The open door to the learning ecosystem – online academies

sign post One of the most difficult challenges facing strategists and learning professionals is relevance – what does L&D now stand for, what does it deliver, how does it demonstrate the value of it’s strategy?  Reflecting on the keynote from David Price’s keynote from Learning Technologies Summer Forum 2014, it an open, truly connected world, how relevant or essential is the learning department if we can find, connect and collaborate on any subject at any time?  David’s presentation was certainly thought-provoking and at first glance, the central tenet of his book ‘Open: How we’ll live, work and learn in the future‘ is that as our behaviour is irrevocably changed by a technology enabled world and a result, questions whether we need to provide learning as part of our organisational deliverables in any formal sense at all! However, as fast as content grows, changes and evolves online, one of the realities of life is although we need to adapt faster, no one has invented a way to pause relative time so I can catch up with this new content, sift it, work out if it’s relevant, absorb it and then apply it.  The fear that the internet would essentially do away with all learning institutions has been prevalent for the past decade – it’s the kickstarter to MOOCs after all. Yet I am a strong believer in the evolution rather than extinction of learning professionals – where’s the obvious value you can create?   As the facilitator and enabler of learning.  Finding, creating and curating great content can now come from any source but making sense of it and creating a learning scaffold around which relevant and efficient research and collaboration can occur is a highly prized skill.  The time saved, the relevance to strategy and key business goals, the efficiency of learning  are all there for the taking if you can create the effective blend of formal learning paths and off piste social learning, self directed research, collaboration and dialogue.  Formal does not mean fixed, but it is a foundation to help keep the informal on track to meeting real business need. One of the most effective ways in which this can manifest itself in today’s organisations is through the online academy.  Academies created around key professional areas or skills in your business can become the vibrant hub for learning, when a blend of trusted, validated and proven content creates the sense of quality, progression in my skills and knowledge and a tangible way to demonstrate my growing value.  But part of demonstrating that value is understanding, applying then creating new knowledge based on that formal scaffold, and so the cycle and evolution continues. If you want to find out more about how this is done and see case studies of online academies in action, why not come along to my webinar next week (25th June at 10am UK time)?

Context is King

It’s a phrase I use in almost every presentation I have given on online learning (so apologies if contectyou were in the audience!) but for me, context is the biggest gift learning professionals can give any programme.  In the drive to get more and more content online, we often forget that there are some simple things we can do that create highly effective programmes without high production costs.  This month, we’ll be exploring how to make the most of subject matter experts and I wanted to start by sharing some examples that I believe work very well indeed, starting with video. In a time poor, fast moving environment, sharing subject matter expertise rapidly in a medium that is quick to create and easy to swap out is vital.  This was the driver for many major knowledge management initiatives in large organisations back in the early 2000s when significant investment was made in intranets and microsites to store lessons learnt and project reviews.  Although it was a significant step in helping extend the reach of subject matter experts, it wasn’t especially engaging and trying to disseminate tacit knowledge into written content loses some of its impact and immediacy.  However video at that time was regarded as expensive and bandwidth draining, still limited predominantly to corporate videos with a crew and flattering lighting!  However in recent years, video has been more widely embraced, from performance support space where quick videos provide on demand instruction through to online lectures. But overall, to my mind, it’s still not reaching its potential.  When short, focussed videos are included as part of an overall learning scaffold, you instantly elevate the content and contextualise what may have been regarded as too theoretical.  Try turning the development of online material on it’s head: where should you invest?  In the development of bespoke e-learning content modules or could you reuse existing materials and blend with interviews and lessons learnt from subject matter experts?  I’ve seen incredible online academies developed with the judicious blend of newly commissioned content, reuse and repositioning of existing materials, instantly updated and refreshed with some great SME interviews. Essentially it’s about developing an overall scaffold for the subject and understanding where subject matter insight will have maximum impact.  Think about following a scene setting piece of e-learning that lays out core concepts with a view from the frontline video – this is a simple way to accelerate the transfer of knowledge into action and by breaking it down in this was rather than embed it into formal content, these videos can be quickly swapped in and out as required.  There’s a nice concise article from JISC on effective use of video that acts a simple litmus test for the video you may already use or plan to use.  However, from my experience, there are some simple lessons to make video more effective:

  • Plan – speak with the SME beforehand and explore what you’ll cover.
  • Authentic – However, although others will disagree, some of the most effective video I have seen is then not tightly scripted.  Knowing what you’ll cover and the key points you want to make facilitates the smooth running of the video take, but our most popular videos are those delivered authentically and conversationally.  There is a time and place to professional shot and scripted video, but to share tacit experience, a simply shot video delivered by someone who may occasionally hesitate or pause for thought is no bad thing.
  • Short – keep it brief!  As we’ve discussed previously, a recorded lecture does not equal an effective online course.  That’s not to say you can’t use a recorded workshop, but how can you break it down and blend with effective calls to learning action?

