Motivated to learn?

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

I’ve seen a few posts recently commenting on motivating people to learn. The gist of the conversation went something like this – “Extrinsic motivation doesn’t work, intrinsic motivation is the only effective way people are encouraged to learn”. Seeing this set me thinking. Is it really an either/or issue? Polarised viewpoints tend to make me uneasy at the best of times as life is rarely lived in a world of absolutes, and it makes me particularly uncomfortable when it relates to something as personal as motivation..

Before going any further, let’s define what we’re talking about here. Intrinsic motivation is,

“based in people’s inherent tendency to be proactive, to interact with the world in an attempt to have an effect, and to feel a sense of accomplishment. Indeed, when people are at their healthiest, they are curious, eager to take on challenges, partial to novelty, engaged with interesting tasks or stimuli, and ready to learn. All of these are manifestations of intrinsic motivation” (

In other words, intrinsic motivation drives an individual to perform an activity for internal reasons that are personally satisfying.

Extrinsic motivation on the other hand can be described as,

“that which drives someone to perform an activity either to receive an external reward or to avoid an external punishment. An example of extrinsic motivation is when someone writes poems to sell them.” (

So, by that definition, extrinsic motivation could be almost anything – securing a job; earning a salary; improving one’s standard of living; advancing in a career etc.

But if, as the argument goes, extrinsic motivation doesn’t work, why do regulators set down CPD requirements whilst stating that professionals should be expected to be intrinsically motivated? Why do the majority of job postings on networks like LinkedIn ask for a Degree/professional qualification or some other product of formal education? Why do so many young people sign up for, and complete, tertiary education or apprenticeships?

Thinking about your own career/life, has all of your learning throughout your life/career been either completely extrinsically motivated or completely intrinsically motivated? Consider this: how often has your employer valued and actively supported learning you wanted to do simply because you wanted to do it – not because it was directly related to your job role or the needs of the organisation/business?

So, I come back to, is this really an either/or issue? I’d argue that it’s most likely to be context specific and subject to personal experiences and so on. How many of us as children wanted to go to school to learn? Or, wanted to go to university purely for the joy of learning as an end in itself?

I’m willing to hazard a guess that our motivation to engage in school or college/university was not intrinsic (at least not initially) but was motivated by extrinsic factors. I’m also willing to guess that a different times throughout our lives and careers in specific sets of circumstances we all, as learners, flit between being extrinsically motivated and being intrinsically motivated. So, I’d argue that motivation is best viewed as a spectrum with 100% extrinsic motivation at one end and 100% intrinsic motivation at the other and everything in between shading from one to the other.

Probably the most common expression of extrinsic motivation being used as a driver for learning and development the corporate training world is compliance training. in my experience, one of the more damaging consequences of an over emphasis on this is that it almost conditions learners to respond in a minimalistic way – they do only what needs to be done to “tick the box”.

“We ought to look at the damage caused when we create compliance training for legal purposes that unintentionally sends messages that the organisation is just covering its [back]” (Dr Will Thalheimer “The Learning Transfer Evaluation Model: Sending Messages to Enable Learning Effectiveness”, p.25)

However, there are strategies we can adopt to try and break leaners out of that pattern of behaviour. As L&D professionals, we can play a part in helping learners adapt and modify their range of responses and attitudes to learning. Saga Briggs’ post – “Ways to cultivate intrinsic motivation in students”, suggests a range of strategies to develop intrinsic motivation in learners (several of which we employ in the digital learning resources and services we’ve developed). None of the strategies she suggests offers a quick fix but, if you are prepared to see this as a long term goal and are able to stick to the plan, I believe there is much that can be achieved.

Over the past few years of implementing strategies like those suggested in Briggs’ article, we been able to achieve significant shifts in learners moving from learning what they are told to learn, to what they want to learn. We’ve gathered feedback from employers about witnessing these changes in their staff and from learners seeking out new learning challenges. But, they are still a (sizeable) minority.

During the COVID pandemic we saw a massive surge in use of our learning resources and services. One of the key themes we were able to identify from the learner data, was that there was a substantial portion of the audience who struggled with our reflective learning and assessment approach.

It was clear from their submissions that this could be further divided into those wanting to simply ‘tick the box’ (as they had become accustomed to elsewhere) and those who were unfamiliar with reflective learning and who needed support to make best use of our resources. We recognise that both groups are at different places on the extrinsic-intrinsic spectrum, so the question for us then became, “How can we move them along the spectrum and also support them to get more out of their learning?”. So, we are planning to increase the range of opportunities we provide in the area of learning to learn for our workforce – using strategies similar to those in Briggs’ article.

We recognise that we need to support a shift in attitude to learning. But, we also recognise that there are aspects of that that are beyond our sphere of influence. However, one of the key elements of our strategy which has had an impact in this is our focus on placing the learner in control of their learning: learner accounts on our key systems to give credit for learning and record, track and report on learning are owned by the individual learner – not their employer, college/university or us as the workforce regulator. This factor alone, has been key in achieving the shift mentioned above: from learning what you are required to learn, to learning what you want to learn.

We know we have a very long way to go, and also know that there will be a percentage of the workforce who may never be intrinsically motivated to learn, but at the very least we can aspire to recognise that there will be occasions when their position on the extrinsic-intrinsic motivation spectrum will fluctuate and support them to get more out their learning than simply ‘ticking the box’.

Learning in Lockdown

This past year in pandemic has brought many things to our lives, the majority of which have not been welcomed. We’ve all seen and experienced the impact of lockdown on our health and our families and I’m sure we are all keen to emerge from the other side of this experience.

Like everyone else involved in the technology enhanced learning world, the past year has seen an unprecedented increase in demand for our services. In my team, this meant all our usage and engagement stats shot off the charts and at times it felt like we were under siege. It would be natural to assume that engagement with our sector partners might also reduce. Not so, in fact if anything, it increased as stakeholder sought advice, guidance and support to move their own workforce development offering from the classroom to online.

So, in this situation, you’d expect that finding time and opportunity to continue your own professional development might suffer significantly. But, strangely the opposite has been true as the pandemic forced conference organisers to rethink and reset how they provided their services. Combined with the need to update, sense check and expand our knowledge and capabilities to deal with the changing reality around us, the opportunities to transfer new learning to practice have never been greater.

Our first big learning injection came via the Learning Technologies Summer Forum in June 2020. My whole team were able to attend and learn from this event organised and it provided us with a very timely boost to our own resources. So I’d like to say a huge thank you to Donald H Taylor and the team for providing such a positive example of providing learning online at scale.

Whilst a global lockdown made travel impossible, it did provide a golden opportunity for my team and I to “attend” the Learning Guild’s DevLearnDDX and Learning 2020 events online. I’ve been fortunate to attend and present at DevLearn in the past and know positive an experience that is. But, given the constraints of my organisation re international travel and funding, I could never have found a way for the whole team to attend DevLearn live. So, the pandemic and the ingenuity of David Kelly and the Learning Guild team, provided the perfect opportunity for me to enable my whole team to benefit from both the DevLearn and Learning 2020 experience.

These events provided so much learning. My personal (edited) highlights included,

  • ‘Text Message Learning: Research, Use Cases, and Best Practices’ (Michael Ioffe) – provided some useful insights in engaging hard to reach learners and in reinforcing learning,
  • ‘Machine Learning Basics for Learning Professionals’ (Almira Roldan) – this has informed some future functionality development for one of our services,
  • ‘How to Respond to Change and Re-skill with Continuous Learning & Development’ (Matthew Brown) – provided material re business recovery which I was able to adapt for an L&D audience new to online delivery,
  • ‘So, You’re Thinking About a Learning Experience Platform (LXP)’ (Becky Willis) & ‘Build a Learning Ecosystem with the Total Learning Architecture Approach’ (Janne Hietala) – provided useful evlueative material I could use with stakeholders looking to move learning online,
  • ‘Going Beyond Standard eLearning Tools: Exploring Custom HTML5 Development’ (Jeff Batt) – again useful in working with people new to online learning, encouraging them to think beyond LearnTech authoring tools,
  • ‘Easily Add Interactivity and xAPI Tracking on Video’ (Jeff Batt) – has provided a route map for us to xAPI enable our linear and interactive video to integrate with our MyLearning system.
  • ‘Is it Just Hype? A VR Case Study to Improve Empathy and Confidence’ (Cindy Plunkett) – provided great source material and references for our first VR video project,
  • ‘A Time to Skill: The Impact of 5G on Education and Work’ (Vidya Krishnan) – used to inform our team and organisation’s horizon scanning and future planning

So despite, or perhaps because of the massive increase in expectation from digital learning in the pandemic, my experience was that my own CPD become ever more important and I feel indebted to the organisations and teams who put together some fantastic, and practice focused online learning experiences to make that possible.

