Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Cockpit of control – 10 practical tips on how to set up to teach from home

Cockpit of control 

Set aside a day to set up your teaching station and create a cockpit of control – space in house (not shared). If possible have a door and think about noise – from traffic, trains, the kids, dog, whatever. A room with a carpet and soft furnishings is also less echoey.

Chair and desk

A comfy chair is vital, far more important that the desk, one you can lean back in as you work, with adjustable height. (I know of one person who does all of his live stuff online standing up!) Get a desk that is large enough to contain all you need left and right of the computer. Also, get practical on the need for folders (computer or paper), storage for physical files and an online calendar. Have a notebook handy.


Teaching online? Put a little effort into lighting, some chiaroscuro, light from the side (window or well-placed lamp). Think about background, we’re all curious… show your dog, kids, scan around room, your pics/posters, it all helps make a connection… show you’re a real person. If you're recording stuff online, don't worry about picture quality, research shows it makes no difference to the learning... focus on good audio - that does... oh and don't go all newsreaderish, research shows that informal is best... more research here.


I think people are spoiled by flawless TV and so see Zoom or Skype as TV... but I love the dogs, kids, weird rooms and backgrounds, fuck-ups with PowerPoint, speaking when muted... it shows you’re human. Not so sure about the ‘bookshelves’ in the background when teaching but each to his or her own! And do avoid having a window behind you - the light will be too variable and strong. If you really want to push the boat out Microsoft Teams (if you live in the Microsoft world) allows you to blur your background. Zoom also allows you to drop in customised backgrounds.


You can put your router anywhere, brick/concrete a problem, longer connecting cable between the router and wall socket. Even better is a wired connection between your computer and your router, which should have spare sockets. A second router or wi-fi repeater can also help. Test upload and download speeds using…


Clean up your desktop and get meaningful tabs and folders set-up for tools, year groups and so on. Use natural language terms, the first word that comes into your head for folders, this makes them easier to remember and find.


Computer – the newer the computer, the better the performance – on everything, especially wi-fi adapters. One thing that is worth having is a set of headphones, preferably with a microphone. Research by Nass & Reeves at Stanford shows that picture quality matter less in learning than audio. So make sure you are close to your mike, buy a good one or us the one on you headphones.


A wall clock above and behind your computer is useful – something you can see when you are looking at your screen when teaching online. If you are new to online, you’ll find you talk too much and that the time flies by. That 20 minutes session will end up being 40 minutes.


A whiteboard can also be useful, placed, again in your line of sight, so that you can write things up – you’re opening remarks, reminders to mention something, reminder to thank learners and so on.

Time management

Want to manage and control your online teaching (and life) namely the mess that is a schedule, too much email, endless tasks to sort out. Start by separating your professional tasks out from other ‘stuff’ - those movies you want to watch, books to read and personal projects whirling around in your mind. Stuff is just stuff until you decide to act, so don’t manage stuff, manage actions. Clear the decks, get things off your mind. Lists and memory are both hopeless so use this little algorithm (from the best time management book on the market).

Is it actionable? 

If NO 
a) trash it 
b) put it in a ‘someday’ folder 
c) archive as reference for retrieval when required.

“Will it take less than 2 minutes?” If YES – do it. 

a) delegate 
b) defer to a calendar or next actions

Think about what you have to do before you do it and don’t waste time on thinking about things you’re not going to do anything about for now. 

This is not about making lists, it is about managing your mind. Capture and refine your decision making. 

Gates – Toolmaker, philanthropist and adaptive learning...

Bill Gates is the college drop-out who became the richest man in the world. His role in the world of learning is twofold; first, he built Microsoft, the world’s leading provider of software tools such as Word, PowerPoint, Excel etc. that came to dominate how we write, present and, arguably, teach and learn; second, his later personal and philanthropic interest in education. As one of the most significant technological creators and innovators, his interest and active participation in the learning game has grown. 

