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Developing a SixthSense for Mobile Learning

I recently wrote about Augmented Reality (AR) and some intriguing possibilities in mobile learning. Some folks at MIT are working on a technology that could have dramatic implications for mobile learning and information retrieval.

They call it SixthSense.

Demoed in a TED presentation Pranav Mistry has created an inexpensive wearable system that can project information about real world objects onto any surface. While most current AR implementations require you to pull out your phone, or wear a Heads Up Display (HUD) device, Mistry’s invention is worn around the neck and thus always accessible.  The implications of this really have to be seen to grasp the possibilities.

The real magic of the system however is in the programming that allows you to interact with real world objects. Imagine this type of device being used in a manufacturing facility or lab. Since it’s a personal device, it will know who you are. As you approach a piece of machinery it could instantly access your records and note that it had been 6 months since you last worked on this type of equipment and offer a quick refresher training. Or perhaps, since it would know if you were a new employee, provide a just in time briefing on its safe operation.

I also can imagine it being very useful for teamwork and collaboration. I know many of my best ideas have been sketched out on the back of a napkin while at lunch with a client. With SixthSense we could easily turn the entire table into an instant whiteboard to share and capture our ideas.

I believe that developments like SixthSense, and other Augmented Reality options for accessing information at the point of need, will accelerate the move from training by courses to discrete just-in-time learning experiences. For years authors have been writing about the need to be a life-long learner in the rapidly changing work environment. When technologies like SixthSense become ubiquitous, I don’t know that we will be talking anymore about life-long learning. The distinction between doing and learning will disappear, as the doing becomes the learning.

What do you think?

Helping the Brain Make Meaning

I recently discovered a presentation from last year’s TED conference by Tom Wujec, an Information Designer and Fellow at AutoDesk, in which he explored the question, “How can we best engage our brains to help us better understand big ideas?” Certainly an important question for those of us engaged in developing training and communications programs.

Wujec’s investigation was stimulated by people’s reactions to an experiment conducted at the previous year’s TED conference. (For those not familiar with it, TED is a conference for bringing together leading thinkers and practioners in the fields of Technology, Education and Design. The purpose is to share “big ideas” that will “change attitudes, lives and ultimately the world.”) At the previous conference, artist from AutoDesk and The Grove were capturing the main ideas or concepts from each presentation in sketches. These were then assembled into an interactive display that attendees could explore. The overwhelming positive response led Wujec to begin to investigate just how does the brain “make meaning” or assemble mental models.

Not surprisingly, his investigation of cognitive science lead to the conclusion that the visualization of ideas and concepts plays an important role in how we make meaning of and retain ideas. He learned that meaning comes through a series of discovery or “ah-ha” moments, through various processes. His talk focused on three areas of the brain involved in converting visual input into mental models.

  1. The Ventral Stream – which determines “what” we are looking at
  2. The Dorsal Stream – which spatially locates or places items
  3. Limbic System – where the feeling or emotional reaction to what we’re seeing resides

Wujec’s examination of how these three (along with about 25 other processes) create meaning led to three conclusions that have significance for how we develop training and communications.

  1. Have People Interact with the Images to Create Engagement
  2. Augment the Memory with Persistent and Evolving Views

Of course as I watched the presentation, I immediately thought of our Blueline Blueprint learning visuals. For years we have known how effective they are at helping individuals grasp new ideas and concepts. One of my clients found that after three months people who attended a session using a learning visual I had designed had a 65% better grasp of the company’s new strategic objectives, and how those objectives should influence their work, than individuals attending the traditional CEO “road-show.” I was struck by how the training and communication sessions built around one of our Blueprints tap directly into Wujec’s three components of making meaning.

1. Use Images to Clarify Ideas — Now I can hardly draw a stick figure, but I’m lucky enough to work with talented artists who excel at developing visual metaphors and images to capture and clarify clients’ ideas. During at least half the Blueprint (links to projects I’ve worked on, someone on the client team will say, “we’ve struggled with this for months, but your visual has created alignment and clarity of message that we just couldn’t achieve.”

2.Have People Interact with the Images to Create Engagement — Using the Socratic Dialogue method, small teams of learners explore this powerful visual to find information, make connections and discuss application to their work. This creates a level of engagement and processing of ideas that is an order of magnitude greater than listening to a presentation of material.

