Panic at 29,000ft, or Learning Anxiety

Sorry to bore you all with another story about flying. However, it is healthier for my marriage if I talk about it here, rather than with my husband (who is really, really, tired of hearing about how each flight was worse than the last). Please indulge me a bit.

Last week, I went to the Degree LENS conference - always a crowd-pleaser, with excellent keynotes, curated conversations and plenty of time to network with smart people. Two notables were: Tim Munden, CLO at Unilever, and Barry Murphy, Global Learning Lead at AirBnB. The former was giving me a steady dopamine rush talking about marketing and learning, whilst the latter told my absolute favourite L&D bedtime story: he turned off his LMS and barely anyone noticed or cared. In conclusion, it was a worthwhile event and many vodka and sodas were imbibed in good company.

Of course, to get to NYC from Toronto, I had to fly. The planes are generally of an okay size on that route, so I booked the largest and made my way to the Big Apple, with some, but not a lot nervous energy (well, no more than usual). As my travel luck would have it, there was a thunderstorm. Not just any storm, but one prompting a flood advisory for Manhattan. Fun times.

Long story short: I survived the flight by doing a new move I call the starfish, which is one arm bracing against the window, the other gripping the top of the seat in front of me, and each leg in an iron grip against the legs of my chair. My FitBit tracked my heart rate at 152 BPM.

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I’m sure 2 hours and 37 minutes in the cardio zone is a record for someone only sitting in a chair, but I have some undiscovered talents.

Beyond sharing my pain, this experience makes me reflect on two themes currently rattling around in my head about L&D: emotion in learning, and new skillsets.

I am positively obsessed with understanding flight and turbulence. To me, knowledge is power. I read aviation articles and watch videos explaining turbulence (even ones built in GoAnimate). My personal hero is Sully, who famously saved his crew and passengers during a crash landing on the Hudson. His blog is bookmarked. PilotPatrick? Yep, I am subscribed.

So with all of this information, why can I not make the leap to end my flying anxiety? Rationally, I know turbulence is just like waves in the ocean and cannot possibly rip the wings from a plane….incidentally, I also hate boats #justsayin. Nervousness stubbornly prevails.

Learning is emotional. Making the leap from acquiring a skill and consistently applying it is just as much a physical as a mental skill. Things like anxiety, and fear, can play a large part. Likewise, the buzz on the L&D street is all about the skills gap. Every presentation these days has a slide with some snazzy metric on how 83% of people do not have the skills for the jobs of 2025, or half of the jobs will no longer exist in 13 months, according to Wall or Sesame Street. All of these are framed as business and profit issues….and they are.

However, what about the end learner whose very income depends on constantly learning, lest the very real fear of being terminated? Imagine the anxiety for workers who have to rely on the efforts of L&D departments to stay employable? That alone negatively impacts the ability to absorb content.

There is a great risk for the learning profession to become self-defeating if we focus solely on the ROI and business outcomes. Yes, those results are how we get paid and win awards, but consider the sins we inflict upon learners for the sake of stakeholders or regulatory bodies. Everything from lockstepping, to legal jargon, to complex navigation, or pointless tests, prevent the employee from getting what they need to simply stay relevant in an increasingly gig economy.

To add to the heebie-jeebies, L&D is not immune to the need to upskill. I have done a number of digital learning transformations and as much as I hate to reveal this, not every employee makes it through. I do not relish these decisions and for all of my cynicism, they keep me awake at night. Unfortunately, there are many once highly sought-after and valued skills which are now relics. I do not need an instructional designer who can write learning objectives. I need a journalist who can interview a SME and write an engaging story in under four hours. Instead of a Storyline developer, I need a videographer to capture user-generated content, or a data scientist to decode learner behaviour and discover predictive analytics. It’s painful, but true.

I will probably never get over my fear of flying. Some have suggested Ativan, but this only removes my filter so I make awkward remarks with border officials (not good) and go on iTunes sprees, which explains Bananrama on my iPhone. I continue to white-knuckle my way around the world. And why? Because it is a part of my job. Yes, I am very grateful for the opportunities I have had and to do the things I do. It is a privilege. Easy? Not always. And I am not alone.

Millions of employees are faced with their own skyrocketing levels of stress and so much depends on the means of an individual to upskill quickly, or be replaced. We may be in the business of L&D, but we have the tools to keep people employed, if we behave responsibly. Apply this lens to your next project. Push back hard on your SMEs and stakeholders who want to cram all and sundry into bloated projects. Be ruthless defending the rights of an already over-taxed employee trying to stay relevant. Do better.

