How Virtual Learning Fails by Driving Conformity [Pt 4]

I’m sharing a series of articles that explore aspects of Virtual Learning and the ways that we build learning experiences over time. Having started with a view of what Virtual Learning is (and is not), we moved on to explore ways that it can be effective: today is the flip side of that coin, and we will explore ways that it can fail. Not a definitive list, but specifically by driving conformity. In common with the rest of these pieces, i will try to include Tips and related articles.

TIDY when creativity needs mess: an easy way to fail is to ask people to explore and be curious, but then to reward tidiness or reprimand mess. This is done when we assess or measure completeness, when understanding may be a work in progress and incomplete, or when we mistake conformity for success. Another expression of this is when learning leads to a divergence of answers and ideas, many of which we may not understand or agree with ourselves.

TIP: remember that not everyone learns like you, and thankfully not everyone learns the same things as you. Consider how to tolerate and welcome the mess, and plan in advance for how you will respond to divergence.

FAILS to cater for how we really learn: it’s possible to deliver an experience without actually catering for how people really learn or build capability. For example we can feed people content without catering for sense making, or giving structure and time to find the meaning, or we can fail to spread the learning out over enough time to allow for processing and application. Or a hundred other ways to fail: we can mistake ‘telling’ for learning, or ‘assessment’ for learning, when in fact what both of them may give us is simply a repetition that we ask for.

TIP: always ask yourself the question of whether you are looking for conformity, or true capability, and look to where your learning provides space for Demonstration, Exploration, and Reflection, as well as ensuring that your Assessment criteria are mapped to capability.

RELATED: for learning nerds, the work on Learning Methodology, in particular the sections on ‘Exploration’ and ‘Reflection’ may be of interest.

MOVES location but retains control. As i shared in an earlier piece in this series, the move to Virtual Learning provides a chance to create experiences, not simply events. But if we retain too much control, we can kill or exclude curiosity, and damped down creativity. Remember that space relates to control: some spaces (such as formal technologies that the Organisation owns) are inherently less trusted or free than social ones.

TIP: Remember that relinquishing control may need to be an explicit act, not an assumption.

PERPETUATES existing knowledge (when we seek something new): through our own understanding and enthusiasm, we may end up creating spaces for curiosity, but perpetuating existing knowledge within them. This can happen through the resources we curate, the ways we lead or moderate discussion, and the ways we assess learning. Existing knowledge is our foundation, but remember that a learning experience is something that allows every learner to lay down their own steps, and write their own story.

TIP: Look at your learning design and consider where the space sits for ‘sense making’, and to hear the stories that are written.

ABSTRACT of our everyday reality: it’s possible for us to create engaging learning experiences, but lack the space, support, or opportunity to reground that learning back into our everyday reality. As i have said earlier, one of the strength of Virtual Learning is that it can sit WITHIN our everyday reality, but location is not the whole picture: we must also design the activity and opportunity to carry learning into action, and from action back into a loop of review, sense making, and reflection.

TIP: use the notion of ‘Learning’, ‘Rehearsal’, and ‘Performance’ spaces to ensure that you have space that is differentiated for all three.

Related: see this piece that explores the three spaces, and how they are separated.

MONO CULTURAL and silences voices of difference: once again, this can be experienced within good cultures, but which rely on a model of learning that drives us to conform. It can be a feature of collaborative and co-creative spaces that they can drive us to conform to a dominant narrative of the group, so we ‘think’ differently, but ‘speak’ in consensus. It’s a feature of all co-created narratives that we have to exclude something of the individual, but if we drive too far in this direction we silence voices of difference, or of valuable dissent.

TIP: use active exercises to encourage people to explore and articulate, alternative views and voices, to explore a range of positions, and specifically to work as a group to articulate and understand the foundations of those differences.

Related: this piece explores how voices are silent, or silenced.

CONFORMS to established narratives: similar to the perpetuating of existing knowledge, we can fail if our learning conforms to the existing stories that we tell, and narratives of the Organisation. These can limit the space in which we get to play, not through explicit rules, but through the forces of social judgement and consequence.

TIP: use activities that encourage people to look outside the Organisation, into alternative companies or spaces, to see how their narratives are different, and then explore how your own Organisation reacts to alternative stories.

