Friday, November 13, 2009

The radical little quiz

There's got to be a ton of research on this, right? When it comes right down to it, most of the Pearson MyLab products, which I have spun out a good number of electrons praising in this space, is learning by testing. And then remediating. After all, when is a person's mind more focused than when trying to get the answers right?

I posited an interest in the question of learning by quiz during my session on the End of Book Learning at Elliott Masie's Learning 2009 conference, and I got a follow-up from an energetic attendee who wanted me to discover SpacedEd. Which I have now done, and about which I can now say... okay, cool.

Here's what it does. You sign up for a course, and you get one quiz question a day. Or, every other day if that's too much for your hectic lifestyle. They email you the question. You answer it. They tell you if you're right or wrong. They provide some feedback, reasons, material that further explains the correct answer. Then they tell you when they're going to send you the same question again. Which you can opt out of. In addition, there is a place to make comments and read comments, so that the wisdom of the crowd can add context and application, not to mention some occasional humor.

That's it. Ho hum. Except that this little thing is based on two very well-researched principles: The Spacing Effect, and the Testing Effect. Both are well-explained at Here's something about the former, lifted from the SpacedEd website:

"Since its discovery in the late 19th century by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, the spacing effect has been extensively studied. Even though this research has repeatedly demonstrated the spacing effect’s potent ability to improve learning retention, these findings have only had limited translation into formal educational practice. Recently, the spacing effect was found to have a distinct neurophysiological basis: Sisti et al (2007) showed that spaced learning in rats improved neuronal longevity in the hippocampus (a region of the brain which is important for long-term memory). "

I love this. Not just because of the reference to a rat's hippocampus, which you rarely get in educational literature these days, but also because I think this is important. I think it's innovative. And it has some very Web 2.0 implications. There's a reason no one has paid attention to this research, and that is because it doesn't fit the process of education. But now, because of Web 2.0, the traditional process of education is all set up to be deconstructed and reconstructed based on research and practice just like this.

Think about it; the entire structure of the education edifice up through and including Web 1.0 was based on the Learning Herd Effect. I just made that term up, but what I mean is that most of the peculiarities of education spring directly out of the need to run large numbers of students through a gamut of some sort and have them come out the other side educated. The Industrial Revolution required, or at least inspired, educators to create grade levels, classes, semesters, credit hours, letter grades, grade-point averages... all for what purpose? To organize the great Herd of Learners. The problems solved by our now-rarely-questioned infrastructure were similar in nature to the problems solved by Disney in the Magic Kingdom, or EPCOT. How do we get huge numbers of people in limited physical space to have the same or similar experience day after day, year after year, at an acceptable level of quality?

Now let's think about the problems that this solution created. It required all learning to take place inside the boxed walls of some room. The boxes may be labs, or simple classrooms, and there may be an occasional field trip, but the point stands. It assumed, by necessity, that all learning, ALL learning mind you, could be divided up into equal parts and be delivered in regular, timed intervals within those boxes. It further assumed that everyone could be made to learn at the same pace, at least everyone who was within the same box at the same time. The teacher was required to do the herding, and to whatever extent possible, leveling of material. So what we got from all that is what we still have, a process-based education that really has little bearing on what the outcome of the process may be. Some students may have learned a lot, some only a little. Some will have been just-shoot-me bored, others just-shoot-me challenged. Doesn't matter, we're solving a people-moving problem, so sit back down and listen up.

Enter Web 1.0. What did we do? We created little boxes online. We even called them classrooms. We boxed the same couple of dozen learners together, following along the same process, dividing the learning up into the same weekly, semester-long schedule. We brought the people-moving solution into a world where there was no people-moving problem.

Now we've got a Web 2.0 world. That means that we can think about what the web can do that can't be done in the physical world. We finally understand that an online environment is not "virtual reality," it is reality using technology, just as we grew up knowing that a phone call is not "virtual conversation," but real conversation using technology. We're no longer stuck with mimicking the physical world and its people-moving problems. And yet we still do it. Most of the Web 2.0 solutions being brought into online Learning Management Systems and Course Management Systems are tacked on, preserving the classes, class sizes, semesters, schedules, all of it. We still artificially divide all the learning up into equal-sized chunks, and we still require learners to group up and let some be bored while others drown.