AR & VR in Social Services (Part 2)

Part 1 of this post covered some examples of VR and AR examples from the social services/human services and suggested that we need to broaden our thinking to move beyond the “usual suspects” of Industry, acute medicine and management training simulations.

In Part 2, I want to look at some potential applications of AR/VR tech in human services. I’m a bit of an ideas magpie and constantly look for ideas from any source. So, all of these ideas are inspired by existing applications in unrelated fields. I’ll also share some thoughts on the rapidly changing development tools landscape and on how we might see AR/VR tech going mainstream.

Potential Applications:

Ideas and inspiration can, and in my case, usually do, come from the most unexpected places. People who know me well, know that a trip around a furniture store is never, ever top of my ‘top ten things to do this weekend’ list. But, Ikea produced one of the first AR applications using Apple’s ARKit and it’s proved to have lasting appeal as (a) it meets a customer need (ie what will **** look like in my home?) and, (b) it’s straightforward to use.

My first thought when I saw it was, wouldn’t it be great if someone made a version of this to help services when they’re planning to install assistive technology (like stair lifts, bath/bed hoists etc) into people’s homes? Helping the professional, and the citizen to visualise the impact of adaptations to their home would certainly not only save time and money on installation and adaptation, but also help the user decide on the best option to meet their needs.

I then began to think about other scenarios where social service workers carry out assessments of peoples’ living environments. We have a series of eBooks focused on Dementia and in one of them there is a section on the impact of the living environment on dementia. One of the elements of this is an HTML-based interactive kitchen (click here to try it ) and it occurred to me that workers could benefit from an AR application whilst would do the same job, straight from their mobile phone or, even better use AR to scan a room and receive dynamic feedback on aspects of the decor/layout etc which could be altered to make the room more “dementia-friendly”. From there it’s easy to see how similar functionality and design patterns could be used to leverage AR in a ranges of related uses (eg assessments of living environments for physical impairment or visual impairment etc).

Navigation is often seen as a killer application for AR and numerous examples exist (eg Google Maps AR). But with the trend towards adding Ultra Wideband Radio capability to smartphones, indoor navigation becomes an viable application of AR. Imagine arriving at a large service facility (such as a hospital) and being able to easily find your way to where you need to go – without the stress!

The theme I’m rather clumsily trying to highlight here, is that the thoughtful application of these technologies can not only extend their reach, but can also remove much of the friction from common activities in human services.

The potential of AR as a training tool for practical care tasks is already in use in the sporting world. Both of my sons played ice hockey growing up and like most other athletes, found it difficult at times to interpret feedback on some of the improvements they could make, in terms of technique, as they were learning. Enter Coach’s Eye and other similar apps.

These apps allow the athlete to video themselves performing a physical task and have the trainer (who may not be present) to provide feedback on their performance and annotate the video to illustrate their feedback. This enables useable, clearly illustrated feedback which the athlete can then more easily apply.

In the world of social care, in residential and home care services, staff have to be trained to safely lift and/or move service users with impaired mobility. This is commonly referred to as moving and handling training. But, with time and service pressures (never mind the current restrictions on in-person training events due to the COVID-19 pandemic), attending such training is challenging to say the least – as is the ability to attend refresher events.

However, these sport focused apps provide us with a functionality template and design pattern which could easily be applied to the care scenario described above.

Moving away from specialist, domain-focused AR applications, at the time I was planning this presentation in 2019, I came across this AR application from iTRA in Western Australia – sort of augmented reality sticky notes:

Although this is focused on heavy industry/engineering, it made me reflect again on the CareStory app referenced in Part 1 of this post, and it struck me that this basic framework and design could be applied to any environment. I could see this being useful in a range of care settings when making sure information is passed along can be vital for the safety and well-being of staff and service users.

Finally, in the VR space, I wanted to highlight a project which has been over a year in planning and is just being launched, lead by Barrie Wilson with the support of Alicia Rogers from Scottish Social Services Council working alongside Dr Matthew Poyade and his team at the Glasgow School of Art’s School of Simulation and Visualisation (SimVis) – “BeMe”.

BeMe builds on the research findings outlined in Part 1 of this post regarding the power of VR to boost empathy in leaners, and will give learners the ability to step into the shoes of people receiving services in a range of situations (eg older person’s care; physical disability etc). The immersive VR experiences will be delivered via a smartphone app (housed in a passive headset) and the goal is to build empathy in staff and students new to the care sector and enhance their understanding of, and commitment to, user-centred practice.

Going Mainstream – development tools

Let’s turn our attention for moving AR & VR tech into the mainstream. As with all emerging technologies there are a several elements to moving something form the new/niche to the mainstream. A key first step is, being able to create useable applications of the technology at an affordable cost.

In common with most emerging technologies, VR and AR have gone through the growing pains of expensive tools requiring highly specialised skills to more openly accessible tools (in terms of cost and ease of use). Many of these services appear, shine bright, and disappear quickly (anyone remember Aurasma?).

Keeping up top date can be difficult but, lists like this one can help. Also, there are some development tools that have been around for a while (if you are creating marker based AR) – like Zappar  and Blippar. If VR is more you’re thing, then services like Viar360, may fit the bill. So experimenting with creating AR & VR applications is now much easier than it was a few years ago.

However, if you want to dive into something more serious, it’s always worthwhile paying attention to the big tech companies. When then commit significant resources to a new or emerging technology, it’s often a sign of building momentum.

If you are a MacOS/iOS user, Apple has developed free development tools for AR called Reality Composer. Reality Composer is intended to make it easy for you to create interactive augmented reality experiences with no prior 3D experience. and it works in conjunction with Apple’s tools and on all AR enabled iPhone and iPad devices.

The other big player in this area is the Adobe Corporation. They have ramped up their interest in AR and have developed the Aero development tools (on iOS and desktop PCs) which, when used alongside Photoshop and Adobe Dimension, can create sophisticated AR experiences.

Adobe are also working on exploiting the LiDAR scanners being introduced to smartphones to allow creatives to scan any object for use in Aero:

Adobe hasn’t neglected VR, including the capability to develop limited VR experiences (such as guided tours, etc) in Captivate 2019.

All of this investment provides an affordable and accessible entry point for L&D professionals and learning technologists to engage with and create AR & VR based learning experiences and should provide a platform for increasing the use of these technologies.

Going mainstream – delivery tech

But there is another key requirement for the tech to go mainstream – the delivery platforms. In the past few years, there’s no doubt that the AR capabilities built into smartphones at OS level via ARKit and ARCore have been a significant driver for the adoption of AR. But there are situations (especially in a learning and development environment) where having to use a handheld device can be a hindrance.

So I’d suggest we need to see a shift from handheld delivery to hands-free. The obvious solution is smart glasses. But something needs to be done about design! (can’t see myself being out in public wearing HoloLens, can you?)

Perhaps TV fiction will i help us get to where we need to go? After all, there are precedents,

Back in 2019, I was fascinated by the Hulu programme “The First” – not because of the plot (which was painfully dull), but because of their depiction of mainstream use of AR

If the tech companies can pull a design solution like that (even with a wireless tether to a smartphone), I think we might just see AR reach its tipping point for mass adoption.

A couple of final thoughts

Advances in mobile technology continue at a pace and we’ve seen previously expensive an cumbersome process become easier and easier to access and a hugely reduced cost. Even in highly specialised areas like motion capture, we’re seeing smartphone technology beginning to have an impact (eg Reallusion’s iPhone Face Mocap).

But finally, I just wanted to acknowledge that every example I’ve given across these two posts, has been visual in nature. What about people with visual impairments?

Thankfully this has not been overlooked. Augmented Reality is not solely a visual technology. AR audio is alive and well and has actually been with us for a long time (eg audio guided museum tours etc).

LookTel has made a a range of apps available over the past 10+ years to address the needs of people with visual impairments and in 2017 Microsoft released their SeeingAI app. According to Microsoft, the app was developed with, and tested by people with visual impairments around the world and uses AI technology + smartphone cameras to provide audio descriptions elements of the world around the user.

But, I think this is just the beginning. With the development of spacial audio in wireless ear buds, the inclusion of Ultra Wideband Radio and LiDAR sensors in newer smartphones, It seems to me we are not far away from situation where people with visual impairments will be able to scan any novel environment (with their AR smart glasses?) and have an audio description of that environment delivered via wireless ear buds in real time.

And that’s it for this post. I’ll be interested to see how quickly this dates …

AR & VR in Social Services (Part 1)

The origin of this post is from a presentation I gave at a Waracle ‘Tech Meet Up’ event in October last year (2019). The audience was from a range of professional and sectoral backgrounds and contexts and I wanted to highlight the wider potential of augmented reality and virtual reality – beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of engineering etc.