3.Augment the Memory with Persistent and Evolving Views — Frequently, we will use elements from the Blueprint as a visual component in on-going communications that occur after the initial session. This provides a visual trigger that recalls the experience and the learning. We have also created place-mat size copies of the visual or even mouse-pads as take-aways, all to provide that persistent review of the concepts and application.

Of course, discovery learning, or creating those “ah-ha” moments, is fundamental to all of our designs and programs. We constantly strive to find ways to live up to a slightly altered version of Lao-Tse’s quote on great leadership, “But of a good design, – when its work is done, its aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did this ourselves.”

What Can Facebook and Twitter Teach Us About Developing Knowledge Communities?

The social media tools of the tech-savvy have gone mainstream in the last year. CNN and many other news organizations now encourage us to follow them on Twitter for the most up to date and breaking news. And not just follow them, but share news stories as they are happening!

Facebook has gone from a way of connecting with other college students on campus, to an international community that includes not just students but mothers, fathers, and even grandmothers and grandfathers.

These new ways of connecting, communicating and sharing information are now making their way into the corporate world as organizations look for ways to capture, share and manage the knowledge and expertise that exists within them. Social Learning is quickly becoming a new catch phrase in the corridors of HR.

So what can we learn from Facebook and Twitter as we examine how to develop knowledge or learning communities in our companies. I think there are several lessons to keep in mind.

  1. Some people will take to it naturally and some won’t.  Just like any other media, the social media approaches will naturally fit some people’s learning and communicating styles better than others. Some people enjoy the conversations and interactions that social tools encourage, while others find this type of sharing and discourse uncomfortable. Social media tools should not be viewed as the answer for knowledge sharing and information, but be part of an overall strategy that includes a variety of options. These new tools have not replaced the telephone, email and face-to-face contact. They have augmented them. In the same way, they will not replace classroom sessions, online training or reference sources, but provide new ways to enhance them.
  2. Plan for organic growth rather than mandated use. Okay, I will admit it. The first time I checked out Twitter about a year ago, I didn’t get it. Now I consider myself a pretty tech-savvy guy, who enjoys being on the cutting edge of technologies, but I really didn’t care what my friends had for lunch! However, as more people I knew began to use Twitter and use it to share important news, ask questions, and crowd-source needs, I found that it did have a place in my communications toolkit. While both Facebook and Twitter have grown exponentially in the last few months, it has not been through a strong marketing push, but rather an organic pull. Friends ask “Are you on Facebook?” and in online discussions “What’s your Twitter handle?” Sure once CNN and Oprah got on-board they took off, but the initial success was built by individuals sharing: “Hey this works for me, check it out.” Successful implementations of knowledge management/sharing communities within organizations will grow the same way. As people start exploring and sharing with their friends, co-workers and network, the value they are getting, and ways they are using the tools, growth will happen. So plan your roll-out strategy to build off of this organic growth.
  3. The greatest power will come in ways you won’t anticipate or expect.  The founders of Twitter had no idea that it would become a means for people to share breaking news during times of crises (like the riots after the Iran elections). It was simply a way to stay in touch with other tech friends – quickly and easily. But as people started using it, they found their own ways to make it valuable.When Facebook opened up to third party developers all types of additional possibilities were created. Now, I don’t really need any more Mafia Wars or Farmville invitations, thank you! But the variety of applications and ways of interacting that are being created means that there can be something for everybody. Again, not what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind when he started it, but certainly a big part of Facebook‘s appeal for many people. Now if you are a corporate IT person, this probably scares you to death. But the more open and adaptable you make the tool, the more ways people will find to use it to add value to the organization. The more locked down it is, the less it will get used and the less value it will create. Remember the folks who created the Internet never imagined it would become the ubiquitous tool for commerce, communication, and sharing that it is today.
  4. Don’t try to think or plan too far out.  Before there was Facebook, there was MySpace and before that Friendster. Soon there will be something that replaces Facebook. (Some think it could be Google Wave, but that’s for a future post). The technologies are evolving and creative people are developing new ways to connect, share, collaborate and work. And the pace of this evolution is accelerating.Three years is probably a good horizon for planning for any social media/communication tool. To plan beyond that is likely a waste of time and resources. And again, as more people begin to push on the capabilities of whatever you implement, there will be a demand for more, better and faster ways to share, organize and access knowledge.
  5. Finally, make it simple and easy to get started.  One of Twitter’s greatest advantages for growth is similar to one of Google’s, it’s dead simple to use. It’s just a single text box. How intimidating is that? And while Facebook is a bit more involved, the main use that most people start with is simply answering the “What’s on your mind?” question. Of course, there is a lot more you can do with Twitter once you start learning about hash tags, direct messaging, retweets, etc. The same goes for learning about the various features and options available on Facebook. But you don’t need to understand, or even know about those, to get started using them. In fact, go back to point number one, most people learn about these more advanced methods organically. They don’t need a “Here’s how to use Facebook” guide.

