Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Nudges and learning

Nudge, nudge

'Nudge' by Thaler and Sunstein is the book that in every policy maker’s, combination-lock briefcase this summer. It’s another ‘concept’ book, which is basically an innocuous word masquerading as a serious idea.

But there are several problems with the book:

1. The basic concept is too vague and covers too many cases to be taken entirely seriously. TV ads, slogans, pictures, policy tweaks – you name it, it can be called a nudge. It’s a jack of all trades term.

2. It is hopelessly US-centric. They literally talk about the American Dream (which has just turned into a nightmare) as if it were the premise behind all human behavior. They really do distrust government and have unbridled trust in business (hope they’re watching TV this week). Their whole treatise is framed in a Democrats v Republican frame (say no more). It’s libertarian capitalism at its worst.

3. They are really lawyers masquerading as psychologists. They drag out a couple of old Asch studies but largely ignore the bulk of 20th century social psychology, depending on anecdote and examples.

4. By recommending ‘nudges’ as a panacea, they simply put policy making into the marketing sphere. The bad news is that the private sector will market you out of existence. Take smoking. The only way to stop those crooks from killing our children is to make the laws tougher.

Nudges are actually interesting

To be fair, nudges is a nice little word, and some of their examples are quite catching.

Example 1: place the image of a fly in airport urinals to reduce spillage (I can confirm that this works as the cleanest urinals in Brighton are in Zilli’s restaurant)

Example 2: cash feedback loops on utility and petrol consumption

Where the book scores is in giving a complex set of techniques a simple name. It forces you into thinking about how to change behaviour without automatically defaulting into compulsion.

Nudges and learning

What are useful are the lessons to be learnt about the marketing of learning and e-learning to learners. The book does have some useful ideas that could be taken across into the learning world. Here’s my top ten starter list:

1. Language nudges

Learning professionals should use appropriate language and scrap training, learning styles, competences, objectives, homework and so on.

2. Feedback nudges

Focus on regular formative and not end-point feedback. Learning is about correcting errors, see Beyond the Black Box.

3. Email nudges

Email nudges like no other form of communication, yet little actual learning is delivered or prompted by this means.

4. YouTube nudges

Use YouTube nudges to virally spread learning. For example, this brilliant PowerPoint tutorial – hilarious and succinct.

5. Book nudges

Encourage the purchase of books, give everyone an Amazon account and budget, and get one into your bag for the train or plane.

6. Note nudges

Branson has a notebook on him at all times. Memory is fallible and note taking dramatically increases learning. Take notes every day.

7. Audio nudges

Podcasts, audio books, recording lectures. A still, vastly underused form of nudge learning.

8. Doing nudges

Buy Getting Things Done by Allen. It’s full of nudges around getting things done, on the premise that you leave nothing hanging in the air. Brilliant book.

9. Feed nudges

Get a personalized home page with feeds from your favourite learning sources and start using RSS.

10. Blog nudges

Get blogging. You’ll learn loads by habitually writing things down.

Leadbetter's 21 Ideas for 21st Century Learning

Charles Leadbetter tries hard to be a web guru and while adored by the London media luvvies, he is completely ignored by everyone else. I once attended, as a guest, a Channel 4 board dinner, and was treated like a pariah when I suggested that Charlie was a fake. He may have the thick-rimmed glasses, open shirt, cardigan and fashionably shaved head, but his ideas are second hand and he jumps on bandwagons well after the circus has left town.

WE-THINK - I think not
WE-THINK is his latest offering and it is no better than his previous efforts. He desperately tries to get this phrase into comon parlance through repetition in this rather dull book, but fails.

However, in his defence I did come across a rather interesting paper, amazingly, commissioned by the Innovation Unit. This unit is famous for NEVER answering emails or engaging with anyone in the real world. You could only ever get near them by attending boring government meetings. They were about as uninnovative (is that a real word), and closed to ideas, as you can get.

Then again, this is a very readable document, and although hopelessly optimistic, it is brimming with ideas. I loved this quote, “It is very difficult to get teachers away from the idea that learning can only happen when they are in charge of everything. They have to realise that learning sometimes happens precisely because they are not in charge of everything but the pupils are.” And here are the 21 ideas:

21 Ideas for 21st Century Learning

1. Individual Budgets and Self Directed Support Plans for Families at Risk

2. Emotional Resilience Programme

3. The Learning Concierge Service

4. Break up Large Schools

5. The Peer Learner Programme

6. The Personal Challenge

7.. Personal Learning Plans and Portfolios

8. A Right to Intensive Mentoring

9. Personal Budgets for Young People in Danger of Becoming NEET

10. Investors in Learning

11. Schools as Productive Enterprises

12. Scrap the Six Week Summer Holiday

13. The School of Everything for Schools

14. Community-Based Teacher

15. Third Spaces

16. Whole School Projects for the Community

17. Local Education Compacts

18. Participatory Budgeting

19. Leadership Teams not Headteachers

20. Wider Measures of Progress and Outcomes

21. A National Curriculum for Capabilities

Monday, September 29, 2008

txtng (the gr8 db8)

Moral panic
A bijou book by a Professor of Linguistics that takes a serious look at texting in readable prose. He shows that almost everything we think we know about texting is wrong and that the Boomer hacks are little more than ‘angry from Tunbridge Wells’ amateurs. It’s good to see some sound, academic sense in a field that’s dominated
by amateur newspaper hacks like John Humphries (in the Daily Mail), John Sutherland (in the Guardian) and Lynn Truss, who see texting as some sort of illegitimate attack on language. Disgruntled Boomers, who know little or nothing about either texting or liguistics love to crow on about how it’s debasing the language and producing generation of illiterate idiots. A widely distributed newspaper story in 2003 stated that a student had written an entire essay in textspeak. Turns out this was made up and the essay has never been found.