These aspects of failure are not all dramatic or absolute, but may rather reflect an opportunity that is wasted or squandered. If we wish for people to be curious and to explore, to truly learn, then we must understand the antibodies and behaviours that may prevent them from truly doing so.

Throughout this week i will share a short, practical series, exploring the context of Virtual Learning, intending to highlight some of the underlying design approaches, and providing some practical tips and techniques.

In the next piece we will explore meta-cognition and sense making.

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How Virtual Learning Works by Unlocking Curiosity [Pt 3]

This is the third in a series of articles exploring Virtual Learning and how we can design for curiosity and creativity. In the first piece we looked at a definition of Virtual Learning, and how we can use the move away from the office to build learning experiences that take place over time. In the second piece i considered the role of disturbance in learning, and how we each make our own ‘mosaic’ of the truth out of the pieces of our existing, and new, knowledge. The next two areas to look at are how virtual learning works, and how it typically fails.

STRETCHED Through Time: the most effective implementation of learning in virtual contexts creates spaces for people to explore, with an appropriate level of support and scaffolding. By doing this, we create space for curiosity, which relates back to what we discussed yesterday: how we find our own disturbance, and hence drive to learn, rehearse, and prototype, the new. But it shifts the onus onto design approaches that structure that stretched learning appropriately.

TIP – ask yourself whether you (or your Organisation) view spaced learning as the opportunity to ‘train and test’, or whether you use it as opportunity to ‘explore – sense make – implement’

Related: 10 Tips for Scaffolded Social Learning

EXTENDED Beyond Walls and Limits: we are able to connect globally, through technology, and also to move beyond the limitations of physics or physical ability, through simulations, and synchronous communication.

TIP: giving people space alone does not unlock curiosity – use structured exercises to do this, for example, journalistic story exercises, treasure hunts, collaborative quests, curation activities etc.

Related: This older piece shares and activity that uses a structured exercise. It’s not beautiful writing, but i hope it helps.

CO-CREATIVE Through Community Sense Making: later in this series we will explore how ‘sense making’ is both an individual, and collective, activity, but for now it’s enough to consider that the activities of our learning communities are central to the effectiveness of Virtual Learning experiences, which leaves us with two tasks. Firstly, we must build expertise in the formation, growth, and support, of these communities, and secondly, we must consider the ways that these communities share the stories that they write, the ‘sense’ that they make. This is a privilege that is earned, not demanded.

TIP: it’s easy to view ‘co-creation’ as the creation of valuable knowledge artefacts, and hence we focus our effort on finding and viewing those things. But co-creation is substantially a process of the loss of parts of an individual story, in favour of a consensus based collective one. So our effort should be on helping individuals learn what to carry forward, and what can be left behind. Or to put it another way: individual, and co-created stories, will never fully align, so we need to help people find trust, comfort, and safety, to share, and to listen and learn (we will also explore the levels of storytelling more deeply later in this series).

Related: my Community Builder Guidebook is free, and explores how we build and support learning communities.

DIVERSIFIED Because It’s Personal: the best Virtual Learning experiences will be diversified in what each individual discovers. We may all explore the same landscape, but the view we have along the way is different. The main landmarks may be identical, but the mud under our boots is different. But this leaves us with a challenge when much of the Organisational approach to learning can be held in consistency, conformity, and tidiness. Virtual Learning creates messy learning experiences, but which are more tightly grounded in our everyday reality. So more validated by the ground truth, and more applied.

TIP: ask yourself how comfortable you Organisation is with mess, and what the benefits are of diversified learning. Consider what you really need to be consistent and you can afford to be diverse. For example: leadership is partly about holding us safely within legal and compliance frameworks, and partly about compassion and excellence. Are both of those things held within rules?

DISPERSED Across Place And Technology: our own research clearly shows that we inhabit diverse ecosystems of technology, much of which is neither owned, nor controlled, by the Organisation that we work for. Our reasons for this are not particularly complex: we don’t trust ‘formal’ technology as much as the social, and true collaboration is a risky business, so we prefer to have edge-land spaces that are safer to engage in. Virtual Learning can hence unlock curiosity only if it ensures that it’s spaces are safe enough, which either means earning greater trust in formal technology, or finding comfort with some of your spaces being liminal or hidden.

