Sunday, October 17, 2010

Big Debate at BAFTA: Training departments increasingly part of the problem, not the solution

'Big Debate' at the Broadcasters Training Conference at BAFTA, and I thought, a good one. I, and Claire Paul, from BBC Academy were FOR the motion, Laura Overton of Towards Maturity and Craig Jones of Barclays Wealth, were against the motion.

Chaired by Maggie Philbin of Blue Peter fame, we took a vote, at the start and end, using red and green cards (very Blue Peterish I thought). Now I thought this was going to be a tough gig, telling an audience of trainers that training was its own worst enemy, but, surprisingly, the vote was on our side before we even started.


I started with some stats from the recent survey on L&D: 55% though L&D failing to deliver, less than 18% agree that L&D aligned with business, 46% doubt L&D can deliver. Pretty depressing stuff from 100 decision makers in the UKs top 500 companies by turnover.

I argued that training is mired in old, faddish theory; Bloom, Gagne, Maslow, Kirkpatrick – train the trainer courses are still full of old behaviourist theory (killed stone dead by Chomsky in 1959) trapping us in 50 year old theories that holds the industry back. We have a primitive and outdated taxonomy (Bloom), dull learning objectives at the start of courses (Gagne), a stupid coloured triangle theory of human nature (Maslow) and an evaluation method that is stuck in the world of happy sheets (Kirkpatrick).

In practice there’s far too much talking at people and phoney break-out groups. My heart sinks when we’re asked to form groups, choose a chair, felt-tip suggestions on a flip-chart sheet, feed back to group and blue tack them up on the wall (knowing full well that the promised ‘we’ll send the results to you later’ will never happen). Then there’s the phoney content; NLP, learning styles, life coaching (get a life not a coach – life is not a training programme), a flood of fuzzy nonsense. There’s too many ‘courses’ and most could be shortened, as they’re padded out to fit the timetabled slot.

Then there’s the flood of compliance programmes on equality, diversity and financial compliance. The one lesson we should have learnt from the recent banking crisis is that compliance training hasn’t worked. Neither has so-called ‘leadership’ training. We were led by a bunch of megalomaniac, solipsistic bankers who ignored ethics and compliance to fleece us, leading to real financial hardship for millions of people. Diversity training has also had its day. Frank Dobbins, of Harvard has shown in 708 companies that it had no measurable effect. It’s a dated idea that has had its day.

What’s more, our profession is represented by the CIPD, an organisation devoted to selling over-expensive courses to line the pockets of their senior management. Jackie Orme pocketed £407,000 last year, including a £57,000 bonus, having sacked over 40 staff and frozen bonuses in the organisation. And they deliver ‘Leadership’ training?

Training is also locked into a form of evaluation that guarantees that it won’t be taken seriously. Most evaluation is ‘after the event’ when it’s too late and revolves around happy sheets, with its crap sampling and irrelevant data. Few ever get near level 4, where the real action lies. Kill Kirkpatrick before he kills you.

Finally training has failed to embrace technology which cuts costs, frees training from the tyranny of time and location and is scalable.

Claire of BBC Academy took up the evaluation baton, and pointed out that she was not from a training background, and had failed to understand the obscure language of training and evaluation. For her it was a matter of credibility, and in that respect, training does itself no favours by being too distant from the business. It’s simple she said, evaluation is about convincing people, usually managers with budgets, that what you’ve been doing is worthwhile. It’s about decision making. Dump all that happy sheet nonsense and get on with evidence that has the necessary punch upstairs.


I’m not going to give a detailed account of Laura and Craig’s presentations, as I didn’t take detailed notes (as I had to prepare my second response). But generally, Laura argued that training departments had changed dramatically and that data from her own work had shown a maturity of thought and moved towards innovation that belied the idea of old fashioned delivery. She quoted a number of innovative projects, including some in the BBC that had moved well beyond the traditional picture painted by me in training.

Craig, Head of Diversity at Barclay’s Wealth, gave a stout defence of contemporary diversity training, explaining that his techniques really do work. When asked how he evaluated the training, replied that people had reported real benefits immediately after the training experiences, epiphanies if you like. (Happy-sheet time folks!)

All in the proposition

Debates like this get conferences off to a good start. They stimulate audiences into thinking about a specific issue, are interactive and tend to have more opportunities for questions (in this case after each of the four separate sessions), limit speaker’s time to less than 10 mins and produce votes showing the original position and swing.

The trick is to have clear propositions that allow definite FOR and AGAINST positions, free from fuzzy terms. The debate proposition must be challenging, honed down to something simple and not have any get outs, so that both sides can converge. You must also get participants that are up for the format and have some passion. Too many of these debates have weak and fuzzy motions that lead to the sides converging, defining what the motion means and having to constantly remind participants of what the motion actually says. But it's all good.


They can produce startlingly aggressive debates. When I spoke against Arc Sigman in Online Educa’s ‘Technology harms the minds of children’ it was close to cage fighting. However, I spoke for a motion this year ‘Universities are no longer fit for purpose’ to an audience of academics, and got surprisingly, strong support (and abuse). My ALT talk wasn’t formally a debate, but due to Twitter, turned into full blown bun fight.


Far too many conferences do the ‘same old, same old’. It’s all black canvas bags, name badges and endless talks. Debates rock the house a little, sometimes more than a little. It is with some trepidation, however, that I go to Berlin this year to support the motion ‘Public sector spending in e-learning is largely a waste of time and money’. Reason: the audience is almost entirely composed of public sector supported e-learning folks. I’m taking a portable bunker.

The whole debate should be available soon on YouTube.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Teachers TV: dead at last

“Look, matey, I know a dead parrot when I see one, and I'm looking at one right now.Four years ago I blogged about the disaster that was Teachers’ TV. This DfES initiative at a cost of staggering £20 million a year, had a cost per viewer ratio that would make MPs expenses look like a rounding error. Even then, it was considered a basket case, having "failed to reach the majority of its target audience...".

Then there was the ridiculous defence that the channel was ‘difficult to find’. Surely teachers know how to use a remote control? Then there was the brouhaha about it being too close to the sex channels You couldn't make this up! Were those poor teachers in danger of being too easily distracted or indoctrinated by lusty lessons on Playboy TV or Spice Extreme?

In thrall with TV, government has been slow to grasp the significance of the internet in learning while propping up the broadcast model. Teachers TV was a bad, ill-timed shiny new balloon that deflated from day one under the lack of viewers. It didn’t so much die as just fade into obscurity. Even a Damascene conversion to online couldn’t save it. Perhaps the brand Teachers.TV was the problem!

There were several flaws in the idea:

1. Wrong medium. Why spend so much money on TV? Locking content into an obscure TV channel was just plain crazy. It locked the content into the ‘broadcaster’s’ mindset, producing second-rate content.

2. Synchronous is stupid. For busy professionals a synchronous medium is the kiss of death. To subject teachers to the tyranny of time is just plain stupid. They’re busy, usually whacked out when they get home and while on holiday like to forget about ‘teaching’.

3. Dull, dull, dull. With limited budgets they cranked out cheap (in both senses of the word) discussions and documentary style programmes that failed to have real impact. The headmaster at my local school, hit the nail on the head in the press, "even when our own kids are on it I can't be bothered to watch it". It was dull, dull, dull. Most of it feels like the cheap TV it is, or a bad school lesson.

4. TV is a one trick pony. Video is relatively expensive to make and broadcast and fails on a whole range of learning tasks, especially those that require detailed understanding or attitudinal change. What is needed in this complex environment is a range of appropriate media – text, graphics, reusable resources, audio and video.

5. Asynchronous is good. It was mind-numbingly obvious, from the start, that online resources would be better. So why start with TV?

6. Broadcasters often poor at online. Broadcasters are often ill-suited to online production and fail to make the transition to online production. This came to pass, but even that contract was given to a TV production company, compounding the original error. It went to Geldof’s Ten Alps, a company with no appreciable expertise in this area – oh how London government bods love some celebrity contact. Even that eye watering £10 million a year contract has gone, leading to a collapse in Ten Alps share price.

7. Why a TV channel? Why do teachers feel they need a dedicated TV channel? Other professions don’t have it, so why teachers? Why not a dedicated channel for primary and secondary school learners?


Have we learnt nothing from Teachers TV, BBC Jam, C4 Education, and scores of other ‘broadcasters in learning’ initiatives? They are inevitably poorly managed, cost too much, and are doomed to extinction (Tecahers TV), disaster (BBC Jam) or a long, lingering, slow death (C4 Education). Let’s just embrace the medium of the age – the web, as it offers all media, collaboration, sharing, downloads, innovative pedagogic techniques and huge amounts of free content. In any case, it’s gone and I don’t suppose many people noticed.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Toxic tsunami of student debt

David Willets, our current Minister for Universities wrote The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future - And How They Can Give it Back. Read that title again, and ask yourself whether he understands the word ‘duplicity’! Having just put the burden of Higher Education firmly onto the next generation through interest-based loans, he’s not practising what he preaches. Is this, in effect, political short-termism, a ruse to protect baby boomers from tax rises? Or is it a progressive tax that makes the recipients of the benefits of HE pay their fair share? I’m not yet sure, but one topic does worry me – the normalisation of debt.

Is it worth it?

Before embarking on a loan-based degree students should do their homework. A four year degree may result in you leaving with a loan north of £30,000-£40,000. Current orthodoxy says having a degree means you’ll earn £100,000 more in your lifetime, but the gap may be closing and may end up being nil or even a loss. All loans have a risk associated with them and there are several risks that underlie student loans.

Falling earnings differential

The calculated difference in earnings between graduates and others may close, as more students hit the market (currently 45% of all young people are going to university). As this gap closes the rationale for the loan starts to disappear, as does your ability to pay. It is not at all clear that having a degree will always result in more earnings. Unemployment among the young is rising at an alarming rate across Europe. The assumption that you’ll have a job is now under threat, never mind your ability to repay student debts. It won’t be student debt that’s the problem, but social unrest. This really could be the generation that will be worse off than their parents. No one is expected to pay until they are in work, but if unemployment is a problem, so is the paying back of the loans.

Sacrificed earnings

What the orthodox argument doesn’t say is that you’ll be sacrificing three or four years of income while at university. This could be between £45,000 to £100,000 in lost earnings and career advancement. This may prove to be an unrecoverable sum in your lifetime.

Rising interest rates

A student loan is like a second mortgage, and similar in scale. Although interest rates are low at the moment, that is artificial unsustainable, and a feature of quantitative easing. Interest rates will rise, so mortgage payments will rise. Students can expect rising mortgage payments, when they buy a house, and a cumulative debt that could be beyond their ability to pay.


What happens to students who drop out of their courses? Do they still have to repay the loans? If they don’t the cost falls back on the state or loan provider? In the US three quarter of all student loan defaulters are those who dropped out of courses.

Debt collection and bankruptcy

The real issue here is how these loans are collected. They are given out by an arm’s length body, the student loan company but collected by the Inland revenue. This allows them to ‘sell’ the debt to the private sector, as the state effectively securitises the loan. But that doesn’t in itself solve the problem, if we have mass defaults.

Debt collection agencies in the US have been buying up existing student debt, as chasing young adults is seen as easy pickings. It’s sometimes suggested that bankruptcy is the way out, but in the US, this is rarely an option. Student loans are difficult to discharge through bankruptcy. In any case, bankruptcy in this country means severely limiting your ability to get credit and may seriously damage your potential future earnings. Interestingly, if the economy goes into another deep recession, which many think is likely, defaults in student loans are certain. The cost of debt collection is considerable.


So, these loans may turn out to be toxic. With towards half a million students entering our universities every year, a huge amount of debt is piling up as they graduate. Those earning less than £15,000 will pay no interest, but the debt remains. The rest will be paying a variable amount of interest. This is a bubble and bubbles have a habit of…….. (fill in the gap).


I understand that the above analysis, deals with a University education as a commodity and it’s much more than this.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Universities: Focus on fees wrong

Lord Browne was unsuited to head up this enquiry. Educated privately, then at Cambridge, and having spent much of his career abroad, he has no real feel for HE and the issues. It needed someone who understands the social and economic issues. We have a habit in this country of appointing this type of person into key advisory roles; Martha Lane Fox, Philip Green etc Sure enough he’s come up with a crude fiscal fix that pays scant attention to the wider issues.

Focus on fees wrong

The real story here is NOT fees. It is the redefinition of HE funding, pushing it towards a model that is better, more efficient and productive. To be fair to Browne, this is ‘progressive’ in terms of ability to pay. Remember that the majority of young people do not go to University and we need to focus more on alternatives. We also know that the current funding, post-cuts, is unsustainable and the rise is linked to the ability to pay (by the student). In crude terms the top third will pay more twice as much as the bottom third and it will come through the pay packet. Many people still don’t understand that there are still, no up front fees. But the report has a lot more around part-time students and change. There are other serious dimensions to this debate that have been ignored and Browne should have addressed them, after all, his brief was to look at the ‘funding’ of HE in general. I made many of these points in my much disputed talk at ALT, where I was accused of not putting forward alternatives. I've spent the whole of my adult life implementing the alternatives and talking about them. So here’s seven suggestions for a start:

1. Change academic year

By moving towards a full academic year, more flexible courses and access, the system will be able to cope with more students with a lower cost base. UK universities, apart from the OU and University of Buckingham, generally have three terms (all different). If we moved towards four terms (adjust and add a summer term) we’d cope with many more students and make much better use of the estate and staff.

2. More part-time, online students

Martin Bean at the OU was on the ball today pointing out that Principle number 6 is important, as 40% of students are part-time. The OU has over 250,000 students and the fastest growing part-time cohort is under 25. Under current regime, no access to student loans, you now can, free at point of entry and payback on salary threshold. This is terribly important for wider participation. If the other Universities followed suit and offered more part-time degrees along the OU model, we’d go a long way towards solving both the social and fiscal problems. More part-time, online students allows one to reduce capital expenditure and reduce the cost base.

3. Cut capital expenditure

Universities have been building too many buildings (of the wrong type) that are too empty for too long. In addition, they don’t budget well for maintenance. The occupancy rates should be recorded and funds linked to increased use. This is linked to changing the academic year to extend teaching into the long holiday periods. It supports the cost savings of with 1 & 2.

4. Cut second and third rate research

This is a big one. We have too many academics doing too much poor research. There’s been an explosion of journals, so that peer reviewed research is too easy a target (journals have increased but citations have plummeted) and an avalanche of poor research. If the research is ignored, why fund it? There’s armies of academics reading, reviewing work that is doomed to remain largely unread. There’s no added value here. There’s just too much research and not enough good teaching, too many research universities and institutes and too many grants. Cut back on this and better teaching will thrive.

5. Break link between research and teaching

Too many researchers see teaching as a secondary activity. With more resources spent on teaching and less on research (see 4) we can increase quality and attract more students with higher success rates and less dropout. In addition, we need a swing away from lectures towards more sophisticated pedagogic techniques and online learning. If you do have lectures, record them for reuse by learners.

6. Alumni targets

Universities in the UK have failed to develop a culture of alumni philanthropy, as they pay scant attention to their students while they’re at University, never mind once they’ve left. Universities generally treat students like second-class citizens. There’s a condescending whiff among many academics that leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of graduates, who leave without too much affection for the institution they attended. This isn’t helped by experiences of dull lectures, poor teaching and idiosyncratic assessment. Universities need to love their students more, increase the learning experience through better teaching and get more professional in continuing engagement with their graduates. The Americans have this sussed. I attended an Ivy league University in the US and was astonished at the level of engagement. Note how many US students are proud to wear their University sweatshirts.

7. Injection of private capital

More private Universities would take the pressure of the state funded institutions. We have made a start but far more could be done. Injections of private money have been embedded for a long time, through private funding of buildings and so on, so don’t imagine that this is in any way radical. Limkokwing University since 2007 London School of Commerce, the American InterContinental University and Amity have all set up in the UK. Foreign universities have and will set up here. We’ve arrogantly assumed that the word wants us, but that may change. US universities already have toe-holds here and with the increase in fees will become an increasingly competitive alternative.


My own view is that you simply increase tax now and make HE fees free with mean tested loans. We Baby Boomers have grabbed all the wealth and should be paying now, for their education, not dumping it on them. Our children will be still paying off their University debts when their own children will be starting University. Another problem may be collection. These debts are approaching ‘mortgage’ type levels at over £30.000, so the incentive not to pay them back is strong. I can see this leading to all sorts of wheezes to avoid payment – keeping your stated earnings low, going abroad etc.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Social Network – what’s it really about?

If you can’t Tweet and Fbook the hell out of this, what can you do? I’m sort of tired of people who don’t use Facebook, dishing it out as if they are the masters of authenticity. “But they’re not really friends are they?” and that sort of rubbish. 500 million and growing – enough said.

This is a story worth telling, not because it’s about Facebook or social networking or the web – it’s about the doggedness, determination and drive of entrepreneurs. I used the plural because there’s more than just Mark Zuckerberg. Timberlake’s Sean Parker is the second but the movie doesn’t tell the real story here. The film could have explained a little more about the Naspter thing, as it was Shawn Fanning, not Parker, who was the real coder and genius behind Napster’s file sharing. Parker played a bit role. In the end Parker is just one of the money men, who really wants to play the playboy. He’s not the genius – that’s Zuckenberg.

As a psychological study of the internet entrepreneur, it’s masterful. First there’s the obvious implication that many of these guys have a degree of autism which allows them to a) focus on the difficult talk of analysis and code writing (both are hard), b) focus obsessively on the development of the idea, c) ignore obstacles and deflect people along the way. Let’s be up front here. These guys are super smart. Too smart for Universities, so they drop out, code and make their millions or billions. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Shawn Fanning, Sean Parker, Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg knows there’s oil down there and drills away through layer after layer of bedrock to get to the motherload – a million users. For him it’s all about creating something that gets the numbers. He knows he’s smarter than the lawyers, Harvard gents, financiers and university bods. This is not about the money, hence the movie’s already most famous line, “You know what’s cooler than a million dollars…. a billion dollars!” These guys do it because they want to, they have to, not because of the cash. The VCs, money men and suits are just bank tellers. This is true, believe me. Whenever guys with a fondness for suits arrive, the business crashes or is just a business. The ideas people or people with intellectual passion for what they do are the real deal.

I liked the way they digitally duplicated the one acrtor for both Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss

PS I didn’t really buy the hokey, romantic sub-plot around the Albright girl. It was too easy, too Hollywood, a script editor’s way of getting girls along to a movie about geeks and business. Nor did I buy the jealousy about getting into some frat type club at Harvard. They seem wide of the Mark.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

7 tactics for training in recession

I've given two talks on 'Training in the recession' in as many weeks, the first was a rocky ride as some traditionalists dug their heels in and wanted to cling on like limpets to old diversity training, happy sheets and all the old accoutrements of traditional training. I had a fight on my hands, but it’s a fight worth having. The second was more realistic, with a Leraningpool audience of excellent Local Authority trainers, who really do know what’s coming. This is an opportunity to change gear, collaborate and drop old ‘last century’ theory, practices and courses.

7 tactics for training in recession:

Dump daft duplication

Last century courses

Courses too long

Tyranny of time & location

Crap evaluation



Daft duplication

In the public sector the noises coming out of the commissioned reports are clear, and this is typical, ““find savings… new approaches need to be considered, including service redesign, more joint working and collaboration (Audit Scotland). In Local Authorities, Government Departments, Schools, Universities and all other government organisations there must be a push towards eliminating DUPLICATION of effort. Far too many courses are being run, far too many people designing the same course over and over again and far too many people delivering the same content in classrooms. Sure there’s always some localised content, such as ‘induction’ but even here, there’s going to be stacks of job losses, not recruitment. A full two thirds of the budget could be saved by sharing, collaboration and outsourcing.

Courses too long
How many courses are padded out to fit the hour, half day, full day, two day or three day timetable? Most, I’d say. Front-ended by boring learning objectives, unnecessary introductory modules, too much detail and irrelevant happy sheets, most could be cut back by 30% or more. Cut courses and you avoid the excesses of cognitive overload – too much, too quickly. We all know that the detail is quickly forgotten and the worst enemy of retention is too much information.

Tyranny of time & location
Old argument I know, but there’s far too many people paying far too much in travel and accommodation (especially those awful 3* brickwork hotels with tiny TVs and cheap soap). Let’s get those courses out of the way and spend the money on technology solutions that are scalable.

Last century courses

First candidate – ‘leadership courses’. Ruth Spellman (CEO of Chartered Management Institute) has called for an increase in ‘Leadership’ training during the recession. Sorry Ruth, that is the cause of the problem, not the solution. Ever since training got caught up in the fantasies of ‘Leadership’ we’ve had more corporate and banking disasters than crap Leadership books. Leadership has become one of those wide and meaningless terms that only exists in the minds of trainers and megalomaniacs. Which of the dozens of ‘leadership’ theories does she recommend? Charismatic (born not made), Trait (key qualities), Contingency (look at environment), Situational (different for every situation), Behavioural (one can learn how to lead), Participative (collaborative and inclusive), Transformational (inspire followers) or, as usual, whatever concoction the trainer drums up from books they’ve bought on Amazon? Enough already.

Second candidate – diversity courses. The old view of diversity, very much focussed on gender and race, which, I think was necessary in 80s and 90s, but the world has moved on, and left all of those dull, diversity trainers behind. Society has grown up, while diversity training is stuck in a clichéd time warp. The evaluative data shows that it never worked in the first place, and that diversity, important then, was best built through proactive management interventions and not training.

I could go on and on here, as my list of crap courses, is as long as a ladder, but it’s enough to say that STOP the courses, I want to get off.

Crap evaluation

Kill Kirkpatrick. Not literally, just drop the happy sheets, level 2 and level 3. Believe me, boards ain’t interested in your 4 levels of evaluation – that’s just old train the trainer theory. Happy Sheets are irrelevant, assessments often simply tests of short-term memory and behavioural checklists a joke in most places. Stick to the one that matters – actual impact so that good decisions can be made my managers to align training with the organisation’s goals.

Non- scalable

Don’t do anything that isn’t scalable. What’s the point of delivering talks and courses over and over again. Record them, and share the media. Video and audio are cheap as chips (because chips in cameras are cheap).


Achieve more with less to optimise limited budgets and time. The world has changed and we can be reactive and get dumped upon, or take it upon ourselves to reshape our own learning landscape. Fast access to learning needs to be available 24x7 at point of need. This is the norm in the real word and it should be the norm in learning. We need to provide Satnav help for learning journeys, not big, thick, fixed atlases. Flexible responses to your organisation’s needs, not fixed, repeated, timetabled courses. Focus on productivity and promise impact, not happy sheets and course passes. Reduce carbon footprint, reduce travel & meeting costs and above all scale - EMBRACE TECHNOLOGY.

Change management

OK, all that advice is optimistic and some would say idealistic, even utopian. When it comes to getting things done, how do you change the culture and get things changed? Well, there’s tried and tested change management methods. If we take Kotter’s 8-step solution, we can match what we’re going through with each of the steps.

  1. Urgency – DONE: CUTS!
  2. Guiding team – SENIOR ENDORSEMENT
  4. Communicate – SAY WHAT YOU’LL B
  5. Empower – COLLABORATION
  7. Build momentum – SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY
  8. Nurture new culture – BURN BRIDGES

All of this stuff about sharing and collaboration is simply doing what every schoolkid does instinctively. Collaboration is the norm for 12 year olds. They do it daily, even hourly (txting, Facebook, media sharing). We just need to catch up with their mindset.

Laura Overton is a tireless campaigner, so it's good to see this earlybird summary of Toward Maturity's Benchmark study. Most of the findings confirm a steady movement towards the use of technology in learning, but one (growth in language training) is just plain odd. However, I do think it avoids the hard hitting stuff, like; inevitable reduced public sector training, the failure of 'leadership' training, the reduction of dated compliance courses on diversity etc, reduced need for induction etc. I've given a couple of talks to public sector audiences on 'Training after the cuts' and this needs to be addressed at the next level of detail, namely how can we do more for a lot less.

However, that's not to take anything away from the higher level points:

The recession has had a positive influence on the use of learning technologies for most organisations, but 1 in 5 also found that their plans had been curtailed

As expected, cost saving pressure has led to an acceleration of the use of e-learning, tempered by overall budget cuts. As organisations are forced to do more for less, the scalability of e-learning on courses is the obvious strategy. Old guard are being forced to cut back on expensive, non-scalable classroom stuff and use scalable solutions. A new sense of urgency is pushing technology solutions in learning. I also sense that the recession is pushing some older trainers into earlier than planned retirement, allowing the younger one’s to express themselves and get on with the task.

Our appetite for learning technologies has increased significantly in last 18 months- there has been a considerable increase in demand for more access (at less cost); improved compliance; and better support of the rollout of new products, processes, IT systems and change.

As technology gets cheaper, faster, better, wireless and easier to use, it’s much easier to get the whole e-learning gig going. Technology is becoming less and less of a barrier. But th real lesson is a renewed focus on ‘performance’. Out goes those hokey courses on ‘creativity’ and other abstract nouns, along with lots of touchy-feely nonsense, and in comes core competences.

Technology tools and options continue to expand but we are currently not taking advantage of the full range of options available.

Not surprised here. Blended learning has always been more of a phrase than a practice. Few really consider the full range of offline and online options when designing learning interventions. Many are simply unaware of the range of options available. It’s still often a blended ‘teaching’ with a Velcro mix of e-learning and classroom.

Very few are planning to decrease their use of current learning technologies but over the next 2 years, social media expect the biggest growth.

Interestingly, fashionable interest in social media may lead to people ignoring the many (often better and more efficient) online alternatives. However, opportunities also exist for the important use of social media. The ‘formal only’ camp is fighting a losing battle.

More organisations are embedding technology in more skills programmes than in 2008, with health & safety, leadership & management and foreign language skills showing the biggest changes.

Health & safety is a boring, bread and butter topic that can be easily covered by e-learning. Leadership & management I’m not so sure about. This whole recession was caused by flawed ‘leadership’. If we keep pushing this button we’ll be taking one step forward and two steps back. And foreign language skills? Surely not. This must be a statistical blip caused by a skew in the sample. Most organisations don’t do this at all and why would there be a rush for such skills in times of recession?

In terms of working with external providers for skills programmes, over 80% of organisations say that innovative use of learning technology will be a deciding factor in their selection of an external learning provider in the future.

I should think so. Simply a matter of the training world catching up with the real world.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Stanford High School's faceless learning

Thanks to the ever vigilant Bob Harrison for putting me on to the Stanford High School project. This is yet another ‘shape of things to come’ project, that revolutionises secondary (high) school learning.

The learning is online but with a blend of synchronous and asynchronous learning (note that blended learning need not have any face-to-face component). The content is delivered via pre-recorded asynchronous sessions by teachers, along with a class web page with useful information, reading list, content outlines, course materials and assignments. This is where the students receive and submit their assignments. (Why don’t schools just bite the bullet and get autonomous learning (homework) going in this fashion?)

Online socially superior

Mandatory synchronous discussions with chat, whiteboard and so on, are also part of the blend. I find it interesting that the participation, because it’s structured, ordered and layered (students can contribute, comment, ask questions) can be much more intense and fruitful than real face-to-face discussion, where ion practice only one person, on one level, can speak at a time. You really can have several different interactions going at one time.

Note that the students don’t see any of this as unusual. For them it’s just learning. If anything there’s raised levels of attention and even more social learning than they normally experience in a classroom. “When I'm in Centra, I feel like I'm right there...Amazingly enough, I've had more classroom interaction over Centra than in a regular classroom. Bryan, Class of 2011.This is an oft reported effect of online learning, that the social side of learning is more focused and productive than the messy, difficult to control, social interaction in a classroom (often just chat or even disruptive behaviour). Online social interaction keeps learners on task and only involves people interested in the point or subject. The same software package is used for student clubs, instructor office hours, homeroom sessions, student club meetings, and parent-teacher conferences.


What’s wonderful about this approach is the way it allows students to proceed to their level of ability at the pace they want, even up and into University standard content. Ray Ravaglio, director of the Stanford High School, claims that he could offer the entire maths curriculum for $40 per head (£26). The initial maths trial has been running with 1,500 students, aged 9-12, from schools in some of the most disadvantaged areas of California.


Ravaglio is honest about the barriers, mostly from school Principals, who are locked into old, fixed methods of teaching and learning. For the students, it’s no sweat, even trivial "it is just going to school and coming to class…and not about the technology". But for many teachers and principals it’s a real challenge conceptually. They fail to see the real advantages of personalised learning and continuous feedback. For them it’s all about the technology, and technology is bad.

That’s to be expected, so there’s a real need to build confidence with principals, teachers and parents. There has to be empirical proof that this works. This is why they have gone for trials and have sought accreditation. Indeed, the programme is now accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. This is the main accreditation body in California that currently accredits Stanford University, Berkeley and all state and private schools.


OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría points to soaring student numbers and presents three options:

  1. Spend more – NOT POSSIBLE
  2. Make learners pay – MARGINAL EFFECT
  3. Do more for less – LOGICAL OPTION

We must, as Gurria says, "optimise policy choices", improve the “overall management of education institutions” and "investments in education will need to become much more efficient".

Given the worldwide cuts across the educational sphere and the fact that we need to do more for less, surely this is an option. It gives access, personalised learning, good feedback and progression. In addition it takes the pressure off hard worked teachers.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Faceless schools?

Weird incident this year. A friend of mine’s son wanted to do an IT course at sixth form college that required a B pass in Higher Level Maths GCSE. His teacher point blank refused to put him in the higher class or enter the exam. I gave him the Higher Paper and he scored a C months before the exam, so couldn’t see the problem. If he was a C student with months to go, a B was achievable. Despite appeals by his parents, the maths teacher was belligerent and wouldn’t teach him at this level. Our one victory was that we insisted that he get put in for the Higher exam.

I do free maths tutoring for kids who are struggling with the subject, and helped him get his B. He’s now in college, enthusiatic about the subject, and even chose to do A-level maths. What annoyed me about this was the arrogance of the teacher and the school. They were clearly hedging students into lower qualifications to play safe on their exam results, a despicable and morally bankrupt approach that puts the interest of the institution above the students they are meant to serve.

Teacherless schools?

It was with some delight, therefore, that I saw the BBC report on children being tutored in maths by highly qualified teachers in India via headphones and computers. The service is being provided to 7-16 year olds by Brightspark and is available 24/7 for both parents at home and in some schools.

Ashmount Primary School’s Rebecca Stacey, Assistant Headteacher and Head of Key Stage 2 in Islington, comments:

BrightSpark Education is effective because it provides targeted one-to-one maths help for students through online technology, which would otherwise be too expensive to facilitate. Each of our pupils who have used it have improved and become more confident in their maths ability. They have learnt to express their thinking and use mathematical vocabulary correctly…….It has also given pupils the perfect opportunity to work online and improve their IT skills at the same time. Many pupils intend to sign up at home to benefit from the service for their homework and revision.

Given the poor quality of many maths teachers and the shortage of suitably qualified staff, surely this is the way forward. In fact, this approach may well prove superior to the maths teaching in many of our schools, in terms of both quality and cost. The fact that the service can be used as a supplement, at home, is a big plus. Parents are already paying way more than this for tutors, many who are working teachers, so it’s a cultural fit. The reaction of the children (watch the BBC interviews with the kids using the service and you’ll see that they value it more than classroom teaching) says it all.

Learndirect – faceless blended learning

One of the reasons I love this approach is that in my own experience, as a Director of Learndirect, I’ve sat in on lots of telephone and online tutoring sessions from the Learndirect call centre in Leicester. It provides numeracy and literacy training to people direct top their homes, with no face-to-face components. It’s heartwarming to hear people with very poor numeracy and literacy respond with real enthusiasm to telephone and online services, with absolutely NO face-to-face support.

The learners are pleased not to be attending a class, college or school, as that, for them, is associated with past failure in their own lives. They are learning in the comfort and safe environment of their own home, free from the tyranny of time and location. The system works by responding to telephone and web enquiries, doing a quick online diagnosis, then being helped through the learning by friendly tutors. The learners go at a pace suited to their ability and circumstances.

This is not so different from the 200,000 Open University students, none of whom are on campus. As the largest university in the UK by miles, and the one that scores consistently higher than the others on student satisfaction, we have the answer to education staring us in the face – get rid of the faces!

F2F free

Let me be quite clear here. We are now in a position of seeing learning delivered more efficiently to both children and adults that is free from face-to-face teaching, and altogether better because of that fact. We are not getting rid of teachers but positing an alternative to the classroom as the main environment in which teachers’ teach. Huge productivity gains can be offered by teachers who tutor online, handling multiple students, with good online resources that deliver much of the core content. The teacher can then focus on motivation, problem solving and feedback.

What’s next?

OK, having freeing learners from the tyranny of fixed time and location, the next step is to free them from fixed devices, namely fixed computers. This, of course, has already happened. The market penetration of mobile devices has outstripped that of fixed devices, and offer web services, apps, and access that will eventually outstrip traditional learning.

Neil Lascher’s phone2learn uses voice recognition and text to speech technology to provide what he tongue-in-cheek, calls just-too-late learning. True performance support on mobile devices. Google Goggles, the astounding visual search engine, promises a point and learn service superior to that of many teachers.

Like real journeys, we used to use printed atlases and maps (books), then journey printouts from websites (e-learning & personalised journeys) and now Satnav (realtime knowledge acquisition). The classroom is looking like an increasingly tired and inefficient space for learning.