Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Snooze and Learn Faster

A recent study has found that a ninety minute daytime nap helps speed up the process of long term memory consolidation.

The group that slept in the afternoon showed a distinct improvement in their task performance by that evening, as opposed to the group that stayed awake, which did not exhibit any improvement. Following an entire night's sleep, both groups exhibited the same skill level.

The study indicated that the brain could successfully consolidate new memories in a 90 minute period rather than the normal 6-8 hour overnight sleep. So our international friends that love their siestas may well be learning faster and forgetting less than those of us who stay up and only sleep for one session a day.

Perhaps we'll see some brave face to face trainers including an enforced "sleep break" into the day's agenda to take advantage of this effect. Another example of the positive effects of less learning more often!

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Learning as you like it

This week will be the Learning Technologies 2008 show in London. I'll be there for both days (30/31 January), delivering a seminar on "Less Learning More Often" which covers some of the ground described in my earlier article on the theme.

I've also written the Last Word for the Learning Technologies magazine which as a sneak preview I've reproduced below. I'd be interested in your responses so if you're coming along, see you there.


"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

I sometimes think that a large proportion of the education and training world unwittingly lives by the cynicism of this famous passage of Shakespeare (As You Like It, Act 2 Scene 7). As students or adult learners, how many times have you felt part of a helpless and trapped audience for a teacher or trainer who is more interested in their own performance than yours?

The famous bard goes on to describe the second of seven ages of man:

"Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school."

He's identified the core problem with most learning experiences we have – a failure to engage and harness our intrinsic motivation to learn. Now this is a problem not just limited to school boys and our school days – it affects all of us at all ages. And the world has clearly changed dramatically since Shakespeare's day, even just in the past twenty years. In a connected world, technology is fundamentally challenging traditional models of education and training, empowering us to learn in a more fluid and natural way than ever before, at our own pace and place. The learners are taking control, at long last.

So how fundamental is this change?

Well, consider the research of Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, formerly Chief Scientist at NIIT in New Delhi, India. His "Hole in the Wall" experiments with communities in India, Cambodia and Africa demonstrate that children can intuitively learn how to use interactive multimedia applications in very little time. By literally building a networked PC into a wall accessible in an outside space (very much like a cash machine here), and providing no direction or instruction he sat and waited to watch what would happen. One child learned to browse in 6 minutes and was teaching 70 other children by the end of the day. They interacted with content that was not even in their own language – they had to self-learn English to get to the content itself. In one experiment children managed to grasp basic concepts of biotechnology and the principles of DNA! All this occurred without a teacher or classroom. Tellingly, he found that children learned best when the "hole in the wall" was kept right away from the traditional school environment. Now this is "informal learning" in its extreme, but it provides a compelling argument for us to radically review how learners of all ages, in education and in the workplace, spend their time developing new skills and acquiring new knowledge. Are we holding people back rather than propelling them forward?

In the corporate world, the attempts to define and (ironically) control "informal learning" are forcing us to realise that much of the energy and resources that go into our formal approaches to educate and train goes to waste. Forcing us to learn away from the context of our actual job environment, in concentrated blocks of time goes against the core truth that we will forget and fail to apply most of the new knowledge and skills we are exposed to when we go back to our normal activities. In contrast, when we harness the available technology around us, we move away from artificially extracting "learning" from the "performance" we want to see demonstrated.

Connectivity is rapidly accelerating the learning process, and the younger generation who don't know a world without the internet and mobile phone, get this more than most. In fact they take this for granted. Increasingly, they won't stand for the one-size-fits-all pace of traditional classroom based sessions that deny the existence of these tools. Why leave the workplace when you find the answers you need at your desk, on your laptop, in your phone? Through simulation we can practice skills and gather virtual experience that we can more readily and directly apply in real contexts. Not only that, we can literally pull out of thin air the resources that support our performance, just-in-time, at the point of need.

So, while many corporate environments appear to be a long way from being able to harness this phenomenon, in many ways they are being bypassed by the way we are using technology socially. Social networks cut across hierarchy: knowledge is just a search and a few clicks away, and virtual environments allow us to practise (perhaps crudely at present) quite complex technical and soft skills. Now, not everyone is naturally drawn to these experiences. However this is often a matter of design and usability.

