Sunday, April 29, 2007

‘Drink and snog’ mobile phone game

New student in the UK? This mobile phone game from the University of Portsmouth introduces you to British life with scenes from pubs, scenes of public affection and other strange British habits.

C-shock (wonder if they thought carefully enough about this name!) is a sort of e-mother for overseas students. You rate the scenes you see on a ‘culture-shock’ scale from 1-100.

Spot a pack of half-dressed women swaying like MFI wardrobes, wearing pink stetsons, drinking luninescent liquids straight from the bottle, while eating kebabs? Don't worry it's only a pre-nuptial wedding celebration. There’s also a map of the campus and some tasks to complete. Nice idea, I think.

Induction/Orientation – before, during and after
This is an interesting application for m-learning. Induction is too often a ‘corporate dump’ of information. Sending out stuff to a new starter’s mobile, even if it’s only a txt message, is ideal. People want to know about their new organisation before they join. That’s when they’re at their most curious.

Then, when they arrive, a series of real tasks can be linked to a ‘journey’ mapped out on their phone. They have the added advantage of being able to phone people, such as the bank, for appointments. Social stuff, like meeting like-minded people could also be added.

Once installed valuable contact numbers, websites and other information is then stored for future use. Induction/orientation is, after all, an on-going series of tasks.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Ode to Cologne

ITEC 2007
This was my fourth year talking at Europe’s largest defence training and simulation conference, this year in Cologne. Cologne, lying on the Rhine with its huge Gothic cathedral, is in many ways a better venue than larger, more famous cities. The city was bombed flat in the second world war, apart from the Cathedral, which was left standing as a navigational landmark for the RAF (handy having military experts on hand). It really is spectacular and has a verticality in the design, both inside and out, that enhances its height. Every feature, points upwards so that the building seems to be straining and reaching for the skies. This is in marked contrast to the more earthbound and settled pose of most English cathedrals.

The defence e-learning community is a tight-knit group and they’re very passionate about what they do. Give the necessarily disciplined and traditional environment, there are fantastic pockets of best practice that make other sectors look like dinosaurs. Their use of gaming, simulations, team training and general willingness to listen to new ideas (even those as outlandish as mine) is a constant surprise.

Military-industrial complex
Eisenhower, in his valedictory address, warned against the all-too-cosy alliance between the military and its large industrial partners, and never has this warning been so relevant. Equipment-lead training has led to an extreme focus on equipment training, rather than equipping people to deal with the real problems they face on the ground, so the exhibition and conference are still skewed towards large, expensive simulators. The bulk of the exhibition was flight, vehicle and weapon simulators. The new ‘war among the people’ demands a new approach to training. We don’t seem to be engaged in aerial dog-fights and tank battles an more.

Military-entertainment complex
This new world could be describes as the military-entertainment complex, where e-learning, gaming, video and other web-based phenomena are used to help provide the bulk of the training needs. The interesting stuff was to be found around the periphery of the exhibition among the smaller companies. There were the e-learning companies, who are now starting to provide good content and advice on a whole range of mainstream training needs. There’s the games/simulations companies, using existing games, games engines or other tools such as Flash, to produce low cost simulations on convoy protection, roadblocks, forward operations, cultural awareness and language training. This is where the real action should be.

‘Physical’ and ‘psychological’ fidelity
An underlying problem in military training is the failure to recognise the fundamental difference between ‘physical’ and ‘psychological’ fidelity. So, how real should simulations be? It’s a mistake to think that physical fidelity is an absolute virtue in simulations. A stripped down version of reality will often suffice, and in fact can often provide greater focus for the learner. The important consideration in making such decisions is to be selective in a way that focuses on the psychologically significant aspects of the situation in a way that highlights the learning objectives.

