Assumptions about attentiveness: is eye contact engagement?

WitthayaPhonsawatAt BP’s Future of Learning event in November, we were lucky enough to have the fabulous Crystal Washington as our guest speaker at dinner (follow her on Twitter @CrysWashington).

Crystal delivered one of the most dynamic, engaging and passionate presentations I’ve seen for some time. Keeping the attention of a room full of people when you’ve got the after-dinner slot and everyone’s been at a conference all day isn’t easy! But that’s not the only reason why Crystal’s presence had us all talking throughout the next day.

Crystal gave us a whirlwind tour of social media: the dark side, the war stories, the lessons learnt the hard way by big businesses and unwitting individuals; the generational advantages afforded to both those young enough to have been using technology since infancy and those old enough to have experience of networking and business etiquette to inform their (strategic) use of it; and tips for how to make sense of the web of social networks out there and use them to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

During the Q&A time, someone picked up on the theme of generational differences and Twitter in particular, asking Crystal how she feels as a presenter if she’s in front of a Gen Y audience whose heads are down over their phones. Despite confessing that she doesn’t appreciate her siblings using their phones during dinner, Crystal replied quite firmly that this Gen Y audience scenario doesn’t bother her. She understands that these people are paying attention, they just do it in a different way from what speakers might be used to; this is their way of working and learning. Incidentally, Justin Mass asked the same question of Richard Culatta at Learning 2012 and got the same response: ‘nope, normal.’

Some people didn’t seem to believe Crystal, though: the next question was less of a question and more of a challenge. A lady at the next table pointed out, quite rightly, that I’d been on my phone almost the entire time Crystal had been speaking. She also said that she’d bet any money that I hadn’t been tweeting or taking notes.

Actually, that’s exactly what I’d been doing. In fact, it’s what I’d been doing all day. Crystal had been following our backchannel throughout the event and immediately came to my defence, pointing out that she’d have been more concerned if I wasn’t typing away on my phone while she was talking, as it would suggest I was less interested in what she had to say than I had been all day. After dinner, Crystal thanked me for being a perfect embodiment of one of her key points. Different generations (whether defined by age or by use of technology) have different ways of engaging and learning. This lady looked at me and made an assumption that I wasn’t paying attention – perhaps shopping online or browsing Facebook instead. By contrast, I was absolutely more engaged with Crystal’s content than I would have been had I not had my phone there.

Another aspect to this is the value of the tweets being shared. I found some of the comments on Justin Mass’ recent blog post about real-time activity switching interesting. Melissa Daimler says that she’s observed a move back towards low-tech experiences, towards people abandoning live-tweeting in favour of face-to-face conversation and then tweeting later. She says ‘the tweet is usually more thoughtful since they can give more context around it after having sat with the idea for a little.’ Actually, for me it’s the other way around. I think there is equal value in tweet-reporting (as it were) the content of a session as it happens, and then adding my own thoughtful context later in whatever format or medium is appropriate. I’m a fairly reflective person; I prefer to have time to think before I draw conclusions or make plans. So it suits me to contribute something in real-time, and this rapporteur-style of live-tweeting works for me, and then contribute more fully later if and when I feel I’ve got more to add from a personal perspective.

I’m not by any means saying that, if you aren’t live-tweeting or taking notes on a tablet or phone, you aren’t paying attention. That would be a ridiculous claim to make. I’m still partial to a beautiful notebook and still turn to my trusty pen and paper to take notes during meetings, when jotting down thoughts for my next book review, and in numerous other situations. But my experience over the past few months has been that live-tweeting does enhance my attention and focus in a seminar or conference situation. If I’m on Twitter (or even using a notepad app) I’m not able to easily flit between different apps, whereas if I’m taking paper notes it’s very easy for my attention to switch to my email or other things on my phone. I also have a tendency to doodle in the margins of my notepads which, though not always a sign that my mind has wandered, probably doesn’t convey engagement and interest.