Microsoft Office and learning

Microsoft Office has had a huge impact on teaching and learning. As the de facto word processor, Word is the tool used to produce most educational content; books, papers, articles, notes etc. PowerPoint is arguably the most popular and influential teaching presentation tool that technology has ever produced. It fits the dominant pedagogy of most Universities and colleges (lecturing) and also the structure of conferences and company presentations. Its effect has been profound, if not always attractive. ‘Death by PowerPoint’ is a not uncommon criticism but that is not the problem of the tool but traditional teaching methods that encourage way too much text and too little though on pedagogy, design and communication. OneNote for note taking and Outlook for personal communications may also be said to have influenced the world of learning. Although not a Microsoft developed product, Microsoft owns Skype, which has proved to be an immensely popular communications tool for collaboration, tutoring and so on. More recently Microsoft Teams has been used extensively for teaching and collaboration, especially during the Coronavirus crisis. It is easy to underestimate the role of these tools in teaching and learning but their direct influence has been global and long-lasting.

Interest in education

In the 90s Gates would trot out homilies at schools, which he lifted from a book by Charles Sykes, such as; 
RULE 3 You will NOT make 40 thousand dollars a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice president with car phone, until you earn both. 
RULE 4 If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss. He doesn't have tenure. 
RULE 8 Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life. 
RULE 9 Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.
RULE 11 Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one. 
They are interesting, in that they take several swipes at ‘schooling’ with a strong bent towards self-reliance, hard work and the idea that education is somewhat misaligned with real life.
At the curriculum level, his Big History idea is a view of history that goes back to the start of the universe and includes deep time concepts such as the big bang, star formation, element formation, earth and the solar system, life, collective intelligence, agriculture through to the modern revolution and what we commonly see as ‘history’. Gates promotes this as a multi-disciplinary approach which pulls things together in a consistent big picture narrative.

Education and equality

Gates is a fan of Thomas Picketty’s book Capital and agrees that inequality is a problem, where democracies are distorted by capitalism and wee witness unchecked accumulation of wealth. Government, must, he thinks, take corrective action. However, despite his broad agreement on, say getting rid of taxes on labour, unlike Picketty, Gates prefers taxes on consumption, not capital. Despite being an icon of capitalism, he does have a belief in the reuse of his accumulated capital for social goods, especially, but not exclusively, education. Education, for Gates is the great leveler and he sees software as revolutionizing education so that it does not, in fact, produce more inequality.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

When Gates gave up his position as CEO of Microsoft in 2000, he switched his attention to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He believes that technology, both hardware and software, will literally ‘revolutionise’ learning, especially in developing countries. His funding reflects his researched interests, such as personalized/adaptive learning, across the educational system, aggregation of good ideas for teachers and world-class content. One, among many, major organizations he has continued to support is the Khan Academy.

Higher Education

Gates has taken a keen interest in Higher Education with a focus on using technology to lessen failure. The problem for Gates, is not that too few people are going to college, but that too many go and fail. Enrollment in post-secondary programs has grown enormously but not enough people are finishing. In 2015, more than 36 million in the US, one fifth of the working age population, have gone off to college and left without a degree. Given the fiscal constraints, he sees technological innovation as the way in which education will solve its current problems and continue to scale. Part of his solution to drop-out from college is his support for the common-core, a set of standards that aim to bring students up to a common standard for college entry. But he also supports more personalized, adaptive learning and support systems, using AI, that are more responsive to failing students’ needs.


Many see Gates, and other tech philanthropists, as having an undue influence on education, with access to politicians and press, which is way out of proportion to their actual input. Some argue that they distort reform, with little more than their personal, pet projects and ideas. His critics point to the issue that it is not schools that are the problem but poverty. An early 2000 project to set up schools in 45 states to increase attainment is now seen as a failure. Many argue that this pushed politicians towards a belief that Charter schools were the answer to poor grades. This has not turned out to be true. His support for the Core Curriculum has also come under attack for its ‘one size fits all’ approach to the curriculum and therefore teaching.


Gates has had a long-standing interest in education, way beyond the interest taken by other significant technological leaders, such as those at Google, Apple, Facebook or Amazon. It is a deep and personal interest that has a very practical approach – smart funding and support of ideas, institutions and real initiatives that will scale to improve learning. Microsoft continues to provide tools that shape the learning landscape.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Wenger - Communities of practice…

Étienne Wenger, having studied groups of tailors in Africa, concluded that learning in apprenticeships comes less from the master than your fellow apprentices. This led to him working with Jean Lave, a cognitive anthropologist, to identify ‘communities of practice’ and learning in a social context with like-minded colleagues. This idea, of learning in communities, goes back to groups of craftsmen in Greece, Medieval Guilds and now exists in organisations. In terms of learning theory, it goes back to Dewey.

