Consistency & Predictability Important for Beginners

Mark is one of the employees who works at the Powerhouse Gym in Saline where I work out. Imagine being him on the afternoon of September 30th. You leave the gym and it’s packed. One of the busiest days since the gym opened about 4.5 months earlier. The next morning, you get up early, like everyday, at 4am to allow enough time to make sure you can make it back to the gym to open it at 5am. It seems like a regular morning, a little groggy, but nothing coffee can’t fix. You get to the gym, unlock the doors, turn off the alarm, turn on the lights, look around and nothing’s there…no equipment, no computers, no files, and even no lockers! You walk back into the parking lot, rub your eyes and wonder if you’re awake or still dreaming. Upon going back in you realize that, yes, the gym is truly empty…completely.

It’s an amazingly true story. On September 30th, the gym was officially sold to new owners (still Powerhouse) and the keys were turned over to the new owners. That night, unbeknownst to the new owners, the previous owners came in and cleared everything out. Everything. No notice, no indications. The keys had already been turned over. Why would anyone expect something like that to happen? Crisis is one of the best times to measure the quality of a person or business, so it has been very interesting to watch how every thing’s been handled. Here’s what they did:

– All customers were invited to the new owners other gym, which, while a less convenient location, was a much more extensive gym in size and equipment
– Personal trainers were allowed to work out with their customers at the other gym, even though that’s apparently is not allowed
– Customers were given individual attention with individual solutions provided to meet a wide variety of issues (even including small things like free locks for the new lockers since the old ones were all digital)

The new owners have handled this the best they could. Probably the only thing they did wrong was mis-set expectations. Originally, they had promised they would be fully up in a week. Then it was two, now three (though they do have some equipment back now). Having done many, many projects and dealing with many crisis, I was willing to bet in the moment that they could have a full gym back and running in 7 days, so it wasn’t a suprise. I give them an A+ for their grace under pressure, individual attention, and flexibility, but a D for overzealous expectation setting. Overall, though, they have done a great job so far.

While that was interesting though, there was also interesting dynamics going on for the members. The newer members who weren’t quite into a routine yet or who had just gotten comfortable with one set of equipment, were thrown into a new environment with new equipment and new people. The Saline gym was more families, college students, and beginners. Ypsilanti had more experienced body builders, business professionals, and people with experience. There were different types of equipment, and even the same machines worked a bit differently. As I talked to the people I knew, most of the beginners said they were just going to take the time off and wait until the old gym had new equipment in place. While they had been regular in Saline, the change was too much. It stopped their progress. It could even be devistating for some who never do pick it up again. Three weeks is a long time to break a routine and then try to pick it back up again. Even for me, 5 months in, the transition was strange and difficult. Routines are very helpful for beginners.

It is an interesting implication for learning. Consistency and pedictability help beginners. Learning the basics and getting a routine are key to establishing comfort. If the environment or the routine is changed before the person is ready to take the next step, they are more likely to discontinue their efforts. After introducing a new topic, sufficient time needs to be allowed for people to absorb and integrate the new skill before adding the next one. The amount of time varies from person to person and skill to skill. I was ready to move and even appreciated getting to try some different things. I’m pretty sure 3 months ago it wouldn’t have been the same.

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Visualization Important to Weight Loss

How the Visual Developed

When I decided to really loose weight and exercise, I decided that I also needed to document it, mostly because I knew I would forget and having a record would help me see how I was doing. So, after my first time with my trainer, I sat down with my exercise plan and my goals, and put it into Excel. My first iteration was pretty simple. I knew I wanted to lose 25 pounds by the upcoming VizThink conference in Berlin. That worked out to 1.2 pounds per week. I charted that as my goal (the red line on the graph below). Then every time I do strength training (usually 2-3x per week) and some times I do cardio training (the other 2-3x per week) I weigh myself and record the actual values (which became the green line on the graph below).

What I quickly found is that I wanted to know more and more information, so the chart began to grow and adapt. First, I wanted to know when I was going to no longer be considered obese, by the government standards. So, I divided the graph into a red section (for obese) and yellow section (for overweight). While that wasn’t a major goal, the graph made it very easy to see when I passed it and it certainly was something to celebrate.

