Friday, December 26, 2008

Spooky quiz - try it

At the end of this message, you are asked a question. 
Answer it immediately.
Don't stop and think about it. Just say the first thing that pops into your mind.

This is a fun 'test'... AND kind of spooky at the same time! Give it a try, then e-mail it around (including back to me) and you'll see how many people you know fall into the same percentage as you. Be sure to put in the subject line if you are among the 98% or the 2%. You'll understand what that means after you finish taking the 'test.' Now - just follow the instructions as quickly as possible. Do not go to the next calculation before you have finished the previous one.. You do not ever need to write or remember the answers, just do it using your mind. You'll be surprised. 

Start: How much is: 


15 + 6 


3 + 56 


89 + 2 


12 + 53 


75 + 26 


25 + 52 


63 + 32 


I know! Calculations are hard work, but it's! nearly over.. 

Come on, one more! ... 

123 + 5 



Now look at the first comment for the answer....

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cognitive overload – why we’re in the forgetting not learning game

Victor Hugo went on holiday after publishing Les Miserables but couldn’t help writing to his publisher to see how sales were going. He wrote a letter with just one symbol ‘?’ and his publisher replied ‘!’. I love this story as Occam’s Razor is my guiding principle (the minimum number of entities to reach your goal).

On an academic note, Itiel Dror gives some fine talks, and if you’re lucky, he’ll bring his ‘brain in formaldehyde’ along, and pass it around the audience. It’s to force the point that the brain is the focal point for all learning, and that without knowing how it works, you’ll be a massively inefficient teacher and/or learner. He’ll also take you through some exercises to show the severe limits of your working memory.

Brain is a filtering and forgetting machine
Cognitive overload usually results in a loss of psychological attention. We all know the signs, drifting into other thoughts, feeling confused.... The brain is a highly selective organ and has some heavyweight filters. The first is sensory input, the second is our working memory, and then there’s a whole battery of processes that can aid or hamper encoding, deep processing and retention in long term memory. In other words, we have evolved to learn only what our ancestors thought was useful to us and ditch the rest. The brain is not a learning machine; it is a filtering and forgetting machine.

Cutting consciousness down to size was the subtitle of Tor Norretranders excellent The User Illusion, a book devoted to mapping out the limits of consciousness. Every second we ignore and discard millions of bits of data and the tiny residue is consciousness. Most people have no idea about how perception and the representation of the external world works in consciousness – but the illusion is that it is about what we need, not what actually exists. Out of the eleven billion bits of sensory information from eyes, ears, smell, taste, balance and touch, we experience a tiny fraction in consciousness. Unbelievably we seem to process about 16 bits a second and even then it passes quickly into the past and forgetfulness. Then upper limit seems to top out at 50 bits per second. Learning is about catching things in this fast panning spotlight and encoding them in such a way that they can be remembered. This is like juggling a never-ending series of balls and occasionally, and deliberately, popping the relevant ones into your pocket. On top of this we tend to operate with only one or two modalities at a time, sight, smell, hearing etc. making consciousness a process of selection and rejection.

Even worse consciousness is full of deceit and deception. It is always trying to get you to do things other than learning. It’s a dangerous world out there and we’re genetically disposed towards getting our rocks off, so placing young men and women in a crowded classroom with a herd of close proximity mates is unlikely to promote psychological attention.

Much of the effort in education and training is wasted as it results in instant or near-term forgetting. We know that working or short-term memory is severely restricted, and without adequate rehearsal and spaced practice, little or nothing is learnt. This is why chunking and the parsimonious presentation of content is essential, not just desirable.

So if this is the demand sign of the equation, what’s the supply side like?

Courses are bloated
Many courses are bloated with material that is quite simply unnecessary. It’s common practice to load up a course with stated learning objectives at the front, followed by an overlong introductory session on the history or background of the topic. You see this at conferences where experienced executives spend 5/10 minutes opening their presentation with slides about their organisation; IBM, Microsoft, Cisco – as if we didn’t know that they’re big, have loads of employees and operate in lots of countries!

In e-learning you see it with overlong animations, animations that are illustrative and not instructive, over-written text and spurious graphics that simply match the nouns in the text. Almost all e-learning programmes have text that has not been adequately edited. Interfaces are not consistent or fine-tuned and screens are too busy. Then there’s the absurd text plus identical audio. Note that in 3D worlds I think this is different as your avatar increases attention and forces actual performance. Consciousness is a simulation and that’s why simulations work.

In many courses, subject matter experts load the content up with over-long explanations, examples and legal stuff, as they don’t know anything about learning. If the content has been passed through ‘legals’ it will have gathered a lot of messy unreadable moss.

