Monday, July 13, 2020

Bogus pyramids: Learning methods, Maslow and Bloom

Pyramids seem to attract a lot of attention among conspiracy theorists and peddlers of books about alien mysteries and new age nonsense. Similarly, they pop up in education and training. It is rare to see an educational or training theory course or PowerPoint without a pyramid, preferably with rainbow colours. 
Indeed, once you catch on to the pyramid scheme trick, you see them everywhere. If there’s a theory to be peddled, usually simplistic and overly-hierarchical, ignoring the real complexities of the theory, someone will have turned it into a pyramid. There are Leadership pyramids (tons), Pyramids of Success, Competency Pyramids, Values Pyramids, even Inverted Pyramids to show reversed hierarchies. This is not to say that such images are always wrong. They can do a passable job in getting the broad brush-strokes of a theory across. The problem is that they haul in all sorts of preconceptions and fictions with them, like progression and hierarchy. Rarely do they actually represent the complexity of a theory or reality.
Let’s take just three, perhaps the most commonly used pyramids to unpack the problem. One is a fake (Learning methods),  One, Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs is badly researched, simplistic and has two versions. One, Bloom’s hierarchy, also has two versions and both are misleading.

The pyramid that never was

I have seen this in presentations by the CEO of a large online learning company, Vice-Chancellor of a University, Deloitte’s Bersin, and in innumerable keynotes and talks over many years. It is a sure sign that the speaker has no real background in learning theory and is winging it. Still a staple in education and training, especially in 'train the trainer' and teaching courses, a quick glance is enough to be suspicious.

The whole mess has its origins in a book by Edgar Dale way back in 1946. There he listed things from the most abstract to the most concrete: Still pictures, Visual symbols, Verbal symbols, Radio recordings, Motion pictures, Exhibits, Field trips, Demonstrations, Dramatic participation, Contrived experiences, Purposeful experiences and Direct. In the second edition (1954) he added Dramatised experiences through Television and in the third edition, heavily influenced by Bruner (1966), he added enactive, iconic and symbolic.
But let’s not blame Dale. He admitted that it was not based on any research, only a simple intuitive model and he did not include any numbers. It was, in fact, simply a gradated model to show the concreteness of different audio-visual media. Dale warned against taking all of this too seriously, as a ranked or hierarchical order. Which is exactly what everyone did. He actually listed the misconceptions in his 1969 third edition p128-134. So the first act of fakery was to take a simple model, ignore its original purpose, and the authors warnings, and use it for other ends.

Add fake numbers

The cone was flipped on its side and turned into a serious looking histogram. First up, why would anyone with a modicum of sense believe a graph with such rounded numbers? Any study that produces a series of results bang on units of ten would seem highly suspicious to someone with the most basic knowledge of statistics. The answer, of course, is that people are gullible, especially to messages that appeal to their intuitive beliefs, no matter how wrong. The graph almost induces confirmation bias. In any case, these numbers are senseless unless you have a definition of what you mean by learning and the nature of the content. Of course, there was no measurement – the numbers were bogus.

Add Fake Author

At this point the graph was quite simply sexed up by add some academic seasoning, a seemingly genuine citation from an academic and Journal. This is a real paper, about self-generated explanations, but has nothing to with the fake histogram. The lead author of the cited study, Dr. Chi of the University of Pittsburgh, a leading expert on ‘expertise’, when contacted by Will Thalheimer, who uncovered the deception, said, "I don't recognize this graph at all. So the citation is definitely wrong; since it's not my graph." Serious looking histograms can look scientific, especially when supported by bogus academic credentials.

Add new categories

The fourth bit of fakery was to add ‘teaching others’ to the end, topping it up to, you guessed it – 90%. You can see what’s happening here, flatter teachers and teaching, and they are more likely to buy it. They also added the ‘Lecture’ category on at the front, to reel in academics. In fact, the histogram has appeared in many different forms, simply altered to suit the presenter's point in a book or course. This one is from Josh Bersin’s book on Blended Learning. It is easy to see how the meme gets transmitted when consultants tout it around in published books, courses and PowerPoints. What happened here was that Dale’s original cone concept went through several levels of fakery, to turn it from a description of media, to the prescription of methods.

