Photo by David Ausserhofer (CC licensed)
For the third year in row I attended the Online EDUCA in Berlin. This learning technology event is attended by more than 2000 people from over a hundred countries. The timing and the location of the event are ideal: it is a sweet train journey away from Amsterdam and the end of the year is good time for reflecting on the past year and looking forward to the next. This year’s snow definitely added to its charm!
This post has some of my chronological notes, reflections, vendor descriptions and random thoughts on the conference. My apologies for its length (check out my tweets about the event for a much shorter and more random summary).
My first stop of the conference was the STELLAR stand, among other things creators of the Teleurope website. Caroline Windrum wanted to get some input for her session later in the conference. She was looking for ideas on how to bridge the gap between academic research institutions and commercial businesses. What things could universities do and what could corporations do differently to make these partnerships more successful? I have written before on the gap that I perceive between the academic and the corporate world. One thing that I think universities could do is to “productize” more. Businesses want to buy finished products, they are not comfortable buying something that is still maturing. Many businesses do not want to be early adopter in areas that are not their core competence. If universities could make it easier for their young researchers (i.e. students) to start a business and start shipping products it would be helpful.
The opening plenary session had three speakers. Talal Abu-Ghazaleh, chairman of the UN Global Alliance, shared some of his thoughts on education (one of the eight Millenium Development Goals). He wanted us all to check out the MDG enabler, a “GPS” for development that will be launched halfway December. The GPS actually turned out to be an oft-used metaphor in the conference. Clark Quinn called the GPS an excellent example of mobile performance support and A New Spring prominently features a GPS in their marketing materials.
Next in line was Adrian Sannier from Pearson (a sponsored keynote). He is one of those speakers that shouts at his audience to try and convey his excitement. Luckily for us he did not cross the Steve Ballmer line. His opening question was whether we are disappointed in the future. Isn’t it shocking that after all these years of talking about it we still have not managed to fundamentally change education? According to Sannier, we now have three technological superpowers that should change the way we learn:
- We are telepathic as we can instantly transmit our thoughts to other human beings at a distance,
- we now all have photographic memories with perfect fidelity,
- and we have total recall with access to all information everywhere.
These technologies will not change anything unless we have a corresponding change in culture. The “one instructor-one class paradigm” has not yet been broken. Sannier implored us to work toward three cultural changes (“the technology piece is over, it is all about the culture now”):
- Turn education into a team sport. Can you imagine a television show being created by a single person? Why do we accept all these faculty members working completely individually?
- Let’s start keeping score. Currently it is ok to look at the results of a student, but not of a faculty member.
- Fix what is broken. We have been sensitive for many years, now it is time to get agressive.
Sannies speech ended with “Step forward and make the culture change, feel the love, thank you very much”. Although the message was quite simplistic in many ways, the emphasis on culture was something that came back again and again during the conference. More on that below (in the paragraph on Bersin).
The final speaker of the session was former Financial Times editor and consultant on innovation and strategy Charles Leadbeater. His talked was titled “Learning from the Extremes”. According to him the route to radical innovation is not starting at the best and then copying that. “Radical innovation usually comes from the margins: social entrepreneurs and the hardest to reach.” As your vantage point determines what you can see he decided to travel the world and go where the need is the greatest and the resources the least. There were three things he learned from his travels:
- Everywhere he went people told him: education + technology = hope
- Everywhere he went education was like a religion (there is global belief in education
- All around the world everyone accepts that education is dysfunctional
So how can this be changed? There are two types of innovation (sustaining and disruptive) and two educational domains (formal and informal). They produce four ways forward:
Four ways to innovate
It is relatively easy and essential to improve education, but it is not enough. We can also reinvent: there are many examples of new types of schools whose teaching philosophies can generally be summarised as “Learning with and by and not to and from”. One of the obstacles of this approach is that it is very important what happens outside of school too. This leads to a supplemental strategy where schools are working with communities and where social and emotional conditions for learning are also looked at. The most promising way to innovate is the transformation to entirely new ways (here Leadbeater mentions Mitra’s infamous hole in the wall experiment). The characteristics of these new ways are:
- Pull not push
- Motivation is key: extrinsic and intrinsic
- Learning through… (not schools, but things like music)
- Different people, technologies, places for learning
He then focused on the learning habitats of the future using another interesting conceptual model. The future can be high on systems or low on systems and these systems can have high empathy or low empathy. Some examples:
Empathy and systems
Highly systematic and higly empathetic are where we want to be, allowing us to finally deliver intimacy at scale.
