Friday, September 26, 2008

Big Question: To-Learn Lists

My response to this month's Big Question:

I’m sure few people have a formal to-learn list. We all start with a to-do list. We don’t start thinking in terms of learning; we first start thinking in terms of doing. What is it that we want to do; do we know how to do it? Only if the answer is no, does learning come into the picture. We rarely want to learn something just for the “heck” of it. Isn’t that the premise of the all too important motivation factor, the “what’s in it for me?” factor that we incorporate in every course we create? It has to have a relevance to the learner’s life and needs.

Of course there are exceptions. I may come across something interesting that I want to learn about, even though it may not directly impact my life. But, I believe that doesn’t happen too often, unfortunately. And of course, though we may want to learn something irrelevant, we mostly end up not doing that because they’re not linked to a to do item

So, basically we first create to-do lists and then create to-learn lists as an auxiliary document (mostly in our minds). Consequently, it’s the to learns that are associated with the to dos at the top of the list that get preference in our personal learning catalog.

For example, I want to keep up with the new e-learning trends. I want to implement them in my courses. So, I’ve started learning and working with Web 2.0 tools. I want to create game-based learning. I have some experience with them but not enough. So, I want to learn to design and develop (at least the logic) such courses. I plan to take that up more intensively as soon as I feel I’m comfortable with e-learning 2.0. I love music and dancing. I want to learn to play the guitar, I want to learn to do the salsa. But, right now it doesn’t have an important bearing on my life (yeah, I know, it’s too focused on work). So, I will learn these skills, but I don’t have a time frame.

We should have formal to-learn lists. That would help us be more focused and have concrete learning goals for professional and personal development. You can have lists linked to to-do lists or categorized into professional and personal learning lists. Have a time-frame fixed to each item on the list along with a reason why you should do it. Spend some time every day tracking your progress and revising the list. The sense of personal achievement that would come out of crossing items off that list would be worth the little trouble we’ll take to set it up.

In fact, we could create shared to-learn lists online, similar to the wish lists shopping sites have. The lists can be used to form online learning communities, who share and learn through each other every day. Instead of having to rummage through hundreds of online resources to get what we need, we could learn through connectivism and collaborative learning. We do some of that now, but the lists might make it more structured and easier.

A to-learn list, whether personal or shared, will of course only be able to document the conscious learning decisions we make. The things we learn while simply surfing the Web, reading the newspaper, etc. cannot obviously be captured. But, if you realize you’ve just learned something new, you can add it to a have-learned list. You should also not restrict your learning to the list. Learning is an ongoing continuous process. Having a list doesn’t mean you stop at the end of the list, you have to keep adding to it, as often or more often than you cross out items from it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Let's Spread the ID Word

One of the biggest challenges the e-learning industry in India faces is a lack of awareness about the industry and instructional design. As a part of the recruitment panel in my organization, I've experienced, first hand, the difficulty in finding and recruiting good IDs and writers.

Manish Mohan has written a post containing helpful resources and tips for aspiring instructional designers. The post is very useful for someone trying to break into instructional design from other careers or straight from college. On the topic of instructional design courses in India, Manish says:

“I am not sure how good the courses in India are. I recommend getting a job
instead. Symbiosis is quoted more often in conversations and so must be gaining
some popularity as an instructional design course. But honestly, as a manager
who has had to recruit for ID, I look for prior experience, and if there is no
prior experience, I look for their core writing skills and ability to learn.
Having a diploma is good but not essential.”

I couldn’t agree more. I strongly believe you can learn much more and better on the job than by taking a distance learning course that only gives you the theories and not the application. In fact I’ll go one step further and state that core writing skills and ability to learn will stand you in better stead than simply taking instructional design courses. I’ve frequently come across candidates with a certificate, diploma, or even master’s in ID, but close to zero writing skills. On the other hand, I’ve recruited several freshers with a strong command over the language, an enthusiasm to learn and above average analytical ability. I’m not saying that the courses being offered are not good. I haven’t seen the material for any of them too closely. What I’m saying is that just the course won’t help. You need to develop some basic skills above and beyond that. The theories and principles behind the strategies being used can be practiced and learnt on the job. According to me, to be a good instructional writer and designer, you need to have the following skills at the very least:

  • Strong writing skills
  • Effective communication
  • Logical and analytical ability
  • Enthusiasm for learning new things

It’s not that we don’t have enough talented people, the problem is that they are hardly aware that such an avenue exists. In most interviews with candidates who have no exposure to e-learning, I end up spending a chunk of the time explaining what the job of an instructional writer or designer actually entails. Most people I talk to tend to confuse it with content or technical writing. It may have some connections depending on the subject matter of your courseware. But, otherwise they are miles apart.

