Browse Month by March 2011
Learning design, Online learning

How do we ensure competency?

Is training really the answer?

I’ve just watched Craig Taylor’s excellent Pecha Kucha ‘Using technology to enhance an assess-train-assess approach’ in which he shares examples of how assessing competency levels before automatically mandating everyone attend the same annual refresher has had a positive impact on business.

When I hear people talking about the need to design a course here may be some reasoning behind it:

a) there is an update
b) compliance -staff are required to attend refresher training every year whether they need it or not
c) there’s some new approaches to working practise

However, before you automatically go through the usual motions and go down the ‘we’ve got to design a new course’ why not ask yourself the following questions:

How much do they know already?

How often would they carry out that work?

and the biggie…. What REALLY tells you whether they are competent or not?

Why do we insist on putting everyone, no matter how experienced they are in the subject, through a course before establishing whether they actually need it? Even when the instructional design is top notch including relevant task based interactive activities, it’s a waste of resources and staff time if they already know the subject matter and are applying successfully. Of course we need to maintain quality and adhere to legal requirements but is herding us all through one-size-fits-all courses the most efficient or, indeed, effective way of doing this?

It seems we often pay more attention to recording ‘bums on seats’ – virtual or otherwise instead of establishing the quality of work performance. So our workforce are all too often taken off their important jobs and attend compulsory training where there is limited flexibility in what they can choose to do. There is a simple, logical and very effective solution – assessments not courses.

As I said in a comment to Ryan Tracy’s blog post ‘online courses must die‘ “why force individuals to go through the same mandatory content year after year when all they may need is a yearly, skills based assessment. If that assessment highlight skills gaps then a more flexible learning programme will make sure individuals learn only what they need not what they don’t”

Now I’m not saying that we’ll never need formal courses ever again. This would be ridiculous and untrue. Besides, I’d be talking my way out of a job if I do that. There are many reasons why someone will need formal courses. But before we decide, we do need to be more analytical before designing how to facilitate our workforce’s learning paths. Yes, it may mean more hard work gathering all the information you’ll need. Yes, it will mean we would need to encourage ownership of learning more to the individuals themselves and help them develop their meta-cognitive skills. And yes, it will mean L&D professionals would then become more cultivators of learning.

When reflecting on why this ‘herding’ approach occurs so frequently, I was reminded of a conversation I had recently around the reluctance in considering just assessing staff to prove competence before deciding whether anyone needed more formal training. It appears it all boiled down to the quality of the assessment – or rather the poor quality of the assessment. This meant that everyone had to be forced to attend the same training course to make sure the content was covered (not I didn’t say learned) and which could be tracked for statistical purposes and to prove attendance.  Now, correct me if I’m wrong but the whole point of an assessment is to test whether a person is competent in the subject matter.

If you spend the valuable time and effort in creating great learning programmes, whether they are formal courses or a collection of learning nuggets on-demand, the only way learning can be confirmed is by completing an assessed activity.  If that assessment can easily be ‘guessed’, then the learner doesn’t have to use any problem solving techniques to analyse and apply.  If you honestly have little confidence in the assessment at the end of a learning programme, of course you won’t want to put it out there on its own.  It will about as much use as a chocolate  teapot!

We’ve often discussed what makes good learning, ‘e’ or otherwise. What now begs the question is “what is good assessment?”

Blended Learning, Reviews

The New Learning Architect – A review

On 7th January, Clive Shepherd announced the advent of his new book The New Learning Architect. I waited impatiently for it’s arrival later that month and promised a review. I wasn’t disappointed – not that I thought I would be – and dipped in and out of it when time allowed. This didn’t do it justice and before writing the review, needed to give myself dedicated time to read it all through in a shorter time. Even now, I know I’ll enjoy reading it all over again and still take more away.

Clive Shepherd, author of The Blended Learning Cookbook, is a consultant in learning technologies and their application in the workplace.

I reviewed his Blended Learning Cookbook 2nd edition where I predicted that his new work would likely take blended learning to a new dimension. Boy did it ever!

Clive starts explaining why a ‘learning architect’. “An architect is someone who creates the plans from which others build” and likens a learning architect to that of a building architect. Building Architects designs “environments for living” whereas the learning architect designs “environments for learning”. Although they wouldn’t necessarily become involved in building the environment they would have to have detailed knowledge of current research to design suitable and safe environments. Not only will they have to meet the brief but consider the needs of the inhabitants.

Clive affirms what it really means to be a learning architect. We hear of the responsibility they have to advise and consult with the client on what would be most appropriate, drawing on their expertise in adult learning theories, brain science and learning technologies. Learning architects, he says, are not order takers – order takers are builders not architects.

The New Learning Architect reflects on how there has been a battle between delivery options in the past where you either had to choose between one or the other e.g. classroom v eLearning; formal v informal and people were firmly footed in one or other of those camps. What this book clarifies is that there is no need to choose sides. Each would work with not against the other where appropriate and towards one goal. It is the learning architect’s role to establish, based on the situation, how these options would work together.

