Friday, March 06, 2015

Deep Learning vs. Surface Learning

I have been in the adult education and training business for almost 30 years and I still see an unfortunate fixation on content. So much of education and training is focused on ensuring that learners know certain things. So little is focused on providing learners with the ability to actually go beyond knowing, to being able to do certain things. This dichotomy can be represented on a number of different axes:

Content vs. Skills
Knowing vs. Doing
Memorizing vs. Understanding
Surface Learning vs. Deep Learning

Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor, has gone through a lot of self-reflection and has written about and presented widely on how he has changed his approach to teaching in order to help students move to the right side of the axes noted above.

Eric Mazur

A couple of decades ago, Mazur came to the realization that although his students gave him good reviews and that they were largely successful in achieving good grades in his courses, many of them, in the end, still did not grasp basic concepts of Newtonian physics, nor could they apply these concepts in any meaningful way. His students could memorize formulas and apply these to basic textbook problems and pass their tests. However, they did not internalize these concepts and therefore did not really understand them.

Mazur came to the conclusion that the problems presented in the textbook modeled inauthentic problem-solving. Students were asked to apply procedures to find unknown answers. This does not mimic real life, wherein we usually know the goal at hand, but we need to figure out how to arrive at this goal. In the textbook approach, it is easy to merely go through the motions of plopping figures into memorized formulas that spit out the answer (that hopefully matches the one at the back of the book), without really understanding the significance of the answer or the meaning of the process that got you there.

Conversely, if you are given a goal to reach (i.e. the answer) up front, and then need to use the principles you have learned to reach that goal, you are more likely to grasp the underlying principles and to be able to apply these to solve all kinds of problems. Actually applying new knowledge to solve real problems allows you to go beyond mere memorization (the low end of Bloom's taxonomy of learning objectives), and to reach higher order thinking skills (e.g. analyzing, evaluating, creating).

So Mazur flipped his classroom. He stopped lecturing, assuming that his learners could read the text and/or course notes ahead of time. Classroom time is now devoted to problem-solving. Learners are asked to solve problems individually, and then they solve them in groups with other learners, and compare answers and debrief. This peer-to-peer instruction and collaboration is important, as Mazur feels that novice learners who grasp a new concept are better at teaching other novices. He, as the expert, with decades of experience in the field, cannot relate as well to the difficulties that novices face as he is too far removed from the time when he first faced these basic conceptual hurdles himself.

Also, Mazur has changed how he assesses his students. He applies the "Google test" to determine whether a certain question or problem is suitable for an assignment or exam. In other words, if the answer can be found via a simple Google search, it is not an authentic learning exercise. This is why all Mazur's tests and exams are open book. The answers go beyond mere facts. They require learners to go through a process and apply what they have learned to specific problems, thereby demonstrating their understanding of the fundamental principles. You can forget facts (which only require short-term memory), but you cannot forget understanding.

Mazur uses the open book approach because he says that it mimics reality. In real life situations you are not put in isolation and told that you cannot access any resources to help solve problems.

In fact, some of Mazur's exams are collaborative as well. Students do the exam the first time individually, and then submit. Then they do the exam again in a group with some of their peers (debating the correct answers) and submit collective answers. The learner's mark is an amalgam of the individual and group efforts. Exams thereby become another learning opportunity, not just a measuring stick.

Mazur says that education is a two-step process.

1. Transfer of information
2. Assimilation of information

Step 1 is dead easy. Yet this is where most educators and trainers spend most of their time and effort. Step 2 is the harder nut to crack. This involves providing opportunities for learners to apply their new knowledge in different contexts, perhaps even screw up, get feedback, recalibrate, and try again, so that they actually reach understanding.

Whether in the education realm, or the corporate training realm, we should be putting more of our efforts into Step 2 in order to go beyond surface learning (that fades quickly) and to achieve deep learning (that sticks forever).

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Seriously - Stop Talking; Start Showing

A few weeks ago, four leading lights of the learning business - Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn and Will Thalheimer - released a call to arms. Their Serious eLearning Manifesto laments the sorry state of eLearning and asks those who agree to sign a manifesto pledging to commit to producing eLearning that is relevant, performance focused, contextual and interactive. The basic delineation between what is and what should be can be seen in this breakdown they supply in their manifesto:

Reading through the Manifesto, I found myself nodding my head in agreement. There is little to disagree with; it is a nice summation of best practice principles for results-focused eLearning. However, I kept thinking this is really preaching to the choir. Most learning professionals who are  serious about eLearning are already onside with such an approach and can easily distinguish between good and poor eLearning. The challenge is in convincing decision-makers - clients, executives and paymasters - that eLearning will be much more effective if we can move beyond the typical approach of producing content heavy page turners based on memorizing useless facts.