Crystal shows, through solid figures, that texting has emerged through use and demand and exploded across the globe. It’s estimated that over a trillion (million million) text messages were sent in 2005. Boredom, flirting, gossip, insults, jokes, greetings, organising, sports results, neighbourhood watch, stock prices, voting, visa expiry, political demonstrations, flash mobbing, parents/kids and just keeping in touch; these are just a few uses for texting. Yet this has produced little more than ‘moral panic’ among commentators.

Txt me Ishmael

But the true worth of the book is in tearing down popular misconceptions. Texting, according to Crystal is:

  • Not new
  • Not restricted to the young
  • Doesn’t abbreviate as much as you think it does
  • Helps rather than hinders literacy
  • Produces wonderful forms of language

Serious poets have marveled at the subtlety of text poetry and I particularly love, ‘They phone you up your mum and dad’. Text poet Norma Silver has writte Ten Txt Commandments’ such as ‘u shall abbraeva8 & rite words like theyr sed’. There’s the wonderful emergence of texting novels, especially in Japan, and books written wholly in text messages.

Nothing new

Crystal shows that six linguistic features of texting are not novel. With an original limit of 160 characters, it makes perfect sense to use consonants to convey meaning. Many languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew, rely largely on this phenomenon. Crystal lamblasts Humphries for accepting abbreviations such as the OK, PS, QC, VIP, BBC, RSVP etc, yet abhorring text messaging. Acronyms have been used for centuries. Missig letters are also common as in Mr, Mrs, Sgt, Ltn, Kg etc. Straight shortenings such as bus, fridge, exam are also common. Yet abbreviations are not as common as you would imagine. In some trials only 6% of texts used abbreviations.

Pictograms and logograms are features of many languages (notably Chinese). Deliberate non-standard spellings are also common, and often included in standard dictionaries. Crystal openly admires the novel forms of expression such as a3 (anytime, anywhere, anyplace’) or prw (parents are watching).

Sticklers on punctuation may be surprised to find that apostrophes are often used in used in texting. In fact the apostrophe, along with standardized spelling, is a recent invention in writing. Younger adults are MORE LIKELY to use standard capitalization and punctuation in tests. Women are more enthusiastic testers, write longer messages and use more emoticons/abbreviations.

Good or bad?

The final chapter is the most fascinating. Young people are well aware of the difference between texting and schoolwork. Examination experts report that it is not a significant problem d, as we have seen, few actually abbreviate much anyway. All of the reported illiteracy problem predate texting, yet it is a handy scapegoat. Annoyingly, just as complaints about literacy multiply, along comes a technology that has promoted a renaissance in reading and writing, yet it is treated with contempt by the ‘pen and paper’ brigade. Children don’t keep diaries any more – oh yeah! Haven’t you see MySpace, facebook and blogs. They’re obsessed by diary keeping.

Furthermore, research is showing that texting actually improves literacy skills. Crystal quotes three studies from City University, London, Coventry University and Finland, that purport to show positive links between texting and literacy. It motivates, especially young boys, into being creative with their writing. In an interesting twist, the Coventry group found that the younger the child received a phone, the higher their literacy scores. As one would expect there’s also evidence that it helps with communications and social skills. It has also hugely empowered the deaf.

A murkier area is the growth in court cases around adultery, fraud and even murder being prove through the analysis of text messages. It turns out that we unwittingly put a personal style signature in out texts.

Txtng rcks

Its strengths are that it’s cheap, immediate, direct, personal, not in real time and unobtrusive. I think every company and organization that has staff using mobile phones should be forced to do a course on texting, then forced to text more often than talk on the phone. Texting cuts to the quick. It would save them all an absolute fortune.

Poor Procurement Produces Piss Poor Performance

Makes things worse not better
A massive procurement process by the Office for Government Commerce has descended into farce. The process was labyrinthine, badly designed and at times completely unfit for purpose. By missing out entire categories of buying (e.g. bespoke) it is likely to result in poorer, rather than better, procurement by the public sector. Any queries by people struggling to complete the process were met by intransigent 'computer says no' replies.

