Connectivist Learning Experience

My latest professional role was as a Client Success Manager for a software company. At least half of the job involved being a deep subject matter expert on the product, and being fully aware of all implications of quarterly version upgrades for our clients. This monkey was probably smarter than I was after a quarterly release.

Our initial certification work on the product was well-designed but rather lockstep and focused on passing a certification exam as quickly as possible. This provided us just enough information to be dangerous. The real learning started once we started working with clients.

Our clients typically are trying to shoehorn existing complex business processes into a product which will only support about 85% of what they want to do. Part of our job was first, to understand what the business need was for the remaining 15% of requirements. If there was a compelling enough case or the client wasn’t willing to change, we had to figure out how to work something out in the system.

As we have several hundred practitioners globally, we leveraged several Connectivist ways to help each other and share knowledge:

  • Our EMEA team had a Skype chat, which enabled us to ask each other questions and provide answers in real-time. Unfortunately it was difficult to archive the great stuff coming out of this tool for later use.
  • Our client success team maintained a secure blog with discussion threads. Practitioners were expected to search carefully to check whether the answer already existed. If not, the question would go to a designated expert and we would normally have an answer on the blog within 24 hours. We could also answer questions if we had a better answer. Several times my colleagues reached out to thank me for taking the time to do this as it helped them out of a jam.
  • We were encouraged to provide corrections and additions to the product’s Online Help function. This benefited clients as well.
  • Finally for product upgrades, the product managers recorded short videos explaining the new features and impacts for clients. These were assigned to us through our learning management system. We could post questions, which showed up during the video. We normally got an answer within 24 hours and the answers were available to everyone.
  • During release testing, clients could post questions on a discussion topic and the product managers normally answered them within 24 hours. The answers then benefited all clients as well as us practitioners.

Dr. George Siemens (2005) mentions these Principles of Connectivism, and here is how this scenario compares:

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.

Sometimes colleagues had an even more clever workaround than the designated expert. Additionally getting perspective from colleagues about what their clients did helped us tell clients when they were better off changing their business process.

  • Learning is a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources.

We used several highly-specific sources to find solutions to our questions.

  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.

We maintained rich digital sources of information for maintaining and growing knowledge.

  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.

Agreed, it was not possible to know absolutely everything about the product “off the top of one’s head,” but it was critical to know where to find the answer quickly.

  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.

Contributing to the community made one more visible to colleagues and thus, someone who could more easily get help when needed. Although I was in Sweden and far away from the headquarters in California, a lot of people knew who I was.

  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.

Sometimes we could use a part of the system to support a business process, even if it was designed for something completely different! An example: After understanding the business requirements for a training nominations process, I could help the client use the Succession/Talent Planning module to support it.

  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.

Absolutely, which is why these very searchable, digital artifacts were so important to maintain. The product was upgraded quarterly and patched every two weeks.

  • Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.

This is the nature of software today. Everyone working in the technology industry is trying to run a marathon whilst simultaneously undergoing open heart surgery. However  I think we had less scope for “deciding what is important to learn” in the specific context I mention here, and this principle may be less relevant to the scenario.

Sources:

Siemens, G. (2004). A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning. Retrieved December 7, 2017 from http://www.itdl.org/journal/jan_05/article01.htm

Image:

No photographer attributed. Retrieved December 8, 2017 from https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/bionics/monkeys-type-12-words-per-minute-with-braintokeyboard-communication

 

Constructivism in Action at Business School

 

Aaaah, if only we got along as well as the Breakfast Club kids…

A classic Constructivism learning scenario I experienced (usually painfully) in my MBA programme was the dreaded group case study project. The intention was good: students took concepts we had absorbed in textbooks and lectures into a group context to work on a case study project. The final deliverable was a five-to-ten paged paper which addressed given learning objectives or specific questions. Normally the group would have to put themselves in the role of a senior business leader and propose a set of strategic recommendations.

Groups were between three to five students. The case materials described a business scenario and provided some context and a variety of graphs, charts, tables of figures, all of which might or might not be useful.  On two occasions I experienced, we did actual consulting projects with local businesses and presented our recommendations to the “client” and our professor.

I say these activites were “dreaded” for two reasons. First, due to heavy courseloads we students rarely had sufficient time to learn or reflect much. Group meetings took place outside of class in our limited free time, and were highly objective-focused. We aimed to achieve a good-enough submission to meet the requirement. Furthermore there were varying levels of motivation in the group. Inevitably one or two of the group members would wind up doing most of the work whilst the lazy ones coasted.

