Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Training in the New Normal

The Role of the Virtual Classroom

During the past 6 months, there has been a major spike in the use of the virtual classroom as an alternative to the traditional classroom. There are many reasons why this is happening and why it is wise to do so. Here are some:

  • First, organizations have significantly cut back funding, forcing learning leaders to look for ways to deliver instructor-led training without travel.
  • Second, many organizations are less willing to pull their employees out for full or multi-day workshops. They would rather have the learning imbedded in the workflow, which is what spaced learning using the virtual classroom allows.
  • Third, the virtual classroom also allows training to scale more readily to a large, dispersed workforce in an environment that is continually changing.
  • Fourth, learners increasingly prefer to learn a bite at a time in the context of their work rather than all at once and away from their work.
  • Fifth, organizations are finding that when learning is spaced over time, there is a greater likelihood that skills will transfer more readily into the work-life of learners.

Although these are all excellent reasons for incorporating “Virtual Instructor-Led Training” (VILT) into an organizations learning landscape, there is another reason, that for me, is the most compelling.

Old Ways Die Hard
My parents were school teachers. We also had a dairy farm. One day, after my father had endured a rough day meeting with parents, he looked at me, as we were putting our boots on to go to the barn, and said, “You know, the more I’m around people, the more I like cows.”

I have grown to understand dad’s thinking. Cows, for the most part, are much easier to manage than people. For example, anyone who has tried to herd cows knows that it’s not hard to do. All you have to do is get them going in the right direction and avoid getting them spooked.

Thirty years ago, when I entered the learning profession, we all herded learners like I had herded cows. We drove them into classrooms, shut the gate, and fed them wonderfully designed training programs, doing all we could to “avoid getting them spooked.” Afterwards, we turned them loose, to graze on their own— until the next time when we were called upon to gather them up again and feed them another wonderfully produced training program.

We got away with this for a while, but at some point the learning landscape began changing and didn’t stop. The pace of this change has continued to increase in speed. It has also become turbulent and unpredictable. The children in our family have grown up during this accelerating environmental churn. They span Generation X and Generation Y (the Millennials). These generations are emerging as learners equal to these times. For the most part, they are aggressive, self-directed, rapid, adaptive, and collaborative learners. Certainly no one is going to herd them into classrooms, close the gate, and force-feed them a traditional course – at least not for any sustained period of time. Trying to do this would be like trying to herd cats. And there’s a high probability that those who cling to the old ways of training will, at some point, get scratched (see : ).

There is a “New Normal” that Calls for a New Way
In the visionary words of Yoggi Bera, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” There most certainly is a “New Normal” where the environment in which we work is in a state of accelerating churn. There will be no return to the calm, predictable past. The realities of this New Normal compel us to alter how we profess learning. We can’t cling to old paradigms. I’m not suggesting we cast them completely aside or even “shift” them. Instead, we need to create new paradigms that fully fit this “New Normal” and at the same time provide bridges from the old paradigms for those who need or want to walk them.

Perhaps another farm insight could help illustrate what I mean by a “paradigm bridge.” One of my jobs, as a young boy, was to teach new calves how to drink milk from a bucket. This was not a natural thing for any calf to do. Their nature and experience was to seek milk from an upward source. I used a paradigm bridge to help calves embrace a completely new paradigm (i.e., drinking from a bucket.) I would put three milk-soaked fingers into the mouth of a calf and gradually nudge its nose downward toward the bucket. The calf would often resist, but I would bring the bucket up as far as I could, and with handfuls of milk channeling through my fingers into the mouth of the calf finally get the nose down and into the bucket of milk. By doing this, several times, over a short amount of time every calf completely change its inherent paradigm—how it drinks milk.

Now, the New Normal generation of learners probably isn’t in need of paradigm bridges. They are the ones defining the new paradigms needed for these times. They’re embracing and pushing the evolution of Web 2.0 and 3.0 technologies to facilitate the immediate collaborative resolution of their learning needs and wants. Those of us outside this aggressive, self-directed, rapid, adaptive, and collaborative approach may need a bit of help across the bridge into this “New Normal” way of learning with its ever fluent supporting technologies.