Learning Triage

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It is no secret flying is my kryptonite. I would personally prefer to build 1,000 “click next to continue” lockstepped elearning modules with a SME from hell, than board a plane. Unfortunately, the universe does not operate this way and sometimes I must join the not-so-clear-blue skies.

I had such a scenario a few weeks back flying home from the TICE Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina (great event, BTW – mark your calendars for next year!). It would appear Air Canada only flies tiny 12 row planes from Toronto to NC. To make matter worse, according to my turbulence app, our route was rapidly filling up with little orange triangles, indicating choppy air ahead. (Side plug for fellow nervous fliers: this turbulence app tracks real time forecasts from pilots AND you can place it on your tray during a flight and it will measure G-force during those bumps).

So, what’s a girl to do? Well, I hit the duty free. My plan was to get some vodka, make a little drinkie and sip on that should things not go smoothly. I picked out some Grey Goose (might as well go high end), paid, and waited for the woman behind the counter to pass me my purchase. Only she did not. Instead, she explained, “oh, you won’t get this until Toronto. People get drunk on flights”. Firstly, that was a bit harsh and judgmental. At most, I was going to have two ounces. Secondly, fine, I could see her point.

I went back to my gate and approached the flight attendant explaining my fear of hurdling 38,000 ft into the air in a soda can. She gave me a steely look and with a lovely Southern drawl said, “This is how it is gonna go down, honey. When that plane touches the tarmac, you have exactly ten minutes before the passengers deplane and you board. When I wave at you, there’s a bar in the next terminal. You figure out the rest”. I nodded solemnly and when she gave the signal, I took my cash and ran. In three minutes I chugged my glass of wine and made it back in time to board (I also ran into a fellow conference attendee which was super awkward considering I was gulping a Sauvignon Blanc).

The flight was surprisingly smooth, but grey skies were ahead. As I pulled down my luggage, I accidentally threw out my back. As in, searing pain and paralytic muscle spasms. I hobbled to the terminal, naively believing I could walk it off but no such luck. I collapsed in front of an airport staff member who poured me into a wheelchair.

As luck would have it, my helpful flight attendant saw me, but was suddenly not so friendly. With a stern side-eye, she asked me how much I had to drink. I protested, “one glass of wine”. My case was not helped when the porter handed me a 1 litre bottle of vodka and said, “You forgot your duty free, ma’am”. I have had many feel-sorry-for-myself moments, but being wheeled through customs in agony and tears, clutching a bottle of booze, missing an earring, and getting eye rolls from flight staff, ranks high.

So why the story? Well, I ended up in A&E and was given an amazing injection which sent me on quite a trip. During this happy time, I started ruminating on how I once transformed a learning project intake process to run like an emergency room triage…because I am that weird. Now that I am up and mobile thanks to physio, I thought it might be worth sharing. That and I still want to prove I was not paralytic drunk in an airport.

For years, I have hated building the annual learning plan. Mostly because it involves the creation of some large-scale learning curriculum on one of the follow favourites: coaching, project management, leadership, or innovation. If you truly believe you have something not already taught in the billions of pieces of learning content on these topics, then get thee to a TEDTalk. Curate, my friends.

The other reason the annual plan frustrates me is because it is usually based on the metric of proving L&D is producing more with less.

Year upon year, we deliver charts on increasing number of learning hours and courses taken, as we make our departments leaner. This makes stakeholders happy, but in the age of digital, our seat times should be decreasing, not increasing. We should be ditching the courses and leveraging faster modalities like video, articles, and infographics. These are fuzzier to plan for, but far more effective. Unfortunately, fuzzy does not please bean counters.

Lastly, shit happens. Sure, you can have annual goals, but this does not prepare one for the inevitable unknowns. These require agility and the ability to pivot. L&D departments who must prove their worth are hesitant to change course lest it negatively impact their end-of-year story to the stakeholders…even when it is the right thing for the business. It is simply bad press to not deliver against goals. It is how instructional designers get told, “happy trails”.

The solution for us was a triage. In an ER, cases are assessed by a nurse who judges the severity and initial complexity of the treatment required. In our team, we started with an intake site. Ours was based in Workfront, which is a magical tool. Business partners submit initial details about a potential learning requirement based on high-level performance consulting. These were then assessed by what we called, Learning Triage, for urgency, risk, and impact. For example, the request could be cardiac arrest regulatory breech requiring immediately attention, or a case of the sniffles because someone wants a course on a process adjustment (which for the record, should never, ever, be a course, but an infographic or communication, thank you very much).

