Archive for March, 2007

What Would Happen If Corporate Learning Ceased to Exist?

In Brian Tolle’s most recent post on organizational culture in his blog Corporate X-Ray, he talks about the creation of sustainable organizational cultures, cultures that are built to last. One of the qualities he lists for creating a sustainable culture is one that is not afraid of organizational death. He goes on to say:

A culture that is not afraid of organizational death regularly asks the question “if we were to disappear today, who would care and why?” It makes no assumptions that the organization deserves perpetuity. It accepts the responsibility of justifying its continued existence by making itself relevant to others. And it does this because it knows or suspects that allowing a false self-perception to die opens the organization to a new degree of freedom of thought, perspective, and ideas. It places its trust in this freedom to spark some sort of re-birth within the organization.

If we asked the people in our companies “If our learning department were shut down today, who would care and why?”, what do you think the answer would be? Sadly, in my experience, I don’t the learners would notice. Most executives would be happy to get their budgets back, and all-too-often, I’m not even sure the learning department itself would care (at least it doesn’t act that way). With the growth of very capable, full-service, HR outsourcing firms, it’s quite possible that learning departments might go away, at least as they have existed until now.

According to Brian, one of the best ways to create a sustainable organization is to be relevant to others…in our case, to the executives and the learners. What does this mean? Here are a few points that I think have an impact on relevancy:

  • The learning department must understand the language, the strategy, and the operations of the business (maybe better than the business itself).
  • The learning must be focused on helping the business leaders and learners reach and exceed their business objectives, not learning or knowledge objectives.
  • The learning must be focused on what people need to do, not what they need to know.

If these things happen, learning won’t need to go out of it’s way to go out of the way to do Level 4 measurement. It will be obvious in the business results which helps the sustainability of the entire business.


The Curse of the Yellow Hammer: Learning Edition

A couple of days ago Christian Glawe from Creative Cow Blog wrote a great post on The Curse of the Yellow Hammer. (If you’re not reading Creative Cow, and you’re at all interested in the graphic and visual design side of our business, it’s a great resource). In the post, he says:

We all know how techno-centric our industry is. And how quickly that technology changes. Simply keeping up with all the new capabilities, gear, workflows, software, platforms, etc. can be a full-time job…Some of my colleagues know this as my “Yellow Hammer” theorum. Often, we become wrapped up in discussing whether we use a Yellow Hammer, or a Blue Hammer, or a Green Hammer. What I’m interested in finding out is the best way to nail two pieces of wood together to make an angle that works well within the design concept of the house.

While he goes on to describe how this relates to art, he could have just as easily been describing the learning community, especially those of us bloggers. We spend a lot of time talking about whether this wiki is better than that wiki, or this LMS is better than LMS, or this development tool better than that one. We even debate whether blogs are better than wikis. Games, simulations, widgets, wikis, blogs, and on and on and on all are a lot of fun to talk about, but don’t get us any closer to our goal.

I think we should spend more time thinking and talking about how people actually learn to do the things they need to do and the best way to help them with that. Eventually, we’ll get to the tools, but I think we keep skipping a step and forget that in the end what matters is that people know how to do what they need to do better than they did before. Hopefully, that’s something we can do something about.


The Power of Debate

Debate may be one of the most powerful learning tools out there. To be able to win a debate, or even compete to any extent, both sides need to understand their opponent’s argument. In fact, I believe one of the best ways to win a debate is to first argue (and win) from the opponent’s point of view. Winning the opposing argument requires going beyond simple knowledge of the opposing view point into deep understanding and even appreciation. When many people debate, they often don’t even understand their own argument well enough to know why they believe it. I should be clear that, in my usage, debates do not imply anger or personal attacks, but rather passionate, civil discussions on important issues.

Over the last 6 days, Ann Arbor has been home to the 45th Annual Film Festival, the oldest of it’s kind in North America. Screenings are held for about 100 films (of over 2,000 submitted for consideration) in classic movie palace splendor including the classic organ prelude. I had the opportunity to screen 25 of them ranging in length from 2 to 30 minutes each (obviously more were towards the shorter end). Each of them presented various points of view including some that were aligned with my own, some were quite enlightening, and a couple were even disturbing.