With e-learning becoming more and more accessible to people in India, people are sitting up and taking notice of this learning medium. Distance learning, which until recently meant couriering booklets of notes and assignments, is fast turning into synchronous and asynchronous e-learning modules. If people start engaging in e-learning as consumers, they may also want to become producers. And, now, with several big names entering into the e-learning domain in India or setting up their own e-learning training departments, things might change further. Maybe the day will come when people won’t give me the blank look of incomprehension when I tell them what I do for a living.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Guilty of Inactivity!

The day you get a break from work overload, the network decides to give you trouble! I’m not able to do any of the stuff I was supposed to do. I have a lot of catching up to do with CCK08. I have to respond to e-mails and reconnect with some friends. I want to update my blog. I want to tinker around with several of the new software I’ve been reading about. The list is endless.

Hmm…maybe what I actually need to do is to set up a scheduler for myself. In doing the things that seem to be on higher priority at work and home, I seem to be losing out on time to do things for myself. I just about manage to skim through my RSS reader everyday. On some days, I manage to clip the more interesting bits and post them. But, I feel I’m restricting as well as overwhelming myself at the same time. The most activity I do online is read. I spend all my “free” time reading and bookmarking stuff that primarily shows up on my RSS reader. So, I don’t get the time to actually put the knowledge or information I get into actual use. I don’t update my blogs as often as I’d like. I don’t comment on others’ blogs as often as I like. I don’t participate in communities as much as I’d like. (Most times, I find it’s too late to say what I want to say or that someone else has said it better.) I also don't use the strategies and tools as much as I'd like.

I know this gripe seems repetitive...I expressed similar sentiments some months ago as well. But, I have progressed a little from that state, its only that the progress could've been better and faster.

I’ve started suffering from homophily too. Instructional design and elearning are close to my heart and I absolutely love to devour write-ups about new developments in this field. But, most times I end up spending all my time online with things only related to these. In fact, even within elearning, I feel the only things we’re talking about is eLearning 2.0. Of course it is a great new development and there are many exciting things happening in it. But, I guess it’s about information overload.

In short, homophily and information overload are making me feel saturated and tired. Maybe I should take a break and consciously take out time to do stuff other than (just) reading about the same stuff again and again. We don’t use many elearning 2.0 tools at work or in the courses we develop. I’m, unfortunately, still working on projects that are modeled completely on elearning 1.0. And a change in strategy is not in my hands. But, yes I hope to be doing that soon. In fact, I’ve taken on myself the task of setting up wikis for my workplace colleagues to help in sharing knowledge and learnings from current and past projects. It’s been progressing in bits and pieces in between the regular workload, but I hope to be done with it soon. Let’s see how that goes.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Motivation Factors

A friend of mine has just joined a new office, a BPO, where she’s taking voice and accent training classes. And it seems that, most of the training is classroom training. The subject seems so apt for a good blended-learning model, I’m surprised that the organization (a pretty large one at that) has chosen to stick to the traditional model. But, what I found more interesting is that the trainer uses a version of the “reward” and “punishment” motivator. For every mistake a trainee make in class, like mispronouncing a word, using slang, etc., he/she is “charged” a fixed sum. Every error has a “fee” assigned to it depending on the gravity of the error. An account is maintained for these transactions and apparently, if the trainees complete the training successfully, the fund collected will be used to throw a party for the class.

Frankly, initially, I was skeptical about the effectiveness of this motivator. My reasons being:
The trainees are not kids or teenagers; they’re adults, most with some kind of experience in the same or similar industry. This kind of motivation is (to me) a little juvenile for the audience. In the beginning it might seem a fun thing, but I think after a point, they’d stop caring too much about it.
There are punishments for errors, but I didn’t hear about any rewards for good performance. Where’s the balancer then? We need a positive motivator too right?
If we consider the end-of-training party to be a positive motivator, well it gets more interesting. To really have a good party, the trainees should in fact make as many mistakes as possible, deliberately. Because remember, that’s how the party is being financed.

But, then when I thought about it some more, I realized that something like this would probably encourage them to follow the trainer’s guidelines at all times, irrespective of time and place. It could simply be a fun element the trainer wanted to add to the class, which also makes the trainees consciously aware of their mistakes. And that’s how most of the real-world practical learning takes place, through trial and error. If you think about what they’re trying to teach and learn- language, grammar, voice, and other spoken language issues, it seems more likely that the students would learn from their own and others’ mistakes.

What are your thoughts? Do you think this is an effective way to get the trainees involved? Or would you try something completely different?

P.S.: I wonder if the errors are pointed out only by the trainer or does the group also take note of the errors on their own. If the entire class is involved, it might work better.