Monday, August 6, 2007

Water Water Everywhere...

The bottled water industry has been getting it pretty hard from just about everyone of late. If it's not the amount of non-biodegradable waste the bottles account for, it's the fact that most bottled water is just filtered tap water (or should I use the more industry-friendly term of "PWS - Public Water Source", as Pepsi Co has decided to label it's top-selling Aquafina?).

With regard to the first point, I recognize that most (all?) bottled water is packaged in recyclable materials, and that it's the consumers who aren't disposing of the bottles properly. I also recognize that there are many other "drinks" that contribute to the issue (juices, soft drinks, sports drinks, etc.), so the blame should be exclusively left on the bottled water industry's doorstep. On the other hand, an environmental problem of this size isn't minimized just because of a rerouting of blame-assigning finger pointing (as legit as it might be).

But the part that really surprised me is related to the cost, as compared to regular municipal water sources. Consider:

You can get at least 450 gallons of L.A. tap water for the $1.35 you'd pay
for 20 ounces of Aquafina. Turn that around, and 20 ounces of L.A. tap water
costs about one-twentieth of a cent. Would you pay $5 for a gallon of gas in a
pretty container if you could get a plain-wrap gallon for half a penny? When it comes to water, that's pretty much what we do.
(The Atlanta Journal Constitution, 8/5/07)

In San Francisco, the municipal water comes from inside Yosemite National
Park. It's so good the EPA doesn't require San Francisco to filter it. If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35. Put another way, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000.
(Message in a Bottle, Fast Company, July 2007)

I think it might be time for me to rethink my spending/drinking habits...

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Effective eLearning ID: Tech Skills Req'd?

(originally posted to Tata Interactive Systems' corporate blog)

Alan Kay, a true pioneer/legend in the Computer Science world, once said:

"People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware."

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has referenced this quote several times when challenged with the idea of making Apple more profitable by taking a page from Microsoft's strategic play book and concentrating efforts primarily on software.

Without speaking for Mr. Kay and what it was that he intended with this famous phrase, one potential interpretation is that living in operational silos makes for less than stellar results. The more you have isolated groups who have little/no understanding or appreciation of what goes on in other operational divisions, the less likely you should expect anything groundbreaking or revolutionary to emerge. The best one can expect in such a circumstance is a more finely polished version of what has been seen before, due to a lack of understanding of what is possible and reasonable.

Relating this interpretation to the world of online learning and instructional design, I have gone back and forth over the years regarding if the best (eLearning) IDs also have a more-than-passing familiarity with the basics of computer science, programming, and some of the more popular/powerful authoring tools.

Reflect, for a moment, on the following:

  • Are the IDs you admire/respect the most tech literate?
  • In recruiting, do you explicitly look for tech abilities/understanding as one of the characteristics that are required?
  • Are tech skills something your organization supports developing (in the form of ongoing training) in its ID team members?

Why? Why not?

I'm still not fully convinced one way or another, but I have a heavy leaning...

In my 16+ years in the field, I've seen far too many examples of designs thrown over the wall to developers that detail either mind-numbingly simple interactions (for lack of knowledge that anything better was possible) or amazingly complex pipe-dreams that would require a form of A.I. to actually implement (for lack of understanding of what sorts of logic would necessary). In such cases, I can't help but believe that having a moderate understanding of how development work is done would make for better designs (and ultimately, courseware).

Just as a good architect can't simply design based on what 'looks good', but actually needs to have a basic understanding of the strength of various materials and how they may (not) interact with each other, perhaps the best IDs should know be conversant with Programming Concepts 101 (maybe 201? maybe more?).

Of course, there will always be the counter argument that such a background should be regarded as a 'nice to have', not a 'must have'. After all, didn't Frank Lloyd Wright design beautiful homes that had notoriously leaky flat roofs? (it is said that FLW once told a client to "Move the chair" in response to a complaint of rain leaking through the roof of their house onto the dining table.) But should we build the rule based on the exception?

How would the ID profession change (both positively and negatively) if we suddenly began to require more of a tech-bent? Would we end up cutting our noses off to spite our face? Or would we see a sudden surge in the quality, sophistication, and ingenuity of the instructional solutions that are thrust upon the world?

I'd like to hear YOUR thoughts, regardless of what they are, or how fully fleshed out they might be!

Weigh in!

Personalized Printing --> Personalized Learning Docs?

(originally posted to Tata Interactive Systems' corporate blog)

A couple of months ago, WIRED Magazine made a subtle offer to their subscribers (I've been a loyal subscriber since the first issue showed up in my mailbox for free back in the early 90's):

The first 500(?) people to email a digital photo of themselves to their site would get a personalized cover (using that picture) on the July '07 issue, courtesy of Xerox and their "Custom Xerox" offering.

Well... my personalized issue arrived the other day (see the image on left), and even though it is just a marketing stunt, I have to say that it was pretty neat to have my photo on the cover of my favorite magazine (my son got a kick out of it, too)!

This fun experiment got me to thinking about the implications for learning....

Being primarily focused on technology-based learning, I usually see things through those sorts of glasses, but I am in full agreement with the claim that eLearning is no more a silver bullet solution to education/training woes than the television was when it was introduced. Rarely are there full, single-source solutions to issues, and education is no exception - a careful analysis of goals and objectives, tied to a review of the available tools and techniques is always a critical first step in any learning effort.

With that in mind, I was reflecting on how, even in this age of websites, blogs, and wikis, most people are still much more comfortable and happy with physical documents. For anything over the length of a short email message, most people still prefer to have a hard copy for reading and 'personalizing' (marking up with notes and comments). This is easy enough on a one-off basis for shorter length items using traditional PC printers and blank paper, but what about longer articles or collections of essays that are related?

What would it be like to be able to self-assemble 'personalized learning packets' of related articles from the web that could be bound into a magazine-like format? It's not a rocket science idea (in fact, I don't think there is anything that's been preventing it to date), but just how much more convenient, usable, and useful would such an animal be, compared to stacks of individual articles (usually stapled in a corner, printed with questionable quality on a single side of paper)?

Would YOU value the ability to have a "magazine" of the articles that you wanted/valued? How much would you be willing to pay for it? Would your organization see value in producing customized, high quality collections of articles for its employees (as an internal communication vehicle, performance support tool, or as a blended-learning artifact)? What sorts of avenues of opportunity begin to emerge and open as the ability for greater personalization becomes feasible (both technologically and economically)?


(Heck... forget about personalized magazines! What about personalized objects? Where do these trend-lines begin to take us, as learning and performance improvement experts?)

Facts vs. Stories: And the winner is...

(originally posted to Tata Interactive Systems' corporate blog)

Michael Moore's latest movie, Sicko, is a powerful example of how Stories trump Facts when attempting to teach material that is intended to invoke change (mental and/or active).

Although the film won't be in wide release in the US until later this month (June 29th), Moore has been on the promotional circuit non-stop since his latest work debuted at Cannes' annual film festival (where he won top prize of Best Picture three years ago for Fahrenheit 9/11'). This time around, Moore set his sites on the flawed American health care system.

This blog isn't the proper place to comment upon the in/validity of the content within Sicko. Nor is it the right forum for arguing the pros and/or cons of socialized medicine. Besides, a quick search on the 'net will turn up more than enough 'discussion' on these topics.

I'm mentioning this movie here not because of WHAT material is contained in the film, but rather because of HOW that material is presented.

Here, in the US, the shortcomings of the healthcare system aren't something newly uncovered, freshly emerging, or previously unrecognized. The issues associated with this topic have been
discussed and analyzed in great depth, for several years, by both political parties and a myriad of independent agencies (see this, that, and the other for a short, random sampling) . And yet, little has occurred in the way of substantive change on this hot topic.


While it would be wrong to simplistically distill this complex issue's solution into a blog entry, for the purposes of education, learning, and change (arguably the focus of this blog), there may be
something interesting and illuminating that we can learn here.

Consider the following statistics:

  • "Rates of potentially preventable hospital admissions ranged from more than 10,000 per 100,000 Medicare enrollees in the worst performing states to 5,000 per 100,000 enrollees in the five best... The researchers estimated that if all states could reach low levels of preventable hospital admissions and readmissions for Medicare recipients, hospitalization rates for senior citizens alone could be reduced by 30% to 47% and save Medicare $2 to $5 billion a year." (source)
  • "Between 2000 and 2005, 7.2 million Americans lost their health coverage according to the US Census Bureau.... At the end of 2005, the number of Americans without health insurance reached 47 million." (source)
  • "...the U.S. is an outlier in terms of financial burdens placed on patients. One-half of adults with health problems in the U.S. said they did not see a doctor when sick, did not get recommended treatment, or did not fill a prescription because of cost... Despite these high rates of forgone care, one-third of U.S. patients spent more than $1,000 out-of-pocket in the past year. In contrast, just 13 percent of U.K. adults reported not getting needed care because of costs, and two-thirds had no out-of-pocket costs." (source)

OK... Now consider these profiles from Sicko (as summarized by Robert Weissman):

  • Dawnelle, whose 18-month-old daughter Michelle died because her health plan, Kaiser, insisted Michelle not be treated at the hospital to which an ambulance had taken her, but instead be transferred to a Kaiser hospital. Fifteen minutes after arriving at the next hospital, Michelle died, probably from a bacterial infection that could have been treated with antibiotics.
  • Julie, who works at a hospital, explains how her insurance plan refused to authorize a bone marrow transplant recommended for her cancer-riven husband. He died quickly.
  • Larry and Donna, a late-middle-age couple, find that co-payments and deductibles for treatment after Donna has cancer add up to such a burden that they have to sell their house and move into a small room in their adult daughter's house. The day they move into their daughter's house, her husband leaves to work as a contractor in Iraq.

Which list better captured your attention? Which list made the (claimed) crisis more real/tangible to you? Which list created more outrage... sadness... anger... disappointment... amazement?

From an Instructional Design perspective, which list (or approach: fact vs. stories) is more likely to improve your ability to understand the situation at hand, recall relevant examples of the claims, and invoke behavioral change with your local government representative? (Comprehension, Retention, and Application are three primary legs upon which the fundamental goals of Instructional Design rest).

The questions are effectively rhetorical. In matters of Change Management at nearly any level (personal, corporate, organizational, political), the analytical and quantitative approach of providing stacks of facts and figures in hopes to evoke a shift in behavior is inefficient (at best) and ineffective (at worst). Most change doesn't occur based on evidence - it most often happens based on emotion.

Al Gore's award-winning documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, was chucked full of statistics and report findings that had been around for years, but those numbers weren't what made the film a catalyst of attention and action - it was the stories and photos (in part) that caused audiences worldwide to speak up and take action.

The dangers of Methamphetamine are well documented, but the factual presentation of definitions and known side effects were largely ineffective against the powerful lure of the drug. Solution: move away from the dry figures and highlight the stories of real people (individuals, as well as their families, children, neighbors, and communities).

The next time you are tempted to force a change in your organization (or at home) by overwhelming your audience with facts, figures, charts, graphs, reports, or (gasp) orders from authority figures ("Why should you do this? Because I/your boss/the CEO said so, that's why!"), take a moment and resist the urge. After all, you know in your heart that sort of an approach is rarely effective beyond the short-term.

Instead, come up with a tangible example (story) that illustrates why action is necessary, what sorts of positive (or negative) results may blossom from the change (or lack thereof), or how the success of the change is intimately tied to the actions of individuals. The difference, not only reception, but in deep understanding and internally-motivated behavioral change/action will be amazing.

In the end, it's easy for data to be questioned and argued to the point that your larger message is lost; to bury your call to action beneath an appeal to facts; to mistakenly assume that your audience is logically-driven rather than emotionally-driven.

When we tell (focus on the quantitative), we force our audience to accept a viewpoint that isn't theirs. When we share (focus on the qualitative), we allow our audience to draw a conclusion
for themselves - to decide, for their own reasons, that change is necessary.

All long-term, meaningful change is grounded in belief, and belief ultimately comes only from within. Stories provide a uniquely effective path to the threshold of internally-motivated change.

The Future of Information Management

(originally posted to Tata Interactive Systems' corporate blog)

We are living in exciting times. We are smack-dab in the middle of a r/evolution of such magnitude that its impact will (likely) only be evident in retrospect.

Three data points have converged recently to evoke this feeling of excitement, amazement, and minor vertigo about what the future holds.

1) Information Management Technologies

In the video above (one of several fantastic presentations shared by TED), Blaise Aguera y Arcas demos some jaw-dropping technology (Photosynth) coming out of Microsoft Live Labs (based on Blaise's previous efforts with Seadragon, which was acquired by MS in '06). This image/info manipulation and organization tool is tough to describe in words, but the wide array of potential applications/uses immediately become apparent via the demo shown in the video.

Suddenly, we see the ability to enable the emergence of information that has never been explicitly defined by someone, but rather is dynamically created based on the novel analysis of large groupings of small pieces. (see the segment about Notre Dame modeled off of Flicker images)

We begin to see novel ways to leverage technology to do truly unique things, rather than using them to recreate old things in new skins. (see the embedding of micro images/print into digital versions of 'traditional' media - it reminds me of the corporations who are inserting long, detailed product information and extended stories in a momentary burst at the tailend of TV ads, viewable only by 'stepping' through them frame-by-frame using a Tivo/DVR remote, as a means to (re)capture eyeballs in the age of 'ad skipping'. For an example, view GE's One Second Theater.)

I recall reading somewhere (can't remember now) that UI beauty is born from spare MIPs - that it was only when processing/computing speeds became sufficiently fast that any substantial attention was directed towards the look & feel of applications. Thus, we had text-based OS's and app's (think DOS as a later example) well before any GUI's were an option. It seems we are experiencing another step along this path, as the power of even average PCs today far outstrip the stress the average user places on them - they (effectively) sit idle, waiting for the next command from the user 95% of the time (I made that figure up, but it's probably an underestimation, if anything). Thus, you see 'grid computing' efforts popping up to take advantage of these spare cycles (one of the older examples is the initiative). The power of 'gamer' video cards and video gaming systems (XBox, PSP, etc.) is extraordinary by measures set only a few years ago. This fact enables people like Blaise to begin to imagine new capabilities (thanks to Moore's Law... although I think that he came up with some very innovative ideas about how graphics are handled that amplified the pure computing power curve!)

2) Direct Manipulation Interfaces

In video above (again, from TED), Jeff Han demonstrates an amazing and intuitive way of manipulating information directly, rather than the long-in-the-tooth mouse/keyboard method. Again, seeing the demo in video takes the place of pages of (inadequate) descriptive text.

This is very similar (perhaps related deeply?) to the newest Microsoft announcement, Surface.

Even if they aren't related efforts, it may be an example of simulateous convergence of an idea whose time has come (like Newton and Leibniz related to Calculus). This concept of direct manipulation, coupled with widely networked and 'aware' devices (see the three videos on the Surface home page) will open up an entirely new horizon of creating/storing/sharing digital

3) New Paradigms of Information Organization

David Weinberger recently published a fascinating book, Everything is Miscellaneous. At its core, it's a book about classification/categorization and how things change when the items being cataloged are bits rather than atoms (digital rather than physical). It's about the power of metadata, tagging, and in/formal taxonomies.

This basic premise (that we are now afforded the option of describing a single thing in multiple ways, all of which are valid and useful, depending on your objectives) is the fuel behind what makes Blaise's work possible (in part). The ability to search, sort, and shuffle large storehouses of otherwise miscellaneous/random data to reveal new patterns and meaning rests in the 'information about the information'.

These three spikes in the blogosphere converged in my head today and (re)ignited my imagination of what awaits us (and our children) in the not-so-distant future.

How will these samples (along with the hundreds of other gadgets, gizmos, and tools that are popping up daily on the web) influence and impact the way we conceptualize and manage "information", "learning", and "knowledge" in the academic (K-12/16/20+) and corporate domains?

Only time will tell, but it seems clear that the possibilities are limited much more severely by our own imaginations and mental models than by the enabling technologies.