So why did this work? For one thing, we could prioritise daily work as the business changed. Secondly, because we had Workfront (made from unicorn sparkles) we had real time metrics on utilisation and capacity. Basically, we could see what nurses and doctors were available to treat the learning patients and align accordingly. As a bonus, because this was an international organisation with a federated model, we could rapidly identify what I called epidemics: these were multiple requests for the same learning need from several lines of business. Without a centralised triage, each unit would have invested time treating the infection without identifying the outbreak source, so to speak. Lastly, we became very quick at identifying what requests were not learning, but communications or marketing. This cut about 50% of our traffic and made for better outcomes.

Some things did not work. Business lines were increasingly frustrated we were not delivering bespoke courses for every request. To stretch the metaphor, overuse of antibiotics is dangerous, and so is Storyline and SCORM for every learning intervention. We had to use a lot of data and metrics to prove other solutions were just as effective, which was a struggle at time. For more information about using data in performance consulting conversations, click here.

Likewise, our end of year metrics were not as clean. We had to demonstrate to stakeholders completions and assessments were not as valuable as engagement levels. To be honest, I am not certain we really bridged that gap. But when an infographic is viewed, liked, and shared, a thousand times, and people are going back to it several times, I truly believe we are empowering our audiences better than any course hidden on an LMS.

Despite all of this, I would still use the triage model before annual planning in a heartbeat. Too often L&D is brought to the table late and we are unable to respond quickly. Once we ditch the courses as the only cure, leverage agile management of our resources, and have the fortitude to say no when the treatment will not benefit the patient, then we become effective partners. If not, we are the dreaded under appreciated cost centre.

As for my back, I have returned to my 20K steps a day (thanks Fitbit) although I have yet to be able to wear high heels. This is particularly annoying because I am 5’2” on a good day. Yet this whole episode made me think a lot about my health and the importance of being more mindful. Perhaps this is the real lesson. Keep stretching, kids.

Happy Śmigus-dyngus!

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While you were busy celebrating Easter, Passover, or Holi, you could be forgiven for forgetting the most glorious and humble of holidays: Śmigus-dyngus. Now, many have accused me of making this up, which is understandable given the name, but I assure you I do not jest.

Śmigus-dyngus, or Wet Monday (aka: lany poniedziałek; try saying that three times fast) is the Polish Easter Monday tradition when boys try and drench girls with water and slap them with pussy willows. For those interested in equal opportunity, the ladies get their chance the next day, although it has basically become a free for all in recent years; a massive water fight in the streets, no matter the temperature.

I experienced my first Śmigus-dyngus when I taught in Poland. Yes, while my friends were off earning money teaching in Japan, or sunning themselves in Thailand, I went to the appealing Valhalla of Northern Poland.

Despite being raised by a Polish mother and babcia, Śmigus-dyngus was not practiced in our home. This is surprising given their love of all things that remind me who is really in charge. Which then gets me to thinking: how are ideas spread?

Years ago, the traditional Jack-o’-Lantern had triangles for eyes and nose, with a wide open mouth. Cue the internet and suddenly every carved pumpkin is inspired by Pinterest and Instagram worthy! People create and share carving tips and tricks. Not only that, Hallowe’en is no longer a North American phenomenon. I was surprised to see it celebrated in Poland and Germany, when just a decade ago, it was not. Although, I do appreciate the appeal of free candy versus a drenching of cold water.

So how do we make this type of experience in learning? In global companies, how do we share and embed concepts and methodology? Unfortunately, we are rarely subtle in our industry. Everything obvious and stark for learners: you will learn X; pass this test! Even covered in mandatory sauce and cut up into microlearning bits, the experience is unappetising. I suppose this comes from ensuring clarity and purpose for the audience, but what if your neighbourhood enforced a carved pumpkin mandate? Would you even bother putting in the effort or just do the minimum and get on with it?

Yes, there are times when regulatory environments make content mandatory, but use sparingly. No one likes to be ordered what to do. Fit the content into the everyday workflow, even if it means breaking it free from the LMS, which you should be doing anyway.

Ideas also seem to spread faster when they are spoken about by peers or influencers. In the case of the pumpkins, I am sure the root was an article by Martha Stewart, and Hallowe’en likely spread globally via the social posts of celebrities trick or treating in cat costumes. So rather than a talking-head CEO video, look at who your audience gravitates toward. See if you can utilize them to spread your message. One caveat: be cautious with this tactic. No one likes a shill and you could lose credibility, or worse, your influencer will. It takes a long time to build trust in a virtual relationship. Be authentic.

Last tip is to be frequent. I know I mentioned subtlety before and this would seem dichotomous, but hear me out. People rarely change behaviours after seeing something once. In marketing, the metric is people rarely have brand engagement even after five encounters. In learning, we build one learning asset and that is it. Maybe there is an LMS generated email, or a communication piece, but it still makes the content too easy to ignore.