Delivery designed for dumping
Courses offer the illusion of learning through their breadth and depth of content. In reality, a tiny fraction is retained by learners and even then, our memories demand that this knowledge decays rapidly, without practice. Traditional learning delivery therefore seems to be designed for forgetting – talks, lectures etc. In addition to being too ‘knowledge’ based – because it’s easy, there’s a dearth of learning by doing, spaced rehearsal and practice. We’re a profession who are stuck in ‘teacher-mode’.

Online/offline overload
Now I happen to believe that cognitive overload, although common both online and offline, is commoner offline. That’s why I’m in favour of more online education and training. It’s an observable phenomenon among all ages. I’ve been wholly absorbed in games, programming, research and writing for up to 8-10 hours, almost without a break. My ‘flow’ experiences on this scale are largely online. This is especially true for children who find it difficult to find the intrinsic motivation to stay focussed. It also gives us the ability to implement spaced rehearsal and practice, by both reminding us that it is necessary and delivering the relevant content or practice.

Epilogue by Picasso
A man on a train once asked Picasso why he didn’t paint people as the way they are. When Picasso asked him what he meant by this expression, the man took out a photograph of his wife. “That’s my wife” he said, and Picasso replied “Isn’t she rather small and fat?”

In short, everything is too noisy, too ‘presented’ and too long.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Teacher sacked for saying santa doesn't exist

This interesting seasonal story made me think – do teachers have to lie to keep their jobs? Do they have to pretend to believe in Santa, tooth fairies, bogeymen, Narnia, angels, Jesus, Allah and God. The parents of one tearful child explained that the teacher had said this because of her religion. In other words, her actual truth (Santa doesn’t exist was trumped by the view that her religious views were false).

In England state schools have to teach Religious Studies by law. In other words it is decreed that teachers must lie, as they cannot logically all be true. In fact, they are by definition a range of relativist beliefs, the tragedy being that their believers are absolutist in their convictions. Even worse the law states that Christianity must have a prominent position in all this. In other words, let’s tell lots of lies but we have one lie that needs more time than the others.

If this wasn’t bad enough a daily act of worship is also mandated by law, with a 51% bias towards Christianity. Thankfully, the great majority of schools, as reported by Ofsted, simply ignore this law. It would seem that legally mandating the daily chanting of lies is a step too far for most people.

What a mess. The lesson here, I suspect, is that education should be secular and that religion is a matter of personal belief and has no role in schools, as it causes more problems and contradictions than it’s worth. Religious education is a farce. It needs to be replaced by Philosophy which takes a more ‘educational’ approach to such issues.


The teacher wasn’t sacked; she was a substitute teacher who is still registered. The school, in Manchester, simply said they wouldn’t use her again.

Pedagogy – faddish, non-empirical and lopsided

Reach for my gun

Whenever I hear the word ‘pedagogy’,  like Goebbels, I want to reach for my gun. The language of learning is a mishmash of backward-looking classical, industrial and behaviourist terms, but this is the one that masks an uncomfortable truth. Pedagogy means the ‘science of teaching’ but science is rarely a guiding hand in teaching. More often than not, so-called ‘pedagogy’ is a hotchpotch of confused practice. When you see genuinely efficient teaching, the usual sign being n attentive, engaged, note-taking or active learners, it contrasts wildly with the commonly observed inattentive, disengaged, no- note-taking, inactive (or active in the wrong way) learners.

Pedagogy – the science of teaching

If you want a heavy dose of how unscientific pedagogic talk can be I refer you to the journals Radical pedagogy and Pedagogy, Culture & Society. Here you’ll find evidence-free content of such mind blowing banality that you really will wonder whether teaching can survive the onslaught of non-empirical and faddish thought.

For a sobering account of educational research, I recommend James Tooley’s Educational Research: A Critique, commissioned by Ofsted. It was written some time ago, but not much has changed. It’s a worrying read, or as Tooley says in the Foreward  ‘a pretty grim business’. Tooley studied 41 articles across four academic journals and judged them on the quality of their empirical research and within this quantitative and qualitative evidence, with a stress on sample size and the objectivity of the researchers.

What did he find? Most of the papers were of unacceptable quality. He found an abundance of subjectivity, with mostly content taken from secondary sources without citing the primary source. Much of it was ‘second rate’ .... irrelevant to classroom practice and caught up in arcane disputes’. It reminded me of the permanent secretary who famously described the then Department for Education and Schools’ as a ‘knowledge-free zone’.

Seeds of its own destruction

The word ‘pedagogy’ contains the seeds of its own destruction, as the ‘science of teaching’ is hopelessly lopsided if it is not rooted in learning. By side-stepping the real science in the psychology of learning it simply observes one-sided practice. This is not a bad thing in itself, if it is done well, but let’s not pretend that it is anything like a full picture. It’s like a cricket writer writing only about bowling, never batting or fielding (in US pitching in baseball without batting and fielding).