Next week, I’ll look at the role of SMEs as facilitators.

Can’t help being social

Plans for Barcelona KCA news story on today’s BBC Education site caught my eye and adds an interesting dimension to the social side of MOOCs and indeed any online programme.  Coursera, the US based MOOC provider have decided to open a network of learning hubs where online students can meet and discuss their experiences and share reflections.  As well as trying to tackle the well-documented drop out rate, the feeling is that there is an irresistible social side to learning’ that needs to be addressed. My professional background has roots in Knowledge Management and interestingly, back a decade or so ago, there was a significant effort exerted in ensuring physical environments, from offices through to entire cities were designed in such a way to incubate and foster knowledge exchange and nurture innovation through conversation and sharing of experience. I have fond memories of sitting in the audience at Henley Business School KM forum annual conferences were Professor Leif Edvinsson would show us beautiful architecture rendering of Barcelona, the ‘Knowledge City’.  These were big ambitious capital projects with learning and knowledge at their heart, which may appear to be something of a utopian but ultimately too lofty a concept to apply to the learning strategy of a typical time pressured organisation. However there is a huge amount to take from this ambition that could be applied right down to an individual online programme level.  From knowledge city to a sales academy, fostering conversation and sharing experience adds tremendous value to any interaction with a learning asset. Indeed, back in my role at Orange as Head of Knowledge Communities, although enabling technology was a key focus for the team, one of the most important lessons we sought to instil in our new community facilitators and virtual team managers was the importance of social interaction and making time for a face to face event to launch a community or team.  Why? – Because the quality of online interactions, knowledge assets created and productivity of a virtual team increased when social ties were strongest. When our customer, BPP launched their online degree programme back in 2012, although not a MOOC, they were sensitive to some of the issues that were evident from the MOOC experience.  So although their degree content is delivered exclusively online, part of the rollout included learning hubs in key locations to ensure learners had the opportunity to connect in a physical location to form study groups and action learning sets. When we developed the Performance Coaching Academy for Telefonica O2, a launch event was deemed critical in the formation of action learning sets that would provide the peer review of practice, vital in the development of coaching skills (take a look at our case study to find out more about the design as there are some useful tips for design you can apply to any online academy). Isolation has often been a criticism levelled against e-learning, yet in the past decade, much of focus in the sector has been on production values of the multimedia output, with some wonderfully visually engaging content.  Of itself this of course is not problem, as effective graphic design, user interfaces and imagery are key components in delivering popular and credible content.  Yet it is only in the past few years that we have seen these bespoke content houses start to talk about creating learning scaffolds, what makes an effective learning ecosystem and using terms like learning paths that have been long in the WillowDNA lexicon. As we discussed on the LPi webinar, that is not to say that all learners will want to take up the offer of social learning, be it online or at a face-to-face venue.   Indeed they may value the opportunity to engage in a very personalised learning experience.  But to create effective learning, online or otherwise, as an entire city or as a team of people in an organisation, the opportunity to add context, build links between concepts and create new learning together is surely something to be fostered and supported.  

Do we have the appetite for massive courses?

CrowdMOOCs are e-learning programmes typically delivered, like the best these days, via online platforms with social media components. So there’s no inherent reason why they shouldn’t provide engaging learning experiences, encouraging the lively exchanges with peers that are so valuable in constructing ideas. As with all learning interventions, the key to success is in great design based on sound pedagogy, in carefully crafting authentic activities geared to the needs of learner and organisation. The MOOC format should be able to accommodate all of this, shouldn’t it? Well, yes and it’s the quality that counts of course but, somehow, the very word ‘Massive’ conjures up a monster to me; something that’s surely too big to be friendly. How do you engage with a cohort of thousands? Who do you turn to if you just don’t get it? Perhaps the trustees of the ‘Serious eLearning Manifesto’ had MOOCs in mind when stating their belief that: “current trends evoke a future of only negligible improvement in elearning design—unless something radical is done to bend the curve.” How could a MOOC adapt to learner needs (principle number 9 of 22), or provide support for post-training follow-through (13)? I may be proved wrong, but I’d rather sign up to an OOC than a MOOC. For more on the Serious eLearning Manifesto, see:

More MOOC inspired ideas

ipad image jpgFollowing on my recent reflections on the Corporate MOOCs webinar I presented for the LPi, this article from BBC Business News highlights some interesting considerations and exciting ideas for corporates.  It features the story of a school in Cambridgeshire who have taken  supporting learning resources online ‘making their own online library of lessons and course materials for GCSE, A-levels and International Baccalaureates.  These are interactive resources, with video links and lesson notes, customised for the specific needs and speeds of their classes. There are extension exercises and links to further reading and ideas.’ What leapt out to me is an issue very close to the hearts of any learning design professional – there are many different channels to publishing online content and accessible tools by which to achieve this, but it’s success is inexorably linked to the skills of the education or learning professional developing and orchestrating the content.  The principal at The Stephen Perse Foundation school, Tricia Kelleher at is quoted as saying “The credibility of online learning depends on the teachers who have made the materials,” It highlights the importance of understanding learning journeys and the skills of curation ‘ “You’re getting beyond the one-size-fits-all textbook. You might buy a textbook, but half of it might not be relevant to your school…[this approach allows teachers to] cherry pick from a world of resources”.  It is also an accessible route into developing more personalised learning paths, with alternative mediums and delivery methods to achieve core learning aims. Once again, the stage is set for learning professionals in organisations to take inspiration and start to repurpose, reimagine and refocus their learning programmes by creating scaffolds of content that provide a more accessible, timely and contextualised route to excellence.  So when commissioning support from online learning experts, look for that holistic learning path approach.  The days of the single channel e-learning package are behind us just as much as chalk and talk.

Reflections from the LPi webinar on Corporate MOOCs

Well the subject of MOOCs certainly lived up to it’s hot topic billing – a great turnout for the session and some fascinating chat, sparking interesting debate.   We were in illustrious company with Donald Clark joining us and it was interesting to see points where our opinions diverged – it very much reflects much of the great debate online which I think is going to drive a new learning profession.  I am a strong believer in guided cohorts as I think someone needs to care and maximise the connections that exist between peers and SMEs if you are going to take inspiration from MOOCs or learn the lessons.  Others believe it’s not necessary and forces a false camaraderie that simply isn’t necessary. I think when one chooses to take a MOOC for our own enrichment, having a choice to suit our preferences is certainly very important indeed, in fact we may crave an experience where we can truly be an individual, take it at our own pace with no demands or expectations upon us. Forcing dialogue when a more reflective, self-paced experience is what’s desired is ruddy annoying! But when you are creating programmes to ensure an organisation will maximise its knowledge assets, make connections between professionals to drive innovation and achieve strategic learning objectives, keeping intensity and rhythm is important.  The commentators from the dawn of professional communities such as Wenger and Saint-Onge kept the placards flying high for facilitation to maintain intensity through well focussed communities.  So I think MOOCs in relation to corporate learning strategies may require a different approach.  I also used examples that were not MOOCS but were certainly inspired by them and bring some of the lessons learnt into the mix. I wanted to draw out those worst case scenarios where MOOCs have been slammed in the media – it’s not the case that all MOOCs are adopting lazy learning design, poor content and abandoning learners, the majority are not.  But just like e-Learning 1.0, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the batch.  So my presentation was a word of warning from the worst lessons and a call to be inspired by the best.  I hope for those that came along, it’s sparked some ideas and discussions in their organisations and I wait with anticipation to see if 2014 will be the year of the corporate MOOC.

What organisations can learn from the MOOC movement

Blackboard image2014 has marked a significant change – there is no doubt that the conversations I have with major organisations is taking a new direction and taking complex topics online rest at the heart of it.  Although we have been keen supporters of taking substantive subjects into the digital space, breaking through the long standing conventions of workshops and offsite intensive programmes have taken some time.  The rise of MOOCs have given a concrete reference point for leaders in learning to demonstrate how time to mastery is supported through programmes that provide learning support over an appropriate time period, at a time to suit the learner. However as a piece of evidence for a move in learning strategy, the MOOC approach is not without it’s flaws.  Lack of coherent learning design, isolation of learners and high drop out rates feature often in critiques of this education phenomenon.  The good news is that for most of these challenges, there are simple solutions, but they do require commitment, planning and attention from the learning professionals and subject matter experts in your organisation. Next week, I’ll be running a webinar for the LPi exploring this topic and it would be great to have you along.  To sign up, visit the LPi webinar programme and I look forward to an interesting debate.

Complexity made simple

At the end of last year, Clive Shepherd set the tone for 2014 by making a call for a move from ‘courses to resources’.  In his popular blog, ‘Clive on Learning’  Clive explores the challenges of acquiring the knowledge and insights needed to navigate complex subjects.  There are a number of organisations who have tackled tougher L&D challenges through leveraging the power of communities in combination with formal learning resources. I explored this topic during the recent LPi webinar,  through a case study from IPG Mediabrands’ Matrix Community. With over 500 people in the community and over 1000 people have experienced the learning, this case study demonstrates the value of aligning formal and informal learning to achieve business results. It’s really worth a listen as it sparked a lot of debate after the session and it’s a topic that is on every learning strategy agenda.

How to become a top quartile learning and development team

towards-maturityDebbie Lawley, Managing Director of WillowDNA, gold winners of the Online Distance Learning Award 2012 reviews the Towards Maturity benchmarking report on learning technologies, published November 2012 There are gaps in our expectations of what learning technologies will deliver and the benefits that most achieve. So says the recent Towards Maturity benchmarking report. The study cites workflow and learning integration as a particular concern. What are those gaps and what can be done to address the integration of work with learning? 95% seek to improve the sharing of good practice, 25% on average achieve this The report cites under half using 3rd party social media or video clips of good practice. This compares with top performers more than 3x likely to be using simple tools such as Skype for instant sharing. Most of the options here are not costly ticket items. The phrases in the section that stand out the most relate to a lack of active encouragement. That can be hard to picture but it need not be. Establishing organisational habits is usually best achieved virally. Picking the movers and shakers out who have influence and supporting their adoption of better practice is a great start. Then ensuring the formal learning experiences provided by the organisation are seeded with sharing good practice sets a clear expectation and a good example of how to do this day to day. Very practical examples of getting habits established in sharing good practice include:

  1. Managers asking teams to connect with others to find out ways in which similar issues have been tackled.
  2. Prominent individuals taking time to identify great performance and making time to share that practice with other interested parties.
  3. Making a habit of videoing subject matter experts and sharing short vignettes of approaches.
  4. Skyping, not meeting, so that physical presence no longer becomes the constraint to the flow of knowledge and decision-making.

For us at WillowDNA, the design of our Pathway hosted platform enables sharing of templates, case studies and video snapshots from seasoned players. And it is not all about how to get it right, these videos often talk about personal learning journeys and development. Coupling formal learning closely with discussion forums is a centre-piece in many of our programmes. 94% seek to speed up the application of learning back into the workplace but only 23% achieve this. One of the most insightful facts in the report is that high performing learning organisations are 7x more likely to encourage and provide time for reflection. Given that this involves no technology, no clever investment this is an extraordinary figure. Many would feel that this is where delivering courses via technology has its downfall but that absolutely need not be the case. In constructing our learning paths, Lisa Minogue-White, Head of Learning Solutions and her team, use many techniques to encourage reflection. In fact, the longer elapsed time with online courses is actually an enabler in this respect. The opportunity to learn, work, reflect and learn again, as part of the time to mastery, is an essential aspect of the learning path approach. The structured approach to the learning journey becomes inextricably linked to informal learning. Formal learning should never be divorced from context but is part of the larger system of learning and working. 92% seek to respond faster to business change: only 25% achieve this There is much written and much research on the topic of business and leadership agility. There has been a huge increase in numbers looking to achieve this from 2011 to 2012 – from 70% to a whopping 92%! But very few achieve this. Here is an interesting fact – high performing learning organisations are 3x more likely to analyse the business problem before implementing a solution. The extraordinary point here is the obvious implied one – that many learning organisations are failing to analyse business problems before implementing a learning solution! It really is time for all learning organisations focus on the business and especially what the business is striving to achieve. The learning path design puts the business objective at the heart. Agility when it comes to learning can mean honing down the content and creating the vital scaffold from which learners can make their own meaning to apply in their context.  Creating links through to the working context and the challenges there is one of the ways in which to ensure business agility is architected into the learning experience. 91% seek to improve talent/performance management: only 20% achieve this The report highlights substantial differences between top performers and the bottom quartile. Figures abound such as top quartile teams are 27x more likely to encourage their learners to develop their own learning strategy and13x more likely to integrate learning technologies for development into the way they performance manage and appraise their staff. Many of our customers build learning programmes that go way beyond induction and H&S compliance. Learning is seen as a vital for all whether as a novice, moving into new roles, becoming expert or becoming a subject matter expert. Gaming it is not but there is a sense of progression and contribution whatever your experience. Creating a learning strategy for all is core to creating an expectation of learning for everyone. We all have a role to play in this and a key part of the learning strategists approach is mobilizing talent and knowledge for the benefit of the individual and the organisation. We work all the time with our customers to create that overall learning strategy whether the learners are internal to a company or organisation, whether our customer is providing learning to members or students. The same applies. I warmly recommend this report as s a valuable tool for anyone responsible for delivering learning. The combination of current trends, insights from contributors plus the longitudinal statistics creates a comprehensive resource.