Related: my Trust Guidebook asks 72 questions about trust, based on the global ‘Landscape of Trust’ research. It’s totally free, and intended to be very practical and applied.

The Trust Guidebook

TIP: go to where people are comfortable and collaborating, rather than trying to bring everyone under your control. And if you don’t know where these spaces are, use simple open stories to find out: ask people to write their story of their diverse ecosystem, and their reasons for being in different spaces.

COLLABORATIVE Across All Boundaries: at it’s very best, Virtual Learning is collaborative not simply across boundaries of space, but also of understanding. Because we are not seeking to build one conformist view of knowledge, but rather a diversified and grounded understanding, we are able to tolerate and indeed welcome different views. We can cross between communities that may not hold consensus. But only if we truly understand what collaboration means (and specifically ‘complex collaboration’), and are willing and able to engage in difference and dissent.

TIP: consider ways to engage across boundaries of difference and dissent. Provide support and training in techniques to listen in culturally fragmented spaces where social safety is not assured. Collaboration in known spaces to face known challenges, is easy. Complex Collaboration, where the problems are emergent, and we have to work beyond our tribes, is hard.

GROUNDED In Everyday Reality. Really this is the most compelling reason for building Virtual Learning journeys, experiences that are spaced across time, and which flow between taught elements, and social co-creation, grounded in the rehearsal of learning in our everyday world. In simple terms, ‘grounded in everyday reality’ means that during the learning itself, we put our emergent understanding into practice. Our task, for Instructional Design, is to create scaffolding and structure to support that. And to evolve our Organisational view of assessment to move beyond simple ‘success’, to include rehearsal and loops of learning, where we iterate our practice. We must also consider community coaching and performance support in these contexts.

TIP: consider how to build ‘loops of learning’, where, during the design, you plan action, take action in your real world, feed back on that action, conduct collaborative ‘sense making’ of your shared experiences, and plan further action.

These factors may all contribute to the design and delivery of successful Virtual Learning: the most important thing to consider is this: Virtual Learning is not a scripted journey but rather a landscape to explore. Curiosity is the driver for individuals to engage, and curiosity is something that we must earn the right to access. It cannot be demanded.

Throughout this week i will share a short, practical series, exploring the context of Virtual Learning, intending to highlight some of the underlying design approaches, and providing some practical tips and techniques.

Tomorrow we will explore how Virtual Learning fails.

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Virtual Learning: Designing for Curiosity and Creativity [Pt 2] – Breaking Yourself

This is a second part of a series exploring Virtual Learning, and the ways that we can design for curiosity and creativity. The series is based around some tips and techniques, so is intended to be practical and applied. I am writing it in parts, and today will be a short piece exploring how learning is a process of breaking yourself.

Within the comfort of our own minds, we seek to make sense of things: this layer of ‘sense making’ is just one part of a complex process, part of which is done in isolation, and part of which is done collectively, to figure out how the world works. So our knowledge, capability, and understanding, is held within frames that we have constructed, and ‘learning’ something new can be a challenge to this.

As we are exposed to new ideas, new knowledge, it rubs up against those things that we already know to be true, and one of several things may happen: we may simply adopt the new thinking wholesale, and incorporate it into what we know, we may take part of it and reject others, or we may deny it outright and stick to what we already have. Partly this is a conscious reflective one, and partly a subconscious and biased one.

With this in mind, i would normally say that learning depends upon disturbance: a disturbance to challenge, fracture, or replace, those things that we already know to be true.

In the context of Virtual Learning, this is important, because (as i explored yesterday), we are able to build ‘learning journeys’ that take place over time, and over time we have greater opportunity to introduce disturbance in interesting ways.

Of course, disturbance is just the start: once we have completed that ‘sense making’ process, we build a new version of our private truth. A mosaic made partly of the old, and partly of the new.

That’s why i drew this piece: to show how the thing we learn is constructed, and constructed on a personal level. What i build may be different from what you construct. Not radically different, but perhaps using a few different tiles.

