Inside a lava tube on Hawai'i (Personal collection)

Ashes to ashes

Reda Sadki Writing

L&D is dead.

Pushing us down the blind alley of technological solutionism, the learning technologists have demoted learning to tool selection.

  • Microlearning reduces the obsession with knowledge acquisition from a one-hour video to 60 one-minute videos.
  • Gamification is lipstick on the pig of behaviorism.
  • xAPI and other “X”-buzzwords are just the latest tin con by desperate LMS vendors.
  • Fantasizing that VR or AR will save us perpetuates the persistent confusion between tools and process.

As ‘learning leaders’ we are condemning ourselves to irrelevance by chasing ephemeral fads, investing in empty gimmicks, and embracing bearded gurus spouting non-sense.

  • ‘Learning in the flow of work’ is a successful consultant’s buzz word, but will not help us any more than 70-20-10 did.
  • Leadership ‘development’ remains about pampering a few executives old enough to appreciate cushy hotel and conference rooms.
  • Kirkpatrick died, replaced by a coterie of rabid Kirkpatrick wannabes frothing at the mouth about their new, convoluted learning ‘measurement’ systems, pretending they are now driven by research, in denial that evidence for education in general – and for learning and development in particular – is pathetically weak.

Clutching the pearls of ‘strategic relevance’ to the business supported by pseudo-studies to measure ROI is, at best, a tenuous proposition when every choice in the labyrinth of possibilities leads to the dead end of a cost center in perpetuity.

How could the role of education for the future be limited to providing better tools, in the midst of a Fourth Industrial Revolution or Second Machine Age, in which a range of new technologies are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds?

It is mostly a failure of imagination. That is the only reason to shed a tear.

Image: Inside a lava tube, Kazumura Cave, Pahoa, Hawai’i (Personal collection).

Diving platform on Graveyard Hill in Kabul from TV-Hill, Afghanistan. Sven Dirks, Wien

The significance of digital platforms to the business

Reda Sadki Learning strategy, Thinking aloud, Writing

Business gets done by groups in workshops and meetings and by individuals in private conversation. There is an undeniable cultural advantage for diplomacy that comes from looking your interlocutor in the eye.

Emerging digital platforms are in the margins of this business.

The pioneers are creaky in their infrastructure and, ironically, playing catch-up. They have long lost the initial burst of enthusiasm that led to their creation. Yet they are still here, alive and kicking with funding that can support, in principle, their reinvention. For this, they need courage and creativity, especially if they function in a bureaucratic environment.

Then there are new platforms in search of purpose and the users it would bring. Sometimes, it is the other way around.

No platform is perfect. All of them have strengths, experience, insights, and the potential to be more in the future than what they are now. Some have already achieved individual impact and continue to do so.

There is no doubt in my mind that, sooner than we think, our platforms – or the ones that will replace them – will be core to achieving the strategy being defined now for the coming decade.

Digital transformation has swallowed enough industries that we now understand how it works.

If you think about the newspaper industry, their web sites started in the margins too.

Digital technologies provide a new economy of effort. In our context, we now have the means to address professionals working in the very communities where targets are either achieved or not. In fact, two-thirds of our cohorts do not work in the capital city but in the regions and districts.

Bypassing established gatekeepers and pyramidal hierarchies to go “straight to the customer” undeniably brings new challenges.

What is the incentive for collaboration between digital platforms? We are all competing for the same resources, jostling for recognition, striving to demonstrate that we are contributing to the business.

There are practical, operational reasons to share content, ideas, lessons learned. This can help each platform improve, for the benefit of the network that we all want to serve. Such service improvement is necessary and important.

We can imagine a collective effort in which platforms rally around a shared goal and establish a shared measurement system to track progress.

Yet, this too would be short-sighted.

Yes, through a process of accretion, digital platforms will move from margin to center. They will not only be relevant to the business, they will be the business.

The opportunity is for us to harness this process and accelerate the transformation so that it serves the strategic goals that are being defined today.

To seize this opportunity, we need to start with the reality check:

  • Access is no longer the problem. (There is still a border beyond which there are no cell phone towers, but this border keeps receding.)
  • Digital literacy is the problem.