In fact, such a question was posed to the writers of the Manifesto during their online launch. Michael Allen replied that the best approach to convince decision-makers about a better way of doing eLearning would be to demonstrate to them two contrasting approaches - one standard passive, non-interactive content-focused page turner, followed by quiz, versus an example showing an active learning approach focused on realistic contexts and learner choices. Allen said that would make it easy to get buy in for a smarter approach to eLearning.

That's when it hit me. Allen and his colleagues would have been better off demonstrating bad vs. good eLearning, than in writing a long document of principles and then talking about these for an hour via a web presentation. In the end, these are just words, and words only take you so far (particularly when trying to sway those not in the learning business). I really think that the Manifesto authors could have been more effective by setting up a website that demonstrates two contrasting approaches to the same training challenge. One button could be labelled "The Usual," that demonstrates the worst of what eLearning can be (e.g. boring, linear, predictable, obvious, forgettable, irrelevant). The other button could be labelled "A Better Way," that demonstrates an approach that exemplifies best practices (e.g. contextual, interesting, interactive, engaging, relevant). Seeing, after all, is believing.

In fact, Michael Allen took such an approach at a Masie Learning conference session I attended a few years ago. He showed typical approaches to sexual harassment training, and then showed a sample from a very simple yet powerful and highly interactive online course that his company had developed for a client. Everyone there clearly understood the difference between the two approaches. Much better than a manifesto.

Twenty years ago I worked for a company called Lifelearn, that produces educational products for the veterinary industry. Back in the 90s Lifelearn was producing eLearning that exemplified everything put forward in the Serious eLearning Manifesto. Veterinarians worked through realistic case studies, made decisions on diagnosis and treatment, and saw the results of their decisions (including the possible virtual death of animals). The learning was performance focused, there were real-world consequences for decisions made, and there was "spaced practice" in that learners could go through the same case studies many times.

I remember one time being at a conference to market Lifelearn's products to veterinarians. One of my colleagues would talk about how great our virtual training programs were whenever a veterinarian ventured into our booth. Many only had a few minutes as they passed through, and would leave before my colleague could demonstrate the programs. I took my colleague aside and told him to stop talking, and start showing (in much more colourful language). Because once people saw it, they got it.

I won't be signing the Serious eLearning Manifesto. Why?

1. I got "the religion" on this stuff years ago. Signing a pledge seems a little redundant.
2. Words are cheap; actions count.
3. Although I understand completely the idea of shaking things up a little, the idea of a "manifesto" is a little OTT (over-the-top). I believe meaningful change is more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Pitfalls and Promises of Mobile Learning

If you are in any way connected with the fields of training, learning and development, or eLearning, you are probably regularly inundated with messages about the wonders of mobile learning. Mobile devices, such as smartphones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and tablet computers are becoming ubiquitous and increasingly powerful with respect to their range of functionality. Just about anything you can do on a desktop or laptop can now be accomplished via much smaller and more portable mobile devices. This is why many organizations are now looking to make learning materials available via these devices. They offer the possibility of reaching your learners wherever they happen to be in a very portable, flexible and convenient manner.

However, all this fanfare about mobile learning - or mLearning - must be taken with a grain of salt.

Firstly, unlike traditional eLearning, which relies on fairly common web standards to make things work correctly (no matter the learner’s computer operating system), there is a wide range of very different and distinct mobile operating systems. You will have a real challenge on your hands if your learners are using different smartphones with different operating systems (e.g. Google Android, Nokia Symbian, RIM BlackBerry OS, Apple iOS, Microsoft Windows CE, HP Palm WebOS, etc.). Mobile content must be developed in different ways to work on all of these competing mobile platforms. This can add greatly to the complexity and expense of developing and delivering mLearning.

Secondly, the small screen size of most mobile devices, particularly most smartphones, is a limiting factor with respect to the type and extent of learning content that can be successfully delivered via these devices.

Here are some tips about mLearning.

