Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Client eLearning Re-visited

A few weeks back I lamented the paucity of good examples of eLearning for clients / potential clients, and then posted some examples of client eLearning that folks had sent to me the following week. And then recently I was sent an email from the bank (Scotiabank) I criticized in my original posting on this subject, noting that they had changed their online client education efforts quite substantially. Their new initiative is called MyVault, and it certainly is an improvement over what they had done previously (i.e. sending me to sites that were collections of PDF downloads very similar to things they had already sent me in the mail).

They had obviously been working hard on improving their client eLearning efforts long before I leveled my criticisms, so I cannot take any credit for the turn-around. But what a turn-around it has been. MyVault provides users with an array of online resources to personalize their own financial education, and online interactive tools with which to make key financial calculations and decisions.

Specifically, MyVault is organized around five key areas as follows:

My News
  • You can select which general and financial news sources you wish to access
  • You can sign up for RSS feeds you wish to be delivered to your "vault"
My Plans
  • You have access to a personal calendar, to-do list, cash flow tool, and links to various documents that you have saved while navigating the site
My Library
  • You have access to all issues of the bank's newsletters, various financial articles, podcasts, and a financial glossary
  • You can read advice from financial advisors and submit topics you want them to cover
My Community
  • You can join online discussions on a number of financial topics (e.g. investing, borrowing, home ownership, taxes, etc.)
My Tools
  • You can use a number of interactive tools to do various personal financial calculations (e.g. retirement savings plan, net worth, optimal mortgage payment schedule, mortgage comparisons, rent vs. own calculations, manageable debt load)
MyVault goes way beyond the digital brochure approach that most organizations use for their client education initiatives. It allows the user to personalize their learning experience and to better understand complex financial processes by interacting with easy-to-use online tools. This is a great value-add and has the effect of engaging both existing and potential clients much more deeply than just reading standard and static marketing materials. On top of this, Scotiabank has created an attractive, colourful and easy-to-navigate interface for MyVault (very non-bank like....see above).

Think about this approach for your organization. Are there ways that you could provide a more personal, interactive and educational experience for your clients and those you wish to attract as clients?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Beware the Technology Police

I remember doing a pitch to some potential clients once, showing them how they could really bring their eLearning to life by including some rich, multi-media, case-based scenarios. They seemed genuinely impressed by some examples I showed them and I thought we were making real progress. They said they would like to have their eLearning follow a similar path, but that there was one little problem. It turns out that someone had decided that it would be a good idea to have Flash removed from all computers within this organization. I can't remember the exact reasons why, but it had something to do with concerns about preventing employees from playing games or wasting time on other diversions / entertainments while "on the clock." After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said thanks, it's been real, and quickly found the nearest exit. At the time, and ever since, I have thought that the technology police within organizations are using such short-sighted technology bans to cover up a lack of actual management, not to mention foresight and imagination.

Since that encounter of the "Flash ban," I have come across many other examples of similar technology-limiting edicts that are equally as silly. In my mind, if people are wasting time, or are not productive, or are not meeting objectives, this is a performance issue, plain and simple, and it should be addressed as such. Banning computer technologies that can be used for very productive purposes because some people are abusing the privilege, is not a smart move. It is akin to:
  • bricking in windows because some people are staring out of them while day dreaming on the job;
  • cutting off all phone lines because some people are making too many personal calls; or,
  • not allowing conversations among employees because some people are too chatty and waste others' time.
These are, of course, extreme examples. However, I think it is equally silly to deny all of your employees the potential benefits of information and communications technologies that can enhance learning, build community and enable personal and professional growth because someone does not want to manage those who are not responsible.

Recent news stories tell me that the technology police are flourishing. In the last few weeks I have come across stories about school boards banning cell phones from school property and government departments banning use of Facebook, the social networking site, by government employees.