Many learners in these platforms are discovering key online resources, available for years on the open web. A small but significant proportion may be part of the next billion of Internet users, joining to learn, not to surf.

For this, we need a “no wrong door policy”. Wherever people enter the system, they need to find the pipes or pathways that will connect them to the destination that will help them solve the problem they are tackling. This is not about finding content, but the process of discovery that comes from connecting with others.

The quality of the pipes will determine how quickly platforms become core business, rather than a nice-to-have.

Image: Diving platform on Graveyard Hill in Kabul from TV-Hill, Afghanistan. Photo by Sven Dirks, Wien.

From knowledge to impact

Think and do

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar

The assumption that countries have the capacity to take on recommendations from the best available knowledge, achieve understanding, and turn them into effective policy and action, leaves unanswered the mechanisms through which a publication, a series of meetings, or a policy comparison may lead to change.

Technology has already transformed the ability of international organizations to move from knowledge production and diplomacy to new forms of scalable, networked action needed to tackle complex global challenges. This has created a significant opportunity for leaders to deliver on their mission.

Some organizations are already offering high-quality, multi-lingual learning. Many are using digital technologies to scale, often at the cost of quality, helping large numbers of learners develop competencies. On their own, these are no longer innovative – much less transformative – goals. Several international organizations have built corporate universities and other types of learning functions that remain confined to the margins of the business and under threat from the next restructuring. None of these initiatives have moved the needle of impact.

At the Geneva Learning Foundation, we have developed a low-cost, scalable package of interventions for international organizations to leverage digital transformation to: (1) bridge the gap between thinking and doing at country level; and (2) foster the emergence of country leadership for positive change.

In our first three years, we have worked with partners across several thematic areas, developing this package to translate global guidelines into effective local action, to support capability development from competency to implementation, and to perform multi-country peer review at scale.

This package can complement or replace existing low-volume, high-cost face-to-face workshops and conferences that are difficult to scale and measure.

It is entirely digital (motivating participants without offering travel, hotel, or per diem) and embedded into work (participants do not need to stop work), significantly reducing both expenditure and opportunity cost, while improving efficacy.

It has fostered the emergence of informal, self-led and motivated groupings of professionals operating across agencies that may provide a different kind of lever for systemic change than traditional top-down approaches to addressing challenges and can replaced failed, conventional training-of-trainer and “cascade” models.

Recognizing the value of such emergent dynamics creates authentic opportunities to accelerate the transformation for impact.

Fostering such emergence is the hard part.

Last but not least, our business modelling demonstrates that, if the organization has healthy relationships with its stakeholders, financial sustainability (cost recovery) can be achieved within three years, so this is not one more mechanism dependent on donor good will.

As we have seen existing partnerships leads to promising results – above and beyond our own expectations – we are slowly growing in confidence about the strengths and sustainability of what began as a series of small-scale pilot projects and experiments.

Along the way, we have also learned how difficult it is to find the right mix of ingredients to move from ideas to successful execution to develop such a programme if it is to contribute to systemic change.

Image: Labyrinth in Trigonos, by Reda Sadki.

Walled garden

From ivory tower to walled garden

Reda Sadki Thinking aloud

Question: “So what learning platform do you use?”

Answer: “The Internet.”

I first remember hearing the phrase “Everyone hates their LMS” from a defrocked priest of higher education.

That made so much sense. At the time, I was wrestling with a stupid, clunky corporate learning management system designed for the most paranoid kind of HR department, touting its 10,000 features, none of which could do what we actually needed. Moodle seemed equally clunky, its pedagogical aspirations lost in the labyrinth of open source development.

The first breakthrough happened when, inspired by connectivist MOOCs, I figured out we could run an open learning journey without an LMS, using nothing more than a blog and a Twitter account. (That defrocked priest dubbed it “FrankenMOOC”, but he was also trying to sell me on using his preferred LMS.) There was something profoundly liberating about working outside the confines of a platform. However, the connectivist ideal proved to be a different kind of labyrinth, with only a chosen few who enjoyed wandering around or getting lost in it.

Digital market share is often measured by the size of your walled garden. By that measure, Facebook rules them all. In education, Moodle must certainly have the largest, albeit balkanized, walled garden.

This is not about the merit or demerit of an LMS or a learning theory. You are missing the point. And my vantage point sits outside of higher education.

Google’s ubiquitous search provides an interesting exception. By default, its “garden” is the entire Internet. This is how I understand the failure of Google+ as a missed opportunity. Why build a wall when search results could have gone social? (There are smatterings of this in search, for example when results show you reviews or enable you to connect with your search results.)

There is no parallel to this in higher education, where the market is driven by aggregators who partner with universities to leverage, as Burck Smith summarizes it, the “‘iron triangle’ of input-focused accreditation, taxpayer subsidies tied to accreditation, and subjective course articulation”.

It is a fundamental mistake to start building a digital learning system with the choice of platform, for at least two reasons.

First, there is no one platform that will do the job. This is especially true if you are interested in doing more than offering “high-quality learning” and competencies but want to fully leverage the potential of the digital transformation to drive change to tackle complex, global problems. The “course” is the commencement, not the end point. Implementation and impact are no longer the horizon. They are the rational goal that justifies investment in professional education.

Second, focusing on the platform inevitably devolves a learning initiative into a technology project. This is what happened to Moodle. It is akin to e-learning development in which media production metastizes into costly bells-and-whistles.

I know of only one platform that is the pure implementation of a strong pedagogical model. Unfortunately, despite the relevance of its pedagogical model for our future, its technology framework was also built on assumptions of the past, and it is just as proprietary as otherwise inferior commercial platforms.

What few saw coming was the digital transformation that, ironically, has made learning technologists and their learning platforms obsolete.

As technology embedded into the fabric of our cultures, it makes increasingly little sense to refer to a learning initiative as “digital” or “online”. It is just learning. The platforms used to support it should be either those that are already embedded in daily work or whatever the best available product happens to be at the moment, except where specific processes can be automated or facilitated by a specialized tool.

So, what about assessment, credentialing and record-keeping?

The first two benefit from being uncoupled from the process that supports knowledge acquisition and capability development. Sure, we can build separate assessment and credentialing based on direct observation and other forms of testing. This is where subject matter experts can be useful. However, dedicating resources to assessment in an artificial environment may not be nearly as good as figuring out how to do assessment in situ, in line with a philosophy of education that is about fostering leadership and innovation to drive change. Getting results and achieving impact should be the new credential of value.

Why are badges and other forms of micro-credentialing going nowhere fast? First, cracking the armor of accreditation is difficult given the capacity of higher education to resist change. Second, credentialing skills, knowledge, and competencies is no longer the signal that carries value.

The last one is a data problem. Build a modern database. Figure out how to get the data you need in and out. You do not need a learning management system to do that.

Image: Walled garden. Personal collection.

Subject matter experts as a learning problem

Reda Sadki Writing

Copenhagen. I chat with two “learning consultants”, whose job it is in their respective universities to help faculty improve how they teach.

Much to my dismay, I understand that their role is perceived as being about the adoption of new tools (“Should I use Adobe Connect or Zoom?”). Yet they are a case in point that learning technologists provide a rare opportunity for university faculty to think through how they teach.

In such institutions of teaching and learning, guess who is paid more?

Cue Felder’s infamous quote: “College teaching may be the only skilled profession for which systematic training is neither required nor provided – pizza delivery jobs come with more instruction.”

Subject matter experts are a problem.

They are expensive. If they are good, they tend to be too busy to contribute.

They often confuse knowing with teaching.

Their best intention is to transmit what they know.

They are disappointed and stymied by the apparent passivity of learners. “I wish my students would participate more!”

This problem is compounded by peer learning. It is legitimate to yearn for validation from an established expert. However, the shining light of expertise can blind learners to the potential of what they might achieve together.

What if we flipped convention on its head? Subject matter expertise becomes one input. An important one. But it is pedagogy in the driver’s seat. How we come to know trumps what we know. (What we need to know changes so fast, the former is more important than the latter.)

Renewed relevance of subject matter experts may be in supporting implementation and progression to impact, not in teaching and learning. The expertise that matters is in knowing how to get business done, how to get to a result, how to negotiate the context.

