Notes from a new classroom

“Corporate Education Will Never Return To The Classroom”

...said Forbes Magazine a month or two into lockdown. If even partly true, one can hardly blame the pandemic: the headwinds were strong to start with.

Yesterday my monthly Grammarly update informed me that I had written north of 2.5 million words since last September a big chunk of which came during the first 12 weeks of the lockdown period. The reason? In large part, the task of scripting and designing an online learning experience for a client in the tech industry. I’ve never worked harder or, it’s worth saying, enjoyed my work so much.

If like me, you are a knowledge worker, the online learning stampede may well have caught you on the back foot. Or not - perhaps it was just me. Either way, there’s an alchemy to it all that I’m only just beginning to understand. Join me in the next few posts and we’ll survey the territory and some of its more practical implications.

But first, a quick thought experiment: It’s an ordinary day in the company training centre and you're there to run a program. Nothing you haven’t done a dozen times before. You start with a safety briefing and perhaps that cheesy ice-breaker everyone hates. You ask your audience to suggest and commit to a set of session “rules” before firing up PowerPoint and easing into the first module. Every so often someone interrupts to ask for clarification. Now and then you take a slight detour to refine and expand. There’s the occasional remark from the floor and, to show you care, you pause to scribble a few pithy insights on a flip-chart. Now and then you call out someone for contravening the rules. 45 minutes later, it's time for a leg stretch. All things considered, you’ve got your finger on the pulse.

Now picture the same lesson online. Remember that the learning medium (a PC or tablet) doubles variously as a home entertainment system, a research tool, a networking hub, a shopping mall, a workstation and more besides. This giant conflation of modalities is just just one of the ways the deck is stacked against the instructor. There are others: your once captive and compliant audience is now a disembodied collection of cyphers - constrained in its ability to interact, assailed by myriad distractions and probably fretting about the data they are burning through.

Oh for the good old days.

So, to start with, two perspectives from recent experience:

Think biomimicry

“Biomimicry,” (states the eponymous website), “is a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges”. Just as some caterpillars, moths and insects melt into their surroundings, so online learning must adapt to the systems and semiotics of its web-based surroundings. The best platforms and experiences are high touch and low friction. They mimic the playful side of social networks, the binge-value of Netflix and Youtube, the academic cogency of Google Scholar and the mental floss of podcasts. That’s a far cry from the “Dropbox” model used by some companies. While such mechanisms are mercifully on their way out, the in-house learning management systems replacing them don't always pass muster.

Low noise, high signal

Swiss Chard is one of the most nutrient-dense veggies we know. Just a sprig or two will easily exceed your RDA of antioxidants. Compare that with iceberg lettuce which is really just water in disguise. The “lettuce” people once tolerated in the classroom must, in the online world, give way to high-signal doses of brainfood that learners can easily metabolise. As I discovered, scripting video content presents one of the steepest learning curves. “Don’t exceed 10 minutes” advised online learning expert David Phipson of UGenerate, an unsettling recommendation that called for a complete overhaul of the classroom lecture approach I described in our thought experiment. “Remove the unnecessary so that the necessary can speak” is easier said than done. I’ll share more in my next post...

At its core, online learning is a battle for attention. “Attention is one of the most valuable things we possess”, writes New York Times columnist Austin Kleon, “which is why everyone is trying to steal it”. If you want to make your mark as an online educator, you must aspire to be more than a petty thief. It’s grand theft auto or bust.

Stay tuned...

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