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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Better Discussion / Debate in Learning

Mark Oehlert post: I long for this kind of debate in our learning circles.... talks about something that definitely stuck a chord for me. In particular, he laments that as he was reading a discussion in a different domain and "working on the team picking out sessions for the 2007 ASTD conference" he found himself wanting to have better discussion and debate in our world of learning.

Mark - I do too!

However, as I continued to read Mark's post, I realized that he and I may not want the same thing. He says -
Now some folks, notably Jay Cross (along with Harold Jarche and Judy Brown) have been exploring the "unworkshop" and they are to be applauded. But this is not a desire to have the learning/training version of FOO Camp or Bar Camp but something more.
Actually, I think that maybe FOO Camp and Bar Camp aren't quite the right format, but having the kind of dialog that occurs at unconferences is definitely needed at corporate learning conferences, e.g., ASTD, Training, etc. I've talked about More Effective Conferences for Learning Professionals but as I explored this, I realized that the real challenge was Better Questions for Learning Professionals. Without having some really interesting questions, then conference organizers default to putting signs on tables with general topics, e.g., healthcare or simulations. We've all seen this. Then you sit around the table with little or no real dialog. But, it's more because we are not prepared with real, interesting questions.

Mark seemed to come to a similar conclusion as he provides examples of questions that he would find really interesting:
I want a thoughtful discussion of what we do. Not about your LMS. Not about your 'issues.' But about why we believe what we do is worthwhile and why anyone should pay any of us to do it. What are the theoretical underpinnings of our industry? Kirkpatrick? Bloom? Piaget? When is the last time you went to a conference, billed as a conference about learning, and heard someone stand up and say the Bloom is full of crap? That Gagne's Nine Events of Instruction is fundamentally flawed? That new breakthroughs in the field of cognitive science or neurobiology are shifting how we think about learning?
The good news is that Mark and I have had a little discourse on the definition of informal learning (along with input from George Siemens, Harold Jarche and Dave Lee) and it really help me to understand some of the different definitions of informal learning. So, I would suggest that the discussion occurring today is having some impact, but as Mark suggests it seems few and far between. And I'm not sure why that is. It would seem that we should be the best at this. Cobbler's shoes maybe?

Of course, now the bad news... I pretty much disagree with Mark on what are the important/interesting questions ... I do want to talk about "your issues" ... actually, "your real issues" ... how you can make a true impact on human performance and business performance. I think that the questions about Kirkpatrick, Bloom and Gagne are only going to hit home for me if you put them in context.

But, this does get me to thinking again about Better Questions for Learning Professionals and even more:
What are the controversial questions facing us today in Corporate Learning?


Mark said...

Tony - I actually think we're in violent agreement vs disagreement. I'm not positing that I know the questions or the answers - this post was all about attitude and dynamics and a longing for an ongoing, widespread and sincere examination about the underpinnigs of our field. Maybe for Christmas......

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony
I'm not sure I've hit your site before, but I think I will be back - you are a prolific writer and thinker!

I've been switching between your various discussions around conferences. A lot of what you say I agree with, but I stopped on this posting as I was curious to see your thoughts around unconferences, unworkshops. I have been to one of these and found it quite a different experience, and at that time really stimulating. But if this was my first conference, where I was still wanting to increase my knowledge and perhaps to just sit and 'soak' it all up -then I probably would have become very frustrated and left early? My question is then... is there a place for an unconference, or unworkshop in someone's career? Are these as effective for people new in the professions - or are they more effective for those of us who have some knowledge and want the opportu7nity to really get into some meaty discussion??

Tony Karrer said...

OT - good question/point.

My belief is that beginners can have content specifically targeted at them because they come from relatively similar starting points and likely have similar needs. That's why you can have large ASTD conferences year after year with similar topics. 50-70% of the audience is new each year.

Meaty discussion on more narrow topics with the assumption of heavy input from all / not just the moderator - would all point to a more advanced audience.

All that said, I do think there's a place for unconference like things to occur at ASTD, Training or other similar events. Even at a large conference, you have 30% of the audience ready to jump into interesting discussions around particular questions or issues. To me, they do a disservice by playing only to the novice audience.

Recently the eLearningGuild has been doing more with their events to try to have interesting discussions within the broader conference. Hopefully we'll see more of this going on.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding so quickly Tony. Our profession (occupational therapy) is conservative when it comes to learning (predominantly)... how would we go about shifting their ideas about what a conference should look like? Have you had any experience of doing this for a group who arrived expecting the 'normal' conference?


Tony Karrer said...

OT - I would guess that there are much better people to ask about this who are actually conference organizers. I just talk to them all the time, but I'm not the one who gets the flak when things don't work out quite right.

With that caveat -

I would suggest that you do something along the lines of adding to an existing conference some new kinds of activities that are a bit different. That way, you can shift things slowly and based on people enjoying them.

The eLearningGuild provided small rooms near the breakfast room for morning discussions on particular topics that were decided fairly late in the game. There was a moderator, but the expectation was that it was a discussion not a presentation. They were fantastic.

Only a small percentage of the audience participated (25%), but I think they'd say this was a highlight of the conference.

You could likely do something like this over lunch and likely would get higher participation.

Basically, if you create gaps in the schedule so that people interested in those topics can get together.

If you try to have these compete with regular sessions, then I think there's a real challenge with finding enough people interested in the topic to form a critical mass. Although, it may be better to have 5 very interested people getting together than going to a session with 200 people.

And I wouldn't force this on everyone out of the gate.