At the time, I thought about writing up the presentation, but somehow life always managed to get in the way. So, a year later and I’ve participated in a number of online sessions about AR & VR and it struck me that in many ways not a lot has changed. There are always new tools and tech, but the discourse still focuses on Industrial / medical / commercial applications with occasional detours into “soft-skills” (which usually turns out to be code for management training applications). So, I still firmly believe we need to look beyond these use cases, so I decided to revisit my notes for the presentation from October ’19 and write something down to hopefully start a new discussion on AR & VR. In part 1, I’ll look at some examples from the field in both AR & VR and in part 2, I’ll look at potential uses of the technology, development tools and taking the tech mainstream.

But, first of all, let’s talk terminology. There’s an ever expanding & changing alphabet soup of acronyms used to described this area of tech (AR, MR, XR, VR etc.), but I’m going to be lazy & use just two:

  • AR (Augmented Reality) – ie digital information (which the user may or may not be able to interact with) is presented to the user, overlaying views of the real world environment .
  • VR (Virtual Reality) – ie the user is immersed in a virtual environment, completely cut off from real world views and again, the user  may or may not be able to interact with the virtual environment.

Now, I realise that purists will be really upset with me in taking this approach, but my intention is to focus on experiences, potential solutions or enhancements to learning or service delivery and not really on the inner workings of the tech – they are just the means too an end, not an end in themselves.

VR Examples from the field

As I’ve suggested above, the discourse on VR applications for learning needs to broaden its scope. There are some outstanding learning applications already available and in use in human services across the world as I hope to illustrate here.

For example, Cindy Plunkett and the team from Baycrest Health Sciences developed a VR application to allow new staff to experience life from the viewpoint of someone living with dementia.

This experience was designed to give service providers insight into the challenges and feelings associated with living with dementia whilst also build empathy in the learner. A study by researchers at Stanford University (Asher, T., Ogle, E., Bailenson, J.N., & Herrera, F. (2018). Becoming homeless: a human experience. ACM SIGGRAPH 2018 Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality) placed learners in the experience of becoming homeless and measured the empathy of learners for people who’re homeless immediately after the experience. Learners using the VR experience scored very high on the assessment scale used. When they brought people back months later and re-ran the questionnaire, empathy levels were still very high for the group who’d had the VR experience, in fact the group’s results were still close to those recorded immediately after the experience. Whereas the scores for learners who’d read a written case study on the same topic alongside their VR colleagues, indicated that there was no retention of empathy at all in this group. To see more of the Stanford research in VR, see

In a related area, Hospice of Southern Maine and developer, Embodied Labs created a VR training solution that deals with end-of-life situations. Using VR, staff are able to take on the role of a cancer patient and experience the journey from receiving diagnosis to his final days. The goal of the experience to to help staff understand the process they’re supporting people through and build their confidence in having difficult end-of-life conversations with patients.

This solution was so effective, staff were often overwhelmed by the experience and roll-out was paused to ensure that counselling services were in place to help staff deal with the experience. (you can read the article here).

Just as there are situations in the realms of heavy industry, search & rescue and health & safety which, either ethically or for reasons of personal safety, are off-limits to learners, so to in human services. In this example, Dr Tarsem Cooner (Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the Department of Social Work and Social Care at the University of Birmingham, UK) and his colleagues developed a suite of VR apps for smartphones to enable social work students in England experience, first hand, an area of practice which they would not, as students, otherwise be able to access due to ethical and legal constraints – ie lead a child protection investigation.

One of the barriers to adopting these solutions has been the cost of the expensive hardware needed to access them. But, both Tarsem’s apps and the Baycrest app avoid this by making the solutions available via smartphones housed in passive headsets (like google cardboard etc).

The University of Birmingham Child Protection VR experience is just one example of a number of practice areas in social work and social care which would benefit from a VR learning experience for students and staff – the real challenge is securing the funding to develop them.

Beyond learning, VR is also being deployed in social services to enrich the lives of the people we support – particularly in the area of care for older people where VR is being used to allow people in residential facilities with reduced mobility to continue to “travel”, revisiting places of significance in their lives or even revisit their old home neighbourhoods. There are a number of such projects across the world as this story shows.

Beyond social and emotional support for people using social services, VR has been shown to be an effective tool for more clinical aspects of well being such as managing chronic pain. It’s not hard to see that we’re only scratching the surface of what might be possible.

The main barrier to the wider adoption of VR for both enhancing service delivery to the public and as a learning and development solution, in my opinion, is not necessarily the hardware requirements as shown by the examples above, but is more often securing the development funding needed to develop solutions.

AR Examples from the field

But of course, VR is only one of the solutions in this space. In fact arguably, despite its effectiveness as illustrated by the examples here, it faces the steeper of the uptake curves – mainly due to the need to wear a clumsy headset to experience it (to be simplistic about it). The other solution I want to look at is Augmented Reality (AR).

Once again there are some really good examples AR in human services (including two developed by my team), but strangely enough, despite there being lower barriers to entry (which I’ll return to later) these examples are fewer in number.

First up I’d like to draw attention to the work done by a UK inventor, Tom Finn, who found that placing coloured lines on the floor helped his father (who suffers from dementia) with his mobility, enabling him to walk more confidently again. This video illustrates tom’s work:

You can read more about Tom’s project here.

Returning to Baycrest Health Sciences, they worked with Canadian developer, Emersewell to create CareStory. The CareStory app uses QR codes on mobile devices to access just-in-time performance support content for carers. When carers scan the secure QR code outside the resident’s room, the resident profile page displays. This profile page has a quick fact page, personalised music and life history video uploaded by family & caregivers. The app can be updated, with new care preferences or care requirement changes and staff and family members can update (or be notified of) changes to the resident’s profile. This is an excellent example of taking a simple (often overlooked) technology and applying it to great effect. Although designed for residential settings, I can see the potential for wider use in the community if the app were made location aware and used that information rather than the QR code as the trigger.

Finally in this section, I’d like to draw attention to two AR products developed by my team: SafeMed and Learning About Skin Breakdown. Both are designed with the principles of Just-in-time learning/Workflow Learning in mind and are intended to be used by carers as they go about their work tasks.

SafeMed focuses on supporting care workers to safely support people with the administration of medication and is a companion app to a more ‘traditional’ online course on the same subject. Part of the carers’ duties is to fill in the service user’s Medication Administration Record (MAR) which can be quite complicated and is a stage in the process where errors can creep in. The SafeMed app has an AR function which, when activated, can guide the carer through the completion of the record and therefore minimise errors.

Learning about Skin Breakdown (pressure sores etc) is designed to help care workers/informal carers to spot the signs and symptoms of skin breakdown and how to manage the condition. The app uses AR to help carers to see where skin breakdown is likely to appear on a person.

Unlike VR, the route to adoption does not need to include the use of expensive or bulky equipment. The delivery platform is most likely already in your pocket as both Apple iOS (ARKit) and Google Android (ARcore) phones have AR frameworks baked in at OS level. Obviously, using a handheld device might not always be the optimum solution (as in the Dementia example at the beginning of this section), but with over a billion AR capable smartphones in use, the fact that users don’t have to invest in extra tech is a big plus point for adoption.

These are just a handful of examples and there are many other use cases for AR in human services and I intend to look at a few ideas in Part 2 of this blog post as well as look at the current state of play re development tools and how these technologies may go mainstream.

A few thoughts about DevLearn 2020

So after two very full weeks, DevLearn 2020/DevLearn DDX is over.

This was my third DevLearn experience. I’ve been fortunate to participate as a presenter at DevLearn twice, first of all in 2016, and again in 2017 and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. DevLearn always provides a compelling, full and very hectic learning agenda, offering hundreds of workshops and hands-on sessions across 3 days to thousands of delegates.

But, with the world in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I wondered how they would adjust the format and the experience to enable them to offer DevLearn experience online. Having had a couple of days to reflect on the experience, I think the Learning Guid team did a fantastic job.

It is easy to fall into the trap of comparing the digital experience of DevLearn DDX to the live, in-person event in Las Vegas, but I pretty convinced that that’s not the right way to look at it. DDX was a different experience. It was definitely DevLearn – but not as we know it. Now, to be clear, I make that distinction as a positive comment.

Yes, travelling somewhere different to go to a conference is nice and yes, it’s great to meet other delegates and form new connections with people in your field. But, there are downsides too – the last time I presented at DevLearn in 2017, it took me 30 hours to get there (due to flight issues/cancellations etc) and I arrived at the conference hotel 30 minutes before my presentation. And, even without flight problems, I took me 13 hours to fly home. As I said, at the live event there are hundreds of workshops over three days – but, there’s only one of you and that means, you have to make difficulty choices about what to attend – after all, you can’t be in two places at once!

