- What works about the webinar for learning?
- Monday, December 9th, 2013
Webinar is probably my favourite portmanteau (web + seminar). And that’s saying something, because I genuinely believe that ‘spork’ is one of the finest words (spoon + fork) to ever come into existence. But then again, webinars and sporks aren’t so different, when you think about it. I know what you’re thinking, I heard myself too. But let’s try and justify that seemingly ill-founded analogy. Stand back everyone, I’m going to attempt logic.
Firstly, sporks are a useful combination of two different yet related tools. In many ways, they are a marvel of modern technology. A symbol of humanity’s obsession with combining things. When we see two things that can be turned into one thing, thereby giving us three separate things, we say why not, the more the merrier. And that is how sporks and webinars are a somewhat unlikely brother and sister. They are both the result of our love for smashing two things together, and then being mildly surprised by our own genius once we take a look at the result. Coincidentally, this is a feeling that I experience most days at work. When you think about it conceptually, the only difference between the spork and the webinar is that you may have more difficulty eating chunky soup with a webinar, just as you may have more trouble learning quantum mechanics from a spork. But, while the usefulness of a spork may be debatable, the usefulness of the webinar is not. In the past, webinars were the preserve of online meetings, overcoming the obstacles presented by a global enterprise. But this is no longer the case. The demand for online conferences as a learning tool is increasing, and it’s not really surprising, when you consider what they can offer.
As a learning tool, the webinar provides the best of both worlds, situated somewhere between e-learning and the classroom. With a webinar, you can have the convenience of joining from anywhere in the globe, with the personal touch of a tutor. Put simply, the webinar is computer-mediated communication with a human face (but not in a scary, half-computer half-man hybrid way – although I have got blueprints for one of those somewhere in the office).
Anyway, it’s great me praising the benefits of the webinar, but where is the empirical evidence, I hear you say? Don’t worry, it’s coming. Researchers at the New York Institute of Technology have found that the webinar increases participants’ social presence and facilitates multi-level interaction. While traditional e-learning courses can be an incredibly enriching and interactive experiences, it does not require the same level of social interaction as the traditional classroom.
And I am a firm proponent of social interaction. One of my favourite linguists (yes, I have favourites), Vygotsky, believed that social interaction is one of the core principles behind the development of cognition. So the webinar fills an obvious niche. When you can’t, for logistical or financial reasons, design a bespoke e-learning course for fifteen senior managers to learn about your new product, or get them all together in a classroom at a convenient date, there’s a new solution available.
With a webinar you can have real-time communication, flash integration, rich interactivity, and the convenience of remote connection. And you can record it as well. But that’s not all. Webinars are uniquely suited to difficult subjects. Because of the presence of a tutor, webinars work especially well when you have a complex topic to be covered, or as Wang and Hsu put it, topics with ‘heavy cognitive loads’. The webinar format, in my opinion, works well for topics with ‘heavy cognitive loads’ because learners feel relaxed. It can be intimidating when turning up to a classroom, only to be confronted by a serious-looking teacher, who’s already five minutes into a seven minute explanation of the Higgs Boson (something that I contend, not even Peter Higgs really understands). Whereas if you have a learning session that you can participate in from home, you will understandably be more relaxed, and consequently, more engaged.
Being able to stay in your pyjamas doesn’t hurt either. Wang and Hsu recognise this (but not the pyjamas bit), stating in their findings that learners who were able to attend webinar sessions in a ‘personalised environment’ had significantly reduced levels of anxiety.
Finally, I’ve been dying to make one more point that I find especially interesting about webinars. I wanted to do this for my introduction, but the spork analogy was too good to withhold. In the world of language studies we don’t call words like ‘webinar’ a portmanteau. We call them a blend. And so it’s strangely felicitous that a blended word happens to refer to one of the most blended incarnations of blended learning.