Which brings us back to this little SpacedEd community. What I like is that it breaks most if not all those structures. It is designed from the learner back, from the research back, and it doesn't give a hoot and a half about any of the Learning Herd Effect solutions. It's about what you can learn when you aren't tethered.

Now you could argue that this device has its own artificial structures, built into the one-question-a-day method. What if I want two questions a day? Or three? And I wouldn't have much with which to argue back. But the point is not whether this structure is better than that one. The point is that here is a radical little quiz that is making an enormously good case for the power of Web 2.0 to upend the mammoth Learning Herd structure of education, and replace it, or even just parts of it, with real, provable, outcomes-based learning that fits no other mold. The box is entirely gone, vanished, beside the point. Learning is the point.

And I like that.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Everyone knows something.

It wasn't one of the most crowded sessions at Learning 2009, but it was well attended, and it impressed everyone who was there. I overheard several people talking it up later, even the next day, and in fact I did some of that myself. Not that it was an enormous breakthrough in terms of technology; it wasn't. But it had everyone's head spinning up questions like, "Why couldn't that work for all sorts of learning?" And with that thought, the light of a fundamental, far-reaching shift in the creation of learning experiences seemed to dawn.

You may not know of Cash America, but it's an enormous national chain of pawn shops. Don't snicker, they have a billion dollars in annual revenue and are publicly traded on the NYSE. So what have they done with learning? Their tiny corporate training department created a very simple system that allows store employees to create short, YouTube style videos and post them to train others. The content can be anything, but it started with tips and training on product. As you might imagine when the inventory walks in the front door all day, Cash America has something like 10 times the number of different items to sell that a Best Buy or a Wal-Mart has. Anyone can pawn anything, and employees need to know how to assess an item's value on the way in, and discuss its features on the way out.

Theirs was a simple concept. Those employees who know something about a product, whether it's Fender guitars or video game consoles or designer purses can make a video, using Flip cameras supplied by the home office, if needed (not always needed--they tend to have a lot of cameras in inventory!), and post it to the site created by corporate. And then everyone else can watch it, comment, provide other details. We were shown a video in which an associate ran through a list of differences between a particular designer purse and a well-made knock-off. The company saves over $200 every time an employee can spot the fake on the way in. It was YouTube quality video, but it was highly effective, even with a few errors.

Yes, there were errors. But like its big brother YouTube, Cash America's version is self-correcting. Within days, other employees posted comments that pointed out a couple of minor errors and omissions. And so far, there has been no need to actually reshoot the video. Associates who watch the video also read the comments.

Now, think about this in the context of the statement, "No one knows everything, but everyone knows something." Imagine if this was the primary mode of creating training in corporate America, not some off-the-wall idea way out at the fringes. What if sales training was created this way? What would that do to the level of authenticity, of reality, in the training? Take it to an extreme, what if college faculty didn't create courses based on the fullest extent of their own limited knowledge, but built these course assets up year after year by managing content created by themselves, by other faculty, by invited experts, graduates, even current students? What kind of rich environment would that be for a student, who could now gain knowledge from a wide range of perspectives, with the faculty as content mediator (yes, it still has to be managed) so that the doors and windows of knowledge stay wide open?

They call it harnessing "the wisdom of the crowd," or when used to create a product, "crowdsourcing." And for online learning, I think there's a lot of future packed in there.

Still the best learning conference

What have I seen and done at Learning2009? I've interacted with organizations engaged in using social media for learning. User-generated video for training. 3D virtual worlds for leadership development. Twitter for business. I've seen an iPhone application for new employee orientation developed in three days by a cadre of college kids, invited for the purpose. I've heard captain Sully Sullenberger and Malcolm Gladwell talk about learning and training and growing. I've watched Second City not only deliver but develop their comedy. And I went to a concert by a Beatle cover band, Fab Faux, that was so good, I found myself thinking... if the Beatles in their 60's were actually playing here, they would not sound as much like the Beatles of the 60's as these guys do.

