I’ve been rather overwhelmed by conversations about how Organisations can rapidly and effectively take existing face to face programmes and repurpose them to be remote, or to design effective distance learning from scratch. Whilst i don’t want to add noise into this space, i thought that i would write a piece here to provide a framework to consider, as well as some practical guidance and ideas. Of necessity, this piece is not too long, but i have included links to some longer form writing and my books around these areas.
I should start with the view the distinction we should draw is not between ‘face to face’ and ‘virtual’ learning, not between ‘eLearning’ and ‘Social Learning’, or ‘Lectures’ and ‘Self Directed’. There is simply good learning design, and bad learning design. Simply learning that is effective, and that which is not.
There are some valid distinctions to draw, and there are certainly differences between what can be effectively achieved through different modalities e.g. there are things that you can do with workshops that you cannot do with eLearning, etc. But in essence, the cognitive process of learning is what we should be most interested in, not the specific modality or mechanism, unless that modality of mechanism has an evidence based impact on outcome.
An element of pragmatism here on two fronts: cost and application. Many decisions (possibly most) about learning within an Organisation are influenced to a great degree by cost, and immediacy of application. Cost is a factor because most learning must be scaled to hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of times, and immediacy of application because learning is viewed as an investment in the ‘now’, or the near future. But this is not a complete view of learning: learning can be abstract (learning latin, or philosophy) and not taken on with any intent to apply it. But for the purposes of this piece, i am focussed on the type of learning that Organisations are interested in: knowledge (of things, rules, and systems), and behaviour (specifically that which relates to productivity, compliance, and change).
I have laid out seven lenses through which to view learning, and for each will present a short overview, and some ideas for how it may appear in application. As i have said, this is not a definitive view, just intended as a provocation and prompt to action.
Learning as a Journey
Learning is best viewed as a journey, and a journey that takes place over time, and through different spaces. Face to face workshops, or ‘event based’ learning, essentially any learning that is constrained by time and place, and takes place outside the everyday reality of our day to day work is to some extent abstract. By contrast, Social Learning is an approach which takes place over time, often within the context of your everyday work. But the two are designed differently to account for the different structures and contexts of learning. So just moving ‘face to face’ into a remote delivery (through technology) is unlikely to deliver different results. You are changing the mode of delivery, but not the architecture of the experience.
And what is the difference?
In general, workshops and face to face experiences are internally self referential: you learn, process, and assess, the content during the course of the session itself. Whilst with Social Learning you carry out most of the ‘sense making’ and application over a guided series of activities and events over time. We can call this an element of ‘external validation’, because the learning is done within the context of your everyday work. But of course all of this depends upon how well the learning is designed: bad Social Learning is just ‘content’ given remotely, and good face to face training includes clear signposts to application.
So what can we practically do as we move more (or in the current crisis, all) learning to be remote?
- Create learning journeys – spread learning out over time – if it was a one day workshop, make it three 100 minute sessions.
- Break those journeys into discrete chapters – in some you will deal with content – in some you will analysis or processing through structured activity – in some you will deal with application.
- Focus on underlying methodology to shape this: set Context, provide space for Demonstration, a chance to Explore etc
Mistake to avoid: don’t just broadcast content.
Disturbance, Sense Making, and Doubt
Learning is always contextual, and part of the context is how we arrive at it in the first place. I don’t mean the commute into work, but rather the cognitive route to the front door. It’s worth considering this as ‘disturbance’: we need some disturbance in order to learn – a sense that what we know is not enough, a sense that we want to take something new on board.
Disturbance can come from outside (i tell you to learn something) or within (you decide you want to learn something). But without any disturbance, we may not learn, because our existing maps and frames of reference suffice. For example: if you want to lose weight, you may read up on the science, or watch YouTube videos, but the initial prompt to that action is the desire to lose weight. And that may be because you notice yourself that you want to be fitter or because a physician tells you to. Internal or external moderation is important. Because if you do not know that there is any disturbance, you may not get anyone to learn.
This may sound conceptual, but it’s actually highly practical: as yourself this – does the disturbance already exist, or do we need to create the space for it to emerge. Workshops and event based learning typically assume that the reason exists, whilst Social Learning (which as we have said typically takes place over time and space) typically takes you on a journey through a landscape of curiosity whereby you may identify and contextualise for yourself what you need or want to learn.
So what to do about this as we rework out learning to be remote?
- Ask yourself if the disturbance already exists, or if you need to create space and opportunity for people to explore what exactly it is that they want or need to learn.
- If there is disturbance, ask yourself what will make it ‘safe’ again: is it a body of knowledge to be learned by rote, or is it new behaviour, or understanding, or something else? If you can’t answer that question, then the learning has rotten foundations. If you can answer it, then ask yourself whether the original learning experience fulfilled that need. And then ask yourself how you can fulfil that need remotely: if it’s knowledge, then it’s easy, but if it is behaviour, or understanding, you will need different approaches (community conversations to build understanding, rehearsal and prototyping behaviour with contextual feedback to develop behaviours)
- As a rule of thumb (and this is a weak argument i know, so discount it if you like), the more external the disturbance, the harder it is to make if successful remote. If you have people locked into a room you can get them to do a course, but if it’s self directed, social, and remote, it’s much harder to get engagement if there is no internal moderation or internally sourced disturbance – so you may need to create space to find that disturbance.
- I’ve mentioned ‘Community’ above in terms of building ‘understanding’ but the broader question is ‘where does understanding come from’, or to use a different term, where do we do our ‘sense making’?
‘Sense making’ is a catch all term for convenience, it relates to how we figure out what it all means, and it’s a specific capability that is done both inside the comfort of your own head, and collectively within our learning communities (but with different mechanisms and outcomes – individual activity leads to a personal understanding, whilst group dynamics can lead to collective understanding that is not owned in the same way).
As we move to remote learning models, we must actively consider where sense making takes place, how we support it, and what is means for e.g. assessment. Some things to consider:
- Don’t just assume that Sense Making happens: engineer it in through structured opportunities and activities. There is nothing inherent in Social or remote delivery that leads to automatic sense making.
- You have to build the Community before it can make sense of things – i explore this in great detail in the Community Builder Guidebook, but essentially don’t think you can go from zero to effective without putting in the effort, time, energy and leadership, to create space for these communities to grow.
- If you have ‘sense making’ in place, then create spaces to hear the ‘sense’ that has been made.
So we need ‘disturbance’, to set up space to learn, and ‘sense making’ to make sense of what we learn.
So what about ‘Doubt’?
Doubt is something for us to hold individually (do we believe what we are learning), and Organisationally (what if we ‘doubt’ the stories shared by the community). That latter piece is one of the hardest aspects of Social Learning: Organisations typically thing that the challenge will be engagement, but the real challenge is how they respond when they hear stories that they do not like.
So what do do about doubt as you move your learning to be remote?
- Remember that just because workshops and formal assessment let you measure completion and assess compliance, it did not necessarily remove doubt – it may just have been very effective at silencing it.
- Create structured opportunities to share doubt: listen to stories of doubt and difference with a humility to learn from them. Under a Social Model of learning, we are trying to access the tacit and tribal knowledge of a community, so it would be naive if we immediately discounted or dismissed that knowledge.
Tomorrow i will delve further into these areas.