Communities of Practice

A community of practice is a group of people with skills and knowledge in common. It is different from a team, which has diversity of skills, roles and knowledge. A community of practice may, by contrast, be a very homogeneous group, of coders for example. They differ from teams in that their purpose is the development of capabilities and ‘practices’, are self-selecting and passionate about the group’s expertise. They tend to be more informal and self-organising.
Communities of Practice can be offline or online and are any group with a common craft or profession. They have of course, become more commonly online, or at least with online communications, with the rise of software that allows and facilitates communities of practice – social media, group texting, message boards and so on. The community of practice has a socially constructed identity which comes from other learners.
Functionally, communities of practice solve problems, develop and transfer good practices and play a big role in developing professional skills. And despite their informal nature Wenger believes that they need to be nurtured and suggests devoting time and money to that task.


There are serious problems with definition and scope. Apprentice groups, upon which the research and theory was based, are now relatively rare. The modern workplace has specific teams and/or more cross-networked structures, where there are no clearly defined communities of defined practice. It is difficult to define whether groups that are self-selecting, permanent/temporary, formal/informal, voluntary/mandated really are as clearly identifiable as groups, as Wenger thinks. 
It is also not clear that the social context is always as important as he claims. Much learning in academic institutions is largely solitary, with many learning on their own, rather from other learners. There is a sense in which the theory of learning squeezes everything, rather uncomfortably into the social box. This is a problem with all purely social theories of learning, that all learning must conform to the hypothesis, in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary.


Lave, JeanWenger, Etienne (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University PressISBN 0-521-42374-0.
Wenger, Etienne; McDermott, Richard; Snyder, William M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice (Hardcover). Harvard Business Press; 1 edition. ISBN 978-1-57851-330-7.
Wenger, Etienne (2009). Digital Habitats. Portland: CPsquare. ISBN 978-0-521-66363-2.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Salas - Teaching teams… What makes a good team? How do you develop teams and train for teamwork?

Peruvian Eduardo Salas is fascinated by ‘teams’ and ‘teamwork’. What makes a good team? How do you develop teams and train for teamwork? Teamwork matters as the research show that better team processes, and training, increases performance, saves money and saves lives. Teams really matter in most organisations and in the military, aviation and healthcare, they can be critical. His research involves studying real teams in action to uncover the behaviours and decision making process. 

Good teams

No matter whether a team is fixed, temporary, in the same place or virtual, temwork and collaboration is on the rise. Unfortunatley much teamwork is sub-optimal. But teamwork is not easy as it does not always come naturally to people. It is a complex business in terms of organisational and situational characteristics. 
Salas identifies seven drivers for teamwork as:
1. Capability: Right people with the right mix of knowledge, skills and abilities? 
2. Cooperation: Right attitudes about and willingness to team? 
3. Coordination: Demonstrate necessary teamwork behaviours? 
4. Communication: Communicate effectively with each other and outside? 
5. Cognition: Possess a shared understanding (e.g., priorities, roles, vision)?
6. Coaching: Leader and/or team members demo leadership behaviours?  
7. Conditions: Have favourable conditions (e.g., resources, culture)? 
The competence of individuals wiythin a team really do matter but parachuting in a star performer can disrupt a team. Beliefs around collective responsibility and success are important and team memebrs need to be sure that they can speak up and will not be embarrassed in front of their team.
Good teams have these characteristics:
1. Have clear roles & responsibilities
2. Driven by compelling purpose – goal, vision, objective 
3. Guided by team coach (leader) – promotes, develops, reinforces 
4. Have psychological safety—mutual trust 
5. Develop team norms, performance conditions – clear, known & appropriate 
6. Hold shared understanding of task, mission & goals – hold shared mental models 
7. They self-correct – huddles, debriefs 
8. Set expectations – clear, understood 
9. Shared unique information – efficient information protocols 
10.Surrounded by optimal organizational conditions – policies, procedures, signals 

Training teams

Ensure all team members are trained on team-based knowledge, skills and abilities. The science of training should be used including training on motivation. Teach how to debrief and huddle! By asking, What worked? What can be improved? What needs to be done differently? Use Simulation techniques such as games, role plays with embedded instructional features. Measure and Reinforce the training and teamwork. Deploy teams appropriately with kick-off meetings matters! 


