Relationships

Development of materials for online, distance, blended and campus-based courses can be a pleasurable experience. It can also be fraught with issues not least constraints in time, budgets, resources, personalities, egos, etc. How can we manage this? It’s quite easy really … keep the conversation and communications flowing.

The worst thing that can happen during the time set aside to design, develop and implement the materials is that there is a breakdown in the process or communications. Breakdowns will and do happen, it’s how you manage it that can determine how quickly you can get back on track. If the goal or deadline that you’re working to is a sensible and achievable one then I always see that as the starting point to work back from. You have three months? Excellent, drop a week or two off that for final checks and testing. You’ll need it.

From there work out any leave or national holidays between now and then. This might throw up further family leave or conference activity that will mean part of your team will be unavailable. Work out roles and responsibilities, assign these according to expertise or availability. Let everyone know who is doing what, when and why. I don’t like them but a Gantt chart will really help you here. Keep it updated, no matter how hard or late. Keep it stored centrally, with all your other files and resources, and let everyone know where it is and why it’s there. Refer to it regularly. Point everyone to it regularly and check you’re on schedule for each milestone. It’s better to find out early you’ll miss a milestone, you can work with that, than to find out the day after it was due. If that happens then there is something more serious happening here (see below), your team should be able and willing to give bad news as well as receive it. Milestones move, but identifying them early helps mitigate any serious delays.


Work out a communication structure early, stick to it, hold others to it, don't let it drop...
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Work out a communication structure early, stick to it, hold others to it, don’t let it drop, encourage delays to be caught up, don’t sacrifice the end goal – once you do that it’ll become acceptable for those deadlines to be ‘flexible’ and sometimes ignored.

The elephant in the room, if there is one, is that the academic or team you’re working with is not particularly interested or engaged in the project or course. Sometimes this is because they’re just very busy and this isn’t a priority for them. It could also be that they’ve had this work dropped in their lap and are effectively forced to engage (or not). Whatever the reason, keeping on side with them is key to the relationship. 

We’ve all struggled at some point or another with team members dragging the heals as part of the process. As I said earlier, there are many personal or work related reasons. For me it’s always been key to remain helpful, informative, supportive and focussed. If you’re on message and on time or budget, others will take your lead and follow suit. Mostly. For those who don’t, if you’re in communication with them then the relationship you have can help bring it back on track. Yes, their office may be gathering dust and they’re never on campus, but you do have a phone and their number. Call them. If they are on campus but just busy (or avoiding you?) then I often seem to find people in the queue for a coffee between lectures [smile]. Don’t get all heavy, just a short ‘hi’ and chat to ask about progress or how they are is sometimes enough to find out that, yes, they are sorry for the delay and, yes, they’re nearly finished. There, no great panic. Back on track again.

Sometimes we spend time and effort building a relationship we often forget that it needs maintenance and regular tweaking to keep it fresh and working. Circumstances can change, as do projects or timescales. Build the relationship and work on it and you will find those you work with will also share your passion for the work and that three month deadline is easy, after all!

Image source: clement127 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sharing

Recent themes to my work has been the nature of how, and what, we share. I wanted to reflect a little on my own ‘sharing’ here, and try and split the sharing from social media, if possible. 

There are obvious easy ways to write about my sharing (per platform) but also I want to think about the why? So, why? I can’t deny one major factor is to reach a wider audience than just those I immediately work with on a day-to-day basis. By sharing my ideas or thoughts or projects or interests I’m obviously creating and managing my brand (me) but I also hope to be of some influence to others working in the same sphere as me.

Blogging

Obviously, there’s this blog. Back when I started writing here I used to write about the day-to-day tasks and tools I used. The last few years has seen me change direction, mainly due to possible conflict of interest with where I’ve worked and the need to keep some commercially sensitive things private. I’ve developed it more recently to be about the why I do things and how I develop myself or my work, my attitude to learning and technology and how use them both. I write here to share experiences and ideas, books I’ve read and reviewed, books I’ve written and curated, etc. I write to have a brain-dump, drop ideas or stress, I write to see what you all think … What do you think?

Twitter

I share my blog posts on Twitter so I can reach more people, and engage the wider field of learning technology. It reaches more people this way and I can engage in conversations beyond my own understanding, therefore helping me widen my appreciation and knowledge for my work. My Twitter activity involved my blog but also other aspects of my work, and sometimes home life too, but mainly my work. I save tweets to my ‘like’ (although I still don’t use it as “ooh, I like this tweet” but rather as a save feature to go back and read or reply to something after the fact) and add people to my lists. Twitter is my go-to place all day and pretty much everyday. My network or followers and those I follow grows and changes all the time, therefore my exposure to new ideas or tools does too.

