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ArmWrestling for Enlightenment at 28K Feet

A long and fascinating week at the mLearn Conference in San Jose California leaves me full to the brim with the joys of seeing friends, meeting new colleagues and challenging myself to stuff as much new information as I can into my aging brain matter.

Conferences always leave me with a mix of exhaustion and exhilaration and I worry that I’ll forget one of those thousands of little promises to email, answer a question, forward a note to a colleague etc. At present I’m seated snugly in the booby prize seat of a rather large jet rocketing homeward at nearly 30,000 feet. Glorious mountains below are treating me to a sensational parallax scroll against the lightly scattered puffball clouds and the wing of the plane.

I joked to someone special that I was destined for armrest wrestling with a nice young man who is seated next to me. You know what I mean? That endless dance of elbows trying to be courteous on a four hour flight but sooner or later bound to do battle in pursuit of whatever rest and relaxation might be possible within the bounds of these torture devices the airlines pretend are seats?

We all eventually accept with complacency the inevitable conventions foisted upon us, airline seats, elbow wars, terrible eLearning modules. That’s hardly a new idea. Elmer Rice powerfully captured the sentiment of a complacent post-industrial society in the Adding Machine (1923).

Fritz Lang famously echoed the sentiment in 1927 with the release of Metropolis, and I’m certain that if we looked we’d find the notion complacency, whether in mass armies of Stepford surrender or as individual acts of apathy has been a part of the human condition since the beginning of time.

One of the things that often intrigues me at eLearning (and now mLearning) conferences is the number of people who are perfectly aware of the paradox, who recognize that the training they are developing will probably not be effective, but who pound it out as info-dumps nonetheless. I think in the end that Rice and Lang, while delivering poignant metaphors for the human condition, are equally giving us exaggerated representations of compliance.

People are seldom so generic or affable. At least not in Western society. Though neither are they as often willing to buck the reigns of convention as I would prefer. 😉

I have taught in Higher Education for more than twenty years now. I have taught largely in brick and mortar schools, delivering lectures to large classrooms, challenging thought in Socratic circles, marching students around lawns in the spring and occasionally inspiring genuine learning by placing nearly insurmountable obstacles before learners in order to facilitate deep, earnest enlightenment and growth. I’ve endured countless idiotic administrations hoarding and rationing paperclips and ink, and craved toothpicks to prop open my weary eyes at meetings to plan the meeting to facilitate the … well meeting.

Along the way I’ve seen my share of brilliant young minds suffocated by a sea of jealousy and stupidity. I’ve seen miraculous partnerships that spawned innovation and excellence. I’ve learned from the students, and I have occasionally felt the legitimate warmth of congratulations for a job well done.

My point is that in all of that time I’ve never seen reflections of either Rice or Lang’s dystopic visions of mechanization and society bereft of humanity and compassion. In the end our acts of complacency, our choices to accept the status quo are our own. Of course we often make those choices because it’s the path of least resistance. Sometimes our rewards are based on expedience rather than quality. After all isn’t it easier to quantify the time it took to generate a course than the quality of that course?

There is a fair amount of risk involved in bucking the mainstream. Further, it is often just plain difficult to navigate a path you’re not entirely sure about. It’s easy to say – focus on the behavior you want to change and design activities that relate to that objective. But if you’ve never done anything like that, you’re now in the jungle without a GPS. In fact, it’s entirely possible that your early efforts will not be successful at all. It can take significantly more time to figure out what to do and how to do it. It can be challenging as you discover that there may not be technologies available to do the kinds of things you’re imagining would facilitate the learning. So I think a dose of reality is in order as you consider why the paradox.

If we hope as a community of colleagues to combat the malaise that leads to the infodump, we’re going to have to link arms, and share that arm rest. We’re going to have to reach out and share through any media, social, physical, virtual, ideological. We’re going to have to take risks, make mistakes and get messy. (I dare not neglect to cite that as Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus.)

So how are you creating active, interactive, engaging eLearning and training that challenges your students and leads to genuine changes in behavior? What have you seen work? How are you measuring success, defining objectives, and creating your content?

Whether you agree, disagree or see the whole issue from a different lens, I hope you’ll post comments and questions in the section below. I love hearing your ideas and know that there are kernels of wisdom all among us – I’d be thrilled to share an arm rest with you.


23 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this very inspiring and enlightening article! Though I couldn’t fully understand the ‘Ezra Pound’ image in it, I do enjoy the vivid description of sensational feeling of mounting the cloud and skyriding the atmosphere while enjoying the thought-wrestling and armwrestling entertaingame. As a stream of unconsciousness “champion” (amateur ^&^), I practice the “transparent eyeball” a lot of time and understand the joy of mind-wandering and thought-wrestling though in a different style. With imagination, the Magic School Bus might be a declaration against the current dance-with-shackle situation of academic and scicentic circle which impede people’s imagination and creativity. If I understand in the right way, I believe what Elmer Rice described in the Addng Machine is a reflectiion of each nation, each government, each individul, or we may say each mind and soul in the post-modern era. The problem facing Mr. Zero is an epidemic disease characterized as idleness, depression, disillusionment and spiritual hollowness in a highly materalized and functionalist society. Just as T. S. Eliot proposed that the modern life is a waste land and people’s spiritual world is full of allusion, so it is so valuable to keep the garden of our mind grow and blossom. 🙂

  2. Excellently expressed! Captures a great deal of the things we are feeling as we continue to learn and grow as eLearning developers and ‘technologists’ in our organization. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for sharing your deep insights! It is very delightful, informative and instructive for eLearning learners and instructors as well.

    ……It is Exactly what we are experiencing at present! The stupid administration murdered the inspiration and innovation in many institutions and we do need fresh minds to make an impact and necessary change on our education.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Surname. Sorry to hear you’re experiencing some of the many potential negatives. Here’s to hopes that you’ll see it matched if not bested by a turnaround into something positive and uplifting.

  4. As always, excellent insight, Allen. Very true in all respects. Having survived many of the disasters you very eloquently described, I’ve recently been lucky enough to trick an incredible bunch of folks into hiring me into a highly creative, intellectually playful work environment.

    I’m really beginning to feel that “hiring the atmosphere of success”‘ may be more important than any other single factor. Humorless PC robots are to be shunned, if we truly want to keep them from destroying tomorrow.

    Fortunately, they know better than to let me handle all of the hiring.

    “If someone looked at your rack, would you be afraid and defensive, or flattered but firm about the quality of your personal relationships and then appraise them as well, followed by teasing him or her about balding early due to stress?”

    “Does a collared shirt enhance intelligence?”

    “Is a theory something you maim people with, or something you use to create new ideas and actual facts?”

    “If your car is in a ditch, is it more important to find a way ahead, or blame the driver?”

    Let the folks who are mean or terrified of the world work in Retail. That’s the perfect place for the fear and aggression that lead to the letigious destruction of the rights we pretend to protect.

    See why I don’t often write more than a sentence in these posts?


    • Miles,

      So kind of you to leave your thoughts. I love that you’ve found some good team-mates to keep things alive. I found myself imagining a job interview with you. Very amusing question set you’ve developed there. Seems a bit like an interview to detect a simulant in BladeRunner. 🙂

  5. Off topic slightly but a couple of questions. I’ve just started using Captivate 6 (on a Mac) and I note that when, say, amending the number of answers on a quiz slide (in quiz properties), I can ‘scrubby slide’ the number of answers value but, in CS5.5 I used to be able to double click on the number of answers value and enter in a value from the keyboard. That facility seems to have gone in CS6. Same thing for other entries – I can scrubby slide but not double click. Or should I buy a new mouse!?

    Second… a recent quiz I have developed I’ve given the students 60 seconds to answer the question (a multiple choice quiz slide) and it would be really great if I could insert a time onto the slide to show the 60 seconds ticking away (how cruel is that!?). Can’t find a countdown variable. Is there one?


    • Hey Richard, thanks for stopping by. Re your questions:

      Scrubby sliding vs. direct entry. Yes, just click the field specifically to enter the numbers, unless you click it directly you’ll get the scrolling number entry option. It’s single click, but you must be on the number field when you click it.

      Of course we have a torture clock…er, i mean countdown timer. Just search the widget panel for timer. Click Insert and choose your favorite appearance to maximize the terror.


  6. Possible Cp CS6 bug? Have completed a Cl project including quiz slides. At the end of the building process I applied a slide transition (fade) to all slides (select all and apply). This messed up everything….the transitions seem to be affecting buttons etc etc…

    If I apply transitions one slide at a time, I get the same effect.

    Timings maybe?

  7. How are we doing it? Improving our learning tools step by step.

    The last couple of years we addressed visual design by allowing content developers (a opposed to Instructional Designers) take a leading role in the choice of visual elements. This helped ease the team into the the thinking that *the team* is responsible for the final outcome, not just the Instructional Designer.

    Last year we attacked engagement by adding a greater range of interactivity, even more visual challenges.

    This year we are stepping completely out of the ‘traditional’ page turning metaphor of standard eLearning and into gamefication, where we add tokens for achievement, maps to explore, off-the-wall challenges and more to create much more engaging and memorable content.

    We are still not measuring the outcomes of all of our training, so I can’t really answer your question about changes in behaviour. However in a separate intuitive we have highly engaging blended classroom/eLearning academies that have been extremely efective.

    Purists might say we should have done all of this in a single bound, but we felt that it was wiser to bring the whole team along in a joint learning and evolution effort, rather than try to impose new requirements without any opportunity to find our feet.

    Besides, like all teams we sill have to be productive while we learn, so step-by-step has been a successful approach for us up to now.

  8. Very good article on ID reflection and future aspiration for the development of mLearning, eLearning and instructional design.

    It is quite true in the field of instructional design that people tend to resort to expedience rather than violating the convention and making a breakthrough. That’s why a lot of great minds were suffoated and very few new fresh ideas comes out within a period of time.. Perhaps what you explained in this issure can also be interpreted by Robert Frost’s ‘The Road not Taken”…

    However, if people can change mind actively and be courageous enough to rebel against the fixed mind-set, they will see gorgeous scenes outside the thinking barrier and awkward conventions. ID is the same in that it should be refreshed and rejuvenated by ‘fantastic ideas’ and ‘wild imagination’.

  9. Great thinking, in reading this, I got the inspiration that the real instructional designer should be capable of using metacognitive ability to conduct metadesign with consideration of blending learner, content, instructor, goal, designer and situational contexts. Thanks!

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