Tag Archives: engagement

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

Tweeting from conferences: what and who is it for?

Since I joined Twitter in 2010, I’ve attended and tweeted from quite a few conferences and events, from half-day single-session events to multi-track conferences over a few days. But, if I’m honest, I don’t think I ever gave how and why much thought until attending Learning 2012 last week.

The different environment, a number of conversations from the conference itself, and feedback from Twitter followers in the UK all combined to make me really examine why I tweet from conferences, whose benefit it’s for and what impact it makes.

Thinking back to past events, I suppose my use of Twitter has been a little erratic. I would sometimes tweet quotes or points that might be of interest to others. I’m not sure I gave much thought to whether those ‘others’ were people at the conference attending different sessions, or people following the conference backchannel from further afield. I would sometimes use it to follow tweets from other sessions, if I was either torn between two options or disappointed by the one I’d chosen! Very often, I would retweet other people’s thoughts, if I particularly agred. And, probably more than any of these, I would tweet general feedback on the overall structure, atmosphere and success of the conference.

So what changed at Learning 2012?

First of all, the people. At UK conferences, I’m generally surrounded by people I know and am already connected with on Twitter. Learning 2012 took place in the USA, with a fairly small UK contingent, so it was a whole different group of people contributing to the backchannel. Without really thinking about it, I suppose this just made me hesitate before jumping back into old habits and simply doing what I’d always done before.

Second, I had a few conversations with people during the conference about Twitter, how I use it and how I derive value from it. I was surprised by the number of people who use Twitter as their note-making tool. I’m still very much a pen-and-paper girl – although I increasingly find myself looking back at my own tweets and those of others to supplement my written notes – so I’m clear that, when tweeting from a conference session, it’s not for my own benefit. It follows that I’m tweeting for the benefit of other people, and when I gave it some thought I realised that the people I’m picturing are those who aren’t at the conference in person. I want to give them a taste of the atmosphere and the benefit of the learning. Just going through this thought process made me pay more attention to whether my approach actually delivers on that goal.

Finally, I noticed some feedback on the backchannel from L&D folk back in the UK. There were comments that the tweets coming out of Learning 2012 lacked context and clarity, more stream of consciousness than useful sharing for non-attendees. This may well be, in part, a result of the fact that many attendees were, as mentioned above, tweeting as a way to take notes for themselves and therefore thinking less about what others could take from their tweets. Or it may be partly cultural: perhaps the concept of the backchannel varies in different parts of the world, with contributers and followers having differing expectations. I’m not sure – people like Dave Kelly, Kate Graham and Don Taylor may be able to shed more light. Whatever the reason, this feedback made me sit up and examine my own tweets as well as the backchannel in its entirety.

So, on the Tuesday and Wednesday of the conference, I resolved to really focus hard on my contributions to the Learning 2012 backchannel. These are some of the things I did differently:

  • Started each session with a tweet confirming the name of the session and the speaker, so that anyone following my stream or the hashtag could identify if this was something they might want to keep watching.
  • Tried to send a tweet for each key point of the session, so that both live followers and people reviewing the stream later could see the broad structure and skeleton of the presentation.
  • Took photos of key diagrams or slides provided by the speaker, rather than trying to copy down lots of text or describe graphics in a 140-character tweet!
  • Where relevant, distinguished between points that I was quoting from the speaker and points that were my own additions, opinions or reflections, to avoid misrepresenting any speakers and confusing any followers.
  • Posed questions from the session on Twitter, to invite non-attendees into the discussion sessions; I also made sure to collate and share as many responses as possible from the room on Twitter, and vice versa.
  • Tried to send more tweets about content and learning than about atmosphere, location and new connections; I think both are important but there’s a balance to achieve.

I can’t claim to have affected the conference backchannel to any great degree, but I think that my own tweets out of Learning 2012 became more meaningful and more useful to my intended audience as a result of these changes. And I’ve definitely not mastered it overnight – there are other things I’m planning to do differently or in addition at the next event I attend:

  • Decide on my session choices further in advance, allowing non-attendees to send me questions beforehand that I could bring into the face-to-face discussion.
  • Prepare myself with links to session descriptions or speaker bios and add them to those start-of-session introductory tweets, to provide more context to followers.
  • Consider setting aside some time to blog summaries of or reflections on sessions at the end of each conference day, offering something more substantial to non-attendees more immediately than I’m doing now, for example.