Final coloured pyramid

The next bit of fakery, was to go full technicolour and turn it into a pyramid. Going back to Dale’s pyramid but with the fake numbers and new categories added, it was a cunning switch. The odd that complex and very different things lie in a linear sequence one after the other. It is essentially a series of category mistakes, as it takes very different things and assumes they all have the same output – learning. In fact, learning is a complex thing, not a single output. A good lecture may be highly motivating, there are semantic tasks that are well suited to reading and reflection, discussion groups may be useless when struggling with deep and complex semantic problems like maths and so on. Of course, the coloured pyramid makes it look more vivid and real, all too easy to slot in, as a simplistic bromide, to a lazy 'train the trainer' or 'teacher training' courses.
What is damning is that this image and variations of the data have been circulating in thousands of PowerPoints, articles and books since the 60s. Will Thalhemer’s original work did much to uncover this fakery. Investigations of these graphs by Kinnamon (2002) found dozens of references to these numbers in reports and promotional material. Michael Molenda (2003), did a similar job. Their investigations found that the percentages have often been modified to suit the presenter’s needs. Just search on Google for The Learning Pyramid and click ‘Images’ and you’ll find page after page of variations. This is a sorry tale of how a simple model published with lots of original caveats can morph into a meme that actually lies about the author, the numbers, adds categories and is uncritically adopted by educators and trainers.

Maslow’s misleading pyramids

Maslow (1908 - 1970) is almost synonymous with his hierarchy of needs. The author is invariably mentioned in the same breath as his hierarchy, which is just as invariably displayed as a pyramid.  It has been a staple for decades as a first step in educational theory, teacher training, train the trainer and management courses. Yet few who put it centre-stage in their PowerPoints, realise that Maslow never created this coloured pyramid. It never appeared in any of his published works. Fewer still question its validity.
His basic concept of prioritising needs was first published in 1943, in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation (1943) in the Psychological review. Then, based on a rather odd, selective and cursory analysis of successful people, his full-milk, hierarchical theory was published in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality.  It was here that he pared back learning to a hierarchy of basic human needs and desires. His aim was to uncover the precursors to what motivates people to learn.
So how did we end up with a pyramid? There were several sleights of hand here. Douglas McGregor, at MIT’s Sloane School of Management took Maslow’s general ideas and applied them to management. In doing so, he simplified and distilled Maslow’s ideas, removing much of the subtlety. Note that he did not invent the pyramid, that came later with Keith Davis, who in his book on management, represented Maslow’s ideas as a right-angles triangle, with a pinnacle. That was the first step, the second was in the psychologist Charles McDermid’s article How money motivated men, where the pyramid first appeared. Note that there was a rather odd method to his madness, as he thought this was a way of pushing profits. 
To be fair to Maslow, although oddly researched, with celebrity sources, his work was far more nuanced than the pyramid suggests. His focus was very much on the concepts of self-actualisation and transcendence, and whatever one thinks about those as concepts or theories, they are not magic projections off the top of a primitive pyramid.

The bottom four are all ‘deficit’ or ‘D-needs’. As each of these needs are satisfied, he individual reaches homeostasis and the feeling or need to fulfill that D-need stops, so that one can proceed to the next.
If they are not present, you will feel their absence and yearn for them. When each is satisfied, you reach a state of homeostasis where the yearning stops. It is simple and has an intuitive appeal.
The last, self-actualization, does not involve homeostasis, but once felt is always there. Maslow saw this as applying to only a few people, whose basic four levels are satisfied, leaving them free to look beyond their deficit needs. He claimed to have used a qualitative technique called ‘biographical analysis’ where he looked at high achievers and found that they enjoyed solitude, close relationships with a few rather than many, autonomy and resist social norms. Spontaneity, simplicity and respect for others were other characteristics.
What is rarely known is that it was discovered that Maslow, in 1970, the year of his death, changed his original thoughts, developed in the 1950s, to a more complex model of needs. In unpublished work, ‘knowing and understanding' and 'aesthetic' were discussed. This upgraded version of his theory was largely ignored, as the earlier model had become so deeply embedded in teacher and trainer training courses. Anyone familiar with epistemology and aesthetics will immediately see the problem. Both are notoriously difficult to define. In any case, Maslow never actually published the first or updated motivational model as pyramids. It never appeared in any of his published or unpublished writings. 