So, whilst the shift from a live event to a virtual experience may have been a necessity more than a positive choice, I think there are some clear positives to take away from the experience.

1. Access: In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to gain permission and funding to travel to international conferences. For the last couple of years, it’s been impossible (unless you’re able and willing to self-fund – which I have done). With DDX, not only was I able to attend the event, my whole team were able to join me, which is a huge staff development benefit for staff and ultimately a gain for our employer.

2. Choice: No more difficult choices about what to attend. With almost everything being recorded as well as streamed live, delegates are able to access every workshop on demand. I can’t overstate how valuable that is to delegates and, for me and my team, we were able to recommend sessions to each other that we might otherwise have overlooked.

3. Engagement: If anything, I think the ability to be actively engaged in workshop sessions was easier than at the live event. In an in-person workshop, delegates are often passive recipients of what the presenter delivers (yes, I know we have Q&A options, but this can been difficult with 100 people in the room), whereas at DDX, we were able to interact, share and pose questions via chat making the whole experience so much more engaging.

There were of course elements which didn’t work quite as well as the in-person experience. The biggest loss for me was the opportunity for informal conversation, with other delegates, presenters, vendors at the Expo. Most of the connections I’ve made at DevLearn have come from chance conversations over coffee, or lunch. I’m not sure we’ve quite worked out how to do that virtually – yet!

So, to wrap up, I’d like to thank the Learning Guild team for an excellent (virtual) DevLearn experience. I think it was a huge success and, even when we are all able to gather at events again in future, please think about maintaining a parallel DDX experience – there were too many positives about this to discard once the necessity has passed.

#DevLearnDDX, #DevLearn20

The LMS is dead! What next?

A few days ago, I noticed this great post from Jane Hart (@C4LPT) on my twitter feed,

I have long felt that the LMS is a solution for yesterday’s challenges and I’m pretty sure more and more L&D professionals would say it’s time to move on and support learning wherever it takes place rather than expecting learners to come to one central location for all of their learning needs. Apart from anything else, if we are serious about informal and social learning, or about learning transfer (see Thallheimer’s Learning Transfer Evaluation Model), we really can’t expect one, central platform to do the job. When I commented on Jane’s post, I was understandably asked, “so what’s the proposal to organize and manage the elearning/video/training content instead?”.

From my viewpoint, the key is to think ecosystems not platforms. We should be encouraging learners to develop a self-managing mindset. Most importantly we need to realise that most learning doesn’t happen on the platforms we provide but “out in the wild”. I could’ve detailed why the LMS is no longer necessary, but this post on Modern Workplace Learning has that covered.

For me the LMS has had its day – it’s like training wheels on a bicycle: you use them to learn the basics and then discard them when you can cycle without them. In online learning terms, at a time when learners perhaps lacked the overall competence or capability to navigate around the web, the LMS was important to give people a safe/ constant environment to access material. Whether that is still relevant is up for debate.

Think Ecosystem, not Platform

What do I mean by ecosystem? This description from Dani Johnson and Priyanka Mehotra is  a pretty good working definition of a learning ecosystem:

“A learning tech ecosystem is more than the sum of total of the learning technologies. It encompasses technology that is bought specifically for learning, business technology that is adopted for employee development, and enabled technology that employees use in their personal lives for learning.” (Redthread Research October 2019)

The team I manage has been designing learning resources and services for years using the ecosystem model as the “infrastructure” for our work. We are a public body which regulates a large, geographically dispersed workforce and promotes their education and training. Our audience includes 2,500 employers and 205,000 paid staff (as well as 450,000+ informal carers, volunteers etc.). So, as an umbrella organisation, we are trying to provide solutions for a highly diverse workforce (in terms of job role/work focus, location, educational background, age gender etc.). Therefore, one centralised platform just doesn’t make sense. In our context, the ecosystem essential to our work. Johnson and Mehotra provide a very useful summary of the spectrum of approaches from centralised platforms to pure ecosystem approaches:

For my work, the focus is at the “Pure Ecosystem” end of the spectrum: We use public distribution channels as much as possible (eg Apple App store; GooglePlay; Apple Books; Spotify; Apple Podcasts; Vimeo etc.) as well as providing a curated portal to our range of learning resources and services. All provided free of charge on an open access basis to anyone who’s interested.

Given the diversity of the audience we’re trying to serve, the ecosystem approach is the only approach which makes sense. But, more important than the mechanics of the system,

“having a strong philosophy or strategy at the heart of the ecosystem increases its scope and its potential for success.” (Redthread Research October 2019)

When I tell people I manage a Digital Learning Team, they automatically assume that my focus is on technology and are surprised when I tell them it’s not. My focus and design process always begins with the nature of the learning and the learners. The vision (or philosophy) that guides our work is about adopting approaches to learning that will support the development of self-directing, self-managing learners.

For me, developing an effective digital workforce development strategy requires both vision of the goal you are trying to achieve and identifying the tools and infrastructure to realise that vision: having a goal to increase the digital capability of a diverse workforce and then forcing them to do this via one centralised platform seems contradictory – The tools need to reflect the task (and more importantly the intent).

This leads me to the hidden downside of monolithic, centralised platforms for learning – by insisting that learners use one platform, we condition users who lack confidence or capability to become dependent on the platform we provide and we run the risk that they never develop the confidence or skills to move beyond it.

The ecosystem approach on the other hand encourages learners to ‘forage’ and explore. As well a providing support to learners to develop capability directly, we enable the development of digital capability through tacit learning (see – and and we avoid learners forming a dependency on one system. Undoubtedly, for some learners this will be challenging but, the skills they develop will benefit them beyond the learning ‘event’ itself and help them down the road to achieving the vision we have: i.e. over time, they become self-directing and self-managing as learners.

The concept of Personal Learning Networks (i.e. the connections we make with people, services and resources which we use for our individual learning and development) has been accepted in the learning technology field for over a decade. Yet, despite the general acceptance of this concept for the individual, the learning technology community has clung on to the LMS rather than look to mirror the PLN at an organisational or pan-organisational level via the design of learning ecosystems. Growing a learning ecosystem isn’t an easy option. You need to continue to refine and evolve your approach over time to reflect changes in your environment (not a core requirement of the centralised platform approach) and this takes time, money and effort – an you need to take your audience with you. But, we need to learn from nature,

“Natural ecosystems are designed to change and evolve … Learning tech ecosystems should be no different.” (Redthread Research October 2019 p.33)

My view is that it’s time to take the training wheels off and commit to the longer term, and admittedly less comfortable, solution offered by learning ecosystems and enable our learners to develop beyond (well-intentioned) spoon feeding approaches to providing learning.

Extending the conference experience with VR

The eLearning Guild’s DevLearn conference took place a couple of weeks ago. If you’ve ever been to DevLearn, you’ll know that it’s a fantastic event with thousands of delegates, engaging and inspiring keynote speakers and a huge range of interesting and enlightening workshops and seminars. As you might’ve guessed, I’ve been lucky enough to attend DevLearn a couple of times. This year I wasn’t so lucky.

Working in public services has meant that securing the funding and permission to travel to and participate in events like DevLearn and others, (e.g. Online Educe Berlin) has become increasingly difficult. Sure you can follow along on Twitter and see everything that is notable to people you know who are there, but it’s not the same as being able to choose what you want to attend or draw meaning from you hear and see. So, thinking about how frustrated I felt at not being able to go to DevLearn (or support my staff to go), I started to think about how we might use the technology we use to deliver learning to our stakeholders to allow us to “attend” events like DevLearn virtually.

Now, before going any further, I’d make the point that the best way to experience these events is to actually be there – in person! The chance encounters and informal conversations with other delegates can provide as many learning moments and connections as the formal sessions do, and I don’t think we’ve reached the point with technology where we can replicate those virtually (though I’m very happy to be proved wrong). But, when faced with an absolute barrier in terms of travel or finance, surely the very technology being showcased at digital learning events could be used to provide a parallel (and still paid) virtual experience to delegates who simply can’t be there in person?

The careful placement of 360 video cameras (like the new GoPro Max or Insta360 One X) in conference rooms could allow virtual delegates be in sessions via VR video and there are a range of backchannel tools beyond the obvious social media platforms which could allow these delegates to interact with speakers/workshop presenters in real time. If virtual delegates were signed up in the same way as delegates attending in person, event organisers would even know which sessions (beyond the keynotes) would be most popular for virtual delegates thereby allowing for the best use of tech and bandwidth at the event.

One of the great things about DevLearn is the service they provide to people who’ve never been to the event before to guide people to get the most out of their conference experience. This could translate well to the virtual experience and enable virtual delegates to wring the most out of their experience too.