Originally, the graph ended at October 14th. So my first goal, was at the right side of the graph. Once I saw that I was making progress towards my goal and was actually sticking with the exercise and food plan (a topic for another post), I knew I needed to set the next goal. It was a hard choice, but I finally landed on a weight comfortable inside the “normal weight” category. So, a new section (shown as green on the graph) was added to show where “normal weight” began which for me is 154.5 pounds.

I still didn’t expand the time range on the graph at that time. I wanted to make sure I stayed focused on the first goal before looking beyond. I still hadn’t decided (and really still haven’t) if my second goal of being comfortably inside the “normal weight” category is really my final goal or if I needed a third goal. So I began some research into the “ideal” weight. It turns out there’s quite a few research studies that say people are the healthiest at a Body Mass Index of 22. That translates to a pretty low weight for me about 137.5 pounds. That would put me at the weight I was when I entered my undergraduate program. It’s now represented by the dark green line on the graph. I still haven’t decided on what to do next, but at least I can see my progress towards it.

Once I got close to the first goal, I decided to go ahead and extend the graph out through the end of the year. However, that removed my artificial representation of the right side of the graph as my goal. So, triangles were added to the timeline to represent the goals. The 2 red triangles show the first two goals and when I want to achieve them. The (currently one) green triangle makes it easier to read when I reached my first goal (a little less than three weeks ahead of goal).

The Importance of the Visual

I love numbers and have lots of spreadsheets that almost always include lots of charts. This one though became of special importance. I have become nearly obsessed with it. It’s actually fun to see the progress in the chart. Sure, I can see the numbers get lower in the tables and I consciously know the amount of weight I’ve lost, but to see it change (almost) interactively is huge motivation especially as the lines inch ever closer to the major sections and the goals. It becomes a handy tool to forecast actual vs. plan. Adding a quick trend line makes it even easier to see.

I also want to point out that the graph also shows that it hasn’t always been a straight shot. I’ve lost both a little and a lot of ground many times. The back stepping was often due to scheduling conflict where I wasn’t able to stay on my workout or eating plan due to schedule conflicts with work, family, and friends. In fact, it usually turns out that the days I can’t work out area also almost always tied to days with opportunities for over eating. Not the best combination of situations. Weight swings of 1/2 pound to a couple pounds naturally led to moments of questioning. Have I reached my limit? Am I hitting a plateau? Can I really keep this up? As time progressed though, the visual became proof of the possibilities. I had lost some ground before and been able to recover. This time would likely be the same. It became a source of comfort, in a way.

One More Important Visual

One more visual has kept me motivated. While I did decide to lose weight as a New Year’s resolution, it wasn’t really until after the VizThink event in San Francisco this past January, that I really got my motivation. Our conference photographer, Andrew Campbell, captured quite a few photos of me on stage and throughout the conference. The one of the top below was particularly unflattering (not due to his work) showing me flowing over my 36″ khakis. His photo helped push me over the edge to finally get going for real. This past week my friend and colleague, Christine Martell, took the picture of me (shown on the bottom) doing my all day workshop for the Brandon-Hall conference in my new 32″ khakis.

While I’m not where I want to be yet, the visuals tell the story better than all the words on this page. Progress is happening, and the visual is helping me get there a little each week.

The Role of the Trainer

When I started working out, I just went to the gym without much of a plan, and certainly no knowledge. I knew I needed to do cardiovascular work and I was comfortable with the bicycle, so I started there. Problem was that it wasn’t working. Because I wasn’t seeing results, it was hard to stay motivated.

When the new gym opened up, I suplurged for 3, 1-hour sessions with a personal trainer. It was half off the regular rate, and I knew I needed help, so I figured it couldn’t hurt. The first session was split between a pretty embarassing set of measurements, a tour around the gym showing the right ways to use some key equipment, and setting a baseline fitness level. All of that was fed into the computer which spit out a report showing how completely out of shape I was. I didn’t really need the report to know that, but it certainly showed the opportunity for improvement.

During the second & third sessions, we focused mostly other equipment, techniques and setting up a workout routine. At the end of the 3rd sessions, I knew I would need more help and continued motivation, so I dug deep and really splurged for more 12 sessions. To help that last as long as possible, we set it up to meet every other week. We’ve got a little more than 2 months left to go in this round.