So Here’s the More Compelling Reason
The virtual classroom can provide a crucial paradigm bridge for our time to help facilitate the journey into the mindset of a rapid, adaptive, collaborative, self-directed learner – a learner who can learn at or above the speed of change. Recently while speaking with a group of learners about the New Normal, one of them said, “I’m a Gen Y in a Baby Boomer’s body.” No matter the generation, the reality of our times compels us to this new mindset. Eric Hoffer pegged it right:

In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.
It is in the virtual classroom where trainers can help learners bridge their informal and formal learning efforts. Here trainers can help build meaningful bridges to unleash the full potential of social networking. Here they can orchestrate a total Learning Ecosystem™ to sustain agressive learners at all five moments of learning need. Here, regardless of anyone’s generational genesis, trainers can help them cultivate the capacity they need to learn, unlearn, and relearn in the New Normal.

A Caution: Calling it VILT Doesn’t Mean it's Effective VILT
For more than 10 years, Bob and I have developed and proven in our client work an approach to Virtual Instructor-Led Training (VILT) where learners achieve outcomes that actually far surpasses traditional face-to-face training. We employ an approach we call GEAR. It is a blended “Spaced Learning” approach where learning is spread out over time. This allows participants to learn and immediately apply what they learn in their professional lives.

This approach is different from the majority of live, web delivered classes offered in organizations today where learners merely meet online and that’s it. In the GEAR model, “Gathering online” is only part of the learning journey. Following every session participants “Expand” upon and personalize their understanding of what they have learned. They take steps to “Apply” what they have learned into their work life. They also report on their efforts and “Receive direct feedback.” This feedback is where virtual trainers deliver their greatest value. It is the key to accelerated learning.

True VILT requires greater instructional rigor in its development and delivery than what has typically been expended in the development of traditional “Instructor Led Training” (ILT). This isn’t to say that the same rigor isn’t called for, but the lack of instructional rigor can be more readily masked and at times compensated for in the traditional ILT classroom.

The bottom-line? Just because someone claims that training will take place in the virtual classroom, This may or may not be the case. Organizations can achieve a consistent high-yield “Return on Instruction” (ROi) in their VILT. This return can potentially exceed traditional ILT but it requires an instructionally sound, blended spaced-learning approach. The GEAR model provides a practical framework for accomplishing this.

The Traditional Classroom Doesn’t Have to Die—It Just Needs to Change
None of this suggests that traditional training has to disappear. The personal connection that can take place when people gather in person is unmatched. Unfortunately, we too often misappropriate learning time spent in traditional classrooms with low level learning that could readily be accomplished in other, more efficient ways. This is a subject that merits discussion beyond this article. A crucial question for any learning leader to ask is “What is it that we can only accomplish by physically gathering together to learn?” The answer to this question may very well lead us to places we have not yet gone. But this is certain, it will be a better place for the organizations and the people we serve.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Visiting Expert Series: Vol. #1

We are going to start a new "feature" on our blog this week: "The Visiting Expert Series". In an effort to expand the reach and scope of the blog we are going to be inviting guest industry experts to contribute to our blog. Not only does this give you a well deserved BREAK from us, it will also broaden the perspectives and expertise shared. This month's guest is Dr. Allison Rossett, author of the wonderful book on PS entitled "Job Aids & Performance Support: Moving From Knowledge in the Classroom to Knowledge Everywhere". Thank you Allison for a great posting!!!

More Performance, Less Training
Allison Rossett, San Diego State University
This article and model are adapted from Allison Rossett & Lisa Schafer’s book, Job Aids and Performance Support in the Workplace: Moving from Knowledge in the Classroom to Knowledge Everywhere, San Francisco: Pfeiffer/Wiley Inc. (2007). A web site that supports the book and these ideas is at:

From My Classroom to Your Workplace
I think that the most significant thing going on in training and development today is that we have technology, software and hardware, that allows us to punch through the walls of the classroom to deliver expert messages and nudging closer to work. This happens in many ways, via e-coaches, knowledge bases, blogs, wikis, social nets, and performance support tools. What all have in common is that they are happening where we work and live. I’d like to focus here on just one form of on demand delivery, performance support.