Thinking about this has made me consider how I can take some modest steps to do something like this for the events we organise in my day job and address the challenges of time and place (albeit on a smaller scale) in my working context. Time to go buy a 360 camera or two I think.

The Role of Community in Learning

Defining community in a learning context

I’m a whole week behind everyone else on eLearning 3.0 and frantically playing catch up. So, that means this is probably going to be a short(ish) post.

Much of the material for “community” week has focused on consensus and the place of technology in the process for arriving at consensus. The conversation with Pete Forsyth , and Stephen’s video on the role of Blockchain in distributed decision making was an interesting exploration of this. Pete’s accompanying blog post was also an interesting exploration of how Wikipedia avoided the many issues around breach of trust and misuse of technology which have plagued social media of late.

But, rather than delve further into those areas, I want to take a look at what we mean by “community” in a learning context: What is the role of community in the learning process? Is consensus the optimum environment for learning and developing? Is technology the central issue in this area?

Is community really about technology?

Let’s start with the last question first. Whilst it’s hard to argue that the technology used to provide online spaces for communities of various kinds isn’t important. I’m not going to do a deep dive into the potential of blockchain etc in providing viable and desirable alternatives to the Web 2.0 platforms which are in the news so much these days. That focus, in my opinion, risks taking us down a parallel path to the data debate – removing consideration of people and their behaviour from the process. Let’s be clear – technology is just a tool. It’s how people use the tool which ultimately helps us decide whether the tool is beneficial to us or not.

So, I’m going to take the view that community in a learning context isn’t really about technology. It’s about people and conversations. Harking back to a comment I made in a previous post, content is everywhere. People aren’t always good at identifying the ‘good’, the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’, but it’s out there. What isn’t always readily available is a space to help individuals make sense of all of that content. For me, this is where community comes in. Facilitated discussion of learning with peers can be the key to helping individuals make sense of the material they are exposed to. These conversations allow us to explore the ideas we’re trying to integrate and the various viewpoints and experiences others bring can help us arrive at a deeper and more reasoned approach to building our new learning into our existing schema.

Which brings me back to consensus. I’m not sure that consensus is always the optimum environment for a community in a learning context. If we only participate in communities with others whose views mirror our own, are we not in danger of creating echo chambers? For me, strong, vibrant and interesting learning communities are those where there is diversity of viewpoint; where we are encouraged, as learners, to challenge received wisdom, not simply absorb it. In this scenario, it’s the moderators/facilitators who play the key role in creating an environment to foster debate in a safe, constructive manner. The technology is only a tool to support the process.

Making sense of learning

Sometimes we need props to help us with all of this – we need scaffolding on which we can hang our developing or changing understanding of the topic(s) we’re studying. This blog, for example, is my personal prop to encourage and enable me to reflect on the content of eLearning 3.0.

Some years ago, I worked in higher education as a lecturer and tutor on an undergraduate social work programme and part of our curriculum was set aside to help students learn how to differentiate between fact, opinion and judgement and how each would impact their future roles in social work – after all, if you are in a a position where you are making life-changing decisions about citizens, you’d better be clear for the basis of those decisions.

In the years that have followed, it has occurred to me on many occasions, that the teaching we did on this, shouldn’t be viewed solely as developing a professional ‘tool’, but rather as developing core, essential life skills (especially in light of recent issues surrounding social media).

As someone who spends all of their working life attending to the development of social service workers of all types, it also is impossible to ignore the role that reflective learning plays my work.

In human services education, this reflective style of learning is seen as one of the core learning methodologies not just for initial education, but for continuing professional development. Yes, it could be a solo effort (much like I am doing here) but, in my opinion, is best done in dialogue with others and/or in groups (ie in a community of practice). It is the analysis of the whole learning process (content, application, outcomes etc) which is seen as the optimum state offered by the reflective learning process and community can provide the wider context in which to place the individuals’ learning experience. After all, we all need to know, “Is it just me?” or, “Is my experience shared by others?”.

So, to wind this up – I’d make a plea that we don’t lose sight of the importance of conversations and dialogue in our definitions of community. I believe that it is diversity, healthy debate and discourse which pushes learning forward, not technology. It’s only a tool and though it’s clear that many of the current tools aren’t really working, I’d argue that’s down to the human element – those providing the tools and those using them. Will blockchain and other Web 3.0 tools provide the answer? Only time will tell.

Recognition, Assessment & Realising the potential of open badges

I’m so happy that eL3.0 has finally moved in to an area where I feel like I know what I’m doing. This week on eLearning 3.0 we moved on to assessment and recognition of learning. The conversation between Stephen and Viplav Baxi (Director – Product and Digital Transformation at Oxford University Press in New Delhi, India) highlighted some issues I’d like to address in this post:

  1. Using simulations for assessment of skill/competency based learning
  2. Using Open Badges for recognition of learning.
  3. Can interactive eBooks be badged and is it possible to link them to your LMS?

Using simulations for assessment of skill/competency based learning

Assessing knowledge acquisition online, if not ‘easy’, is at least something more L&D professionals are familiar with, although there is an over reliance on using quizzes to assess learning (rather than reinforce learning) which is, in my view an entirely flawed approach. As Stephen and Viplav discussed, assessing skills based/competence based learning online is an entirely different thing and needs a different approach. The suggestion of using simulations and serious games to deliver and assess skills/competence development is clearly a more appropriate route to explore, and there is a wealth of research available in this area. However, I found myself disagreeing with Stephen’s view that you need to use expensive technology and high level skills  to really exploit these approaches. This feels like it assumes that, in order to be successful, the game/simulation needs to ape the sophisticated 3D worlds which are common in the leisure industry. Whilst I’m sure this helps but, in my experience of designing four online simulations using only HTML, video and audio material, it isn’t really necessary. In the simulations we created, it was the authenticity of the situations and learner tasks (ie how close they felt to the reality of the job) which created the immersion. As Jan Herrington points out,

“the use of authentic tasks encourages and supports immersion in self-directed and independent learning” (Herrington J, Authentic E-Learning in higher education: Design principles for authentic learning environments and tasks (2006)

This is equally true of applying game mechanics to learning situations – we shouldn’t feel we have to create a ‘game’ with leaderboards and prizes etc., but rather we should look at the approaches game designers use and apply them to our learning designs. I’d suggest we could learn a thing or two from game designers around,

  1. Emotional investment
  2. Incentivising learning
  3. Using failure as a learning tool
  4. Immediacy of application
  5. Feedback

I won’t go in to each of these here – that’s a whole other post …

Looping back to making the learning experience related to real-world situations, I believe L&D professionals should make much greater use of authentic learning approaches. In the world of work related learning (and in formal education settings), there is ample evidence available that authentic learning approaches drive up engagement and, if you couple that which what you can learn from the game designers, You can create some very powerful learning experiences … and, increase learning transfer:

Authentic learning exercises expose the messiness of real-life decision making, where there may not be a right or a wrong answer per se, … Such a nuanced understanding involves considerable reflective judgment, a valuable lifelong skill that goes well beyond the memorization of content. (Lombardi, Marilyn M., 2007, Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview, Educause Learning Initiative, available from February 2010

Open Badges and recognition of learning

Before going any further, let’s be clear what we’re talking about. In my day job, we have been working with Open Badges for four years and have invested heavily in developing a badge issuing platform and implementing a strategy for designing, creating and assessing badges for a workforce and potential user base of approximately 200,000 staff. This video was created to describe Open Badges to people new to the concept:

In our experience, done right, Open Badges can be highly effective in capturing learning and linking new learning to changes in work practices. The key to this is the the criteria you set and the expectations and guidance you give regarding the evidence you will require of the learner before awarding the badge.

In our work we are keen to maximise learning transfer. Simply ‘knowing’ stuff (in case you need it) isn’t enough – we want learners’ practice skills to improve/change/develop, so we draw on the research focused on situated learning: i.e.

situated learning and situated cognition … describes learning that takes place within a culture of practice where the knowledge is deployed in the same context as the learning (Smith Peter J, 2003 Workplace Learning and Flexible Delivery, Review of Educational Research Spring 2003, Vol. 73, No. 1, pp. 53–88)

Situated learning requires authentic contexts, activities, and assessment (Dede Chris Planning for Neomillennial Learning Styles: Implications for Investments in Technology and Faculty, Eduause)

This has led us to build learner activities into our resources which require the learners to apply what they’ve learned in their working environment as soo as possible and to write a reflective account of this action in order to claim the badge. Given the very wide range of prior educational experience and capabilities, this means we often write badge criteria which ‘scaffold’ the reflective writing process – with a significant degree of success!