Salas is a world expert on teams even used for astronaut training for Mars! His analysis of what makes optimal teamwork feeds into his views on the training of teams, with its emphasis on doing team based work or simulations. For all the talk of 21st century skills and collaboration, Salas shows that real collaboration takes place in teams who have a common purpose and that research can inform what we makes good teams and how we can train them. Given the ubiquity of online collaborative tools, like Microsoft Teams and Slack, Salas reminds us that what is also needed is a clear view of what teams are and how they should be supported and trained.


Salas, E., Fiore, S.M., et al. 2012 Theories of Team Cognition: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (Applied Psychology Series)
Salas, E., Fiore, S.M., 2004 Team Cognition: Understanding the Factors That Drive Process and Performance
Salas, E., Team Effectiveness in Complex Organizations
Salas, E., Rico, R., The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Team Working and Collaborative Processes (Wiley-Blackwell Handbooks in Organizational Psychology)
Salas, E., Frush, K., 2010 Human Factors in Aviation
Salas, E., 2012 Improving Patient Safety Through Teamwork and Team Training

Friday, March 27, 2020

Universities and Coronavirus: revenues will fall, costs rise, liabilities increase

David Hume is, for me, the finest of English-speaking philosophers and at the heart of his philosophy lay the problem of induction. Nicely summarised by saying the chicken emerges from the coop morning after morning to be fed by the farmer, until one day he wrings its neck. Hume was rejected for a post, at the height of his fame, by the University of Edinburgh, because of their own philosophical myopia (he was a religious sceptic).
I fear that the Global University system has been similarly myopic regarding online learning. Now that almost every academic is using the University of Zoom and kids are puzzled as their parents demand they have hours and hours of screen time, one wonders why online hasn’t been a mainstream form of delivery in education. In truth, then system sees teaching as a poor relation to research. Lecturing is easy to deliver, teaching is hard.
But first, what are the fiscal challenges for HE? Many institutions may not have the financial strength and liquidity to do what has to be done. Business as usual may not may not be as 'usual' come September, and for years to come, for the following reasons:
1.     Student revenue is under threat both from national and international students.
2.     Student numbers from China, Far East and rest of the world will drop. 
3.     Increased online capacity (using AI) within China, along with changed attitudes.
4.     Global recession will mean less money around for funding expensive foreign education.
5.     Endowments will fall as economy is now in recession.
6.     Contract revenues will fall as economy is now in recession.
7.     Research grants will fall as economy is now in recession.
8.     Move to online will require initial and on-going costs.
9.     All new students will have gone through online learning during crisis, changing expectations.
10.   Liabilities on accommodation and building programmes, may come home to roost.
11.   Investment losses are already, and will be substantial.
12.   Students will be faced, possibly for years to come, with a difficult job market.
13.   Student loan defaults will balloon.
14.   Markets falls will put massive strain on pension funds (they were under severe strain before crisis).
15.   Add to this the idea that you need a degree to get a good job was waning as large global organisations started to drop the ‘graduate’ requirement. 
16.   People are also getting sceptical about value, (see Caplan) given the huge rise in costs.
17.   Some institutions were in deficit before this crisis (around 1 in 4) – this will accelerate, with government unable to save some.
18.   Academic conferences no longer sensible or viable on pre-virus scale.
19.  Massive and expensive schemes, like Erasmus, viewed as out of tune with climate change and budget restraints.
20.  Renewed interest in vocational learning, science, healthcare etc., as they are the people who were seen to really run society and solve our critical problems.
21.  Students have begun to ask for refunds (class actions in US).
22.  Students know that online is cheaper and will want reduced fees in future.

What to do?
Public spending will be tight. Banks will be reluctant to give huge loans as it is not clear that the education market (and it is a market) will ever return to pre-virus levels. Governments may be reluctant to bail out institutions and see some consolidation as necessary. Healthcare, rightly, will receive more attention than Higher Education. This will mean contraction. Actions that have to be taken include:

Cut back on conference attendance - get virtual.
In Europe, a serious rethink needed on the €30 billion funding for Erasmus. That money should be spent on online alternatives.
Stop capital spend now. Building more buildings is not the answer. That money needs to be spent on online learning, at least a mixture of offline and online for all courses.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Stodd – The Social Age…

Julian Stodd is the ‘Captain’ and Founder of Sea Salt Learning and a relentless researcher and practitioner in social structures and learning. His empirical studies of social dynamics in large organisations, combined with analysis of social phenomena, has led to recommendations on how to use social dynamics to improve leadership and learning.
He has written 14 books, all illustrated in his own hand and his talks are often prefaced with the statement that they are working out loud or work in progress. Often calling upon landscapes and journeys through landscapes as a metaphor, he is never afraid to call his work half-complete or unfinished. His writing is light but serious, not academic in style, with a focus on his personal journeys.