With respect to the first story, yes, it is highly disruptive to have cell phones going off in class, and this should not be allowed. However, part of the stated rationale in banning the cell phones was to stem cheating (enterprising students were, apparently, text messaging test answers to each other). I do not condone cheating, but perhaps the bigger problem here is that schools are still giving memorization tests in an age of instant access to information. Why not give the students some real challenging questions to answer that cannot be condensed to yes or no, true or false, 1812 or 1867? And then encourage them to surf the net with their phones and to text message each other (even reaching out beyond the confines of the school), collaborating on some big and meaningful problems. This will more closely resemble the world into which they will be entering.

With respect to the second story about government employees "wasting time" on Facebook, why not encourage them to establish Facebook contacts with public sector workers across different departments, and across different governments around the world? What could be learned by hearing about how others are tackling public policy issues? What kinds of connections could be made? What kinds of sharing and learning could take place?

If people are slacking off / goofing off / not doing their jobs, by all means manage this. But having the technology police make across-the-board bans is not managing. It is pure laziness. Worse than this, it is forsaking the tremendous benefits that such technologies can bring because one does not wish to manage performance.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Story-Centered eLearning

Everyone needs a touchstone. Something or someone you turn to when trying to determine what is authentic, what is a good decision, what is the right thing to do. With regard to how people learn, a question I grapple with every day, Roger Schank is my touchstone. His advocacy of a story-centered curriculum (SCC) really resonates with me and I try to introduce such an approach, whenever possible, into the eLearning projects on which I work. SCC is based on the idea that people learn best via direct experience (aka "learning by doing"), and that we should provide learners with realistic scenarios and projects that can facilitate such experiential learning.

Roger has a long and distinguished career in academe, and was the founder of the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. He also has a long and distinguished career in railing against the prevailing education system that is based on passive memorization and regurgitation through testing. Roger founded Socratic Arts, a company that helps its clients develop story-based curricula, and also founded Engines for Education, a non-profit organization developing a story-centered high school curriculum.

In a high school environment, for example, a story-centered curriculum may have students learning about the principles of physics by building a bridge or designing a sail boat for speed. Likewise, they may learn about certain ethical principles by participating in a mock legal trial. The idea is that the traditional approach of compartmentalizing everything into "topics" to be "covered" has the effect of fragmenting knowledge and stripping it of its context (not to mention making it as boring as watching paint dry!).

I first heard Roger speak at a distance education conference in Wisconsin back in 1996. He can be bombastic and abrasive, but he is also what I consider a breath of fresh air. Roger says that although the world has changed radically in the last century, the traditional model of education (from primary school through graduate school) has remained fairly constant. As he puts it, "Professors talk, students take notes, then there is a test." Not surprisingly, many students are not very engaged at school at all. They may go through the motions to "get the marks," but they see it as a game, something to be endured to get the sought-after piece of paper, not necessarily an experience that truly motivates them to grow, experiment and learn.

Likewise, I think much of what passes for workplace training is an equally passive and unengaging experience. Only in this case, it is trainers talk, trainees take notes, and there is a test. And this is as true of in-person training, as it is of most training programs delivered via eLearning. However, a story-centered approach can work equally as well for training as it can for education.

So next time you are approaching an eLearning development project, think of the various creative ways that you can bring the learning to life by wrapping it in a story. For example, have:
  • Salespeople learn the sales process through experiencing realistic virtual sales situations;
  • Employees learn about correct emergency procedures by placing them in virtual emergency situations and having them make choices and seeing the immediate results of those decisions;
  • Managers learn how to properly manage harassment complaints by placing them in the middle of realistic, emotionally-charged scenarios and having to react to these.
Stories facilitate active learning. eLearning developers often start with the idea of gathering a bunch of related topics end to end, presenting these, and testing on this. Instead, maybe we should think of ourselves as script writers creating realistic situations in which learners can immerse themselves. They can make choices, screw up, try again, and learn the key lessons without consciously realizing that they are learning. That's when learning is the most fun and the most effective. And, after all, that's how we learn in the real world.