What I learned at LTSF15

Robin Hoyle
Senior Consultant
Learnworks Ltd
Columnist
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To Olympia for the Learning Technologies Summer Forum and conference. This coda to the annual mega event was an opportunity for those in attendance last time round to revisit some of the presenters and topics from the earlier conference. It’s an interesting idea – a kind of spaced practice approach to a conference.  I can see this being emulated by others.

As a provincial delegate I was unable to make the opening address which - from comments afterwards - sounded great.  I can’t comment.  Note to London-based conference organisers – could we sometimes go on for a while later than 4pm and start a little later – enabling those of us from outside the South East to attend as a day trip?  Just a thought.

Julian Stodd’s session on ‘Collaborative Learning: the social bridge from formal learning to application’ achieved the unusual plus point of providing me with something which referenced the social learning revolution and with which I could agree.  Stodd made it clear that formal learning (courses and online modules and what have you) still had a role to play in the brave new social world (other commentators take note). He also recognised that the role and purpose of training could be amplified and reinforced by supporting and enabling collaboration and co-creation to achieve increased competence in the workplace. Not only that, but a collaborative ecosystem could also inform course content and build reflective practice into the warp and weft of the course itself.  He illustrated this with a story of a 26 week leadership course (yup, that’s not a misprint  – six months long) in which sessions last for 2 hours per week but learners then spend time gathering their own stories, artefacts and curating the information they find elsewhere to build their own course content.  Stetsons off to Julian for not only creating the programme but getting the senior management of the organisation to sign up to it.  It’s early days in this programme, but Stodd’s comments that the technology platforms were secondary to the reflection, collaboration and stories of the participants was a welcome corrective to much of what was being peddled in the accompanying exhibition.

Stodd’s comment that performance management could (and does) inhibit the sharing of ideas and stories resonated strongly. It’s a theme I have explored in my books and in earlier blogs on Training Zone and elsewhere. Bluntly put, if you don’t have a culture which encourages and rewards collaboration you can install all the fancy technology you like and it’ll make no difference. This is why most forums and intranet discussions sites are entirely populated by ‘this is really great’ messages and nothing else!

A couple of things did enter ‘fanboy and geek’ territory (a phrase which Stodd used and which I remember almost as a commentary on sections of his address). Stodd referenced Uber – the taxi company born in Silicon Valley - and the room sourcing service, Airbnb. These were models which ‘broke the taxi industry and the hotel industry’ according to Stodd.  He has a point.  However, the route to breaking these industries taken by these brands relied on much more than the power of social collaboration.  Their fame/infamy is as much to do with dodgy employment practices and undercutting of regulated and collectively organised labour as to their technology innovations. The fact that Uber is a $40bn business which compensates its self-employed drivers at less than minimum wage is pretty significant in why they have been able to ‘break the taxi industry’.  In a subsequent twitter exchange, Stodd clarified that he shared some misgivings and wasn’t endorsing Uber, but its inclusion as a reference was a jarring note.  Similarly, Airbnb has not been without its detractors. This is not least because of stories of individuals being evicted from rental properties so that owners can turn their buy to let properties over to Airbnb rentals without having to meet the same health and safety requirements of their hotel competitors and without declaring the income for tax purposes.  Strangely, if you compete with legitimate businesses without paying tax or meeting basic regulatory standards it’s pretty easy to ‘break the industry’.  Who knew? This is not the first time I have seen these two businesses used as metaphors for the difference between formal and ‘social’ learning.  I want role models I can aspire to, not amoral examples which lead to dismay at exploitation and rapacious (and possibly illegal) cost cutting.

Wikipedia also got a stout defence from Stodd and he’s right that the issues of inaccuracy have been largely addressed. He was wrong, though, to say that universities had banned Wikipedia use – they have simply required students to cite the original work rather than just the Wikipedia reference.  This seems no more ridiculous than asking an undergraduate not to rely on the Encyclopaedia Brittanica or the Mail Online website for academic references. Where Wikipedia is useful is in supplying the references from which each page has drawn - or sensible academic practice as it is more commonly known.

Wikipedia has other problems not related to accuracy. Chief of these is around gender bias. Take one example, quoted by Jenny Kleeman in a New Statesman article in May this year. 

“Take its (wikipedia’s) “List of Pornographic Actresses”; it is meticulously referenced, with clear sections according to decade. The page is organised, clean and easy to use. Compare it to the “List of Female Poets”: a sprawling dumping ground, organised by name rather than date, unreferenced and of little use to anyone unless they want to know whose name might come after Sylvia Plath in an enormous alphabetical list. The list of poets has been edited 600 times, by nearly 300 editors. The list of female porn stars is a newer page but over 1,000 editors have edited it more than 2,500 times.”

With only one in ten Wikipedia editors being a woman, unsurprisingly the site focuses on things of interest to the potentially questionable tastes of its editorship rather than its readership.  As Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales said in an interview in 2010 “Whatever 26 year old tech geek males are interested in, we do a very good job on. [But] things that are in other fields, we could do with some more users participating.”

Using Wikipedia as a model is easily understandable – let’s be honest we’ve all used the site. However, not learning from its obvious shortcomings is just foolish.  As the old saw has it: ‘if you carry on doing the same things, you get the same results’. We cannot learn from tech platforms unless we are critical observers of them. I would advise everyone to take a long spoon when supping the Silicon Valley Kool Aid.

Wikipedia also featured in Donald Clark’s session on Emerging Technologies. Where Stodd is a studious contributor to the conference, Clark is a large Scottish Tigger of enthusiastic endorsement.  He was, unhelpfully I thought, introduced by Andy Wooler as someone “who not only studies these technologies but has invested in them”.   I was rather hoping for a disinterested critique of emerging technologies and I was instantly on high alert for the sales pitch.