A while back, when Craig Taylor was subject to similar cynicism, I declared myself firmly in the pen-and-paper camp. And I would still today choose to make paper notes rather than digital notes (using a notepad app on my phone or tablet). I prefer paper note-taking for the reasons I mentioned before: it caters better for my personal brand of shorthand, and so on. But live-tweeting is something different. Knowing that my notes are going to be read immediately by others enforces a certain level of discipline; it keeps me focused and concise, and totally engaged. So when it comes to a conference or similar event, I find myself increasingly choosing live-tweeting over paper notes.

Another commenter on Justin’s blog post, Travis Cunningham, says: ‘People are engaged in an activity when you mix feedback, friends and fun … Most trainings lack all three. Twitter adds all three.’ Thinking about it, Travis has pretty much got it bang on for me. Live-tweeting absolutely does not diminish my engagement; if anything it improves my focus and attention. And I enjoy it; it enhances the conference experience for me.

The day after the dinner with Crystal, several people thanked me for helping them see Twitter in a different light. I think if those people now don’t pass immediate judgement when they see someone tapping away on their phones, and perhaps even give some thought to what engagement with a speaker or session really is, then being singled out at the dinner was worth it! 

Image: Witthaya Phonsawat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Quick links and resources from BP’s Future of Learning

FutureOfLearningAt the end of November, I flew over to Houston for a two-day internal conference organised by Nick Shackleton-Jones called ‘Future of Learning’. I tweeted a lot throughout the event, using the #BPFOL12 hashtag, and I’ll be writing up some of the key sessions and takeaways in subsequent posts.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to try and pull together some of the really useful links and resources from the backchannel: even though we were a relatively small group tweeting, there were a lot of websites, videos, infographics and tools shared.

I should say that this is almost certainly not a complete list. In my backchannel curation naivety, I didn’t realise that you need to get in there very quickly before Twitter erases all evidence of the hashtag stream! I did manage to find the majority of tweets on Topsy, but I’m fairly sure it was an incomplete record. If you tweeted a link or resource which isn’t mentioned below, let me know and I’ll add it in.

Conference summaries and overviews:

Resources shared or mentioned by Nick Shackleton-Jones

Resources related to Nigel Paine‘s session:

Resources and websites mentioned in or related to Greg Williams‘ session:

Resources and websites mentioned in or related to NeuroSky’s session:

Miscellaneous tools, resources and websites:

Changes in language learning for busy adults

I’ve been learning foreign languages since primary school. I started with an after-school French club, added German and Spanish at GCSE and A-Level, studied French and Spanish at university and last year took up Greek. What’s perhaps unusual these days is that all my language learning has been done through traditional methods. Aside from a couple of Greek vocabulary flashcard-style apps, it’s been classrooms, textbooks and handwritten homework.

So I was really interested to see a ‘changes in language learning’ session on the programme for Learning 2012, facilitated by Jenny Zhu and Hank Horkoff. Several years ago Jenny and Hank created ChinesePod, designed to make language learning easier for adult students by combining modern teaching principles with new technologies. Lessons recorded as podcasts (often by Jenny herself – a native speaker of Mandarin) are accessible via mobile phone as well as online, offering total flexibility for learners to choose the appropriate difficulty level and route through the content depending on their personal interests or needs. Also available are flashcards, exercises, grammar notes and so on. ChinesePod saw huge success and earlier this year, Jenny and Hank sold it and started on their new venture, OpenLanguage. OpenLanguage has a similar aim: to help busy adults learn a new language by making use of the technology they already rely on.

Principles of language learning

Hank began by asking those of us in the room why we’ve chosen to learn second langauges. Responses ranged from the pragmatic (professional or relocation reasons) to the personal (ancestry or in-laws, for example), as well as lifelong interest in some cases. What is more consistent is that achieving competence in a foreign language takes time – years, usually. This is a very different beast from much of the workplace learning that most of us are involved in for our day jobs.

According to Hank, it’s generally agreed that three things are needed in order to achieve that competence:

  1. Level-appropriate input from a native speaker
  2. Review activities
  3. Speaking practice and feedback from a teacher

Problems in language learning

But – as anyone who’s tried to take up a new language as an adult, balancing it alongside other demands of work and family life, will tell you – there are some common and significant challenges.