[Image by Nigel Holmes]

In these days with tons of information available on the Internet including some great images, videos, instructions, and materials, you might wonder why a personal trainer might even be necessary. There’s even a ton of great software for the iPhone including one that shows videos of the exercises along with tracking your progress. For me, having the trainer brings a lot of benefits:

  • Training – Maybe this one is obvious, but she teaches me how to do the exercises correctly in order achieve the most benefit. No matter how much I read, how many pictures I see, or how many videos I watch, some of these exercises are pretty complex. Often, subtle differents in position can dramatically increase the effort required and the benefits gained. By first demonstrating the proper technique and then critiquing my performance, I’m sure that I’m getting the most benefit.
  • Motivation – She’s great a keeping me motivated durng a workout. In fact, my workouts with her are often 20-25 minutes longer than my individual workouts. Somehow she can push me farther than I can push my self. But the motivation extends even into my personal workouts. I keep working out because I know I want to show progress when we meet. The regular meetings keep me from sloughing off.
  • Customization – She knows the goals I’m working towards and suggests new ideas that will help me reach my goals more quickly. If there’s a particular exercise that I don’t like, she’s able to come up with a few alternatives that work the same muscles, but are more to my liking.
  • Sees the Big Picture – Getting started in the gym was pretty intimidating. There are lots of details that were just too overwhelming when getting started. My trainer knows what the end goal is and knows how to get me there. As I’m ready for more, she provides the guideance I need and keeps me going in the right diretion. While I know the end goal too, I don’t have the ability to see the entire path of how to get there. There are plenty of ways to veer off the path or plateau. By using a guide, I can be sure to continue making progress without having to be an expert first.

Come to think of it, these are the same characteristics of a good teacher…

  • Provides just the right activities through simulation and practice
  • Knows how to keep the student engaged, learning, and moving forward
  • Customizes the learning for the student and provides it at just the right time for them
  • Knows the overall goal and guides the student in that direction

Even in the gym, classroom training isn’t what’s effective. The best learning still comes from learning-by-doing and performane support!

What I’ve Been Doing While I Haven’t Been Blogging

OK, so it’s not really true. I have been blogging, just over on my work blog. It’s hard to find time to do 2 blogs, but that’s not really what’s kept me away. For the last 4 months, I’ve been spending what free time I have in the gym. I can hear you now…”really? Tom going to the gym.” I know. Strange, but true. It actually started back in January. I made up my mind, and yes it was a New Year’s resolution, that I just had to lose weight. I was starting not to fit into my 36″ pants, and I had enough. What really put me over the edge was the pictures of me on stage at our big event in San Francisco. Photos don’t lie.

Supposedly a new local gym was supposed to be opening. So I had waited & waited for them to open. Finally I went to our local recreation center and just signed up there, but it wasn’t really working, probably because I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have a teacher.

Finally, in late April the new Powerhouse Gym opened up. So, when I returned from Berlin, I signed up. This time though, I got a personal trainer. What a difference that made, having someone teach me the basics and then introducing new exercises as I am ready. When I started on May 12th, I topped the scales at 188.4 which lead to a BMI of 30.4 which is solidly in the obese category. So, I set my goals. I really didn’t know how much weight I wanted to lose, but I knew I wanted to lose it and keep it off. Everything I read said 1-2 pounds per week was the rate at which the loss could be sustained. So, I set my first goal to lose somewhere in that range by October 12 which is our next big event in Berlin. At 1.2 pounds per week, I would have lost 25 pounds. I really didn’t even know if it were possible or if I could do it. I told myself when I lost 25 pounds, I would blog about it.

Well, today, about 3 weeks ahead of schedule, I reached my first goal of losing 25 pounds! That’s just shy of a healthy 1.4 pounds per week. This graph shows it wasn’t all that easy. There were definitely set backs.

The red line shows my first goal of 1.2 pounds per week. The bouncy green line below it is the not-quite daily tracking of my weight. Notice that I left the obese red section and have been working my way through the yellow overweight section. My weight today is 163.2 which is a much healthier BMI of 26.3 and my all-too-new 33″ jeans are starting to get too big (though the 32’s are still not quite right. I’ve been trying to figure out when I last weighed only 163 pounds and I think it’s been at least 8 years and probably more like 10. I’m not done yet. For tomorrow’s post…setting new goals!