All in all this conference can be seen as a mirror of the problems we all face in 21st century military action and training. Too much money is still being spent within the old 'cold-war' model, while the world has moved on. One can almost use the conference as a diagnostic tool to identify why Iraq has gone so badly wrong. The good news is that the post-industrial model has taken hold within the military and there are some excellent examples of how technology can be used to make present and future military operations more relevant and humane. the move from the military-industrial complex to the military-entertainment complex is well underway.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Habitual learning (h-learning)

Habits fuel learning
In a Pizzeria, after a visit to one of my favourite London spots (the Soane Museum) Jay Cross asked me what I thought fuelled good learning. My answer was ‘habits’. Soane was a habitual learner and collector. Strong, autonomous learners tend to have developed habitual learning, whether in reading, blogging, conversing, taking notes and so on. They all have different sets of habits, but habits they have in abundance.

Blogging as a habit
This is a good example. Some bloggers start but tail off, others work at it and keep going for years, benefiting from the opportunity to habitually structure their own thoughts, get feedback, reflect and LEARN.

7 habits of highly effective learners
Here’s a stab at what I’d say makes habits work in learning:

  1. Stick with a new habit until it takes root. Habits fall away unless stuck to for some time and with some vigour.
  2. Always take something to read or listen. Autonomous learners always have something in their pocket or bag in what Marc Auge calls Non-Places – trains, airports, planes, automobiles, hotel rooms etc.
  3. Take notes. The best way to ensure that knowledge sticks is to write it up in your own words. Studies show between 20-30% increase in recall when you take notes.
  4. Habitually encode. Habitual learners simplify and structure the stuff they want to remember in the right order.
  5. Replay and recall. Effective learners voluntarily recall what they’ve learnt at intervals after the event. Recall that talk on the way home from the conference, recall your holiday on the plane back.
  6. Customise habit forming feeds. Customise your home page to encourage your bountiful learning habits.
  7. Kick-start new learning habits. Blog, subscribe to a new magazine, feeds from new sources, use a new tool on web – good learners are always adding learning habits to their repertoire.

Bad habits
Of course we know a lot about the power of habits, especially bad ones such as smoking, eating fatty foods and gambling. Recent research confirms that habits may form familiar neural pathways which makes it more difficult to break the pattern of behaviour. It would seem that these neural pathways get triggered if the habit cues return, hence recidivism in smoking, alcoholism, drug abuse etc. However, it is the nurture of good habits in learning that matter, and there are two interesting thinkers who see habit as lying at the core of learning, Locke and William James. Sorry to get a little detailed here, but it’s worth recalling what they said.

Locke those habits in
John Locke, the greatest philosopher of his age, laid the foundations for empiricism and the enlightenment view of knowledge, politics and education. Breaking free from medieval scholasticism, and disaffected by the educational habits of his day, he put forward a sophisticated theory of education built, not around the transmission of information, but the shaping of habits and character around wisdom and virtue. These theories, grounded in his liberal, political philosophy, are written in Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1692). The book was widely translated and became a manual for education among the upper classes for most of 18th century.

The book is a series of very practical methods for encouraging good habits and character right down to details on curiosity, games, language learning, dancing etc. He recommends educational methods that focus on example and practice, rather than the teaching of information and principles. In this sense, it is not learning that matters, but the establishment of good habits. It is repeated practice that instils these worthy behaviours so that they become instinctive. The concrete rather than the abstract is recommended for the reinforcement of such good habits.

The learner must not be coerced into learning but made to feel as if it is in their own interest, and that they are acting from their own free will. Not that children should be spoilt. For those of a vocational bent he recommends practical skills and understanding. Beyond this, his focus is on a healthy mind that has the basics in reading, writing, arithmetic, a knowledge of literature along with the natural and social sciences. But not the arts, which he regarded as either useless or dangerous. Detailed scholarly study should be left to those who want to become scholars.

He does not recommend school for those who can afford tutors, and sets great store on the enthusiasm of parents, and the family in general. Schools, he thought, merely perpetuate bad company and bad habits of behaviour. A child is a member of both a family and nation with the individual having the right to life and liberty. It is the idea of a free mind, that uses the power of reason to become contributory, autonomous adults in a free society that mark out this educational theory based on political belief.

