Managing the Tyranny of Choice


Starbucks. I (Gillis) remember stepping out of line for ten minutes; the choice was overwhelming. I had to learn a new language. After many years I have finally honed my individual preference. At Starbucks there are 790 possible ways of ordering your drink. That's a tyranny of choice.

In blended learning, we face much the same situation - new technology, new terminology, new teaching techniques. But how do we get there, how do we put together that perfect order?

Definition of blended learning: we're not all on the same page, some people think of it as blending learning methods, others think of it as online and offline. I'll keep it simple: it is the use of any combination of learning delivery methods (electronic, print, human). And it can occur at the level of activity, course, program or institution.

Is this just the next new fad? That was my reaction, but there's something more important here. To appreciate the significance of blended learning you have to look at the evolution of learning technology. Consider where we started, with Sesame street - the question was where to put the letters on a screen and how to hold the attention of 3-year olds.

When we discovered television as a teaching tool, we went through a period of trying to teach everything with TV. I remember once a four hour video tape to teach math. Do you know how difficult that is? At the time, teachers were reluctant to bring television into the class, and were afraid it would replace them. When computers came in, we went through the same thing. Battle lines were drawn - a large contingent said you can't replace the teacher. There was a mindset that you needed to back one or the other. And the same thing happened when we got multimedia, when we got online learning. And we used it everywhere whether it was appropriate or not. But the significance of this trend is that we are liberated from this idea that we must use one or another.

This view is finally taking hold. In the last three years there have been a number of studies, in higher ed and training, where it is prediced that classroom learning will decline and learning will increase (Conference Board of Canada, use of technologies will almost double, from 13 percent to 23 percent).

The Power Tools: instructor led, and self-study. Instructor-led includes face-to-face (courses, workshops, etc), and virtual. Self-study includes print and virtual. These tools facilitate all major learning events: preparing the learner, activating learning (eg presenting material, problems to solve, etc), provide application practice, provide feedback, offer instructional help, assistance and guidance, and assess learning.

However, each tool is stronger in some of these areas and weaker in others. For example, for presenting examples, self-paced materials are stars here - because they are presentation tools. You can't put an instructor on pause, or back up and replay. But when it comes to providing feedback or guidance and help, it's hard to beat the live mentor or coach or training. It's context-sensitive situation-specific help, and it's very hard to program into a computer. It's this profile of strengths and weaknesses that you need to understand.

Meanwhile, there are precision tools. They can support formal, informal, or just-in-time learning. But none of them is rocust enought to provide learning on their own. Examples: help systems, job aids, simulations, buletin boards, listservs, buddies and study groups, etc. They can help, but they have to be used appropriately. And the basic skill here is mixing these tools to best effect. I remember, for example, coming to the realization that television cannot be used for everything. At that time, we were wasking, 'what is the best multimedia solution for learning'. And of course, there was none. But the best blend meets your learning requirements, your practical requirements, and does so at reasonable cost.

Step 1: consider your purpose. If your purpose is to build knowledge and skills, look to your power tools first. But if it is to build team skills, culture, foster networking, provide practice, then consider the classroom. If it is to provide information, then again consider the power tools. And for informal learening, support for formal learning, or performance support, then consider the precision tools.

Step 2: You can further narrow your choices by considering the structural capacity of the tools - where they are strong, where they are weak, etc. What key instructional events do they support best. For example, consider webinar technology, such as Elluminate (there is no standard terminology - you should bring your team together and create a glossary). There's also Centra, WebEx, breeze, etc. They allow you to host real-time learning events on the internet. Webinars are usually scheduled for one or two hours, and can be offered as a series to form a host.

The interactivity in a webinar usually centres around discussion and collaboration. A lot of features in the tools support this - hand raising, break-out rooms, etc. This is a power tool because it can support all these primary tasks. One of its strengths is preparing the learner, because you have an instructor that can adapt the learning. So consider:

Prepare Learner: ****
Practice and Feedback: ***
Provide Help: ****
Activate Learning: ** 1/2
Assess Learning: **

(Note the way the tool is being rated across the major learning tasks.)

So if you combine a webinar with a self-study module, then you get the best of both worlds. That's why we're blending.