Safe Simulations?

For years, I’ve been talking about one of the major benefits of simulations: a safe environment. Flying planes, firefighting, police work, and surgery are dangerous jobs with many dangerous tasks. One of the often stated benefits of a simulation is that they allow practice in a safe environment. If the learner makes a mistake, people (airplane passengers, victims, and patients) don’t die. However, it seems we (and especially I) may have been wrong.

In a conversation today with Eric Kramer from Trimm, a Netherlands-based simulation company, he made a statement that threw that concept out the window. In a conversation on the levels of realism necessary in simulations, he said “If it’s safe, it’s not real.” For me, it was like being hit over the head with a new revelation. Of course we don’t want simulations that are so real that people die, that defeats the point of a simulation. However, it’s important that the learner feel that the patient could die, that the plane could crash, or that people could die in the fire. The appropriate (a very important word) level of realism needs to include the environment, visualizations, decisions, responses, and results/impacts in order to create the impression of danger. If it feels safe, it won’t have the same learning impact.

All too often in learning (whether classroom or online), designers work to take out the risk. Here are just a few of examples:

  • Writing multiple choice questions with an obvious correct answer (lest anyone get a less than perfect score)
  • Not letting a learner finish a course unless they meet a minimum score (everybody must pass after all)
  • Letting people move forward/graduate/get certified regardless of whether they’ve demonstrated mastery in the material
  • Make sure everybody feels comfortable and happy (lest they give the instructor a low rating)
  • Designing learning modules for the lowest common denominator
  • Designing easy simulations, games and activities that don’t challenge the learner

Let’s put the realism (and the danger) back into the learning modules and simulations that we create.

For more on Eric’s work on simulations with their local police department, be sure to check out the upcoming Visualization in Learning report being published by VizThink in about a week. In addition, Eric will be facilitating a session on realism in simulations at our next big event which is being held in Berlin, October 12-14, 2008.

Minority Report for Real with the Wii

Much thanks to Peter Durand over at the Center for Graphic Facilitation blog for the post pointing this out. Want multitouch, but the big multi touch screens are too expensive or unavailable? How about converting your Wii into a glove sensor device with all the same functionality and more? They don’t talk about it in the video, but you could go well beyond the demonstration of moving and sizing photos. Multitouch has a limitation. It’s forced to be on a 2D surface (hence the “touch” part of the name). Therefore, any 3D manipulation is forced and unnatural. The gloves remove the 2D limitation and give the entire 3D space to work with (as long as you can reach it). Imagine rotating 3D objects or zooming in on them, simply by grabbing them and turning or pulling them closer. Very cool.

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Very cool comic creator

I know, I know, I’m so far behind in my personal blog. I’ve been posting over on the VizThink blog (http://www.vizthink.com/blog). How people do multiple blogs with multiples posts a day, I’ll never know. Anyway, this one was good enough to break my silence with.
Check out this very cool, very easy, very powerful web-based comic creator: http://www.bitstrips.com/

It was in Beta for the ever-popular SxSW (south by southwest) conference. Be sure to try it out!

Visual Thinking & eLearning

Have you wondered how Visual Thinking applies to eLearning? or What is Visual Thinking anyway? You’re not alone. So, over at the VizThink community (website, wiki, blog), we’ve decided to do a series of podcasts and webinars covering these topics. Here are the first 3 topics:
Who is TechSmith and what do they do with Visual Thinking? (with Tony Dunckel)
What is idea mapping and how can it be used? (with Jamie Nast & Susi Watson)
How is Visual Thinking related to eLearning? (with Dave Gray & Tony Karrer)

Many more are on the schedule including sessions on graphic recording, presentations, and many others. All of the podcasts and webinars are FREE, but some require registration. Be sure to bookmark the VizThink blog or add it to your reader in order to get the latest updates.

Kindle…The Single Purpose Device

In Mark’s recent post on the Kindle from Amazon. Now normally, I find myself agreeing with Mark which probably scares both of us. However, this time, I don’t think he could be more off base.

