Friday, October 09, 2015

10 ways to avoid snafus in virtual webinars

Whether it’s a webinar, webcast, online meeting or online instructor-led training, the potential for snafus is enormous; no audio, feedback loops, chaotic breakout groups, timezone confusion… you name it, it WILL happen. You’re only one click away from oblivion. Fortunately, at DevLearn, in Las Vegas, I was lucky enough to find myself in a room full of virtual learning experts, real practitioners who do this week in, week out.
Virtual snafus
It’s a wondrous thing, being able to communicate visually and orally across the globe. Yet it is not easy to do well, as it comes with a truckload of potential snags, glitches and complications. What you need to do, to be effective, is master the process, so that you can focus on the delivery of the experience, not get sucked into distractions and troubleshooting.
1. Use a checklist
Seems simple but people often underestimate the management and logistics of virtual sessions. Checklists for planning, troubleshooting,,,,. whatever. They seem to work for a lot people, as it’s easy to miss things and you benefit from the accumulation of experience. Preparation matters but structured preparation matters more.
2.  Takes two to tango
Some organisations have large teams, with a Producer, Presenter, Technical support and Monitor. Many recommend that you have at least two people, especially for sessions that want to have polls, high levels of engagement, or breakout sessions - one to present, the other to manage the process and sort out problems.
3. Test
Test before your session. There’s lots of things that can go wrong; technically, in communications, audio issues, timing issues. One full test will save lots of live pain.
4. Audio is No 1 problem
Audio is the number one problem in virtual learning. If it can go wrong, it will. What if your audio disappears?  Do you know how to open mics and mute? What problems will users have at their end? If you have hundreds online this can be overwhelming. First, get to know the software. Second, try the software. Third, test, test, test. Know how solve the problems that WILL arise.
5. Instructions
Remember, you can send lots of stuff beforehand but, believe me, they won’t read it. So you have to find a way of making this simple and effective. Make this really clear with visual and verbal cues. For example, on timezones, state what time they need to be there in their timezone.
6. Takes time
Timing is tricky but critical. Some things are quicker online but many are take longer than you think. Presenters often go way over time. The biggest problem is too much content – too many slides. The second is going off at a tangent. Rehearsal and practice will solve these problems.
7. Presenter skills
Try to avoid the ‘uuums’ and filler words. Speak enthusiastically. Learn to cut and paste URLs for your audience. Coaching is useful here as it’s not easy to see ourselves as others see us.
8. Engagement
What tasks are required to produce engaging, virtual, online sessions? First, don’t load them up with long biographical intros, dull learning objectives or a manual’s worth of instructions. You must grab them by the throat or they’ll be off doing email, Facebook or Twitter. Rely more on visual and verbal cues. Change screen frequently. Add questions with prompts. Keep things moving as your audience may feel that things have gone wrong if they see the same thing on screen for too long. One word of warning; with breakout sessions, they always take longer than you think and it’s sometimes difficult to get them back.
9. Monitor chat
Presenters often set off at pace then forget to monitor chat. A good practice is to stop, periodically to review chat and answer a few questions. Above all, keep in control and make sure you are happy to both present and monitor chat. There may also be a need to stop chat if it gets out of control or disrespectful.
10. Practice, practice, practice
If there was one recommendation that was mentioned time and time again, it was practice.  You need to be on top of your game to run these sessions well and that means rehearsal and practice.
I know a lot of this seems obvious but it’s the obvious things that most often cause problems. Your audience has to see, hear and engage to learn, the rest must be made invisible or as easy as possible.  (Thanks to Chris Benz and Karen Hyder for their session in Vegas.)

There's more!
Top ten tips in top ten topics in online learning:
10 ways to make badass INTROs in online learning 
10 bloody good reasons for using much-maligned TEXT in online learning 
10 essential online learning WRITING TIPS in online learning 
10 stupid mistakes in design of MULTIPLE CHOICE questions
10 essential points on use of (recall not recognition) OPEN RESPONSE questions
10 rules on how to create great GRAPHICS in online learning 
10 sound pieces of advice on use of AUDIO in onlinelearning 
10 ways based on research to use VIDEO in online learning
10 ideas on use of much maligned TALKING HEAD videos in online learning

This started with a simple observation that I'm seeing, over and over again, the same mistakes being make on screen, with online learning. I hope you find them useful.

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Thursday, October 08, 2015

10 similarities between Higher Education and the Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation?

Whatever you may think of Peter Thiel, he’s smart. I don’t just mean business smart but intellectually. PayPal entrepreneur, first investor in Facebook, predictor of the financial crisis and so on… impressive CV. Sure he’s an extreme libertarian, with some extreme views, but we need people who pop our conventional bubbles. So, when I heard him utter the following in an interview, it hung around in my head, until I was compelled to expand on it….
Here’s the phrase, ‘Higher Education is like the Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation’. That’s a damn interesting observation. Illich drew parallels between schools and the church in Deschooling Society but Thiel captures both a diagnosis and treatment in this one phrase. He’s talking Reformation.
1. Costs
What Thiel went on to explain, was that like the Catholic Church, HE had turned into a global, institutionalised phenomenon that demanded increasingly large sums of money from people, for an experience that is much the same year after year. The cost of indulgences as well as the transfer of productive wealth into the non-productive church, was a major catalyst for the Reformation. People were literally becoming indebted to the level of indenture to the church. This was impoverishing the populace while enriching the institutions. $1.2 trillion of student debt in the US. and similar problems arising in Europe? Even the rich, were handing over huge sums, not to charity but to the Church. This is reminiscent of hedge-fund manager Paulson, who recently wrote a cheque for over $400 million to Harvard. This is buying personal prestige (used to be salvation), not in any way moral progress.
2. Promises
The insidious side of the Catholic Church was the threat, that if you didn’t pay up, you were damned. This same powerful idea has been nurtured by University-educated politicians and HE lobbyists. If you don’t get a Degree, you’re damned as a failure. They perpetuate the myth, that if you don’t go to University, you’ll go to some sort of economic hell, never being admitted to the heaven that is gainful employment.
3. Monastic campuses
Like the enormous building projects by the Catholic Church, Universities are spending untold sums of money on monumental buildings. The occupancy rate of their existing property is already ridiculously low, as it was and is with churches, yet the capital budgets keep on rising. It would be more accurate to say, that like the Catholic Church, campuses have become huge, self-sufficient, monastic communities, almost towns within cities. In some cities they almost overwhelm everything else. With University Rankings they also have their Cathedrals; Ivy League in the US, Oxbridge in the UK.
4. Teaching as preaching
The dominant pedagogy is still the lecture, basically a sermon to a compliant audience. There’s a lectern, a lecture, designed for the one-way transmission of knowledge, surely as far from contemporary needs as one can imagine. Stuck with a Medieval pedagogy, founded, through necessity in an age when there were no books, the dominance of the lecture lives on as a shameful, religious, pedagogic fossil.
5. Crisis of relevance
We seem to have reached a position where HE has drifted in terms of relevance, whether it is the degrees offered, the way they are taught or the exaggerated promises. It seems to have lost its way a little, just like the Church in teh 16th century. Rather than serve our needs it often seems to be serving its own needs.
6. Scriptoria
HEs increasing distance from practical skills, unless they involve high salaries (medicine, vets, engineering, law, architecture…) has turned them into seminaries, with the academic priesthood writing ever more obscure manuscripts for smaller and smaller audiences. The scriptoria and libraries are being flooded by manuscripts, most of which are read only by the authors and reviewers. It has become increasingly scholastic, moving in decreasing circles of relevance.
7. Undue political influence
We have politicians who almost universally went to University, leaders who largely went to just two Universities and many Ministers who did one particular course at Oxford, PPE, a medieval hangover (replacement for Classics). Maybe the idea of a trained Priesthood for politics isn’t too far-fetched.
8. Academic dominance
Like the scholastic age (the Dark Ages) this has also led to the decimation, in some economies, of vocational education, which they are desperately trying to revive. As HE sucks the life out of vocational learning, we find ourselves in Europe with HE heavy economies struggling, while the German, Austrian and Swiss economies thrive. Hold on – isn’t that where the Reformation hit originated and spread from? Luther, Calvin, Knox….
9. Calendar
Off for Christmas? Off for Easter? The University calendar is punctuated by holidays, largely determined by religious and agricultural concerns. The Michaelmas terms starts on the feast day of St Michael, the start of the academic year.
10. Anti-technology
The Catholic Church was none too pleased when the printing revolution produced Bibles in local languages and thinkers who questioned their authority. They found themselves losing control of knowledge; it’s censorship, means of creation, production and distribution. That’s because the Reformation was, in part, amplified and accelerated by a technology revolution – printing.
The Church, which taught in Latin, kept their power by excluding people from reading in their own languages, suddenly found that people were not only reading scripture in their own languages but also writing and challenging the orthodoxy. The Enlightenment came fast on its heels. Now we have a technological revolution that is no less Copernican, the internet, which democratises, decentralises and disintermediates the learning game. I expect this revolution to have a similar effect on HE, driving access to knowledge and learning through a new means of creation, production and distribution. Rather than accepting increasing costs, we should demand lower costs, better access, and a future where education is not seen as built on scarcity and elastic but on scale and abundance. One beneficial effect and almost immediate effect of the reformation was a push for universal education and access. That stuck. This, in our modern age, is what we need in tertiary education. What I’m arguing for is not the extinction of HE but a Reformation. The Reformation did not destroy Christianity and its ethos. It was strengthened by shedding its obsession with money, indulgences, outdated processes, hierarchy, priesthoods and elitism. In fact, the Reformation led to the rapid expansion of our Universities and a change in their character, awy from religious centres towards more secular, intellectual environments. We need something similar today - a rethink about their purpose, processes, pedagogy and payment.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Devlearn – Leaving Las Vegas

Never been to DevLearn but what the hell, we took the opportunity to head out early to Vegas, hire a car and set off on a 2000 mile road trip across Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Two weeks later we arrived back in Vegas, with a car coated in bumper bugs and sublime images seared into our heads.

I’m a fan of the SW US but not a fan of Vegas. You can walk from the Pyramid of Luxor (even though the pyramids are hundreds of miles away in Cairo), through Caesar’s Palace (where a statue of Caesar stands among a legion of slot machines), shop in the Appian Way Shops, then into a tacky, medieval England to gamble among the knights at Excalibur, on to Renaissance Venice (where a gondola waits to paddle you through canals in a desert state that is suffering a drought). You may even pop into Paris on the way home. It purports to mimic European culture but it mocks it. Vegas is as tacky as a piece of used flypaper. 
Anyway – I was in the MGM Grand for a conference, really a small city full of slot machines (Vegas is not really a high-roller, gambling city - it's mostly slots) and a few Chinese folk who were at the card tables when I went to breakfast, after all-nighters. Our room was at the end of a corridor so long, we couldn't see the end. I'm OK with hedonism but this was ugly.
So, what of the conference? Overall DevLearn is much more rootsy than say, the overly self-promotional Masie Show, down in Florida. It’s practitioners, who work in real organisations do real work for real people. So you get some great, grounded sessions, packed full of tips about how to do things better. On the other hand, some of the bigger thinking can get a little lost. That’s OK. We have a surfeit of big thinking at conferences, often from people who have never really built, run or led anything. I’m tired of hearing about ‘Leadership’ from people who have never ‘led’ anything, other than a course on ‘Leadership’. It was refreshing to be among some realists.
The good stuff….
First reflection: I had a great three days at this meeting. I met (for the first time) some people I’ve long admired – Clark Quinn, Alison Rossett, Will Thalheimer, Mark Britz, Cammy Bean and so on.  It was good to have some in-depth conversations with people who have a track record and some depth in their experience and insights.
Then there were the excellent sessions where I gleaned lots of practical advice from expert practitioners. To take just one example, I learnt tons in the session on running Webinars. In one sense there was an abundance of good sessions, so many that it was difficult to choose.
As usual, most of the interesting stuff took place off-piste.  I gave three sessions, all of which I found easy to deliver, as they were packed with enthusiastic and informed participants, so I'd like to thank the DevLearn folks for allowing me to speak. The early morning ‘Buzz’ sessions were debates, with no PPT slides – these I loved and the one I ran on AI was full of lively and knowledgeable folk who made time fly.
Futurists are so last year....
But let me come back to the ‘big ideas’ issue. One expects keynotes to provide some new, insightful thinking. Sorry, I didn’t feel or get it. A guy called David Pogue did a second-rate Jim Carey act. His ‘look at these wacky things on the internet’ shtick is becoming a predictable routine. Kids can play the recorder on their iPhone! No they don’t. Only a 50 year old who bills himself as a ‘futurist’ thinks that kids take this stuff seriously. To be fair, I didn’t know about the DickFit, a ring that tracks your sex life. That was the only thing I learnt from that session. I’ve begun to tire of ‘futurists’ – they all seem to be relics from the past.
Not one to give up, I attended the next keynote, an enthusiastic guy called Adam Savage. I had never heard of him, but he’s a TV presenter in the US and hosts a show called Mythbusters. In over an hour the only thing he said that was remotely interesting (unwittingly), was a quote from Wolfgang Pauli, who used the phrase "not even wrong" to describe an argument that claims to be significant but is, in fact, banal. I say ‘unwittingly, as this guy tried to claim that art and science were really the same thing, as both were really (and here comes his big insight) – storytelling. The problem is that the hapless Adam knew nothing about science or art. It was trite, both reductionist and banal. That's bad.
My own view is that these conferences need outsiders who can talk knowledgeably about learning and not just about observing their kids or delivering a thinly disguised autobiography. I want some real relevance.
Hat’s off to the DevLearn team…
But that was only two things out of many. What makes this conference unique is that it’s run by enthusiasts who are also experts. They do it on a shoestring and do it damn well. Sure I had a few beefs, like the keynotes and the boorish E-learning Brothers, who hollered their way in orange tee-shirts through all three days, as if they were on a stag party, making it impossible for people to hear the speakers on the side stages. On the other hand, I enjoyed talking to the developers, who were pushing the limits on adaptive learning, the woman who works in compliance who explained to me, patiently, how the compliance training she had to deliver was an illusory evil that deliberately ignored the very idea of ethical behaviour, compliant only to the idea that these things are a regulatory nuisance and don’t really matter. I enjoyed seeing some good British people out there selling their wares – Ben Betts, the Totara guys, the Learning Pool crew (who wowed their audience with their open source authoring tool ADAPT), the lovely Laura Overton. Lisa Minogue-White, Colin Welch from Brightwave and Julian Stodd, who gave us a running online commentary on the dodgy bars of Vegas. In the end, it’s all about the people.
Leaving Vegas

On reflection, I'd recommend this show for folk who want to learn about making this stuff. It's easy to point to weaknesses but I'd change tack on the keynotes, appeal to a more international audience, have a big debate around some key issue and make sure that the stages in the exhibition area were more functional. One last note - I’m writing this on a Virgin Atlantic 747. Foiled by their labyrinthine online check-in process. I tweeted my frustration and within 30 secs got a Tweet in reply confirming my seat allocation. It made me glad that I’m in the tech business. It’s so damn weird and unpredictable.

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Saturday, September 19, 2015

10 uncomfortable truths about the con that is University rankings

Universities claim to be above the lowly business of commerce but still willingly contribute to the petty hit parades in the University league table season. It demeans the sector. They search for whatever scraps they can find by selecting data from one ranking table or another. Why? For money. Worst of all, for the people that pay, whether its taxpayers, parents, national or international students, they are largely a con.
1. Bait and switch
The sector loves to take the high moral ground on keeping managerialism out of education, then use the slimiest form of managerial marketing, ranking tables, to promote their wares. Aimed firmly at parents and students, they bait and switch. The hook is baited with data on research and facilities, then the message switched to make it look like the teaching experience you’ll pay for, when in fact, the rankings are about measures that have little to do with teaching. That is the bait and switch con.
2. Teaching ignored
They may SAY they take teaching into account but they don’t. They often claim to have ‘measures’ on teaching, but actually draw their data from proxies, such as employment and research activity and use nothing but indirect measures to measure teaching. The Times rankings are a case in point. They claim that their ranking scores include teaching. In fact, only 30% is based on teaching but they use NO direct metrics. The proxies include student/staff ratios (which is skewed by how much research is done) and, even more absurdly, the ratio of PhDs to BAs. It is therefore, a self-fulfilling table, where the elite Universities are bound to rise to the top. There is little direct measurement of face-to face time, lecture attendance or student satisfaction. In some cases it’s laughable, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out, with Faculty salary, levels of degree in Faculty and proportion of faculty who are full time, being taken as proxies for quality of teaching. It’s like having a Premier League table based on the performance of the backroom staff and not the real games and players.
3. False precision
Up one place in the rankings – yippee! Down two places – time to worry. Yet the idea that these rankings are in any way precise is silly. They’re a mish-mash of misleading data, under vague (even misleading) categories and often watered with a heavy dose of opinion. In any case, they’re always changing the criteria for ranking, so year-on-year comparisons are often useless. This shows itself in the huge disparities between the different ranking systems. The LSE is 3rd in The Sunday Times rankings but 328th in the US News & World Report Rankings, 71st in the QS Rankings and 34th in the THE Rankings). Other universities like Manchester and KCL do badly in British rankings but well in international tables. This gives ample room for cherry picking but is poof enough that the way the rankings are calculated is seriously flawed.
4. Apples and oranges
