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Learning in the Wild

I grew up visiting the national parks with my parents on long road trips across the country. We live in Florida, so getting to see mountains was a rare treat that I always looked forward to. I got away from it in my twenties, but as I got older I felt the pull of the mountains calling me back. One of my friends has recently declared his life’s quest to be visiting every national park, so we took the chance to tick Bryce Canyon off his list in the days following this year’s Devlearn. Bryce isn’t quite as imposing as Yosemite, nor as famous as Yellowstone, but I’ve always been curious to see the bizarre little spires (the famous “hoodoos”) ever since I first saw pictures of them.

And they don’t disappoint. The rim of the canyon is on a bit of an incline, so as you approach it from the west, all you see is a fairly unremarkable forest (though if you’re lucky, you’ll spot a few deer).

Looking at some deer as we walk towards the canyon

Cresting the hill brings you to this view…

The Bryce Canyon Amphitheatre

And it’s hard not to have your breath taken away.

My friend and I immediately started searching for the trailhead, ready to dive headfirst into that beautiful canyon.

Another friend took one look and decided that an afternoon of reading and drinking hot chocolate in the lodge was preferable to anything that could happen in that canyon (in her defense, it was bitterly cold, about to snow, and the hike ended up being incredibly challenging – her choice was probably the rational one).

It’s amazing this place could contain such a variety of experiences. You can dive into an intense day hike or bum around and relax by the fire. There are deep wilderness backcountry trails that take days to traverse… or you can hire a tour bus from Las Vegas and get driven straight up to a paved overlook path.

If the excitement of being in this beautiful place isn’t enough, you can even get an extrinsic reward by playing the “Hike the Hoodoos” scavenger hunt.

Photo by Maria Andersen

Photo by Maria Andersen

After giving it some thought, I realized how the act of building and curating these experiences feel oddly parallel to what L&D professionals do in the workplace.

Performing well at work is wild. It is complex. It is no longer “show up and push this lever for eight hours.” It’s more like, “here’s a problem we don’t know how to fix – please solve it.” During his keynote, Neil Degrasse-Tyson spoke about the irrelevance of knowledge. The people that will succeed in our new economy aren’t those who remember the most, but those who can solve the most problems and create the best new ideas.

It’s an amazingly big ask for our learners, but trying to contain this challenge and complexity, dumb it down somehow, would take away everything beautiful and exciting about it. Instead we must provide the appropriate experiences within that wildness for each person. In the same way we can’t let a bus load of sedentary sightseers try to tackle the “Under the Rim” trail (23 miles one way), we can’t let an inexperienced new hire tackle a complex project without the necessary guidance and resources. The same way we can’t hold back an experienced hiker or ultrarunner by building only easy paved trails, we shouldn’t prevent the experts from achieving all that they can.

In one of the conference breakout sessions, Marc Rosenberg and Steve Foreman laid out the case (based on a recently released a white paper) for just how such a learning ecosystem might look. Clark Quinn’s book, Revolutionize Learning & Development, offers up a similar vision. It’s a big shift in thinking, and involves not just considering the singular learning experience (through an event or performance support tool) but all the things before, after, and two years down the line.

Building an ecosystem isn’t easy, and it isn’t something that can be accomplished in an afternoon. We’ve been discussing it at my company for some time, and it’s going to take a while before all the disparate pieces come together and all the audiences have what they need to thrive.

But that’s what it’s going to take to start learning in the wild.

As for the conference itself: I cannot thank enough the eLearning Guild and my company, who gave me the opportunity to speak and give back to a community that has given me so much. A big thank you to everyone who showed up and added to the conversation! Please contact me should you have any additional questions or would like to chat further.

DevLearn 2013

It’s late October again and you know what that means… I’m headed to Vegas!

View from the Aria

Whereas last year was a desperate attempt to capture every bit of knowledge from every session I attended, my goal this year is to absorb the things that I see and hear and actually create something that’s a little more coherent. Things have been a little hectic of late, and I haven’t had as much writing or reflection time as I’d like. Leaving work to focus on my own learning and development offers up the chance to spend some time doing just that.

And let’s be honest, no city inspires quiet reflection like Las Vegas 🙂

If you’re not attending (or attending and sitting in other sessions), stay tuned to this site or my twitter for the information deluge (as well as the conference backchannel!). My tentative session schedule for the conference looks like this:

    How Museums Use Mobile Technologies to Shape User Experiences – Nancy Proctor
    Transmedia Storytelling: A New Strategy for Learning – Lee Lindsey
    Transfer Learning and Become More Profitable: The Science of Behavior Change – Art Kohn
    Is eLearning Broken? Challenges for Innovation – panel
    Not Just for Superheroes: Exploring Learning Through Comics – Bianca Woods
    Portfolios As Tools for Professional Learning – Sylwia Bielec, Thomas Stenzel
    AGILE Instructional Design: Keeping Pace with the Speed of Change – Conrad Gottfredson
    How to Deliver Measurable Behavioral Change Using Technology – Neil Lasher

With so many interesting sessions, it’s been a lot harder to narrow things down this year so, as always, it’s all subject to change.

