Saturday, November 6, 2010

Why classrooms do not work, part 2.

I'm not advocating for the abolition of classrooms. I am just advocating for the thoughtful application of technology rather than defaulting to the comfortable and familiar. Especially since some of the technologies we now have at our fingertips every day are extraordinarily exciting, and powerful for learning--and should be used to the full.

And yes, it is in fact possible to use these technologies to drop practical, engaging, powerful learning right into the middle of a workday, avoiding training sessions altogether. And this is being done in a really interesting way right now, using: social networks, video streaming (it could be audio streaming, or PowerPoint, or any other content block you can name), and social network email notifications (it could be syndication or just simple email).

Let's look at the problems of the classroom, and how these technologies, with a small amount of design, can help solve them.

First problem: It's the nature of the classroom to over-stuff the learner. We all have experienced this. Once we gather and blocked out our time, we must make the most of it. So in an hour, I get six principles that will make me a better employee, soldier, sailor, salesman, whatever. What are the odds that I'll put all six to work after I leave? How about just three of them? How about one? It would take me a week to try them all out, and in a week I'll have forgotten. Overstuffed means underdigested.

Solve this by sending the content to the learner in small chunks every day. Social networking notifications ("You have a new message from...!") can deliver podcasts, vodcasts, slides, links, whatever. Or just use email. But break the content up into much smaller bits and deliver it daily. Put the spacing effect to use: Information learned over time is remembered better than information learned all at once. (Read more about this in my previous post.) One clear concept per day, ten minutes of seat time per block of content, maximum. Sure, that doesn't seem like much content, but take those same six principles we crammed into an hour, and do the math... they are ten minutes each. Of course you couldn't teach a college class this way, or not entirely. But here we're focused on an audience that works at their computers, and we want the learning to stick. So the overall design is: ten minutes to wrestle with it, and the rest of the day to ponder, discuss, put that learning into practice (see the next problem).

Second problem: Content is always abstracted in the classroom. Because it is separated from everyday reality, the classroom intellectualizes everything. You can teach the principles, the theory, easily enough. But you can't practice it. You don't even have time to tap into the insights and experience of learners or get all their misconceptions and concerns ironed out. It's hard to keep the focus on doing something in the future, when currently all we can focus on is knowing about it.

Solve this by putting the students (and the content if you can) inside a social network, one that is available in the workplace. Make it smart-phone friendly to widen the access window. But most importantly, require discussion. In fact, make discussion the primary focus, and use the content as the set-up for the discussion. Spend whatever design time you have on 1) clearly stating the single concept--communicating it in the simplest, most interesting way possible--and then 2) asking the right question or questions to get everyone involved in thinking through how they have applied it in the past, or how they could apply it, or how they will apply it. Make sure those who get it are explaining it for those who don't yet get it. This makes it experience-based. It's using the wisdom of the crowd. And, this is precisely what has been proven to influence behaviors in online social networks. (More on this in a future post.)

Third problem: Learners are out of their usual element when in a classroom, and therefore feel less obligation to apply what they've learned. There is a mental, even an emotional line you cross when you step out of a classroom doorway. Years and years of formal education have taught you that leaving the classroom gives you relief from the immediate obligations just piled high upon you. I call it the School's Out! syndrome. (Whew! Survived that class, now on to something else.)

Solve this by putting the learning into a social network within that real workspace, into the very environment where the learning will be practiced. It's one thing to sit in a classroom and take notes about how I should handle a customer, calculate long-term gains, or deal with patients. It's a whole different thing to sit at my workstation and learn, chat about it with colleagues, then raise my eyes and call that customer, calculate those long-term gains, or deal with that patient. I get no relief from obligations... in fact just the opposite. I get the adrenaline of hard-edged real life, immediate risk and reward, with the opportunity to apply it... right now. And if not now, soon.

Does this work? Yes. Is it being done? Yes. Here's a website where you can get a little glimpse of all this in action, for a sales audience:

SalesDay Network

If you're responsible for sales training you can sign up for a free trial immediately and put it to the test. Full disclosure: I have an ownership stake in this endeavor, and was responsible for, well, a whole lot of it. So it won't hurt my feelings if you sign up! But that's not the point--I've been building and enhancing learning environments using sound learning theory and the latest technologies for a long, long time, and I've had ownership stakes in just about all of them. And this is a proprietary approach, of course, with all the intellectual property protections, but the point is, check out the thinking behind it and see if it doesn't make sense to you. At root it's providing a single concept every day, to be discussed and applied every day, uniting a work team in discussion, bringing the learning out of the classroom and into the work environment. All very real and tangible. And I can report that early users are very happy with it; it engages them around the content in a way that a classroom simply can't.

It's almost too simple, but it works because the principles are sound and the technologies are powerful. I've said before and will say again, the technologies we now have lapping at our doorsteps like a flood are the most powerful learning technologies I have ever seen. We just need to keep redirecting and focusing those flood waters... and we need to keep building hydroelectric plants to put them to work.

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