Majority of budget spent on procurement
Not that the OGC has a monopoly on piss poor procurement. A recent telco pitched out a large project and got 40 people to pitch! A rough calculation shows that two thirds of the actual budget was spent by suppliers before the winner was chosen. This is morally repugnant. Overall, everyone loses, as it limits the ability of small, innovative companies to grow.
Another frequent request is for the company to develop a section of the course as part of the pitch. OK, that's fine, but if I go into a bank for a loan, I don't ask for a free fiver, just to see what the product's like. Demos are not cheap to develop.
Having spent 25 years responding to tenders, I've 10 pleas for a sense of proportion in procurement:

1. Go for a two year approved supplier list, but make sure you have a range of companies to cope with innovation. This means choosing on competence and not just price.
2. Don't ask for proposals or tenders unless you have a secured budget and the project is assured.
3. Distinguish between Requests for Information (RFI), Requests for Quotations (RFQ), Requests for Proposals (RFP) and Requests for Tender (RFT)
4. Don't ask for demos/prototypes if total project cost is less than 30k.
5. Make sure total cost of procurement to vendors (in total) is less than 10% of the project cost.
6. Make sure total cost of procurement to buyer is less than 5% of the project cost.
7. Be fair on penalty clauses. There must be a quid pro quo approach where both sides are held responsible for delays, quality issues and so on, according to actual causes.
8. Have a clear set of written requirements. These should outweigh all the appendix stuff on environmental policy etc.
9. Keep open communication channel with vendors - they may have some excellent suggestions on improving your procurement process.
10. Keep the process as short as possible, but be reasonable. Don't lose momentum and treat suppliers with respect, as partners. Help them and they'll help you.

Procurement is now a strategic role in large organisations, with a drift towards partnership procurement. Supplier Relationship Management (SRM) is becoming more common as is more adventurous outsourcing and low cost country sourcing.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Parent? Learning professional? Watch this...

Stephen Pinker is that rare beast - an academic at the top of his field who knows that it is important to get his message out into the real world. His books are great but if you don't have the time, this short video is a great and succinct summary of his thoughts on the mind.

Pinker has a go, based on solid research, at professionals who labour under the illusion that the mind is a blank slate (many learning professionals) and parents who think that they have the power to shape their kids.

Zimbardo - harrowing but relevant video

My son is doing a GCSE in Psychology and has just covered Milgram and Zimbardo. So it was timely that this serious, psychological explanation for toxic debt, Abu Ghraib and commonplace evil dropped into my in-box. 

Watch the great Zimbardo explain why the Stanford Prison Experiment can explain much of what we now witness as evil. The Abu Ghraib sequence is truly horrifying, way beyond the sanitised images we saw on TV. They shock the audience into a deep, disturbed silence. However, the denouement is wonderful with an amazing story about an ordinary guy who does an extraordinary thing. Fantastic talk.

I couldn't help thinking that our current financial woes, a true evil, have been inflicted upon us in a social atmosphere of greed, with no counterbalance of whistleblowing or heroism. However, this explanation was quickly overpowered by other thoughts, along the lines of cutting off their greedy mitts and offering them free glasses of champagne. I've met far too many bankers, lawyers and city types in my lifetime and despise the idea that we should be bailing them out, without making them pay back what they've stolen. Since when did robbing the poor to pay the rich become the norm?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Banks, junkies and methodone training

Debt drug junkies
Easy to blame the banks for all of our ills, but if they're the drug dealers peddling the debt drug, we're the junkies, who lapped this stuff up - credit cards, loans, mortgages. We're as addicted to debt as the dealers are to quick cash. The problem is that the dealers became massive junkies themselves, borrowing on a massive scale to feed the beast. What has always concerned me, and I've mentioned this often enough in this blog, is the attitude of financial institutions towards compliance and regulatory training, which was meant to cub this overzealous enthusiasm.

Methadone training
You don't stop drug dealers and junkies by talking at them in classrooms or making them do read text interspersed with multiple choice questions. That's why almost all regulatory and compliance training makes the situation worse, not better. HR departments plays the following corrupt game:

1. Hire lawyers to deliver the training (they're boring, can't teach and simply reiterate the law)
2. Deliver dull classroom courses that fail to put people into real jeopardy situations
3. Deliver even duller e-learning courses that push the issues out of people's minds
4. Treat compliance e-learning as a commoditised, low price, rapid e-learning task, ensuring it's lack of punch and effectiveness
5. Refuse to admit to, and use, real, internal failures and disaster stories to make the point
6. Play the 'tick-box' game - just do it, don't worry if you've learnt anything

We have Professor Frank Dobson from Harvard showing us that at least one species of compliance training is completely ineffective, if not counter-productive. Has anyone really read or taken action on the back of this overwhelming evidence (702 companies)? No.

The FSA have been one of the real culprits here. They just can't hack it in delivering training but so are the training departments who commission this stuff. The solution is now clear. Behaviour will be curbed by further restrictions and laws. Deal drugs, go to jail. By failing to make it clear that corrupt practices and behaviour will be punished, we've all paid the price.

For employees to toe the line on regulation and compliance, you need attitudinal and behavioural change. This meas serious performance simulations that put people in realistic situations. We have the tools, design and capability to do this, but hardly anyone has the balls to commit the, albeit meagre. budgets to get the job done.

Capitalism could be reshaped by rehsaping minds towards reasonable, fair and rational management and selling. A mass training programme, using powerful, immersive, scenario-drive performance simulations is required on the back of all this chaos, or we'll be in the same position further down the line.