My Learning Circle


I love taking part in Twitter chats. There are three of them (#chat2lrn, #lrnchat, and #guildchat) that I usually track, and try to attend at least one of them every week. (If you don’t know what a Twitter chat1 is, check out the mini-section at the end of this post.)

Of the three, my personal favorite is #lrnchat, primarily because of the eagerly anticipated but dreaded question that I’ve learned to both love and hate: “What did you learn today? If not today, then this week?”

I know this question is coming every Friday morning (India time), but still I often struggle, and cast about looking for an answer. It’s not that I don’t learn… I read a lot, but passive reading can only take you so far. This question puts things in perspective, forcing you to make meaning out of an endless stream of information.

Last week, I missed attending #lrnchat. But the question has been lingering in my head, as has become an unconscious quasi-habit of late, and I had my answer ready.

But then, why not make it an actual habit? And, why not make it a more substantial weekly reflection? So I’ve identified three questions that I think are critical for me.

The three questions, along with my reasoning for choosing each, are:

1. What did you learn? The all-important question that helps me squeeze one or two important points from all that I experience throughout the week.

2. What mistake(s) did you make? We all make mistakes. This question puts a spotlight on identifying them so I’m conscious about not repeating the same ones. It also helps to glean valuable lessons from these mistakes.

3. What are you proud of? This one is more aspirational. Just like the question from #lrnchat forced me to think about what I learned during the week, this one, I hope, will nudge me to work towards doing things I’m proud of, so I can brag about it ;-).

Together, these questions complete a circle, and hence the title – My Learning Circle.

So, here’s my reflection for the past week:

1. What did you learn?
Answer: I learned about Google Trends from Brent Schlenker’s blog post. Check out to track the popularity of a concept, idea, tool or technology.

2. What mistake(s) did you make?
Answer: While estimating for a large project using an estimation template, I almost shared it while it was still missing a key component. I caught it in time and it all ended well, but the important lesson is to run a micro lens through any estimate, especially while using templates.

3. What are you proud of?
Answer: I’m proud of my new system for tracking the amount of time that I spend in ‘flow’. I’m loosely referring to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’ (which he defined as the time that one spends totally involved in a task). Though in this case, I’m trying to track the amount of time I spend on deliberate reflection, either through blogging or connecting with the community in some way or the other.


Here are what my reflections look like on my learning circle.


1 Twitter Chats

Twitter chats are conversations that happen around specific topics, using unique Twitter hashtags. They typically last an hour, and a moderator asks a series of questions spaced about 10 minutes apart. For each question, participants (other Twitter users who are interested in the conversation) tweet replies using the hashtag. My favorite Twitter chats, along with their timings, are:

#chat2lrn: 8:00 am ET, every alternate Thursday
#lrnchat: 8:30 pm ET every Friday
#guildchat: 2:00 pm ET every Friday

7 Questions to Ask to Create Effective E-Learning


We’ve all heard this before. I have, at least a few hundred times. A new client reaching out, saying: “We are looking to create an engaging course. Please make it as interactive as possible.”

And every time I hear this, I go “Hey wait! What about effectiveness?” I ruminate over why no one is talking about the effectiveness of a course, when that is the first thing we should be focusing on.

And then, one fine Sunday morning, it struck me. A light bulb moment!

We were talking to an interior designer for doing up our apartment, and before we met him, I had made a PowerPoint presentation, and as is typical of me, detailed every little corner that we wanted shelving in, including the length, width and height of each shelf inside the cupboards. And I had convinced my husband to not think about the style or the colors until we got this, the basics, right.

After all, form should follow function. And to me, this was the right way to do things, the focus on the effectiveness (the ‘livability’ of the house) before the engagement (the colors and the aesthetics).

When we met the designer with the presentation, he was not only stumped and taken aback, he told me he’d never seen anyone do this before.

People don’t necessarily go by effectiveness. They don’t say “I want my home to be functionally well-designed”. Instead they say something to the effect of, “I like contemporary, but I also like art deco, and I want my home to have elements of both.”, or “I love orange, and I want it in my living room”. And beyond outlining a few requirements, they leave it to the designer to figure out the rest.