Mosaics are made up of tiny tesserae, each of which is abstract until it’s relative position gives a overarching picture. It was common to dig up an old mosaic to make a new one, hence why i borrowed the image.

Again, i find this useful to understand learning: even if we gave everyone the same picture to begin with, as we break and reform ourselves, we diverge. Keeping some of the same pieces, for sure, but also incorporating, or even making, new ones.

Perhaps the image that the mosaic makes is one that is only visible to ourselves.

This leaves us with some practical things to consider, notably, where does the disturbance come from?

It may be imposed from outside, or found from within (and again, this is a tick for Virtual Learning Journeys: they create space to ‘find it from within).

We can use diagnostics to indicate a disturbance, or indeed we can disturb people to learn just by telling them to. But better is to consider how we find it within: through curiosity, through creative activity, or within our communities.

An early question to ask ourselves in Learning Design is about where will the disturbance occur, and to plan our design accordingly.

It’s easy to get hung up on the mosaics that people will construct, but perhaps we should focus more on the mechanisms by which they take apart the old, and how we can celebrate and learn from the diversity of images created.

Throughout this week i will share a short, practical series, exploring the context of Virtual Learning, intending to highlight some of the underlying design approaches, and providing some practical tips and techniques.

Tomorrow we will explore how Virtual Learning works, or fails.

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Virtual Learning: Designing for Curiosity and Creativity [Pt 1]

Virtual Learning is not just a change in where we deliver learning, but rather a change in the way we design it. In this series, i will explore some of the underlying ideas, and some practical tips and techniques for the creation of virtual learning experiences that are rigorous, engaging, and effective.

There are a bewildering host of terms used to describe the design of learning and the varied mechanisms of delivery, almost none of which have commonly understood meaning: from distance learning to remote, virtual learning to digital, mobile learning to distributed.

I am going to use the term ‘virtual’ to describe learning that is delivered primarily through technology, but which includes live online sessions and support, as well as participation within a learning community. But really, i would always say that our primary interest should just be in ‘learning’, because good design focusses on outcomes and the journey to get there, through whatever channel.

Even within this definition of Virtual Learning, i will make a further distinction: between ‘Event’ based, and ‘Experience’ based, which broadly means the difference between one off short sessions (like a webinar), and programmatic approaches, which see multiple touch points over time.

It’s primarily the latter that i am interested in, as it is this which has the greatest potential for delivering quantifiable learning (if we design it right, and support it well).

I say that not simply because of the technology that powers it, but rather because Virtual Learning approaches that deliver an experience allow us to do some fundamentally useful things: we can spread the learning out over time (spaced repetition), we can create opportunities for rehearsal within the learning itself, we can be grounded in the everyday reality of the learner, and hence we can focus on the skills, capabilities, and behaviour change needed in a really dynamic and iterative way.

Or to put it more simply: event based learning allows us to think about things, whilst experience based learning allows us to actually try new things out within the context of the learning itself.

Or to put it yet anther way: event based learning is always inherently abstract, leaving us with the challenge of putting it into action, whilst experience based learning is inherently applied (still leaving us with a challenge, but an easier one: to relate action back to framework and theory).

TIP: create experiences to explore, not simply events to attend. That is not to say that we should not do stand alone events, but when we do so, ensure that there are parallel ‘sense making’ sessions, or that they are signposted into a broader narrative.

The pandemic has forced many Organisations to move learning away from face to face delivery, into remote contexts, with great speed. But it’s worth remembering that the move to Virtual is more than simply a change in the ‘where’ we deliver, it’s a change in the cognitive context of delivery. It’s learning coming to us, rather than us to the learning, which may sounds trivial, but has significance when you consider it in terms of the three spaces that an Organisation should maintain.

Learning is where we bring something new in, whilst Performance is where we put it into action. Many Organisations almost entirely miss the central stage, of Rehearsal. A Socially Dynamic Organisation, by contrast, will clearly hold all three spaces: clear spaces to learn, clear spaces to rehearse (prototype, loop, experiment, feedback), and clear spaces for Performance.

It is much easier, in the context of Virtual Learning Design, to include Rehearsal space within the learning design itself, as part of the journey. So although the context of the shift is a difficult one, an outcome may be positive in terms of the quality of learning we are able to design.