Consider other ways to infiltrate the audience other than the elearning module: screensavers, articles, widgets, etc. In fact, get rid of elearning modules all together in favour of learning campaigns and experiences, but that is another blog post.

I accept I cannot run down the streets of Toronto throwing buckets of water at people today, but all is not lost. Buffalo, NY, boasts the largest Dyngus Day outside of Poland. For the price of a pussy willow pass ticket, you get all you can consume vodka, pierogi, and polka. This is so on my bucket list. If not, I will just have to spend next year in Krakow!

Happy Śmigus-dyngus! (And yes, I made those eggs in the photo).

Quick Last 2017 Post

Christmas is finally over, and to all of my friends, who went out of their way to send me cards with extra glitter, just know that revenge is a dish best served cold…or a candy dish with smarties and skittles mixed together. Don’t test me.

As I was putting away my one Christmas decoration, I started thinking about 2017. For me personally, this year signalled a lot more speaking engagements and connecting with an entirely new calibre of creative thinkers in the L&D space. Regarding the former, those events were not by my efforts, but rather by invitation which indicates there is a widening space for new ways of looking at learning. As for the latter, I have a massive appreciation to all you undercover learning renegades, and you know who you are. The covert Skype conversations, WhatsApp groups, and off-the-record coffee talks, are so immensely valuable. In 2015 I wanted to run away screaming from the industry. Not now. Thank you.

So what is changing? Well, I do not think there are any real spoiler alerts for the new year. We have the usual suspects of curation, adaptive learning, personalisation, and so forth. I will not write about any of those. Last year, I thought we would see the end of the traditional LMS. Whilst it did not happen in 2017, it is beginning. The way people access learning is more important than the actual content. Eleven click epic searches on an LMS render modules useless.

As for 2018, my personal prediction is not remarkable, but something I have been banging on about for quite some time: we will no longer measure digital learning in terms of completions, but engagement and sentiment scores.

Some have misaligned the term sentiment with the happy sheet evaluation. This is not what I mean, so perhaps I need a better term. Sentiment is a demonstration the person found the content of value. Did they share it, comment, spend a reasonable amount of time, bookmark it? All of these cues mean more than passing a test. Achieving 80% does not mean a change in behaviour. It means your learning taught someone to pass a test. If the content has high engagement, there is a better chance of adoption.

I suppose I look at it this way: when I was in high school, I had an amazing English teacher and a terrible Biology one. These factors ultimate set me up on a path of English major, when, as I have gotten older, I appreciate how much I love medicine. I read medical textbooks and watch surgeries for fun. Maybe I would not have been a doctor (a thousand would-be patients are nodding in gratitude this did not happen), but I may not have studied English Literature. My sentiment was strong towards the first teacher (who graciously tolerated my Doc Martens and surly attitude).

I 100% admit this is an over-simplification of a lot of learning and behavioural theory, but I am not seeking to replace any of that. All that still has an important place. But to get to the actual learning, we have to engage. In a digital environment, we can start to track that. But we have to measure beyond the next click and instead, how quickly they reach for that button. Yay for xAPI!

This is a pretty lack-lustre bombshell prediction, but one I hope does come true. As for what else will happen in L&D, I think the speed and momentum will accelerate quickly. I hear from so many, some in whispers, others in sidebars, that learning needs to change. These rumblings are the cracks before the earthquake. I look forward to the ground shifting.

It would not be New Years if I did not end with a few resolutions, so I here is my big one: I will personally boycott any learning content with the following graphics:

  • Bean people putting together puzzle pieces, or any variations on that theme
  • A bullseye beside learning objectives. In fact, screw both the target and LOs
  • A path or roadmap. For those old enough to remember, the Talking Heads had it right with Road to Nowhere

Happy holidays to one and all. Thank you everyone for the talking, connections, and sharing of ideas. It has been brilliant. If you are about in 2018, look for me on January 31st doing a webinar for CLO Media on Blended Learning, or find me at Learning Technologies UK, or TICE (TBD). More to come....hint, hint....

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Data - The Secret Sauce of Performance Consulting

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Oh, it is that time of year again. The seven weeks before Christmas where everything suddenly and eerily sparkles, and all the tidiness and order is replaced with bits and baubles. I know, you are not allowed to hate Christmas. I still do, but not maliciously. I mean, go crazy with your festive sweaters and tinsel (just not glitter – anyone who sends me a holiday card with glitter is an abominable person). But for me, I can do without all the disruption.