Although hugely influential, his work was never tested experimentally and when it was, from the 70s onwards, was found wanting. Empirical evidence showed no real evidence in terms of a strict hierarchy, nor the categories, as defined by Maslow. 
His ‘biographical analysis’ was armchair research. based on a self-selected group of just 18 people and in itself is defined in terms of a set of subjective criteria. . His list of 18 self-actualized people included Einstein, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Beethoven, Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt and, of course - Abraham Maslow! He only included two women in his list of self-actualised people, bizarrely, the anti-Semitic Elanor Roosevelt and nun Mother Teresa. It is hard to imagine that a full theory of human nature could be built upon such strange and extreme examples. One thing that helped Maslow become the guru of motivation was that his books were very popular and he was part of a sixties movement that helped promote his views. He was friends with people like Timothy Leary (Maslow’s daughter Ellen was Leary’s research assistant). Linda Sargent Wood writes in A More Perfect Union about the rise of these holistic, utopian visions for humanity. She shows that these were largely populist, and not research or evidence, based movements. 
Kenrick et al. (2010) found huge variance in Maslow's so-called self-actualised people, showing divergence rather than convergence. As there is no control group, this is simply circular. Self-actualised people are selected by him, then used as evidence for self-actualisation.  The self-actualisation theory is therefore largely subjective. 
An even weaker aspect of the theory is its strict hierarchy. It is clear that the higher needs can be fulfilled before the lower needs are satisfied, so the theory has been repeatedly falsified. There are many counter-examples and indeed. For example, creativity can atrophy and die on the back of success. Maslow himself felt that the lines were not that clear. In short, subsequent research has shown that his hierarchy is crude, as needs are pursued non-hierarchically, often in parallel. A different set of people could be chosen to prove that self-actualization was the result of, say, trauma or poverty (Van Gogh etc.). 
Subsequent research shows that real needs and motivations do not fall into this neat pyramid or hierarchy. For example Rutledge (2011) claims that complex social connections are needed for all of the assumed levels in the hierarchy and that it falls apart when this is taken into account. Typical of the many studies that show the irrelevance of the hierarchy is Tay and Diener (2011), where 60865 people from 123 countries were questioned on Maslow's needs. It showed that the hierarchy was quite simply wrong. The problem is that the reductive nature of the analysis ignores the much messier nature of motivation. In general, the whole idea has been abandoned in modern motivational theory. 
His hierarchy is often hauled into training programmes, without any real understanding of why and whether the theory is indeed correct, beyond some simple truisms. Its appeal seems to lie in the endless repetition of a clear and simply coloured pyramid, rather than any evidence or sophistication in terms of human nature. In fact, it is a hopeless caricature of human nature, one that is best avoided.
Indeed, apart from being fossilised as a component in bad teacher-training and train the trainer courses, it is hard to see how it has any real relevance to what teachers, trainers, lecturers or instructors actually do when they teach. It is clear that having somewhere to live, food to eat, friends, and feeling safe are important but not in the hierarchical or developmental way they are presented. As a teacher, or manager, one can recognize the basic needs of a person without recourse to the pyramid structure at all. Indeed, it may be misleading. Most sets of indicators for the wellbeing of children are more complex, sophisticated and do not fall into a simple hierarchy. There are many such schemas at international (UNICEF) and national levels. They rarely bear much resemblance to Maslow’s hierarchy.
Maslow has been almost omnipresent in education and training. However, it is not clear that his theory has had any real effect other than encouraging people to look at others as human beings, rather than subject to some instrumental manipulation. This is an entry from Maslow's own journal in 1962, “My motivation theory was published 20 years ago, & in all that time nobody repeated it, or tested it, or really analyzed it or criticized it. They just used it, swallowed it whole with only the most minor modifications”. He was right. It is not a hierarchy, was not tested and as a theory of human nature it is simplistic and banal. To argue that the theory, although wrong, is useful, as it promotes a holistic view of learners, employees, managers etc. is to open the door to any subjective theory that fits a prejudice. It seems to live on, not because it is validated, real or useful, largely, perhaps, because of the colourful triangle that looks great as a PowerPoint slide. It’s a false meme.
As if to confirm its status as meme not theory, more recently, the pyramid became an internet meme, when some wag added ‘Wi-Fi!’ to the bottom of the pyramid. Many other joke needs have since appeared.

This accidentally confirmed the truth, that the pyramid is actually a bit of a joke.

Bloom’s fictional pyramid

Bloom’s taxonomy

Benjamin Bloom (1913-1999) is famous for the most commonly used taxonomy in education and training. It includes three overlapping domains:

Cognitive (knowledge)
Psychomotor (skills)
Affective (attitude)

Bloom published this taxonomy in Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Yet it was not wholly Bloom’s work. The book was edited by him but the taxonomy came out of a series of conferences and the work of a committee of colleagues at the University of Chicago. These were published as three ‘handbooks’, in other words practical texts that bridged theory and practice.
In the 2001, 45 years later, Bloom’s student Lorin Anderson revised Bloom's taxonomy in A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Note that Bloom is neither an author nor contributor. The theory is expanded as psychology had shifted away from behaviourism towards cognitive psychology so more recent theory informed the update. It is a complex framework that integrates knowledge with cognitive activities in learning. Far from being a simplistic pyramid, it lays out four dimensions; what is taught, how it taught, how it is assessed, and their alignment. It is a holistic and interconnected work. Importantly, in neither the original text or its revision did a pyramid appear.
It was never meant to be a hierarchy of quality, from lower to higher, it was more multidimensional. It is a practical, organizational structure more correctly represented in two dimensional tables, which is how they first appeared, so that one could match different dimensions. There is increasing spectrum of complexity not a hierarchy of value. Unfortunately, some like to reduce his work to word lists or represent the taxonomies as pyramids suggesting, both implicitly and sometimes explicitly, that knowledge, at the bottom, is inferior. It was devised to assist teachers and trainers to classify educational goals and plan and evaluate learning experiences. Unfortunately, the pyramid is about as far as most people get. They rarely dig deeper. Yet the actual theory and practical recommendations are lost in the pyramid representation, which not only simplifies but misrepresents the original theory and its updates.
This is how Bloom’s taxonomy commonly appears:

Yet, here it is straight from the original author’s mouth:
The triangle does not appear in either (original or revised Bloom’s) Taxonomy. The triangular representation was quite likely designed by someone as part of a presentation made to educational practitioners.”
Lorin W, Anderson
This is worrying, as a sophisticated theory and its even more sophisticated revision, were essentially bastardized to represent a hierarchy, in which one had to progress from one stage to another, whereas learning is far more complex with different cognitive processes interacting and intertwined with each other. This is not to say that there are no dependencies. There is a strong argument for seeing knowledge as foundational in these taxonomies.
Bloom published his now famous taxonomy of learning in 1956. Few realise that this taxonomy is now over 60 years old. There have been lots of taxonomies since then that slice and dice, many variations on existing categories. Indeed we've had dozens of taxonomies that sliced and diced in all sorts of ways. We've had Biggs, Wills, Bateson, Belbin and dozens more. We seem to have got stuck in the Bloom taxonomy. To be fair there have been good revisions, taking the knowledge nouns and unpacking them into verbs but the problem with taxonomies is their attempt to pin down the complexity of cognition in a list of simple categories. In practice, learning doesn’t fall into these neat divisions. It is a much more complex and messier set of cognitive processes, so attention has shifted to how learning meshes with memory and techniques that improve organisation, chunking, encoding, practice and recall.
Another danger is that instructionalists, like Gagne, take these taxonomies and attempt to design learning that matches these categories, destroying much of the more useful approaches which an understanding of brain science brings; such as cognitive overload, working memory limitations, top-down processing and so on. Learning theory has moved on in terms of a more detailed understanding of memory, which has put everything on a more empirical and scientific basis.


These three pyramids have turned into pyramid schemes, repeated, adapted, amplified and unquestioningly adopted. It gives you the illusion of science to sell your product, usually a talk, lecture or course. Most who use three pyramids, and there are many more, are completely unaware of the fakery, lack or research, variations and updates by the original authors or bogus representations of hierarchy and progression. They are images that become fossilized in books, handouts, PowerPoints. Social media now amplifies them, as a brightly coloured image acts as clickbait on many a post. 
The allure of the pyramid is its geometric simplicity, representation of hierarchy and suggestion of progression. Add some colour and it appeals to PowerPoint driven education and training. More than this, the pyramid suggests progression towards the peak as the apex of learning. It promotes a view that things at the bottom and less worthy than things at the top, which plays into the narratives that some educators like, such as 21st century skills. All three misrepresentations play this game, which is why they have proved popular. People like shortcuts, especially when they fit their views of the world.
What keeps all of this going is ‘intuition’, the feeling that it seems right. There are germs of truth, even some reasonable claims in all three of these pyramids, some more than others. Intuition then trumps reason, as you buy into the simplicity of the image, its hierarchy and progression. The sun progresses across the sky, so you assume that it goes round the earth, when, in fact things are a lot more complicated. In fact, the opposite is the truth. In all three cases; the fiction, armchair theory and reasonable taxonomy, the image becomes the established theory, when it is actually a fake, a caricature or a misleading representation.
This intuition is fueled by something else – confirmation bias. If you are a teacher, lecturer or professional in the learning field, a theory and image that puts you at the pinnacle of its presentation is flattering. In the learning pyramid, you become the end point, the goal in all this, as ‘teaching’ is the ultimate learning activity. In Maslow’s hierarchy, self-actualisation suggests that education is some sort of holy grail for the soul. In Bloom’s taxonomy, you reach a peak of creativity. It puts you at the very top, beyond reproach. Oddly, the reality is that it shows the learning game to be full of fake, poorly researched and simplistic theories and tools.
In the end, a combination of faked imagery and projected extra meaning by both the presenters and viewers of such images is a potent and saleable mix. Sadly, it is quality assured, taught and assessed. Practitioners become qualified on the back of bogus theory and practice. These three pyramids alone account for a massive and incalculable amount of wasted time and cost in education and training, not only of teachers but learners. Don’t be dazzled by colour and geometry. Question what is given and assumed as research and fact.
 Finally, after 40+ years in the business, I am greatly dismayed that many educators get their information from oral presentations and secondary (and in some cases tertiary) sources. This practice tends to result in passing along half-truths and misinterpretations.
Lorin W. Anderson
We can do no better than quote the above warning by the author of the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, on the danger of visual misrepresentations of theory.