The lecture capturing outfit Presentations 2Go had a strong presence at the event. They demonstrated their next version of the software and provided a live-stream of the plenary sessions and many of the sessions in the business track. You can view the captured version of these talks here.
Tobbi eye tracking hard- and software
Tobii demo-ed their hard- and software solution for tracking people’s interactions with a screen through watching their eyes. In the past people had to have their face strapped into an immobile position for the hardware to determine where somebody was looking. Now this can be done completely dynamically. I sat in front of a screen which immediately picked up my eyes as two green dots. I closed my left eye and one dot was gone. After a calibration exercise I had to do a little test. Tobii’s software allows you to create tests with certain tasks (like looking at a webpage, or answering a question). The results of multiple test subjects can be aggregated to create heat map like overlays of where people looked at what microsecond.
This type of technology is hugely useful, but not often used in the educational world. Education is opinion-driven, not data-driven and that is a real shame. I would love for big IT projects to not only do “testing” against the business requirements, but also do UX testing with these types of technologies. The technology isn’t cheap: a simple 60Hz setup starts at around €25.000.
Social contextualization of content
Online EDUCA allows people to organize Special Interest Group (SIG) lunches. I was the host of one about the “Social Contextualisation of Content”. Recent developments like Facebook’s opening of the social graphs of their users and Amazon’s aggregated Kindle highlights have shown me very clearly that all our interactions with any type of content (books, magazines, videos and also learning content) will soon be augmented by a social layer. The first time I noticed the power of this idea was when I logged into Facebook while playing the Bejewelled iPhone game: suddenly I wasn’t trying to beat global highscores (how the hell can they score that 50 times as high as me), instead I was trying to beat my family and friends. In a world where Google will be gamed, what is more useful than knowing the thoughts of your friend and colleagues about products, ideas and information?
The lunch unfortunately did not really progress my ideas on this topic, but Olaf Dierker from the TeleLearn-Akademie did have some interesting examples of large US-based publishers who are creating social networks around course books. I’ll update this post with some URLs as soon as I get them from Olaf.
Improving business impact using mobile learning
This was a very full session. Mobile learning apparently is a topic that is on many people’s minds. First up was Erica Wadley from Microsoft. She was in a situation where there were endless amounts of 60-90 minute online courses that could only be accessed by turning on a corporate laptop, logging in, going to the Learning Management System, logging in again and searching for the course you need. Her audience was incredibly mobile and busy. They wanted access anywhere and anytime. She aligned her effort to go to a mobile solution with an internal effort to create a YouTube-like site for Microsoft. The videos from this site can be pushed to any mobile device.
Making this a successful change did require a big culture change (see, there it is again!). She branded her project strongly, did a lot of evangelising and educated people on how to create and use these materials. She created reward programs for usage of the system and found early adopters (“look for the bloggers”) who she equipped with a fourty dollar “podcasting in a box” kit. The results? 70% of the content is now built by the right people and she showed a very impressive graph with the uptake of mobile content consumption versus traditional elearning consumption. Proofing ROI therefore wasn’t a hard question.
One other idea I picked up from Erica was to have a newsletter that consists of nothing but pictures. A nice challenge that I might pick up whenever next I have send something out.
Adam Salkeld from Tinopolis talked about a mobile course his company had made teaching people some soft-skills around communication. They relied heavily on well produced and very funny videos (which ironically for a media production company didn’t play from his slides). He shared some of their lessons around the difficulties of trying to make it the same for every platform (in the end they dropped the Blackberry) and advised us to keep it simple when in doubt.
Clark Quinn, author of the forthcoming Designing mLearning book, gave a much more conceptual talk titled “Harnessing Magic, mLearning for Business Impact”. All mobile devices share the fact that they are a computing device that can have inputs, have output, are connected and have sensors. Mobile devices are accessed way more in a single day then traditional laptop or desktop computers, but have much shorter session times. When you pick up a device you are accessorizing your brain allowing the four C’s of mobile (content, compute, capture and communicate) to help you in your performance.
