Tuesday, July 28, 2009

ThoughtWorks Offshore Portal goes Live!

The ThoughtWorks Offshore Portal is up and running. If you're passionate about improving execution of your IT organization, please talk to us.

ThoughtWorks is a global provider of IT services. We deliver custom applications, no-nonsense consulting, help organizations drive agility and create software. By hiring exceptional people, we can solve our clients' biggest and most pressing problems. All of our services are offered both on and offshore, and are delivered with pride and passion.

Please visit Thoughtworks.com to know more about us. If you want to know about our products, please visit ThoughtWorks Studios.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Screencasting - A simple way to create bite-sized learning

In the past, we've limited screencasts to product demos, software application training and how-to's. Don McAllister's ScreenCastsOnline and the ever popular ScreencastCentral are testimony to how much we've propagated the use of screencasts for systems training. For those new to screencasting, here's a screencast about screencasts!

I believe screencasting software can easily be used for slide-casts, and short snappy video based training.

Why Screencasts work

As we move further into the information age, screencasts are just the thing to create learning in a short space of time. You don't need too many tools to create this kind of training and anyone that has reasonable voice recording skills can speak into a mike and provide narration while recording a screen. We're all hard-wired to movies and the fact that a screencast is a movie of what's playing on your screen, makes it all the more appealing.

What can go into this movie then? Well, it could be anything. It could be a screen recording of how to use a tool. It could be a presentation that you want to run for your audience. It could be a series of media, that you sequence for your learners. In short, anything that can play on your screen, can be a screencast. As you can already imagine, this gives you a lot of power. I particularly like presentation-casts, where you can run a presentation on your screen and provide it a voice over and perhaps a video of yourself! Its perhaps the next best thing to delivering the presentation in person. Here's an example of what I'm talking about.

Here's another example of some fairly detailed training that you can do at extremely low cost and in absolutely no time, with Screencasting software.

What makes a good screencast?

Marshall Kirkpatrick's written a great article about the best screencasters around - so hopefully you can draw some inspiration from them. For me, I've realised that the screencasts that usually work very well are:
  • Keep 'em short: Unless you're the absolute guru about something, its unlikely you'll hold people's attention for very long with a screencast. The default length of a screencast should be no more than 10 minutes. Of course, there are exceptions and Don McAllister is a great example. Don's screencasts are usually quite long, but he obviously has a great narrative style and that keeps his audience engrossed for a long time. Most of us are not a Don in all likelihood, so the 10 minute rule should stand most of us in good stead.
  • Stay conversational: If you look at some of the best screencasters around, they stay conversational and speak naturally. This is very important - Cammy say's so!
  • Spend some pre-production time: Just like any other elearning, its important that you know what to say, so scripting and storyboarding are key to getting your story right. If you're doing presentations, then all good presentation wisdom still applies. Read Presentation Zen and Slideology for presentation best practices.
  • Find a good place to host your screencast: If you have a corporate YouTube, then that's fabulous, alternatively you could try the free YouTube, Metacafe, ScreencastCentral, Blip, Vimeo. If you're constrained to host your videos internally, find a good web framework to support your screencasts. Moodle, Drupal, Joomla and Dokeos all have good video playback extensions, so this shouldn't be a problem if you're using open-source software.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Agile Elearning Design Manual - Why Synchronous Learning makes so much sense today

At the very outset, let me apologise for being late on this post. My dog went through surgery this weekend, my wife's had exams and life's been incredibly hectic as a consequence.


As I wrote earlier, if you're a service provider, then people matter most in your business. I've worked forever in the services industry and as an in-house consultant, I've realised that people like working with other people. Much as we may deny it, the experience of interacting with each other in a collaborative environment is special. That's the reason social media has taken off in this age.

That said, its not enough as an in-house trainer to set up a couple of elearning modules, forums, wikis, chat rooms, etc and believe that everyone will participate. Yes, you could make courses mandatory and ensure people go through them or nail them in their annual performance reviews if they don't. That said, we know that punitive measures are never good for learning.

