Monday, 25 February 2008

Knowledge Loses Its Luster

Here in the UK, the sunday papers tend to be a much of a muchness, preferring quantity over quality. An unending volume of supplements and junk inserts hardly send out the right environmental message. However there is one virtuously slim insert that comes with The Observer (the sunday sister publication to The Guardian) which I have been consistently impressed with - and that is The New York Times. The perspective is refreshing and reminds me that where ever we are in the world we tend to see things through a peculiarly regional lens. The internet is clearly changing this – I can access numerous feeds that originate from all over the planet and that certainly helps me achieve a different sort of perspective than I would otherwise have with just my local media.

So, notwithstanding Marc Andreessen's (of Netscape fame) recently announced "death watch" campaign against print media, the NYT in particular, I have valued the highly edited version I get to see. This week I've been struck by the harmonious resonance of several short reports which I'll post on over the coming days. Here's the first:

In the US Knowledge Loses Its Luster
Susan Jacoby, author of "The Age of American Unreason" has observed a growing generalised hostility to knowledge. Citing the example of Kellie Pickler failing to know that Hungary is a country in Europe instead believing Europe itself to be one country, Jacoby senses that there are two worrying trends of anti-intellectualism (the belief that "too much learning can be a dangerous thing") and anti-rationalism (the idea that "there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion").

In short, people just don't think that this knowledge matters. In 2006 a poll found that nearly half of 18-24 year olds thought it unimportant to know where countries in the news are located. Only 23% could locate Iraq, Iran and Israel despite dominating the news and political agenda over recent years.

My immediate reaction is to defend these young Americans as I would say that not many Europeans could place many of the states that make up the US. And perhaps more importantly, what awareness do we all really have of the rapidly growing economies of India and China outside of a few major cities?

Jacoby partly blames a failing education system saying "although people are going to school more and more years, there is no evidence they know more".

This is interesting as maybe it's not as important to know these facts when you can look it up at the point of need, even fly in on a specific place in the world with Google Earth. When I need to know, I can easily get to the answer. Indeed, if you define learning as traditional education, then may be too much is a dangerous thing in this new networked, globalised world we live in.

The second trend of anti-rationalism is perhaps more worrying. However in a world which is changing at an ever increasing pace, in many respects the concept of fact being a static concept begins to weaken. What you knew to be true yesterday may not be true today. With such shifting sands, it's no wonder that evaluating the prevailing opinion is a more practical skill than vainly holding onto facts that may be irrelevant before you get a chance to apply it.

So what do you think? Does knowledge matter? Are these trends of real concern?

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Six minute nap 'may boost memory'

The BBC reports on the New Scientist reporting on a German study finding (here's the source article) that:

Just six minutes "shut-eye" for volunteers was followed by significantly better recall of words.
"Ultra-short" sleep could launch memory processing in the brain, suggested the researchers from the University of Dusseldorf.

This follows on from my earlier post Snooze and Learn Faster.

It's too early to determine whether this study is significant (many other studies seem to think that at least 20 minutes is needed before this effect kicks in), but this line of research has got to have some impact on the way we structure our learning interventions so that we work with our natural brain/memory processing functions rather than fight against them.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Can social networks work within institutional walls?

I had an interesting comment from Mark on my article on Applying Social Networking in the Workplace. This statement got me thinking:

I think social networks within an organisation will become tremendously useful - think of the opportunities for knowledge sharing through the creation of pools of expertise across the organisation consisting of people who would otherwise be locked into some isolated project team. I think social networking behind the firewall has great potential that will hopefully be realised sooner rather than later.

Well, I agree that social software appears to have lots of natural applications within corporates, but a key challenge to their success is that users of social tools like these may not recognise the normal corporate boundaries as much as the current generation of managers. Indeed much of the value from these tools comes from offering direct contact with people who may have valuable information/collaborative input from your customer base, supplier base, completely different industry sectors, or even your own competitor base as well as your peers inside and outside your own organisation. In which case, networking tools that are limited within the corporate firewall may not get the long term grass roots support we might expect. Perhaps this is where initiatives such as OpenSocial come in to their own. But being open creates a bit of a paradox for many organisations who are highly protective of their internal processes and intellectual capital.

This is not to say that there are not examples of this already working within some corporates. This BBC business podcast - All Join In - cites some examples of social networking being used by the likes of T-Mobile and Ernst & Young (the representative here makes a great point about ensuring that the postings and discussion remain uncensored and "true" even if at first they appear negative to his own organisation).

I know Jay Cross has strong views on this, which are neatly summarised in his CLO article. Here's one key observation that supports my own thoughts:

Today’s executives grew up in a business world managed by industrial-age rules. Deeply ingrained beliefs are difficult, if not impossible to unlearn. Many managers pay unquestioned allegiance to the vestiges of the industrial paradigm. They believe in hierarchical organizational structures, top-down control, information hoarding, rigidity, formality, competition and undervaluing intangibles.

In the opposite corner, most network-age businesspeople support flat organizations, shared responsibility, information sharing, extreme collaboration, flexibility, informality, cooperation and the importance of social capital and reputation.