The consequences for the use of technology in this one-eyed view of learning, is that teacherless interventions are not taken seriously. It is assumed that teaching is a necessary condition for learning – but let’s be crystal clear on this - it’s not. The vast majority of actual learning takes place WITHOUT teaching.  Teaching can induce good learning but it is not a NECESSARY condition for learning. Most pedagogic theorising assumes it does.

Radical pedagogy

I’d much rather redefine pedagogy as ‘the science of teaching and/or learning’. This really would allow us to develop more radical pedagogies. Actually it may in the end be better to abandon the word altogether. How far could a radical pedagogy go? Let’s imagine we had no existing infrastrucure or practice. Working up from ground zero  I’d put forward two sets of ideal features for an optimal pedagogy:

Seven cognitive features:

Achieves high levels of psychological attention

Avoids cognitive overload

Allows efficient encoding into long-term memory

Provides opportunity for spaced practice

Results in efficient recall from memory

Results in the competent application of that learning

Promotes further autonomous learning

 Seven practical features:

Accessible – when learners want and need it

Flexible – in a practical format for that learner

Self-paced – matches speed of learner

Personal – suited to that person’s needs

Repeatable – caters for repeated experience

Scalable – available to large numbers of learners

Cheap – cost must be kept low

Traditional teaching rarely achieves many of these fourteen goals. This is simply how it is, it is not an attack on the professionalism or abilities of teachers themselves, it’s simply a losing battle when the cohorts are up, to 30 or more.  The basic model– the classroom – is a busted flush.

Future pedagogies

Teacher pedagogies are difficult to pin down as they are mediated by real people, who have their foibles. Any pedagogic practice is subject to the personality and capabilities of the teacher. If we can develop and capture pedagogies that disintermediate teachers this must be to the benefit of learners and learning. This is a big ask, but it’s one worth pursuing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pearson’s new Fronter - good news for e-learning

M&A market for e-learning

Capital is being dammed up in investment companies and it needs an outlet. I have been doing on-going  work for a private equity house across Europe, and believe me, there’s real interest in investing in e-learning. Curiously, the credit crunch seems to have accelerated that interest. I can name four private equity groups who have or want to invest in this area. This is a damn good sign.

Fronter bought

Confirming my view that there are sectors that are relatively immune from the credit crunch, Pearson have gone to lapland and bought Norwegian company Fronter. This should be a good Christmas present  for Roger Larson, one of the founders.He gave a terrible keynote at Online Educa last week, a pure sales pitch, and the largely educational audience didn’t like it one bit. This was a shame, as the content of his talk was actually quite informative. It was a triumph of bad style over substance. However, they really have done something that works, with large numbers of students in schools. Rather than doing largely useless research they’ve actually done something in the real world that is helping thousands of students to learn.

This pushes their platform into the big time, as the winners in the VLE market tend to be those with sales and marketing clout and global reach. But it won’t be that easy. In the UK, they have proof of concept with the London Grid for Learning but London is not often the catalyst for the rest of the UK market. There can be no doubt that these systems can revolutionise learning in schools. Students, teachers and parents all have access to a transparent online system that provides communications, assignment submission, planning and shared resources for teachers. Homework can be seen to be set online, submitted online, and marked. This solves an eternal problem, often the subject of angst by parents. Teachers, of course, don’t like this function, as it forces them to set and mark homework. Teachers can also reuse materials (the source of much inefficiency in schools). Above all it provides an ‘always-on’ platform for students to structure and advance their learning.

Not all plain sailing

It won’t all be plain sailing. This is a fragmented market. There are dozens of vendors and sales are often down at individual school level, where cost of sale is high and budgets low. Once bought schools rarely have the project management skills to implement these systems efficiently, and there’s fierce resistance from more traditional teachers.


In 2009 we can look forward to some sensible consolidation in this market. There are financially weak companies that need to be bought or merged and, others that could expand by being properly capitalised.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Credit crunch survival guide

Will e-learning be accelerated or decelerated by the credit crunch? One thing’s for sure – training budgets and training departments will be hit hard. Some organisations will disappear. Others will not train as they’re laying off staff. Some will take the budget and decimate it, as they need to save money they to simply survive. Some, however, will see learning as a survival mechanism. In this market it may be useful to red, amber or green each sector.

Some green shoots and surprises as a tsunami of cost cutting washes out old stand-up methods and looks for things to be faster, cheaper and scalable.

Financial sector may be surprisingly robust. They’re merging and, as traditional training has clearly failed to have much effect on their behaviour, using e-learning to solve compliance and regulatory pressures.

Defence has guaranteed budgets, for the time being, and the world is a scary place, and getting scarier.

Adult learning as massive unemployment will mean massive retraining needs. Look out for Train to gain and other government initiatives that combat this problem.

Oil and gas are running out so these organisations have to get smarter to survive. Until alternatives are found, we still need to heat, eat and get around. They’ve got us over a barrel.

Challenging but these guys are survivors.

Healthcare will carry on like leeches on our backs.

Telcos will continue to charge too much, feed our addiction and pollute public spaces.

Education will drag itself into the 21st century - maybe.

Government departments will be squeezed but benefits and training will not.

Blood all over the classrooms in these sectors.

Automotive’s a multiple pile up. They’ve been looking in their rear view mirrors for far too long. Some big names are crashing out of business, others will lay off staff. All will have to reduce costs.

Retail is in big trouble. We’ve shopped til we drop and the party’s over. Closing down sales.

Construction has ground to a halt with massive layoffs. Bricks don’t mean clicks.

Airlines will consolidate or crash. The combination of credit and climate crunch is causing them serious pain.

Damage limitation
The so called experts didn’t predict the crash, so we can safely assume that they don’t know how long it will last. So, if I were running an e –learning organisation, I’d certainly be rewriting my sales and marketing plan, and readjusting now. I’d also be selling less on learning and more on business benefits. The Next generation Learning campaign has a pretty good list:

1. Achieve more with less - optimise limited budgets and time
2. Gain fast access to learning - available 24x7 at point of need
3. Improve Competitiveness - respond quickly to changing business needs
4. Improve Productivity - skills & knowledge when needed
5. Address statutory learning effectively – faster, better, cheaper compliance
6. Reduce Carbon footprint - reduce travel & meeting costs
7. Harness Informal learning - connect learners with resources and experts

Interestingly, I’ve heard of layoffs by some e-learning suppliers and in-house departments, but increased sales in others. This confirms my view that there’s pain and gain, depending on what you do and for whom.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Going out ain't social

My ears were ringing for two days after seeing Primal Scream. You gotta love a little live ‘rock n’roll’ now and again, a dose of Dionysian pleasure. So here a conundrum. Although I spend a pile of time online, this has only increased my thirst for drafts of intense, real life events. It’s as if each has become an antidote to the other.

What is it to be ‘social’?

This isn’t a yearning for the social. Facebook is far more of a social experience than going to the theatre, cinema or concert. The scale, intensity and dynamic nature of the social interaction on Facebook is way beyond the idle chit-chat with relatively small numbers of people you get in these real places. In fact, people are loathed to speak to strangers at arts events. The only exceptions to this are popular sports events such as football where thousands will sing, chant, shout and chat with those around them.


High social

Facebook –network of friends – multiple chat  - anytime *****

Messenger – multiple chat – with cam ****

Email – one to one – daily ****

Conference – networking in coffee breaks and evening ****

Football match – social singing – lots of chat ****


Medium social

Down the pub – small social group – chat fuelled by alcohol ***

Dinner party – small social group fuelled by alcohol ***

At work – open office – chat ***


Low social

Gig –social but on an emotional level **

Theatre – brief chats in the foyer *

Dance – same as theatre *

Classical concert – people hardly socialise at all, certainly not with strangers. They don’t even speak to the people sitting next to them *

Cinema – not social at all – it relies on the suspension of disbelief and other viewers are often an annoyance – crunching popcorn, crackling sweet papers, slurping coke *

Art exhibition – nobody speaks to anyone - 0

What we yearn for in the real world is not primarily social, it’s transformative experiences. Real social experience is in inverse proportion to the degree of live performance. Just because there’s lots of people around doesn’t make it a social experience. Being in a live audience is often being part of an anonymous non-social mob.


Are we being driven to polarised extremes, with online social activity at one end and live non-social performance at the other? Does increased activity online lead to an increased need for real ‘reality’.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Is an audience of one a lecture?

At almost every conference I attend, someone reads an entire lecture verbatim from notes. Is there anything dumber? It’s a throwback to a non-literate age. I can read. In fact, I can read faster than they can speak. It’s an insult to the audience.

One of the saddest learning stories I’ve ever heard was from the actress Tilda Swinton. She was the only student who turned up to a lecture at Oxford by Raymond Williams where he read out his lecture, from notes, from behind the lectern, and neither of them even acknowledged each other. How sad is that? Almost every University has even worse tales of lectures where not one student turned up.

Samuel Johnson saw the folly of it all:
‘Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book... People have nowadays got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do as much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shown. You may teach chymistry by lectures. You might teach making shoes by lectures!’

As David Hume, observed, it is the content, not the person who matters:
‘ you know there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in books, and there is nothing to be required in order to reap all possible advantages from them, but an order and choice in reading them...I see no reason why we should either go to a University, more than to any other place, or ever trouble ourselves about the learning or capacity of the professor.’