Some of my favorites included Mischa Livingstone’s A Little Fright Night, Benny Zenga’s Ski Boys, Eric Flagg’s Gimme Green, and Carlos Marulanda’s Breathing Chamber. Two movies deserve some special attention. First, Stranger Comes to Town by Jacqueline Goss uses the game World of Warcraft to create machinima describing the U.S. Visit program run by Homeland Security from the point of view of various real life people (represented by avatars) who have attempted to enter the U.S. legally. For more information on machinima, see my earlier posts (Machinima: Using Virtual Actors for Learning and Entertainment, The Movies: The Game, Invasive Species in Second Life, or listen to my presentation on the topic).

The second movie, 731: Two Versions of Hell by James Hong, not only exposed me to a story I never had heard, but it also debated both sides of the story completely. The first half presents the story, impact, and remains of a Japanese biochemical warfare facility during World War II from China’s point of view. The second half plays the exact same footage backwards while presenting Japan’s point of view. I’m not sure which side is more true, or if, as with most debates, they both might be true.

What I like about this event is it’s ability to quickly expose my thought process to ideas that I normally don’t get a chance to hear, understand, or appreciate yet I know they exist. Events like this provide platforms for artists to express their points of view and start open and honest debate on important topics.

Support the arts. They provide a valuable service by helping us all be learners.


Gaming gets learning, but…

does learning get gaming? I was really disappointed I didn’t get to go to the Game Developers Conference a few weeks ago. I was really looking forward to it, but, in life, there are trade offs…at least until today. The conference has posted audio from all of the sessions online as MP3s for a charge of $7.95 each. I could listen to half of them for less than the conference fee would have cost! Why haven’t any of our learning conferences done something like this? Even conferences you might expect haven’t done it.

That’s a great idea in itself, since learning designers who probably wouldn’t attend this conference may find some of the sessions pretty useful. It turns out there’s a lot of shared issues between game developers and learning designers. Here are a few of the overlapping topics:

There were plenty also on overlapping topics like sound design, complex project management, and using Microsoft Project, but even that’s not the important thing. What is important? Game developers get learning, even more, it seems, than learning designers get gaming. Look at these topics:

Notice anything interesting? There talking about using games for learning…over and over and over. Look at even our most progressive conferences. Name one that had more than 2 or 3 sessions on gaming. I don’t even remember a session on the “One Laptop per Child” initiative or topics as advanced as behavioral theory or scaffolding. Why is the game development community is more advanced than the learning community?

Watch out…the gamers are coming!


Eliminating the Microwave

I remember when my dad brought our first microwave home…a Kenmore or an Amana, best I recall. With the required stand (because it wouldn’t fit on the counter), it was only slightly smaller than the actual oven. (The picture is not ours, but I think it’s the right model with the analog nobs and timer). In the beginning, we cooked everything in it. Quickly, we learned that it wasn’t quite right for meat, yet we still used it for potatoes and other things. Even though they came out chewy instead of fluffy, the time savings, we felt, justified the reduction in quality.

When I started cooking for myself, I figured out that the loss of quality for baked potatoes wasn’t worth the time savings. If I was in a hurry, I wouldn’t have the potato or I choose one of a multitude of faster cooking methods like boiling, mashing, broiling, or braising. Over time, I’ve stopped putting more and more things in the microwave. Finally, this morning, which is ironically close to the 40th anniversary of the first consumer microwave from Amana, I’ve decided to eliminate the (much smaller) microwave from my kitchen. I’ll melt the chocolate in a double boiler, and go back to a tea kettle for hot tea or cereal. The few other things can also be done in more traditional ways. Sure, it will be a bit slower, but the quality, flavor, and texture go up dramatically.

As I was thinking about it, it paralleled a lot of what is going on in the learning space. We’ve found lots of “microwaves” for learning. Real learning, deep learning, takes time and experience. The process can’t be circumvented. Think about games…good games…good learning games. For cooking, Emeril calls it a “food of love thing”. Maybe we need the same things in our processes by allowing the time for development of quality simulations rather than the quicker-but-less-effective-barely-interactive e-Learning that are all too often created. Simulations take time to use as well. Watch the kids. Learning in games doesn’t happen instantly. It takes hours and hours of progressive failures and successes to create real competence, but when it happens the learning is deep, satisfying, and, dare I say it, even fun.

I, for one, am going to take the time to cook just a little more slowly, and savor the results a little bit more.