Clive investigates when formal learning interventions are more or less appropriate and under what circumstances the learners can take more responsibility for their own continued professional development. We also see how we can provide opportunities for them to become more self-directed and independent. He goes on to explore the various contexts in which learning will occur:

  1. experiential
  2. on demand
  3. non-formal
  4. formal

The book also explores why it’s important to look at these contexts from two perspectives – top down (directed from the organisation) and bottom up (directed from the individuals) and why there is a place for both perspectives in learning at work. This book will guide you to establish what types of learning contexts will be suitable for your particular requirements, what types of top down or bottom up approaches to consider.

Whole chapters are dedicated to each of the four learning contexts in which Clive provides examples of various learning activities and media tools, when they are best used and when to avoid them. He also explores them from each perspective.

Clive discusses how important it is for people to be motivated to learn and that when breaking down the barriers to access resources, people will learn when the need arises. We also hear that it’s down to the good design of the instructional methods rather than the delivery medium that will ensure success.

In a recent article in the eLearning Age about the 702010 framework, John Helmer calls for a template or a model to help L&D professional implement informal learning and until there is one, informal learning will be more style than substance. Well, The New Learning Architect does just that. Here L&D professionals can take Clive’s four contexts for learning together with his explanation of top down and bottom up approaches as that model.

So who is this book for? Well, I would recommend this book to anyone who is remotely interested in improving results and investing in the development of a workforce whether a large multi-national or small business.

I recommend this book to all those senior managers and CEOs who call for courses (eLearning or otherwise) as panaceas. This book will help you establish whether there really is a formal training need and help you seek advice from your learning and development professionals so that the most effective and efficient solution to a business need is put in place.

If you are a more experienced learning and development professional; if you have benefited from the Blended Learning Cookbook and already implemented some successful blended courses, this book will guide you beyond training and help you take learning into the workplace. It will help you explore and employ informal and social learning methods. It might also encourage you become more architect than builder by advising rather than taking orders from those who don’t know any better.

And if you are new to learning and development then this book will be a welcome guide taking you through the different learning contexts and providing your with lots of examples and case studies.

The New Learning Architect is available on Kindle and from Lulu. Oh and Onlignment will be reviewing individual chapters inviting open discussion too. It’s probably the cost of a couple of drinks or a cinema ticket but could be worth £1000s in improved results.


6 ways for using podcasts in learning

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Recently I listened to the last CD of the audio book ‘The Elephant to Hollywood‘, the latest autobiography from Michael Caine. It was a requested Christmas present and I decided on the audio book rather than the hard copy or Kindle version for a number of reasons.

  • I have hundreds of books and just rarely get the chance to read for pleasure these days (something I have to change);
  • I spend a lot of time in the car or in hotels and at the end of a day’s training my eyes are too tired to read;
  • Michael Caine was reading his own book which was the selling point to me as it would certainly bring it to life;
  • I had previously bought his last audio book (then on tape back in 1993 and enjoyed that one too);

It was something that I listened too in snippets each trip I made. However long the trip, it sped by listening to his distinct tones. I laughed out loud and cried in places. I love driving anyway but looked forward to my longer trips so I could hear more.  Although at time it was clear that he was reading it because at times there was a little less fluidity to the narration, on the whole it was pretty much like listening  to the stories as if being recounted from memory with the help of notes.

When the last CD came to an end I could have listened to it all over again. I probably will because, as often happens even when listening to the radio, I zone out at times and don’t actually listen to every word.   Maybe some extract of the story sparked a memory or it took me back to one of the films. So the next minute or so the voice just became background noise.

Some weeks after finishing the audio book, I wouldn’t be able to recite it back to you or even give you details of what was said in a particular chapter.  However, certain things will trigger memories of parts of the book and they became clear in my mind again.

Then I began to reflect on my experience and thought how closely it linked to listening to podcasts for learning and what we could use them for.


1. Tell a story

If you are planning on a monologue, consider making it more along the lines of story-telling.  Perhaps someone could share a little anecdote about how celebrating a colleague’s birthday in the staff room complete with birthday cake and candles literally sparked a full blown fire evacuation, two fire engines and lots of fire crew.  Yes, folks it did actually happen – I was there – and no it wasn’t me!  Not only would it be an amusing story to tell but something to use as a learning discussion point.


2. Chunk it

Even though the audio book took a while to get through it was divided up into CDs and then chapters on each CD.


3. Keep them short

It will depend on the type of podcast and your audience of course but consider keeping them between 20 and 30 minutes.  This makes it easier for people to fit into their busy schedules; it’s quicker to download and manage smaller audio files too.


4. Have a conversation

Try and go for a more conversational style piece such as an interview or a simple discussion between two or more people.  We tune out to a single voice much more quickly which is why I think I might have ‘zoned’ out at times even though I found Michael Caine’s story-telling fascinating.  Think about why we like listening to the radio.  After all, it’s been popular for decades.


5. A roving report style

Why not go for more of a reporter style podcast?  With some creative writing and some keen amateur dramatics people involved you could report on an ‘incident’  where the reporter might have been one of the first at the scene. 


6. A quick briefing

podcasts could even be used purely to introduce the programme or provide some background behind an initiative. It’s a lovely way to get the human touch into your self-paced online programme instead of recording a video of yourself.


Really, if you just think about how radio is used, your podcasting world is your oyster and very easy to include in your solutions.  There’s plenty of audio recording software out there.  Try Audacity which is free.  You’ll need to also download Lame with it if you want to convert into MP3 files and it has a really good selection editing tools.

What podcasts do you listen to and how are they useful to you?


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