Bruner, J. (1966), Toward a Theory of Instruction
Dale, E (1946), Audiovisual methods in teaching
Dale, E (1954), Audiovisual methods in teaching
Dale, E (1969), Audiovisual methods in teaching
Kinnamon, J. C. (2002). Personal communication, October 25
Kovalchick, A and Dawson,K (2004), Education and Technology
Molenda, M. H. (2003). Personal communications
Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.
Maslow, A. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: The Viking Press.
Maslow, A., & Lowery, R. (Ed.). (1998). Toward a psychology of being (3rd ed.). New York: Wiley & Sons.
Davis, K., 1957. Human relations in business. McGraw-Hill.
McDermid, C.D., 1960. How money motivates men. Business horizons3(4), pp.93-100.
Kenrick, D. T., Neuberg, S. L., Griskevicius, V., Becker, D. V., & Schaller, M. (2010). Goal-Driven Cognition and Functional Behavior The Fundamental-Motives Framework. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 63-67.
Rutledge P. (2011) SocialNetworks: What Maslow MissesPsychology Today
Tay, L., & Diener, E. (2011). Needs and subjective well-being around the world. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 354.
Wahba, A; Bridgewell, L (1976). "Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory". Organizational Behavior and Human Performance (15): 212–240.
Wood L.S. (2010) A More Perfect Union. Oxford University press.
Bloom, B.S. (Ed.) (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals: Handbook I, cognitive domain. Longmans, Green.
Anderson, Lorin W.; Krathwohl, David R., eds. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman. 
Blog by Lorin W. Anderson (2017)
Guskey, T. R. (2005). Benjamin S. Bloom: Portraits of an educator. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Blended Working... less offices, commuting, hierarchies, stress, office politics, spend, dressing up, classroom training, conferences…

Peter Honey once described how, when he was working as a consultant, he felt the need to look busy. "When my partner comes in I start typing... to make it look as though I was working..." But many people work at home with no drop in productivity. Indeed the early evidence suggests that productivity may increase. In certain types of company, mainly office or call-centre bound organisations and knowledge companies working from home most, but not all of the time seems to be working. The evidence suggests, however, that this will be Blended Working, with at least some of the time touching base with your fellow workers. Let's call this Blended Working.

Stanford study

Stanford Professor Nicholas Bloom, is one of the few who have conducted a research trial in this area, a 2 years study of a Travel company that took 1000 people, 500 who volunteered to work from home. The findings are fascinating:
   Productivity increased by 13.5%
   Staff turnover cut by half
   Sick days plummeted
   Savings of $1900 per employee over 9 months
   Flexibility good for recruitment
  Middle managers the problem

Bloom thinks the future is of parts of the workforce working from home for 1-4 days a week coming in where necessary. There is no fixed formula as it varies scoring to sector, types of work, distribution of employees and available infrastructure. But there are questions to be asked about social interaction, mental health and potential inequalities. What seems certain is that the needle has swung irreversibly to wards more home working, not wholly but partially. Importantly he recommends gathering data on your shift to home working on needs and productivity, working towards an optimal solution for Bothe employees and the organisation.


That needle will continue to swing as we learn to adapt to this new world of work, acceleracted by technologies such as collaborative software and 5G. We will see many professions adapt towards working with their colleagues and clients at a distance.
Zoom means rush and that’s exactly what most did when they had to work and teach from home, they rushed at it. Rather than thinking about the problem, planning and implementing an optimal use of technology, we went with the mob.
Sure Zoom is a good tool, easy to use, reasonable interface and reliable. But there was a rush to synchronous tools in realtime, when asynchronous communication may have been more sensible and efficient. This was partly the result of feeling that you have to behave as you did in the office, classroom or lecture theatre. You don’t.
Working at a distance requires tools that are sometimes the same but sometimes different from the office. This is an opportunity to look for increases in productivity through speed, collaboration and innovation through TECHNOLOGY. Bandwidth and reliability of an internet connection at home is your bedrock for optimised Blended Working. Giving people concrete advice and support when optimising their internet connection is a huge productivity issue. If you are not near your router, what are the ways this can be improved?
Many organisations use collaborative tools such as Teams or Slack. If you have an existing system, fine. If not, think about getting one. A standard collaborative platform will iron out all of those knotty problems around comms when people work in a distributed fashion.
Sharing things is different. You may use Google services which is built as a shared resources platform. Whatever system you use the sharing of documents, PowerPoints, spreadsheets and so on will be necessary.

Beyond this, those deceptively simple, but immensely powerful technologies are coming of age; AI, VR and 5G. These release further productivity increases while enabling optimal Blended Working to happen. At last the directions of travel both socially and technologically seem to be travelling in the same direction. 