In our experience, our approach to Open Badges has had significant benefits for learners, e.g. Open Badges recognise and reward learning that is otherwise hidden and our system of learner owned badge accounts puts the learners in control of their own learning and helps build a sense of personal ownership of their own CPD.

For Learning & Development staff Open Badges,

  • can motivate people to learn and encourage a culture of learning.
  • will give you a wealth of qualitative evidence of learning.
  • learner evidence will give clear, demonstrable and replicable evidence of impact of learning on practice.
  • deployment, done right, will develop staff abilities in reflective learning.
  • will start staff on the road to becoming self-managing, self-motivating learners.

Of course there are other key factors in making your badge system a success. For example – making the system easy to use (think about the end user first, not last!) and using short video walk throughs to support learners and so on.

Learning occurs as a result of motivation, opportunities, an active process, interaction with others, and the ability to transfer learning to a real-world situation … The ability to transfer learning to a real-world situation enhances the application of knowledge and leads to enduring understanding. (Oblinger, D. & Hawkins B.L., 2006 The Myth about No Significant Difference EDUCAUSE)

eBooks, badges and your LMS

The final issue from the conversation between Stephen and Viplav Baxi I wanted to reference was, the discussion about whether or not interactive eBooks can be linked in to (a) Open Badges and, (b) your LMS. From the discussion, there seemed to be a view that the answer to each was up for debate.

However, from our experience, the answer is pretty straightforward. Interactive eBooks can (and in our work, do) link to/accommodate Open Badges – see the example eBook referred to below. It’s simply a matter of planning your learner activities appropriately, as described above, and linking out to the location of the badge criteria and application mechanism on your badge platform. As you know from previous posts, I’m not a fan of getting under the hood and tinkering around and in this case you don’t have to – if designed well L&D staff with limited technical skill (like me) can designing deploy highly effective badges and link to these from their eBook(s).

As for the second issue (linking eBooks to the LMS) again, this doesn’t have to be complicated. Using xAPI and the Sidgil eBook editor it’s a fairly straightforward task to add statements which will connect learner activity in your eBook to an LMS, providing it is based on Learning Record Store (LRS) technology. There are a growing number of learning record store based LMSs becoming available and HT2 labs have developed an excellent LRS including an open source version – “Learning Locker‘. I’d encourage you to take a look.

This week’s task – build a badge

The task for this week was to create an Open Badge. As I’ve said above, as part of my job, I have managed the building and development of a badge issuing platform and the development of learning resources, all of which are badged. So, rather than one badge, I’d invite you to have a look at our badge platform –

And, as one final example of how all of this can come together, I’d encourage you to have a look at one of our interactive eBooks – “Making the most of mobile learning“: each chapter covers a different aspect of using mobile technology for learning and links to an Open Badge which can be claimed from our platform once you have submitted the evidence required.

This is not technically difficult to do, you just need to make the right design decisions and, in our case, create activities for learners which encourage them to apply what they have learned to real-world tasks.

CARE: open education resources and the distributed web

Where are we today? – Open Educational Resources (OER)

Having focused on the ‘wiring’ of eLearning/web 3.0 for the past few weeks, I am delighted to now be moving into areas where we consider how that ‘wiring’ might be used in the delivery of learning and development.

In reviewing some of the material around this weeks focus, it reminded me that the notion  of royalty-free, open source material has been around for a long time. In fact my first activity in this area was several years ago when the vogue term was “Reusable Learning Objects” (RLOs) – the idea being (crudely) that learning objects (ie text/video/audio etc with general learning outcomes and interaction/learner activity) could be created and shared via online repositories, thus reducing the duplication of effort across learning environments.

But, as is not uncommon, this was of limited success. In large part, I think, due to the need to contextualise the content of these RLOs as, once stripped of their context, it became apparent that much of the content felt a bit anodyne or simply lacked the impact it should’ve had. Further, the work required to amend this material to a new context wasn’t far away from just creating your own ‘unique’ version of the subject matter.

Scottish Open Education Declaration logoThankfully this has evolved to what we know now as Open Educational Resources (OER). Arguably this hasn’t been a huge evolution, but it has led to a more organised adoption route. So, in Scotland we have the Open Education Declaration:

Building on UNESCO’s 2012 Paris OER Declaration, the Scottish Open Education Declaration calls on the Scottish Government, the Scottish Funding Council and all sectors of Scottish education to endorse the … principles. … which aims to create opportunities for organisations, teachers and learners to innovate and to ensure that educational materials produced with public funding are available to all.

You can get a sense the scope of this declaration by reading the principles it lists. As you can see, it goes much wider than OER and is something which guides the day to day work of myself and those I work with. The declaration has helped shap our digital learning strategy, including how we distribute our products, and how we enable access to our online resources and services and so on.

In seeking to make as many of our resources as possible available as OER. It became clear to us that we had to separate the product from the content. So, what does that mean? For example – we have a number of tablet apps and, whilst we most often are not able to hand over the source code for those apps to third parties, we can make the source learning materials available so that interested parties can remix and reuse our materials to create their own ‘local’ versions/products.

But, this brings me to a point raised in the conversation with Sukaina Walji and Cheryl Hodgkinson-William which formed part of this week’s material. To successfully benefit from OER we need to have the skills needed to fully reuse, remix and mashup existing open resources. The lack of such digital skills/capabilities can be a barrier to people adapting and remixing OERs to create new resources. So, how do we address this and prevent OERs from becoming the domain of the digitally skilled/adept?

There is no doubt this remains a challenge and one to which I guess there is no easy solution. We have a further challenge which absolutely must be addressed: managing the individuals’ desire to create OERs and the institution/organisation’s desire to manage its intellectual property. Again, this needs answers which are way beyond my pay grade.

But, there are some great examples of what can be achieved when there is a will and a concerted effort, Like the TESSA project.

The next evolution of OER: the “CARE” concept

Two of the key challenges of using OER and their predecessor RLOs have been (a) finding the OER in this first place and, (b) sustainability. This week introduced the concept of Content Addressable Resources for Education (CARE). In the CARE model, instead of searching for and finding resources based on their location, we can search for and locate them based on their content.

Instead of being stored on a single server, content is stored on multiple servers. And when a web user requests that content, it is served from the nearest server. The only difference is that, in the distributed web, these servers are each others’ computers. These are called ‘peers’ and the system as a whole is called a ‘peer-to-peer’ (P2P) network. … in the distributed web we use content-based addressing. In essence, we search for resources based on what it is rather than where it is.

Stephen provides a more detailed description of how this works here. It is easy to see the potential. The fact that we can not only find original versions of open learning resources, but also remixed versions based on their content could be immensely helpful – after all, it’s always easier to start by looking at what someone else has done for inspiration or hints and tips about how to remix your own version, than to start from scratch.

Another attraction of the model is the role of the distributed web concepts in its delivery (see “Introducing the dweb” by Dietrich Ayala for more information). In essence, this distributed, peer-to-peer model makes it almost impossible for open content to be corralled and locked behind a pay wall (as has happened in many cases with the MOOC concept).

The mechanics or CARE and the distributed web

As ever, the devil is in the detail. In practical terms how can you make this work? Making it work means moving away from the current Content Delivery Network (CDN) model we are so familiar and comfortable with. To be honest, we are “comfortable” because the CDN approach allows us to offload the work required to take care of the complex technical arrangements of distribution to someone else.

This week did provide us with insights into how this might work in a dWeb environment  via IPFS and the Beaker Browser. Time to own up … trying to get my head round IPFS and it’s associated technologies, did make my head hurt! It’s fair to say that for me we’re back to showing off the wiring again and as I’ve already admitted, this is not how I want to engage. I’ll leave this stuff to those more tech savvy than me.

However, Beaker Browser was intriguing – it’s the first example I’ve seen of an application which allows you to both create and consume HTML content etc. from inside a browser. I enjoyed playing with it, but wasn’t confident enough in it to use it in anger. A bit like seeing the attraction of the Raspberry PI, but preferring an iPad.

For me, there’s a layer missing. In order to be a tool that can attract critical mass of learning resource developers, I believe it needs a WYSIWYG interface. I know, I can hear the coders sneering! And, this links back to the conversation with Sukaina Walji and Cheryl Hodgkinson-William: technology provision/availability on its own is not enough, its only the enabler. We also need to address UX and skills support/development to help people to exploit the benefits of the technology if we hope to achieve the level of change the CARE and dWeb model suggest.

Are we ready to put all of this together?

So, the big question is, “are we ready to take advantage of this new approach?” For me, it still too early to jump aboard. The tools and basic infrastructure are still too immature. As I said earlier, I can see the promise of Beaker Browser, but it lacks the user-friendly UI it needs to move it from the province of the coders and into the realms of ordinary users.

