Sunday, 29 March 2009

Long Live?

Just got through reading - Long Live Instructor-Led Learning - by Saul Carliner, who is a person I know, like and respect. Wow, did he step in it on this one. Was his purpose link-bait by putting up something that is so horribly wrong as to cause us to want to respond? He had me scratching my head about Long Live what?

Long Live – is actually an important issue being raised through this discussion that I'll get to below…

Let me start with the fact that Saul and his article made no attempt to directly engage with any of the "bloggers" who he so quickly lumps together and dismisses. His article included citations with links, but included no links to the Learning Circuits Blog, nor to the post Workplace Learning in 10 Years that he discusses, nor to any of the individual responses several by well known and respect people from the industry.

Death of the Classroom?

You sometimes will run across posts or presentations that have the title – the Death of the Classroom. I'm guessing that Saul somehow assumed that this is what people were saying in their posts, but didn't actually read the 20+ individual posts when he said:

Nearly all of the contributors predicted the death of the classroom

For a person who is claiming to have done a better analysis and thus has a better prediction of the future he completely botched that.

Instead, what the common theme was that organizations will likely have reduced the amount of classroom and courseware times.

I would argue that today all classroom or courseware should be questioned. Can you reduce it by 50%? Can you make it 5 minutes long and just teach them how to use the rest of the resources? – Tony Karrer

Formal learning will still be going strong but somewhat de-emphasised. Clive Shepherd

we will continue to see ILT, eLearning courses (some of them page turners), and all the other stuff that we see today – Upside Learning

And the list goes on. There were a couple of outliers who predicting bigger change, but that "nearly all" "predicted … death" is flat out a gross misrepresentation.

To be fair to Saul, he points us to some important numbers from the ASTD State of the Industry Report:

Despite a steady climb in the availability of e-learning, the overall percentage of instructor-led training is nearly unchanged: 71.97 percent in 2003 and 70.58 percent in 2008 (the most recent year for which statistics are available). What has changed, though not as significantly as one might expect, is the percentage of instructor-led training offered online, rising from 2.92 percent of all training in 2003 to 6.39 percent in 2008.

This aligns with the eLearning Guild's numbers that I discussed last fall in Training Method Trends.

However, the question was not a current state question – it was a future question. Saul seems to believe that total instructor-led training (f2f and online) will remain essentially unchanged as an expenditure or hours.

I don't know that any of us has a perfect crystal ball. All we can look at is what's been happening and what the environmental forces are and try to predict what will happen in the future. Saul seems to think the future – 10 years from now – will be relatively the same. I believe that most of the voices you will see responding to the big question predict (for a variety of reasons) that time and expenditure on instructor-led classroom workplace learning will be lower in the future (again almost no one said dead, but many predicted lower). A few said relatively unchanged.

I do think it's worth diving into some of the specific posts and thinking about it yourself.

What do you think?

Informal Learning

After his questionable call on levels of instructor-led, classroom training in the future, Saul then tells us…

More flawed than the analysis of the numbers is the proposition that formal classroom learning will be replaced by informal learning, which will primarily occur online through blogs and social computing tools. Although it sounds exciting at first, and certainly appeals to the emotions, several practical issues—all of which are ignored by the contributors to the ASTD 2019 discussion—limit the likelihood that organizations would primarily rely on informal learning.

Hmmm …. don't organizations already primarily rely on informal learning? Is most of what we learn via formal learning or informal learning today?

But I think I understand what he is trying to say with this, but again it's his tone that gets in the way of actual discourse. The common theme in the responses via the ASTD blog are:

  • We are already seeing organizations look at how they can enable greater informal and social learning opportunities.
  • As compared to today, there will be greater emphasis on support for informal and social learning in the workplace.

So, it's a fair question – do we see a greater emphasis in the future for informal and social learning in workplace learning?

Oh, actually, that was the question being raised and soliciting input from various sources.