That got me thinking. Just because the client (or the business head or SME) throws around a few terms, it doesn’t mean they are aware of what makes an effective course. That’s for us learning designers to think about and come up with.

Of course, we know engagement is really important. Only if the learner is engaged does their mind open up, and they become attentive and receptive to what the course is saying. And no matter how well we design the course, if the learner is not going to pay attention, then all our efforts are wasted.

But engagement alone is not enough. Movies, books and games have taught us that. Audiences take up adventures, go on journeys, and laugh and cry with characters, and once done, go back to being the same person they were before they went through the experience. Nothing changes. While this is okay for a work of fiction, it is not okay for a learning experience, because what we ultimately want is behavior change. We want to build the skill or ability for a person to do something they were not able to do before.

So how do we bring effectiveness to a course without having to lecture the client or other stakeholders about it? For starters, we can ask a few questions:

– What can they do after the training that they can’t do now?
– Why aren’t they doing it (or doing it well) now?
– What barriers do they face?
– What mistakes do they make?
– Are there some people in the learner group who are able to do this well now? If so, what are they doing differently?
– How will we know that our course is successful?
– Once they have completed the course, what can we do to:

  • Support them to do the task well
  • Motivate them to do the task well, and continue to do so

Once we’ve asked all of the above questions (and don’t for a moment think that we’ll get all the answers!), here are a few things we can do to nudge the course towards making it effective:

– Drop learners in a realistic setting, and have them ‘do’ the job they would have to do in real life. This could, depending on what the course is about, mean that they:

  • Make split-second decisions on the floor of a bustling hospital
  • Write code in a new program they are just learning
  • Talk to a customer, overcoming objections and trying to sell them a product or service

… perform any other job that the course is teaching them to perform

– For each action, show them the consequences of their action, and provide detailed feedback on why that action is right or wrong. And, when they have invested cognitive effort in working out the answer to a tough question, they are truly open to learning from the consequence, as well as the feedback. This is where real learning takes place.

– Create opportunities to support them and motivate them well after the training is over. Because after all, training is just the beginning of learning.

What do you think? What else can we do to make sure that our learning program turns out be not just engaging, but also effective?

The Role of Knowledge


For a few years now, the term *knowledge* has been getting a bad rap from across the spectrum. From a Learning Design perspective, we say: “In real life, no one will ask you to list the steps to perform first aid, what actually matters is that you’re able to administer first aid when the need arises.”

And even in general, we tend to discourage people from memorizing things. The thinking goes “Why do you need to know something that you can google and find out in a minute?”.

And so, while designing learning solutions, we focus all our energies on the application of knowledge, by designing plenty of practice activities.

This is not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s very good.

But a lot of times, we fail to understand that knowledge, for knowledge’s sake, has a role to play as well.

There was a reason we learnt math tables by heart. These provide the foundational knowledge required for us to not have to rely on a calculator to perform simple math calculations.

Same is the case with alphabets and the fundamental vocabulary. Without it, we’d be unable to form sentences, unable to communicate our thoughts, and unable to express our feelings.

While these are rudimentary abilities meant for children, let’s look ahead to the kind of skill that we typically try to build for adults – for example, first aid.

Unless the first-aider knows the steps by heart, they wouldn’t be able to automatically administer first aid when the need arises. A good first-aider is one who has internalized the knowledge of the steps so well that they can perform without having to think about the steps.

In other words, their skill is built upon knowledge. And knowledge forms the key building block, or the foundation, on which application rests.

Therefore, while we focus on application and practice, let’s not forget what lies at the root of it all – knowledge.

2 Things to Consider When Defining Business Goals for a Course


Just like good learning outcomes answer the ‘What’s In It For Me’ (WIIFM) for the learner, a sound goal answers the WIIFM for business. It helps explain the need for a training intervention, and sets the direction for the project once it kicks off, course correcting and providing guidance as required.

Having established that (it’s important to have a clear business goal at the start of a project), we advocate for learning outcomes which read as follows:

  • Ask questions to probe the customer
  • Uncover the customer’s ‘real’ need
  • Explain the benefits (not features) to the customer
  • Lead the customer towards the sale

And, these learning outcomes contribute towards a larger business goal, which should read like this: “Sales will improve 5% by Q3”.

The understanding is that if learners are able to successfully demonstrate the desired behaviors on the job, then the business goal will take care of itself (considering other environmental factors, of course).

It should, but I have a couple of issues around this:

1. The above approach works well for outcomes that directly contribute to a business goal. It is not difficult to imagine similar learning-outcomes-leading-to-business-goal situations in other contexts, such as:

  • Better hand hygiene (learning outcome) results in fewer infections (business goal)
  • Tighter password security (learning outcome) results in lessened security threats (business goal)
  • Better call handling and resolution (learning outcomes) result in improved customer satisfaction ratings (business goal)
  • Greater use of personal protective equipment (learning outcome) results in fewer safety incidents (business goal)
  • However, let’s say we need to create a course on ‘E-mail Etiquette’.

The learning outcome would be to write effective e-mails (e-mails that are addressed and copied to the right people, and are clearly worded and structured).

(Aside: There was a real need for a course. E-mails that were poorly worded, as well as those without proper structure or call-to-action were part of the folklore at this organization.)

How do we equate this with a meaningful business goal, a metric that is important to business? We could say that effective e-mails lead to better clarity and lesser confusion within a team, and therefore this might enhance the overall effectiveness of the team.

So, the business goal would be to improve team effectiveness? The goal seems contrived at best to me, and I’m not convinced that effective e-mail alone will contribute significantly to the effectiveness of the team. There are so many factors at play – the culture of the organization, team size and dynamics, the goals and challenges faced by the team, not to mention other forms of communication.

I don’t think we need to force ourselves into that circle. While there is no excuse for poorly formed learning outcomes (actually, they should be performance outcomes; i.e., outcomes that lead to a change in behavior), a business goal is something that can be bypassed, if the outcome doesn’t directly impact a meaningful metric.

2. The second issue that I have relates to the measurability of the business goal. “Sales will improve 5% by Q3”.

Sales will absolutely improve if learners are able to implement the actions they learned in the course. But what about “5%” and “Q3”? Let’s look at a scenario and see where this goes.

Say the sales division has a team of 100. The course is rolled out in January, and all 100 go through the course within a month’s time. If the course is designed well, with plenty of practice, spaced repetition, and post-training performance support, we can reasonably expect that at least 60 will be able to demonstrate the stated behaviors. And given a time gap of four months (March – June) in which to practice and hone their newly learnt skills, they will be more effective, and successful, salespeople than they were before the training.

So, if the team was selling 500 units a month in January, they should ideally be selling at least 560 (60 salespeople selling one unit more each) in July (Q3) – an increase of 12%. Now, we know there are other factors to consider – product pricing, market conditions, competition, etc. – which probably haven’t changed much in the last two quarters.

Looking at the above, a conservative estimate of “5% by Q3” does seem achievable.

However, my discomfort with assigning such numbers to our lofty business goal stems from the fact that there are too many variables unrelated to the design of the course. The course must be rolled out in January, people should finish taking the course in February, and market conditions, competition, etc. should not have changed. All of which are well beyond the control and influence of instructional designers. Considering these factors, I believe that assigning such targets seems arbitrary, and a bit frivolous, to me.

Cathy Moore has some good advice for us here. She says “Consider this only a goal, not a guarantee.”

However, I still feel that we would do well to focus on what we can influence (change in behavior), rather than chasing a target which we have no control over. Of course, we want to prove that we are valuable to business. So, the goal can read “Sales will improve as learners are able to…”. If it leads to a 5% improvement, great. If the improvement is 10%, why not?

What am I missing here? How can we improve our business goals in a way that they are meaningful, realistic and achievable?