Probably my biggest dread in December is the endless parties. As a fully-formed introvert who mastered the art of the French Leave before I even knew such a thing existed, these are taxing events. My closest friends know the chance I will bail on an event increases in direct correlation to the number of guests I will not know, such is my social awkwardness. Case in point: on more than a dozen occasions I have woken up at 3AM in a cold sweat remembering my brutally embarrassing moments. For example, when I boarded a plane and wished the flight attendant a safe flight, or instead of saying “hola” or “ole” for cinco de mayo, I simply blurted, “HOLE!”. Cringe.

My lack of basic small talk skills mean I will go through extraordinary lengths to avoid face-to-face conversation with people outside of my inner circle. Email, WhatsApp, Slack, LinkedIn, Blog, Text – all fantastic ways to engage with me. Coffee? Depending on who you are, that’s pushing it. This bumbling nature means one of my least favourite L&D tasks is performance consulting.

To be clear, I am not saying performance consulting is without value. It is extremely important, and I greatly admire people who can do it well. Unfortunately, my inability to maintain a neutral face means anyone can tell when I am impatient or bored, making performance consulting conversations awkward. I do try my best, but it is just not pleasant for all parties involved.

As a result, I have long sought out ways to streamline performance consulting conversations. Not just for my own personal and selfish comfort, but so they are more meaningful and result-orientated (and shorter!). The method I prefer to use is data. Now, all needs assessments should involve data collection and analysis. The data I am referring to are from sources we do not typically consider, but can offer insights to influence what solution, if any, we create.

In no particular order, these are the pieces of data I try to bring to any performance consulting conversation.

Intranet Search Terms

These indicate precisely what your audience is interested in and can be easily obtained by IT. Too often, I have stakeholders claiming their employees are desperate for content on “X”. Many times, this item has not even made the top 50 of search terms, in which case, the gap is dubious. Now, if content “X” is integral to the business then it means we then consider how to make the topic a priority for the audience, which is an entirely different problem. That said, a L&D leader should keep a keen eye on these trending terms. They are the canary in the coal mine to what is truly important to the learner.

Time of Day/Week Most Active

A lot of information can come out of knowing when your audience is engaging with your content. For example, spikes at lunch hours or outside office hours are intriguing. In my experience, they indicate a very eager learning culture, willing to invest their own time in their growth. However, if the content consumed is compliance-based, it may also indicate the business is not allocating enough time for people to learn. Again, an entirely different problem. Lastly, knowing when learners are most active gives you the best time to launch a new program or communicate with your audience. Follow their digital body language and engage when they are already active.

Seat Time

Stakeholders usually come to the table wanting an elearning module or a video because these are the only things they have seen in L&D. Before you have the performance consulting conversation, look at the types of videos you have and how long people actually view them. If you are using a platform like Vimeo or YouTube, you can see robust data analytics. One insight I have discovered is talking head videos tend to have shorter seat times. Likewise, if you are using xAPI, look at the data to see where learners spend most of their time or what they skip over. I have used these data points to guide stakeholders away from bloated designs because I could show evidence these would likely not yield engagement and therefore, not solve the problem. And no, making content mandatory fixes nothing.

Downloads, Views, Likes, and Shares

If you have a social collaboration platform, statistics on the engagement for posts should be readily available. Just like with the common search terms, these are indicators on whether the content is considered of value or not to the audience. Do a light comparison – do videos, infographics, or articles, have the most likes or shares? Are there differences between geographies? Just because someone viewed an item does not prove it was valuable, but sharing with peers demonstrates engagement. Use the insights to influence stakeholders towards content modalities that have proven track records in your environment.

Mobile vs. Desktop

Building for mobile is expensive. It is not just about transferring the design to a smaller screen. Content needs to be written and chunked in a unique way to make it palatable on mobile. Something I have discovered is that in some ecosystems, mobile learning is quite low in comparison to the desktop. Scarily low. There could be a variety of reasons such as no reimbursement of data usage, the LMS does not have an app, or the content is not that great on a mobile device. Whatever the reason, it is prudent to look at the uptake of mobile in an organisation before investing in the development. This is not to say stop building mobile. It simply means use data to make wiser design decisions.

There are loads of other ways to use data. This is just the skinny version. If you are keen to learn more, download my free eBook “Data-Driven Learning Design”, or visit here for more.

As for me, it is starting to snow here in Toronto, which means the inevitable cannot be ignored. Enjoy the festivities, if they are your sort of thing. To the other introverts, stay brave. Maybe we should invent a sticker or something to tactfully indicate we would rather be reading? What about a polite, “Thank you in advance for not inviting me” button? That would mean getting together to collaborate, so best give it a swerve.

And here's my grade one report card. I appreciate the underline by my teacher.