Let’s look back at the central topic of ‘Virtual Learning’, but this time put three lenses onto it: ‘Outcome and Effectiveness’, ‘Method and Modality’, and ‘Scaffolding and Space’.

The first set represents why we are doing the learning in the first place: it’s about the disturbance that bought us here, and the question (at least in Organisational Learning) of how we will be better able to do our job at the end of it.

The second represents the method by which learning is designed, and the mechanisms by which it is delivered: it’s about how rigorous we are in the design, and technically how we distribute it.

The third is about the ways that the learning is constructed to account for tacit knowledge and experience, and the spaces we have to learn and rehearse within.

Essentially the three spaces represent [1] what we want to achieve through the learning, [2] how we intend to achieve it and [3] the spaces and structure that we will do that within. We should be able to tackle each of these spaces in turn.

But a thing to look out for is to what extent the pressures of Organisational context force us to become fixated on the second one, and in particular the specific technologies of distribution, or the mechanisms of engagement.

So we talk about co-creation, about virtual, about remote, about journeys, but we are unable to answer the fundamental question of ‘what do you want to achieve. Why are we even building this learning solution?

Whenever a new project comes your way, ask that fundamental question: what are we trying to achieve, and pay particular attention to whether that is framed in terms of a description of interaction, or a definition of effectiveness. E.g. ‘lots of engagement and discussion’ or ‘high scores in post session feedback’ are not outputs that relate to outcomes and effectiveness.

Throughout this week i will share a short, practical series, exploring the context of Virtual Learning, intending to highlight some of the underlying design approaches, and providing some practical tips and techniques.

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#WorkingOutLoud on Virtual Learning Design Tips

I’m delivering a session later this week around Virtual Learning, and specifically the role of curiosity and creativity in learning. I’m trying to make it a mix of the thoughtful and the applied: so a bit of a ramble through the Landscape of Curiosity, and then some specific techniques, tips, and two case studies of what you can actually do about it. Today i am just #WorkingOutLoud sharing some of the illustrations i’ve done for it. I may build out articles around some of these in due course.

This first one poses the simple question of what you are trying to achieve from a shift to Virtual.

These next two are about what can go right…

… and what can go wrong!

This final one (still in progress) i am working on to explore metacognition, trying to find the right layout and language to encourage Instructional Designers to consider what it is, and how we plan for it within design.

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Slaying the Beast: Why Change Is Hard

Change is often thwarted not by outside factors, lack of budget, or too little time, but rather by the sheer momentum, mass, and nested power, of existing systems. Organisations act like a beast that demands it’s favourite food over and over again, and at an individual level, to shape, drive, or participate in change can feel like an unbearable task. We are faced by a challenge: do we continue to feed the beast, failing to change, do we feed the beast but seek to tame it, or do we try to slay it and hope that, from the ashes, a more agile phoenix will emerge?

To answer this question requires us to ask a fundamental but related question: what do Organisations actually do?

There is a range of work: some is vital work, some is curious work, some is necessary work, and some is busy work, or just work we do because it’s comforting, connective, or compliant in the social norms.

Vital work is the purposeful work of the Organisation: if you make clocks, then clock making work is part of the horological purpose of the entity. You need to do vital work.

Curious work explores new ways of clock making: at the outer edges of chronological knowledge, you want some people to be doing curious work, or possibly you want everybody to be doing fragments of curious work everyday, to probe the limits of the achievable, to innovate, to learn.

Necessary work is not directly productive, but is essential for production to occur: stock takes, training, paperwork, and audit. Not exciting, but important. You don’t make clocks when you are ordering clock hands, but you cannot make a clock without a supply of hands.

Busy work is the stuff we do because it fills the time. It’s neither directly productive, not necessary, but still it is done because of a range of reasons: possibly everyone else is doing it so you don’t want to stand out, perhaps it’s a formal metric of work that just needs to be measured for no reason, perhaps it’s an artefact from a derelict process that persists. Or maybe it’s just fun, or acts to reinforce current domain, hierarchy, and structures of power, who have a vested interest in it persisting.