Step 3: Practical Constraints - anytime and anyplace learning, launch a solution quickly, minimize devlopment and delivery quickly, scale, create a solution with short shelf-life, strong self-life, etc. Again, you can rate different technologies on these.

In our organizations we often focus so much on these practical considerations and lose focus on our learning requirements. Don't lose sight here.

Another technology: rapid e-learning (e-presentation software) - eg. Macromedia Breeze. It gives us just the information at the time we need it. In their simplest form they are simply PowerPoints with a voice recorded over. They are made especially for straight information transfer with minimum effort and cost. Look at the rating, pluses across the board. It's a good tool to include.

Step 4: Seek the blend that optimizes costs. Eg. use scalable tools, eg. DVD. Webinars are not so scalable. Large upfront costs may be justified if there is a long shelf life - eg., simulations. But minimize upfront costs when the shelf-life is short. Eg., policy updates. Or training on high-tech products. You can't go to web courses for that, but a webinar works well. Finally, use existing content, repurpose or convert to reduce development costs.

There are a lot of very simple technologies. For example, 'ask an expert'. It's simple, non-expensive, but it has considerable impact.

Keep it simple. Some experts say the more options you use, the better. I don't agree - seek the highest quality using only the learning tools that you need. If they don't add a strong learning experience, they will only add to your costs.

Example: solution developed for Amicus Bank: 6-day foundations (online). 1-2 week apprenticeship (on the job). 5-days sales training (classroom).

Example: procedural skills. Pre-test prepares learners by identifying learning needs; self-study web course presents examples, demonstrations and practice; simulation provides feedback.

Example: interpersonal skills: conference call kick-off, web modules provide foundation knowledge, active planning for on-the-job practice, checklist, live clinic or workshop with coach to do role-plays.

Example: learning circles (eg., for ethics): webinar with facilitator or host; online pre-readings or books; webinars with guest speakers; practice with local study groups; circles tackle cases, post solutiopns to a website and compare solutions; threaded discussions connect learning circles; assessment provided by colleagues; help from peers or faculty by email.

A word of caution - we often fall prey to making choices on practical considerations alone. And that has cost us. But don't lose sight of the quality of the learning experience. You can't achieve ROI without demonstrating learning impacts, and the transfer of those to the job.

Comment (by Stephen): as I was listening to this talk, I was thinking of a critique offered of my own talk offered just before, during the break, in which it was asserted that I too easily confuse learning - which is a process - with learning resources.

And so as I followed this presentation, I was wondering whether I have been too focused on learning resources, at the expense of the process of learning, and designing learning, especially for particular instances such as are described in the examples.

And, of course, I work and live in a different world from Lynette Gillis. When I think of 'client', I am always thinking of the learner, who has a stated need, and of ways the learner can acquire the resources and services needed in order to achieve the desired outcome for him or her self. Gillis, on the other hand, has corporations and agencies as clients, and they have in mind instilling a certain type of learning, on demand, if you will, in a group or body of workers.

If you're doing the latter sort of work, then the sorts of issues that I think about - learner freedom, empowerment, autonomy within a community or network - don't really apply. And so the design decisions that are motivated by these considerations are rendered irrelevant. Who cares about learner empowerment, when you're telling them what to learn? It becomes all about process at that point, and the resources not the keys to personal freedom but merely a means to an end.

The issue, then, is whether this latter approach - demand learning - is the best (or even an appropriate) approach to learning, even organizational learning. Me, I consider my own brain sacrosanct, and resist any sort of effort by management to in some way order or organize the contents of my mind. But I am no doubt in a minority here.

The key question is, though - would self-directed and self-motivated learners, overall and in the long run, create better organizational learning for themselves than management, even well-directed management (as any such management would be by Gillis), could do for them?

The theory says they would. The theory says that people would be able to manage their own learning better than anyone trying to manage it for them. But the theory - in the context of an overall demand-based environment (for what workplace is a democracy?) - falters.

Freedom and democracy in learning and freedom and democracy in the workplace are inextricably linked. Or, conversely, managing (or maintaining control) learning is a part and parcel of managing (or maintaining control) in the workplace. For good or ill.


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