LinkedIn

I’ve been and gone on LinkedIn before and, at the moment, am back and engaging here again. The audience is different to Twitter, less chat and more ‘sharing’. Perhaps it’s because it’s viewed as more of my online CV, or perhaps because there’s different mechanisms for comments, etc. I don’t know, but LinkedIn is an acquired taste. Currently I like it, but I take it each day at a time with all my sharing. 

Pinterest/Flipboard

I use both these platforms more for searching and reading different themes, less so for my own sharing, but I appreciate the work others are putting into their sharing activities here. For some these are important channels for sharing their work or ideas, and that’s fine.

This is, after all, about what works for you or me. There is no rule that will work for everyone, we are each individual and have different perspectives and needs and likes, and this is what we each bring to the wider community. THIS is what makes our personal (learning) networks so vibrant and interesting. This is why I love to share .. I take so much from the community on all these platforms, I want to add something back in the hope (need?) that it makes a difference to someone like something I’ve just taken. Isn’t sharing great!


Sharing: why and how. It may be a tweet, a blog post, an idea, a photo. This is sharing. For me.
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Facebook

I suppose I ought to add this here too although I’m still thinking of dumping my account here. Facebook has only ever been about family and friends. I dabbled in having a work-type account but realised the audience was the same, but smaller, than my twitter audience so decided it wasn’t worth the extra time to manage and curate it. 

Above all I try and keep my sharing professional. I have interests that creep into my sharing every now and then, mainly on Twitter. Yes, I have two kittens, I drink tea not coffee, I love Lego. But it’s still shared with a view to what my audience may be interested in. I don’t follow celebrities, for the most part, as I’m just not that interested in what they’re doing. Unless they are the kind of people I think are celebrities like Steve Wheeler, Stephen Heppell, Sue Beckingham, Amy Burvall, Maren Deepwell, et al (see the people I’ve been lucky to work with on my books, these are the celebrities in my world!). Then, of course, I’m a groupie and will follow them anywhere I can.

What about you? What is your strategy (if you have one) for sharing?

Image source: iSchumi (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Authenticity

When you buy a new car or buy a new TV you go to a showroom who deals in the car or TV, either it’s an official retailer for the item or it has a reputation you trust. Well, we used to at any rate. It seems these days, and I’m equally guilty of this, we go online and find the cheapest version. There, that’ll do. Even if we use a ‘reputable’ website we may find ourselves buying the £5 USB cable made by a company we’ve never heard of instead of the £15 cable from one we have. “It’s OK, it’s from Amazon, it’ll be OK.” (Other online retailers exist, try them out too sometime!)

Is it the same with our learning? When choosing a college or university we look at a lot of things about it, not only the details of the course and individual topics within it but things like accommodation, proximity to the town or shops, on-campus events, clubs, sports facilities, reviews from previous students, etc. I don’t remember even thinking about who would teach me my degree, I looked into everything BUT the teaching staff. Is this wrong?

It seems different when looking at the different MOOCs on offer, I find myself looking at the course team as much as the course syllabus itself. A MOOC on Shakespeare? Why, yes please … but who wrote it and who’s delivering it? Ahh, a ‘renowned Shakespearean academic’ in Professor Bate and it’s been developed by the University of Warwick (ranked consistently in the UKs’ top 10 universities). That kind of makes up my mind .. even though the course page doesn’t say much about the course contents, other than the promo video

I’ve worked on a number of MOOCs and online courses as well as blended and campus/classroom based courses. There are many differences in what I/we do depending on the audience and delivery method, but the courses that have an element of face-to-face contact doesn’t really need the teacher introduced as part of the designed materials. This is, or should be, done in person. Often the first lecture or contact point with the students will be an introduction made by the teacher on who they are, what their background is and why they are the one who should give the course. Often courses are taught by a team, sometimes led by the senior academic and supported by either junior academics or PhD students. Are they also included in the list of authors or facilitators? They have equal right to be there, especially if the learners have more contact with them (in person or online) than the ‘lead’. This is content given to the students and often not part of the slides they can download for each lecture. There may be some info on the VLE, but is it really enough to showcase the breadth of knowledge behind the course and it’s creation?


Authenticity and credibility in online learning
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For these courses with contact time it seems it doesn’t really matter that this stuff isn’t written in to the course itself. For online courses of any nature or audience it is imperative this information is front and centre. If you can highlight prior to the course (especially for MOOCs) the credibility of the authoring and teaching team it will enhance the authenticity of the course itself.

This is often overlooked in some online courses and is why I insist on having this information front and centre in the courses I work on. This gives the course and the whole course team the credibility to be the ones to deliver and facilitate the course, and it gives the content and materials the authenticity needed to demonstrate to the learners that this team has experience and background to be the best team to lead it.

There are so many options and ways to learn online, sometimes the number of courses on a similar subject exist. So, which one will you choose? The one that looks nice? The cheapest one, or the one that has been developed and delivered by the best team possible, therefore giving you the best possible learning experience?