Something also needs to be in place to act as a bridge when individual peer sources are offline. We know through experience that ordinary users are, on the whole, unwilling to tolerate systems which appear to be flaky. With technical knowledge of how this all works, we can see that the source serving up the content we want may be offline, but to the average user, it might just appear to be ‘broken’.

However, the big issue regarding the effective use of open resources for learning, whether the current OER or the new CARE model, is building the digital skills of our target audience to enable them to exploit these resources. Until that is addressed, I fear that nothing much will change.

In closing, I’d like to return to the issue of context. Without context, I’d argue that content is of limited value. A few years ago, Stephen spoke at an event I organised and when we were preparing for the event he made the point that, content is everywhere. Whatever you want, you can probably find somewhere online – even if you need to breach the paywall! It’s sense-making that’s the premium resource.

This has stuck with me since that conversation and it seems to me that “sense-making” is the foundation stone of a new, much richer role for learning and development professionals (whatever sector they are working in) and it will remain at a premium regardless of what form of openness you work with in developing resources for learning, and the regardless of the systems you use to access/deliver them.

Who am I? – Digital identity and Web 3.0

With a topic like identity, it’s very tempting to wax philosophical, but hopefully, I’ll be able to, if not avoid that, at least rein it in a bit and focus on the subject of the creation, maintenance and curation of digital identity. I also intend to link this to the issue of what all this might mean in for learning.

What is ‘identity’?

The primer material on eLearning 3.0 this week signposted participants to a couple of useful articles exploring perspectives on what constitutes ‘Identity’ – “What is Identity? A Sociological Perspective” by Mary Jane Kehily and “What is Identity” (Open University, Open Learn). The latter provided a fairly good summary of the issue:

“If identity provides us with the means of answering the question ‘who am I?’ it might appear to be about personality; the sort of person I am. That is only part of the story. Identity is different from personality in important respects. … an identity suggests some active engagement on our part. We choose to identify with a particular identity or group. … [the] importance of structures, the forces beyond our control which shape our identities, and agency, the degree of control which we ourselves can exert over who we are.  (source)

Image depicting context as it relates to identity

In my opinion, ‘identity’ is a fairly fluid concept. Our ‘identity’ evolves and changes over time. It can provide snapshots of who we’ve been, who we are today, and who we might become in future. But, I also think it’s context or role specific: who we are depends on our context – at home, at work, as a parent, in different social groups etc. It reflects our beliefs and affiliations (at a given time), our hobbies and interests etc and, finally, there is an ‘identity’ which is ascribed to us, defined by others’ perceptions of us and which we have little direct control over.

“identity can be seen as the meeting place between the subjective processes inscribed in the way we live our lives and the discourses that position us” (source)

I’d encourage you to read the articles detailed above and draw your own conclusions about what ‘identity’ means to you – after all, what we are (to us) is a very subjective thing.

Digital Identity

The main task for participants on eL3.0 this week was to graph their digital identity. So, building on the thoughts above, here is my example graph (click to enlarge):
Image depicting an example of a digital identityAs you can see, my graph attempts to show the contextual nature of identity as described previously (although it is not an exhaustive/complete picture – just the edited highlights) and there are aspects to online life which either fall in to the professional context, or the personal/social context. As a reflection of conscious decision, there is almost no cross over between these two domains, the exception being education/knowledge/skills as shown by the green icon in the graph. This links to my professional life and has informed my role as a parent.

Within the professional context, I think there is scope to break things down further as I believe there are aspects of professional digital identity which relate employment in a specific organisation, and aspects which relate to profession and personal professional development. The graph attempts to depict that distinction. As you’d expect, there aren’t always clear boundaries around each of these aspects of the professional context.

The connections drawn on the graph are an attempt to depict the conversations and discourses described in the Open Learn piece on identity but again, this graph shows only part of the picture as detailing all of the connections would make the graph almost unreadable.

In such a complex network, the question arises of how to manage all of this? The articles from Robert Heaton (“Identity Graphs: how online trackers follow you across devices” and “How does online tracking actually work?“) provide some useful and sobering insights into how 3rd parties create and manage digital identities from our online activities and connections, and how to circumvent some of this (editor’s note: the post is being written on a computer whose internet connection is routed via a VPN and in a browser which prevents tracking and device fingerprinting). But, how do we manage our identities?

There are some suggestions in the Heaton articles and referenced in the previous paragraph. In addition, the following video from Stephen  illustrates emerging tools to help us manage our digital identities.

But it’s also about basic online behaviours, being aware/alert and making use of the tools already available. As part of my day job, we created a resource to help non-tech minded staff develop digital capabilities and we include material on digital footprint and digital security (see The advice contained there is based on the web we have now – web 2.0. We can only hope that the tools referenced in the video above (and projects like SOLID) help us proactively manage the next iteration of the Web – Web 3.0.

Digital Identity and Learning

So, how does all of this relate to digital learning? There is the potential for technologies like Keybase and Yubikeys to provide a robust learner owned and controlled means of verifying identity for accreditation purposes. So, mediated by technologies like those, our digital identity can become the keystone for us to manage our records of learning in future – our transcripts, certifications and qualifications.

But, as has become something of a recurring theme in these posts, it all comes down to the accessibility of the technology. The tools need to be accessible to those of us who are not ‘tech’ minded. A ‘Digital Identity for Dummies’ approach would be great!

If the tools don’t move out of the techie niche, I’m afraid they’ll never reach the potential for mass adoption. The majority of the success stories in the digital world have the common theme of providing user experience which makes engaging with the product/service etc. as straightforward as possible and we need to learn from those examples.

When is a graph not a ‘graph’?

I’m sure I’m not alone in hearing the word ‘graph’ and thinking about high school maths or statistics. But, in the context of this week’s topic on the eLearning 3.0 MOOC, the meaning is totally different. In this context, when we refer to graph, we really mean ‘network’. Or at least, that’s my interpretation.

I admit, I find it confusing to refer to a network as a graph, but these quotes from Stephen’s article helped me make sense of it:

“In connectivism we have explored the idea of thinking of knowledge as a graph, and of learning as the growth and manipulation of a graph. A core proposition is that this state of affairs contained in the graph or network constitutes knowledge, and that learning is therefore the creation, development and traversal of the network that constitutes that knowledge. Yet the question can still be asked, what makes it knowledge?”

“A graph – and hence, knowledge – is not merely a representational system, but is rather a perceptual system, where the graph is not merely the repository, but a growing and dynamic entity shaped by – and shaping – the environment around itself.”

I won’t go back over the detailed information on graphs and graph theory – it’s all on the elearning 3.0 website – but rather, I’ll present my take on the activity set for this week which was,

  1. Create a model graph of some aspect of the E-Learning 3.0 course.
  2. In your model, consider how the states of the entities in that graph might vary.
  3. In your model, consider how knowledge about the changes in states in the graph might be used.

I decided to create a graph to map put the potential influences the content of eLearning 3.0 MOOC could have on my work as a manager of a small team whose role is digital learning design. So, here’s the graph:


  1. In short, my interaction (learning) with eL3.0 should be a 2-way street – I acquire new knowledge and my assimilation and interpretation of of this new knowledge, fed back into the eL3.0 ‘community’ may add to that emerging body of knowledge.
  2. I also cascade what I’m learning to the people in my team. We have a strong culture of sharing and discussing what we each learn and look for ways to apply that learning to our projects.
  3. This is turn will see this learning manifest itself in new learning resources and potentially as updates to our learning services (eg our Open Badge platform).
  4. The remainder of the graph shows the impact of that learning in the sector we serve. So the nodes (or vertices) are learners, employers (circa 3,000 in our sector + employers in neighbouring sectors), further and higher education, strategic partners (eg other NDPBs or NGOs for folks outside the UK) and, policy makers. So the links (or ‘edges’)  and mostly bi-directional to demonstrate the dialogue between my team and I and our stakeholders as we seek to influence uptake, change and/or improvement in digital learning in our sector and neighbouring sectors.
  5. Thus, hopefully the learning from eL3.0 may have the scope to travel far beyond my immediate contacts and find expression in the work of others.

This was quite an interesting activity complete as displaying the connectivity and spread of ideas and learning from one learning experiences was valuable in making me think about the connections my team and I have and the potential for these connections to effect change in a large complex system.

Of course the real trick is in how you package that change and inspire others to grasp it.

eLearning 3.0 and Web 3.0

Of course, the context of this MOOC is in the developing Web 3.0.

“Web3 ultimately represents a dissatisfaction with that solution [the use of platforms], a (well-founded) distrust of platforms, and a desire for individual autonomy and accountability. The solution proposed by Web3 (or various versions of Web3) incorporates elements of identity, immutability and community.”