But, then again, teaching and learning that is relevant should encompass that journey to implementation and impact.

If it does not, it is not teaching and there is no learning.

Photo: Bryggerness Plads, Copenhagen (March 2019). Personal collection.

Magic

Reda Sadki Writing

We struggle with the measurement of learning.

Elaborate frameworks compete for attention. The sophistication of complexity theory or fractals, the business speak of ROI, levels, pyramids, concentric circles… every learning guru peddles a model to describe and diagnose the effects of what we try to do – and what learners actually do most often on their own.

How can we possibly describe the complex chain of correlation and causation between a learning intervention or incident and an outcome?

Is there an important distinction separating knowledge or skills “transfer” from the progression to implementation and, ultimately, impact? How much of a difference can we actually make on performance outcomes or human capital development, when so much is related to the environment’s learning culture?

I described a few of the outcomes we are observing for our most advanced global programme. Learners are transmuted into teachers, leaders, and facilitators. In some countries, learners are self-organizing to take on issues that matter to them, evolving course projects into a potentially transformative agenda.

“What you are doing is magic.”

Some are afraid of magic. Others try to mimic it, trying to replicate the secret sauce.

We are not, in fact, magicians. There is no secret sauce. The tool does not enable the process.

It is not about the platform, nor about the network. These outcomes result from modestly intersecting the science of learning with real, lived learning culture and from reframing education as philosophy for change in the Digital Age.

That, and a lot of elbow grease. Also known as execution.

Impact becomes something tangible once we start connecting the dots between course, context, and individuals.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” states the third of Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws.

So maybe we have discovered a corollary law about “sufficiently advanced” learning.

Humanitarian Leadership Academy merges with Save the Children UK

Reda Sadki Writing

I asked three questions, four years ago, as a sympathetic observer eager to see a learning organization – launched with much fanfare and 20 million British pounds of DFID support – help improve humanitarian work.

Never really got an answer. Until today.

It turns out that the Humanitarian Leadership Academy is being absorbed into the UK’s largest international NGO. (Save the Children originally lobbied for the Academy’s startup funding and hosted it, yet never entrusted the Academy with its own training…)

The Academy consistently touted the snake oil of gamification or fads like the “Social Age” under the guise of “innovation” (often seemingly for its own sake), fig leaves for a startling lack of strategic thinking and an eerie vacuum of learning leadership. Never mind the questionable donors, it is now clear that the Academy’s roots in charity and “free training” made it mission impossible to not just explore but invent and then execute new business models to generate revenue from training. However, the worst contradiction, in my view, is that the Academy chose to focus on transmissive learning models (such as “click-through” e-learning, known to be ineffective, limited to improving recall, which may be one of the least-needed skills needed by humanitarians) aimed at cramming global knowledge down the throats of local actors… while preaching the localization of aid. This was unlikely to lead to a sustainable approach, to put it politely. (Unfortunately, it is unlikely that such poor choices will be reconsidered in the merger.)

It requires a leap of faith to hope that the many strengths of the UK’s Save the Children might enable what is left of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy’s mission to find more productive paths to make a difference, given these choices of the past.

I wish Saba (a brilliant Save the Children career executive who, in the past, excelled at navigating its internal politics) and her team (those that remain, as some senior managers jumped ship early) the best and continue to fervently hope that they will find productive ways to advocate for the strategic relevance of new ways to learn in order to achieve impact.

Photo: Inside the Globe of Science and Innovation, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland. Personal collection.

The next big thing in learning

Reda Sadki Writing

Will it be virtual reality (VR)? The promise of immersive, experiential learning is tantalizing. What about artificial intelligence (AI), if only to relieve humans of the drudgery of the more trivial part of assessment and feedback? Will neuroscience lay bare cognitive process? What if the blockchain stored distributed learning records? How about building a successor to creaky Moodle?

Predicting the future tends to be a losing bet. In the past, for example, some learning gurus bet on gamification. That went nowhere fast – although the humanitarian sector is still figuring this out.

Some learning leaders see innovation where others see obsolescence or transition. In 2018, one learning leader specializing in innovative educational technology still included MOOCs as a “brand-new” innovation…

Such predictions all miss the point. Here is why.