Take Nintendo for example. With their DS and Wii gaming platforms they have brought e-learning to the masses. Who would have thought that in 2007 we would see Nicole Kidman, a Hollywood actress, advertising a Brain Training game on national TV and in cinemas? Travel to the Continent and you'll see that the top selling "games" for the DS are English Training and other life skill based titles. Apple, with their iPhone, iPod and iMacs, have succeeded in making technology highly desirable. Both organisations share a core principle – they are design-led and obsessive about the overall user experience. Good design that is sensitive to the user, is intuitive, is exciting to interact with and simply does what it is meant to do. Imagine if your corporate systems, tools and processes were as easy to operate. We could remove whole swathes of training activity that are only necessary to make good poor design and usability. In terms of e-learning design, too many products are hard to use, un-ambitious in scope, and dully written. No wonder many people's experience and perception of e-learning is poor.

But it doesn't have to be that way. We can shift our learning design principles to those that take into account current cognitive research. We can genuinely consider the environment in which people will use and interact. We can tailor our design with the personal goals of the individual. Then e-learning becomes truly performance enhancing. After all, learning can only ever be as you like it.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Transfer of Learning - missing in action?

After a short break skiing in the Swiss/French Alps (the break fortunately not involving any bones), I found myself thinking further about how much (most?) training activity across the planet fails to transfer into any lasting learning.

When I learned to ski some 20 odd years ago, I started out on a dry slope which, back then, was more like skiing on a thick, plastic carpet with the consistency of lumpy porridge. However, this "simulated" environment allowed me to practice basic techniques, such as when and where to shift weight from one leg to another, position of skis in relation to the line of the slope, controlling speed (although on the slope I learned on I'm sure the top speed achievable was no more than 10 km/hour!).
When I subsequently arrived at the Alpine resort and nervously snapped into my skis at the top of a real slope with real snow, I was delighted to find it was a far easier, smoother and exciting experience - from there I was hooked. The techniques I learned did manage to transfer and I dramatically improved from that point on. In this case then, an opportunity to practice, even if a pale imitation of the real environment, can lead to better performance standards reached in less time.

So what happens when the simulated environment starts to approximate the real time experience itself? Surely this will lead to an even faster way to acquire experience that can be directly applied?
Well, for years the aviation and defence industries have recognised the power of simulation in training how to use equipment (itself often worth $millions) in stressful, life and death situations. Big budgets were (and still are) available to spend on highly innovative technology and this continues to be the case. However this visualisation and real-time interaction is going mainstream now that gaming are firmly in our living rooms and pockets.

Here's a great (if un-scientific) example of how simulation can transfer to the real environment. Wired reported:

A North Carolina man who saw an SUV flip and roll on a highway last November was able to provide medical aid to the victims with skills he learned from the America's Army, say the videogame's makers. Paxton Galvanek pulled one of the passengers out of the smoking car, then found another bleeding heavily from his hand where his fingers had been lost during the crash.

"I used a towel as a dressing and asked the man to hold the towel on his wound and to raise his hand above his head to lessen the blood flow which allowed me to evaluate his other injuries which included a cut on his head," Galvanek said in a letter to the America's Army design team. Galvanek said he learned about controlling bleeding from playing section two of the "medic" class training in America's Army, a game developed by the Army as a recruitment tool.

"I have received no prior medical training and can honestly say that because of the training and presentations within America's Army, I was able to help and possibly save the injured men," Galvanek said.

Now many may say that the knowledge applied is basic common sense, however as this great comment on the article states:

You'd be surprised how little most people know about first aid. In the Army we say "common sense is not so common". The truth is any of the supposed "common sense" things need to be learned. Just to have an order of things to check for can save lives, because the brain goes back to the training when in panic, while your "common sense" (aka. cognitive thinking) c***s its pants. Just remember this mantra:
"Really Big Boobs Should Fit Both Hands" = "Responsiveness - Breathing - Bleeding - Shock - Fractures - Burns - Head injury".