They don’t compare like with like. In Edinburgh, where I come from, we have four Universities; Napier, Heriot-Watt, Edinburgh and Queen Margaret. You couldn’t get four more diverse institutions in terms of what they teach and their history. In 2012 Edinburgh were in top five for research but came stone-cold last in the teaching survey. That same year, Heriot Watt came top in Scotland and 4th in UK on Student experience but way, way down in the rankings. In that same year, more than a third of the Russell Group Universities found themselves in the bottom 40 of 125 institutions (2012) on teaching. These comparisons are truly odious.
5. Skews spending
What is sad, even morally wrong, is they they really do influence strategy and spending. Ranking status is often stated explicitly in their goals. In effect, as teaching doesn’t really get measured, except through false proxies, it leads to spending on everything but good teaching – physical facilities, research and so on. This direct causal effect on behaviour also leads to overspending, as it’s a runaway train, where everyone tries to outdo everyone else. There is no incentive to save money and become more efficient, only to spend more. Weirdly, there’s rarely any accounting for students costs in calculating the rankings. Shouldn’t a University that costs a lot less get ranked higher than one that does not? It would appear that prejudice trumps economics. This is a topsy-turvy world, where being more expensive is an intrinsic good.
6. Gaming the system
It’s not just spending that’s skewed by rankings, they also skew behaviour and priorities. Universities are far from being free from the rat race, they just have some very smart rats. In practice, this means that they are good at gaming the system. What are the criteria and weightings for ranking? OK, those are this year’s targets. More facilities, let’s get them built.
7. Self-fulfilling prophecy
The more you spend, the higher your ranking. So the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. The separation, in terms of research grants between the handful at the top and the rest is huge. Naturally, this leads to a separation of the so-called cream from the so-called milk. In that sense it’s a deterministic system, where the top remain at the top and the rest scrabble around for the scraps.
8. Agendas
What’s more, the different tables often have uncomfortable relationships with newspapers. And let’s not imagine that, given the nature of newspaper ownership in this country, they don’t have agendas. The Complete University Guide has had relationships with The Telegraph, Times and Independent. They keep falling out. The Sunday Times has its Good University Guide. The Guardian has yet another. These tables sell newspapers, that’s the real driver.
10. Old boys club
Reputation scores feature in lots of the rankings. You go out and ask people what they think; academics, publishers, employers etc. Of course, given that most of the people asked are from the highly ranked Universities, there’s an obvious  skew in the data.
10. Status anxiety
What is their real effect on parents and students? Nothing but an irrational race They induce ridiculous amounts of status anxiety. Parents and kids are being encouraged to play a game which is already gamed and get stressed over data that encourages distasteful behaviour.

I haven’t even begun to tackle the issue of cheating, being economical with the truth or fiddling around with the submissions. There are examples of straight up cheating, and as there’s no real quality control, it’s likely to be far more common than reported. In truth, no one really knows what the ideal criteria for ranking should be, as it’s a set of competing ideological choices – accessibility, teaching, research, graduation rates? And with what weightings? That’s why the different rankings have these huge disparities. We need, like Reed University in the US, to refuse to hand in the assessments. If the game is being gamed, don’t play the game.

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