Few people have a foot in both camps. The industrial-agers see the network folk as undisciplined techno-optimists. The network-agers think of the industry people as clueless reactionaries. The conflict between the two groups is building.

The maxim "Networks subvert hierarchy" goes neatly with my reflection:

That old maxim "Knowledge is Power" appears to be waning. Maybe the new mantra should be "Your Network is Power".

Friday, 15 February 2008

Laboured Lectures Lack Lasting Impact

I have an enthusiastic interest in memory and how our brains learn. So I thought I'd try and learn some more from the experts using some of the openly available material from MIT. I came across something that looked interesting (well to me anyway):

Neurobiology of Memory: How Do We Acquire, Consolidate and Recall Memory

Speaker: Susumu Tonegawa, Director, Picower Institute for Learning and Memory

Tonegawa experiments on mice by playing with their genes and observing the resultant effect on their brains and subsequent ability to acquire and recall information about their surroundings. In doing so, he's exploring how memory and learning works at the cellular and biochemical level.

Now what was interesting about watching the video of this was how hard it was to get the value from his presentation. At least with the video being captured they had the opportunity to refer back. Not only that, a wider audience such as myself could benefit - even if only to a limited extent. To be fair, I did pick up an interesting snippet. Apparently Gabriel Garcia Marquez in "One Hundred Years of Solitude" predicted that sleep helps consolidate memory. Neuroscience is now proving this, and indeed I picked up on this just recently in my Snooze and Learn Faster post (which also caught Clive Shepherd's imagination).

However, as Donald Clark and others have remarked, many lectures are delivered without any form of information capture that students can refer back on (outside of their own notes, which perhaps aren't as comprehensive as they should be). It also begs the question that lecturers should first and foremost consider how they deliver their message in a more coherent fashion designed for students to interact with outside of the lecture theatre. Indeed wouldn't it be better to record the main presentation as video/annotated powerpoint, even with some level of useful interaction/visualization, and then arrange for students to attend a Q/A style session either physically or virtually? Surely the discourse and level of useful knowledge transfer would be a lot greater?

Granted, you still hear the argument that students will just not bother to turn up to lectures at all and not prepare for Q/A sessions, but I don't buy that. I was fortunate to be an educational guinea pig for my first degree in Information Technology at Salford University, near Manchester in the UK. This course was deliberately structured so that lecture session notes were provided for you, that attendance was for questioning and discussion, rather than a one way attempt at brain dumping. Interesting phrase that - "brain dumping". It suggests that what is dumped stays in one place, whereas we know we forget most of it almost instantly, especially without sufficient time for assimilation. Perhaps we should call it "fly-tipping of the mind" instead.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Location based learning

Jotyou is a location based messaging service for your phone. It basically allows you to send messages to friends which are received when they enter a specified geographical area. Check out the video for a feel for the service - it's especially well integrated with Google maps and a whole range of mobile phones.

Now the main focus of the service at present is on getting messages to people to come visit you in the coffee shop if they happen to be passing close by, or to remind yourself to pick up some milk when you are close to the grocery store, or better still for organised location based games. But the more I think about it the most exciting application of this sort of technology is to support learners in taking action on newly acquired knowledge/skills.

We know that context plays a key role in learning. Location is one such context. Anchoring new knowledge to relevant locations is an intriguing way to help push people into active application.

Perhaps on a wider performance level we can imagine messaging travelling sales reps or support engineers to automatically notify them of customers in the local vicinity who might value a quick update call/visit - linked to that message could be a prompt that reminds them to practice a particular rapport building skill, or offer a particular cross/upsell opportunity that would be relevant to that customer given their sales history.

Jotyou and other similar services could open up a whole new dimension of learning and performance support.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Upbeat Learning Technologies 2008

I spent last week in London at Learning Technologies Exhibition and Conference. The general mood amongst the vendors and attendees I felt demonstrated a confidence in the future at odds with the wider economic gloom that the media and city types would have us believe. While the longer term impact of globalisation and an overstretched financial sector will clearly affect us all, I wonder if we might just see a change to the normal budget-slashing that the training industry usually suffers in a downturn.

The skills agenda appears to have genuinely captured attention at board level, while the role that technology can play to improve efficiency and effectiveness of training and development is now undeniable.

I delivered a seminar on my "Less Learning More Often" theme which attracted a good crowd and, I'm pleased to say, favourable responses. I am still surprised by the lack of awareness the training world has of even basic cognitive research. Just recognising the limitations of our short term memory, how easy it is to overload learners with too much extraneous content, and making appropriate use of a variety of media in our design solutions (whether for delivery in the classroom or through the screen).

Itiel Dror, Senior Lecturer, Cognitive Neuroscience at Southampton University delivered a great keynote in the Conference covering a similar theme using robust examples of how easy it is for our brains and memory systems to be misled and confused. These principles, if not taken into consideration in our learning design, work against us and result in much weaker learning outcomes. Itiel does well to grab attention - always helps when you have a real brain in a jar to pull out of your bag!

Here's to 2008 building on the successes of last year and a further growth in organisations demanding higher quality e-learning solutions.