Elliot Masie's conferences border on the goofy or the giddy at times. I didn't need to see him do the salsa with a talented Latina, while he stayed on his ubiquitous Segway. But what Elliott has never forgotten, what he never lost, apparently, is the joy of learning. I'm talking about the native, intense fun that is bound up in discovery, what most of us remember about learning from kindergarten or first grade, when it was all still exciting and the world was nothing but possibilities. I'm talking about that sense of wonder that was then systematically dredged from us by the ninth or tenth grade until "learning," "education," and "drudgery" were pretty much synonymous.

I am pleased to have been able to present in this context, glad to have offered some value. More on the specifics later, and there's more to do here today, but I wanted to share these overall impressions.

And the overriding overall impression is this: Elliott Masie still puts on the best elearning conference.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Learning 2009, blog topics, and you

This is an unusual post for me; I generally stay away from the true "web log" roots of the blog, preferring not to give personal updates on what I'm doing at the moment ("I... am... sitting... on... the porch..."). But since I now have in hand my Southwest boarding pass for Learning2009 in Orlando (A-39, thank you, and feeling just a little smug), and since three days of diving deep into what's happening on the approaching horizons of eLearning are now upon me, this post is just to say... I'm pumped, and I hope to see you there.

I am always on the lookout for good blog topics. If you are attending, and you've got an interesting or innovative project related to any of my posts, look me up. Or if you're working on concepts or ideas or programs you'd like to talk about off the record, I can do that, too. (Have NDA. Will travel.)

Just send an email to gbpolivka (at), and let's have a cup of coffee!


Monday, November 2, 2009

What technologies will regenerate the textbook?

If my thesis is accurate, and the textbook is a creature with an interactive multimedia soul that has been doomed for over a century to live in bondage to paper and ink, then the question arises... what technologies are most likely to free it from its prison? From reader Allan Jacobs:

"[I hope] we’ll soon be blessed with technology that will totally revolutionize content delivery and learning. How far off do we really think something like the much-rumored, much-anticipated Apple Tablet really is? Could we, in perhaps the next 3 – 6 months, be looking at a multifunctional (3G network phone, MP3 player, laptop computer with ubiquitous connectivity, digital camera/webcam), 8 – 12 inch touch-screen tablet with 5-6 times the resolution of an iPod Touch or iPhone screen and a new 'e-book' section of iTunes?"

I think Allan is onto something, particularly with that last phrase. I've been thinking about the iTunes of textbook publishing for quite some time, as have at least one or two others. Brian Chen at Wired has considered the possibility. "Apple," he says, "can give iTunes users the ability to download individual chapters, priced between a few cents to a few bucks each...It might even have the same earthshaking potential to transform an entire industry by refocusing it on the content people actually want instead of the bundles that publishers want them to buy." Obviously, he's comparing the publishing industry to the music industry. I think that's valid. (Here's his whole article.)

But are there other, less obvious ways to transform the textbook industry? I think so. I think there is a stealth operation already underway. Ever heard of MyMathLab from Pearson? MyEconLab? MyStatLab? The Pearson "MyLab" series has already torn open a frayed seam of the textbook industry's collective pocket, and through that tear I believe many a coin will fall. In 2008 there were over 3.8 million students using one of these MyLab products, a 47% jump over the previous year. And don't miss this fact: Pearson boasts of independent proof of improved learning outcomes.*

What is a MyLab product? I posted on this earlier [check it out], but it is functionally a textbook, disguised as a homework product. There are 5 things a textbook must do to be a textbook, and it does them all. It... 1) provides content; 2) organizes lessons; 3) offers homework, 4) provides assessment, both practice and graded, and 5) sets content standards. But it doesn't look or feel like a textbook. It doesn't talk or walk like one, either (at least not if you consider the voice of a textbook to be an instructor saying, "Turn to page two hundred thirty-eight," and the gait of a textbook to be the bumping of a bulging backpack, bruising some poor student's backside).

Pearson is not alone. Jones & Bartlett, one of the giant's smaller competitors, has a thing called CDX. It doesn't work like MyLab, but it performs all the same functions, it's all online, and none of it is ever promoted or presented as a textbook. But Pearson and J&B are textbook publishing companies. And these are hot products that they sell without paper and cardboard.

So, in my estimation that wretched, trapped thing that has looked and felt like a book for so long is already shedding its fetters, smoothing its feathers, and stretching its wings in pursuit of its rightful place in the great digital and interactive world.