They overwhelmingly focus on a specific technology and its transformative potential, in the eyes of its proponents, for education.

The biggest change to come in learning is not about scale, medium, or technology.

It is about the relevance of learning interventions to accelerate the progress of individuals, organizations, and networks (not necessarily in that order) to impact. Change. Results. Value. (What it is called depends on where you work and learn.)

This is about more than the classic training dilemma of applicability or knowledge transfer. Nor is it about lifelong learning, that makes it sound as if we are stuck in school forever.

Let us build the learning system that does not end when the bell rings, nor after the exam, the term, or the (micro)degree.

Alumni communities are not new. What is new (and changing rapidly) is the opportunity created by the economy of effort of the Digital Transformation. It is about tapping the potential of learners-as-leaders, connected to one another, so that they progress toward impact faster than ever before.

This is the only future of learning that matters.

Process trumps product.

Photo: Inside the Globe of Science and Innovation, CERN, Geneva, Switzerland. Personal collection.

Two trees in Manigot. Personal collection.

Missed opportunities (2): How one selfish learner can undermine peer learning

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar

The idea that adult learners have much to learn from each other is fairly consensual. The practice of peer learning, however, requires un-learning much of what has been ingrained over years of schooling. We have internalized the conviction that significant learning requires expert feedback.

In a recent course organized by the Geneva Learning Foundation in partnership with an international NGO, members of the group initially showed little or no interest in learning from each other. Even the remote coffee, an activity in which we randomly twin participants who then connect informally, generated only moderate enthusiasm… where in other courses, we have to remind folks to stop socializing and focus on the course work. One participant told us that “peer support was quite unexpected”, adding that “it is the first time I see it in a course.” When we reached out to participants to help those among them who had not completed the first week’s community assignment, another wrote in to explain she was “really uncomfortable with this request”…

That participant turned out to be the same one demanding validation from an expert, speaking not just for herself but in the name of the group to declare: “We do not feel we are really learning, because we do not know if what we are producing is of any quality”.

Yet, by the third week, other participants had begun to recognize the value of peer feedback as they experienced it. One explained: “I found reviewing other people’s work was particularly interesting this week because we all took the same data and presented it in so many different ways – in terms of what we emphasised, what we left out and the assertions we made.” Another reported: “ I am still learning a lot from doing the assignments and reading what others have done [emphasis mine].”

Here is how one learner summed up her experience: “Fast and elaborative response to the queries. […] The peer system is really great arrangement [emphasis mine]. The course is live where you can also learn from the comments and inputs from course participants. I feel like I am taking this course in a class room with actual physical presence with the rest.” (She also acknowledged the “follow-up from the organizers and course leaders in case of any lag”.)

This is about more than Daphne Koller’s 2012 TED Talk assertion (quoted in Glance et al.’s 2013 article on the pedagogical foundations of MOOCs) that “more often than not students were responding to each other’s posts before a moderator was able to”, which addresses the concern that peers may not be able to find the one correct answer (when there is one). It is not only about peers learning from each other, but also about the relevance of artefact creation for learning.

Week after week, I observed participation grow. Discussion threads grew organically from this shared solidarity in learning, leading to self-directed exploration and, in a few instances, serendipitous discovery. This helped above and beyond my own expectations: “The more we work with peers and get validation, [the more] confidence grows.” After having peer reviewed three projects, one participant wrote: “This is a great experience. Every time I comment to a peer, I actually feel that I am telling the same thing to myself.”

And, yet, that one lone wolf who displayed negatives attitudes stuck to her guns, reiterating her demands: “I would really like to get more feedback on the assignments. I know individual feedback might not be feasible but it would be great to see a good example to see what we could have done better. I would like to learn how I could improve.” Furthermore, she then ascribed her negative attitudes to the entire group… while completely ignoring, denying, or dismissing the group’s experience. (A request for expert feedback is entirely legitimate, but this does not require disparaging the value of peer feedback.)

Admittedly, for various logistical reasons, the course’s subject matter experts were not as present as we had intended in the first three weeks of the course. This, combined with aggressive, negative clamoring for expert feedback, put the course team on the defensive.

