Thursday, September 27, 2007

Messy Learning OK. Messy Training Not OK.


I've been thinking about messes a lot the past few days. I've got small kids and my house is pretty messy. It turns out that life in general is pretty messy. And now it turns out that learning is messy, too.

Janet Clarey was reporting back from the Brandon Hall Innovations in Learning Conference, including experiments with un-workshops when things don't go as you planned.

She live-blogged Stephen Downes' keynote and remarked, "This is messy learning in progress and it’s good."

Slide 22 of Stephen Downes' presentation includes a diagram: Messy vs. Neat.

So I've been thinking about messes and why messy learning makes people so uncomfortable. Especially the corporate types.

Learning is messy because we get easily distracted by shiny objects -- or rather, inspired to shoot off in different directions. Because self-directed learning doesn't always have a clear or specific performance objective.

Maybe your goal is to learn how to make a bowl on a pottery wheel, but then you end up making a real cool sculpture. Or maybe you want to learn about the life of the author of that great novel, and then end up reading about Puccini. By accident. It happens. Or maybe you actually want to learn how to do your job better.

I start a book, but I don't finish it. I start researching one topic online, but start diving down a completely different path within a matter of a few clicks. Conversations can wander.

Let's say, to go out on a limb here, that people are more-or-less comfortable with the notion that LEARNING is messy. But I don't think folks are comfortable with the notion that TEACHING or TRAINING can or should be messy.

That goes against about 800 grains.

And messy e-Learning? Forget about it. e-Learning should be all neat and tied up in a nice wrapper with a Next button that moves you through a content checklist and a great assessment at the end.

A PLE can be messy. It's personal, after all. And people are messy. Should training be messy?

This may be why the concept of informal learning is such a hard sell. Formal training, is by definition, not messy. It's formal. It's neat. It's got structure and objectives. You can measure it. It's really hard to measure a mess.

As Janet wrote in the comments to her own post, attendees were saying of the un-conference format that "structure" and "objectives" were needed.

Is a messy training program just one in which the presenter is clearly not organized? The agenda not fully thought out?

What makes for messy training/teaching?
  • The training doesn't teach what the participants want or need (failure to consult with actual learners while designing the program).
  • The instructor doesn't really know the topic and is just completely winging it.
  • Things go wrong (software fails, power goes out).
  • (A whole bunch of other things, right?)
As Michael Allen says in Michael Allen's Guide to e-Learning, "you can teach someone, but you can't learn someone" (to echo something Mark Oehlert recently ranted about).

I admit that this post is a bit messy. But I'm learning.

Photo Credit: Audrey Johnson from stock.xchng.

7 comments:

Kate Foy said...

Hi Cammy
it must be conference season right now. I'm just back from two this week, and presented yesterday at USQ's Pedagogies and Learning Conference in Brisbane. Mine was on the same topic, though rather than messy, I call this approach 'messy' 'purposeful play.' I play with the actors in rehearsing a show. Creativity and imagination are the mandates, with no 'end-gaming' i.e, expectations, allowed. In yesterday's presentation, I was arguing for using Web 2.0 tools in a learning context using this approach.

The other thing I'd add to your list in the sense of 'messy' in a perjorative sense would be poor presentation skills: body language, speech, reading slides, lack of engagement, energy etc. Boy have I seen some good content 'messed up' in this way by the content provider!

Sue Waters said...

Hi Cammy

I went to my first unconference this year and really enjoyed that format. Then at the end of a series of online presentations they had an unconference session --- it was soooo much better than the planned structure sessions. The key is there still needs to be some structure and good coordinate -- good facilitator helps. With the online session we had set time limits for topics but I gained so much.

Messy training - definitely. Much easier to have structure and sequential in a LMS but the power of the messy so much better. A lot harder work for the lecturer because they have to guide and mold the unstructure so that it works. Learners can feel uncomfortable because they have been raised on structure.

I have been watching Leigh Blackall's program of introducing educators with Web 2.0 and have had a chuckle about the emotions they have expressed about the sense that they are not sure where they are going and what they are trying to achieve.

Sue

Karl Kapp said...

Cammy,

I think messy can be good in things like conferences and PLEs but a universal "messy" approach in organizations is not always desired.

Sure experience is a great teacher but organizations are about efficiency and effectiveness. The role of instructional designer is not to go all "messy" or all "formal" the role is to blend the two. We need to create formal learning events and surround them with messy learning opportunities for people to exchange ideas and try things out but we can add just enough structure and direction to make it possible.

A company cannot tell its employees to go "figure out" our corporate policy on customer service, safty or compliance....that knowledge must be conveyed as simply and in as "unmessy" method as possible.

Dollars and maybe lives are at stake.

So, I think designers need to think of "both" instead of either/or.

Karl Kapp said...

Cammy,

I think messy can be good in things like conferences and PLEs but a universal "messy" approach in organizations is not always desired.

Sure experience is a great teacher but organizations are about efficiency and effectiveness. The role of instructional designer is not to go all "messy" or all "formal" the role is to blend the two. We need to create formal learning events and surround them with messy learning opportunities for people to exchange ideas and try things out but we can add just enough structure and direction to make it possible.

A company cannot tell its employees to go "figure out" our corporate policy on customer service or compliance....that knowledge must be conveyed as simply and in as "unmessy" a manner as possible.

Dollars and maybe lives are at stake.

So, I think designers need to think "both" (messy and formal)instead of either/or.

Cammy Bean said...

Thanks for the comments...as an instructional designer, I certainly don't have a problem being messy (just look at my desk)!

All these fancy new fangled web 2.0 technologies sure add to the mess. Learning to "design" to these tools will be the challenge -- a messy one.

Karyn Romeis said...

It seems to me like you're drawing a ring around organised and linear (viz your reference to the "next" button) as if they are necessarily the same thing. I think it is possible to have elearning that is organised without being linear. That way, you can allow the user the freedom to be as messy or as structured as s/he wants to be.

A well designed solution should cater to both approaches.

Increasingly we are seeing the move towards performance support resources rather than pre-emptive elearning courses.

Also we are realising that we can't really marshall the way people learn - we need to facilitate it instead. One of the things I am trying to do is to include in my designs the means for learners to interact with one another and with acknowledged experts in the subject at hand.

The kid of messy that Kate refers to at the end of her comment, I totally agree just undermines learner confidence.

Cammy Bean said...

Karyn....I don't actually think that organized = linear. But I see plenty of organizations that do think this way. It sounds like you're with, what I would call, a "mature e-Learning organization."

I've come across a few clients recently who are "immature" in terms of e-Learning. They're still looking for the page-turners ("Neat Training") and aren't ready to move into performance support and collaboration, etc. "That's not in our budget...that's not in our plan." As an external vendor it can be extremely hard to change that mindset.