James: habits as basic principle in education
Like Locke, he wrote a practical book Talks to Teachers (1899), originally a series of lectures, giving practical advice to teachers. The difference is that psychology had now become, through his efforts, a science, and its principles could be used in educational theory.

It was here that he put forward his now famous theory on learning by doing. This was to heavily influence John Dewey, and the future of educational theory through to Kolb and others. The book doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, as psychology is a science; teaching an art. But some psychological principles are clear.

Education is, above all, the organization of acquired habits of conduct and tendencies to behaviour. Children should not be expected to learn by rote. Their experiences must be turned into useful and habitual behaviour through action. The learner must listen, but then take notes, experiment, write essays, measure, consult and apply. He recommends learning through work and the creation of real things or dealings with real people in a shop, to give you educational experiences beyond mere theory. He was in fact a firm advocate of vocationally oriented schools and work-based learning (relevant today or not?).

The supervision of the acquisition of habit is another of his principles. Habit is the enormous flywheel of society, and should be exercised until securely rooted. The result of almost all learning is this habitual behaviour. Association, interest, attention, will and motivation; these are James’s driving forces in education. In addition there’s memory, curiosity, emulation, constructiveness, pride, fear and love - all impulses that must be turned to good use.

This is not to say that he favoured a lazy, or what he called ‘soft pedagogics’. He recognized that learning was sometimes hard, even arduous. William James devotes chapter 4 of ‘The Principles of Psychology’ to habit and outlines some principles for the acquisition and sustainability of good habits, including; launch yourself with as strong and decided an initiative as possible, never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life, seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Elgg on Blackboard’s face

Some excellent folks at Brighton Univeristy (my home town) were given a glowing write up in Wired this week on the use of Myspace, blogging and other webby stuff in schools and higher education. They’re a great bunch and not at all ivory-tower, running regular e-learning talks for people both inside and outside of the university. (They’ve even had me along to speak!)

The Golden Elgg
Elgg is the software that’s creating all the fuss. Rather than keeping stuff like MySpace, Bebo, blogs and other web 2.0 tools OUT of education, they’ve folded them IN. Developed as open-source, Elgg has been designed for education (also now available for corporates). Everyone, whether they’re students, tutors or researchers gets a profile page, a blog, photo sharing and friends lists, and they can create and join on-site discussion communities.

Wired article:

For an external view and some visuals:

It's the blog's bollocks
It’s free, downloadable and has
Blogging, Social networking, File repositories for individuals and communities, Podcast support, Full access controls, Supports tagging, User profiles, Full RSS support, RSS aggregator, Create communities, Collaborative community blogs, Create 'friends' networks, Import content, Publish to blog, Multilingual with Branding/customisation. It’s the blog’s bollocks!

Bottom up is new top-down
Surely this is exactly what an education institution should want – collaborative learning. They’re always banging on about the collaborative environment of a school, college or university, so why not accelerate this using the very technology that the students use anyway. The tide of web 2.0 use has flooded over the campus walls an it’s too late to stop it, so embrace it. There comes spoint where bottom up becomes so compelling that it becomes the new top-down.

Fingernails down Blackboard
So far they have 50 schools and colleges using the software round the world. This could be BIG, and a real fingernail screech down the face of arrogant Blackboard.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Naked organisations

Naked organisations
A Pew survey of internet use showed that 10% of internet users have been online while naked. In an excellent article in Wired this month there’s the idea of the ‘naked organisation’, one that opens itself up to the outside world. I tried this to a degree as a CEO, publishing as much as we could, as often as we could, free and online, to over11,000 outside subscribers, as well as attending as many external events as we could muster, think-tank dinners and other efforts at transparency. As a PLC you had to be transparent at least twice a year financially, what was more important was transparency on ideas. I even opened the company up as Fringe Arts event one year with an enormous banner above the door – this really disturbed staff and I had a barrage of internal criticism (mainly from production people who didn’t understand the value of marketing). My own view is that it was this approach that led to our success in the market. By being transparent and honest in our views, we were seen to be engaging in the debate rather than just ‘selling services’.