Organisations persist: it’s one of their defining traits. Very few Organisations set out with the express purpose of becoming extinct. And as they persist, they often lose the balance of vital, curious, and busy work.

So how do we tackle the diet?

If you do not feed the beast, it will become angry and bite you. But if you just feed the beast everything it desires, it will become fat and lazy. So do you try to tame it? Keep it happy enough, but aim to tempt it into a new space? Or do you just give up, and seek to slay it?

That’s a challenge: taming the beast sounds appealing, but who are you fooling? Many beasts tolerate our efforts, whilst ignoring the stimuli. They drool, but still get lazy.

But outright conflict, a battle, and a dead beast, leaves you with quite a challenge, because the vital work ceases.

Of course, there is no one answer, but as with many aspects of leadership, there is a metacognitive perspective!

Lift yourself above the scene and look down: what are you doing?

How often are you feeding, how often do you seek to tame, and when can you be seen with your sword in your hand? And from this new perspective, do you have the balance right?

If you are not sure, your Communities are the place to find out: if you all complain about the same thing, but the thing persists, then the chances are that you are feeding the beast. So explore new behaviours.

Change is ultimately a matter of individual agency: give enough people the space, guide rails, and resource, to change their own actions, and aggregate that up to Organisational size, and you may just realist that the beast was simply a shadow. But finding the perspective, permission, and capability to do this can get you eaten along the way.

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A Story of Leadership

We live in a time of uncertainty and change, where complex challenges will require creative solutions, and strength will lie in agility and invested engagement.

The Social Age sees an evolved social contract between employee and Organisation, the emergence of powerful social communities, enhanced accountability, and the democratisation of technology, leading to a rebalancing of power and evolution of society itself.

The proud heritage, strong global team structures, and clear hierarchical leadership that many of our Organisations carry will not suffice to meet challenges that extend beyond the known and beyond the system that we can see.

social Leadership 100 - Complex Collaboration

We will need to collaborate in complex ways, discover answers in silent spaces, and learn to reach out across the cultural rifts that divide us.

The other legacy strengths that we carry may not be enough either: assets and systems, processes and control, these are the things that carried us to scale and strength in a known world. They are our industrial legacy. But what if we need a new type of Organisation for a new type of world?

How will we find it. Or how will we build it?

We will need leaders, both Formal and Social, but Leadership Development must be about more than handing out answers: it should be about creating the landscape and space within which we can learn to lead.

And part of that journey will be to listen: to listen to a broadly empowered and enabled Organisation where every voice is heard, and agency is broadly shared.

Because the Organisation of the future, a Socially Dynamic Organisation, will be one that is not authored from above, but rather a story that is written from within.


It will be an Organisation of narrative spaces, democratised learning, distributed power, and interconnection.

It will trade in two spaces: the formal space of hierarchy and process, system and control, and the social spaces of community and innovation, reputation and pride. It will create spaces where individuals can willingly invest, beyond their time alone.

Some of our leaders will hold positions at the top of the Organisation, and others will hold reputation within the system. Some will be formal, and others Social. But all will act with humility, a willingness to learn, an acceptance that they will sometimes be wrong, but will be held within a culture that rewards this vulnerability within the arms of a broad and strong community.

This will be a culture that hears weak voices, that is able to move beyond the legacy of the industrial Organisation, and into the potential of the truly Social one.

It will be proud not of commercial achievement alone, but of collective action: it will be successful, but not at any cost. This type of Organisation will be deeply fair, and socially accountable: not squatting upon it’s local communities, but built alongside them.

The leadership we need is a leadership of humility, trusted in execution, authentic in action.

Leadership within broadly curious systems that learn: learning to change.

And if we want this type of Socially Dynamic Organisation, we will have to build it: one step, one word, one action at a time.

There will be a cost, and a leader is the one who asks what price needs to be paid, and to ensure that people are only asked to pay according to their ability.

There will be a weight to be carried, and the leaders we need will be the ones who ensure it is carried fairly.

Our success will not simply be celebrated by loud voices, but will be carried into the silence, by leaders whose instinct is to reach out beyond the noise.

This is the opportunity: to be the leaders that we desire, to be the leaders that we need.

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