Now that's memorable (though I doubt this would get past the HR discrimination policymakers - even in the armed forces these days)!
Repetitive practice and simulation is at the heart of effective training. But this seems to only be present where the consequences can mean the difference between life and death. Too often corporate training programmes render themselves impotent and totally ineffective by failing to consider the transfer process. We should not be surprised when staff behaviour does not change.

I'll be looking at techniques that promote the transfer of learning in more depth.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Imagination Training

Following my previous post it's amusing to see Science Daily report that a lack of imagination in older adults is linked to declining memory function.

A new Harvard University study reveals that the ability of older adults to form imaginary scenarios is linked to their ability to recall detailed memories.

According to the study, episodic memory, which represents our personal memories of past experiences, "allows individuals to project themselves both backward and forward in subjective time." Therefore, in order to create imagined future events, the individual must be able to remember the details of previously experienced ones extract various details and put them together to create an imaginary event, a process known as the constructive-episodic-simulation.

So I'm off to create a new game called Imagination Training (TM pending) available on all mobile platforms. It's a simple premise - just imagine you're having the best time ever staring at the small (blank) screen of your chosen portable device, then stop and think about how that compared to the imaginary scenario from last week, and the one you're planning next week.

I suspect the queue of celebrities ready to provide their heart-felt endorsement will stretch round the block. But who would be the best choice and why?

Any suggestions?

Inaccurate claims of brain training benefits

I've been an avid supporter of Nintendo for the past two years or so, for their design prowess and dramatic success in widening the appeal of gaming. Indeed they're redefining recreational digital fun to include - shock - the learning of new skills. Brain Training in particular has been a left field success. I bought the game when it first launched in the US back in 2006 and was intrigued by the "less learning more often" principles built into the game play.

Now it appears the mainstream success is leading to some misleading claims. Sense about Science, a charity that promotes good science and evidence to the public has stated:

The big celebrity craze this year has been Nintendo’s Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training. The design of Brain Age is based on the premise that cognitive exercise can improve blood flow to the brain. Nicole Kidman said, “I've quickly found that training my brain is a great way to keep my mind feeling young” while Patrick Stewart, Julie Walters, Phillip Schofield, Fern Britton, Zoe Ball and Johnny Ball have also endorsed the product. The Sun says Patrick Stewart is impressed: “Getting my Brain Age down to 33 has become a fascinating and stimulating way to relax.”

Dr Jason Braithwaite, Cognitive Neuroscientist, University of Birmingham has responded with:

There is no conclusive evidence showing that the continued use of these devices is linked to any measurable and general improvements in cognition. While practice at any task should lead to some form of improvement for that specific task, it is not clear that this improvement reflects anything other than a basic learned process for that specific task.

Now I would agree with Jason's statement in so far as learning that is not contextually aligned to the environment of eventual practice is going to be harder to put to valuable use. So arguably a lot of the fairly abstract exercises in Brain Training do not obviously translate into real world activities.

I'd be interested in learning about any research that is being carried out in this area as I can't help feeling that while Jason's statement is true now, it won't be in the (near) future as virtual practice on devices such as the DS get closer and closer to mimicking real life activities.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Training budget shock in 2008

As reported by Personnel Today in the UK:
Almost half of large companies in Western Europe plan to spend more on training and L&D in 2008, according to Human Resources consultancy Mercer. Its 2007 European Total Rewards Survey found 46% of 200 multinationals surveyed planned to up their training spend this year. Just 4% said they would spend less, while half said expenditure would remain steady. Some 66% of those polled said their companies would spend more on career development programmes for management in 2008, while 32% said expenditure on this would remain steady. Just 2% said it would fall.
Are we starting to see a genuine break with the traditional cutting back of training budgets when times get hard? With talent at a premium and a workforce more mobile than ever, it can only be a good sign that learning and development offers are used as positive differentiators when recruiting and retaining staff, and no longer seen as discretionary spend.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Applying Social Networking in the Workplace

I wrote this article back in November for Learning Technologies magazine. I'm placing it here as a matter of record and to note that social networking tools are clearly important to accelerating the (effective) learning process.