Inevitably we split the work into manageable pieces and some poor idiot was up all night trying to massage each piece into something coherent. Unfortunately the result was usually very little social collaboration, and the stronger members didn’t do much to enhance the learning of the weaker ones.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) skills could be varied but often we were given “puzzle pieces,” such as parts of an annual report, inventory stock levels, personnel turnover statistics etc. We had learned the basic theory behind these types of data in the classroom. Using a combination of these clues, the scenario and creativity, we were meant to collaboratively come up with solutions with the understanding that they wouldn’t be perfect and we didn’t have all the information. This was meant to be good training for the real-life business world.

A scaffolding strategy to improve the experience would include planned meetings with a teaching assistant facilitating a small group. Even better idea: enlist a volunteer from the real business community could mentor the group in these planned sessions. This would force the group to have a real discussion and focus on the process and purpose of learning, rather than on the outcome of completing the assignment on time.

The entire teaching method of case studies in business schools is meant to be a social constructivist one, however it rarely worked as intended. Another idea could be to do the same exercise but in the classroom in a longer session, perhaps using a “world cafe” facilitation method. This method puts participants in rotating groups so that they all have a chance to discuss a topic. As the members rotate they share insights they have learned during their discussions with the other groups. Gradually knowledge builds during the process and there is a wrap-up at the end to share ideas.

As part of my outside research I discovered that my instructors weren’t executing the case teaching method as it was intended. The method is not designed to be completely student-driven with a “deliverable” outcome. Harvard Business School’s website on the method calls it “participant-driven learning” and the onus is on the instructor to first, know their students’ backgrounds and second, meticulously prepare and structure the discussion in advance (Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning, 2017) often with a large student audience. Students are graded on the quality of participation in these class discussions. With this in mind, the method my professors used seems like more of a shortcut and explains why it wasn’t a satisfying learning experience.

I’m reminded now of another business school lesson on cultures which was excellent! The Organisational Development professor had us come in on a Saturday so we would not be rushed. We were split into two groups and given standard behaviours for our group. One group was meant to ask several questions about the health of one’s family, offer refreshments, and get comfortable before starting a business discussion. This was meant to be a typical middle-Eastern way of interaction. The other group came in, started throwing money around and was impatient with the questions, wanting to “get down to business” immediately. This was meant to be a typical American or Northern European way of working.

After the exercise each group reflected on what the interactions felt like. Even though we had only been “wearing” these cultures for a few minutes, the emotional reaction was intense. I was in the middle-Eastern group and found the “Americans” quite jarring indeed!

In this scenario the instructor was a facilitator (“scaffolding”), giving us some resources to do the exercise and facilitating the discussion and reflections. The instructor challenged us to compare our experiences with the theories of culture we were learning, and what cultural dimensions were at clash with one another (ZPD because we were stretched to apply our recent experience to enhance our understanding of an abstract concept). We as peers encouraged one another to participate (“social constructivism”).

Source:

Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d.). Teaching By the Case Method. Retrieved November 10, 2017, from http://www.hbs.edu/teaching/case-method/Pages/default.aspx

Image courtesy of IFC, no photographer cited. Ten Things You Didn’t Know About the Breakfast Club, from http://www.ifc.com/2016/07/things-you-didnt-know-about-the-breakfast-club

