Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ad-hoc Social Learning Environment - How a Blog Drives Learning

I recently conducted  a one-month leadership development program at Harbinger Group. The program, dubbed BaseCamp 2010, addressed 40 participants drawn from the senior and mid-level ranks of the company. The goal of the program was to expose participants to selected ideas in innovation, strategy, leadership and vision: all of them set in the context of high tech industry. The participants were in different timezones and could not all meet in one place or at one time.

We decided to set up an ad-hoc social learning environment mostly using freely available tools. We decided to outline our curriculum in a skeletal form using a blog, and then set social interactions in the curriculum context. The program, conducted over five weeks, was  a great success.

In this post, I summarize what we learned about the ad-hoc social learning environments. Although these observations are based on the leadership development program, they may be applicable to other training types.

1. Blog is the watering hole
A learning blog is so much a happening place! The blog has a personal touch, it is easy to follow, its updates are delivered to participant's RSS reader instantaneously. We used Blogger, the Google blogging tool.

The instructor's blog posts were very short - often less than one hundred words. Blog posts provided a guiding theme and then pointed to a web  resource such as a YouTube video, or a podcast or a news story article or a case study. Learners were expected to consume the content and then respond to the questions raised in the blog post.
  • For example, a blog post would show a crisis situation, followed by a media interview of the person who was in charge of handling the crisis. That would be the starting point for  a discussion on leadership.
  • As another example, a New York Times story on a new innovative idea would serve as a springboard for a discussion.
  • Or simply a blog would bring up two conflicting viewpoints on an issue and ask the participants to debate on both sides. 
  • In yet another case, a blog post would provide a framework for various leadership traits, and participants would be asked to reflect and decide how they view themselves.

2. Comments are where the action is
Blog comments, though arguably the most primitive form of interaction, were of great value to the course. Participants had a lot to learn from each other. The blog post set a common context and comments were based on that context. Over time the quality of comments improved, and participants became more responsive to each others' comments.

The opinion was divided on whether comments should be public (open to everyone to read) or moderated (not open until the deadline). In our case we preferred the earlier option, because to us, it was more important that people learn from each other rather than compete for grade.

3. Social interaction pods are best for debate
We used TeemingPod for conducting debates amongst participants on a 40-page business case study. Everyone was online, at their own convenience, adding their points of view to TeemingPod.

The debates were organized in groups of 6 to 8 learners, and each group discussed several aspects of the case. The discussions were asynchronous and mediated. As their instructor, I could challenge certain points of view. When I thought the discussion was going off on a tangent, I could bring the main issue out front and center.It was great fun being part of six different groups debating a case study at the same time - something I could never hope to do in a classroom.

4. Interactivity adds fun
We used Raptivity games to add fun to learning. One interaction, for example, was a fun exercise where you paired related concepts. By the time you had finished the game, it served to re-kindle major takeaways from then entire course. Then, you were supposed to write an essay describing what you learnt. Participants enjoyed that.

5. Twitter creates immediacy 
We used a Twitter gadget inside the blog, and that is where we posted deadlines, status updates, how far we were from completing grading and so forth. We also announced class average scores through the Twitter gadget. Soon the whole class started following the Twitter ID, so we removed the gadget and ran our Tweets separately.

6. Asynchronous interaction works great
There may be some value to bringing everyone online at the same time and conducing a class using a web meeting platform. In our case, we discovered that we did not need this. The whole of BaseCamp 2010 was delivered in asynchronous mode, and that did not stop us from interacting in meaningful ways.

7. LMS is fine for the boring stuff

We did use the LMS only to grade lessons and assignments. We also had the mobile quiz results tracked thru the LMS - Moodle, in our case. All the record-keeping and statistics happened there.

Judging from the participant feedback at the end of the program, as well as their work output in strategic planning sessions soon after the program concluded, the program was a great success. We saved major costs and saw growth in employee engagement. 

Have you explored social learning enviroments? Are you considering that idea? What are your thoughts? Any suggestions? Concerns?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Using Computer Programming to Develop Thinking Skills

Children deserve to have fun when learning computers. SPARK Institute of Technology  promises just that: a series of innovative and "full-of-fun" courses and class activities. Recently I talked to Abhay Joshi, their founder, who is a technology entrepreneur and educator. Abhay has two passions: getting computer programs to work flawlessly, and educating children. So, when he combined the two passions in a unique experiment to develop thinking skills amongst children using computer programming, I was intrigued.

Q: What's unique about SPARK's new program?
A: The main point is that "programming" is a medium of learning. It makes you think, it unleashes your creativity, it helps hone your problem-solving skills, it helps you apply your math and reasoning skills, and finally it is a lot of fun.

Q: What motivated you to do this experiment?
A: I learnt programming for a living, and that too when I was far past the school age. Even so, I realized the addictive nature of programming, because it was so much fun, so conducive to creativity, and so limitless in possibilities. The connection of programming with learning has already been established firmly by eminent folks like Seymour Papert of MIT and Randy Pausch of CMU! I just had put two and two together to see the great value I could offer to our school children.

Q: So, which programming language do you use?
A: The choice of language is critical. We use Logo. The language must be such that it has a low barrier for learning, that it facilitates learning by providing embedded learning objects (like the Turtle in Logo), and that it does not snare the user in a complex process of edit-compile-run cycle of industry-standard languages. The other obvious (but still not understood by many) important point is that the goal is not to teach programming, but to use it as a medium of learning.