Social Age

He grounds his work in the concept of the Social Age, a view that as our social context changes, so too must the design of our Organisations, and approaches to learning, leadership, and work. Stodd sees us as living in The Social Age and wants to create a social age movement that puts our social relationships, communities first. What he tries to represent in his work is the best of the old, and the best of the new, the best (evidence based) things of the past, but also to explore and learn new ways of thinking and practice that suit our new, more interconnected, ecosystem. He sees societies, communities, tribes and other social structures as the key to understanding and improving organisational development. He works inside large, global organisations, almost like the archaeologist and curator he once was, to excavate truths about social phenomenon.

Social leadership

The Social Age demands social leadership. But how do you become a social leader? Here he sets out a model based on principles of Social Capital and Equality where social leaders exhibit humility, kindness and fairness. Although his work is at times highly abstract and theoretical, he turns this into concrete and practical activities in ‘Guidebooks’ that turn theory into practice. 
There are nine elements to his NET theory, which he insist are not finished; curate, stories, share, authority, reputation, communities, co-create, social capital and collaborate.


For Stodd the glue that holds social structures together is ‘trust’ with ‘humility’ the qualities (by no means exhaustive) that he recommends for management and leadership.  The humility to listen, he sees as all too often lacking in leadership and learning. Calling upon landscapes and journeys through landscapes, he maps the landscape of trust across organisations, researches both its perceived nature and its presence (or absence). In his global Landscape of Trust research he identified 12 aspects of trust; technology, creativity, failure, ethnicity, taxonomy, currency, neurology, visibility, organisational, group, culture and gender. These he uses his mapping as a way to encourage others to explore new and different forms of organisational design to encourage trust.

Social learning 

To transform learning you must recognise that social spaces have changed. We no longer operate in two worlds – work and life. Formal and social divides are collapsing through cultural changes and technology. It is the social nature of learning that needs to be recognised and encouraged. Even in learning design, we need to be collaborative and co-creative. 
Careful not to be over prescriptive he prefers the word ‘mindset’ to model or method. He lays out his six steps for learning design and delivery: 
  1. the CONTEXT for learning, 
  2. how we DEMONSTRATE key principles, 
  3. provide space for EXPLORATION to play with the learning,
  4. create spaces for REFLECTION
  5. have tools for ASSESSMENT 
  6. provide FOOTSTEPS for ongoing performance support

To The Moon And Back

In a typical Stodd style, his book To The Moon And Back explores the Apollo mission the astonishing project that put astronauts on the moon, and extracts eight stories picking up on themes such as complexity, failure, control, ambition and failure. Here, he tells stories to illustrate serious lessons on systems theory and real projects and leadership.


His talks are captivating, books idiosyncratic but engaging, part of his own sense-making. Above all his approach is full of humility and honesty. The total commitment to ‘social’ phenomenon can be seen as overwhelming, failing to capture other dimension of organisational structure and learning, yet he sees this as a more honest and humble approach more suited to our Social Age. 


Stodd, J., 2012. A Mindset for Mobile Learning: a Journey Through Theory and Practice 
Stodd, J., 2013. Learning, Knowledge, and Meaning: The Singapore Diary
Stodd, J., 2013. Julian Stodd’s Learning Methodology: a Practical Tool for Learning Design
Stodd, J., 2012. The Amsterdam Diary: An Exploration of Learning Culture
Stodd, J., 2014. Exploring the social age and the new culture of learning. UK, 
Stodd, J., 2014. Exploring the World of Social Learning: a Book from the Blog (2012)
Stodd, J., 2014. New York: Community, Spaces, and Performance
Stodd, J., 2016. The Social Leadership Handbook (2nd Edition)
Stodd, J., 2019. Community Builder Guidebook (Second Edition)
Stodd, J., 2018. The Trust Sketchbook (2018)
Stodd, J., 2018. The Trust Guidebook: 72 Questions About TrustStodd, J., 2017. Social Leadership: My 1st 100 Days
Stodd, J., 2019. The Social Learning Guidebook
Stodd, J., 2018. The New York Dereliction Walk
Stodd, J., 2019. To the Moon and Back: Leadership Reflections from Apollo

Belbin – Optimal teams – nine roles…

Meredith Belbin is an English researcher who empirically observed teams over many years and has extracted nine different clustered roles in well-functioning teams. These are roles, not individuals, so the same person can have more than one role. It is important that teams are heterogenous not homogeneous, so knowing the roles, like the functional parts in a well-functioning engine, matters.
Social behaviour within organisations is most often executed in teams. It is teams that execute projects, teams that are managed. Yet their optimal structure, in terms of types and competences is so often ignored, under the pressure of more general social training topics.

