Friday, November 21, 2008

Web 2.0 and the Corporate Environment

It has been a couple of years now since the hum of Web 2.0 has been buzzing in the ears of the instructional design field. I remember going to an e-learning conference and there were about four presentations on different aspects of Facebook. That’s all fine and good for informal learning, but what does Web 2.0 have to offer the corporate environment?

Benefit of Web 2.0
Web 2.0’s networking sites and technologies (Facebook, MySpace, wikis, blogs, etc.) are excellent ways for groups of people to build on and share each other’s knowledge. In a “safe” setting, individuals feel more comfortable writing about topics that interest them. Facebook groups are an excellent example of this, where users from around the world can become part of virtual communities of interest/practice. People comment on each other’s submissions, challenge each other, joke with each other, and even correct each other.

If you have a computer problem, you can post your problem online in a blog, and have other people within the IT community troubleshoot your issues. If someone’s idea fails, somebody else will generally suggest an alternate solution. These people are not being paid for their time, they simply take an active interest in being computer savvy. Web 2.0 is already revealing its benefits to the online learning environment.

Pedagogy and Web 2.0
Students in pedagogical environments have also found blogs and wikis useful, as they have been able to provide each other reminders, tips, suggestions, and relevant links to their tasks. Since this is most often a class, there is a teacher that can administrate the blog or wiki to ensure that comments made by students are appropriate. If blogs and wikis go unmonitored, the school runs the risk of cheating, harassment, inappropriate language, and so on. Getting nearly instant feedback helps learners by providing them the knowledge that they need at the right time.

The Corporate Environment
So, in a faceless environment with nothing on the line, and in a monitored classroom setting, Web 2.0 technologies have the capability to be rather successful. But what about the corporate environment? What does Web 2.0 offer the e-learner in a company? Discussion groups have been around for a while, but they are closed off to the public, making their effectiveness controlled and limited. In today’s online world, many corporations use Learning Management Systems (LMS) to moderate and track their learners. Therefore, either the LMS needs to have discussion groups available or the corporation would need to set up its own discussion group for each course offering. Seeing as there is no “teacher” in these settings, there would need to be someone to moderate the discussion threads to make sure that: (a) business processes are adhered to, (b) nothing offensive is written, (c) employees are using their time productively, and (d) employees are qualified at their job.

Whilst employed, people have their livelihood at stake. This makes it much more difficult to admit that one needs the help of others to get their work done. Especially when their questions, issues, or errors can be seen by the people that they work with for an indeterminate amount of time. Depending on the structure and size of the organization, this can lead to feelings of inadequacy, ridicule, and being over self-conscious.

Corporate Friendly Web 2.0 Technologies
There are some technologies out there, such as Second Life, which can use virtual environments for learning purposes. Many of these efforts have been successful as they emulate the private nature of our physical lives. In contrast, wikis and blogs do not mimic this as all comments are visible to everyone. Second Life offers both private and public conversation, most of which are not tracked (or at least not publicly accessible). The down side of using virtual environments includes the high-end hardware needed to run these programs smoothly. Another drawback is the time involved in using such technologies. Since Second Life is an exploratory type of environment, there are few controls in place to limit one’s time spent in the environment, let alone the fact that support for those that are unfamiliar with “gaming” could get in the way of people partaking in this type of online learning opportunity.

It is really hard to envision how wikis and blogs can be successfully implemented into corporate training. According to some of the conference sessions that I have attended, it is apparently possible. Yet, none of the speakers really offered or demonstrated their solution(s) for a typical corporate training solution. One speaker gave an example, but it involved using a blog to acquaint employees with each other for a job they had not started yet, for the purpose of creating a community of interest so as to minimize their attrition rate. Wikis and blogs can be great tools to augment learning, but aren’t really viable solutions in the realm of third party vendor corporate e-learning. Firstly, employees actually need to download and install the necessary software (a challenge not to be overlooked), accept it, be proactive at using it, and be ready to share their talents with others. Secondly, it needs to be adopted by everybody for it to work properly, which is unlikely, given a corporation that may span three or four generations that have varying views on technology and one’s job role(s).

In short, implementing wikis and blogs into a corporate environment is a very exciting prospect as these technologies become more and more common to learners in the workforce and as their popularity strengthens outside the workplace. However, their place and relation to third party vendor e-learning is still a big question mark to most instructional designers. It is my opinion that the current climate of the corporate world is not ready to open themselves up to either: (a) revealing their shortcomings and admiting they need help, or (b) sharing the knowledge that makes them economically viable within their own organization to others. However, when that time of relinquishing the fear of exposing oneself publicly comes around, I believe that Web 2.0 technologies hold a lot of potential for creating solid communities of skilled workers and practitioners.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Medium is a Mess

Why compare dissimilar subjects?
Are you tired of the now age-old question “is digital learning as effective as classroom learning?” I know I am. First of all, not only does the question assume an inherent instructional superiority for in-class instruction, but it is clear that classroom learning also has its own gamut of issues which may or may not limit effectiveness. In a nutshell, the two simply can’t be compared as such. Think about comparing oranges to orange juice. The two have the same contents, but are delivered and consumed in very different ways. Conducting studies where two groups (one in-class and the other online) are delivered the same content are somewhat baseless and too difficult to control.

The studies are baseless because nearly any experienced instructional designer can tell you that if you are simply taking content and putting it online, then you are doing a poor job as an educator. There is so much more to online learning than turning it into digital content. Essentially, the two courses should invariably appear quite dissimilar as they are delivered via different mediums. Sure, the basic facts of the content stay the same, but the way it hits the audience is, and should be, very different. Content lends itself differently to different mediums, and this needs to be recognized.

The studies also lack control because there are so many factors that simply cannot be adequately pegged down. Examples include individual effectiveness of the lecturer vs. effectiveness of an instructional design/designer. The lecturer has the power of adaptability as things happen in real-time, whereas the instructional designer has the power of one-to-one (one person, one computer) interactivity (the lecturer is often limited to a one-to-many type of interaction). Depending on context, the pedagogical approaches of online and classroom courses almost need to be vastly different. Other examples of uncontrollable factors include the students themselves, and their predetermined conceptions of digital learning, as well as their predisposition to self-motivated learning.

The medium is the messenger
As new technologies develop, it would seem that mediums are beginning to merge. What was once, print, video, audio, phone, internet, and computer, has become a mélange of mediums. For example, a handheld organizer is now capable of viewing books, listening to music, watching video, surfing the Web, and so much more. Not only that, but different platforms can send data to and synchronize with other platforms, enabling cross-medium and sharing opportunities. In some ways, the common conception of the medium has become a mess.

Contrary to the beaten-to-death idea of Marshall MacLuhan, the medium is not the message (1967), or at the very least, the medium is no longer capable of “being” the message. Rather, I would argue that the medium is the messenger. It is merely a conduit for content. The message can be developed long before the medium is ever chosen. This idea is only reinforced by an instructional approach known as the Structured Content Development Model.

Structured content development model
In the Structured Content Development Model, presentation is kept entirely separate from content. The medium itself is, in a way, an afterthought. With new single sourcing technologies, a course can export from one single pool of content to several different mediums at once with the click of a button. However, some insight into the delivery medium(s) is in fact needed in foresight. For example, if an online course uses video, one would not want to (and could not) export that to a paper-based format.

Therefore, the medium that one chooses to deliver the content is merely a vehicle to reach the intended audience. Some mediums allow for richer content than others. Does this change the message for the learner? No, the message can still be delivered intact. The instructional designer simply has to find a way of matching the message (the owner of the vehicle) with the medium (the vehicle). Even the fastest and strongest racing car needs an experienced handler to get it from point A to point B. Remember, that it is the driver that the car delivers to the destination, not the other way around.

The medium is essential to delivering the message
Please do not get me wrong, the medium of delivery is inextricably wound with, and integral to, a course. However, the message contained therein is created long before delivery ever occurs. The Structured Content Development Model has a tremendous front-end effort that requires knowledge and insight into desired and unforeseen delivery mediums.

Basically, the technology behind the medium nowadays is transcending the outlined boundaries imposed upon them from days of yore. We need to rethink what a medium is, especially given the recent trends of utilizing mixed-media and blended learning. Yes, it is important to tag, mark-up, and build your content according to the medium it will be eventually delivered to. Yes, it is important to develop assets and widgets that are appropriate to the medium. No, you do not have to scrap your content if a client decides they want a course delivered through a Learning Management System (LMS) instead of the paper-based course they had originally anticipated.