Friday, February 16, 2007

What is a Community of Practice?

I just received a letter and brochure in the mail from the eLearning Guild extolling the virtues of their upcoming annual conference in Boston this April. The letter urges me to join their "community of practice" at this event, and to experience "peer-to-peer interaction." Well, I attended last year's conference, and certainly did not experience a great deal of peer-to-peer interaction or feel part of a genuine community of practice. There were many hundreds of us in attendance, and, for the most part, we were herded from session to session where we were talked at for an hour or so. When there was any peer-to-peer interaction, this happened more by accident than design during coffee breaks, lunches and receptions.

Don't get me wrong, the eLearning Guild is a great organization, and I have been a member for some time. I make good use of their Learning Solutions e-Magazine and their periodic research reports about eLearning. However, with some 24,000 members, it is a small city, and decidedly not a community of practice. And I often feel less of a "member" and more of a demographic to be sorted, segmented, and sold to various advertisers and vendors.

Why not create environments where the great interchanges that happen among peers in between formal sessions at conferences can happen at any time, and all the time? Jay Cross got it right in a recent blog posting when he said:

"If your learning plans don't embrace the power of networks, go back to the drawing board for another look. Learning occurs in conversations, collaboration, knowledge transfer, focused news, and other network phenomena....In learning, being authentic means admitting that we don't have all the answers. It's hooking people up so they may learn from and with one another."

Similarly, I was reminded in Lance Dublin's e-newsletter this week that the real power of Web 2.0 is in the way that it links people, not just information. The early days of the Internet were all about the tremendous loads of information that one could access in an instant. The new Web is about the connections that can be made and the human knowledge and experience that can be leveraged when and as needed. Lance linked to a wonderful little video from Prof. Michael Wesch of Kansas State University titled "Web 2.0 The Machine is Us/ing Us" that makes this point eloquently.

If you are interested in being part of new eLearning community of practice that is focused on a small group of practitioners sharing, and collaborating and learning from each other online and in-person, join us for a webinar on February 20th about the soon to be launched eLearn Campus Peer Network.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Life Imitates Art

Life is full of ironies. In preparation for our webinar this week titled Going Live: Best Practices in Online Synchronous Training, we had planned to stress that "going live" was much like tightrope walking without a net, and that things can and will go wrong. The point is to be ready for this and to work your way through it. Well, wouldn't you know it, as the webinar was about to begin, none of the tools that controlled sound appeared on my chairperson's screen. This is akin to taking off in an airplane and missing half of the controls on your instrument panel. So instead of just talking about what can go wrong in a synchronous learning environment, we were able to demonstrate this (good teaching strategy, eh?).

Luckily, we had Jennifer Hofmann of InSync Training as our special guest expert, and she has seen and done it all with respect to web conferencing. As she rightly pointed out, all that can be done in such situations is to explain to participants what is happening, what we needed the participants to do, and how we would work our way around it, while the technical people worked in the background trying to figure out what went wrong. Never panic, as this solves nothing and only serves to increase the anxiety of participants.

So we soldiered on under less than ideal circumstances and Jennifer was able to share her perspectives on what makes for a productive online synchronous training event:

Planning: Take care to script out fully all aspects of the event by time references, topic, content, learning objective, instructional method, planned interactions, and required media / materials.

Chunking: Online synchronous learning events can be very intense, so do not expect that you can spend the same amount of time as you may with an in-person training event. Do not go any more than two hours per session, or you will begin losing participants' attention, no matter how engaging your training event.

Interaction: This is important for the success of any training initiative, but even more crucial for online synchronous learning as it is so easy for learners to be distracted by other things at their desks. Doing things such as asking questions, providing problems, gathering opinions, sharing experiences, working on cases, etc., will keep learners engaged.

Collaboration: Learner engagement can also be improved by building in collaborative exercises (e.g. collective brain storming via white boards).

Go With the Flow: Technical glitches will happen. Take these in stride, be ready for them, have back-up plans, let participants know what is happening, and just work your way through as best as you can.

Many webinar participants let us know that they are experimenting with online synchronous learning in their organizations. They are doing so for a range of training challenges such as safety training, product knowledge sessions, system demos, and soft skills training. Jennifer assured everyone that we are all new to this new way of engaging learners and are all learning our way as we go. Although web conferencing technology has been around for some time, it is only recently that we are seeing its widespread adoption for training purposes.

I usually provide a link to a recording of our webinars, but we don't have one in this instance.....technical problems don't you know...

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Online Synchronous Learning Reconsidered

For the longest time I used to resist online synchronous learning. I'm not sure where this negative attitude to real-time web conferencing came from, but it may have had something to do with my long history in university-level distance education. I suppose I had a bias for asynchronous web-based learning because it freed learners from the twin constraints of geography and time. We served learners from around the world, and the scheduling of universally convenient real-time learning events was very near impossible. Also, years back, synchronous web conferencing software was not exactly user-friendly (e.g. required complicated user downloads, had balky audio, complicated interfaces, etc.).

Well, I have come a long way and so has web conferencing software. I can clearly see the benefits of online synchronous learning events, and the necessary software to do so is now much more user-friendly, reliable, and affordable. I am using it and recommending it to clients more frequently because it provides the following key benefits.

Immediacy: There is a level of excitement afforded by synchronous learning events that is hard to duplicate in asynchronous environments. Interaction and feedback are immediate and outstanding issues and questions can be dealt with on the spot. There is not the lag in response that happens in asynchronous web-based learning when participants are making contributions at different times and facilitators are providing feedback a day or two later.

Structure: One of the biggest challenges in asynchronous web-based learning is persistence; getting learners to stick with it and see the training through to the end. It is too easy to put off things that do not have a set schedule, especially when adult learners are bombarded with a litany of demands on their time. Synchronous learning events provide the same sort of structure as classroom training (e.g. meet at a certain place at a certain time), but without taking learners away from their work environments.

I think these advantages are why I see more organizations adding synchronous approaches into their training mixes. It can provide some of the advantages of in-person training, while avoiding a logistical nightmare of trying to get everyone physically in the same place at the same time. Also, it can be blended with other approaches to minimize the amount of in-person training required, and/or to provide the immediacy and structure missing from existing asynchronous approaches.

However, a word of caution is necessary. Purchasing or leasing good web conferencing software is a very small part of the formula for success. As always, great care must be taken in applying the principles of good learning design and facilitation practices. These are some of the themes we will be addressing in our webinar titled Going Live: Best Practices in Online Synchronous Training, to take place on Thursday, February 8th. We have the great fortune of having Jennifer Hofmann, President of InSync Training, as our special guest expert.