow content to be commented, reviewed and rated
  • Change the way that learning content is navigated so that popular or relevant content is highlighted

But, as torturous as upgrades can be, fixing the LMS is actually the easy part. Leveraging learner production also requires a cultural change that extends far beyond the sphere of learning technologies. And the biggest barrier is within L&D itself. The privileged, ‘we-know-best’ position as controller-general of a content monopoly is no longer tenable if you want to create better behavioural interventions. We need learning campaigns that really do deliver ROI by aiming for the ripple, not just the splash… but a guide to enacting this kind of change deserves its own post.

But to get the ball rolling, how about quoting these wise words from Wheeler today:

“Teachers now need to wake up to the fact that they don’t teach subjects, they teach people.”

When Florence Nightingale used a Coxcomb diagram to present the case for improvement in military hospitals to Queen Victoria in the 19th century, little did she know that the diagram would not only form an important part of the history of hospitals, but also the history of visual representation:


Nightingale didn’t just want to present the facts about disease and mortality: her Coxcomb diagram maximises the emotional impact of those figures. As this early example reminds us, an ‘infographic’ isn’t just about compressing large amounts of information into an image. It’s really the art of telling a story by turning that data into a more subtle and persuasive visual narrative.

In the past two years infographics have grown more commonplace. With a number of free and easy-to-use tools available, infographics are proving popular with social media users. But there’s a real danger that some of the basic principles behind them are being forgotten. Especially in terms of learning, taking the decision to include an infographic is not about making a few numbers stand out with vector graphics, but instead offering learners a more dynamic and emotive pathway to connect with the content.

Firstly to refresh your interest, check out the striking work of David McCandless on the Information is Beautiful website and in his books. As any designer will tell you, don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of what you see. For McCandless, the physical image is the final process in the evaluation and conversion of a complex array of data into a narrative.

Now you’re feeling suitably inspired and ready to include an infographic in your own training material, it’s important to ask yourself three important questions before you begin:

  1. What is the purpose of the infographic?
  2. Why should it be important to the learner?
  3. How can we use it to explore the learning further?

And once you’ve answered those questions, it’s helpful to keep some key rules in mind:

  • Try using complementary colours next to each other create a bold contrast. Remember that, with infographics, some the usual rules on colour palettes can be waived.
  • Use as little text as possible, and definitely don’t try and convert whole sentences directly into vector graphics. Keep only headings and key words in the main diagram, and shift additional text to dedicated areas around the sides.
  • Where possible, use custom illustrations.  For example, when comparing the profit sheets of two organisations you may want to use two differently sized money bags to make a bigger impact.
  • Above all, be understated. The point is to tell a story about information, so avoid the big reveal. If your infographic is making such an obvious point, you may not need one at all.

Of course, the next generation of interactive infographics has already arrived and some of the results are fascinating.  Just look at the highly intuitive way the American Civil War is explored in this educational infographic. It will be interesting to see how we can utilise these new forms to create more interesting and immersive e-learning solutions.








Judges at the Learning & Performance Institute have shortlisted Saffron Share, an open source Learning Experience Network, for the 2014 Learning Awards. The versatile product combines learning content management with ‘social activators’ to speed time-to-competence and open up new frontiers for learning technologies.

“Saffron Share resituates formal learning objects in a dynamic environment which is powered by elastic social drivers,” says Toby Harris, LMS product manager at Saffron. “It’s based on a straight-talking pedagogy that sees a learning experience honestly: as much a group of people as it is a collection of content.”

Saffron Interactive has created bespoke learning platforms for FTSE100 companies and government agencies for several years. This new offering is based on an urgent need for a social enterprise platform which is open source and truly integrated with learning management functions.

“We have a proud track-record of innovation in learning technologies, with products like i-Cast and i-Capture. In the past 12 months we have invested heavily in an aggressive platform development programme, and this nomination marks the opening of a new era for Saffron and our reputation in this space” says Noorie Sazen, CEO at Saffron.

“It’s very fitting that what we are calling the ‘Learning Experience Network’ brings to the traditional LMS is the constant possibility of making new connections: both with content and with people.”

The full list of finalists is available here. For more information about Saffron Share, or to arrange a demonstration, please contact the team.

Watching a toddler negotiate obstacles is fascinating, especially the ‘toy under the table’ scenario.  Running full pelt, all the focus is on their favourite toy, not the height of the table … BANG!  Need I say more?  10 days later, the same scenario is playing out, but this time upon reaching the table, the toddler ducks.

Experiential learning is part of our make-up. John Dewey and Jean Piaget recognised this and advocated that young children learn better through experience.  David A Kolb, influenced by these educationalists, took this one step further and, based on his experience in adult education, he created the Experiential Learning Model:

Experiential learning is transformational.  Paulo Freire’s work with Brazilian peasant farmers changed their opinion of themselves by helping them to understand who they were via ‘reflection and action on the world in order to transform it.’  Andresen, Boud and Choen (2000) used Kolb’s research to develop their own model of experiential learning and its associated attributes.

To see how e-learning can fit into the cycle, I used a selection of those attributes to explore how experiential learning is harnessed in our e-learning module for Amnesty International on human rights for mental health professionals.

Below is a list of Andresen, Boud and Choen’s attributes with corresponding course features.




Course feature

The goal of experience based learning involves something personally significant or meaningful to students. The immersive scenarios we use in the module reflect the real-life experiences of mental health patients.  For professionals, these genuine situations offer an opportunity to return to their own experiences.This generates a personal motivation to complete the course: not just to comply with legislation but to improve their practice and ensure better outcomes for their patients.
The whole person is involved, meaning not just their intellect, but also their senses, their feelings and their personalities. By choosing identifiable narratives, there’s a self-recognition, a familiarity that is instantly recognisable. Learners are emotionally engaged by the scenarios unfolding and the stories recognised from their experiences.The diagnostic at the beginning of the course assesses attitudes, motivations and beliefs.  A direct connection is made between the module and their roles and jobs.  They have to start thinking and reflecting on their own practice.
Students should be recognised for prior learning they bring into the process. As part of an opening diagnostic, professionals answer a number of questions, reflecting on how they believe patients should be treated.  The output of this is a matrix, which translates those feelings into the four key learning outcomes.  The resulting score indicates how far they are already incorporating human rights in their practice.
Reflective thought and opportunities for students to write or discuss their experiences should be ongoing throughout the process. The action points that professionals can add to their action plan throughout offer a chance to continue this process outside of the module:  to discuss and exchange ideas with friends and colleagues. They can print out the action plan at any time, and also contribute their own actions.

According to Kolb, learning is a cycle, where actual experience is refined and improved by reflection.  So we shouldn’t look at any e-learning module as a one-off opportunity to make an impact.

Instead, we must look it as a resource, a piece of learning that is constantly returned to as a means of reflecting on lived experience. The new experiences that learners bring on their return should enrich their interactions with the course. Revisiting an e-learning course or platform should feel like the same kind of emotional transaction as returning to well-thumbed book or a favourite DVD.

And why is this so important? Well, we can’t rely on toys and table-tops to teach us all the important lessons forever…

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