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So Much Stuff!

It has been an intense few months here in the Loriland of L&D! Lots of talks, webinars, and overall great connections with some very smart people! Thanks for all of the conversations (and vodka + sodas). 

Here's a list of places I have been, as well as where you can find me in the future!

Degreed Lens

O.M.G. This was a fantabulous conference with some of the very smartest people in the industry. I got to meet quite a few of my heroes and was not disappointed. I also managed to finally get an ubiquitous "me-as-presenter-see-my-big-slides-behind-me" photo. You can see my presentation, but for much better viewing, I highly recommend the keynote by Dan Lyons. Insightful, gregariously funny, and simply real, Dan was my personal highlight.

Learning While Working Podcast

I was super-excited when Robin Petterd contacted me for his excellent podcast "Learning While Working". I have been a long-time fan and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation, although I think you can hear the faint snores of my cat in the background. Clearly, she was not as interested. Robin - thanks for the opportunity!

Human Capital Institute - It's Time to Embrace the Digital Revolution Webcast

Some of the most frustrating things for me to hear are, "this is just the start of journey", or "evolution takes time", or "we're not quite there yet, but we will be". Argh! To me, these are just platitudes that really mean, "we are not interested in changing and will only do so when everyone else makes us". That is why it was so refreshing to speak with Jeff Gothelf, Organizational Designer and author of Sense and Respond, and Doug Stephen, SVP of CGS  Enterprise Learning. The topic was about the revolution that is here and now. No excuses or apologies. Listen here.

Elucidat - What's the science behind digital learning that works?

I have long enjoyed chatting with Kirstie Greany and wished we lived in the same time zone! We finally decided to capture some of the themes of our transatlantic rants into a tight webinar on November 22. You can hear the recording here.

CLO Media + Degree - Getting Started Using Learning Data to Improve Design

True confession: I did some jumpy claps when this webinar request came into my inbox. Not only do I have an active crush on the work done by Degreed, but I binge on Chief Learning Officer content (yes, I am that weird). The date is December 5...register here!  

McLean & Company - Implement Curated Learning

This is a pretty S-WEET (yes, this sweet deserves two syllables) guide to learning curation. I was excited to be a part of the research and the results are extremely impressive. Membership required to view (worth it) and preview available here.

Torrance Learning - xAPI Party

Normally the word party would be a deal-breaker for this socially awkward non-butterfly, but I could not resist anything to do with xAPI and the amazing Megan Torrance. It is a phenomenal event for the novice and expert alike. What could be more fun than data, xAPI, and some cool L&D people? Join us here.

Well, I *think* this is everything so far. Phew! Let me know if you are attending any of the above. Also, if you cannot attend any of the above and just want to talk L&D, leave a comment and let's chat.

In the meantime, here's #1 on my playlist. Play it loudly.

Stop That, Try This: Tips to Improve Your Digital Learning Experiences

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I am just coming back to surface after a lovely long weekend. In fact, it was Thanksgiving here in Canada, which is a bit like the same holiday in the U.S., except much smaller, with added maple syrup, as we wait for the first polar bear sighting at dusk. I am joking about the last part, so I will say sorry. Because sorry is also what we Canadians do.

I spent some hours on Monday responding to the many who wrote to me after my last post, “Learning Vendor: Here's Why I Ignored Your Email”. I closed that article with an open call to share your work and be open to feedback. A few came forward publicly – bravery much applauded. Others were more hesitant and reached out via email. One vendor started their email with “I am scared” and described my writing as “scathing”. I prefer honest, but will defer to my husband (Update: I just asked him and he yelled down the stairs, “scathing” – noted). Still, it takes a lot to put forward your product. Thank you for your trust.

Whilst I might be forthright on my blog, I never name and shame. I also do not accept solicited endorsements because www.lori.ca is a personal endeavour. It is meant to keep my sanity in the world of L&D (and is far healthier than a 3 o’clock martini habit). Therefore, even when vendors were public about their requests for feedback, I made the decision to email my thoughts, rather than post them. After all, what I offered was an opinion, and those are like noses: everybody has one.

What I did want to share were some of the trends I saw and suggest some ways we can get out of our patterns. I have done similar posts in the past (here and here), but over and over, I see the same thing.

For me, the biggest hurdle is we are so precious about capital “L” Learning, we overlook the medium of digital. We compare and design by looking at other learning examples, instead of other digital content. This will be our downfall.