Let’s Screw Up

I’ve been giving a great deal of thought lately to the nature of what it is I do. This is spurred in some part by recent posts by Reuben Tozman and Clark Quinn, two leaders in the L&D field who have quite eloquently expressed some weariness with the state of things. Their sentiments seem to echo a lot of the things I heard six months ago when I attended my first professional conference, Devlearn. Many of the speakers there brought the same points up: elearning courses need to be more than just page-turning PowerPoint presentations, and an instructional designer’s toolbox needs to include more than just courses.

Yet when I look at what the companies developing our tools, all I see are tools that make prettier info dumps with loads of text on a page with next buttons. Somehow an avatar looking you in the eye lessens the blow?

So why the dissonance? Why do the leaders in our field preach change and innovation, while the developers we depend on try to sell us on pre-built characters and “programming-free” development? Why are they trying to force us down the well-worn path that we know isn’t good enough?

Probably because that’s what we’re asking for.

A lot of times, when I’ve shown people my work, they’ve remarked “Oh, I could never do anything like that because I’m not an x.” X being a graphic designer, a voice actor, a sound editor, a programmer, a game designer, a creative writer, a whatever. The truth is I’ve never been any of these things either (unless you count my brief, illustrious career designing yellow page ads and junk mail). More often than not, I decided I wanted to do something, then I messed around with stuff until I got what I wanted.

I think the reason companies give us these kinds of tools is they understand that many of us are stuck in a fixed mindset, where we have simply accepted who we are and believe there’s very little we can do to change it.

I’m too busy, I don’t have time to be creative! Just let me crank out the same thing I’ve been cranking out for the past dozen years!

To be fair, I don’t blame people for saying this. Large organizations and profit-seeking enterprises tend to not care for messing around and playing with new stuff. You gotta hit your numbers and pump out those widgets under budget, etc.

Let’s consider some of the ideas that came out of Daniel Coyle’s keynote at Learning Solutions. Instead of treating instructional design like a job (where we do what we’re told and go home at the end of the day), let’s think about it like a craft where we continually strive to make more awesome stuff. We don’t need an elearning tool making all the decisions for us and holding our hand through the process. Let’s do something new, even if it means doing something unconnected with your 9 to 5, and even if it means doing something terrible once in a while. Let’s not hate on beginners and people experimenting outside their comfort zone. Let’s screw up without fear.

Getting ready for Devlearn

Next week I’ll be attending my first ever professional conference, Devlearn, the eLearning Guild’s annual learning technology conference. I’m quite excited and a bit nervous, but mostly just eager to absorb new knowledge. Here’s a general sketch of the sessions I’ll be attending:

  • 104  Evidence-based Training: No Yellow Brick Road
    Ruth Clark is presenting this one, so I’m hoping for lots of practical information on elearning development based on the latest research.
  • 204  Supporting Business Objectives with Better Learning Objectives
  • 311  Using Storytelling and Gamification for Better Problem-based Learning
    A lot of the projects I’ve been working on this past year have involved scenario-based elearning and developing it demands telling engaging stories and providing meaningful interactions. This one could be really useful, really quick.
  • 411  Designing eLearning that Supports the Classroom Trainer
  • 513  Ignite! Six Provocative Perspectives on the eLearning Industry
  • 613  Panel: Everything You Need to Know about Tin Can
    This might be the one can’t miss session for me. Tin Can API is coming very soon, and its potential for expanding how elearning is delivered could be massive.
  • 702  Designing an Effective Business Model for Your Training Organization
    My company really values training and employee development, but there’s an opportunity for us to drive the conversation so that we’re providing the best possible service for our learners. Hopefully, there’ll be lots of good information that can help us down that path. Also, Judy Unrein of the Toolbar podcast is part of this session, so it should be good.

I’ll be doing the best I can to take notes and share on this blog, so watch this space for a deluge of information in the coming days. I’m the only person from my team attending, so capturing knowledge to bring back is going to be vital.

I’m trying to break out of my shell a bit, so please come say hi if you see me. I promise when I hand you my business card I won’t do any dumb tricks like this weird spiky-haired dude: