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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Skimming and Learning Design

One of the common themes on my blog is the world we live in with availability of trillions of web pages, millions of people, and thousands of tools, has meant a significant and continuous change in our work literacy.  It also has an impact on Learning Design and Learning Organizations … more on this below.

Read the Whole Thing2009-horizon-cover-320?

A little bit ago I was skimming through a presentation that asked the audience whether people read the whole thing.  (Sorry, but I've forgotten where I saw this and my Better Memory strategies didn't easily find the right source.  Note to self, figure out how this could have worked.) 

Many of us are familiar with the Horizon Report for 2009, The World Is Flat, and Stephen Downes - The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On.  And if you aren't, you should be familiar with these.worldisflat

But, how many of you who are familiar with these have read the whole thing?

In the audience, very few people read the whole thing.  I have not, but I've done a lot of Skim Dive Skim on these.

I've had this discussion before in other forms, and certainly there are a mix - some people who are much deeper readers – some skimmers.  And likely the answer is that it also depends on the topic, length of the item, the timing, and way too many other variables.  So, let's just say that we need to assume varied depth of content consumption.

This also means that a key skill is develop better memory methods that help us individually deal with the fact that we are skimming more stuff and will have an ever increasing need to quickly get back to it.

Implications for Learning Design

If we know that people are likely to consume information in this way, what does it mean for Learning Design.  I've often focused more on issues of Good Writing and Write for Skimming but the reality is that the implication is bigger than that.  No one will sit through long detailed pieces of information.  They quickly tune out or quickly skim through.  Learning Design must accommodate this and I particularly believe that we should Shift from Courseware towards Reference Hybrids – put as little as possible in the courseware and provide well-organized, well-written, easily saved, easily accessed reference material.

Of course, this is assuming that Learning Organizations are still in the position of being a publisher who is pushing content to learners.

When we talk about the Long Tail Learning and Corporate Learning Long Tail and Attention Crisis, the focus is on how to help learners when you cannot possibly get in front of all the information.  Part of this is helping them to learn skills and adopt practices to make them more effective in self-serving their knowledge work and learning.

However, this is also where Learning Organizations can jump in to help by playing an aggregator role.  There's a lot of content that is likely being skimmed or even possibly is not being seen.  There's opportunity to make it more easily found and skimmable.

This is a topic I'm pretty sure I'll be revisiting quite a bit.  After all, this is pretty much the question I'm often asking:

What does Learning Design look like in a world of eLearning 2.0?


Cammy Bean said...

I'm interested in those variables you mention.

I wonder how much the medium itself dictates whether or not one will skim. For instance, I'm much more likely to skim a text heavy blog post than a book. Of course, I would also skim a text heavy course, but then that's just bad design to begin with. I might skim a text heavy job aid. If I'm watching a well-designed course, I sit back and soak it up. These are different experiences.

And, of course, it depends on what my goals are for the material. Am I just trying to extract a nugget or two -- something specific that I'm searching for? Or am I trying to soak up something else?

Dan said...

Sounds like you quickly tune in your bullshit-to-gold focus Cammy and spend your time appropriately.

Anonymous said...

Points well taken. However, if I have to sit through another Tom Friedman self aggrandizing book or article, I'll take the skimming. Matt Taibbi would agree "Someone Take Away Thomas Friedman's Computer Before He Types Another Sentence".

Michelle St. Pierre said...

What do you think about User Forums or Wikis playing that aggregator role? Is there value there, if the information is not being aggregated by a central learning organization? It's certainly tempting when budgets don't allow for much more but is it counter-intuitive, because one spends additional time validating the information that could have just been spent taking a deeper dive in the first place?

Tony Karrer said...

@Cammy - well said - definitely it depends on context and goals.

@Michelle - I think that wikis (probably less so forums) can be part of an aggregator strategy. And absolutely, it should be getting aggregated by many different sources including the learning organization. I think that the learning organization can come in and help with particular views like:

here's what a new hire should go view as they get up to speed

colleen said...

When I read a good book, I don't skim. The rest of the time, it's the conditioned effect of hyperlinks and 'small chunking' in usability and cognition design.
This post reminded me of a book I read awhile back that explained not just the effect, but how to understand and manage in Web design. I think Steve Krug's advice for Web works quite well for learning too.

I highly recommend for those thinking deeply on satisficing/scanning/usability:

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony

I have skimmed the Horizon Report and dived into bits, BUT it has an executive summary, and had I less time than I had at the time I chose to read it, that may have been all that I would have read. Consequently I would have got nothing out of it at all.

I have read Stephen Downes' Future of Elearning, bless his cotton socks. It did not have an executive summary BUT the reading was quite different. If Stephen had written an executive summary, I reckon I would still have read the whole thing because I like Stephen's style of writing and I enjoyed it.

Had I not the admiration for Stephen that I have, I may never have read much of his report. I would have skimmed a bit and dived here and there like I did with the Horizon Report.

But coming back to your point about 'Good Writing' - a well written report should have an executive summary. And that should be well written so that the essentials are all mentioned. Frankly, the executive summary of the Horizon Report rendered no help to me whatsoever, so I had to skim the whole document.

One simple technique I've used when writing an executive summary for a report I've already written is to list the paragraph headings and expand each of these where appropriate. Editing out the redundant paragraph headings after the summary is written is easy. But listing them in the first place helps me to ensure all the salient points are covered in the summary.

An executive summary that gives no lead whatsoever to the would-be reader of an important element of content could result in that important point being ignored completely. It would just not be read unless the reader skimmed, spotted it and read the detail.

Catchya later

Sreya Dutta said...

Totally agree with you here. I myself am a skimmer sometimes since I don't have a lot of time and still want to read blogs and articles, and sometime because I get impatient if topics don't get to the point.

Fortunately in my job where I create technical courses for technical audiences, we need to be really crisp and straightforward sentences. We extensively use bullets, numbered lists and short direct sentences to write instructions or procedures. Our audience benefits from job aids and reference materials and thus creating and making reference hybrids available becomes important. But there are other aspects which demand formal instructor-led-training and we also create full courses, but the content needs to be crisp and to the point. The hands on exercises help too. I have citied an example on this topic in my last post

Thanks for sharing,


Tony Karrer said...

These are some great comments. I always wonder how much of this kind of thing is lost to everyone. And I get so much from this kind of exchange.

@CM - Good book suggestion. Love the title and the premise -

"All of the tips, techniques, and examples presented revolve around users being able to surf merrily through a well-designed site with minimal cognitive strain. Readers will quickly come to agree with many of the book's assumptions, such as "We don't read pages--we scan them" and "We don't figure out how things work--we muddle through." Coming to grips with such hard facts sets the stage for Web design that then produces topnotch sites."

I wonder if I will skim that as well. :)

One thing about books - I often find that I skim-dive-skim on a book and then I go back to it again and again as I find other things and I want to at that point drill down on it.

@Ken - That's a fantastic point. We could call these executive summaries (for lengthy pieces) or for something like an article or blog post it might be bullet points of what's important. I've come to appreciate CNN's bullet points at the top right that is a quick summary of the story. Often saves me quite a bit of skimming.

@Sreya - Great post. I like that you pulled in a couple of examples. I was not familiar with your blog up until now. Can I suggest reading - New Blog for ways to make yourself known in our little world.