Sunday, February 22, 2009

E-Learning and the Panopticon

Bentham developed the idea of the panopticon, a prison design that provided a single central point from which all prisoners/cells/activities could be observed. (Many American shopping malls adopted this as a design guide, too.) Foucault later wrote at length of the pervasiveness of the concept -- the need to observe and regulate -- as it extended to other institutions such as hospitals and schools.

And it extends to a new realm, now. Consider universities providing "distance education" courses via a course management tool like Blackboard, into which administration can ostensibly drop at any time to read student discussion comments, watch instructor videos, review recordings of virtual classroom meetings, and access other daily course activity. While the Dean could always drop by the traditional classroom, he/she didn't do it very often, and when it happened you knew he/she was there. Distance learning allows for a new level of observation/supervision, including simple lurking, for those who choose to use it.

I find myself in the position of panopticon resident from time to time, not always intentionally, and most often in dealing with data generated by an LMS or other tracking system. For instance: At his manager's request I provided an e-learning/technology resistant colleague -- someone with whom I need to remain collegial -- with a free login to a suite of commercial e-learning courses relevant to content the trainer taught. The product includes really excellent, hard-to-build-from-scratch simulations with branching decicisionmaking. Months later the trainer dropped by my office to describe at length how much time he'd spent examining the courses, detailing the myriad reasons they just wouldn't work in replacing, supplementing, or extending the content he taught (um, customer service, e-mail rules, MBTI, and basic supervision). He went on and on about how the courses were not relevant to the public sector, with "everything" he looked at targeted at people in sales and manufacturing. When I went into the system to review product usage for the quarter, I saw that he'd spent exactly 10 minutes and 11 seconds in one course, and began one simulation but did not finish it. That's it.

What are the ethical implications here?

Should university administration make their presence known when dropping in to an academic course? Who "owns" the course? The university, the faculty teaching it, or the learners enrolled in it? Should class discussions be a private matter between students and instructor? Should students have a right to say who should have access to the "content" they generate during the course? Do students have the right to be notified when someone other than the instructor is observing them online?

Should we be more explicit with learners that online activity can be tracked, and what effect might that have on learner interest and motivation? How might it affect the learner-trainer relationship? How can you say it without sounding like Big Brother?

What do we do when, as with my own example, we are privy to knowledge we'd just as soon we didn't have? Not long ago my colleague's boss called to discuss her continued issues with the resistant classroom trainer, who had shared his "findings" with her. What would you have said? Would you have confronted the trainer, who is also a colleague? What are the rights of the learner in the online world? What is the role of the trainer/consultant in this situation?

What rules should exist for those of us who have access to the panopticon?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Reality or ... Media?

My January 24 post, "Collapse of a Community of Practice", included an aside about what training practitioners are really doing v. what the media -- print, business blogs, "forums" and "webinars" would have us believe (another aside: there is nothing positive about the word "webinar"). My third book, From Analysis to Evaluation, was envisioned as a compilation of tools developed and used by practitioners in the field, loosely arranged around the ADDIE model of instructional design. Dozens of authors and training practitioners were invited to contribute to it, and were specifically asked for tools they were using in their own work. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect in terms of submissions, and was somewhat surprised at what did not arrive. For instance, no one -- not one -- person submitted anything on determining training results-on-investment (ROI).

As this is such a hot topic in training-related magazines and books, I don’t know whether the lack of submissions is coincidental, that no one ever needed to create a “homegrown” tool for this, or that it’s a reflection on what is really happening in the field in spite of what the literature tells us. As I knew readers would expect to find it, I went back and added some material where reviewers felt its absence would be especially noticed, but let me say again: I asked people to share what they used.

Last week I tipped sacred training cows. This week I'm asking something different. What do you find that you really use in your practice, and does it differ from what media and myth say you should?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sacred Training Cows

I am just home from Training 2009 where, among other things, I offered sessions on "Better than Bullet Points" and "Instructional Design for the Real World". With both these topics I always manage to tip a few sacred cows. While I hope the presentations provoke thought more than ire, I know that I sometimes ruffle feathers -- often, I suspect, by hitting too close to home. Here are some of the sacred training cows I tipped in Atlanta:

--Much of what we call 'e-learning' would be much more useful if distributed as text documents.
--The traditional approach to training evaluation is seriously flawed.
--Good e-learning is about design, not software.
--Irrelevant or cute art, graphics, animations, and colors only distract the learner; they do not enhance the training by "adding visual interest". (How about the example in this post: relevant, or distracting?)
--Boring content is no excuse for boring training.
--The tendency for trainers to fall into the role of order taker ("Yes, sir, you want an order of teambuilding with a side of stress management? Coming right up.") does not constitute good "customer service". It is harmful to the learners, the managers, and ultimately the credibility of the training profession.

What other sacred training cows would you add to the list?

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Myth of "Best Practices"

I get lots of requests for lists of "best practices" e-learning, in the virtual classroom, in instructional design, in classroom presentation. Here's the deal: there's no such thing. A "best practice" is best only in the precise, specific context in which it exists. I don't recall who first offered this analogy, but think of it this way: what works in my marriage won't necessarily work in -- and may even damage -- yours. Even if moved from one situation to another very close one, the odds of transfer being made with practice intact is nil.

In education they call this a problem with "fidelity": one teacher writes a fabulously effective lesson plan and shares it with her friends. They each decide to 'adapt' it in a slightly different way to suit some unique need of their students. It is no longer the practice that was supposedly "best". Of course then, when the end users don't get the desired outcome, they say it's isn't their fault...because after all, they were using "best practices".

So how do we address those who pressure us to produce a list of, or abide by, "best" practices?

[Update: I ran into a great visual example of the problem of fidelity in best practices. Check out the update.]

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Can 'Competencies' be Taught?

I tend to agree with Marcus Buckingham (First, Break all the Rules). Do you? What's been your experience with "competencies"?

"Competencies are part skills, part knowledge and part talent. They lump together, haphazardly. Consequently, even though designed with clarity in mind, competencies can wind up confusing everybody. Managers soon find themselves sending people off to training classes to learn such 'competencies' as strategic thinking or attention to detail or innovation. But these aren't competencies. These are talents. They cannot be taught. If you are going to use competencies, make it clear which are skills or knowledge and therefore can be taught, and which are talents and therefore cannot."