Thursday, March 20, 2014

Learning Solutions 2014 - Day 1

I've got to say, it's nice to be at Learning Solutions in Orlando right now. Yes, obviously it's great to hear fantastic speakers and catch up with industry friends, but, as I'm sure anyone from the northeast will agree, it's even more exciting to actually be without snow for awhile! *laugh*

Okay, all kidding aside, I really am happy to be back here for my second Learning Solutions. As this was a particularly session-packed day (and I have a presentation tomorrow and need my sleep) I'm going to cut to the chase and get right down to the session reflections.

1) Keynote - Leapfrogging to Learning Breakthroughs
Speaker: Soren Kaplan
I've said this before and I'll say it again: I feel like the first session of a conference needs to focus on getting you energized and open to learning more. In this case, Kaplan definitely hit the right note with his talk of creating breakthroughs using surprise.

Kaplan became interested in finding out how business leaders had made major breakthroughs, and what he found was this: many great breakthroughs involve an element of positive surprise for the customer, and sometimes even the business too. In fact, brain science confirms the benefits of this as well. When people experience a positive surprise, the pleasure centres in their brain actually light up.

But how do you go about finding the right surprises? And how do you broaden your view so your focus on one issue or thing doesn't get in the way of your seeing other options? Kapan suggested there are three things anyone can do to become more innovative and find the surprise in their business or role:

  1. Rethink what your role actually is. If you're making drills, you're not really in the drill business. You're in the hole making business. If you can see what your real role is, it's easier to find surprising solutions.
  2. Fall in love with problems, not solutions. If you get married to what you think the solution should be, you're not going to be able to tell when there's an even better problem to solve.
  3. Go outside to stretch your inside. Staying inside your organization/role isn't going to challenge you to think of things in new ways. You can't just play it safe and expect to be able to find surprise. You have to step outside your comfort zone and go outside your organization/role to get new, surprising ideas. You also have to be open to trying new ideas out and possibly failing for awhile until you find an idea that sticks.

Sure, I'll agree that much of his content wasn't rocket surgery or anything new, but it was a good reminder to all of us that we need to not just know these things, but actually act on them on a regular basis.

2) Featured Session - Subscription Learning: A Fundamentally Different Form of eLearning
Speaker: Will Thalheimer
Subscription learning is a pretty simple concept: it's smaller packages of learning that you sign up to receive and get on a regular basis. It's like the magazine subscription of the learning world. While it isn't exactly a brand new idea, it is much easier to implement today than even just a few years ago (both from a tool and a cost perspective).

Many L&D groups put out one-time learning events or a handful of multi-session lessons. Unfortunately, what we know about how content is actually retained tells us this isn't the best way to ensure the people actually learn the information we're trying to teach. The forgetting curve tells us that learners unfortunately don't remember much content in the long-term from one-time learning events. However, if you regularly repeat and build on content over time, people remember substantially more. Subscription-based learning is an excellent option for training in the way we know people actually retain content.

When it comes to how you teach your information in a subscription situation, there are a few tips to keep in mind. First, repeated content is good, but don't repeat it the exact same way each time. Studies showed that paraphrased repeated content was much easier to remember than the exact same text repeated over and over. Also, space out your learning. Give people time in between learning content, repeating it, and adding on. This gives them some time to process.

When it comes to actually delivering this content, there are numerous ways to push it out to your subscribers. Email is a simple, yet effective, option. Apps and bite-sized eLearning are other delivery method too. Even texts can be a reasonable choice in some situations. And, while we didn't discuss it in this session, there are tons of other alternatives (both tech enabled and not) you can try. How about podcasts, interactive PDFs, or videos, just to name a few?

3) Where Does the Learning Occur In Games?
Speaker: Rick Blunt
You know, I had actually sworn off sessions on learning and games (long story), but this one pulled me in with an intriguing concept and a Twitter buddy (@rblunt81) as the speaker... particularly because I hadn't realized this friend actually had a background in games for learning (the more you know). So, I went anyway and was glad I did.

To really get this session it's important to first establish what exactly a game is. Blunt's definition was simple: a game is an engaging activity in which players seek a goal by overcoming challenges within a given set of rules. That definition applies as much to a simple game of tic-tac-toe as it does to a modern videogame. Game-based learning (in this case, serious games) is just an extension of that, where the game's main purpose is learning. Games like this aren't just fun, when designed well they give nearly all types of learners a noticeable boost (the only group left out: most learners over 40... sorry guys!). Now, just like any tool, you can't use games for learning in all situations, but for the circumstances they work well in they're a good option to consider.

When you're designing a game for learning there are three goals you need to consider: the business goal, the learning goal, and the game goal. Only when you've considered all three of these goals (and made sure your solutions for each aren't working against each other) can you create a game that actually teaches content in a meaningful and successful way.

Then Blunt showed us an example of a serious game done right: Re-Mission. This game was designed for adolescents with cancer to both teach them about the disease, as well as prepare them for how it would affect their day-to-day life. And what was interesting to see was that, by structuring the game missions and elements around what you want players to learn (in this case, how to live with cancer) while also not forgetting the fun, you could create an engaging game that would also manage to teach players content as they played.  Game-based learning also allows for something we know is a powerful learning tool: failure in a safe environment.

Now, this isn't to say that all game-based learning is effective. Goodness knows any kid from the 80s can tell you about all the well-intentioned, but content-devoid learning games they played as kids (I'm looking at you The Oregon Train). But it does mean that there are ways to make games that can lead to actual learning.