Battle of the bloggers
IBM’s Bert De Coutere, author of the fabulous Homo Competens book, kindly invited me as one of the three bloggers (Tom Wanbeke and John Traxler were the others) in this year’s “Battle of the Bloggers” session on the graveyard of learning. His goal was to answer the following question: What are the concepts, theories, best practices or trends in the land of the learning that we will declare dead and send to the heaven or hell they belong in? The voting technology of Shakespeak (a possible interesting alternative to PollEverywhere for interactive real-time audience voting and response) allowed the “Just don’t get the microphone near my face” OEB audience to participate in the discussion.
I think the session was more entertaining than insightful (the three bloggers were probably too like-minded), but we still got very positive responses afterwards. In about an hour we talked about Podcasting for Learning (alive), Mobile Learning Content (alive, with some provisos), Learning Styles (dead), Diplomas and Certification (very much alive) and ADDIE (most of the audience had never heard about this: dead).
Josh Bersin talked about what he calls a “High-Impact Learning Culture”, which according to him is the next “big thing” in corporate training.
First let me state that I have love-hate relationship with companies like Bersin. Many large corporations look to analysts like this for guidance in their decision making processes. They presumably to this to beat their competition. I have a common sense approach to this: if you want to do something better than other companies, you will have to do something different than other companies. By virtue of all companies listening to the same analysts, the analysts have a homogenizing effect. Reading Bersin reports will therefore not drive your innovation. Bersin’s Enterprise Learning and Talent Management 2011: Predictions for the Coming Year – Building the Borderless Workplace is a good example. The ten predictions in there (e.g. “Innovation, Empowerment and Learning Culture Will Become Common Themes for Talent Management and Business Growth”, “Informal and Contineous Learning Will Continue to Transform Corporate L&D, and Will Drive Further Adoption of Internal Social Networking” or “Companies Will Start to Unravel and Replace Their 20-Plus Years of Investment in HRMS Systems – And Evolve to SaaS and More Modern Systems for Core HR Management”) are all very likely to occur in the next year, but the predictions itself should not be underestimated as part of the cause for them becoming the truth. Analysis will show good practice and maybe best practice, but it will not show you next practice (thank you Jay Cross for that last one).
That said, Josh Bersin did deliver a very interesting and engaging talk. He started with the current big focus on innovation as a consequence of the downsizing of the last year or so (my current role is probably a consequence of that) and the real struggle to hire talent while most companies are suffering from the aging of their workforce. He used Chevron as an example: 40% of their workforce have been with the company for more than 25 years and senior production engineers take 5-7 years before they are fully skilled up. How do we bridge that gap?
According to Bersin skill specilization is now driving value. High performing organizations realize they have to have specialists. Accenture for example has a hard time to continue their expansive business model. It is not good enough anymore to train their relatively smart generalists with some business skills and put them to work at a client. Customers now expect to procure world class experts.
He then went on to share an insightful result from his research: development planning is one of the key indicators for good performance (using median revenue per employee as a performance indicator). Real learning and developing is informal. If you ask people how they learned to do their job their answer is always something informal. Bersin sees this as an opportunity for the renaissance of the learning and development profession.
Is it important for organizations to have a true learning culture. Learning culture is the collective set of organizational values, processes and practices that encourages individuals and the organization to contineously increase knowledge, competence and performance. The Bersin team brainstormed and got to 40 practices that are manifestions of culture and correlated these with eight business performance indicators to get some very interesting results. The 40 practices are divided into six “families” of cultural practice:
- Building trust (it is important for people to be able to share what doesn’t work, “knowledge can be shared without political risk”)
- Demonstrating value of learning (you will always find people that are passionate about developing themselves, you have to honour and value that)
- Knowledge sharing (traditional instructional design is too slow for many things)
- Empowering employees (people need to have control over their jobs, autonomy, Microsoft is suffering from these problems currently: people are really confused as to how decisions are made)
- Learning as a process
- Encouraging reflection (giving people time to think about what they have learned)
The five practices with the highest impact are:
- Leaders are open to “bad news”.