On the other hand, its unrealistic to assume that people will individually arrive at an unknown course page, take the course, participate in discussion, contribute to a wiki, rant in a chat room etc. We also know that with companies getting more and more global and the focus towards revenue generating work increasing everyday, its impossible to get people into one physical location at the same time. So what's the solution?

Part of making learners pull learning is evangelism. As learning professionals we need to find mechanisms to connect people, get them excited about what we're trying to teach and set them off on collective goals. The days of making people go through a 5 hour elearning module from a CD-ROM are behind us. People want to be in an environment with other people; ask questions, argue, find buddies. This is where Synchronous Learning (a.k.a Virtual Classrooms) play a part.

Introducing Synchronous Learning

The eLearning Guild defines synchronous learning as "The use of technology to enable a collection of people to learn the same things at the same time while not being in the same physical location, usually facilitated by an instructor or instructors." This is definitely not something new and the tools for this have existed for quite sometime. Its only recently that synchronous learning has become a buzzword in online learning circles.

The tools range from the ever popular Webex, to the reasonably priced Adobe Connect Pro to the free and open source DimDim. The entry barrier into the domain of virtual classrooms is almost nil. If you're a techie want to experience synchronous learning, join one of our ThoughtWorks Masterclasses. If you're a learning professional, I strongly recommend joining one of the eLearning Guild online forums to experience how powerful the virtual classroom experience is.

The anatomy of a virtual classroom

Most virtual classroom features are pretty standard. What you see above is your typical web meeting software. On the side usually is a participant list and a chat area which you can use to communicate with specific participants, the presenters or everybody. There's the presentation area which carries the visuals for the session and often there are polls which simulate the QnA that would usually happen in a classroom environment.

This however isn't the only kind of synchronous learning environment you'll see. With the advent of tools like Second Life, your online learning environment could be anything you want - a coal mine, a hospital, an IT firm. You can model the environment in which you expect learners to apply their learning, via Second Life. If you have the money and the time to build a virtual world, then why not?

How to roll Synchronous Learning into your elearning courses

For people to participate in social events, someone needs to facilitate. That person is perhaps you or a subject matter expert. I recommend that if you're introducing a new capability in your organization, you kick off people's learning with an introductory webinar. Follow that up with a mix of elearning and relevant social media, consolidate people's experience in a follow up webinar and keep repeating the cycle until you've reached satisfactory results. When you feel you've achieved your goal, you can conclude the learning campaign with a conclusive webinar which seals in the learnings from the entire exercise. This approach helps you chunk out learning and that in turn helps you treat learning as a process and not an event.

Virtual classroom best practices

As with any tool, the reason for success is not necessarily the tool itself, but the way we use it. There are successful synchronous learning implementations and there are unsuccessful ones. Here are a few things I feel contribute to the success of a virtual classroom session.

Speaking Coaches/ Event Hosts

An event host/ speaking coach for web training is often a vital cog in the presenter's preparation and eventual delivery. Ideally this person should have experience with the platform you're using, and should understand the nuances of engaging the audience in such an environment. Often the event host will coach the speaker around their materials, set them up on the platform, do a quick dry run with them, introduce participants to the speaker, set the tone for proceedings and jump in anytime there's a hiccup. The coach sets the speaker up for success!

Familiarize participants with the environment

Synchronous learning isn't new, but a lot of people are new to it. Its important that either the coach or the speaker familiarizes participants with the environment and lets them know how to participate effectively. The failure of most learning environments, virtual or not is because we assume that participants are comfortable with what we've set up.

Use polls and live chat

I find these to be the most powerful tools in the synchronous learning arsenal. The reason for synchronous learning is to make people connect. By encourage them to "chat it up" while you're talking, ensures that people are not just sharing perspectives, but also building connections. These connections help set people up for using the social media associated with your course. More importantly, it helps the presenter know exactly how the audience feels at any given time. Polls too, are a great way of checking background knowledge, understanding and reactions, so use them well.