It’s clear that webinars are going to be a big thing in the future of learning technology. For a while now, they have been making businesses run, and have given people the power to merge time zones and conflicting calendars seamlessly. As the market grows, the webinar will continue to expand, and soon it will become a staple of e-learning, especially for those subjects with ‘heavy cognitive loads’. In short, it’s an exciting time for the webinar, and even more so for learning technologies. Now, where are my blueprints…
- The app effect: why playfulness is indispensable to learning
- Monday, December 2nd, 2013
My name’s Jasper, and I’m one of the new instructional designers at Saffron Interactive. I’m also an information junkie. I love learning new things, and the more fun I can have while doing that, the better. So with that in mind, I decided to write my first blog post on the subject of apps, play, and flags (you’ll see), and what they can bring to the table in an e-learning, or m-learning, environment.
I’d like to begin my post with a quick moment of reverence for the mobile phone. It’s an astonishing piece of technology. If you’d said to someone a hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, that soon they would have a device that fits snugly in their pocket, yet is able to access the entire repository of human knowledge in a few seconds, I bet they’d be pretty impressed. But these days it’s something that we take for granted. And it’s something that I want to change. So lately, when I’m waiting for the tube in the morning, rather than scroll through the various social networking sites that now seem to comprise my sense of identity, I have started loading up my Wikipedia app, and hitting the ‘Random article’ button. By doing this I learn something new, interesting, and occasionally arcane (my favourite example is the Dancing Plague of the 16th century; a social phenomenon in which thousands of people became mysteriously compelled to dance until physical exhaustion). And this is all before I’ve even got to my desk.
This is the magic of the mobile phone, and the mobile app. I can stand in the sweltering humidity of the underground, wait for my train, and become completely absorbed in the most peculiar events in human history. It doesn’t feel like ‘learning’ in the same way that school was (technically) learning. But it is. And it’s learning that’s fun, of my own volition, and most importantly, playful.
Apps, in their various forms, are a great facilitator of play. If you want to learn something new, there’s not only an app for that, but there’s a bright and colourful app that will educate you through interactive games, record your progress, and occasionally bombard you with adverts (if you choose to download the free versions, like myself). Just last week I developed a mild addiction to ‘Flags Quiz’. I now know the precise colours, shapes, and designs of many of the world’s symbols of sovereignty (did you know Nepal’s is the only non-quadrilateral flag?).
But enough about flags. You might be asking at this point, ‘why is ‘play’ important in learning?’ Well, the truth is that play isn’t just important in learning, play is learning. In children, play has been shown to enhance social and cognitive skills, improve self-confidence, and develop emotional maturity, while in adults, regular play can result in increased creativity and happiness. Many animals play, and this is often seen by scientists as a vital tool in learning skills for survival. Prey animals such as antelope, zebras, and caribou, play by running and leaping, mimicking the chase of a predator. Contrast this with your everyday household kitten who claws, chases, and swats at balls of twine, in an adorable yet deadly mimesis of mauling its catch.
Now it’s all very good me talking about apps, learning, kittens, and flags, but we have yet to bring it all together. What I’m really trying to say in this post is that apps are a great way of facilitating play, and that play is an incredibly versatile and useful form of practical learning.
Apps can offer a playfulness that simply can’t be mimicked in other learning solutions, and they can aid learning by giving people an opportunity to practise play, something that adults don’t do often enough. One of the most important features of apps in this respect is that their use is both spontaneous and voluntary, and this really is their unique selling point. I don’t use an app because I feel like I have to learn from it. I do it to play, to make my journey quicker, and without extrinsic goals. I end up learning as a by-product, and a consequence of the fun I’m having, not because I feel like I have to.
With this in mind, and as learning professionals, we should embrace the playfulness of the app world. When we develop learning solutions for mobile devices, we need to keep in mind that people will access an app spontaneously and voluntarily. There should be no timings, no timetables, and no supervision. There should be no pressure, no goals, and no objectives. This is learning in its most natural, organic form, and we need to start taking advantage. By ditching the traditional learning structure, and developing solutions that take advantage of this playful platform, we can bring about real behavioural change. Just look at the evidence; I can draw the flags of Burundi, Bahrain and Botswana.
- ‘Learner as producer’: what Amazon can teach us about the activist LMS
- Thursday, November 28th, 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 Amazon.com. 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.”
- Infographics: overused, undervalued or still full of potential?
- Monday, November 18th, 2013
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:
- What is the purpose of the infographic?
- Why should it be important to the learner?
- 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.
- Toys, table-tops and the virtuous cycle of experiential learning
- Monday, November 11th, 2013
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.
|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…