First, out of the many eBook attempts over the last 5 years, none of them have been even partially successful. In fact, calling them miserable failures is probably being generous. So, expecting this one to succeed is a gross over-expectation at best. Sure, it solves a few of the earlier problems…lighter, longer battery life, simpler technology. However it still misses the whole point. For it to be successful it needs to fulfill a market demand or unmet need of some sort.

Capacity: I don’t need to carry 500 books with me. I’ve already got a stack that I can’t seem to find time to get to. I don’t think I’m alone here, but carrying books with me wasn’t a problem that needed solving. It actually works quite fine right now.

Form Factor: Look at the thing. It’s ugly. The technology _appears_ old school. (Yes, I know they’re using the fancy ink/paper thing). At 10 ounces, it’s still to heavy and way too little of the interface is used for the actual book. Sure, the integrated keyboard makes it so that a computer isn’t required, but they could have taken a lesson from Apple here and spent a few more dollars on design. Additionally, it’s not a standard size (either paper back or sheet of paper) so it won’t fit securely in the regular places during transportation.

Price: $400??? Are you kidding me? Plus I still have to pay the regular $10 for the book? Maybe if they worked it like the heavily subsidized razor/blade or cellphone/subscription models it might be more attractive, but please…at $400 the switching cost is way too high. Of course, I did hear one report (on Cranky Geeks) saying that at $400 it probably was already subsidized…which makes you wonder how much it really costs.

Single Function: When was anything anymore a single function device? For $400, it should have a scanner or a printer built in. Maybe I should be able to display and edit other documents. Hey wait, that’s a PDA or a laptop and I can do a lot more with those. In fact, I could even by a decent laptop for less than $200 more and it could do a lot more than read books.

Location: I often read when I’m in a spot where electronics aren’t allowed (like an airplane). So, with this, I’d still need to carry print with me. Great, now I have to carry both? How does that make sense?

Mark’s final point was that companies should by these for employees and put the manuals on them? Really? Mark? Come on now. First, who’s writing manuals anymore? Second, shouldn’t we really be talking about wikis, blogs, help systems, knowledge management, search, or any one of a dozen other approaches to organize structured and unstructured information rather than converting print manuals to an e-book form factor?

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Virtual Worlds as Social Simulations

In a recent article in the Escapist, Brian Easton discusses the use of virtual worlds like World of Warcraft (also a game) and Second Life for social experiments. He describes the impact of a “disease”outbreak called “Corrupted Blood” in World of Warcraft. The disease weakened strong characters and even killed some weaker characters. It was spread through proximity of characters with each other. What makes the simulation different from other computer simulations of disease outbreak is that the characters are all controlled by humans, which are notoriously unpredictable. By evaluating the simulation data, researchers are able to better observe how disease spreads in and out of communities. Certainly, the World of Warcraft example had it’s limitations. Some people play the game individually and only come into contact with people casually and generally not socially which doesn’t mimic the real world as well. However, worlds like Second Life are completely social (and in my opinion generally pointless by yourself) make a much better social simulation.

Brian says that Massively Multiplayer Online Games “are more than mere distractions. They’re social simulations, miniature economies and living worlds.” What if scientists tested the spread of a virus, first when people didn’t know they had it and then again when they did. Comparisons could be made on how people behave, how the disease spreads, and the impact of knowledge. Brian implied that it would be okay if people knew that their character wouldn’t really be harmed, but I think for it to be real, people would have to have more serious consequences (like the termination of an account) at least be implied, if not actual. Would people stop contact with others? Would they only associate with other infected people? Would they intentionally infect others? What if they were away from “home” when they found out they were infected? Would they transport home and possibly infect others along the way? What impact does severity of the disease have on behavior? How does the length of incubation (and therefore awareness) have on people’s behavior?

There are so many great questions that virtual worlds could answer, and it doesn’t have to just be about disease. The transfer of information, knowledge, money, or even power could be studied. As virtual worlds develop, they are clearly becoming ripe for research for the social and physical scientists. Obviously it would be impossible, dangerous, and even unethical to test many of these ideas in the real world, but understanding the behavior could save may lives in the real world. It will be very interesting to see how this develops in the virtual worlds in the coming years.

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