Post Webinar Learning Opportunities

As I mentioned earlier, learning is a process. The webinar is not the end of the story - its only the beginning. If you've spiked people's interest sufficiently, it'll be quite a dampener if they don't have anything to do with the new found knowledge. Again, what you do between two webinars depends totally on the topic, but think field assignments, online forums, chat rooms, wikis, databases, microblogs, blogs -- the list is endless. If people do things between two webinars then your synchronous learning sessions gain momentum and people learn from each other. Be sure though, to state very clearly what you expect people to do between the two events.

Package materials for Online Delivery

Think effective presentation skills. I strongly recommend Presentation Zen and Slideology as must reads for all online presenters. If you're stuck with loads to do in limited time, please read my blogpost on Rapid Instructional Design with Powerpoint. Remember your slides are only a tool. The real presentation is you! So do what you need to, so that you can put up a great performance.

Short and Often

As with everything online, people have short attention spans. If you have 2 hours of content to cover online, then you MUST break it out. A rule of thumb I've discovered, is to ensure that no webinar should be any more than 45 minutes, with 15 minutes for QnA and a quick summary. Remember, the virtual classroom isn't the only place to deliver your learning. Its a place to excite people, to get them together and to get them connected. Traditional elearning wisdom can still augment the virtual classroom, as can social media. Bring in variety to keep people interested and ensure that you follow up on people's learning.

This is the last of my posts in The Agile Elearning Design Manual series. How did you find this series of posts? Please comment or write to me to let me know. Here's the complete set of previous posts in this series.
Problems with existing Approaches
Agile Re-explained
Think Small (Iterations, Action Maps, Storyboards, and Mini-Modules
Iterations huh?
Of Project Spaces and Project Managers
The Role of Social Media

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Agile Elearning Design Manual - The role of Social Media

I went out with my students today to watch Transformers - Revenge of the Fallen. The movie, for me was an absolute disaster. Visually and story-wise, there was way too much going on and I realized very soon that the only thing I was really focussing on, was Megan Fox. It made me think of the way I've seen a lot of elearning in past years and in recent days. Designers seem to be really keen to do everything they possibly can, inside flash-based-elearning. This made perfect sense about 5 years back, when we didn't really have as many online, interactive learning methods. We as designers had to make a compromise and place all learning into a single learning object.

How people learn

While the compromise made sense, in a way this was fundamentally different from how people learn. Think of learning how to play golf, for example. If you were trying to learn the sport, you wouldn't really read every golf coaching book in the world before you played your first stroke! People learn iteratively. You learn the basic rules, you then try your hand and end up being absolutely rubbish, you then get some help from someone with experience, maybe find partners to play with, and over a series of events, you start to play the game well. Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers, says that the people who become really good at something put in 10,000 hours of practice. We can't control all of this within one elearning module! One of the most insightful blog-posts I've read in the recent past happens to this post from Tom Kulhmann. Tom is spot on when he says that learning is a process and not an event! I followed up Tom's post with a post about why customers like a "Rapid" approach. In short, people learn over time and its unrealistic to believe that people will learn in one go, by going through your two hour, flash-based elearning module. Given that learning is a continuous process you need to support that with different activities and resources over time.

"Being a Leader"" vs "Being a King"

I'm a great fan of Seth Godin's writing and I recommend his blog to any professional of the 21st century. Seth often bashes the "TV-Industrial" complex, where we come up with a good idea and PUSH, by interrupting people with advertisements after advertisements. The myth that drives this complex is, "If you have enough money to sell a product, then spend it on creating great advertisements and push it to people". Traditionally, the elearning fraternity has suffered from this mindset too - only in a different way. We believed that by getting management to invest a lot of money in a $50000 elearning course (with lots of fancy stuff), getting them to make it mandatory, and making people pass an assessment at the end, we were making people learn. Seth goes on to say that in this model, you're playing King, by telling people what to do and by controlling how they do it. At the end of the day, the success of your product (in this case elearning), depends on how much you push it!