We are social animals by nature, so any technology that allows us to connect more efficiently and effectively with others will flourish. Mobile phones and the internet itself are testament to this fact. Social networking tools have been around since the internet started such as Usenet and the abundance of discussion forums available. What we have now allows us to extend our immediate network of friends to include the friends of our friends, and the friends of our friends of our friends. The principles of social networking rely on a new level of openness and sharing of information, personal and professional.

How many friends have you got?

Facebook, YouTube, Linkedin, mySpace, Bebo, Xing – no doubt you've come across some if not all of these social networking tools by now. Indeed, you may be one of the 50+ million people across the world intently engaged with their Facebook home page, swimming in a sea of "pokes", invitations to play Scrabulous and solving the world's political ills through collective virtual action. HSBC in the UK recently felt the power of its bite when they tried to change the terms of their student bank accounts (in the favour of HSBC naturally). A revolt lead by users of Facebook forced a U-turn. David Cameron's recent endorsement at the Conservative Party conference showed how mainstream these tools have now become – although this could also mark its card amongst the trendsetters who having already abandoned mySpace, will look for the next cool community in which to hang out on the internet.

But underlying the hype are some powerful behaviours such as sharing knowledge, experience and information which the learning and development community ignores at its peril. However, the corporate reaction appears to be heading in the opposite direction. In September 2007 it was reported that a third of employers have banned their staff from using social networks such as Facebook over fears that it saps productivity and risks security. Several people have indeed lost their jobs through posting defamatory comments online while others have caused themselves professional embarrassment as their once private antics become easily searchable.
It seems that rather than work invading our private lives the opposite is in fact happening.
At the same time a YouGov poll found that half of all broadband users log onto social networking sites more than three hours a week, with a higher percentage of women active than men. This is a tidal wave of a trend that may be fruitless for corporate policy makers to battle against. Instead we should be looking for positive ways to harness this naturally enthusiastic behaviour.
Indeed, to this end, networks such as Facebook have developed business focused tools that allow the customisation and integration of company information. There are other organisations that offer business networking tools that are closed and focused, allowing a more private level of information exchange between employees of the same company. Motorola have already benefited from this approach describing improvements to the quality and cycle time of collaboration within the firm. Microsoft and IBM have also embraced social networking encouraging staff to publish their profiles and professional interests, to write blogs, and to engage in cross functional collaboration.

Divergence or Convergence?

When discussing new technology it's always good to keep a close eye on any underlying research as this tends to provide a clearer picture of the real value it holds. The Economist (2007) reported that Swisscom, Switzerland's largest telecoms operator, has a User Adoption Lab run by anthropologist Stefana Broadbent and their research has looked at usage patterns associated with different communications technologies. Based on observation, interviews, and user logs conducted across several European countries they found that despite the opportunity to keep in regular touch with a wide circle of friends through their mobile phones, the typical user spends 80% of their time communicating with just four other people.

Another interesting observation was how people used different communications technology in quite different ways. The fixed line phone was found to be the "collective channel", where calls are made "in public" because they are relevant to others around them. The mobile phone was predominantly used for last minute planning and to coordinate travel and meetings. Texting was used for "intimacy, emotions and efficiency", email for administration and to exchange documents and other media. While instant messaging and internet voice calls are "continuous channels" open in the background while people do other things. One of Broadbent's conclusions was that "each communication channel is performing an increasingly different function".
A remarkable discovery was that despite increased availability of essentially free voice communication, there has been little observed growth. Instead the increase has been in written channels. Broadbent observed, "Users are showing a growing preference for semi-synchronous writing over synchronous voice". We appear to be increasingly happy to multi-task and interleave our communication on a constant basis, irrespective of whether we are at work or at home.

Always connected

Tools such as Twitter (www.twitter.com) build on this trend to keep in constant touch by offering "micro-blogging". This enables you to send constant short messages to your community of what you are doing each step of the way. This can be done at your PC while you work (for example your message might be, "now working on XYZ project and calling Joe for an update") or out and about on using your mobile (for example, texting "heading towards Oxford Street, London"). This constant communication of your activity, its proponents tell me, leads to some useful interjections (such as "Joe's sick, call Amy instead") and chance meetings ("I'm at the top of Regent Street – want to meet for a coffee?"), that would not have happened without this channel being "always on".