Naked training
An example of a naked e-learning project was the Barclays University project led by Paul Rudd and John Rodgers. They created a learning portal (remember that concept), open to all Barclay’s employees, AND THE OUTSIDE WORLD. There were some discussion forums that were confidential, but the rest was free for anyone to use – and many did. This turned out to be a remarkable idea. Not only were Barclays seen to be ahead of the pack, the benefits for recruitment and brand image were obvious. Unfortunately, the traditionalist L&D people had their way by rather ruthlessly sacking the visionaries and closing it down. Most progressive learning projects are in the end destroyed by training departments themselves rather than from the outside. It taught me that there’s strong arguments for transparent organisations to simply publish their training.

Naked blogs and wikis
Blogging is perhaps the most obvious example of naked learning and sharing. Give people a chance and they’ll whip off their corporate togs in a second. Microsoft’s Channel 9 is a good example. Mark Oehlert (check out his excellent blog) posted a wonderful summary of naked corporate behaviour within Motorola, who have about 4,433 blogs (about 40,000 blog entries), 3,300 wikis (each with often many pages), several thousand FAQs and 28,000 inquiries and responses in 2,400 forums. What made it work? It was a completely viral adoption internally, "without a single memo from upstairs". Heavily used low down in the organization to get things done, but less used and less understood as you go up the organization. Three quarters of the company participates by posting to blogs, wikis, forums, and FAQs. They thinks their statistics show that all employees with access to a computer worldwide use the system at least every week.

Save your ass
I've seen lots of companies and organisations come and go in the learning space. Many of these spent too much time discussing things privately and not enough time discussing things publicly with clients. In the end nakedness can become a competitive advantage and save your organisation from low visibility, sales and obscurity.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Happiness is dumbing-up

Laynard's Happiness
Blog book reviews are usually glowing, but I read an awful book recently, Richard Laynard’s ‘Happiness’. Despite the idea being widely rejected as simplistic by John Stuart Mill and almost every serious thinker that’s ever thought deeply on the subject, the idea that ‘happiness’ is the sole purpose of life, or even an end-in-itself, seems to have taken root in our therapeutic culture. Life is not a simple calculus of unhappiness/happiness. Even a cursory look at the complexity of feelings, emotions and behaviour make that idea seem childish. These simple distinctions; happiness=good/unhappiness=bad; positive feelings=good/negative feelings=bad, are puerile and misleading.

Happy clapping
Unfortunately government has caught a bad dose of ‘happy clapping’ and ministers have latched onto the idea that we should try to engineer this happiness. You see it in the work-life balance debate (read work=unhappy, life=happy). You also see it within organisations, as hapless HR people try to take control of the emotional welfare of employees. Self-appointed armies of coaches, counsellors, mentors and therapists are crawling all over organisations searching for the pathological. Everyday emotions and ordinary contention are diagnosed as illnesses and people with creepy ‘open questioning’ techniques come in to offer cures. By the way, is there anything more creepy than the current Pamela Stephenson series on TV. It’s patronising garbage. No wonder Billy Connolly’s no longer funny.

Furedi - Why the ‘politics of happiness’ makes me mad
Frank Furedi, one of the few sane commentators on this topic, has en excellent article in Spiked (thanks to Dan Travis), ‘
Why the ‘politics of happiness’ makes me mad - If you’re unhappy with state-sponsored happiness programmes, clap your hands’.

He objects to ministers buying the whole happiness kick, as if all would be well with regular doses of happiness counselling are the solution. He rejects the government’s attempt to raise our happiness levels with officialdom poking its nose at every juncture into our emotional welfare.