Andragogy: Formal vs. Informal Learning as an adult

Our course materials define learning environments as:
Formal: some institution or instructor sets the learning objectives
Informal: the learner sets the learning objectives
Non-formal: someone besides the learner and instructor (e.g. manager or mentor) sets the learning objectives
Our assignment was to describe and analyse one formal and one informal recent learning experience in light of Knowles’ theories of Andragogy.
Formal learning example
Recently I signed up for a day-long course in Vietnamese cooking at the local community school. I was feeling drained from work and felt like getting out of the house to learn something new. My family loves Vietnamese food and I always found it too intimidating to do what I usually do– google recipes for what I like to eat and try to make it myself.
The instructor started the day asking us to introduce ourselves and explain why we signed up for the course. Then she delivered a short PowerPoint presentation about Vietnam’s regions, how the cuisine varies regionally, and common ingredients. She explained the three dishes we would prepare that day and handed out recipes, and we put ourselves into groups. (I worked with two retired gentlemen and they were amazing!)
The instructor took us out to the kitchens and explained what all of the ingredients were. Then she told us to start with the pho broth and get started. That was pretty much the formal part of the instruction.
What ensued put me slightly in a panic, but with the brave help of my teammates, we “learned by doing.” The instructor floated along the teams to answer questions and make corrections. Somehow after several hours of following recipes and asking questions, we managed to produce a delicious lunch of pho, spring rolls, and Vietnamese pancakes. See the photo of our beautiful pho above. (By the way I finally heard a real Vietnamese person say it and it is pronounced sort of like, “feouh.”
This experience analysed in light of Knowles’ Theory of Andragogy:
Motivation: The instructor asked us to share why we had signed up for the course. Everyone’s reasons were really interesting, including a vegetarian couple who wanted to learn more exciting recipes.
Experience: The course catalogue did not state you needed significant experience and confidence in the kitchen to participate. However this was certainly the case.
Readiness and orientation: Only a few minutes were devoted to theory and the class was very hands-on. Although the students had basic cooking skills we essentially learned in real time with support from the instructor.
Informal learning example:
In 2015 I set a development goal with my manager (so I would be externally accountable) to prepare a study of theories and trends in performance management. The reason was there was more and more discussion about changing practices among HR professionals, particularly after Deloitte collaborated with Marcus Buckingham and published the results of their revamped process in the Harvard Business Review. In my role I was trying to present myself in a more strategic, business-advisory light, so having some deeper knowledge was important for me.
I started by asking one of my colleagues who headed up our thought leadership practice, whether she had any good scholarly articles I could start with. She sent me a few things to get me started. From there I decided which concepts were key to cover and developed an outline of my paper for future research.
In the european HR world, leaders seem to be shy of being a first-mover. Theories and new practices need testing and proving. My clients typically want case studies of other companies who have tried something. So I finished my paper off with several summarised case studies of companies who had transformed their processes and what were their results.
I submitted the paper to my manager and during our weekly catch-up call I reflected with her on the experience and takeaways. She challenged me to think about what I was going to do with it now that I had prepared it.
I used this paper as a springboard for presentations with my clients, client user groups, and internal training days. It was an enjoyable and valuable use of my time and helped position me as a thought leader in my organisation.
How this experience was in line with Knowles’ theories of Andragogy:
Need to Know and Motivation: I defined why I needed to know this material and why it was important to me professionally.
Self-concept: I had the self-esteem to believe I could structure my material completely independently and learn something relevant for my job.
Readiness to learn:  My manager did not support the authoring process at all except reading the finished product, asking me for reflections, and challenging me to use the work in other contexts.
Experience: The research resonated with me due to my own experience with performance reviews, both as the reviewee and the manager. I read the research with that lens in mind. Later in presentations I tried to bring the “outdatedness” of current practices to life emotionally.
Selected Principle of Andragogy from Pappas article:
Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.
This principle resonates with me as a person who is a passionate learner in her free time as well as at work. I would incorporate this principle in learning design as a part of the “before, during, after” method one of my clients uses. (See Gutierrez article for a great summary and infographic.) Specifically I would ask the learner to spend time reflecting with their manager or coach on what they expect to take away from the learning and use it in their work later. After the training the learner should have a follow up session with the same person as an after-action review and plan for how the learner will practically integrate the new information into his or her work. Additionally I would provide (if appropriate) social learning communities for graduates of the course to interact with the instructor and with each other over time. Perhaps they would like to ask questions as they deepen their understanding and apply their learnings in their work. In my experience, asynchronous social support can be a powerful tool to help people in real-time.
Sources:
Buckingham, M., & Goodall, A. (2015). Reinventing Performance Management. Harvard Business Review,(April). Retrieved November 24, 2017, from https://hbr.org/2015/04/reinventing-performance-management
Pappas, C. (2013, May 9). The Adult Learning Theory – Andragogy – of Malcolm Knowles. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/the-adult-learning-theory-andragogy-of-malcolm-knowles
Cites Knowles 1984 but there are two sources in the list from 1984, not sure which one.
Gutierrez, K. (2016, July 12). Before, During, and After Training: Improving Knowledge Transfer in Your Organization in 3 Stages. Retrieved from https://www.shiftelearning.com/blog/improving-knowledge-transfer