Blogs and Informal Learning Are Unreliable?

Probably the funniest aspect of Saul's post is when he tells us that informal learning is unreliable.

Another flaw is that informal learning can be inaccurate. In some cases, it's the learner's fault. Research on reading suggests that people tend to read inaccurately, especially online. So someone might interpret a point incorrectly, or mistakenly remember a fact. (As a result of this lack of credibility, people like President Obama don't rely on blogs [2]).

But sometimes the errors in content result from the publication of erroneous content or opinion that is not properly labeled. The potential for those is high in blogs, which many people cite as an excellent learning resource.

In her qualitative study of people who keep blogs on training and development topics, Kristina Schneider found that few of the bloggers differentiated between fact and opinion; nor did they verify the information they published; nor did the bloggers provide disclaimers about the nature of the content they published [3]. As a result, readers might believe the content they're reading is true when, in fact, there's also a chance that it's not.

This is first funny because he's writing an opinion piece himself that is not properly labeled. If anything it is completely mislabeled. eLearn Magazine suggests this is some kind of vetted "Feature Article". But I know that T+D would not have let this out as an article without series editing. It's an opinion piece with no human editor vetting some of the statements that clearly don't pass muster.

A few things from Schneider's thesis -

all 5 bloggers write in the first person and none of them write in an academic style … The bloggers write in a mainly business writing style which is direct and open to opinion-based comments

some blog posts are more editorial in fashion. However, there are rarely no statements such as “in my opinion” or “these are my own thoughts” to indicate what is opinion and what is fact.

None of the bloggers studied have PhDs, yet many want to be seen as, or perceived themselves to be, experts There is no data to validate or invalidate their expert status—the only thing that can be garnered from the interview is their own emic perspective; that is, what they say about themselves and the permission they give themselves to analyse and give their opinions about certain issues within their area of knowledge.

Though some participate in conferences, they speak more about their experiences holding conferences or speaking at them rather than about participating in them to learn. In these cases, then conferences serve marketing purposes first, not professional development purposes.

Should we give her a pass on PhD implies expert? Should I assume that this means that Saul himself goes to lots of workplace training and attends lots of conference sessions himself. Kristina doesn't realize that she's describing most of the consultants / authors who have been in the industry for 20+ years.

Saul should be a bit embarrassed citing this stuff without big time caveats around what the piece is and what it is really saying. Basically, she accurately describes blogging as not having the same quality control standards that a well-edited publication or professional journalist has. That's about it.

When you read the responses to the ASTD Learning Circuits Blog Big Question – these folks are all writing their responses in a blog. I would claim the labeling is actually much better than eLearn Magazine and particularly Saul's piece.

Yes, you should be suspicious of any content you find anywhere (including in a classroom). Oh and when it appears in a magazine and in a presentation at a conference. Did I mention that many of us bloggers are also people writing articles and doing presentations.

Do we really need to revisit this conversation?

How Do We Learn?

Saul later tells us …

Another flaw with informal learning is that people only learn it when they find it or stumble onto it, which might not occur when people actually need the material. In the case of getting to content when they need it, one of the problems with material on the Web is that people do not find it when they need it, or they find material that seems to be appropriate, even when it is not. They might not have assistance in verifying the selection or they might not seek it because they might not appreciate the need.

Saul is right that if you need to ensure that someone has learned something specific – like you need to ensure that they meet a compliance requirement, then formal learning of some form (like courseware) is probably a good bet.

What I don't quite get is how Saul proposes that formal learning can be used. The whole problem is Long Tail Learning. There is just way too much stuff that people need to learn that we have to make choices about what we spend our time publishing into formal learning events. The audience has to be large enough. As concept workers, we quickly go past formal learning opportunities. There's no course on what I do every day. And you cannot Separate Knowledge Work from Learning.