Seth proposes the model of tribes where you play the Leader and give people a reason to do something. A reason to connect and a reason to learn. Blocking course navigation, making a course mandatory is PUSH. Building options for people to pick what they really want to learn, creating opportunities for them to connect and share their thoughts with others, facilitating that connection and thereby spreading the idea and learning virus - that's leadership. That's creating a tribe!

Our times have changed

Things have changed today, and how! If you change the game in the market, someone else will. This means that industry practices and job skills are changing every day. As one of the most innovative firms in the business, ThoughtWorks is constantly finding new ways to create value for the customer. It takes just one look at ThoughtBlogs, to know how many different ways we do the same thing, in order to bring continuing benefits to our clients.

In a situation like this, your learning content could change every few months! With a $50,000 bespoke flash course, you can get yourself really stuck when you want to evolve and enhance your elearning. Its also useful to ask yourself if its really meaningful to spend that kind of money on a course that could be out of date the day its released!

Socio-technically too, the times have changed. Mobile devices are becoming extremely popular and interfaces are becoming smaller and smaller, though the size of our fingers remains just the same. What's the future of mobile learning? I definitely don't see a realistic future of hour long, flash based courses on the mobile, because people just don't have the time and because small interfaces just don't support that kind of learning! Which is the second point. A 24 hour day is increasingly becoming too short for the number of things we have to fit into it. People have limited time on long online courses - in many cases its easier to learn on-the-job, from colleagues that have experience. A coffee table conversation generates great insights as does a search on Google or Yahoo! Answers. People want to make the most of their time. They need answers on how to do their job better. Philosophy and theory have started hitting an immune section of our brains!

The rise of social media

A quick Google Trends comparision across elearning and social media sees the rise of social media traffic in recent years. And that isn't surprising, considering how people spend so much of their time on the web! Jane Hart has written and spoken extensively about the importance of bringing social media into the workplace. As Learning and Development professionals, how do you supplement your elearning modules with social media? Have you considered a Facebook group or a Ning community or a YouTube video or a collection of bookmarks on delicious or microblogging using Yammer or group brainstorming using Ideascale or Social QnA through Yahoo! Answers or synchronous learning using DimDim? Why does all interactivity need to happen within your elearning box? Is interactivity limited to clicking across a screen or does interactivity mean more about making people think and engage with the learning? If its the latter, then its perhaps a better idea to seed people's learning using short pieces of learning, and to consolidate and supplement it using social media interaction. While this gives you the power of social interaction and group think it takes away the pressure of having to do everything within your elearning tool. One of the big secrets to Agility is the use of Rapid Elearning and social media. How do you harness the potential of this simple, yet effective combination?

Try this at work

I have no doubt this will take some influencing and a huge amount of politicking, but if you can, try either of these at work:
  • Invite all the people you know in your firm, to form a corporate Yammer network. See if you can get people to start sharing ideas around work and answering each other's questions!
  • Aggregate feeds from all your company's bloggers. Try to see if you can use something simple like Drupal to showcase a "featured blogpost of the week"
  • Try a discussion forum or wiki with the topic you're teaching online.
  • Try a Ning network to evangelize a core competency in your firm.
I can't guarantee that any of these will work - putting a set of usable tools cant guarantee adoption. This said, you will perhaps gain a fair idea of what kind of social media will work in your firm. Hopefully that will kick off your social learning journey and my blogpost would have served its purpose.
How did you like this post? Please feel free to let me know. If you liked this post, you may just like some of these other, related posts:
The Agile Elearning Design Manual - Problems with existing Approaches
The Agile Elearning Design Manual - Agile Re-explained
The Agile Elearning Design Manual - Think Small (Iterations, Action Maps, Storyboards, and Mini-Modules
The Agile Elearning Design Manual - Iterations huh?
The Agile Elearning Design Manual-Of Project Spaces and Project Managers
Why "Rapid" is a word your clients will like.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Agile Elearning Design Manual - Of Project Spaces & Project Managers