  • Limited time and access: I’m lucky that I live in London, where it wasn’t too hard to find somewhere I could enrol in a Greek course, and that my work allows me the flexibility to work from home when required to ensure I can get to class on time! Not everyone has these luxuries, and finding courses that can be slotted into an already busy working week can be tough.
  • Lack of relevant and appropriate materials: Whether you sign up for a class, search for online courses, or take a self-study approach it can be very hard to find materials that hit the mark. All too often, the focus is on things like pets or school subjects – fine if you are a school-age learner, but perhaps not as relevant for adult learners who may need more business-focused vocabulary or more natural conversational tools for speaking to family, for example. In other cases, materials might be at the wrong level or even just plain boring.
  • Few practice opportunities: I’ve experienced this myself – in a large class, we do a lot of role play conversations in pairs, but chances to practise speaking with the teacher and get feedback are much more limited. And if you take a self-study approach rather than signing up for a classroom course, those opportunities to practise with a native speaker are even fewer and further between. While it’s possible to develop a very strong grasp of a language through writing, reading and listening, true fluency is incredibly hard – if not impossible – to achieve without that interaction with native speakers. Why else would universities send language students abroad for a year?
  • Varying levels of motivation: Personally, I’m driven to learn Greek because my other half is bilingual and it’s important that I can communicate with his family in Cyprus. I’ve also always enjoyed learning new languages, which helps a lot. But for people who are learning for less personal reasons, perhaps because of their line of work, it can be difficult to remain motivated, especially when you’re on the way to evening class after a long day of work or spending your weekends doing homework at the kitchen table like you did as a teenager!

The OpenLanguage approach

To try and overcome these challenges, OpenLanguage looks at the lifestyle of the typical adult learner and particularly the technology that’s already embedded in that lifestyle, and designs language learning options that fit seamlessly into it. OpenLanguage’s Tablet Textbook can be used on a smartphone, tablet or PC and delivers the core components of the traditional textbook with added multimedia and data benefits. ‘Edutainment’ lesson media is designed to bring the learning to life, combining native-speaker input with engaging delivery and real-life, relevant situations to help learners really get the most from the digital resources.

Hank and Jenny are not saying that classrooms and traditional language-learning approaches are completely redundant. But they do advocate making better use of those resources. In a 60-minute class, a total of about 15 minutes might be devoted to spoken practice with the teacher. The rest of the class is made up of instruction, review exercises and perhaps speaking practice amongst the group. Resources like those offered by OpenLanguage enable a flipped-classroom approach, making much better use of teachers for the things that really benefit from having a human, native-speaker instructor.

Making use of self-study data

One of the things that’s always put me off a self-study approach to language learning is not having any real measure of my progress. Given that my other half is fluent in Greek, I could have bought a few textbooks and worked through them with his help. But he’s not a teacher, he can’t always explain why something is right or wrong, and we’d probably struggle together to work out a sensible course of study and improvement.

Because so much OpenLanguage study is done on network-connected devices, there’s an oppotunity to collect data and use it to help address some of those challenges. For example, previously you might just use digital flashcards for spaced repetition; now your smartphone can record your ability to recall the right meaning or word, and then use an algorithm to intelligently schedule future reviews at appropriate intervals to help move the new vocabulary from short-term to long-term memory. Similarly, as data is logged on exercise or test scores, a recommended course of study can be developed, designed to stretch you to the next level at the right pace. So, rather than being potentially a second-best option, self-study becomes a personalised and adaptive learning experience.

OpenLanguage is also looking ahead to the creation of a ‘language graph’ or similar dashboard as an alternative to traditional language exams. This could provide a simple and accurate way to convey your language abilities – something which may well be far more useful for employers than a traditional language qualification.