Yeah, me too.

Image source: Ara Pehlivanian (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Speakerphone

The past four months have seen me working remotely and from home. Not only has it meant more time with the family but it’s meant the technology has been essential to my ability to work, and I’ve put it all to extremely good use. I think I ought to write an update to my EdTechRations … ?

One item I could not be without is a speakerphone for the daily Skype calls I have. I’ve got a Jabra Speak 410 speakerphone and it means I can be natural and comfortable on calls, even walk around the room as we talk. I don’t need a headset which doesn’t limit me to where I can be. It’s compact and light so easily transport where I need to be and it has excellent microphone with no feedback. I’m a convert!

Obviously it’s not practical in an open office where you probably don’t want everyone hearing your conversation, but you can plug in earphones if you want, so I still use a headset for that, but it is fantastic as a conference phone – place it in the middle of the group of you and it picks up your voices from a good distance away, from all angles. You have the ability to mute the microphone if you want to stop sharing your audio (always useful if you want to converse privately before being open), change the volume if it gets too loud or quite (all done through something called the ‘digital signal processing’ technology).

It’s USB based and works easily on my Windows laptop and Mac desktop, integrates seamlessly with both Skype and Skype for Business, as well as nicely for Facetime on the Mac. What’s not to like?

Image source: Jabra website

Book recommendations?

If you recommended one book to someone to read, be it work-related or not, what would it be and why?

Here’s are four recommendations from me:

  • Creativity Inc. (Ed Catmull). Whilst mainly about the history of Disney Pixar this book is a fantastic insight into how a business or operation benefits from creative minds and creative approaches. I may not like Pixar or it’s film, but reading the book will give you a different perspective on how different approaches, and how you work with them, can benefit an individual and organisation.
  • Ready Player One (Ernie Cline). You may or may not like sci-fi books, but this one is a great look at the future. With everyone using OASIS, an all-access Facebook/Second Life mashup. The book is about who gets control of this behemoth of a system (and it’s money), but this book is great on so many levels, not least how Ernie Cline sees education in this future (very reminiscent of Issac Asimov here).
  • The subtle art of not giving a f**k (Mark Manson). Once you get past the title and profuse swearing there is a solid premise to this book .. learn how to manage your own life and responsibilities, as well as those who try and dump their troubles on you (personally or professionally). Well worth a read if you have ever felt you take on to much and can’t find yourself among the noise of others.
  • Learning with ‘E’s (Steve Wheeler). I have a huge amount of time for Steve and his work. This book is an insight into Steve, his work, his blog, and his thinking that if you have any interest in learning, eLearning and anything digital / teaching / learning then this is for you! Seriously, it is!

My other book reviews are available here.


If you recommended one book to someone to read, be it work-related or not, what would it be and why?
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Image source: Andreas (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Instruction

Following on from my two previous posts which cover my thought process about familiarity in learning design and how distractions can affect both our work and learn environments, I wanted to write about instruction. Instructions we give as well as those we receive.

When you start something new, at work or at home, do you read or follow the instructions? If it’s a new cabinet (Ikea anyone?) or piece of furniture, you’ll probably follow the instructions quite clearly. I know I do. Same with Lego? Yes, me too, although I do like to mess with Lego and see what weird-yet-satisfyingly-symmetrical construction me and my boys can come up with.

Even with new technologies I usually like to read a little of the instructions to get me started, at least to the point where I know how to charge it and when it’s ready to use. These days most modern companies provide some excellent get-you-started instructions with their products; enough for the likes of me who just want to get started, more detailed versions online for those who want to delve deeper. 

When we have a new person join our team we often find ourselves working through an induction programme, introducing them to key people they need to know (IT, HR, estates, etc.) and then spend time showing the ropes in the VLE, LMS, online HR system, file server, phones, etc. See, we take care of our own and make sure they have enough to get started, then step back and give them room to find their feet, all the time being a careful parent ready to step in and answer any questions.


When was the last time you read the induction materials, and I mean read not just link-and-fact checked them?
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But what of our online learners? We have probably developed a full-on induction or on-boarding process for them. We’ve probably not revisited it for a couple of years as well, but have we done too much or too little for our distant and online clients (yes clients … there is a payment transaction going on, even in MOOCs these days). When was the last time you read the induction materials, and I mean read not just link-and-fact checked them? What about getting them tested by someone new to the programme? 

In my time I’ve seen old induction instructions that are out of date, yet still valid because links work and the platform hasn’t changed. That shouldn’t mean we can let them be. In the last few years I’ve seen major changes in how different learning platforms are used. What they do are still mostly the same, but how we use them is constantly, or should be constantly changing. Therefore the induction programme should also be changed to reflect that too. Again, it’s not just about the click-this and click-that instructions, but the information around why we are asking students to do something that needs checking.