Happy sheets
What ever happened to contention? I don’t want people to fill in ‘happy-sheets’ when I speak at a conference. If anything I want to disturb them, make them think again, disrupt their existing beliefs. Why attend a conference to hear someone simply confirm what you already know and believe? If you want happiness go to a comedy club. Everyone knows you forget jokes as soon as the laughter has died down. Happiness is a dumbed-up state. This is not a plea for grumpiness, although, like most people my age I find that quality quite endearing, it’s a plea for realism and sanity before the therapeutic brigade start seeing the whole of society as an asylum full of pathological patients who need to pay for their platitudes.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cool learning

Cool learning
Training, depending as it does on the tyranny of time and location (sending people at a specific time to a separate place to learn), has a GARGANTUAN carbon footprint. Learning psychology shows that real contexts enhance our ability to learn, recall and apply what we’ve learnt, yet we still feel the need to transport millions of people away from the workplace to learn. The rising waters of bottom-up, web 2.0 knowledge creation could maybe keep the real rising waters down. We need only accelerate this, embrace it and be explicit on dropping the need for endless, formal courses in separate locations, training ecntres and far-off places.

Carbon free training
The learning world is always beating itself up about not being heard at the top table, bemoaning the fact that ‘learning’ doesn’t the recognition it deserves. Time and time again I hear this speech from learning professionals. Perhaps we could start by aligning ourselves to the most important political and business issue of the day – climate change. We could state publicly that we will stop all off-site courses, stop all air travel for training and adopt the e-learning model. Our carbon-free training would count towards the carbon savings in annual report and could be used to generate good publicity for the organisation.

Practice what we preach
A good starting point would be a policy statement, followed by some e-learning on energy conservation in the workplace, especially around computers, standby modes, lights off and so on. Away days could be a thing of the past. European funders could insist on future European projects avoid all stupid air travel for endless meetings under the banner of collaboration. If you want to collaborate, collaborate online.

Electronic hoodies and Gutter geeks

Electronic hoodies
Big blogosphere debate on whether anonymity and vitriol damage blogs. My own view, having had my fair share of anonymous comments (usually from people working for the BBC!), even a rather strange blog stalker, is that they’re clearly harmless males from the gutter of geek culture. Why put the views of 71 million bloggers at risk, especially those who are expressing themselves within the context of a politically hostile environment, because of the actions of a few juvenile, electronically-hooded idiots?

Anonymous incorporated
Neither do I really have a problem with anonymity. There may be times when you don’t want your employer, government or other agency find out who you are. It’s also easy for people without blogger accounts to simply click that button. I rather like the robust comments, even the vitriol!

Gutter geeks
If we want freedom of expression we need to take the rough with the smooth. Let me give a personal example. Typical of the timid, geek critics is Daniel Raven, rich-kid partner of the wonderful Julie Burchill. Riding on the coat-tails of Burchill, whose essays in the book are superb, this singularly untalented writer has a chapter on new media in HER latest book, where he has a relentless go at me, and the industry he has worked in for years. The story is as tedious as his writing, and for some reason he calls me ‘Charlie’. While berating his fellow workers as ‘tossers’ and hating their ‘showing off about DJing’ (he is exactly one of those himself and pens another tedious essay on local Brighton bands later in the same book), he is typical of these powerless, geeky kids who like to have a go, but not to your face. "Anyone who's lived in Brighton longer than five minutes will tell you that what this town really needs is more plumbers," he says (but the little darling wouldn’t possibly consider being one himself – which is probably why he works in the very company he berates). However, at least he put his name to the diatribe. The point of the story is that there will always be remnants at the end of every group who are a bit inadequate in real life but use media when they want to appear brave. Fortunately, the anonymous posters and gutter geeks are all too obvious, easily spotted and easily ignored.

Me and Jerry Springer
I have also received letters and vitriol from fundamentalist Christians, who objected to me, as a board member of the Brighton Dome and Festival, agreeing with the decision to show ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’. In a debate for all parties after it was shown, you had to be there to feel the full force of their irrational wrath. Everyone on the room who was not of their ilk was lambasted as ‘Going to hell’. However, they have a right to protest, write to Board members and express their views. In this case it showed them to be the fanatics they are.

The internet is truly a bottom up medium and we need to resist those who want to see it as some sort of sterile, newspaper letters' page.