Point-of-need language learning

By coincidence, just this morning I read an article by Imogen Casebourne about Google translate, the Babel Fish and the future of language learning. I absolutely agree with Imogen that even the Babel Fish wouldn’t render language learning obsolete, but certainly the ways in which we become multilingual are changing. OpenLanguage seems to offer structured, if more informal and self-directed, options. But I also like Imogen’s references to more point-of-need opportunities using GPS and augmented reality: I could definitely see this kind of thing being incredibly useful to me the next time I’m in Cyprus.

No doubt there are lots of other options out there and different people will inevitably have different preferences as their motivations and circumstances vary. What’s clear, though, is that those options will continue to expand and I for one hope that this will make it easier than ever before for people to take up new languages.

Image: winnond / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Learning 2012: the 30 Under Thirty experience

When I attended Learning 2012 last month, I was lucky enough to be there as part of 30 Under Thirty: a group of 30 ‘future leaders’ in learning and development. Actually, there were 32 of us in the end: Elliott explained that he usually expects a few to drop out so overfills the spaces; that didn’t happen this year but contrary to his on-stage threats at the opening session, the audience didn’t vote on which two of us to evict and we all survived the week!

Although 30 is a fairly arbitrary cut-off age, I think the concept is a good one. I thought I’d share some of the 30 Under Thirty experience, as well as what I got from it.

What was the 30 Under Thirty experience?

Our conference started ahead of time, with a private online networking space so we could start talking and planning for the conference. Some of the conversations were just getting-to-know-you chit-chat, but there were also some more professionally-relevant threads about what makes an online community successful or our greatest frustrations about workplace learning, for example. The week before heading to Orlando, we were also given some prep work: three questions to think about and answer (via email) in three words or less. I’m actually saving those questions (and our answers) for a separate blog post, but we used them as a starting point for some discussions on the first day of the conference.

As the hotel and conference suite began filling up with people checking-in, catching up and exploring, our 30 Under Thirty group was kicking things off with a lunchtime welcome session. Bob BakerEmily Fearnside and Nigel Paine introduced themselves and the programme, and went on to be wonderful organisers and guides throughout the week. Over lunch, we each introduced ourselves, our background and our hopes for the conference. And Elliott dropped by to chat to us, opening himself up for a no-holds-barred Q&A and sharing some motivational words to encourage us to get the most from the experience. He later hauled us all up on stage at the opening session so we could collectively introduce ourselves.

See more official photos from the conference at http://emasie.smugmug.com/Learning2012

This lunch-and-learn approach really became the model for our extra conference experiences. Each morning at breakfast, we were joined in our little room by one of the conference speakers, and again at lunchtime. Being able to chat more informally to people like Jenny ZhuRichard Culatta and Lisa Pedrogo was great, in terms of both delving a little deeper into the topics of their sessions and seeking advice for forging successful careers. None of these sessions were mandatory, but we had pretty much a full house for each one, so it’s safe to say that we all felt they were worth the early start every day!

On the first full day of the conference, we became ‘reverse mentors’ for an hour. Anyone at the conference – provided they were over 30 – could turn up to do some speed mentoring with us under-30s. It was fairly fluid and unstructured: apart from the facilitator with a timer telling us when it was time to find a new partner, there weren’t really any ‘rules’. Interesting conversations were had all round, although not necessarily about the things I’d expected. Thinking about the reverse mentoring in advance, I’d anticipated conversations about designing learning for younger generations coming into the workplace, or other learning-focused topics. In fact, the majority of the conversations I had or heard were about young people in the workplace more generally – our drivers, ambitions and ways of working. I had a really interesting conversation about what I look for in a manager, in colleagues and in an organisation and how this might affect or be affected by the move away from a job-for-life culture.

I wasn’t personally involved in any real-time sessions (which I explained in an earlier post), but many of my 30 Under Thirty colleagues helped facilitate these or other, scheduled sessions throughout the conference. And our super-sized badges were designed to be an invitation for anyone to stop and chat to us, so the programme really did run across the entire conference for us. A few of us were called back up on stage on the final morning at the closing session to highlight some of our key takeaways, and the experience is set to continue beyond Orlando with LinkedIn discussions and a series of lunch-and-learn webinars in the pipeline.

What did we – and I – get from it?