Only Do mLearning When Your Learners are Truly Mobile

It makes no sense doing mLearning just because you can. However, if the learners you are trying to reach are truly mobile, then mLearning makes sense. It can be a way of reaching “road warriors” with the training and support they need when they need it. Here are two of the best examples of mLearning I have come across:

  • On the first day of the launch of a new product, sales reps communicate with each other via their smartphones. They share information about what benefits and features of the product are getting the best response, and what are the best approaches to countering objections. The organization was able to adjust and refine its sales approach for this new product by the first afternoon of its launch.
  • A technician on a service call comes across an older model furnace with which he is not that familiar. He is able to access a knowledge database via his smartphone and successfully trouble-shoot the problem and fix it.

Keep it Short and Sweet

Most mobile devices are not well suited for delivering large amounts of learning content. Therefore, delivering a traditional “course” via smartphones is not practical or effective. However, for small “nuggets” of learning, or as an adjunct or follow up to other types of learning (i.e. in-person or eLearning courses), or as a just-in-time performance support tool, mLearning does have its place.

On the Good News Front…

The emergence of tablet computers (e.g. Apple iPad, BlackBerry PlayBook, Samsung Galaxy Tab, etc.) may be a good compromise between robustness and mobility. Tablets will be able to facilitate much more in-depth learning experiences (because of more expansive screen real estate), while maintaining fairly good portability.

Also, there are many software applications on the market that make it easier for you to author learning content and make it accessible to mobile devices, including:

OnPoint CellCast

OutStart Hot Lava Mobile

Intuition Mobile Learning

Chalk Pushcast Software

If you do venture into mLearning, make sure it is for all the right reasons, and that you start with a pilot to work out all the bugs before scaling up to a large roll out.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Why Aren't Online Training Supports the Norm?

A little while ago I was interested in a rapid eLearning authoring tool, and a sales rep did a web presentation for me, showing how it worked. He then encouraged me to download this software for a trial period. His demo was 20 - 30 minutes long, and only provided a very quick overview. I was concerned about how much time I would need to get to know the software in order to give it a really good test. So I asked if there were any online tutorials that could walk me through things as I familiarized myself with the product. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, the answer was "no."

The sales rep pointed to product manuals in PDF format that could be downloaded and read. And the company did offer webinars on their product (for which they charge a fee). I wasn't interested in the PDF option because of the amount of time I calculated it would take, and I wasn't interested in the webinar option because I didn't want to spend money to decide if I wanted to spend money on the product (if you get what I mean).

I don't want to call out this particular software company. It would be unfair to do so, as it seems to be the norm these days that companies offer amazing and feature-rich products, but then do so little to help people learn how to use them. It is also rather ironic that a company can offer a tool that allows the user to create highly engaging and interactive online learning, yet they rely on static print to teach people how to use their tool. It is like the apocryphal tale of the shoemaker's children going barefoot.

I really wish that more software companies would provide always-available online multimedia "how to" tutorials on the use of their products. I realize that most of what we learn about software is via trial and error, but I still feel that there is a need for a "head start" at the beginning to get going, and then specific guidance on specific problems on an on-going basis as you get to know the software better, or need to perform a specific task with it.

Even when software companies do go beyond the PDF manual approach to client education, they tend to fall back on some fairly traditional approaches - in-person classroom sessions, or scheduled webinars. However, self-study online tutorials have advantages over these methods, as illustrated in the following chart.

Traditional Approach to Software Training Support (e.g. In-person Class or Webinar)

Online “How To” Tutorials

Timeliness / Convenience

Rigid, scheduled for a specific time, relies on having all the right people in the right place at the right time / set time for everyone

Available 24/7 from anywhere with an Internet connection, and learner devotes as much time as is necessary


Course-based, follows a set curriculum

Solution-focused, learner finds the answer to a specific question when needed


One size fits all

Learner delves into training only as deeply as is required


One size fits all

Learner moves through training materials at own pace


Information dump, hope it is all relevant

Learner focuses in on what is relevant to him/her


Difficult, too much covered all at once

More retained, as learning is accessed in bite-sized chunks and applied as needed


Difficult, have to wade through course manual or replay an entire webinar

Easy access to exactly what is required


High and on-going (e.g. trainers, materials, travel, out-of-pockets, etc.)