What do you do then? Do you keep referring back to those initial instructions throughout the courses, reminding the learner about the tools or help available, or do you rely on them remembering it and, hopefully, reviewing the induction programme? When you use a different or new tool with the learners do you write some guide for them, on both the how it works and why you’re using it? I bet you do, but do you go and add it to the induction programme for the next cohort of learners? You should.

For me the process of inducting learners to your organisation or platform never ends, or rather ends when they complete the course or programme and ‘graduate’. If they’re studying a three year degree it’s an easy bet that the tools and how you use them will change (again, SHOULD change!) over the lifespan of their studies. If your learners are only with you for a short while, a matter of weeks, then there’s still no reason to not keep them informed with either email communications or VLE announcements when they’re going to encounter something new as part of their learning. If they’re used to MCQs week on week,  then you start using discussion boards, then a reminder about what they are, what you expect from the learning in the discussion, and how to use them is a good way to introduce the activity.

Image source: clement127 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Distraction

My last post was all about the ways in which familiarity can bring a sense of consistency to not only delivering online learning content, but also designing and developing it. This time I want to look at the way in which distraction can prevent the well designed and impeccably delivered learning materials. 

Whether you work in an office or, like me at the moment, at home, we all look to manage our working environment. Working in an office, small or large, will often mean managing how people interact with you when you’re trying to concentrate, preventing the creep of office chatter or ‘work’ noise. 

Personally, if I want to focus I use music and, when in an environment with others, headphones. Depending on the quality of your headphones you may find you provide more distraction for  co-workers as your headphones leak sound. A while ago I bought a set of AKG Y50BT headphones … not noise-cancelling, I can’t afford a decent set of those, but these on-ear ‘phones are really good at reducing noise ingress. The only downside of these is that my ears get hot.

Working from home means I don’t have to wear the ‘phones unless I have to. I can have music playing in my study or, if I work in the kitchen or conservatory, from the laptop or Amazon Echo (yes, I got one). Obviously working from home is great, but that’s once the kids have gone to school. Come mid-late afternoon, they’re back. I don’t want to impact my home life so back I go to the ‘study’ (smallest bedroom, until I get the garden office built!), close the door and try and let the house carry on as normal.

You can’t really do that in a shared office either, can you? Some people I’ve spoken with while writing this have a dedicated ‘quiet’ room where one or more can go to work in ‘silence’, or rather without interruption. Now that’s a good idea!

Making sure those around us know when we’re available to chat or when we want to focus and not be disturbed. I’ve worked with people who’ve had different techniques for this; one had a sign they’d hang on the back of their chair when they’re not to be disturbed. One manager used to wear a hat when he wanted to focus and be left alone. Another used to put his headphones on.


How do you work or learn in a distracted environment?
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All this is great for me and how I set my working environment up, but what about for those of us who are also learners? What about for learners who are not as experienced or comfortable in sitting down at a computer or computing device to ‘learn’? What does distraction mean to them?

Firstly we, the learning design/development community, have to recognise that no matter how hard we try we will never be the most important thing in the learner’s life – family, friends, work, fitness, health, etc. will always exert a pull on their time and commitment. We have to respect that and enable the learning to fit around their existing lives. Even those learners who are fully committed to the course(s) and spend as long as possible, or even longer than we recommend,  need to be able to learn when it suits them. Learners will often be doing it after a full day of work, family, etc. No everyone is at their mental best at this time either, so we need to make the learning as ‘easy’ to access as possible (see my post ‘familiarity‘ for more on this).

I’ve often seen, in online courses, a timer at the beginning of a section – “Time to complete: 0.5hrs”. There are often timescales ‘imposed’ on the course itself, most MOOCs will say something like “5 hrs per week“. This has often raised questions about whether we ought to be this prescriptive about how long the ‘learning’ should take, after all people read or learn at different rates.

When you create your online course, do you help the learner by explaining how they can set up their time and environment to prevent distraction? Would the (novice) learner benefit from our experience if we told them “find somewhere quiet, turn the TV off, close down social media tabs, don’t look at your phone notifications, switch the phone to silent, etc.”. But what about those people who focus more when there is noise (not distraction, but noise .. music, family, TV, cafe, etc.). I know it works for me. Sometimes.

Distraction doesn’t mean isolation or quiet. Something distracting to me might be essential for you to focus and relax. The thing here, for me, is that we have had the luxury to find out these things for ourselves. For our learners, what can we do to help them find their ideal ‘learning environment’? If your course has an on-boarding process or initiation stage then use it to highlight what is expected of them, how much time (and how often) they ought to spend on the course and it’s readings.

Provide as much information for the learners, without overloading them, to make the decisions for themselves. And try it out.

Image source: cosmo_71 (CC BY ND-2.0)

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This post was first published on eLearning Industry.