Peter Paul Rubens. From 1577 to 1640. Antwerp. Medusa's head. KHM Vienna.

Experience and blended learning: two heads of the humanitarian training chimera

Reda Sadki Design, Events, Learning design, Learning strategy, Thinking aloud

Experience is the best teacher, we say. This is a testament to our lack of applicable quality standards for training and its professionalization, our inability to act on what has consequently become the fairly empty mantra of 70-20-10, and the blinders that keep the economics (low-volume, high-cost face-to-face training with no measurable outcomes pays the bills of many humanitarian workers, and per diem feeds many trainees…) of humanitarian education out of the picture.

We are still dropping people into the deep end of the pool (i.e., mission) and hoping that they somehow figure out how to swim. We are where the National Basketball Association in the United States was in 1976. However, if the Kermit Washingtons in our space were to call our Pete Newells (i.e., those of us who design, deliver, or manage humanitarian training), what do we have to offer?

The corollary to this question is why no one seems to care? How else could an independent impact review of DFID’s five-year £1.2 billion investment in research, evaluation and personnel development conclude that the British agency for international development “does not clearly identify how its investment in learning links to its performance and delivering better impact”… with barely anybody noticing?

Let us just use blended learning, we say. Yet the largest meta-analysis and review of online learning studies led by Barbara Means and her colleagues in 2010 found no positive effects associated with blended learning (other than the fact that learners typically do more work in such set-ups, once online and then again face-to-face). Rather, the call for blended learning is a symptom for two ills.

First, there is our lingering skepticism about the effectiveness of online learning (of which we make demands in terms of outcomes, efficacy, and results that we almost never make for face-to-face training), magnified by fear of machines taking away our training livelihoods.

Second, there is the failure of the prevailing transmissive model of e-learning which, paradoxically, is also responsible for its growing acceptance in the humanitarian sector. We have reproduced the worst kind of face-to-face training in the online space with our click-through PowerPoints that get a multiple-choice quiz tacked on at the end. This is unfair, if only because it only saves the trainer (saved from the drudgery of delivery by a machine) from boredom.

So the litany about blended learning is ultimately a failure of imagination: are we really incapable of creating new ways of teaching and learning that model the ways we work in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) humanitarian contexts? We actually dialogue, try, fail, learn and iterate all the time – outside of training. How can humanitarians who share a profoundly creative problem-solving learning culture, who operate on the outer cusp of complexity and chaos… do so poorly when it comes to organizing how we teach and learn? How can organizations and donors that preach accountability and results continue to unquestioningly pour money into training with nothing but a fresh but thin coat of capacity-building paint splashed on?

Transmissive learning – whatever the medium – remains the dominant mode of formal learning in the humanitarian context, even though everyone knows patently that such an approach is both ineffective and irrelevant when it comes to teaching and learning the critical thinking skills that are needed to deliver results and, even more crucially, to see around the corner of the next challenge. Such approaches do not foster collaborative leadership and team work, do not provide experience, and do not confront the learner with complexity. In other words, they fail to do anything of relevance to improved preparedness and performance.

If you find yourself appalled at the polemical nature of the blanket statements above – that’s great! I believe that the sector should be ripe for such a debate. So please do share the nature of your disagreement and take me to task for getting it all wrong (here is why I don’t have a comments section). If you at least reluctantly acknowledge that there is something worryingly accurate about my observations, let’s talk. Finally, if you find this to be darkly depressing, then check back tomorrow (or subscribe) on this blog when I publish my presentation at the First International Forum on Online Humanitarian training. It is all about new learning and assessment practice that models the complexity and creativity of the work that humanitarians do in order to survive, deliver, and thrive.

Painting: Peter Paul Rubens. From 1577 to 1640. Antwerp. Medusa’s head. KHM Vienna.

Marble statue of the ancient greek philosopher Plato (Source: alienaxioms.com)

Blame it on Plato

Reda Sadki Quotes

Even as computer-mediated communication is now embedded into nearly every aspect of life, the sentiment persists that written and therefore distance communication is intrinsically inferior. Here is the very interesting introduction from Andrew Feenberg’s classic article – written in the late 1980s – calling into question the presumption of superiority in the face-to-face encounter:

In our culture the face-to-face encounter is the ideal paradigm of the meeting of minds. Communication seems most complete and successful where the person is physically present ‘in’ the message. This physical presence is supposed to be the guarantor of authenticity: you can look your interlocutor in the eye and search for tacit signs of truthfulness or falsehood, where context and tone permit a subtler interpretation of the spoken word.