Q: Tell us more about Logo.
A: Logo works great with children. It is easy to befriend (no complex syntax) and has an entertaining paradigm.It gives instant response to your commands, thus creating a direct connection with the computer. It offers the full power of programming (i.e. semantic capabilities offered by the best languages). It does not enforce "structured programming" methodology that industry quality languages do, and encourages free thinking and exploration. It has embedded learning metaphors/objects that children can easily relate to. The Logo Turtle embeds geometry and motion and allows children to bring their bodily experiences/knowledge to the learning process. Logo allows the teacher/instructor to continue adding such learning metaphors through interesting challenges and problems.

Q: What was your Ah-ha moment?
A: There were several Phew moments as we worked our way setting up the whole thing. But once we got into the act of teaching, it was great fun. Finally when the children got it, they loved it. Here are some quotes.
  • I loved the class ... It was an unforgettable experience ... I want to learn a lot more ...
  • Now I know computer is not just for games and movies ... I can actually talk with it ...
  • Besides programming I learnt Math and techniques of solving problems ...
  • Logo is fun ... The Turtle is cool ...
  • I learnt how to think systematically ...

Q: Show us some of the stuff your children built using Logo.
A: Check out the interactive below. It's all their work. It is important to note that every line, curve, and object you see in these images has been drawn through programming effort (which in turn involved thinking, planning, design, geometry, and calculations).

Q: Do you see Programming as an inherently interactive learning medium which helps people learn how to think and solve problems?
A: Absolutely. Programming envisages a child sitting at the computer and communicating with it continuously. Interactive languages like Logo create a direct link with the computer. The child types a command and the computer responds instantly. Through error messages the child discovers errors in his/her thinking. It is a most pleasant conversation in which infinite patience, immense power, and untiring servitude are offered by the computer to the learner.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Google Buzz and Social Learning: Connect the Dots

Now, the deafening Google Buzz is here. It resides right inside Gmail, requires no separate account, and makes it easy to share your pictures, links, videos and updates with your Gmail contacts. When you share something, others presumably like it, comment on it and a threaded discussion starts.

So, who is Buzz for? Some say Buzz is for Twitter drop-outs. Others feel Buzz is Google's answer to Facebook, and is particularly useful for those who care for extra online privacy. Yet others feel email-centric knowledge-workers will tiptoe into social networking through Buzz.

I want to learn your ideas on how Buzz can help in social learning - if at all. What do you think? By the way, do you use Gmail?

The Wave may not have reached the classroom, but is the classroom ready for the Buzz?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Emerging Trends in Interactivity that Training Professionals Cannot Ignore

In this post I would like to relate five emerging trends in interactivity that training professionals cannot ignore. I will also name a few tools that help you leverage those trends.

Interactive Presentations
Presenters are increasingly relying upon interactive elements to help their presentations come alive. Trainers and teachers can no longer make do with bullet points. Learners expect interactive elements in your presentations. Examples of tools that help you build interactivity to your presentations are YawnBuster, Flash and Silverlight - to name a few.

Virtual Worlds, 3D Environments, Learning Games
These interactivities create immersive experiences. Second life, Proton Media, Teleplace are some of the tools that let you do that.

Rapid Interactivity
Tools for building interactivity quickly and easily have lowered the entry barrier to interactivity building. Raptivity is a great example of that. Over 200 readymade interactivity templates are part of Raptivity and you don’t have to write a single line of code to create a branching simulation or a crossword or a 3 dimensional tour or a virtual world experience.

Composite Applications with Widgets
In web-based learning environments, composite apps are a big value-add. I recently completed a leadership development program for 40 managers. And the entire training program was delivered over a blog. The blog posts contained Raptivity elements, exercises and modules the learners to complete, and I used a Twitter gadget inside my blog. The Twitter gadget was my way of communicating with them in real time instantly.

User-Generated Content from Social Interactions
Embedded social interactions bring content alive. These are fascinating and they are a breeze to set up. It’s extremely easy to embed social interactions to bring content alive. Sidewiki is an interesting tool. Its a little Wiki that sits on a website and people who know stuff in addition to what they see on a website, can go ahead and add it to Wiki. So, here’s the site and here’s the little SideWiki with user generated content. Together, the result is richer than the original content. TeemingPod is another tool that lets you embed social interactions into your training content.

So, if you are a learning professional, these are some of the things you need to aware of and there are several technologies you can take advantage of. At first, the tools may look intimidating, but let me tell you, it’s never been easier to set up a learning environment, to bring interactivity to your learning content than it is today.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

iPad: Is this the beginning of handheld education?

Today's Wall Street Journal carries an article by Jeff Tachtenberg and Yukari Kane titled 'Textbook Firms Ink E-Deals for iPad'. While it is widely known that major textbook publishers are adapting their texts for the electronic format, the intoduction of iPad has given that trend a further push - or so it seems from this article.

McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson Education, Kaplan are all on the bandwagon already.

Compass Intelligence, a market research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz., estimates that technology spending in the U.S. educational market could grow to $61.9 billion in 2013, from $47.6 billion in 2008.

Apple is known to enjoy an edge in the educational sector because of its Macintosh, and already has a presence in educational content through iTunes U.

According to the authors, publishers will be interested in iPad apps that allow the ability to play video, highlight text, record lectures, take notes, search text and take quizzes.

The message of this article resonates with another article in Business Week that I posted earlier on this blog.