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Invasive Species in Second Life

Meijer, a regional 1-stop shopping center, and the Nature Conservancy have joined forces to educate and help reduce the impact of invasive plant species on the Michigan environment. Non-native, invasive plants have begun dominating the local environment due to well meaning home gardeners. To help combat the problem this spring, labels have been added to plants sold by Meijer indicating which plants are “Recommended Non-invasive”. In conjunction, they decided that a coordinated video campaign both in-store and on the web would be the best way to educate the public. Unfortunately, they decided on this approach in November…in Michigan. Not many plants available for video shoots in Michigan in November, and going to a more temperate fall location would defeat the purpose of showing Michigan plants overwhelmed by invasive species. Waiting until spring to shoot the video would be to late to run the promotion. So, video production experts, Silver and Goldie Goodman, suggested a novel solution…use Second Life to make a machinima video (high, medium, Google). Even more impressive, it was created at a fraction of the price of live or traditional animated video.

Actually, Silver and Goldie Goodman are the Second Life names for Dave & Bev Lang who run LTS Productions, a video production studio just outside of East Lansing, Michigan. They have arguably become the most famous video production group in Second Life with their own island set, props, actors, and studio. They are responsible for other famous videos like Stephen Colbert’s Dream for Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report and for their video, Second Life: Get One, created for Second Life’s machinima challenge for which they won best-of-show. Interestingly, with the recent decline of the auto industry and the related decline in state and local government budgets, traditional local video work was beginning to slow down for them. Second Life and machinima has allowed them to expand their reach globally without expensive travel or location shoots since the “filming” can be done on their island in Second Life. They estimated 60-70% of their video business has shifted to machinima!

For more information on machinima, see my earlier posts (Machinima: Using Virtual Actors for Learning and Entertainment, The Movies: The Game, or listen to my presentation on the topic).


Why Video Games are Good for Your Soul

OK, I admit it, I’m way behind on my list of books. Jim Gee’s Why Video Games are Good for Your Soul has been on my reading list since it came out just short of 2 years ago now. Jim was just appointed to an endowed chair in the College of Education at Arizona State University, leaving the University of Wisconsin. This “new” book is infinitely more readable than his first book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. It was a great book that helped form a lot of my thoughts on simulation and game design, but having to translate “semiotic domains” and other related academic phrases made for slower reading.

This book, however, is very readable and just as inspiring. Jim covers the various types of pleasure that are provided by video games, and goes further to describe how pleasure and learning are inseparable. Here are a few great quotes culled from the pages of the book:

  • “If people are to nurture their souls, they need to feel a sense of control, meaningfulness, even expertise in the face of risk and complexity. They want and need to feel like heroes in their own life stories and to feel that their stories make sense. They need to feel that they matter and that they have mattered in other people’s stories. If the body feeds on food, the soul feeds on agency and meaningfulness…This book is primarily about the pleasures–the charge–that good video games can give people. These pleasures are connected to control, agency, and meaningfulness.”
  • “Pleasure is the basis of learning for humans and learning is, like sex and eating, deeply pleasurable for human beings. Learning is a basic drive for humans. School has taught people to fear and avoid learning as anorexics fear and avoid food, it has turned some people into mental anorexics. “
  • “The real paradox is not that learning and pleasure go together, but, rather, how and why school manages to separate them.”
  • “Feeling and emotion are not peripheral to thinking and learning, but central to them (Damasio 1995, 2003). If humans add affect (feeling and emotion–in a sense, caring) to information as they process it, they store this information in their minds/brains far more deeply and connect it far more integrally to their other knowledge than if they process it without any such affectual colorings.”
  • In today’s quickly changing workplace, “People must be prepared to rearrange their skills, experiences, and achievements–to describe themselves in new ways, not in terms of one fixed role or identity–to display themselves as fit and ready for new jobs, identities, and roles as these emerge in their futures.”
  • “The real power of role-playing games is in the ways in which they can allow people to reflect on their own identities, fantasies, and hopes in the world. Such reflection is absolutely crucial in a world where identity work and identity transformation is crucial for success, even for survival.”
If you’re like me and a bit behind on your reading, bump this one to the top of the list. It’s well worth the time. So, excuse me for a bit, I’m going to go play a game.
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Get Out of the Classroom and Learn: Travel and Learning

One of my favorite times growing up was our annual summer vacation. Every year we’d take 1 or 2 weeks and travel the country. At times it was a bit like the Griswold’s (“Big Ben, Parliament…Big Ben, Parliament“), but at others it was some of the best experiences. Over the years, we covered all of the states bordering and east of the Mississippi River.

There’s some perspective that presence brings. I did pretty well in school, and I attribute a lot of that to our travels. While I still don’t understand why knowing about the detailed troop movements in the various U.S. Civil War battles is important, I can certainly say that standing in the middle of a battle field gives much better perspective for why troops moved the way they did…certainly more than red and blue arrows on a map ever could, which I believe helped dramatically when it came to test time. The same is true for the grassy knoll and the Texas Book Depository. Sure, I’ve watched the videos, heard the descriptions, and read about the analysis, but there’s nothing like being there to truly understand the location and the events. When combined with other learning, the various locations almost have an eerie presence of the events that unfolded there.

Certainly, virtual worlds have something to offer by providing some of the same perspectives especially in places that no longer exist or are difficult to get to. Check out sites like 3D Ancient Wonders, Institute for the Visualization of History, and Free 3D Acropolis. I’m sure there’s even some work in Second Life. It could be even more enhanced by quality virtual reality. However, there’s still nothing like the perspective gained by being there in person whenever possible. So, get out of the office or classroom, and learn.


Machinima: Redux

For those who missed my Machinima presentation on Friday, February 16, 2007, Adobe has been kind enough to post it for all to review. This recording contains all of the video, images, audio, and chat from the original presentation. Like the original attendees, you will need to register to view the session. However, once you do, it will immediately begin playing and it can be watched repeatedly, if you want. The recording is almost like being there live, except that to participate in the conversation, we’ll have to chat here on the blog. Please leave any comments by using the link below. I’d love to hear your thoughts or ideas.

For additional documentation check out these posts:
Machinima: Using Virtual Actors for Learning and Entertainment
The Movies: The Game

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I Love TiVo – More New Features

Have I said that before? Well, I don’t think on the blog yet, but those who’ve known me in the last several years know it’s true. Actually, I love all technology. If I could I would buy it all and try it out. I wonder if CNET needs somebody? Some stuff (like GPS) is fun, but I could live without it pretty easily. However, there are a few pieces of consumer electronics that I would truly keep because they have improved the way I live and work. Certainly, not all technology can say that. TiVo is first on the list to keep.

TiVo’s changed my viewing habits completely. First, it saves me time…hour shows take 35-40 minutes to watch, 30 minute shows are 15-20 minutes. That’s a huge savings. It still amazes me how little content a show actually has. It’s not just the commercials which are about 1/3 of the length of the original program. Chop out the “here’s what’s coming in a couple segments”, “here’s what we just showed you”, and the lead ins and lead outs from commercials, and I can save another 5-10% of the time. Plus, I don’t have to worry about when the show airs or if the time changes. It’s always recorded. No complex recording schemes like the old VCRs. I watch it when I want, and I know it will be there.

Certainly, there are competitors including most of the cable companies. I’ve tried many of them and they just don’t compare. Frankly, TiVo’s ease-of-use beats most interfaces of any sort, hands down. Where TiVo really shines is it’s ongoing new features. First, it was home networking features like watching a video anywhere in the house, listening to music from my PC on my home stereo, and viewing pictures from the PC on the TV in a different part of the house. That was cool, and it didn’t require any additional technology. Since then, they’ve added lots of features like casual games, listening to podcasts, buying movie tickets, and getting weather and traffic information. They even added subscription services for short 1-15 minute downloads on topics of interest. All cool stuff, but not game changing until yesterday.

TiVo announced a partnership with Amazon‘s Unbox to deliver movies to the home. Imagine going to Amazon, selecting a movie to rent or buy, one-click download, and in a short time the movie is there to watch. Well, it’s available now. They gave TiVo people $15 in downloads to try out. The movie selection is a bit thin (about 500 right now), but the service is easy and part of Amazon which, of course, is a regular destination for me. Sure there are other download services, but they deliver to my PC or to my portable device…neither of which are great places for watching a movie. Finally, someone has got it so that the movie gets to my TV without a special box (assuming, of course, that I already own TiVo). The video quality was great. Better than broadcast TV frankly. The download process was a bit finicky. Don’t touch the box while it’s downloading. It seems to restart the download. I do wish they had figured out a way to capitalize on a partnership with NetFlix (given their huge selection of movies), but I’m glad someone has finally moved towards a download service that doesn’t require me to sit at my desk or squint at a tiny screen.


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