The organisers of conferences can also do their part to really maximise the value of the backchannel, for both attendees and non-attendees. I mentioned in my previous post that this was something of a missed opportunity for Learning 2012 and look forward to seeing if they take a more organised approach to the backchannel next year. I’m also really excited to find out what Don and Kate have planned for Learning Technologies 2013, as I know they’ve been talking extensively about the backchannel and how to build on previous years’ successes in January. And, for anyone else who – like me – wants to start thinking more deeply about the value of what they tweet from a conference, Dave’s blog has some great posts and tips (including this one about what a backchannel actually is and this one curating the Learning 2012 backchannel resources).

Let me know whether you contributed to or followed the Learning 2012 backchannel and what your reactions were, as well as any other suggestions you have that I can take on board at the next event I attend.

Image: photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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?

Five days to better e-learning: a quick recap

If you were following last week’s series of blog posts about refreshing and improving an old e-learning course in five days, there was a lot to take in. If you were putting it into practice as you went, it will have been even more intense! So here is a quick recap of the key things we focused on.

We looked at everything from the big picture (learning outcomes, high level structure and flow, and overall character) to the detail (all components of interactions and specific wording choices). But each day we were working on things that one person with limited resources could do even with very little time.

We focused on one area each day for a week, making small changes that add up to a big overall improvement. I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty proud if I achieved all that in a week!

Now you’ve had some time to digest, and perhaps even implement, my suggestions from last week, I’d love to know what you think. Does this framework work for you? Is it achievable with your resources? Is there anything you think I’ve missed?

If you missed any posts last week, here’s where you need to go:

Finally, I initially designed this content for a webinar for the IITT and a recording is available for members. I’ll try to pop the slides up on Slideshare sometime soon for everyone else.

Better e-learning – Day 4: Tone of voice, style and character

After two long – but well spent – days focusing exclusively on improving your e-learning interactions, it’s time for something a little different.

Today we’re going to look at how we can bring your e-learning course to life and inject some personality into it. (For me, this is the really fun bit!)

As always, rather than simply tell you what I think, first of all I’m going to share what my webinar participants said when I asked them: what small changes can you make to your existing e-learning course to bring it to life?

Avatars are a great idea but within the constraints of our contrived scenario we probably can’t realistically incorporate these. They are a great aspiration though and something that’s definitely feasible in a more realistic situation – and don’t let the word ‘avatar’ put you off. It doesn’t have to mean virtual world style characters; many of the same benefits can be achieved simply through adding photographs of narrators or characters, for example.

Just as we found yesterday, there are more changes we could make to inject some life into your e-learning than we can possibly hope to achieve in a day. I’ve highlighted four that I think are quick, easy and high impact but ultimately it’s up to you to select the things that are most important to and will make the most difference in your organisation.

  • Apply some imagination to your titles

It’s Thursday morning and I know your creative brain might need a little time to warm up, so we’re not going to get stuck into the detail of the text in your course just yet. Instead, let’s spend some time seeing what we can do with the titles.

I think this is a great place to start, because the course title has a big impact on first impressions. I suspect many e-learning courses are effectively nameless until they’re completed, when a descriptive but not particularly engaging label is attached. This makes me sad for two reasons. Firstly, the course title is your chance to set the tone for the learning experience and to make sure your learners come to that experience in a positive frame of mind. Secondly, coming up with creative course titles can be really enjoyable.

I’d recommend thinking about it throughout the project lifecycle, jotting down ideas as and when they come to you, rather than setting aside a particular slot in your schedule to come up with the name. Having said that, I am putting you on the spot now with a challenge to review and improve your course title. To give you some inspiration, here’s what we came up with when I gave my wonderful webinar participants the same challenge.