This may not be your own idea of fun, but it is to a growing number of people who use it socially and are bringing it into work, expecting to be able to keep these channels always open. As HR and learning professionals, we need to be able to see the value of this type of behaviour for creating many more learning opportunities for individuals, and for accelerating and enhancing performance at work.

Applications in the workplace

Let's bring this back to a more traditional situation. We have a group of staff attending an off-site training event. This could be visiting a newly fitted shopping outlet that will eventually roll out across the network, or perhaps a product launch event. Or you could be a travel company, wishing to send a team to experience some new resort hotels. Logistically (and economically) not everyone can go. However, it is now possible for everyone to share in that experience.
Those attending could maintain a daily blog, posting their thoughts, photos/video taken on their phones. They could even use a micro-blogging tool on their phone to send back regular streams of where they are and what they doing. The wider community could get a lot closer to experiencing the event than they would otherwise; they can also participate. Sending back comments and responses means that those attending can ask questions on their behalf, can be reminded to complete certain tasks and generally support and share in the learning experience of their colleagues. This dialogue can continue after the event and when everyone is back in their normal roles, continuing to add helpful reinforcement.
These streams of communication can also work well for distributed teams, teleworkers (who are growing fast in number with the availability of broadband), job-sharers and any other community of people with a shared interest in keeping in the loop with each other.
Indeed, this can challenge the very design of traditional training experiences aligning activities more around "experiences" that are shared at the time they happen rather than the too often ineffective cascade once back in the office. An obvious place to start is in onboarding and induction of new employees. It's crucial to ensure new staff feel integrated into their new work environment and a company social network can accelerate that enormously. Indeed with profiles filled in during that "pre-joining" period, new staff can connect with staff of similar interests and job roles irrespective of geography. What a welcome that would be - and especially at a time of intense focus on employee engagement and board level fretting around finding and holding onto talent.

Elsewhere in the organisation, how about using wiki technology (see www.wikipedia.org to this in action) to build product knowledge and customer service know-how? The solution to a specific customer problem can be recorded directly by an employee and made available to everyone for comment, amendment and addition. Over a relatively short period of time you end up with a definitive solution that has benefited from substantial peer review.

The virtual world

Virtual worlds also offer a further dimension to collaboration, allowing users to interact with the environment around them as well as with each other. This has powerful learning potential by serving up experiences that accurately simulate situations that may occur in the real world. Tools such as Second Life are being joined by new, more flexible environments that can be adapted to specific applications. Indeed, one organisation is launching a service which will allow mini-virtual spaces within your own website enabling visitors to collaborate visually and instantly. What does this mean for learning design? Well, it emphasises how important simulation and immersion is to providing learners with much needed practice and safe opportunities to demonstrate new behaviours and skills.

If you think online collaborative environments are niche, consider these statistics from the book, Digital Korea by Tomi Ahonen and Jim O'Reilly. In South Korea 43% of the population have a personal profile in the virtual world Cyworld. Lineage, an online game, has 14 million users worldwide, which is twice as many as the often cited World of Warcraft.

What are you waiting for?

Embrace social networking and the prize is yours because it can accelerate innovation, problem solving and overall productivity with only the lightest of touches from traditional management hierarchies. Indeed, networks are already spawning co-operative working amongst individuals and small groups that can match (if not beat) the larger, traditionally structured corporate entities. All this is built on trust – without it these networks will quickly dissolve.
Learning has always been about content, context and collaboration. The network connects all these elements so it is accessible when, where and how you need it. With the new applications arriving as part of the Web 2.0 wave of innovation we can start to see how learning can be dramatically accelerated and made immediately actionable.

That old maxim "Knowledge is Power" appears to be waning. Maybe the new mantra should be "Your Network is Power". So beware. Build your network. It may be your only economic lifeline in the not too distant future.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Less Learning More Often - original article

As mentioned in the previous post, here is an article I wrote back in December 2006 but it's interesting to see how relevant it feels now on re-reading:

It’s been said before, but I think we’ve forgotten. We are programmed to forget. So we need reminding. Regularly.