Team roles

Resource Investigator
Uses their inquisitive nature to find ideas to bring back to the team. Outgoing, enthusiastic. Explores opportunities and develops contacts. Might be over-optimistic, and can lose interest once the initial enthusiasm has passed. They might forget to follow up on a lead.
Helps the team to gel, using their versatility to identify the work required and complete it on behalf of the team. Co-operative, perceptive and diplomatic. Listens and averts friction. Can be indecisive in crunch situations and tends to avoid confrontation. They might be hesitant to make unpopular decisions.
Needed to focus on the team's objectives, draw out team members and delegate work appropriately. Mature, confident, identifies talent. Clarifies goals. Can be seen as manipulative and might offload their own share of the work. They might over-delegate, leaving themselves little work to do.
Tends to be highly creative and good at solving problems in unconventional ways. Creative, imaginative, free-thinking, generates ideas and solves difficult problems. Might ignore incidentals, and may be too preoccupied to communicate effectively. Don't be surprised to find that: They could be absent-minded or forgetful.
Monitor Evaluator
Provides a logical eye, making impartial judgements where required and weighs up the team's options in a dispassionate way. Sober, strategic and discerning. Sees all options and judges accurately. Sometimes lacks the drive and ability to inspire others and can be overly critical. They could be slow to come to decisions.
Brings in-depth knowledge of a key area to the team. Single-minded, self-starting and dedicated. They provide specialist knowledge and skills. Tends to contribute on a narrow front and can dwell on the technicalities. They overload you with information.
Provides the necessary drive to ensure that the team keeps moving and does not lose focus or momentum. Challenging, dynamic, thrives on pressure. Has the drive and courage to overcome obstacles. Can be prone to provocation, and may sometimes offend people's feelings. They could risk becoming aggressive and bad-humoured in their attempts to get things done.
Needed to plan a workable strategy and carry it out as efficiently as possible. Practical, reliable, efficient. Turns ideas into actions and organises work that needs to be done. Can be a bit inflexible and slow to respond to new possibilities. They might be slow to relinquish their plans in favour of positive changes.
Completer Finisher
Most effectively used at the end of tasks to polish and scrutinise the work for errors, subjecting it to the highest standards of quality control. Painstaking, conscientious, anxious. Searches out errors. Polishes and perfects. Can be inclined to worry unduly, and reluctant to delegate. They could be accused of taking their perfectionism to extremes.


Teams are common in the workplace and their make-up can be critical to their success. Belbin gave industry an empirically sound description of what constitutes an optimal team. It is a subject that has been studied in detail, especially in the military, and remains a topic of practical interest for learning professionals. It has become somewhat overtaken by social theorising but remains a sound guide to the practical problem of how teams should be constructed in the workplace, something social theorists often ignore.


Belbin, M., 2004. Belbin team roles. Book Belbin Team Roles.
Belbin, R.M., 2012. Team roles at work. Routledge

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Agile online learning – in minutes not months using AI

So you spend decades trying to convince people to learn online, then in a day or so, the whole word does it - not from choice but necessity. Necessity is clearly the mother of innovation. But in the mad rush to get online there's a paucity of good content. Educators and trainers hit a blockage. Time was short and the processes for online production long. That's because online learning is still in the hand-crafted stage. It has failed to adopt agile methods using the latest technology. It is largely still in the 'multimedia' world of 20 years ago. We need to be more adaptable and agile. The solution is to use AI to create the content. We've done this in a wide range of medical subjects for nurses and Doctors... an aircraft engineers, customer serving staff, vocational learners, lawyers, gas engineers, lab work... it can be done. All it needs is a forward looking mindset that allows us to focus on retention, to get things done in minutes not months.