Everyone came up with very different ideas, and in this there is no right and wrong. Clearly you need to consider the culture and constraints of your workplace, but a brainstorming session like this might well throw up some ideas for pushing the bounds of what you can do within those constraints. It’s a great exercise for challenging yourself to be a little more imaginative.

So once you’ve come up with a refreshed and revamped title for your course, see if you can take this further. Review the module or unit titles, and even the individual screen headings, to see where you might be able to inject a little burst of creativity. Remember, this is a quick and easy way to change the atmosphere of the course and influence learners’ first impressions.

  • Add contractions and shorten sentences

A friendly, conversational tone of voice is something that was suggested by a few webinar participants and this is definitely one of my top tips for improving an e-learning course. It almost goes without saying that an e-learning course which adopts a less formal and more natural ‘voice’ is more enjoyable and user-friendly than a very stuffy, formal course.

So how do you make your course’s voice more conversational? One of the easiest ways is to add in contractions: replace most instances of is not with isn’t, and so on. This reflects the way we speak in everyday conversation and is instantly easier and more pleasant to read. You don’t necessarily need to add a contraction in every single case; I’d suggest reading the text aloud to yourself, as this is the best way to discover where it sounds forced or unnatural. Those are the places where contractions will make the most difference.

Reading aloud will also help you identify any sentences that are too long and convoluted. If you’re struggling to get to the end of the sentence without taking a breath, perhaps you can rephrase it. These are quick and easy changes that really do have a big impact on the overall feel of your course.

  • Switch from third-person to first- and second-person

How many courses have you seen which talk about ‘the business’ or ‘the organisation’ and the things ‘it’ requires from ‘its employees’? Regardless of the content, for me this instantly creates a ‘them and us’ impression and the feel of top-down instruction.

I’d much rather my e-learning courses were inclusive and personal, and I’m sure you would too. Your learners all work for the same organisation, after all, don’t they? Luckily, this is not difficult to fix. It’s just a case of reworking the text from third-person (‘the business’, ‘employees’) to first-person (‘we’, ‘us’) and second-person (‘you’). Yes, this will probably take a bit of time – and it’s important to be consistent so you’ll probably need to check it through a second time in case you missed anything – but it’ll be worth it.

  • Add real-life examples or employee quotes

I’m probably being a little cheeky including this one as you couldn’t really do this on Thursday afternoon without having done some prior preparation. Nonetheless, you may well have some case studies, quotes and war or success stories from people in the business that are perfect for illustrating your key messages. Now is the time to dig them out and see where they might fit in. Just one or two will do, so don’t panic if you don’t have reams of examples to hand.

Obviously there are lots of different ways you could integrate this kind of material using animations, video, photos and audio. But even without much time or money, the benefit of this material can still be delivered simply by adding it in text format. It might just be a sentence or two here and there to illustrate a key point – perhaps highlighted using italics or bold formatting if you really want it to stand out. Even this low-tech approach will help add character.

So despite having no graphic design resource, we’ve made some significant changes today to the overall feel of your e-learning course, simply through making some subtle changes to the way things are written. You’ve now got a friendly, lively course that will make a positive first impression on your learners and maintain that impression throughout.

Better e-learning – Day 2: The right interactions at the right time

Today we’re going to take a look at the interactions in your e-learning course.

We’ll review what you’ve got, where they are (or where they should be, if there aren’t currently any interactions), and what they are focused on.

As before, we’ll break this down into four steps.

  • Take a big picture view

We’re going to start with my trusty ‘screen type index’ tool. I’ve talked about this in detail in a previous post so I’m not going to harp on about it too long here. Essentially it’s a table that allows you to review the balance and distribution of interaction in your course as it stands.

But what are you looking for when you review your screen type index? How often or where should there be an interactive screen? I asked the people on the webinar this question and got some varied responses. What I found most interesting was that some people said interactions are best placed at the end of a topic area (either to encourage reflection or to test understanding) while other people said the best place was often at the start of a topic area (to get the learner thinking).