That led to a week in which subject matter experts impressively scrambled to prepare, compile, and share a ton of expert feedback. That they were able to do so, above and beyond expectations, is to their credit. As for me, it was startling to realize that I felt too insecure about peer learning to respond effectively. There are substantive questions about the limitations of peer learning, especially when there is only one right answer. “Peer learning” sounds nice but also vague. Can it be trusted? How do you know that everyone else is not also making the same mistake? Who would rather learn from peers with uncertain and disparate expertise rather than from an established expert? Doubts lingered despite my own experience in recent courses, where I observed peers teaching each other how to improve action planning for routine immunization, analyze safer access for humanitarians, improve remote partnering, or develop sampling procedures for vaccination coverage surveys.

Learning technologists‘ interest in peer review is premised on the need for a scalable solution for grading. They have mostly failed to acknowledge much less leverage its pedagogical significance. Reviewing the education research literature, I find mostly anecdotal studies on K-12 schooling, interesting but unproven theories, and very little evidence that I can use. This is strange, given that peer education is nothing new.

This reinforces my conviction that we are breaking new ground with #DigitalScholar. Building on Scholar’s ground-breaking system for structured, rubric-based peer review and feedback, we are adding new layers of activity and scaffolding that can more fully realize the potential of peers as learners and teachers. I do not know where this exploration will take us. It feels like uncharted territory. That is precisely what makes it interesting and exciting. And, following this most recent course, my own confidence has grown, thanks to the audacity and invention of those learners who learned to trust and support each other.

Image: Two trees in Manigot. Personal collection.

 

 

Mother and child. Fountain on the roundabout, Kigali Convention Centre, Rwanda (personal collection)

Missed opportunities (1): making a dent requires rethinking how we construct medical education

Reda Sadki #DigitalScholar

“We are training 30 people to become doctors. My focus is on developing content for open educational resources (OER) that we can use to transmit foundational knowledge.”

Training 30 people at a time is not going to make a dent. Cost and scale are related. Quality does not need to diminish against lower cost or higher scale.

OER are obviously about producing knowledge, but seldom question agency in epistemology. How do we know what know? Who knows how we know? Is the democratization of learning about producing new resources by conventional means, albeit in an African context in partnership with a U.S. university?

I realize then that we understand the content trap in very different ways. For me, it is avoided by embracing pedagogical transformation from transmission to knowledge co-construction. The trap is to remain mired in transmissive modes in a world of content abundance. For various reasons, some people cannot see this distinction or its significance.

“Imagine if you could convene 1,000 doctors,” I say, “to take this foundational knowledge and develop localized guides, grounded in their indigenous expertise. In four weeks, they would produce hundreds of high-quality, peer-reviewed guides with the synthesis of their collective, practical experience of how to challenge health inequity in practice, in situ…”

They know what others do not know. Imagine connecting medical students to such a global network of practitioners who find it immoral that they can only treat those who can pay – and who are already doing something about it. The standard of care may be the same everywhere, but how you drive change to achieve it is so dependent on context. Surely, he will grasp how transformative this could be?

“You may want to speak to our colleagues who do in-service training. They do a lot of that. They may have a real interest in what you are doing here.”

We have already done this with topics completely disparate from each other: pre-hospital emergency care, safer access for humanitarian teams, immunization… But this confuses those who still think in silos of subject matter expertise. There is no topic specificity to what I am proposing. Yes, my proposal breaks with the conventions of medical education. You do not connect students to global action networks. You confine them in a controlled environment to train them, tell them what they must do and how they must do it in order to avoid killing people who are sick, and ensure that they can recall (or look up) the information they need to do this without you.

Is that really all that we can do? Is that really all that must be done?

He ends by boasting how the new campus will have fiber optic. By this point, I can only smile wrily. Fiber enables two-way knowledge flows. Ideological or epistemological limitations confine us to using only half of this potential.

Changing medical education is more than changing locale, revising enrollment criteria, producing “free” resources (subsidized by university endowments), or considering political economy as part of medicine. It requires a change in education as a philosophy.

Image: Mother and child. Fountain on the roundabout, Kigali Convention Centre, Rwanda (personal collection)