Blended Working

To implement Blended Working you need some up front analysis of:
   Strategic consequences
It means literally ignoring what you have done in the past, going back to the drawing board and implementing a new system from scratch. Blended means blending an optimal mix of being at home and F2F. Note that this does not necessarily mean in the office. It may be more convenient to meet in a café, equidistant from both parties. The optimal blend has to take a number of variables as inputs, the output being your imal optBlended Working model.
A quick analysis of your employees in terms of time their taken to commute, need to drop kids off at school and their situation at home is essential. The evidence suggests that they need a room or at least a separate space to work. Their needs to be out of their homes will also be necessary.
A similar analysis of their jobs is also necessary, to see what, if any, components need F2F or physical access to things in the office. To what degree are their jobs solitary in the sense of needing just networked communications, which can also be face to face on Zoom, Teams and so on.
Resources are the things you have and need. What IT infrastructure and devices need to be bought. This may seem frightening but it can be written off over several years. Attention to furniture, such as chairs and tables may also need to be addressed.
Strategic business consequences for your customers and growth of the business allows you to do the fiscal forecasts, saving money on office space, even projected increases in productivity.

Less office space

In one company I’m involved in 80% want to continue working at home, many of the others wanted this blended model of work. Necessity has been the mother of innovation and the great pause has forced many organisations to do this experiment and find, to their surprise, that no matter how many coloured beanbags you provide, many would rather be at home.
HR and LD folk should be looking at the changing nature of work, but they’re curiously absent from this debate. The shift to working at home is, to a degree yet to be determined, permanent. Yet one wonders whether traditional HR and LD has caught on? 
Many companies now see that these grandiose offices are mostly an affectation and not needed. The cost savings can be significant, allowing business recovery and growth to happen faster. In some sectors many will continue to work at home, some entirely, some with smaller office hubs where people can meet and hot-desk.

Less commuting

It may result in permanent patterns of change. Big cities may be a lot emptier as workers can operate from ever more remote and rural locations. This may rebalance the economy away from London to the rest of the country. Let’s shift those headquarters of charities, organisations and companies out of cities. That would be wonderful. The inhumane spectacle of the mass commute into and out of cities may be reduced to a trickle and have an incalculable, positive impact on their physical and psychological health. This would reduce traffic and transport, a positive contribution to climate change.

Less hierarchy

Offices are full of hierarchical structures and behaviours – like parking spaces and who gets what office. There’s less room for negative management behaviour, as online is a sort of leveller. Managers really do need to manage and less of the over the shoulder management will be necessary or possible. It needs different management skills, as mentoring and encouragement has to be from a distance. Goal setting, encouragement, praise, data-driven management are all possible. All sorts of bad management behaviours are simply more difficult. 

Less stress

You’re not arriving at work after a stressful commute, can sleep longer, feel more autonomous, more in command of your own time. If you like a little music on, you can. You’re not in a noisy, distracted environment, picking up colds and flus. You will see your kids more as you’re not leaving early and coming back late. This is likely to make organisations much more productive. 

Less office politics

You’re not being soaked in gossip and office politics. Communications with your colleagues are online and can still be frequent online. However, social interaction can be more controlled and there will be far less physicality, so less potential for harassment. It’s not that social interaction disappears, just that much of the bad stuff will be filtered and there will be less of it.

Less spend

You may find yourself not only saving money on commuting, in some cases thousands of pounds. The average UK employee spends £146 a month commuting, totalling £135,871 over a lifetime. Workers travelling into London spend on average £305 a month, adding up to £197,377 over a lifetime. Then there’s the savings on expensive food and drink as you’re not splashing out on grabbing expensive coffees, cakes, sweets and expensive lunches. 

Less dressing up

There’s less need for office clothes; suits, ties, formal wear, heels, whatever. If you do less synchronous stuff, you will be ‘seen’ less. Even in synchronous media, no one cares what you look like below head height. You will feel more comfortable.

Less classroom training

A bonus is the acceleration of online training and the abandonment of awful classroom experiences – you know the game... where you sit at round tables, get a bad question, choose a chair, write BS on a flipchart page and that chair feeds back their views to the group. A lot of bad synchronous activity can be dumped.

Less conferences

Conferences literally stopped but the world kept going. Does it really make sense to spend £2000 plus to travel and exhibit at such events. Many have successfully swung online. I’ve spoken and attended a few – they’re often free, can cope with bigger numbers, save expensive travel and accommodation and you can fit the recorded asynchronous sessions into your working day. Many have reconsidered their future spend here. And it’s good for climate change. So get that into your social responsibility statement!