  • Map interactions against the key learning points

Of course, there is no rule and both of these responses are valid. It’s certainly not a case of inserting an interaction every fifth screen or every seven minutes. For me, it’s about making sure that your interactions are mapped against your key learning points. (I’m talking about ‘testing’ interactions here – intellectually engaging activities – as opposed to ‘telling’ interactions.) Again, the screen type index is really useful in achieving this.

This is a slightly different variation on the screen type index: it includes not only the screen type but also the title and key message for each screen. Creating this table for your course will show you whether your interactions are focused on the most important topics. Peripheral or context-setting screens (like the second screen in the example above) probably don’t need to be interactive. But screens around key learning points are likely to benefit from ‘testing’ interactions (like the third, fourth and sixth in the example above).

Do you need to make any changes? If so, don’t panic that you need to create a new screen template: you don’t. Instead, look at the templates available to you already and find the one most suited to the content on the screen you need to tweak. It’s all about making use of what’s already in your course and adapting it so things are in the right place.

  • Change fact-checks to scenario-based questions

So far this morning we’ve mainly been reviewing the current balance and position of interactions. This was important preparation and it’s great that we can be confident your course is interactive in the right places, but now we’re going to really get stuck in. Just because there’s an interaction included for a key learning point doesn’t mean it’s the right interaction – we need to ensure it’s testing the right thing.

The example I used on the webinar was that of a customer service course, which includes a topic on making a good impression. Let’s imagine you’ve already got a quiz question on this topic, which is great because it’s a really key topic area when thinking about customer service. But let’s look at the detail.

The question asks ‘how many seconds does it take to form a first impression?’ I’m not sure this is a good question for this learning point. The chances are the learner will just guess, or randomly select one of the multiple choice options. More importantly, even if they weren’t just guessing, this really isn’t relevant back in the workplace. Your learners don’t really need to know how long they have before someone makes up their mind about them, do they? This is just a (fairly pointless) fact-check.

I challenged the people on the webinar to come up with some better alternatives to this question. Here are their suggestions:

I think these are good responses, although I have a couple of reservations. I’m not keen on free text responses as a general rule, so would always prefer to have options. But in some of the examples above, it might be quite difficult to make those options sufficiently challenging and plausible. For example, if you had a list of examples which the learner had to separate into good or bad in terms of making an impression, I suspect this would be a fairly easy activity. The introduction of an ‘arguable’ category might well go some way towards increasing the challenge.

With this in mind, I might take the interaction a step further and ask the learner about the consequences of certain things (like not knowing the job title of the person you are meeting, or failing to provide an out-of-office contact). This way, I’d be helping the learner to understand why as well as how.

  • Quick switches from tell-and-test to test-then-tell

So we’ve now got the right mix of interactions, on the right topics, with the right focus. We’ve also weeded out any unnecessary activities. That was quite a hefty job, so there’s just one more thing I want to do on Tuesday afternoon. We’re going to make some quick and easy switches that will result in questions driving the learning, not just recapping it.

Are there areas in your course where you tell the learner lots of stuff (theory, factual information and so on) before giving them something to do to check they’ve understood? If the answer is yes, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. As my webinar participants said earlier today, interactions fit well at both the start and the end of a topic – both have their place. But there are definitely benefits to putting the interaction first.

Perhaps there are some topics which the learner will have some knowledge of already – from previous training, or general work or life experience. In these cases, it might be worth putting the activity first – drawing on what the learner already knows and getting them thinking about the topic. Alternatively, if a topic is completely new to them, putting the interaction first is a great engagement tool when compared with pages of background and theory.

The test-then-tell approach also tends to result in deeper understanding and better retention. This is because it encourages intellectual engagement with the material, rather than simple memory recall. And it’s not hard to do: sometimes it’s as simple as swapping the positions of two screens.

With that, we’ve reached the end of Tuesday. Another intensive day, but a productive one – we’ve turned your course from something potentially tell-heavy and fact-based into something genuinely engaging and challenging. We’ve also made sure interactions are there for a reason, not just for the sake of it.

See you again tomorrow, when we’ll be sticking with interactions but looking at the options and feedback rather than the questions themselves.