Whether you're part of a consultancy or an in-house training outfit, you're providing a service to a customer your people should matter a great deal to you. A few years back, I read Guy Kawasaki's Art of the Start and Guy insists that product manufacturers and service providers should niche themselves. He explains the thought using a graph like the one you see above. We measure a product/ service by the value it provides to the customer and its uniqueness. A highly valuable but non-unique service competes only on price, because there are others providing it too. You're perhaps stupid if you provide a unique service and no one wants it. You're perhaps a dotcom if you're providing a non-unique service which no one wants. All this said, there's no arguing that your position is most enviable if you provide a service that's unique and highly valuable to the customer. As internal or market service providers, tools and methodologies don't make us unique, because others are only a step away from adopting them. What makes us unique are the people that deliver it.

A few years back, Martin Fowler our chief scientist wrote that People Matter Most in software development and one of the reasons he joined ThoughtWorks was because he saw ThoughtWorks as Roy - our founder's social experiment. In many ways, as a software delivery and technology consulting firm, what makes ThoughtWorks unique is the outstanding ability of ThoughtWorkers. Its a place I'm quite proud and privileged to be part of. As I've mentioned earlier, elearning development has got extremely commoditized and should really not be very different from software development. Its really important then, that we give people as much importance in elearning development as we do in software development.

Whether you run an elearning consultancy or are a training manager or a team member on an elearning development team, its important to think of how to empower people on your team. How much is your organization maximizing their ability? A lot of what I'm about to suggest in this article isn't necessarily a trivial change. Having said that, if you find value in implementing any of the suggestions I'm making, you may need to plan this change and transformation for the benefit of your team.

Growing Versatilists on the team

We saw in an earlier post, how there's very little overlap between the skills of different people on a traditional elearning team. I've revisited the current state of the skill map on most elearning teams I've seen in the recent past and right alongside, is what I think should be the minimum overlap of skills in the team. A Instructional writer/ designer should be able to do some testing and some building work; a builder should be able to do some writing, some testing and some graphics work and a graphic artist should understand the basics of building. Of course, any versatility beyond this helps. I'm a big advocate of Learning Generalists as against Specialists, so the more skilled a professional, the higher they rate in my book.

How environment affects versatility

The above floor layout will create a sense of deja-vu for those who've been in my position. This is a floor layout I observed first hand, four months back at an elearning firm. The seats I've pointed out are those of people on the same project. The graphic artist being a freelancer, doesn't even work on the same floor. I find it funny to think that people communicate using documents to subvert this kind of a layout. I can understand the limitations of forced distribution, but really that isn't even the case with most elearning teams. Its not hard to imagine why a lot of people stay specialists in just one trade. Its not surprising either, to understand why there are so many silos in some elearning outfits!

The waste of documentation inventory

The above picture represents the typical flow of work across silos. Notice the amount of documentation that gets created in this process. The learning consultant has a "consultanty" conversation with the customer to determine the "Instruction Strategy". This goes into a document that gets passed a few desks across to the Instructional Designer. The designer spends the next few weeks writing out a script, filling out matrices and creating more documentation to pass on to the builder. The builder on the other hand passes on graphics descriptions in a document to the graphic artist. The graphic artist sends out images based on his understanding of the document and if we're lucky then the back and forth isn't very long. The builder then passes on the completed module to a tester and the tester sends back documents with bug descriptions to the builder. If we're lucky then this back and forth isn't very long. All this is usually governed by a set of technical specifications documented by the Technical Consultant who sits nowhere near anyone doing this work!

Now I'm not trying to say that documentation is bad! What I'm trying to say is that documentation as a substitute for face to face communication is not ideal and is really a waste. The biggest waste in this process is the elearning script. Why do we need to write a script for 200 screens of elearning, when:
  • all that the builder can build in a day is say, 15 screens;
  • we should be showing the client training for the highest priority actions first;
  • we can simply explain most of these screens through face to face conversation;
  • an initial showcase of our work could render all of the scripting useless!