Agile production
By agile I mean the use of AI to create education and training quickly, that really does deliver high retention training to learners on any device. Every piece of content can have an AI generated audio introduction (AI text to speech), that explains what you have to do and to relax about getting things wrong, as it is OK to make mistakes while learning. Staff then read or watch a video and, rather than click on multiple-choice questions, have to bring to mind and type in what they think they know. This ‘effortful’ learning was inspired by recent research in learning that shows recall, with open-input, is superior for retention when compared to simply recognising answers from a list (multiple choice). 

Learning content has literally been created in a day, as the AI creates the content, by identifying the relevant learning points and automatically creating the learning experiences. This superfast production process means that quality assurance can be done on the real content, without the need for design documents and scripts. There is no need for multiple iterations by SMEs, as the original document, PPT or video contained all that was needed. The look and feel, logo, images, palette numbers for screen features can be quickly agreed. Everything from brief to final delivery can be done online through screen-sharing on Zoom or Skype. Not a single face-to-face meeting is necessary. See case study here.

Agile data
Finally, the modules can be SCORM wrapped for delivery on the LMS. As SCORM is rather limited, we can also embed extra data gathering capability which WildFire harvests for further analysis. This allows detailed analysis of who did what when and within the training, the specific times taken by each individual. Beyond this. WildFire have been looking at data and correlating it with other data.

Agile preparation
One important lesson in being agile is the ‘Garbage IN: Garbage OUT’ rule. When you use an agile production process, you need agile preparation. An intensive look at the input material pays dividends. Eliminate all of that extraneous material and text, cut until it bleeds and cut again, catch those pesky spelling and punctuation errors, make sure things are consistent. In our TUI work the source material was edited down to the essential ‘need to know’ content. 

Agile project management
Another essential ingredient is an agile project manager. In both the TUI project, we spoke frequently, but didn’t have a single face-to-face meeting. It was all quick decisions, problems solvedon the spot and process change to get things done. The project manager never saw problems, only issues to be solved – quickly.
This was made easier by the fact that AI was used to produce content in minutes not months. That means the quality control was on real content, not paper documents. And as we use approved documents, PowerPoints and videos, there was no real need for intensive SME input, which is the main brake on agile  production.

Agile production
This is where the real gains lie. AI is now being used to create content and add curated resourced at the click of a button. WildFire will take any document, PowerPoint or video and turn it into high retention online learning, in minutes not months. Want an audio podcast or audio introduction to the course?  It takes seconds using AI to do text to speech. The time savings are enormous, as well as costs. AI is used not only to identify learning points, it also constructs the questions, assesses open input (words or full short answer) and locates external resources for further learning.

Agile is as much a state of mind as process. Yet Learning and Development still works to an old model of months not minutes. We procure slowly, prepare slowly, produce slowly and deliver slowly. Despite relentless calls to align with the business and respond to business needs, we are too slow. L and D needs things in days, yet we deliver in months. This is what needs to change.

Online learning has traditionally been a rather slow in design and production. We can now use AI in WildFire to create content quickly, to produce agile learning and data that allows us to adapt to new circumstances. I may have used the word 'Agile' too often here but it captures, in a word, what is now necessary. The days of seeing online learning production as some sort of feature film project with matching budgets and timescales – months, should be re-examined. Sure some high-end content may need this approach but much can be automated and done at 10% of the cost, in minutes not months.

Dweck – Growth mindset… influential but recent doubts…

Carol Dweck’s work on ‘growth mind-sets’ in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006) took motivational theory in a specific direction around a specific attitude that, she claims, leads to accelerated learning. For Dweck, students can too often see school as the place where they perform for teachers, who then judge them, whereas, for Dweck, growth is what education should be about and keeping up momentum by encouraging growth mindsets, is an essential teaching skill. 

Fixed and growth mindsets

Drawing on animal studies in ‘learner helplessness’ where animals became passive in response to adverse stimuli, Dweck found that humans were much more complex and variable. She has observed that many educators still believe that praising intelligence builds esteem, confidence and motivation to learn. This, she claims is false. There is also the belief that innate intelligence is the main factor in achievement. This, she believes is harmful, even for successful students. Teachers and learners have two forms of mindset: fixed or growth. With fixed mindsets, you believe in innate abilities, fear failure and often stop prematurely in learning and development. With a growth mindset, you welcome failure and persist at work, in learning and life, through hard work and effort. 
She doesn’t deny that nature is important but believes, through the evidence of her own research, that nurture wins out most of the time. This may seem rather obvious but the orthodoxy in parenting books was to pump up a child’s self-esteem by praising them as talented individuals not as hard working learners. Dweck is careful to see this as a complex problem in that beliefs about intelligence are not the only factor at work and that context matters. 