I’m a fan of Occam’s Razor “The minimum number of entities to reach your given goal.” It is not that offices and workplaces will disappear, only that there will be a LOT LESS. That’s fine. The future of work is the future of Blended Work, a blend of on and off-site, enabled by technology. 5G, Starlink and better devices and software will accelerate this shift, making it easier, cheaper and faster.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Learning is a process, not an event... events mainly give the illusion of learning...

"Part of the problem with all this talk about 'learning experience' is it's questionable whether learning is actually experienced at all."

This brilliant quote, by Leonard Houx, skewers the recent hubris around ‘learning experiences’. Everything is an ‘experience’ and what is needed is some awareness of good and bad learning experiences. Unfortunately, all too often what we see are single event, over-engineered, media heavy, video, animation and single courses that research shows, result, not in significant learning, but… 

1) Clickthrough (click on this cartoon head, click on this to see X; click on option on MCQ) that allows the learner to skate across the surface of the content, 
2) Cognitive overload (overuse of media) 
3) Diversionary activity (infantile gamification). 

What is missing is relevant effort and cognitive effort, that makes one think, rather than click. There is rarely open input, rarely any personalised learning and rarely enough practice.
The single classroom experience, lecture or online course is seen as sufficient, when it is just the start of a process that will almost certainly fail without further effort, whether it through reinforcement, application and practice.

Media rich is not mind rich
The purveyors of ‘experience’ tend to think that we need richer single experiences but research shows that media rich is not mind rich. Mayer shows, in study after study, that redundant material is not just redundant but dangerous in that it can hinder learning. Sweller and others warn us of the danger of cognitive overload. Bjork and others shows us that learners are delusional about what is best for them in learning strategies and just pandering to what users think they want is a mistake. Less is usually more in that we need to focus on what the learner needs to ‘know’ not just  'experience'.
What is needed is a series of experiences. Video is rarely enough on its own, as your working memory lasts for around 20 seconds and can hold ¾ things in mind at a time. This means, that like a shooting star, your memories burn up behind you as you watch. The solution is to keep these videos short, and make sure there’s opportunities for effortful learning through note taking, active learning experiences, application and practice. We do this with WildFire, which grabs the narration from the video and uses AI to automatically produce active, effortful learning after you have watched the video.

Research shows process works
There are those who think that Learning and Development does not have to pay attention to this research or learning research at all. It is still all too common to sit in a room where no one has read much learning theory at all, and whose sole criterion for judgement on what makes good online learning is the ‘user experience’, without actually defining it as anything other than ‘what the user likes’. Lawyers know the law, engineers know physics and it is not really acceptable to buy into the anti-intellectual idea that knowing how people learn is irrelevant to Learning and Development. It is, in fact, the bedrock of learning design.
And research shows that it is extremely rare to learn much in a single event, what used to be called sheep-dip experiences. Effortful learning, active learning, desirable difficulties, retrieval practice, feedback, spaced-practice. The research is strong in evidence for effortful learning. Make It Stick is a good start but there’s a century and more of research that backs this up. It all points towards learning being a process not a single event.

Habits are process
Increasingly, online learning is diverging from what most people actually do and experience online. Look at the web’s most popular, habitually used services or experiences – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Whatsapp, Messenger, Amazon, Netflix. It is all either mediated by AI to give you a personalised experience that doesn’t waste your time or dialogue. Their interfaces are pared down, simple, and they make sure there’s not an ounce of fat to distract from what the user actually needs. Occam was right with his razor – design with the minimal number of entities to reach your goal. More than this, these services make it easy for you to use and continue using. It becomes habitual. 
Duolingo uses AI and notifications to do the same – to turn the learning experience into a habit. It knows who you are what you’ve done, importantly what you’ve not done. Notifications push you forward, remind and cajole you. Learning experiences on their own are failures, habitual learning experiences leads to retention and success.

Blended learning
Blended learning is so often just Blended Teaching, some classroom/lectures, supplemented by online. In truth there is unlikely to be blended ‘learning’ unless the blend is seen as a process, where retrieval, application and practice are part of the blend. You can’t just hold a Blended Learning ‘event’. Blended Teaching is an event, Blended Learning is a process.


Sure, events can act as a catalyst, motivate people, get them started but it is process that changes people. An experience can be a learning experience but all experiences are not learning experiences. Many are, inadvertently, designed to be the very opposite – experiences designed to impress or dazzle but end up as eye-candy, edu-tainment or enter-train-ment. Get this - media rich is not mind rich, clicking is not thinking, less in learning is often more. Single events, like lectures, conference talks, classroom and single online courses give the illusion of learning. Learning is a process not an event.

Starlink, 5G and AI – science fiction becomes fact – how this leap will transform global online learning...

I was out in my garden last month watching a stream of satellites pass in a line overhead. It was beautiful. Forget the conspiracy theories, 5G wireless technology stands for ‘fifth generation’ cellular technology. Tie this up with Starlink, a low earth orbit network of satellites delivering blistering speeds to everywhere in the world and the engine that is AI, and we have a perfect storm that will transform global, online learning.