As learning and development professionals, designing and delivering training within our organisations, we avoid confronting the fact that most of our efforts are quickly forgotten and remain unapplied. We continue to design training as discrete events with little or no follow through. We ask people to attend one/two/three day training courses and then expect them to put this into practice back in the job. Indeed, most e-learning ends up being consumed as a single hit session of one/two/three hours with little additional support.

Why do we continue to allow this to happen? In a word – habit. Our expectations are neatly aligned – management, trainers and trainees expect their training to be delivered and received in this way. So it becomes the path of least resistance. The painful irony is that this is at odds with the way we actually learn most effectively. Like any addiction, we know the cure but find it too painful to change.

But we are going to have to. The pressures of global competition are rising and will soon overcome entrenched views. Likewise, technology is now mature, prevalent and cheap enough to support a new economic model for learning in the workplace. So what will this new model look like? In a phrase: Less Learning, More Often.

Short term gain, long term pain

Back in 2001, the American Psychological Association published (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 2001, Vol. 27, No. 4) some interesting research. It concluded that practicing different skills in concentrated blocks is not the most efficient way to learn. While focusing on a particular skill leads to a short term boost in performance during the period of training, this leads people to over-estimate how well they learned the skill they practiced and results in poorer long term learning. This has the potential to fool trainers and trainees into believing that the apparent progress made during the training will be sustained in future performance back in the job. In fact, for long-term retention, practicing skills that are mixed with other tasks (contextual-interference practice as the researchers call it) results in better learning.

This has far reaching implications for most training design. It clearly points away from focused training on single skills and concentrated repetitive practice and suggests we design learning experiences that are deliberately interwoven among other tasks, requiring people to actively recall and then practice the new skill over longer time intervals.

The spacing effect

An experiment conducted by the UK Post Office (now Royal Mail) in the 1970s also observed this effect. Employees training to operate new sorting machines were split into three groups. Group 1 completed their training in one continuous session. Group 2 completed their training in 2 sessions, while Group 3 completed the same training across 4 sessions. Group 3 demonstrated the best recall and job performance.

Interval based reinforcement, or the spacing effect, has been known and seemingly ignored for a long time. Pike’s research into adult retention span in 1994 concluded that if people were exposed to an idea one time, at the end of 30 days they retained less than 10%. But if they were exposed to an idea six times with interval reinforcement, at the end of 30 days they retained more than 90%. Interval reinforcement maintains that knowledge and learning presented once and then reviewed perhaps ten minutes later, an hour later, a day later, three days later, a week later, is cognitively assimilated in a more robust and usable manner, dramatically improving active recall. Will Thalheimer, a consultant and learning researcher based in Massachusetts, USA has produced an excellent paper (Spacing Learning Over Time, 2006) summarising the breadth of research that has been conducted on determining the spacing effect.

The overwhelming conclusion is that spacing learning over time produces substantial learning benefits. The ideal interval of time between repetitions of learning is roughly equal to the retention interval – the time you expect learners to remember information before putting it into practice on the job – this could be hours, days, weeks or even months. Indeed an interesting observation is that longer time intervals between repetitions of learning result in better long term retention. There is still debate around the causes of this effect, but it is likely to be due to the extra cognitive effort creating stronger, more varied memory traces and the development of more effective encoding strategies that aid remembering.

Train your brain in minutes a day!

There is still too little discussion and real focused application of the spacing effect in the workplace with regard to training design. It should no longer be seen as esoteric research but central to future training design. Indeed, it is already in the mainstream with the hugely successful Brain Training software available on the Nintendo DS handheld game console. This game has motivated millions of people - young and old - to regularly complete fun mental exercises aimed at improving active cognitive performance, all based on the spacing effect. Indeed, the software insists on short ten minute daily activity and then tracks your improvement accordingly. Nintendo have now taken this further with the English Training software based on similar principles which is also proving to be a huge hit. We could learn a lot from this successful approach to engaging and sustaining attention and learning activity.

