Tony Karrer's eLearning Blog on e-Learning Trends eLearning 2.0 Personal Learning Informal Learning eLearning Design Authoring Tools Rapid e-Learning Tools Blended e-Learning e-Learning Tools Learning Management Systems (LMS) e-Learning ROI and Metrics

Monday, July 17, 2006

Better Questions for Learning Professionals

If you've been reading my blog, you know that I often discuss Personal Learning:

A big part of what I've come to realize that the barrier to us moving beyond being The Worst Learners are:

  • We (like many people today) lack the intrinsic motivation to systematically improve our personal learning capabilities. We already have too much to do.
  • We lack the right questions.

While the motivation question is certainly a big question, I want to skip over this for now. I'm going to assume that since you are reading this blog post, you must be in the top few % of motivated people.

What is more concerning is that I don't really think we know the right questions to be asking.

The Value of Questions

Now, let me start this diatribe with a brief rant on the importance of asking the right questions. In my mind, it is THE most important skill or ability to have. Maybe it's just the whole brainwashing they give you as part of a Ph.D. program, but the biggest aha while getting a Ph.D. is that it's the question that is most important. The answer is often easy once the question is formulated correctly.

As a funny aside, I will carry to my grave a memory of one meeting with a potential client. They were a start-up run by a strong Type-A CEO. As part of initial meetings, there is considerable value provided by any consultant in terms of the questions that help frame exactly what the problem/need is. After asking two hours worth of questions to help the CEO go from a hopelessly vague initial concept to a much better defined, more realistic product concept, the CEO looked at me and said that he was hoping that our next meeting we would come prepared to show some real value. After all, he had spent two hours of his time answering all of our questions and expected some value in return. It was a truly eye-opening experience.

In past writing about More Effective Conferences for Learning Professionals, I realized that the most important aspect of making sure you get the most you can from the conference is determining what the questions are that you should use to focus you during the conference. Otherwise, you will swim through the sea of sessions and vendors and will not get nearly as much from the conference.

What Questions Are We Asking

So, before going on, consider what the most important questions are that you face as a learning professional?

At training and/or eLearning conferences where this question was asked of the attendees, the common kinds of responses are:

  • How do I get more interactivity into my courseware?
  • How do I reduce the attrition rate in my course/courseware?
  • What's the best authoring tool to use?
  • What are other organizations doing?

One conference organizer told me that eLearning session descriptions with "interactivity" in the title would draw larger audiences. Clearly people are trying to get that question answered.

But, is that a good question? I think we can all step back an critique the question - it presupposes that I need more interactivity. Likely the person asking it wants more interactivity because they've been producing courseware that is basically "Click Next to Continue" type learning. The reaction is that this is boring. Or, they've not produced anything, but they know they don't want to only do that.

Better Questions

My guess is that just as most learning professionals can tell you the problems with the interactivity question, they can similarly suggest lots of much better questions that might be appropriate instead:

  • Is courseware appropriate for my audience and topic? What are some alternative blends that might work?
  • Does interactivity make a difference in terms of learning? What does the research actually show? Is there demonstrable return that I can use to justify greater budget? Where's Will Thalheimer and can you introduce me?
  • Can I reduce the duration of courseware and still get an effective result? How would I supplement that with reference? What's the cut-off point?
  • What are some possible ways I teach topic a process topic so it sticks? What are the pluses and minuses of those interactive styles?

As we drill down on any one of these we can successively improve the questions until we arrive at much more meaningful types of questions.

Going back to my example of preparing for a conference by formulating better questions, I think you'll get a much better conference experience if you are prepared with questions such as the above when you go into a booth or go to a session. But, even better would be to start with the underlying issues that your company, your organization, your team faces and formulate questions starting there:

  • What are other organizations who have an aging, highly skilled workforce doing to train the next generation of professionals? How are they getting them up to speed?
  • How are organizations handling the cross-over between management, knowledge management, learning?

An Industry Challenge

The good news is that for most individuals, coming up with much better questions for your particular situation is not necessarily that hard to do. If you are having a roadblock, start with the desired performance. If you are still stuck, drop me a note.

But, what I've been finding is that as an industry we seem to have landed on some basic questions that get answered over-and-over and we are not necessarily moving things forward. Maybe that's just because I've heard the same sessions given at every conference for the last 10 years. It is also that some questions in learning are hard to answer such as "Does the media make a difference?" (Although you normally can redefine the question to make it answerable and hence much more useful.)

I think the challenge of the right questions today is also because we are in the midst of a fundamental shift away from course as the unit of learning, a shift towards on-demand and at-work learning, a dramatically different technical landscape, a move towards business results and performance as the focus ... the world is allowing us to look at things in a very different way ... and we don't necessarily know that questions that we should be asking.

So, to get us started towards some better questions, here are some that I might ask of other attendees, presenters, vendors, etc.

  • Informal Learning - How can I provide a development process, tools and systems that foster informal learning in a way that I know will have impact on the performance that I care about and that is repeatable? What can I borrow from KM, collaborative learning, and management practices? What does this look like in practice? When do I use it? When are you using it? What effect is it having? How do you know?
  • Personal Learning - What systems, tools, techniques can I use to make myself a better learner?
  • Reference Hybrids - How have you organized landing pages to support both reference and learning modes? How do you define what will be treated as reference and what as learning? What tools are you using today? What do you expect to use in the future? How do you track this kind of learning? Do you have metrics on impact?

So what are your questions?


Ted Cocheu said...

I agree completely that we need better questions and this is a great start at beginning to articulate them. The most basic question we should ask ourselves is: how do adults actually learn on a day-to-day basis and how can we as learning professional tap into or leverage the existing natural adult learning modes? The place to start with a better answer to better questions is to look inward. We too often look outward first and dream up ideas about what and how others should learn—when we should be asking: How the heck do I learn and how do the professionals I associate with learn? The first realization is that we as adults do not take courses to learn what they need to know every day—seems like a simple point, but often overlooked in our training-centric industry. So, how do I learn? Most times I learn in the context of doing work, performing a task, or solving a problem. If it’s simple, explicit knowledge I need, I browse the manual, experiment by applying basic logic to the task, try turning the knobs to see what they do, and see if I can make it work. If its more complex or conceptual, I try to better familiarize myself on the subject by looking at what others say and have done—usually by searching the web, reading articles, subscribing to podcasts, looking at relevant knowledge repositories, etc. Then I usually engage in conversations, both virtual and in person, with friends or colleagues I know or work with whose opinions and thinking I respect. We usually start by defining the issue and objectives, exchanging ideas about it from our experience, determine who in the group is the most knowledgeable, defer to that person’s expertise if possible, argue a bit to get different perspectives hashed out, and generally come to a mutual agreement about the best approach in a reasonable period of time. The keys are knowing when you don’t know something, associating with really smart people, and respecting the heck out of their thinking and ideas. Hopefully this is a useful extension to the better questions and answers conversation.

Tony Karrer said...

Ted - really great stuff. I agree completely about the need for us to better understand how we learn (and how others learn)! I'm happy to see you say that because I've not been seeing anyone else say it and was getting worried that it's just me. :)

I'm going to make note of how you've just broken down your learning approach - it's great!

I also think it can be the basis for talking about the questions that naturally follow. Is that what everyone does? How do we support you in doing that? How do get better at it? How can we help you get better at it?