After start up costs for developing tutorials, marginal costs are extremely low for supporting an almost infinite number of learners

Although addressing software training here, the same principle can apply to any sort of product or service. An educated client is likely to make better use of your product or service, get better value from it, and, therefore, be a more satisfied client. Our firm is finding that more and more of our work is centred on helping organizations use online education to provide better client service.

And I say put such online training supports right on your website and freely available to all. That way these resources can serve two purposes - added support for your existing clients, and an excellent marketing vehicle for your prospective clients. Smart companies are also posting such training resources to YouTube, for even wider distribution.

Don't treat training supports as an afterthought. By putting them online and available 24 x 7 x 352, you are making it easier for clients to use your product and for prospects to understand it, and by doing so, to purchase it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Lessons Learned from the Past Year

The ASTD Learning Circuits Blog (moderated by Tony Karrer) poses a monthly "Big Question" and asks learning professionals to share their insights on key topics. The Big Question for this past December was "What did you learn about learning in 2010?" Two of the contributions really resonated with me. Ryan Tracey's polemic against online courses and Jason McDonald's advocacy of slowing down for deeper learning hit home for me as I have been coming to similar insights myself lately.

Why Must So Much Learning Be Force Fed Via Courses?

Online courses must die! This is the deliberately provocative title of Ryan Tracey's submission to the Big Question conversation. His thesis, in a nutshell, is that not all eLearning in an organization needs to be experienced via courses. It is inefficient, not always effective, and wasteful of developers' and learners' time to have courses on every conceivable topic. Just because we have easy-to-use rapid course authoring tools for eLearning does not mean we have to use these in every instance. Most learning of simple content, processes or tasks can better be handled via easily-accessible job aids or focused learning objects/applets.

Tracey calls for the creation of Informal Learning Environments (ILEs), that are essentially searchable knowledge repositories of PDFs, audio clips, videos, slideshows, case studies, etc. Learners pull what they need from this repository as and when they need it, and also have access to experts and peers via blogs, wikis, discussion forums and social bookmarks.

Tracey also advocates for a separation of content (whether in the form of courses or other types of supports / resources) and assessment. His mantra is to "informalise learning, formalize assessment." The idea is that learners can access learning any way they choose, and, when ready, complete a formal assessment exercise to prove their competence in various areas.

Let's Slow Down

Jason McDonald's big insight in 2010 was that to accomplish any kind of deep and meaningful learning we need to slow down. Multi-tasking and being constantly hyper-connected via email, texting, tweeting, Skyping, Facebooking, etc., is not conducive to deep, reflective learning. Modern life has left us too scattered and our attention torn in 10 different directions. It is not surprising that we sometimes find it hard to internalize new learning (whether from a course or in the ways noted by Ryan Tracey above).

This is why McDonald urges everyone to try, every once in a while, to be consciously in the moment, and focused on one thing to try to fully comprehend it and to apply this learning in your life and/or work. The key is to tear yourself away from your laptop, Blackberry, iPad, iPhone, etc. once in a while and to think about one thing at one time. Go off to a quiet corner and read that book, research report, user manual, job aid, etc. Some of my best insights come to me when I am out walking, bike riding or cross-country skiing (sans Blackberry). I will subconsciously process something I learned earlier that day / week / month, and come up with a new way of looking at a particular challenge. The mind is clear and can work efficiently when off the "grid" for a bit.


So if you are a learner yourself, or organizing learning for others, remember that not all learning need come packaged in a course, and give yourself and your learners the space and time to process and internalize that learning.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Instructional Design Malpractice

I recently came across an interesting online conversational podcast with Clark Quinn (Quinnovation) and Cammy Bean (Kineo) on the topic of "instructional design malpractice." Of course there is no such crime on the books, but perhaps there should be.

The upshot of the admittedly tongue-in-cheek conversation was that there is too much boring eLearning out there that is overly long, overly detailed, and just not focused on what counts - namely, changing behaviour. Quinn, an expert on the use of games in learning, says much of existing eLearning is an "unemotional knowledge dump." Learners must read through or listen to loads of often irrelevant subject matter content, and then do an often insulting multiple choice test. Is it any wonder that many learners dread eLearning more than root canals?