So, let’s get started…

History lessons. I am proud to have done my part in the fight to stop starting modules with a list of learning objectives. Unfortunately, the new default setting has become useless facts. I browsed through a set of modules about different project methodologies and every single one began with a) year developed; b) who developed it; and c) the country or origin. Basically, three pieces of information I do not give a toss about and do nothing to increase my knowledge of the methodology. You have wasted your crucial make-or-break intro time to engage with trivia. Think of your favourite news website – write with headlines. Put pertinent facts first; history can come later, if needed.

Hire a digital content writer. As of the time of posting this article, I am. Why? Sorry (because: Canadian) most L&D people write content as if for textbooks. It is artificial, wooden, and lacks authenticity. At one company I worked at, a humble, mid-level, employee started a brilliant one-woman blog on our internal social collaboration site. She wrote with honesty, not perfection, and yet she had 1,000+ more followers than the CEO. That’s powerful.

Filming a video? Bring in a scriptwriter. They can weave in a narrative to make your content go from contrived to thought-provoking. I know, writers do not know anything about cognitive loads or Bloom’s taxonomy. But they do write engaging copy – we can *gasp* learn from them. Read more about Authenticity here.

Don’t have the money to hire a writer? Take a few hits from their Top 40 playlist: storytelling, metaphors, and analogies. With the former, add depth to your characters (not avatars) so people can relate to your case studies and scenarios. Do they make a good paella, or take a night course in Italian? Do they play rugby or practice candle-making? The details add realism. If you are writing a course about herding cats, tell a story about when 3,000 cats were wrangled (or try this which is a brilliant example). Storytelling makes content more memorable. Use it.

As for metaphors and analogies, these speak to the very core of adult learning: context. If you can describe a difficult methodology as say, something akin to changing a tire, then you have something the audience can relate to and absorb. This is much more effective than a list of steps to memorise. Likewise, I will never forget that a blue whale’s heart is the size of a small piano. Why? Because I know the size of a piano, but would be unlikely to remember years later a whale’s heart is 5 feet long, 4 feet wide, 5 feet tall (152cm X 122cm X 152cm) and weighs about 400 pounds (181 kg). The ability to conceptualise and remember the size is more important.

Avatars. Ugh, enough already. I have banged on about these so many times, and yet, they survive better than cockroaches after nuclear fallout. No, I do not care if Squidgie the Robot gives me a thumbs-up for a correct quiz answer. Why? Because Squidgie, Patty the Customer Rep, or Hootie the Owl, are not real. Imagine if when you went to bbc.co.uk, there was a cartoon directing you to headlines. Ridiculous. Likewise, enough with stock photography of man in ill-fitting suit, or woman pointing at forehead in thought. If you really want images to compliment your content, try some free downloads at www.pixabay.com. Use sparingly.

Diversity. We can do better than John Smith and Jane Doe. If your audience cannot see themselves in the content, they will not care or engage. Now, this does not mean calling every Latin American character a token Diego or Maria, or every European Bjorn. Whilst popular names, they signal laziness to your learners. Be realistic. Also, beware of stereotyping. The shifty man with the dark hair should not always be the criminal. It could be a short, blonde woman, like me – because that is real equal opportunity (and an exciting, new, career path)! I could write a lot about this topic, but will leave you with this tool to help you out with names.

Designing learning experiences is a tough business. It would be so much easier if there was a magic formula to follow. But people are not computers that download content. We have become complacent and with the tsunami of content available, we cannot rely on our old tricks. We continue to imitate each other and whilst a form a flattery, we have lost our direction. Next time you build a piece of content, ask yourself honestly if you would go through all the leaps and bounds of an LMS to get to it. If the answer is no, try again. Be bold. Dump the formulas. Push.

Like what you read? I would be grateful for a like, share, or comment. Want more? Download my free eBook.

Learning Vendor, Here's Why I Ignored Your Email

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Sometimes I put up a post on LinkedIn that gets a little more, ahem, attention than I expected. This would be the case last month when I posted the following:

Learning Vendor: We are a creative, innovative, design-thinking, company! We are learner-centric and agile!

Me: Sounds great - can I see some of your work?

Learning Vendor: Sure! Here's a 17 minute GoAnimate video

Me: **sobs uncontrollably**

It garnered a LOT of views. As in 41,000…which initially made me a bit queasy, until I realised the comments were more than just people agreeing with my frustration. There was a healthy debate on how the standards of innovation have dropped and the perils of mass-produced content. It signalled to me that I am not alone with my cynicism in the learning industry.

Like most L&D folk, I get a dozen emails a week, and probably more than twenty InMail requests from vendors pushing their wares. The email opens with some sort of fuzzy science statistic to illicit shock (note: it does not), followed by an impressive list of clients, and then some more blah, blah, about how wonderfully bespoke and innovative they are and when is the best time to meet? (because: presumptive close!).