And if you only take one lesson from this session, let it be this one: a game will resonate with people if you make sure to give players the opportunity to make meaningful choices.

4) Reality TV Training as an Onboarding Program
Speaker: Gail Griswold and Samuel Weber

I'll admit, other than an affection for the early seasons of Project Runway I'm not that in to reality TV. But, based on the sheer number of different reality shows available right now, it's clear that many people are attracted to this genre, so I thought it was worth taking a peek at how one team had created a reality TV-inspired onboarding program for their company.

The project started out in a way that loaned itself well to an eventual session at this conference: they actually came up with the concept while attending Learning Solutions two years ago. Their old method of doing onboarding was the usual suspects: lecture and PowerPoint. The team thought it could teach the content in a more interesting way by leveraging the style of reality TV... the episodic content, the in-the-moment revelations, the confessionals, the true-to-life situations and scenarios, not to mention the drama... all of that could be a package for showing the content that new employees needed to know as they began working at this company. While the "reality" would be fully scripted (not, let's admit, unlike some current reality TV), the situations would still be written to feel as true to life as possible.

However, the team hadn't created anything like this project before, so the first thing on their list was to make a proof-of-concept video. The goal of it was to both have an example of what they were trying to accomplish to show stakeholders, as well as prove to themselves that they could actually create this thing in-house for a reasonable cost. So, they made the proof of concept with the barest of bones resources and used themselves as the actors. Because they were just creating a proof of concept it didn't need to be perfect and polished, it just needed to show the gist of the idea. The video worked, they got buy in early on in the project, and even managed to acquire a bit of a budget for better tools too.

Then came casting. They knew they wanted to make episodic content revolving around a few major characters, they knew they needed to find in-house employees to be their actors, and they most assuredly knew they didn't want to be the actors themselves. So they did the equivalent of a casting call and screen test. They asked for people to audition using a short script with three mini-scenes, recorded it all on video, and then focus tested the results to land on the best choices for the job. In this case, once they had the cast settled, only then did they start deciding what their characters would be like (a great option if you're using amateur actors: work around the talent and range your people have to offer). In the end they put together 5 characters who represented the various average new employees in their workplace (read: not just new graduates!) and got ready to film.

The setup for filming was relatively simple. They wrote a detailed script that included many of the standard reality TV tropes; picked up a decent DSLR camera for filming; added a microphone, 3-light set up, and green screen as supplies; and started filming their main footage as well as b-roll. They then used Adobe Premier Pro, Flypaper, Camtasia, and Adobe After Effects to edit and add in effects, and then packaged the results (along with some accompanying eLearning) in Articulate Storyline. And there you have it: a reality TV-style training program.

Here's one final thing they did that I found interesting: they created buzz around the project even in its early stages by sharing a music video, trailers, and sneak previews with the organization. By the time the episodes were ready to share, people were already excited about the project and itchy to get their hands on it. This isn't the first time I've heard of learning projects successfully using an ad campaign to drive interest, and I really hope it's a practice that we consider using more often in L&D on a whole.

5) Gaining Altitude: Sustaining Ed Tech Culture
Speaker: Mark Sheppard and Luc Blanchette

Here's another session I attended both on the appeal of the topic as well as the appeal of seeing a Twitter buddy present (this time it was @MarkLearns). What can I say, it's my duty to heckle... um... I mean "support" my fellow Canadian presenters, right? Okay, all joking aside, I work in a conservative and heavily regulated industry (banking & finance) and I was curious to see how Sheppard and Blanchette had managed to encourage and sustain ed tech culture in an equally strict industry (the Canadian military).

The school Sheppard and Blanchette design training for is the Canadian Forces School for Aerospace Technology and Engineering. You'd think that a school with the work "technology" in the name would be all on top of using technology for training. Alas, you'd be wrong. The typical method of training is your standard one: lecture and (often bad) PowerPoint. Training aids are surprisingly old. Instructor turnover is, for a multitude of reasons, incredible high (1/3 per year) and many people selected to be instructors have little to no experience as formal teachers. Not a comfortable situation, but one that was most assuredly ready for some revamping.

I loved that, at the end of the day, Sheppard and Blanchette came up with a flight-related analogy for how you make ed tech culture thrive in this, or any other, environment. They suggested that there are four forces at work on ed tech culture: lift, thrust, weight, and drag. You need to achieve balance between all four in order to succeed, and to do that you need to do the following:

  1. Improve lift: Find ways to be cost efficient and align your work with corporate objectives. As well, be sure to make the "trifecta of advocacy" happy: the buyer, client, and consumer.
  2. Reduce weight: Make due with less. Be responsible with funds. Get approval from the myriad of people you need to get approval from and go through all the hoops required. (While this wasn't directly stated in the session itself, I have to imagine that reducing both the number of people who need to approve decisions/content and the number of hoops that you have to jump through would also reduce weight).
  3. Increase thrust: Focus on project success. Make sure your projects are able to fulfil a need and/or solve a problem. Look for easy opportunities to meet a need too.
  4. Decrease drag: Alas, a main source of drag seems to be people who are disinterested in change. Decreasing drag could involve helping them to become more accustomed to change (and get them to buy-in to the plan), addressing their fears directly, or even just waiting for these people to choose to leave on their own.

These forces aren't ever going to go away, which is why it's so important to acknowledge them and work to keep them as balanced as possible.

This is the part where I'd write a wrap up... except it's super late and I need to sleep or I'll end up walking into walls tomorrow. So, to summarize quickly, yea Learning Solutions Day 1!

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