But Clark is too consummate a professional to stoop to those tactics and is genuinely enthusiastic about the tools and technologies he shared.  He started with an outstanding video of his sister using the Occulus Rift Virtual Reality(VR) headset to experience a roller coaster ride and a bungee jump. So completely engaged was she that at one point she de-bagged her daughter while hanging on to her in shrieking terror!  This was a clear demonstration of the immersive power of the technology. As each technology category was introduced Clark outlined the links to learning theories. In the case of VR, focus, engagement and retention were clear for all to see (and from the shrieks which accompanied the delegates’ VR experiences throughout the next sessions, these reactions were pretty universal.)

Clark ran through a gamut of other technologies including software which creates eLearning for you. By simply entering a search term, the tool will draw content from Wikipedia (see above), YouTube and Flickr and create a ‘fill in the blanks’ online exercise to help people understand the content and retain more than they could from reading alone.  While I can see some application for this for students revising for an exam, I was most taken by Clark’s assertion that ‘we’ve been creating eLearning for 30 years and it still looks much the same as it always did!’ This was clearly intended as a criticism and one with which I agree. However, automating the creation of boring, page turning eLearning seems a bit of a pointless exercise to me. Why would you want to do that? What’s more, if it’s only going to search in a more restricted way than existing search engines, why would anyone use it? While I accept Clark’s claim that the design will aid retention, most users would – I believe – consider jumping through the ‘fill in the blank’ exercise hoops an unnecessary barrier to getting to the content they wanted.

As a side note, over lunch I ventured into the exhibition and watched a vendor presentation about ‘The Future of Learning’.  Apparently it draws on memory research over 100 years old and which used a sample size of one (the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve) and features cartoon characters. Although Ebbinghaus’s work seems sensible (we forget things over time unless we use the information) his research was hardly worth the parchment on which it was inscribed when he created it.  If you’ve never looked at this research, Ebbinghaus committed to memory a series of nonsense consonants and then charted how many he forgot at different time intervals.  No context, no reason to remember and no chance of using the nonsense words he had invented for the purpose of the experiment. Unsurprisingly, his memory failed to retain very many of them after a relatively short period.  A good basis for a rethink of learning technologies 120 years later?  Hmm.  There’s a page on Wikipedia about it if you want to check it out though.

Having been somewhat underwhelmed by the future of eLearning as presented on the exhibition floor I was surprised to see Clark reference Ebbinghaus as well.  However, my misgivings aside, his comments on using technology to support spaced practice seemed sensible and an interesting addition to the debate. 

Part way through his presentation, Clark had some technology challenges of his own.  He ploughed on in a wave of audience empathy; after all, we’ve all been there when the damned computer won’t communicate with the projector.  The sight of this large, middle aged, white man being rescued by a diminutive, young Asian techie said as much about emergent technology as much of what followed it.

My final session of the day was a visit to the Neuro-Myths presentation by Dr Christian Jarrett.  Jarrett spent an entertaining 20 minutes explaining how and why neuroscience is the new bandwagon.  No bandwagon goes by without a training company jumping on it and so it proved.  His take down of Neuro-Linguistic Programming was low key but refreshingly unequivocal and he spent more time rubbishing claims made about neuro-leadership.  Someone once described Neuroscience to me as ‘trying to assess the productivity of a factory by monitoring whether the lights were on’. I was reaffirmed in my beliefs.

There may be interesting developments in the future but at the moment many of the claims made are wild leaps of faith in a relatively little understood field.  His focus on Psychological evidence for motivation (focus on process not goals and objectives once the learning activity has commenced); giving feedback (talk about the task not the person and provide direct advice on what to improve); and dealing with mistakes (penalise wrong answers heavily to address over confidence) were welcome.  The round table discussions were less so.  I know the current received wisdom is that people don’t like to be lectured at but want to have a conversation with their peers, but in an hour the stilted conversations with people we’ve never met about whether, and if so how, useful these concepts were simply got in the way.  Facilitating a group conversation takes a good deal more thought that ‘have a chat and tell me what you think’.

In fact, throughout the day I was somewhat disappointed by the presentation skills on display.   Clark’s technology hiatus could have been avoided through proper practice and preparation.  Jarrett seemed uncomfortable and embarrassed by the group interaction sessions and they needed managing more effectively. He could also have done with practicing with the handheld mouse. Stodd started his presentation by telling us he was jet-lagged and had re-written his presentation the night before. He was low key and reliant on his prompt screen throughout.  In the exhibition, the few presentations I looked in on were similarly underwhelming.  Admittedly the space for the presenters was ridiculously limited (note to conference organisers: no one, but no one, wants to stand at a lectern in a corner next to the screen and be so hemmed in by the projector’s beam that any movement sends them scurrying back behind the PA). The quality of the sound and the passing around of hand held microphones gave the impression of people being pressed unwillingly into drawing the raffle at a rain blighted summer fete.

This is a conference for people working in L&D.  Many of the delegates will make at least part of their living by presenting and facilitating group work. This may not be an emerging technology or a psychological breakthrough, but how about a presentation skills course?

Robin Hoyle is a writer, trainer and consultant. He is the author of Complete training: from recruitment to retirement. His new book: Informal Learning in Organizations; how to create a continuous learning culture is published by Kogan Page on September 3rd. Robin will be speaking at Learning Live on September 10th and Chairing the World of Learning Conference at the NEC on 29th and 30th September, 2015.

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