Performance support is immediate, targeted and present. It earns its place by adding value as teachers, doctors, supervisors, seniors, and auditors respond to their tasks and challenges. In these brutal economic times, performance support mobilizes messages and thus boosts performance when we can’t afford to send an instructor out or bring employees in. Instructors require resources, vacation, and sleep. Performance support tools do not.

Performance Support Tools
The best way to appreciate performance support is to look at examples showing how performance support solves problems and elevates practice.

I can remember twiddling my thumbs while waiting to do laundry in my dorm at college. When I wanted to do the wash, the washers and dryers were almost always busy, causing frustration, late nights and early mornings. When I did get to it, the room, with scattered piles of laundry, wet and dry, disgusted me. This was the result of aggressive launderers who chucked wash on the table if you weren’t there to claim it. Enter e-Suds. e-Suds is civilizing the process by introducing information and technology. USA Technologies installed Internet based laundry systems on several university campuses. The system tracks the use of washers and dryers and then alerts students by email, cell or PDA to the status of their laundry and the washers and dryers in close proximity. Imagine the benefits of knowing the “wash cycle is complete” on your load, or that a washer and dryer is available in Chavez Dormitory, floor 3, north end.

In the first edition of the Handbook of Job Aids, Rossett & Gautier-Downes (1991) attempted to expand the ways that people thought about and used job aids. That 1991 enhancement was based on the nature of the content. To traditional job aids that supported information (the Yellow Pages, for example) and procedures (documentation that reminded of how to change the message on an answering machine), Rossett & Gautier-Downes added job aids that coached, advised and guided decisions. Is this the right graduate school for me? How do I work with an employee who is often tardy? Where should I invest my money, given my circumstances?

While those remain fertile distinctions, what we see today is that effective performance support often brings the three together in one computer-based program. For example, a performance support program for an individual contemplating graduate education might include a database of possible university programs and pre-requisites; procedures for applying; and self-assessment checklists to help potential applicants anticipate readiness and preference for one program or university over another.

Two dimensions are critical in performance support. The first dimension is the degree of INTEGRATION of the support into the task. Is the performance support inside or outside of the task? Is it like your ATM or is it a computer program that helps you decide how to save for retirement? ATM support is inside, integrated into the task, as you maneuver the screen. The retirement guidelines stand apart; they nudge you to think about this as you consider an investment, answer a question, reflect on a paragraph, and plan for each eventuality, given your situation.

The second dimension for performance support is how much TAILORING the support offers. Is the support standard for all or actively tailored to your situation? Does it know you and act differently as a result of that knowledge? Consider the difference between support that tells you and every other 55 year old that you should save for retirement and support that knows you have triplets about to enter college, influential factors in your saving patterns and needs. Is it a mass mailing from your city government about fire danger in California OR a notice sending you to a web site because the system recognizes that your home is on a canyon, the fire danger is EXTREME this month, and you must do special kinds of cleanup to mitigate danger?

Integration, Tailoring and Finding Your Way
Imagine that you have an important appointment across town, at a place you have never been.
Table 1 presents alternative support systems to get you to your destination. Focus on the proximity of the support to the challenge.

Let’s look at tailoring now. Is the tool offering up a standard, consistent message or one that is customized to your situation? This is a question about the activity level of the tool. Does the tool adjust to you? Does it know you? Does it care which mutual funds you hold, how old you are, how many you must put through college, what products you sell and in which geography, or if you just by-passed the verbal suggestion to turn left at Albatross Street? Does it reach out and nudge and remind about goals? Does it provide a statement of operating procedures or model approaches to customers’ objections? The Yellow Pages and Wikipedia are standard, worthy, and passive resources. You go there to find information on Mogadishu or mockingbirds or local veterinarians that specialize in large farm animals. Those trusty resources wait and serve, but they do not customize automatically. You must know what you want and need and go for it. They succeed as support if they house valued resources that are “findable.” In our book, Job Aids and Performance Support in the Workplace: Moving from Knowledge in the Classroom to Knowledge Everywhere, a chapter is devoted to IBM’s efforts to make its many substantive resources readily available to far-flung employees. and are different their performance support is actively targeted to you. They know you and your goals—and your circumstances. Schwab will help you reach financial goals. Quitnet is there to help the individual who wants to stop smoking turn away from a cigarette after a long, hard day at work. Both tailor responses based on answers you provide to them and “know” you when you return to the site for advice because you are craving a cigarette or trying to decide where to invest a royalty check. The knowledge goes where the need is, when it presents itself.