- Asking questions is encouraged.
- Decision-making processes are clearly defined throughout the company.
- Employees are frequently given tasks or projects beyond their current knowledge or skill level in order to stretch them developmentally.
- Employees have influence over which job tasks are assigned to them.
The bottom line of the research is that innovation and business success depend heavily on a learning culture. This culture can be built taking the following into account:
- New roles and skills for Learning & Development (content manager, community manager, connection manager, performance consultant)
- New reward and policy systems (promoting and rewarding knowledge sharing)
- Leadership is critical to success (of the 40 practices 33 are owned by line management and senior leadership, only 7 are in the hands of the L&D organization).
I would love to get my hands on this research and study the research methodology. If this is indeed solid, then it should be a huge driver for the ambition to change.
Balancing individual and organization learning
This session was a bit disappointing to me. It was very traditional in its form and the chair did his utmost best to turn it into an ELIG commercial. Some choice quotes:
Paul Hunter told us that individuals are members of various communities both in an out of “work”. Your organisation is a collection of communities. Learning happens in communities across boundaries. Learning happens through individuals bringing their outside community in.
Bersin spoke again about the impending retirement of older workers and senior executives and how this is still a really big problem for companies. He sees an opportunity for stronger alumni networks: allowing people to scale down while still being involved.
Martti Raevaara is Vice President of the Aalto University: where science and art meet technology and business. This is an innovation university built in 3 years. They don’t compete with their salaries, but with an inspiring environment. All curricula must be based on future scenarios and competencies with enough flexibility for new studies.
Carin Martell from Exact Learning Solutions was there “to increase the diversity aspect of the panel” (which I thought was an insensitive and unnecessary statement). Her talk was very much focused on the tool that she was there to promote, but she had one brilliant example that caught my eye: the Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok. This hospital has no waiting lists and treats over 500.000 “healthcare tourists” each year. They can only do this by staying at the forefront of medical science. Do yourself a favour and look at their pricelists to realise that we are doing something wrong somewhere.
Working smarter with learning networks
The Internet Time Alliance hosted this session in which they could share their ideas about “working smarter”. For me it is interesting to track the way that their thinking has evolved since last year. Jay Cross does not talk about “learnscapes” anymore, he now calls it “workscapes”. Charles Jennings talks about “real learning” to battle the “conspiracy of convenience”. Harold Jarche links where and how work will be done to the Cynefin framework: anything that is simple is being automated, if the work is complicated the work will be pushed to countries with low labour cost (remember the hospital?). Complex work requires creativity, passion, specialisation and is what we need to start focusing on (this aligns with what Josh Bersin was saying).
Jay Cross then made a very good point: we need to stop judging technology without giving it a try. You cannot have a sensible opinion about something that you haven’t experienced. As an innovation manager that is something that I am convinced of too.
Another interesting concept that I picked up in the session was the “social media cigarette break”. Many organizations don’t allow people access to tools like Facebook and Twitter, cutting people off from their valuable networks. This forces people to take a break from their corporate PC’s and use Twitter on their smartphone in the toilet if they want to find out something quick using their social network. An absurd situation.
At the end of the session I had an interesting chat with Clark Quinn who is a former student of Donald Norman (one of my heroes). We talked about the appaling state of design understanding in the learning function and I shared my feeling that we don’t do enough engineering of the environment of the employee to get the behaviours we want. When we want to change how somebody does their job, we always try to intervene at the level of the individual, rather than in their environment.
Winner of the best learning game
Through Twitter (I wasn’t in the session) I learned that the winner of the best learning game award was Enercities. I have put it on my list of things to look at and might report on it in the near future.
The importance of decent wifi
The Internet connection during the event wasn’t optimal. There were many moments where the wireless connection just wasn’t working for me. I really felt dismembered at those times. How was I to enhance and contexualize the information I was hearing? I cannot be the only one who expects a flawless connection when they come to a conference and I do hope that ICWE will manage to get this sorted next year.
All in all this event has shown that it is worthwile coming back year after year. There is no other way to get connected to as many new ideas and people in such a short time. Where else would one meet the former world champion in Pooh Sticks?