There are many platforms or technologies that you can use to implement a learning community or knowledge-sharing infrastructure in your organization. (In fact, we have recently rolled out our own platform Boost!,) Regardless of what platform you choose, following the lessons of Facebook and Twitter can help make your implementation more successful. I’d love to hear what you are doing and what you are learning.

The promise of Mobile Learning is real…but it may not be what you thought it was

Let’s start with two very different perspectives:

1) Mobile learning leverages today’s smart phone technologies to deliver a unique experience to the user.  GPS, for example, makes it possible to provide a one-of-a-kind experience for the user by tying content to the learner’s location.

2) Mobile learning gives us the opportunity to better serve each learner’s unique needs.  Given the option, many users with lots of downtime inherent in their jobs, will choose to access content remotely via a mobile device.

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to explore Mobile Learning concepts and application with some of the definitive experts in the space, including researchers at ADL Co-Labs and practitioners from Bank of America/Merrill Lynch. Their lens’ couldn’t have been more different, but both offered tremendous insight into this emerging learning methodology.

Lessons learned at Merrill that are being adopted by new Parent Bank of America show success by focusing on “low hanging fruit” like compliance training first.  Rather than push innovation to its limits, they are focused on old school html, downloading in 128 kb increments without a need for a persistent connection.  Their solution connects to LMS through middleware and simply conveys initiation, completion and scoring.  And the solution was developed for both mobile and computer-based platforms.

The bank has benefitted by significantly reducing the time to completion and certification for about 20% of the 60,000 employees that it targeted.  Users who self select this mode love it…it shows high efficacy…much faster completion rates…and strong preference feedback.

Judy Brown from ADL Co-Labs suggested a very different insight: Mobile learning can be but is not necessarily elearning lite…she challenged us to think about the additional opportunities that a mobile device offers…e.g. the GPS example referenced above.

Consider wildly popular applications like the Obama ’08 tool for iPhone as a possible template for future on-boarding applications.

While Judy was quick to cite the growth of mobile access: In 3 years, ATT mobile traffic has increased nearly 5,000 percent.  She also acknowledged that the single biggest issue is trying to develop solutions that can be accessed from all types of devices since each (i.e. Blackberry and iPhone) has different programming requirements.

Still the temptation to chase this new holy grail for learning is great. Ray Kurzweil the much ballyhooed technology futurist is quoted as saying: “Mobile phones are misnamed. M-learning: Pervasive. Get learners to complete tasks while going about their day-to-day lives.”

There are other factors that will greatly influence the adoption of mobile learning.  Consider the following:

1)We have already developed proven technologies that allow development of very immersive yet very low bandwidth level 4 simulation designs.
2)2010 will usher in new technologies including a mobile version of flash called the Flash Lite Distributable Player.
3)3 and 4G networks are beginning to make persistent connections possible.

So where does this leave us?  In my view, solving business problems is still what’s most critical.  We have a new and evolving arrow in our quiver.  We need to consider the design that delivers the maximum benefit to the learner and the business.  Initially, mobile learning will find it niche in performance support applications — applications that deliver JIT/just-enough knowledge (and skill to a lesser extent) at point of need will offer the greatest return.  Or in large scale compliance heavy learner populations with downtime built into their jobs like the opportunity targeted at Bank of America.

Its a great time to be a business professional in the field of learning! Learn more about Mobile Learning Solutions from Blueline Simulations