Introducing Planners and Sidekicks
Performance support is an information-rich asset that a nurse, teacher, parent, mechanic, taxpayer, pilot, or auditor turns to for help in getting things done. Performance support appears in many forms, from notes on matchbook covers to well-worn documentation, to posters to, financial planning tools, and GPS. Because there are so many possibilities, Lisa Schafer and I, in Job Aids and Performance Support in the Workplace: Moving from Knowledge in the Classroom to Knowledge Everywhere, tamed the domain into two kinds of performance support: Planners and Sidekicks.

Planners are in our lives just before or after the challenge. They help us decide if Avian Flu or piracy at sea should alter our trip plans. I use one to help me think hard and comprehensively as I tailor a presentation for a group.

Sidekicks are at our side during the task. The quick food cook reads the job aid as she creates the new food product. The quarterback glances at his wrist in the huddle. The writer pecks away and smiled at how wikis once earned a red line under it in this sentence, but no longer does. Sidekicks vary in how close they are to the task. They might be next to the task, as is the case with the cook and quarterback, or integrated into the thick of it, as in the spelling checker.

Now let us add the question of customization. Is it guidance for everybody interested in the product or hurricanes or retirement or does it know you and your situation and tailor advice accordingly? Table 2 illustrates the model applied to sales.

Performance Matters
Planners and Sidekicks have a long history and a bright future as we lean on performance support to improve interactions, spell correctly, satisfy customers, stock the house for nutritious eating, and make smart and fair decision about whom to hire. It makes sense to move from knowledge in the classroom to knowledge everywhere, since that is where life and work happen… everywhere.

Allison Rossett is Professor Emerita of Educational Technology at San Diego State
University. Allison teaches, consults, conducts studies, and presents on topics associated with learning, performance and technology. You can reach her at

Jupiter Research (October 14, 2003). Jupiter Research reports that web site “personalization” does not always provide positive results. Retrieved October 17, 2005.

McManus, P. & Rossett, A. (February 2006). Performance support: Value delivered when and where needed. Performance Improvement.

Rosenberg, M. J. (March, 2003). Redefining e-learning. Performance Improvement, 42(3), 38-41.

Rossett, A. & Gautier-Downes, J. (1991). A handbook of job aids. SF: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Rossett, A. & Mohr, E. (February, 2004). Performance support tools: Where learning work and results converge. Training and Development, 58(2), 35-39.

Rossett, A. & Schafer, L. (2007). Job aids and performance support: moving from knowledge in the classroom to knowledge everywhere. San Francisco: Pfeiffer/Wiley. Web site and tool:

Schmid, R.F., & Gerlach, V.S. (1990). Instructional design rules for algorithmic subject matter. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 3(2), 1-14.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Webinar on Designing for the Virtual Classroom

Designing PS into the Virtual Classroom:

We have received a lot of feedback lately that, due to budget constraints, many of you are beginning to use synchronous delivery tools such as Webex or Adobe Connect to host what would normally be your face to face Instructor-led classes. What’s the most effective way to design and deliver these classes WITHOUT it becoming “Death by PowerPoint”? How can PS enhance this model to potentially make the blend even BETTER than face to face? On Friday April 3rd we hosted a PS community webinar on this very topic entitled “Blending PS into SYNCHRONOUS Instruction”.

That session was recorded and can be replayed by clicking on this link:

Please let us know if you have any feedback or questions, AND feel free to share the recording with anyone else in your organization if it would be helpful.