Thoughts from Online Educa 2012 – Mooc-h ado about nothing?

images Well, it’s that time of year again – festive lights, mulled wine can only mean one thing.  Well actually two things and one of them is Online Educa Berlin.  As one of the major conferences in the international  learning calendar, what sets it apart is not just the scale but more specifically the scale of the conference.  Unlike many other shows, this is a huge conference with a small exhibition – in fact at each 1 1/2 hour slot during the day, there are 18 different workshops, presentations, debates and learning labs taking place.  In total, there are 102 sessions, not including video sessions, talking head sessions and the exhibition itself. But amongst the sheer volume of sessions, there is one theme that is the talk of the event – MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  A quick wander around the exhibition and you could see MOOCs appearing on roller banners, multimedia presentations and leaflet stands.  It’s not all that surprising given that the audience for the event is predominantly from the education sector (with a huge showing from Universities worldwide), but it’s not a simple love story by any means.  In 2012, the media have covered extensively the push from Harvard and MIT on their EdX MOOCs initiative and it appears others are eager to follow suit (or at least not appear to be left behind).  But in the conference sessions and debates, there has been evidence of quite the backlash against MOOCs.  Much of the criticism is levelled at dubious design and pedagogy, complexity for the student, high drop out rates and even a new acronym definition ‘Massively Over-hyped Online Content-dump’. So MOOCs are just a fad, right?  Wel it’s not all that easy to pick your way through the objections, are they born of analysis or fear?  It is certainly a legitimate criticism of MOOCs that as a result of size, the varied quality of materials and support by virtue of their open nature poses serious challenges on learner experience, quality and ease of use.  However the unprecedented access to free contents from some of the world’s leading academic institutions is incredibly exciting.  The non-chargeable aspect is one that is shaking the sector and raising concerns over funding for universities and even their existence in the long-term. However, we’ve been here before.  The rise of online distance learning sparked something of a backlash from advocates of traditional models of learning not just in academia but in the commercial sector too.  Face to face will never be bettered, online is a poor substitute, a cheap and not often cheerful solution to budgetary pressure.  However, once design and pedagogy improved, the acceptance that perhaps a better learning outcome could be achieved (through the marriage of formal and informal learning) spread throughout learning and education.  In my view, I see MOOCs as a gateway to learning, a way to promote an interest in developing knowledge in a subject, an opportunity to connect with others, a taster that may lead me to bite and enrol in a more formal programme with an institution.  Perhaps the term loss leader is a little too crass, but MOOCs could be the shop window to the opportunities online learning can provide and a way for a wider population to experience an alternative way to access higher education before committing their money to university fees.  The impact of this is ensuring the MOOC doesn’t ignore sound learning design methodology and it could be that those MOOCs are not being well received may be experiencing a lag between drive to get your subject matter expertise online and understanding of what an effective delivery of your expertise looks like online. In addition (and something that was a key driver for Willow developing Pathway back in 2007) is a better more intuitive way to deliver these programmes.  The massive part should allude to participation, not on volumes of content that are increasingly difficult to navigate and sift.  So perhaps the next phase of MOOCs will focus on what works in order to simplify and refine their offerings.