One option is to say that limit of training / workplace Learning Responsibility is formal learning. Once you go beyond formal learning, then there's an immediate question of what else you will provide. I know from Data Driven performance improvement solutions that often informal learning can be very effective in driving results. To me, the answer is pretty clear. You've got to look beyond formal.

Saul is right that it's sometimes hard to find the right information on the web when you need it. I would claim that we need to help people with their Search Skills. I would also claim that this is exactly why Network Learning is so important.

I just don't get what Saul thinks is the alternative here?

Similarly, informal learners might need the information, but can only learn when their time permits. Too often, however, the time set aside for learning is interrupted by something more immediate. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why the completion rates for tutorial-style e-learning are often disappointing.

I'm guessing that Saul wants us to learn absolutely everything via classroom instruction before we ever do anything? I know he doesn't mean this, but … I would claim that if anything, Saul is pointing out the importance of teach informal learning skills so that they can get the information when they need it.

Network Learning?

Next up for Saul is questioning the value of social networking tools for informal learning…

The contributors to the discussion also suggest that social networking tools (also known as Web 2.0) will play an important role in training. But that, too, might be an overstatement.

… even the experts admit that the numbers merely indicate the quantity of people who have access to these tools; the numbers do not indicate the quality of participation. For learning purposes, it's the latter that matters.

I had to check back. Yes, Saul is on LinkedIn and has 226 connections. And he's a first level connection for me.

Saul can you Network Learning and get back to me on the value of being able to reach into a network like LinkedIn to reach high quality individuals for help with specific needs.

Saul tells us …

No single social computing tool is likely to meet every organization's learning needs.

That's some pretty incredible insight. Did anyone suggest that there was a single answer or that any of this wasn't a terribly messy, complex problem? Further, I believe that this is highly personal. Different people will find different styles of use that are effective. But my point is always, that doesn't mean you can/should ignore them.

Long Live?

The real question that is behind the Big Question – Workplace Learning in Ten Years is where we should be putting our time and attention today. I had the opportunity to work with Stedman Graham and one of his favorite lines that I will paraphrase:

We are all equal in this world. We all have 24 hours. What makes us different is how we choose to spend it.

The problem I have with Saul's Long Live article (? or is it a blog post that was not edited ?) is that he's suggesting … what? He exhorts Long Live instructor led. Yes, go team go. You should double your bets on instructor-led training. Don't worry about reducing your spend on instructor-led for the next ten years. And ignore all that informal and social learning stuff. What? Long Live what?

He cites an example of a public foundation that is the primary source of funding for more than 300 nonprofits in a metro area. They use a blended classroom, social learning and performance support solution to helping them. When I think about the particular situation I realize that it would be important for whomever is defining the specifics of the approach to be very much aware of things beyond instructor led learning. For example …

There's a wonderful social learning solution that I believe would fit this situation very well from America Learns. As part of this solution, the normal kinds of reporting done by the individual nonprofits feeds into a knowledge base that then can be tapped by people in other nonprofits. It helps share effective patterns.

I'm sure that there's already a fair bit of informal and social learning that's occurring. I wonder if there's more that could be done to help them better share beyond the formal learning opportunities that Saul describes? My guess is that the answer is very much a yes. Or maybe even it would be that we should give them more classroom training on how to become better social learners. Or maybe it's more time networking. It could be a lot of different things.

And therein lies my main criticism with Saul's piece. He didn't help me understand what he believe is the important places we should spend our time. His main points seem to be:

  • Don't worry instructor-led training is okay (hence the title - Long Live Instructor-Led Learning)
  • Ignore social and informal learning. It has a lot of flaws.
  • Bloggers produce poor quality and misleading information.

Long Live what? If his point was only to say that people claiming the death of the classroom in 10 years are wrong … and that the classroom will still be around in ten years … then I agree. But it just seemed that his argument quickly left that and into a bunch of dubious statements.

I would claim that it's probably much more instructive to go look at some of the individual posts cited and make up your own mind. And I would still ask you to answer the core question:

Where will you spend your time?

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