This week’s speaker, Ben Werdmuller had an interesting take on Web 3.0. In short, his view was that everyone should be able to ‘own’ their own website even down to owning the server which hosts that site (perhaps the ultimate smart home device?). The challenge, from my point of view, is how do we move people from starting out on blogging on commercially owned services (like WordPress), to creating their own website? Not only does the hardware component to this need to be as simple to set up as a modern TV, so do the tools to create and update your personal website.

Having said that Ben did emphasise usability/UX and the need to reach and engage the majority who have very limited skills in using technology and, given his track record in proviso projects like ELGG, we can only hope he is in a position to support the creation of tools to make his vision a reality.

I suppose the danger in packaging up his ideas into products which people with limited technical skills leads us back down the path which lead to the platforms we are dealing with today. So, I’m finishing with a question – How do we achieve this vision without losing the ethical position which Ben describes as informing it?

Considering the Cloud

So, I know this is late, but hey, the day job sometimes takes over, so now I’m playing catch up. So here goes – impressions and take aways from “Cloud Week” …


I’ll admit, I find the whole Jupyter Notebook/Docker/Docker hub area a bit sterile for me. I provokes the same reaction in me as being shown my car engine by a mechanic and being given an explanation of what’s going on when it’s running – a profound sense of disinterest. Don’t get me wrong, I can see the potential of this and the utility of these technologies if you are either teaching programmers/computer science, or are building applications etc. But, for someone not involved in those areas it feels like the ‘wiring’ has been exposed to the end user and she/he is being expected to understand and value it.

For me, the real power in the application of cloud technologies and services is that they can hide the wiring and create a learning ecosystem for the hardware and software you use to deliver or support your learning and/or the learning of others. In other words you can create complex arrangements where devices are interoperable, sharing information across multiple devices and make the whole experience seamless for the end user. For example, I started writing this post on my iPad over my breakfast coffee this morning (yeah, I know – deeply sad!) and I’m now finishing it on my laptop.

As a Mac OS and iOS user, the system integration Apple has been able to create using Cloud computing as the ‘glue’ to connect it’s various platforms and software offerings, is probably the slickest example I’ve seen of the potential of cloud services in everyday life.

For me it’s this potential to create engaging learning experiences which exploit the power of cloud computing, whilst hiding the complexity of the inner workings of how it’s being done, which is compelling. The majority of the leaners I serve, simply don’t want to see the wiring – and most of the time, neither do I.

The data discussion

My reflections in this post have been stimulated by the conversation between Stephen Downes and George Siemens about artificial intelligence, human cognition, what it means to be human and learning; this week’s video on eLearning 3.0 of Shelley Blake-Plock and Stephen discussing data and analytics, and my observations regarding trends in my working life.

The problem with “data”

I guess that needs some explanation? I’ll own up that I do have a problem with the term “data” and specifically about how its used. Before we get to that, I’d like to pause for a moment and ask a question: When you’re in conversation with someone you’ve just met, how do you define yourself?

  • By Job title/role?
  • By relationship (married/single/in a committed relationship/parent etc.)?
  • By location (ie where you live, e.g. country of origin)?
  • By race or gender?
  • By political or religious affiliations?

All of these bits of information are deeply personal and they are all now being gathered, stored, analysed, traded and sold as “data”.

This brings me to my problem with the term “data”: in my opinion, the indiscriminate use of this term dehumanises the deeply personal information which defines us as individuals and further, makes it more palatable (to some) to commoditise us. This depersonalisation of our information and therefore of us as individuals is amplified by the terminology in use around data – e.g. “data science”. Sounds objective eh? But the information it’s applied to isn’t.

I guess my concern is that this dehumanisation of information supports the erosion of fundamental concepts like privacy and confidentiality etc. In my own working life in human services, I’m observing a growing focus on data and analytics  to measure “success”, without really thinking about who’s “success” we’re talking about, and in planning at the macro level, without the necessary attention on the aspirations of the individuals we’re supposed to be serving.

Putting information back in control of the individual

So, it’ll be no surprise, that I firmly believe that we need to put individuals back in control of information about them and support them to do this. I was interested in this speech by Tim Cook to the European Commission on the importance of privacy as a basic human right:

There’s no doubt that GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation) is a huge step in the right direction. But, I believe that this regulation also places a duty on public services, and indeed anyone who collects user information, to provide the tools and support necessary for individuals to exercise their right to control their information.

Week 0 of eLearning 3.0, referenced the move from the Web 2.0 (the semantic web and the prevalence of platforms – like FaceBook and Twitter etc.) to Web 3.0 (the cryptographic web – see my previous post for more on this). In that context, we have to keep in mind why people use platforms like FaceBook is such huge numbers: it’s not really that that platform is seen as the best option, it’s more that it’s easy to use and, well, “everyone’s there aren’t they?” (but as David Price points out, we get the platform we deserve).

So, It think it’s vital that in this move to the cryptographic web, we need to design tools to reap the benefits of the potential of  Web 3.0 with the individual in mind, making them easy and engaging to use. Hopefully Tim Berners-Lee’s new project will take the first steps in that direction for others to follow.

xAPI and the ownership of learning

I was also interested in Stephen and Shelley’s discussion about feasibility of individually ‘owned’ Learning Record Stores (LRS) and therefore the potential for individuals to own, manage and share their own information about their learning. As Shelley points points out, there are ‘policy’ issues to be resolved around proprietary information or information sensitive to the business of the individual’s employer and/or institution, but I’d suggest they’re not insurmountable.

In my own work, we have invested 4 years in building and developing an Open Badge platform to provide micro-credentials for  people who use our learning resources (awarded on the basis of the individual providing evidence of the application of their learning to their work practices). One of they key features of this platform, is that the accounts created and the evidence submitted to claim badges, belong to the individual – not us (as the provider of the service) or their employer (past, present or future). The learning information and their attainments belong to them and their own badge account can follow them throughout their career.

I know this isn’t an LRS, or gathering xAPI statements – yet (watch this space … we’re working on it). To create this system, we had to think about the ‘policy issues’ Shelly refers to in the discussion with Stephen and build guidelines (rules) into how people can use our system, and provide a lot of support to make all of this as easy to use as possible. Have a look at the site and you’ll see what I mean.

These are our first steps to place the individual in control of their learning information (or “data”) and hopefully stimulate them to expect that control in other aspects of their online life.


And we’re off …

eLearning 3.0 kicked off this week with an interesting overview from Stephen of the issues and topics which will be covered in the mooc. I must confess, I try to avoid using the term “eLearning” due to the negative connotations this can have for learners. In my experience, the using that term with learners, it conjures up images of PowerPoint-like ‘click next + quiz experiences. So thought my posts on the mooc, I’ll use either online learning or digital learning instead as I feel they are less weighed down by these interpretations and are more inclusive of a range of learning experiences.

AdobeStock_99469984As Stephen observed in his presentation, Some of the concepts and technologies will take some time to wrap your mind round, but ultimately I was left thinking that this ‘challenge’ would be well worth the effort as I do agree with him about the fundamental shift in how our online life could change as a result of the mass adopting of the technologies he described.

I was particularly intrigued by this description of the essence of this shift being the move from the semantic web (which is our current Web 2.0) model) to the cryptographic web (Web 3.0) and the use of layers of encrypted ‘data’ (ie information/content etc) – it’s worth viewing his presentation and focusing on the section where he describes the use of Merkle Graphs and Directed Acyclic Graphs (DAGs) used to create collections of related data items) to create distributed, encrypted, cloud based systems (like GitHub. This is the essence of what is envisaged as the foundation of web 3.0 and eLearning 3.0.

Fundamentally, it’s about moving away from platforms where user data is the commodity to a situation where the user is the sole owner of their data and controls access to that data and the sharing of that data ( eg. see Tim Berners-Lee’s SOLID project as an example of this).

In terms of online learning or digital learning, I was interested in the potential of  content addressable networking and the concept of Content Addressable Resources for Education (CARE), which Stephen described as “the new OER” as the potential foundations of a new delivery/access system for digital learning in the web 3.0 world.

It will be interesting to explore each of the topics for the mooc in the coming weeks and I’m particularly interested in how the digital learning world responds to all of this. Will we be able to develop the applications which make the very complex concepts and technologies accessible to leaners and the rest of the non-techie population?

And, how will the educational and business world respond when they can no longer benefit from trading the data they accumulate from us?

Hands up who really understands blockchain …

Getting ready for eLearning 3.0

When I saw that Stephen Downes was about to launch a new Mooc, “eLearning 3.0“, I thought it was time to dust off this blog which I set up years ago, but never quite got the time to use in earnest. So, here goes …

eL30 will give me a focus and a purpose for use this blog and I intend to share all of my work on the Mooc via this page.