Informal learning

It appears we are at the cusp of a shift in emphasis away from the current dominance of formal learning (structured courses, workshop events, sequenced instructional experiences) to an increased recognition of informal learning. In the USA, Jay Cross and other learning commentators are spearheading a drive to understand the ‘80% of learning’ that currently falls outside the scope of formal Learning and Development. This includes day to day activities such as conversations with peers, self-motivated searching for information and answers, experience drawn from practice on the job, storytelling exchanges in the bars and caf├ęs after hours. This naturally takes into account the spacing effect and each individual activity or action is inherently small and conducted frequently. As this trend takes hold, it may put further pressure on formal training and development budgets as efforts to justify their effectiveness continue to prove inconclusive. This can already be seen in the growing interest in, and use of, the phrase ‘employee engagement’. This starts to draw together previously separate functions of communication, learning and performance and will mean a re-definition and reframing of how we design learning solutions in the future. Intuitively, it makes sense to start viewing things from the employees point of view and begin to coordinate and schedule communications and training messages so that they are mutually supportive rather than confusing and contradictory. Too often it is the latter in large organisations.

The role of technology

Our relationship with technology has shifted in recent years. We rely on it and expect more from it than ever before. From online shopping, listening to music and watching movies, searching for information, playing games, to talking with our families and friends across the world. We, as consumers, are demanding instant gratification and control over what we spend our time on. This has to impact education and training. There are clear signs that the status quo is beginning to unravel as students and trainees take control of their own learning experiences through collaboration with respected peers and experts, through instant access to supporting content, and through immediate practice of newly acquired skills in safe, virtual environments that realistically simulate the eventual work experience. The model of the traditional “course” looks decidedly clunky in this new world.

With an always connected environment we can start to see support solutions being developed that are designed to optimise the spacing effect. Some exist already in the guise of performance support or workflow based learning. Knowlagent offer the ability to deliver 15 minute modules of learning content to call centre employees in between customer calls. Fort Hill Company in the USA has a system that manages reinforcement and practice at optimal intervals for the individual learner. Rest assured, more systems will follow as awareness grows of the powerful impact the spacing effect has on learning effectiveness and employee performance.

Remember. Less learning, more often. Don’t forget!

Less Learning More Often

Back in May 2006, I was fortunate to take part in a UK government mission to the USA to explore what lay "Beyond eLearning" (click the link for the final report). Travelling to both coasts (Boston and Silicon Valley) we met a great mix of academic (MIT Medialab, Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning) and corporate organisations (Cisco, Fidelity Investments, Microsoft, IBM to name a few). We also had the chance to mingle with Linden Labs (the guys behind Second Life) and other organisations active in areas of interest to the learning community - virtual worlds, serious games, social networking and mobile.

As part of the process we also participated in two workshop exchanges where we had to summarise our areas of particular interest. For my 2 minute introduction, I summarised my thoughts in the title of this post - Less Learning More Often.

This apparently self contradictory phrase actually goes to the heart of the problems we face in designing learning experiences either in education or in the work place. Too much "learning" occurs out of context and out of sync with our ability to put that learning into practice. We bunch learning into hours, half days, days, even weeks (or years if you include school and university) without much heed to the way our brains are actually wired to learn most efficiently. Indeed, we can't help but forget most of what we are presented with.

I proposed that learning content should be designed for consumption in much smaller, engaging elements using mixed media and accessed at intervals woven into normal daily activity. The principles of interval-based reinforcement and the spacing effect are still widely ignored even though the economic landscape has changed to allow us to deliver repetition and reinforcement anytime and anywhere it is needed/requested. Will Thalheimer, a valiant defender of research-based learning design, has a great paper on this very subject which should be required reading for all learning professionals going forward.

Since then, I've reflected on this further and written and presented on this myself, most recently at Online Educa in Berlin in 2007.

As we go into 2008 the sheer ubiquity of internet access and the renewed focus on usable interfaces (at last!) for our digital devices opens up intriguing new design avenues for learning and performance support. I'll be using this blog to develop my thinking further and hopefully connect with others with a similar interest.

I look forward to it!