Prior to the final closing session, we spent our last breakfast slot together sharing our thoughts and takeaways, and many of the same things came up time and time again:

  • ‘Ask for forgiveness, not permission.’ More than one of our guest speakers offered this advice and, while it’s not necessarily a philosophy to work by all the time, I hope that hearing this from people who are equivalent to our bosses (or our bosses’ bosses!) will encourage us to be a little more adventurous.
  • ‘You are your own CEO.’ We were reminded that we need to drive our own development and take responsibility for our own brand and profile. Hearing this from people such as Lisa Pedrogo and Brian Poland, combined with the inspiring story of what Jenny Zhu has achieved before turning 30, was a powerful message.
  • ‘Understand the business.’ There wasn’t a single sound-bite to summarise it, but this message came through loud and clear in so many ways. In terms of both personal career development and the impact or effectiveness of learning teams, getting under the skin of and understanding different parts of the business was the top tip.
  • ‘If you’d like a mentor, ask.’ Mentoring was another of the hot topics amongst the 30 Under Thirty, endorsed by Nigel, Bob and Emily as well as other guest speakers. The main advice here was to make it happen: if someone seems like a good fit for you, approach them with what you’d like to achieve – don’t wait for someone to come to you!

Being part of 30 Under Thirty was a positive experience for me in another way on a more personal level. There were around 1600 people attending Learning 2012. It was busy, it was crowded and it was loud! I enjoyed having the option of retreating to a group-within-the-group, both at scheduled times and more informally. I’m not sure if this will come across quite as I mean it, but 30 Under Thirty anchored me, and gave me a sense of belonging from day 1, which I probably take for granted now at UK conferences but which I would definitely have otherwise missed at my first US ‘super-conference’.

Of course, the experience isn’t over – and that’s another of the benefits of 30 Under Thirty. We’re all connected on LinkedIn and Twitter, and discussions are already cropping up or continuing from the conference. Plans are being made for coffees and catch-ups as people pass through each other’s cities, and a series of Google Hangouts and lunch-and-learn webinars are being scheduled. This is probably the most valuable thing of all to come out of 30 Under Thirty: the new relationships that were formed and will be cemeted over the coming months.

(Thanks to fellow 30 Under Thirty Jodie Bennett (@alwaysdancin84) for the picture at the top of the page.)

Three themes at Learning Technologies 2012

This year’s Learning Technologies event was a bit different from previous years for me. In the past, working for a supplier, I’ve spent most of my time on the exhibition floor – although I gained something new from the experience each year. This year, though, I was able to really experience the conference as a delegate and a track chair.

Don Taylor and the team pulled off a bit of a coup with three impressive keynote speakers, along with a varied programme of topics and presenters. I’ve got pages of notes I want to look back over to help consolidate my takeaways and follow-up actions, but as I reflect on the two days there are three overarching themes that stick out for me.

  • Creativity and innovation don’t just happen – they require a conscious effort and a willingness to challenge the status quo. We as L&D professionals have a responsibility to question, rather than accept, the way things have been done before and find ways to generate and drive forwards new ideas.
  • We mustn’t lose sight of who we are designing learning solutions for – the users. It’s all too easy to give in to business requests for ‘click Next to continue’ e-learning or to allow dense, dry subject matter to become an excuse for ‘crapathy’. Keeping the end users front and centre in mind helps to deliver engaging, effective learning.
  • Sometimes, a back-to-basics approach is the right one. Edward de Bono held a full auditorium in the palm of his hand armed only with an armchair, OHP and pack of coloured pens – demonstrating that, in a world of flashy gadgets and ever-changing technology, less can indeed be more.

There is no shortage of blogs and articles out there already reflecting on Learning Technologies 2012 (and I’ll be adding more of my own over the next few days and weeks). I’d recommend following Kate Graham, the event’s official rapporteur, to make sure you don’t miss the best of the bunch.

I’m interested to know whether the three themes that stuck out for me were the same for other people – do we all take away different messages from these events depending on our roles, interests and pre-existing ideas, or are there a few broad themes that defined the conference for all attendees?