Behaviourism-Toilet Training My Toddler

I was trying to think of an example of an animal-like behaviour which I had to teach to a human, i.e. there is a very clear idea of the desirable behaviour vs. non-desirable. As I have no pets, toilet training my son was the best scenario I could come up with. This started with an intense weekend crash-course. My husband and I planned to stay home and focus on the potty. My son was taken out of nappies during the day and wore regular underpants. At first we would sit him on the potty every half hour. If he went wee (desired behaviour and potentially unconditioned response if we got lucky), he would receive a chocolate-covered raisin (primary reward) and lots of praise and clapping (secondary reward). If he sat on the potty but did not go wee, he would still receive lots of praise and clapping, but no chocolate-covered raisin (still secondary reward). In between we tried to communicate what sensation he would have when he needed to go wee, so he would know in advance to sit on the potty. Gradually the idea was to replace the primary reward with the secondary reward. An additional aspect was that if the child wees in the regular underpants, s/he would find this wet pants sensation unpleasant (punishment) and would learn to stop weeing and go do it on the potty instead. The reward in that case would be nice dry underpants and of course, happy parents. If the child weed in the underpants, our guidebook said not to react too much (neutral operant) but change the pants and maybe talk about how much nicer it would be to do it in the potty properly next time. My son figured everything out with weeing on the first day, although of course he was initially unhappy that simply sitting on the potty did not produce a chocolate raisin. Number two took several weeks longer for him to work out. It seemed to be that he simply didn’t want to give up the convenience and comfort of using a nappy for this purpose. I recall one time when we were working on this part of the process and rather than use the potty, he found it intriguing to transfer the results of his efforts from his nappy to his his face, clothes, and arms. I did my best not to react at all (neutral operant, although I’m quite sure I raised my eyebrows to the middle of my scalp) and deposited him immediately in the shower. We kept up the primary reward for number two for quite some time and I believe in desperation, even raised the reward from one to several chocolate raisins.

Some families got into the complexities of awarding stickers as well, but my son didn’t have the attention span for that.

I am not sure whether there is any other better method to use in this scenario rather than a Behaviourist approach. If we lived in a society where children ran around bare-bottomed until they were older, perhaps more sophisticated methods would be applicable. It gets results rather quickly, and more quickly the older the child is. In terms of downsides the first one is that the child needs to be old enough to understand what’s going on. This means s/he may not be cognitively ready until the age of two or older (Crockett, 2014) whereas perhaps 100 years ago parents would have started this process as soon as one year. The second disadvantage I mentioned: everyone in the family had to be very focused and consistent on this activity for a few weeks. I also had to brief my son’s caretakers on what to do when I was out. When considering some more historical, parent-centric methods of potty training like administering punishing enemas, laxatives, physical punishment or shame to the child (Crockett, 2014), this delayed Behaviorist method seems to be the most loving and appropriate.

Sources:

For behaviourist concepts described in post: McLeod, S. (2015). Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

Crockett, Z. (2014, September 16). The Evolution of Potty Training. Retrieved November 01, 2017, from https://priceonomics.com/the-evolution-of-potty-training/

For the image: Best potties: Which is the best potty for toilet training? (2017, July 18). Retrieved November 6, 2017, from http://www.goodtoknow.co.uk/family/galleries/34934/best-potties-which-is-the-best-potty-for-toilet-training/4

 

 

Learning through the ages

That 70s Girl

Photo: not me in the 70’s but pretty close! I wore those turtlenecks and crocheted vests. I had that Dorothy Hamill haircut after the 1978 Winter Olympics! I had streamers on my bike handles!

This is a Week 1 assignment for my LDT100x Instructional Design and Technology: Learning Theories course on edX. We are required to describe three learning experiences during our lives.

  1. Elementary school: I remember teaching myself long division. I was self-sufficient and ahead of the rest of the class, so the teacher explained the basic principles and assigned me loads of problems to go practise on my own. I literally did arithmetic problems over and over on paper until I learned the skill. I understand the method we used back then is considered to complicated for kids now and they learn shortcuts…but long division is one of those skills you just have to learn in life!
  2. High school: Switch to 4th year French. We needed to memorise the verb etre (to be) in about 20 different tenses and often our homework would be simply to conjugate the damn verb for all subjects and all cases on a piece of paper. Then we would review it in class on the blackboards together. This is a very necessary, yet boring skill required to speak proper French.
  3. As an adult, I’ve had to learn several software systems like the one I work with today. In my most recent learning experience, the training I did was all online. It was a combination of structured e-learning courses, recorded “deep dive” descriptions of each feature, and finally a “scavenger hunt” to encourage experimentation and building functionality in the system. I could submit questions to the instructor, as well as join a call to ask questions. The hunts were my favourite parts of the training. I needed to learn this skill to do my job, which is helping clients configure a good user experience in our system. This hopefully helps them achieve their business goals, which I also work with clients to help them define.