Plato initiated our traditional negative view of the written word. He argued that writing was no more than an imitation of speech, while speech itself was an imitation of thought. Thus writing would be an imitation of an imitation and low indeed in the Platonic hierarchy of being, based on the superiority of the original over the copy. For Plato, writing detaches the message from its author and transforms it into a dead thing, a text.

Such a text, however, can cross time (written records) and space (mail), acquire objectivity and permanence, even while losing authenticity (Derrida, 1972a). That we still share Plato’s thinking about writing can be shown in how differently we respond to face-to-face, written, typed and printed forms of communication. These form a continuum, ranging from the most personal to the most public.

Feenberg, A. The written world: On the theory and practice of computer conferencing. Mindweave: Communication, computers, and distance education 22–39 (1989).

Photo: Marble statue of  the ancient greek philosopher Plato (Source: alienaxioms.com)

Read the news (Georgie Pauwels/flickr.com)

Publishing as learning

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

We are both consumers and producers of publications, whether in print or online.

Publications are static containers for knowledge from the pre-Internet era. Even if they are now mostly digital, the ways in which we think about them remains tied to the past. Nevertheless, at their best, they provide a useful reference point, baseline, or benchmark to establish a high-quality standard that is easy, cheap and effective to disseminate. In the worst, they take so much time to prepare that they are out of date even before they are ready for circulation, reflect consensus that is so watered-down as to be unusable, and are expensive – especially when printed copies are needed – to produce, disseminate, stock and revise.

With respect to the knowledge we consume, some of us may heretically scorn formal guidelines and other publications. Reading as an activity “remains a challenge”. Others manage to set aside time to pore over new guidelines and other reference content, journals, or online sources. Yet others cannot justify such time because they prioritize their own knowledge production rather than its consumption.

The development of guidelines, training manuals, and other standards- and evidence-based approaches remains an accepted formal process of knowledge development that also embeds many of the benefits of informal learning, at least for its participants. When peers gather to think and work together, to figure out what should be put into the publication-as-container and why, this is often a dynamic learning process. Dialogue as real-time peer review mixes with more formal review, editing, and revision. Serendipity and creativity are not just possible, but more likely in those spaces, especially when there is one or more layer of social interaction.

So the challenge for learning strategy is to figure out how to capture not just the knowledge artefact of such a process, but also the community, affective, and other social dimensions that help build trust and relationships, to then keep this knowledge current and put it to work – for both the immediate participants and those learners who, in the past, were mere recipients or readers.

Photo: Read the news (Georgie Pauwels/flickr.com)

Empty (schnaars/flickr.com)

Why we secretly hate webinars

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Webinars reproduce the structure and format of the formal training workshop in an online space. The sole positive distinction for participants is that they may now participate from anywhere. However, to ask questions or otherwise contribute requires one to be present at a specific time (synchronously). Recordings of webinars are usually made available, so in theory we may catch up after the event but lose the ability to connect to others… and seldom actually do. If there wasn’t time (or justification) when it happened, that is unlikely to change later.

Like the face-to-face workshops they emulate, webinars require us to stop work in order to learn, which we can seldom afford or justify. They are mostly transmissive, as the available tools (Webex, for example) do not facilitate conversation. By default, most facilitators will mute everyone in a conference to avoid an unintelligible cacophony of multiple squawking voices.

Despite the existence of a chat feature (a “back channel”) that could be used for dialogue, most of us bring online the etiquette of face-to-face events, where chatting during a presentation is frowned upon.

Yet, despite such limitations, two affordances of webinars represent a dramatic improvement over other learning technologies. First, they help to reduce the need for mission travel. Second, they allow us to display a slide deck, share a screen (making them a visual medium), or show participants (using their webcams).

Where, initially, teams tend to use webinars for one-way knowledge transmission, as they gain experience they may begin to use the same technology for less formal communication, such as rapid feedback and evaluation from the field or between stakeholders who cannot gather in the same place.