This is not an article about sales. Yes, I get annoyed when business development folks do not take the time to find out about my pain points and spam me. Why? Because you are wasting my time and your InMail credits. However, I doubt this practice will change any time soon and in passive-aggressive protest, all these emails go straight into the recycling bin.

So, Learning Vendor, why am I not impressed with your GoAnimate video? Precisely because it is a GoAnimate video. It is something that with a cheap license, I could build in-house. However, I would not build something in GoAnimate. Sure, it is an intuitive, rapid development software, but a) the graphics are very quickly dated; b) it looks like everyone else’s videos; and c) I get insecure when I see the impossibly tiny waists on their avatars (seriously, what happened there?). My expectation is that a vendor brings something unique; something I cannot readily develop internally. Oh, and if you are peddling VideoScribe content, you are marginally better…not by much.

I know Learning Vendor, you are trying to cut costs and keep margins low. There are other ways, my friend.

For example, we used stock video to produce vignettes on money laundering. A few people asked where we got the budget to fly to South America with a film crew. We didn’t. Using Camtasia, we threaded together purchased footage and built a narrative. Cheap? Yup. Cartoons? Nope. It also won a Brandon Hall Award, which was a pleasant bonus.

Video is not the only delivery channel where the bar can be raised. These are just a few of the sins I still see in learning content from vendors:

a)      Woman with clipboard or iPad introducing module. Okay, so points for diversity, but beyond that, this is a relic from the days when elearning was supposed to mimic the classroom. We have moved way beyond. Your content should not require an avatar to direct navigating. Instead, learning must have an intuitive UX and be written to engage. If you do not believe me about the woman, do a Google image search of Storyline+Articulate+Woman (again note the impossibly small waists – if Paris Fashion Week can ban tiny models, can’t we?). In fact, most avatars should quietly retire.

b)     Any of the following types of interactivity: spinner, Jeopardy Game, memory matching, or dice. There is no science that proves gratuitous interactivity increases retention. Secondly, branding these as gamification is false. Lastly, these are interactivities I can download from Articulate or eLearning Heroes and build internally. Admittedly these are not particularly my taste but it still comes down to a vendor bringing new ideas and skillsets. Hence why you are being engaged for work.

c)      Green screen + bad actors. These have made a comeback in the past few years and much like shoulder pads, they are not a good idea. Stilted dialogue and superimposed backdrops are simply poor experiences. There is no context for a learner to relate to, only snicker at. Likewise, if you are complaining about keeping costs down, hiring actors and renting studio space IS expensive. You would do better with a candid clip from a SME recorded on a mobile device; more authentic, less canned, cheaper.

I could go on and on with examples, but those are not important. I am also aware of the many vendors who have told me the clients are the real problem – we want high quality at a low price and quickly. I assure you I do not have expectations of Givenchy on a WalMart price tag. I want simple, well-written, intuitive, learning content.

So, what does this look like? Well, that can vary depending the content but one that I share often on the blog is www.playspent.org. This was a piece developed by an advertising agency, but one of the more effective modules I have seen. The copy is clean and engaging. The interactivity contributes, not distracts, from the learning. Lastly, the learner is at the centre of the experience. Had this been put in the hands of an L&D shop, there would have been downtrodden avatars and dozens of Next Buttons, because that’s how rapid authoring tools work.

Another favourite of mine is the “Ryan Learns Something” series by Degreed. Now, before anyone says anything, I know these were high budget and slick to produce. However, what is intriguing about these examples is the simple concept of watching someone else learn. It is the ultimate way for a learner to contextualise the content. Rather than a passive viewer, you are constantly thinking, “what would my reaction be? Would I be like Ryan?”. That is damn powerful and can be done on a smaller and more cost- effective scale. Also, with all the hype around microlearning (keep it SHORT), these videos weigh in at an obese 10-15 minutes…yet they have been viewed more than 250,000 times. EACH. Mic dropped.

Wait? I am not going to give you more examples? Nope. Mostly because I do this in other parts of the blog and because I do not have all the ideas. When I do have them, I use them to keep me employed. Also, the more I provide, the more replication. There is no magic formula or template to follow for good learning. Design is independent. You can be inspired, but also need to create.

You would think I learned my lesson after my initial viral rant, but L&D folks are the worst students. That said, I do hesitate to put up this post. I know it will result in dozens of vendor emails and calls. I am currently on contract and therefore not able to engage anyone. Translation: I am not a good lead. For real.

With that out of the way, if you still think your learning cuts the muster, then here is a challenge: share it in the comments, not via InMail. Let’s have an open and honest feedback loop with our networks. It might sting at first, but it could improve us all. Are you up for it?