Reaction to failure

For Dweck, a learner’s beliefs on intelligence and goals, significantly influences their learning success. What happens when you come across an error – fight or flight? Using models of goal-directed behaviour, she sees the reaction to problems and failure as a key marker for success in learning. Her conclusions are drawn from cognitive psychology, especially attention and reactions to feedback (negative, positive and type). When she gave 10 year-olds problems that were challenging, some reacted with relish and got stuck in, others reacted badly and failed. On analysis, she found that those with fixed mindsets found it harder to overcome setbacks and failures, compared to those with growth mindsets, who were more resilient. 
Fixed mindset students, who believe in intrinsic ability and intelligence, on encountering problems, can avoid opportunities to learn further. Their beliefs may lead them to be discouraged, setbacks as a reason to halt effort. They may even hide their mistakes. In addition, 'effort’ is seen as a weakness, to be disparaged and avoided, leading to a lack of progress. Fixed mindset learners see cheating and identifying people weaker than them as strategies. 
Growth mindset learners, learn from errors. It is when learners encounter challenges and difficulties that the mindsets swing into action. They persist and develop resilience when faced with challenges ad difficulties. She has also looked at the sort of self-handicapping that hold back women and people of colour, when faced with challenge and failure.


In research with 4 year-olds to adolescents, growth feedback through praising effort (you must have worked hard at these problems) leads to consistently better outcomes than fixed feedback, praising ability (you must be smart at these problems). The language of teachers is therefore important. Growth mindsets can be encouraged and fixed mindsets avoided by the judicious use of appropriate feedback. Don’t praise intelligence, abilities or talent but effort, strategy, focus, improvement. Don’t praise the child, praise the work and effort. For example You really tried hard in preference toYou’re really good at this. Process-oriented praise should also focus on specific feedback about that task. This joint strategy of effort and process praise is clear and prescriptive. Tell them what they’ve done to achieve the result is good and encourage that approach in the future. You really studied and … you really tried and…. you stuck to it… you took on…. As well as being precise in naming the process, task or approach they took, such as; research, reading, repeated tries, corrections, looking at alternatives, concentration, staying on task and so on. Even with high achievers, pushing these learners towards more challenge is important. 
Dweck has also developed a computer tool, Brainology, where students learn about the brain and learning through doing experiments and seeing how the brain changes with acquired memories to get smarter. This led to increased self-awareness of the value of effort and study.


She believes that growth mindset results in better school transitions, for example from school to college. It is particularly relevant for students who struggle and underperform. Growth mindset classrooms result in practical equality, as attitudes to failure are shifted from acceptance to resilience. She claims that schools in Harlem, the Bronx as well as native American students have all benefited from this approach. And it is not just achievement that results from growth mindsets but more enjoyment of learning and more respect for teachers.


There is some evidence that the growth approach may suffer over time or, if too premature and overcooked, lead to an expectation of unwarranted praise or, as Hyland and Hyland (2006) found or that early and inappropriate praise led to puzzlement in students, Skipper & Douglas (2011). Praise effects also vary with gender and age (stronger on upper-elementary girls). Praise may even lead to suspicions by learners that they lack ability or are in need of help. In other words, the overzealous implementation by teachers may undo the intended benefits. On the whole, however, these may be tactical issues that need to be solved within an overall successful growth mind-set strategy.
More worrying is a growing set of studies that show no significant effects. Gorard, S., See, B.H. and Davies (2012) found ‘no clear evidence of association or sequence between pupils’ attitudes in general and educational outcomes”.Bahník and Vranka (2017) found a slightly negative correlation and Siks et al (2018) in two meta-analyses reported little or no effect for growth mindsets. The University of Portsmouth study (2019) in 36 schools found no significant statistical significance, either when teachers were trained in or learners subjected  to growth mindset. 


Hattie confirms that Dweck’s research is exactly what has been found to have a significant effect on learner performance and she has similar theories to Black & Wiliam research and recommendations on feedback. The work of Anderson on deliberate practice can also be seen as an extension of her theories. Teachers, in particular, have found her recommendations ethical, practical and leading to marked changes in motivation and improved results. However, more recent research has begun to see the theory as having been overplayed.


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