Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Year of learning dangerously – my 15 highs and lows of 2018

So 2018 is behind us. I look back and think… what really happened, what changed? I did a ton of talks over the year in many countries to different types of audiences, teachers, trainers, academics, investors and CEOs. I wrote 65 blogs and a huge number of Tweets and Facebook posts. Also ran an AI business, WildFire, delivering online learning content and we ended the year nicely by winning a major Award. 
So this is not a year end summary nor a forecast for 2019. It’s just a recap on some of the weirder things that happened to me in the world of ‘learning’…
1. Agile, AI-driven, free text learning
As good a term as I can come up with for what I spent most of my year doing and writing about, mostly on the back of AI, and real projects delivered to real clients of AI-generated award winning content, superfast production times and a new tool in WildFire that gets learners to use free-text, where we use AI (semantic analysis) as part of the learning experience. Our initial work shows that this gives huge increases in retention. That is the thing I’m most proud of this year.
2. Video is not enough
Another breakthrough was a WildFire tool that takes any learning video and turns it into a deeper learning experience by taking the transcript and applying AI, not only to create strong online learning but also use the techniques developed above to massively increase retention. Video is rarely enough on its own. It's great at attitudinal learning, processes, procedures and for things that require context and movement. But is it poor at detail and semantic knowledge and has relatively poor retention. This led to working with a video learning company to do just that, as 2+2 = 5.
3. Research matters
I have never been more aware of the lack of awareness on research on learning and online learning than I was this year. At several conferences across the year I saw keynote speakers literally show and state falsehoods that a moments searching on Google would have corrected. These were a mixture of futurists, purveyors of ‘c’ words like creativity and critical thinking and the usual snakeoil merchants. What I did enjoy was giving a talk at the E-learning network on this very topic, where I put forward the idea that interactive design skills will have to change in the face of new AI tech. Until we realise that a body of solid research around effortful learning, illusory learning (learners don’t actually know how they learn or how they should learn), interleaving, desirable difficulties, spaced practice, chunking and so on… we’ll be forever stuck in click-through online learning, where we simply skate across the surface. It led me to realise that almost everything we've done in online learning may now be dated and wrong.
4. Hyperbolic discounting and nudge learning
Learning is hard and suffers from its consequences lying to far in the future for learners to care. Hyperbolic discounting explains why learning is so inefficient but also kicks us into realising that we need to counter it with some neat techniques, such as nudge learning. I saw a great presentation on this in Scotland, where I spoke at the excellent Talent Gathering.
5. Blocked by Tom Peters
The year started all so innocently. I tweeted a link to an article I wrote many moons ago about Leadership and got the usual blowback from those making money from, you guessed it, Leadership workshops.. one of whom praised In Search of Excellence. So I wrote another piece showing that this and another book Good to great, turned out to be false prophets, as much of what they said turned out to be wrong and the many of the companies they heralded as exemplars went bust. More than this I thought that the whole ‘Leadership’ industry in HR had le, eventually to the madness of Our Great Leader, and my namesake, Donald Trump. In any case Tom Peters of all people came back at me and after a little rational tussle – he blocked me. This was one of my favourite achievements of the year.
6. Chatting about chatbots
Did a lot of talks on chatbots this year, after being involved with Otto at Learning Pool (great to see them winning Company of the Year at the Learning technologies Awards), building one of my own in WildFire and playing around with many others, like Woebot. They’re coming of age and have many uses in learning. And bots like Google’s Duplex, are glimpses into an interesting future based on more dialogue than didactic learning. My tack was that they are a natural and frictionless form of learning. We’re still coming to terms with their possibilities.
7. Why I fell out of love with Blockchain
I wrote about blockchain, I got re-married on Blockchain, I gave talks on Blockchain, I read a lot about Blockchain… then I spoke at an event of business CEOs where I saw a whole series of presentations by Blockchain companies and realised that it was largely vapourware, especially in education. Basically, I fell out of love with Blockchain. What no one was explaining were the downsides, that Blockchain had become a bit of a ball and chain.
8. And badges…
It’s OK to change your mind on things and in its wake I also had second thoughts on the whole ‘badges’ thing. This was a good idea that failed to stick, and the movement had run its course. I outlined the reasons for its failure here.
9. Unconscious bias my ass
The most disappointing episode of the year was the faddish rush towards this nonsense. What on earth gave HR the right to think that they could probe my unconscious with courses on ‘unconscious bias’. Of course, they can’t and the tools they’re using are a disgrace. This is all part of the rush towards HR defending organisations AGAINST their own employees. Oh, and by the way, those ‘wellness’ programmes at work – they also turned out to be waste of time and money.
10. Automated my home
It all started with Alexa. Over the months I’ve used it as a hub for timers (meals in oven, Skype calls, deadline), then for music (Amazon music), then the lights, and finally the TV. In the kitchen we have a neat little robot that emerges on a regular basis to clean the ground floor of our house. It does its thing and goes back to plug itself in and have a good sleep. We also have a 3D printer which we’re using to make a 3D drone… that brings me to another techy topic – drones.
11. Drones
I love a bit of niche tech and got really interested in this topic (big thanks to Rebecca, Rosa and Veronique) who allowed me to attend the brilliant E-learning Africa and see Zipline and another drone company in Rwanda (where I was bitch-slapped by a Gorilla but that, as they say, is another story). On my return I spoke about Drones for Good at the wonderful Battle of Ideas in London (listen here). My argument, outlined here, was that drones are not really about delivering pizzas and flying taxis, as that will be regulated out in the developed world. However, they will fly in the developing world. Then along came the Gatwick incident….
12. Graduation
So I donned the Professorial Gown, soft Luther-like hat and was delighted to attend the graduation of hundreds of online students at the University of Derby, with my friends Julie Stone and Paul Bacsich. At the same time I helped get Bryan Caplan across from the US to speak at Online Educa, where he explained why HE is in some trouble (mostly signalling and credential inflation) and that online was part of the answer. 
13. Learning is not a circus and teachers are not clowns
The year ended with a rather odd debate at Online Educa in Berlin, around the motion that “All learning should be fun”. Now I’m as up for a laugh as the next person. And to be fair, Elliot Masie’s defence of the proposition was laughable. Learning can be fun but that’s not really the point. Learning needs effort. Just making things ‘fun’ has led to the sad sight of clickthrough online learning. It was the prefect example of experts who knew the research, versus, deluded sellers of mirth.
14. AI
I spent a lot of time on this in 2018 and plan to spend even more time in 2019. Why? Beneath all the superficial talk about Learning Experiences and whatever fads come through… beneath it allies technology that is smart and has already changed the world forever. AI has and will change the very nature of work. It will, therefore change why we learn, what we learn and how we learn. I ended my year by winning a Learning technologies award with TUI (thanks Henri and Nic) and and WildFire. We did something ground breaking – produced useful learning experiences, in record time, using AI, for a company that showed real impact.
15. Book deal
Oh and got a nice book deal on AI – so head down in 2019.

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