Ouch, this really hits home. I'm sure I'm not the only one out there who has been guilty of such crimes in the past, or has some embarrassing examples of "unemotional knowledge dumps" in my portfolio. But what brings it on? There are the usual excuses: no time; no budget; client wants a knowledge dump, etc. But if we as eLearning developers were to be honest with ourselves, we are often the problem because we do not fight hard enough for what we know to be the right approach.

Quinn contends that instructional designers need to take a more active role in educating subject matter experts and fighting for what they know works best for eLearners. He says we have a responsibility to keep digging for what is important. Instead of just blindly accepting droves of content from subject matter experts, we need to get to the gist of what the targeted learners will need to be able to do. What cognitive decisions will they need to make? This is what should inform the learning, not memorizing a wad of useless facts.

For Quinn, good eLearning:

  • Is centred on skills (doing vs. knowing)
  • Is lean (focused on what is important, to-the-point, less-is-more)
  • Is emotionally engaging (hooks the learner with clear WIIFM - What's In It For Me - statements)
  • Provides mental models for learners (greater context for new skills that are being developed)
  • Uses examples (makes the learning real)
  • Provides opportunities for practice (learners apply new concepts, make decisions, see results)
  • Provides opportunities for reflection (providing a closure to the learning experience, reflecting on what the learning means in the learner's own context)

We should keep Quinn's seven-step model for good instructional design in mind when developing eLearning. Clients rarely hire us for any particular subject matter expertise we may have. They hire us because we know how learning best happens and what type of learning will have real impact where it counts - in changing behaviours. So it behooves us to take an activist role and fight for what we know works best. Otherwise, we may be rightly charged with "instructional design malpractice."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Work = Learning

"Change is so fast and furious that work and learning blur into one activity."
Jay Cross, et. al., Working Smarter in Terra Nova Circa 2015

Jay Cross and his colleagues at Internet Time Group have recently published an interesting article on the evolution of work. Noting the major shifts in human history, from the Agricultural Age, to the Industrial Age, to the Information Age, they now say we are on the verge of "Terra Nova," a new age characterized by "creative collaboration in networks." Their thesis is that Terra Nova will supplant traditional top-down hierarchies with networks of people working collaboratively, sharing information in real time, to solve problems. To quote:

"Terra Nova screams out for a never-ending process of applying learning while working, not apart from it, predicated on:

1. Learning what you need to know, when you need to know it
2. Reinforcing the lesson by applying
3. Knowing where to find relevant information in lieu of memorizing it
4. Learning from your peers and on your own rather than from instructors following a set curriculum"

We are seeing this shift occurring in our own work for clients recently. Many of the projects that we have worked on lately have been less about creating online courses, and more about creating the means for individuals to learn collaboratively (e.g. learning communities, wikis, etc.), and to learn at the point of need (e.g. searchable knowledge repositories, embedded electronic supports, etc.). Sometimes courses do not meet the learning need because they take too long to develop, their lessons can be forgotten over time, and they are often too long and detailed to meet specific learning needs effectively or efficiently.

This trend suggests that we should worry less about teaching people about specific subject matter content, which can change rapidly in the context of a job, and help them develop competencies in searching, sharing, critical thinking, analysis, networking and collaborating.

I have seen this shift myself for the last few years in watching colleagues who work in IT. Developments in this field change rapidly and regularly. When something goes wrong - such as a system going down - IT personnel do not have time to take a course to figure things out. They need a solution ASAP, so they do Google searches and scan various online IT community of practice discussion boards or help boards, as well as tapping into their network of contacts, for immediate answers. They are learning about the intricacies of their field each and every day in this way. As the pace of change in all fields starts to match that in IT, we are all now having to learn quickly and on the fly.

This does not mean that the course is dead, or that there is no need for the course. There is still a place for the course in developing more complex competencies over time, and for various forms of compliance training. However, organizations have to decide what kind of learning is best suited to a course and what types of learning are best suited for "quick hit" approaches such as knowledge databases, online communities, and live webinars, versus formally-structured courses. To help clients determine what approaches work best for which training challenges, we often provide a decision-making matrix that maps training mode against the complexity of desired learning objectives, degree of feedback required, content stability, timeliness and need for evaluation and tracking.

In short, the pace of change is too rapid, learning needs too immense and immediate, and time is too precious to force fit all required learning in an organization through courses. Learning can no longer be thought of as something apart from work, it needs to be integrated into the daily fabric of work life. We need to create work environments that facilitate learning at all times.