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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.

Collaboration con pollo

Mercado Lanza is an enormous, hulking block of concrete occupying an entire square block in the middle of La Paz. Its interior can best be described as maze-like – every few feet, the concrete path splits to form narrow ramps that zigzag off in various directions.

The meat market

Like any good department store, there are places where certain products can be found. There’s a flower section, a weird old magazines section, a snack and drink section, a meat section, a cleaning supplies section. Vendors sell their wares from what look like mini-garages or tiny shipping containers (it goes with all that concrete, I guess?) and some ramps are crammed with them end-to-end while other ramps are deserted and sad-looking.

Unlike their American counterparts, who look to be unique and exploit their market differentiators as much as possible, these Bolivian vendors were intent on carrying products as similar to their neighbors as possible. Each stall was like a slightly rearranged copy of the one next to it.

Looking for a bit of lunch, we headed upstairs to the food vendors, where the smell and sound of food preparation seemed to be coming from.

The comida stalls

Each stall was run by one or two women, with a narrow seating area and tiny kitchen inside. Much like the rest of the market, there wasn’t much to differentiate the stalls except for their signs – either a Coke or Pepsi logo and the owner’s name. Occasionally, someone looking to drum up business would dart out at us and yell something in Spanish repeatedly.

We avoided these stalls.

Ultimately, we ended up at the end of a ramp in one of the deserted looking ends of the market, with the hopes of finding a non-claustrophobic and non-confrontational person who could feed us. There, we found a stall with no sign at all, but instead had a fraying and weather-beaten menu for “Dona Gaby.”

Dona Gaby's stall

Photo by Jessica Eberl

We pointed at a few different options, only to be replied with exasperated sighs and confused Spanish from (what I assume was) “Dona Gaby.” Eventually, we settled on something I knew was chicken and would probably be ok. Who doesn’t like chicken?

After sitting down, we noticed “Dona Gaby” had disappeared. Did she go to get some supplies?

A few minutes later, another woman came by the stall and spooned some soup out of “Dona Gaby’s” pot into a plastic shopping bag and then left.

Did we just witness a soup theft?

Did we need to tell “Dona Gaby?!”

Should we have ordered the soup that’s so good that people want to steal it?

“Dona Gaby” came back with a plastic shopping bag of her own full of something a few minutes later. She didn’t seem bothered that her pot had been touched, so we just carried on being the dumb tourists we were. She stirred her pot some more and walked off again.

Not long after, a third woman came by a brought us giant plates of fried chicken, rice, and potato salad.

Photo by Jessica Eberl

Photo by Jessica Eberl

It became pretty apparent at this point that what we witnessed wasn’t a case of soup theft, but rather the inner workings of a giant collaborative restaurant. With such tiny kitchens, no one person could possibly offer the kind of menu that all their customers might want. The solution is to specialize in one thing and work with others to share the production as needed.

Even more than the language and the weird potatoes, this way of working seemed incredibly foreign to me. Sometimes it feels like my default mentality (and that of everyone around me) is to build structure into everything. Create a plan. Formalize a process. Do what’s expected and know what to expect from others.

But creating structure doesn’t ensure success. Otherwise, how would companies like Valve and Zappos stay in business? If you present people with problems to solve, or ways to show off their talents, they might just perform and do what they need to do to get the job done – whether you create those structures and hierarchies and bureaucracy and reporting structures or not.

Thoughts from Places: Crime & Death in La Paz

Bolivia is something of a mystery, but not because it’s especially mysterious. Not a whole lot of news from the poorest corner of South America really filters up to us here in US, aside from the occasional WTF curiosity. So when I traveled there recently, I had a lot of questions. What could I expect from a two week jaunt through this relatively unexplored but supposedly remarkable place that (literally) exists on another plane?

I was glued to the window as we flew over Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world.*


Landing in La Paz was an unlike any experience I’ve ever had. At over 13,000 feet, El Alto International Airport is the highest international airport in the world* and the thin air makes landing a hair-raising experience that causes the plane and shudder and sway side to side for what feels like an eternity.

My freak out must have been audible. Not long after landing, a gentleman from Chicago introduced himself and we started discussing travel plans. He had received a research grant and was doing an extended tour of South America. He had just come from Peru where he had met a woman told him about Bolivian thieves who cut open her pockets in order to steal her iPhone. He then decided to recite all of the terrible things he had read about in the Lonely Planet, and looked to be having a serious attack of nerves. I tried to calm him down by telling him that the violent crime rate was relatively low by South American standards, but that didn’t seem to do much for him. Maybe if I showed him the Wikipedia page, he would’ve believed me.

Thankfully, I had thought to fill out our visa application forms ahead of time, which meant we were able to speed through immigration and leave our worried friend behind.

La Paz itself is a mind-boggling sight at first glance.


Imagine a city built within the Grand Canyon, with downtown at the bottom while the poor neighborhoods cling to the canyon walls. In a country of such high altitude, the most expensive real estate is where the oxygen is.

Walking the streets of a foreign country on the first day is inevitably one of unease and wariness, partly due to jet-lag and partly due to the sensory overload that comes from being in a place that’s unfamiliar. But I was especially hypersensitive now that my friend on the plane had given me a crash-course reminder on the “Dangers” section of the Lonely Planet.


As often happens, my fears were overblown. Instead of trying to slash my pockets, all La Pazians (La Pazites?) were too busy with their own concerns. In a city of 2.3 million people and not enough oxygen to go around, who has the energy to bother the tourists?

Documenting, researching, and seeking out information before jumping into something is vital. There’s nothing more valuable before embarking on an endeavor than simply making yourself mindful of all the things that could go wrong. But there’s diminishing returns after a certain point. If you’ve found yourself googling “what can kill you in bolivia” at 2am, you’re probably doing yourself more harm than good.

*Bolivia has a lot of things that are the “highest in the world.” In Juan de Recacoechea’s ridiculous crime novel American Visa (Down and Out in La Paz would’ve been a more appropriate title, IMHO), the main character calls this Bolivia’s national consolation: “It’s compensation for our frustrations.”

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: