Thursday, March 29, 2007

Context + Control + Community = Learning

A couple of weeks ago I noted that I was beginning to learn Mandarin Chinese via ChinesePod. Based in Shanghai, ChinesePod broadcasts daily online audio lessons. These are free of charge. For a fee, however, learners anywhere with an Internet connection can also get access to lesson transcripts, dialogue breakdowns, vocabulary expansion examples, exercises, tone charts, a grammar bank, etc. On top of this, all learners are linked via an interactive online community and can share experiences, ask questions, and learn from each other as well as the experts at ChinesePod.

I generally go on to the ChinesePod site once a day. If the day's lesson is at the "newbie" level, and it interests me, I will have a listen. If it is not, I will go into the lesson archive and search for a topic in my beginner level that appeals to me. After downloading a transcript of the dialogue, I will listen to the lesson, making notes on the dialogue script and sounding out words as I go. I then work through the dialogue breakdowns, expansions, exercises, check the discussion about the lesson to see what other nuances I can pick up, and then I add the new vocabulary to my personalized online vocabulary bank.

I can report that I have progressed in my Chinese more in the past two weeks this way, than I did in many previous efforts that involved taking a course at a local community college and supplementing this with language programs on CD. My previous experiences at learning Chinese followed the old drill and practice memorization approaches that tend to suck all the fun out of learning. This is not the case with ChinesePod, and here are the three main reasons why I think it works so well.

1. Context, Context, Context

Don't believe anyone in the learning business who says that content is king. The world is awash in content. Almost any information you need to find (including Chinese language resources) is available at your fingertips via a quick Google search. What is missing is context. This is what ChinesePod provides. Their audio lessons are always based on a certain common daily-occurring scenario and are delivered in a friendly, informal first-person voice. The lessons provide oodles of cultural references and anecdotes regarding why certain words and phrases are used the way they are and how this is entirely appropriate given that particular cultural context. They also throw in some humour along the way (who said learning had to be a humourless chore?). There is drill and practice if you want it, but only after you experience a realistic and contextual application of the language.

2. The Learner is in Control

I can do the lessons I want to do, when I want to do them, in the order I want to do them, and at the pace I want to do them. I am entirely in control of my own learning. By choosing topics that interest me, or for which I have an immediate application, I am a much more motivated learner. I don't have to sit through endless repetitions of things that mean nothing to me. It is conceivable that two learners, over time, could end up at the same place (competent in basic Chinese), but arriving there from totally different directions. This is not possible in a classroom, but is via self-directed eLearning.

3. Community: Learners Contribute to the Learning

Learners can participate in the learning process in a multitude of ways on ChinesePod. There are discussions attached to each and every lesson where learners ask questions, provide their own anecdotes, provide related vocabulary, etc. Also, there are active discussion forums on specific topics of interest for those looking for more detailed interchanges about grammar, tones, reading, writing, etc. In these ways learners help set the agenda for what ChinesePod covers in their lessons, and learners also help each other with their mutual challenges.

This type of approach need not be limited to language learning. If, for example, you wanted to provide learning resources for a distributed sales force, you could take a similar approach by podcasting short lessons on product knowledge, as well as sales strategies and techniques. Your sales force could choose from archived lessons to listen to when they had specific needs, and they could complete short online exercises to test their understanding of the material. Finally, all sales staff could belong to an online community of practice that shared strategies, tips, and stories of what works best from the field.

I signed up for ChinesePod because I want to learn Chinese. But I also signed up because I don't want to forget what it is like to be a learner. As an eLearning professional, I think by experiencing eLearning yourself, you are in a better position to design good eLearning for others (this is the entire premise behind our Certificate in eLearning Management). This is the same reason that chefs should eat their own cooking, and CEOs of phone and cable companies should be forced to call their own help desks once in a while. It keeps you grounded.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Wikinomics and Learning

I just finished reading Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Authors Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams do a good job outlining how the World Wide Web moved from its first stage as a static "digital newspaper," to its new incarnation (Web 2.0) as a "shared canvas." This transformation has a massive impact on how knowledge is created and shared, and how innovation and value creation now happens. People are no longer just consumers of information and knowledge, they are active participants in creating and sharing it.

Mass, online collaboration has created open source software that is widely used throughout the world today. Whether talking about server software (Apache), operating systems (Linux), web browsers (Firefox), or learning platforms (Moodle), there are many examples of freely available software that has been collaboratively created by people worldwide sharing source code and constantly improving the product.

As Tapscott and Williams point out, this model of open collaboration is now finding its way into all kinds of problem-solving exercises. Goldcorp, a Canadian-based mining company, posted to the web all of its geological information for a gold mine in Northern Ontario, seeking input on where the most gold would likely be found. Those who submitted the best analyses that led to gold being found shared in the profits. Likewise, many research-intensive companies submit challenges to a site called InnoCentive, offering rewards for solutions to specific problems.

Smart organizations realize that knowledge and ideas within the organization are often compartmentalized and inaccessible to most. They are finding ways to expedite knowledge sharing within via collaborative online tools. And really smart organizations also realize that internal knowledge is finite, and are finding creative ways to tap into the vast knowledge afforded by Web 2.0.

What do these trends mean for learning? When reflecting on this question, I think of the many IT folks I have worked with over the years, such as systems administrators, web masters, and programmers. These individuals were fully engaged in Web 2.0 before it became a buzz word. Think about it. When someone in IT is faced with a problem (e.g. server down, web pages not loading properly, missing data, database malfunctions, etc.), the clock is ticking and they have to figure things out quickly. They don't have time to take a course to learn something new. These folks go online and through searches of websites, databases, FAQ sites, and, most importantly, online communities of peers, they find the answers. They are learning like this each and every day.

Of course, IT people have a predilection for learning in this way. They are very much at home on the web. But why couldn't we all learn this way? Perhaps the most valuable training we could provide within our organizations is teaching people how to be web literate (e.g. how to research, discern quality, learn and collaborate online). It's like the old fable of teaching people to fish, rather than giving them fish. We could do worse than teaching people how to learn, and contribute to the learning of others, in a connected world.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

It's a Small, Small, Small World

I have been having many of my own personal "world is flat" moments lately. We have taught folks as far afield as Syria and Turkey about eLearning. And through our courses, blogs and webinars, we have initiated conversations and consultations about eLearning with people from the U.K., Australia, India, China, Sri Lanka, Africa and a host of other places. The Internet really is making the world a smaller place and I am seeing evidence every day that highly industrious and creative people are using it to advance learning in all kinds of interesting ways.

Here are three examples:

Tutor Vista

Based in Bangalore, India, Tutor Vista offers real-time web-based one-on-one tutoring in a range of subjects (e.g. math, English, various sciences, etc.), as well as for college entrance examination preparation. With only a headset, microphone, and whiteboard, high school or college students can receive unlimited tutoring assistance from a highly educated and qualified Indian tutor for $100 a month.


Similarly, InterLangua hooks up qualified language instructors from Guatemala with individuals interested in learning Spanish. It uses a combination of webcam, voice and synchronous chat to connect Spanish language tutors with students anywhere there is a web connection. Learners can purchase ten sessions for $200.


Based in Shanghai, ChinesePod provides a rich immersive online environment for learning Mandarin Chinese. They use a creative mix of daily podcast audio lessons, interactive exercises and tools, and a diverse world-wide online community who support each other in their mutual learnings. Learners can choose from a variety of approaches ranging from audio lessons and transcripts only ($60 a year) to intense eight-week sessions with daily practice calls from tutors ($400). I will be trying out ChinesePod myself....I'll let you know in a later post how it goes.

Distances and barriers between people, ideas and learning are being obliterated. The web is connecting people with shared interests and allowing those with special expertise to reach a world-wide learning market efficiently and economically. I point to the examples mentioned above when clients in corporations, government, or non-profits tell me that their constituencies are not ready for eLearning, or that they are still examining the feasibility of web-based learning environments. My message: that train has already left the station!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Plug-and-Play eLearning

Back about 12 years ago a colleague introduced me to Mosaic, an early web browser. After playing with it for an hour or so, I remember thinking that this would change the world. I was excited and wanted to create a web site right away. Silly me; I thought I would bring up a blank page on my computer, write and format something, click a button, and be up and running. Unfortunately, I discovered that one had to be able to use the arcane language of HTML (all those damnable brackets, slashes, and short forms!). Even with the advent of user-friendly HTML editors, you still required some IT support and guidance to get something up on a web site that worked and looked half-decent.

Well, we have certainly come a long way since then. Today, you do not have to be geek or a code-monkey to be able to quickly and easily publish to the web and interact with others in the virtual world. There are a plethora of free (or nearly free) tools and services out there that remove the middle-man (aka technical experts / gatekeepers) from the equation. From blogs and wikis, to social networking software, to online messaging, to voice-over-Internet applications, to web widgets and mash up software, it is becoming increasingly easy to publish and interact with others online. Most of these tools, usually hosted somewhere else, have intuitive and easy-to-use interfaces and templates that allow users to create the kinds of web environments that only web-heads could in the past.

This trend has major implications for eLearning. We come across many organizations - particularly smaller professional associations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) - that feel that technology (access to it, knowledge of it, cost of it) is still the big barrier to getting started with eLearning. Sure, there are open source learning management systems such as Moodle and The Sakai Project that bring the cost barrier down. But these still require some technical and IT infrastructure to support. There are all kinds of simpler options open for smaller organizations just starting out and finding their way with eLearning.

Suppose, for example, that an NGO wanted to do some leadership development training for a geographically-dispersed group of its representatives. Using free and widely-available web-based applications, the organization could take very different approaches to this challenge, as follows:

Coaching / Mentorship Model
  • A blog (via Blogger, Word Press, etc.) is set up for a leadership coach, who posts best practice leadership principles, stories and anecdotes, audio recordings, RRS feeds from top leadership sites, etc.;
  • Participants post remarks, questions, feedback in comments section;
  • Coach provides one-on-one mentorship to participants via synchronous online sessions with Skype or Elluminate's vRoom.
Collaborative Model
  • Create a wiki (e.g. SeedWiki) where all participants can collaboratively build a leadership model for the organization, under the direction of a skilled facilitator;
  • Participants complete self-assessments and interview each other on how their competencies compare to the organization's leadership model;
  • Personal leadership development plans are submitted to the facilitator and the group for comment and feedback.
Community of Practice Model
  • Using social networking software such as Ning, create a leadership development site that includes postings, personal profiles of participants, resource links, guided discussions, videos, etc.;
  • Participants provide on-going support to each other via an online community of leadership practice.
Of course, with any of these approaches, you still need to pay attention to principles of good learning design, facilitation and support. However, the biggest barrier to eLearning is no longer the cost of buying and supporting technology. There are so many plug-and-play options available today. The only barriers are the limits of your own creativity and imagination.