Simplify your work environment

A small, yet highly political change of the workplace can hugely simplify this approach. What if everyone sat on one table with no cubicles? People can choose seating that was convenient for the day -- depending on who they need to collaborate with. We can shout out ideas across the table since we're all within earshot. All of a sudden writing documents doesn't even seem like an option. Its so much easier to talk to the other person. Yes I understand that "Learning Consultants" and "Technical Consultants" can't always sit at the table because they have their fingers in many different projects. Its important to think of whether you need these roles in the first place. Given that your overall design is simple and modular, most projects can do without these overheads. If you do need someone like them though, they should be obliged to spend some time on a regular basis with each team.

De-managing your project - think "Collective Ownership"

I strongly believe that every group initiative needs a leader. I'm not so sure about layered management though. Its interesting to see how you can put a bunch of smart people together and see how they take charge of a situation once you allow them to self organize. This is a huge paradigm shift from the command and control structure that I've seen in some elearning outfits, but then I'm fast seeing other outfits that believe more in collaboration than coordination. There are a few management questions I still need to answer, so let me try my hand.

Managing Scheduling

Now if you noticed the project manager was doing a lot of scheduling work to get the right person to work on the project at the right time. This is no easy task -- almost equivalent to mastering the space and time continuum! Often, there's either a person waiting for work or work waiting for a person. This idle time is a waste in the process. A simple design up front, colocated-team-on-a-table approach takes away the scheduling overhead from the project manager, because every person downstream in the process pulls work from the person upstream. Which is to say:
  • We keep design simple, by using an action mapping approach;
  • We ask the customer to prioritize actions based on their perception of business value;
  • We (builders and designers) storyboard the most important action and activities first;
  • The builder and designer work to build the first activity together;
  • The graphic artist builds the visuals in collaboration with the builder;
  • The tester tests the first set of screens;
  • The customer looks through this set and signs off;
  • In the mean time, the process has already started another cycle with another activity

Try a Card Wall

The traditional project manager, who would be obsessed with a project plan can now create collective ownership in the team by using a Card Wall. A card wall is a simple visual representation of the work in progress for the current iteration. Depending on the different stages of work that each card goes through, you can construct the wall by making swim lanes for each stage. The progress of an individual card is indicated by its place on card. With a card wall, its quite easy to see where your bottlenecks are. For example, if you see a lot of cards in the "Waiting for Testing" lane, then it means that your testers perhaps need help in clearing out activities/screens waiting for testing.

On Agile teams, each morning the team meets for 15 minutes for a standup, describing what they did the previous day, what they're doing today and their blockers. This discussion happens in front of the card wall, so that issues can be pointed out in correlation to the work in progress. This empowers the team to find solutions to their own problems and generally creates a great problem solving culture in the team. With a colocated SME/ customer you can avoid creating reports as well (if they don't mind). The card wall is a snapshot of the work in progress for the team. If you need more convincing, read this post to see how such a lightweight tool makes a huge difference.Now I fully agree that this is difficult for a distributed team. I strongly recommend the use of a collaborative project management tool such as Mingle, to facilitate this kind of a process. I'll try to address that in a future post.

So, if the team is empowered to pick up work on their own, manage their workflow and solve their problems, what need do we have for a project manager? Here's where I feel the project manager could play a project leader. I've written earlier about what I believe to be the tenets of leadership. The project manager/ leader's time should get spent in coaching, mentoring, absorbing external pressures and providing help and guidance in removing team blockers. In time, the project manager builds these essential leadership skills and by helping to remove blockers for the team, can possibly emerge as the team's ultimate generalist.


How did you like this post? Please feel free to let me know. If you liked this post, you may just like some of these other, related posts:
The Agile Elearning Design Manual - Problems with existing Approaches
The Agile Elearning Design Manual - Agile Re-explained
The Agile Elearning Design Manual - Think Small (Iterations, Action Maps, Storyboards, and Mini-Modules
The Agile Elearning Design Manual - Iterations huh?
My Tenets of Leadership
From Training Specialist to Learning Generalist
Why your Training Team needs Versatilists
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