How much faster is 5G?

1G networks were the first, 2G networks added data for things like SMS messages, 3G internet added even more and 4G, what we currently use, much faster internet access that has enabled social media and streaming. With every gear change comes faster and more efficient delivery. 5G delivers much, much higher speed and bandwidth. 
4G caps out at 100 megabits per second (Mbps), 5G caps out at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps). That means 5G is x100 faster than 4G technology, theoretically at least. 

Online learning everywhere

SpaceX's satellite internet system will offer still blazingly fast speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second and within the next year, Starlink will start betas in the northern latitudes within weeks and a public beta awards the end of the year. It will offer satellite internet to the entire planet, including remote locations where internet isn't currently available. Its satellites are low enough, and move (not geostationary), to deliver this with no blindspots. That’s an astounding leap. A couple of orders of magnitude better and global coverage. In terms of delivery and the user experience in online learning, this means a lot.

Ultra low latency

We spend a lot of time watching that little circle spinning on our screens. Technically it’s called latency, the time taken to find, identify and transfer data. 5G will make this all but disappear. This matters when you’re delivering complex online learning, whether it’s video, simulations, AI, VR or AR.
The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, two Stanford academics, is full of juicy research on media in learning. It provides a compelling case, backed up with empirical studies, to show that that people confuse media with real life. This is actually a highly useful confusion: it is what makes movies, television, radio, the web and e-learning work. But their research also supports the case for 5G. 35 psychological studies into the human reaction to media all point towards the simple proposition that people react towards media socially even though, at a conscious level, they believe it is not reasonable to do so. They can't help it. In short, people think that computers are people, which makes online learning work.
Why is this relevant to 5G? Well in real life we live in real time. We don’t encounter little spinning circles, except when waiting on a late train or in a queue, and who wants that? Hearteningly, it means that there is no reason why online learning experiences should be any less compelling - any less 'human' in feel - than what we experience in the real world and the classroom. As long as a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules, we will accept it. Read that last part again, 'as long as a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules'. If the media technology fails to conform to these human expectations - we will very much not accept it.
The spell is easily broken. Nass & Reeves showed that unnatural ‘pauses’ inhibit learning. If the media technology fails to conform to our human expectations - we will NOT accept it. This is a fascinating lesson for online learning. We must learn to design our courseware as if it were being delivered in real-time by real people in a realistic fashion. The effectiveness of the user experience on an emotional level will depend as much on these considerations as on the scriptwriting and graphic design. It all has to work seamlessly, or the illusion of humanity fails. This has huge implications in terms of the use of media and media mix.
A simple finding, that shows we have real life expectations for media, is our dislike of unnatural timing. Slight pauses, waits and unexpected events cause disturbance. Audio-video asynchrony, such as poor lip-synch or jerky low frame-rate video, will result in negative evaluations of the speaker. These problems are cognitively disturbing. They lower learning. All that disappears with 5G.

Flawless streaming

Streaming will become much easier and almost flawless, allowing online learning to deliver whatever media is necessary at whatever time is optimal for learning. Note that this does not open the floodgates for over-engineered multimedia in learning, Media rich is not necessarily mind-rich. Many see video as the killer app for 5G. It is one but video is rarely enough on its own in learning. 

AI mediated learning

AI delivered learning will also be easier as realtime calls to cloud-based AI services opens up smart solutions in learning. This opens up a new world for adaptive learning, feedback, chatbots, automated notifications based on xAPI, learning in the workflow. Specifically, it allows access to services, such as OpenAI API to tap into AI on demand. This means smarter, faster and better online learning. We free ourselves from the current presentation of flat, linear experiences. The process, and learning is not an event but a process, will be sensitive to each individual learner. Personalised learning becomes a reality.

New user experiences

New user experiences and processes will be possible when we free ourselves from the tyranny of latency and slow speed internet. The promise of blended learning that can deliver great simulations, immersion and whatever one has delivered in the real world or classroom is now possible. New business models will emerge. New forms of learning with full immersion, AI, personalisation will emerge.

New devices

Rumours have it that Apple will be offering a ‘glasses’ device. In any case, wearables, watches and small devices are now everywhere. 5G allows high speed access to and from these devices. This is not just about smartphones, it frees up fast internet speeds to all devices. We can link learning to devices that provide the context for learning. Where are you, what are you doing, then this is what we can do to help. This all becomes possible wherever you are indoors or outdoors, anywhere on the planet. 


Higher performance and improved efficiency empower new user experiences and connects new industries. This is not about boosting learning. It is about changing the very nature of education and learning. The implications for the poorer regions of the world are obvious as it could be a great leveller. In any case this is a rising tide for everyone.