Photo: Empty (schnaars/flickr.com)

Doc Porter Museum of Telephone History, Houston Texas, USA (Texas.713/flickr.com)

Why supposedly boring conference calls are actually amazing

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Where phone and Skype remain the gold standard for one-to-one communication (and learning), many of us find value in conference calls, irrespective of the technology (phone, Skype, Webex, Hangouts…) used.

Conference calls may seem as unimpressive or mundane as that other piece of paradigm-changing learning technology, the whiteboard – but that’s the point. They are learning technology that is already embedded into the fabric of work, and directly contribute to informal and incidental learning across time and geography.

The pedagogical affordances of conference calls include structure, transparency, dialogue, and accountability.

  • “Structured agenda”
  • “Used as a to-do list”
  • “Ensures that I’m focusing on kind of priority one-two-three”
  • “A very good way to stay organized when you have people traveling”
  • “forces us to be transparent”
  • “If there are cloudy areas, it exposes [them] and moves us forward.”
  • “anyone can join ”
  • “a forum”
  • “open discussion”
  • “conversation is a much more efficient way to work than using email in a lot of cases”
  • “So you say look: why don’t we get on the phone and talk this through. ”
  • “your peers and your colleagues are on the calls”
  • “allows for people to say, by the way here is an issue that I am facing that I haven’t thought about.”

Photo: Doc Porter Museum of Telephone History,  Houston Texas, USA (Texas.713/flickr.com)

Ici on consulte le bottin, panneau à la Closerie des Lilas, Paris (Hotels-HPRG/flickr.com)

How do we use technology to embed learning into work?

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Of the myriad technologies in use, we may find it useful to focus our attention on those that (1) are now widely used, to examine their benefits and the process for their acceptance; (2) continue to be used, despite the existence of better alternatives; or (3) are new and in use only by early adopters.

We may also classify technologies depending on whether they are synchronous (need to be connected at the same time) or asynchronous (anytime, anywhere), networked (for group communication) or individual (self-initiated or self-guided).

In this next series of posts, I’ll look at the relevance and limitations for learning of conference calls and webinars, as well as the place of print-centric publications in our learning (work) lives.

Photo: Ici on consulte le bottin, panneau à la Closerie des Lilas, Paris (Hotels-HPRG/flickr.com)

More face (Stephanie Sicore/flickr.com)

Skepticism about learning innovation

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Online technologies have afforded us many ways in which we can now learn even when we are not in the same location. Yet, some of us remain skeptical about the impact of new technologies, and in particular about new ways of learning that rely on technology. We prefer to do things the way we have done them in the past. New approaches to learning may be seen as too complicated in our task-oriented learning culture. Furthermore, we question whether experience can be taught or transferred.

With some members in the network, access to the Internet may be limited either due to resources, policies, or culture, deepening the Digital Divide even for simple tools that many of us take for granted.

And, of course, we remain attached to the face-to-face culture that has been our primary source of learning, enabling us to form our networks of trust, to directly experience and observe multiple contexts of work. How could poor connections of garbled or squeaky sound we strain to hear and fuzzy talking heads whose expressions we strain to read possibly substitute for the experience of actually being there?

Such skepticism is understandable. The technologies (e-mail, newsletters, webinars, learning platforms, publications, mailing lists, and phone/Skype) we have to connect to each other and to network members remain mostly transmissive, from the center (headquarters) to the periphery (field), and often require us to initiate communication (command-and-control, top-down).

Yet, slowly but surely, technology that affords us the ability to work (learn) from a distance seeps into all the realms of our work (learning). We already live in a blended world, a “mix of all of these things because it’s one of the effective ways of doing things, but certain things really you can’t achieve [online].” We no longer reflect on the pros and cons of conferencing software or Skype, at least not when they work the way we need them to. And the same process is likely to recur with other technologies as turnover and succession in the team bring digital natives to the workplace.

Photo: More face (Stephanie Sicore/flickr.com)

Tons of shattered glass, Robert Smithson's Map of Broken Glass at the Dia:Beacon (Augie Ray/flickr.com)

We need learning processes, not just tools

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Knowledge management and informal learning processes are not resourced, even when the organization may have made a significant investment to build containers for knowledge or its sharing. This “build it and they will come” approach has failed, time and time again.

Yet the seemingly intangible nature of knowledge and learning processes makes it difficult to build a case to resource learning itself. As a cross-cutting, often unrecognized activity that enables work rather than produces results, how do we convince donors that it is worth the investment – paradoxically when donors are increasingly skeptical about the value of formal training?

Photo: Tons of shattered glass, Robert Smithson’s Map of Broken Glass at the Dia:Beacon (Augie Ray/flickr.com)

Shards (Martin/flickr.com)

Wishful thinking cannot fix broken tools

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

“Continuous learning at the individual level is necessary but not sufficient to influence perceived changes in [performance]. […] Learning must be captured and embedded in ongoing systems, practices, and structures so that it can be shared and regularly used to intentionally improve changes in [performance]” (Marsick and Watkins 2003:134).

“I still can’t find it. And I still need to work on it. It’s a mess.”

“That’s a struggle. I don’t have a good system on that.”

In the last five years, we have mainstreamed the use of electronic media for communication and, to a lesser extent, for formal learning.

The tools we use in learning (whether formal or informal) may change, based on need and context. We know that constant and rapid advances in technology and their costs make it difficult for headquarters (center) and field (periphery) alike  to afford or use the latest, cutting-edge tools. Tools that are officially sanctioned or supported may seem hopelessly out of date, too difficult to use, or both. We look for the pragmatic, lowest common denominator that “just works”. Often, we end up using a mash-up of products, some of which have become nearly as ubiquitous as e-mail, such as Dropbox, Webex, Skype or Excel.

Our tools are dated, yet – no matter how clunky or inefficient – their familiarity is reassuring.

Anchoring (focus, ignoring distractions) and filtering (extracting knowledge we need) require either better tools or improved competencies in using the ones we do have. Still, we lose precious time trying to retrieve information we need.

E-mail is the de facto lowest common denominator, but we expend time, energy, and skills to avoid drowning in it. Even though the promise of e-mail is that of a ubiquitous, low-bandwidth, ultra-fast knowledge and conversation medium to connect us, many of us experience it as a “complete anchor”. Because we treat it as formal communication (not conversation), it is not conducive to the informal learning and sharing that build trust in our working relationships.

Is there really an alternative to the time lost on repetitive tasks made necessary only due to their inadequacies? Doesn’t trying a new, untested tool not (yet) supported by the organization add a series of unknowns and risks?

The platforms we have to work with may feel broken, and attempts in the past to build better platforms failed.

We still look for the one best tool – silver bullet or Holy Grail – and continue to wish for the centralized platform that will single-handedly solve our knowledge problems, despite the repeated failure of previous attempts toward such solutions.

New tools are still conceptualized with the intent to manage, control, and direct activities or outcomes – even though we may intuitively feel that this is not what we need most.

Yet, we have learned that the real value of a new tool is not the tool itself, but what the tool enables.

Most of the technologies we use to enable, accelerate or support our work (and, therefore, our learning) are now online. Finding our way through the constantly-changing jungle of new and old technologies online requires constant effort.

We often start by duplicating the functioning of physical activities in an online space. For example, this shift first happened when Skype increasingly replaced the phone, eventually attaining such a monopoly that it will be difficult for better solutions to displace or replace it. It is ongoing with Webex and other conferencing software (free like Hangouts or enterprise solutions purchased by the organization).

We question traditional approaches and actively seek new methods and tools that can empower people in the network to connect to our global community of knowledge.

We strive to adapt to a changing world in which new electronic tools come into widespread use in some places, when they remain unavailable in others.

Photo: Shards (Martin/flickr.com)

Soon, my pretties... The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, Disney Hollywood Studios (Hector Parayuelos/flickr.com)

Life-work balance

Reda Sadki Learning strategy

Our connections include not only social life with colleagues, but also our personal lives with our partners, families and friends. Parental responsibilities, traffic jams in long commutes, or other challenges we face in our personal lives impact our level of energy and motivation for learning and innovation.

We call for leadership that recognizes the need for better balance between work and family. The wellness of our families has a positive halo effect on our motivation to do more than what is needed simply to hold down our jobs.