Courses are dead

When I tell training vendors “Courses are dead,” they look at me as if I’d brought a skunk to their picnic.

jc_icons_14Roger Shank sums up the failure of training in four little words: “It’s just like school.” The better part of two decades of schooling has brainwashed, er convinced, us that courses are the default means of learning. People think of courses as the basic, fundamental model against which other modes must compare themselves. Propose that workers learn something through conversation, a game, or trial and error, and the knee-jerk response is “How do you know it will be as effective as a course?”

Upon close inspection, you find that courses themselves are not that effective. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of what is taught in a course transfers to the job. Courses have a miserable track record when it comes to changing behavior. The most common way of learning one’s job comes not from taking a course but from asking someone.

Four years ago, someone asked me if e-learning worked. I told her that for proof that e-learning can be powerfully effective, I had only to look at my son. He has learned more about meteorology, PERL, San Francisco politics, network administration, environmental action groups and obscure singers than his dad will ever know. All online.

None of the things I mentioned were courses, and this got me thinking. I realized that the course is not the appropriate shell for many learning experiences. We all know the story: The 50-minute class was created for the convenience of the institution, not the learner. The course is a triumph of standardization, so ingrained in our thinking that we buy and sell training by how long it takes rather than what it accomplishes. It’s the industrial model, which puts a higher value on efficiency than on effectiveness. You can have learning any color you want as long as it’s black.

Part of the reason I say courses are dead is for shock value. It’s to jolt people into considering alternatives. Courses are the bedrock of compliance training (although I don’t consider much of that learning.) Certification depends on courses (although you always should have the option of testing out of prerequisites.) In some circumstances, utter novices benefit from courses because they otherwise lack a framework for learning. For most other corporate learning, courses are dead.

The next generation entering the workforce doesn’t learn like you and me. They work on assignments together. (What did you think all that instant messenger stuff while doing homework was for?) They have no patience for one subject at a time. They’re accustomed to learning by discovery. They have little tolerance for irrelevancies. Ask any recent graduate how they’d like a day-long corporate training class. You’ll get an ear-full of reasons why those courses are so bad.

I’m in the midst of designing a series of un-workshops to show professionals how to use blogs, wikis and Web 2.0 technology to leverage corporate learning. Here’s the design challenge: The subject matter is volatile and new innovations pop up daily. Participants range from novice to semi-pro. Some will come from non-profits, others from the Fortune 1000. Big thinkers will gravitate toward RSS, and those we used to call “people people” will be drawn to tags.

One more thing: the un-workshops cannot meet more than twice a week for an hour or two. The entire program should take no more than a month start to finish. Rigid courses simply don’t work in an unpredictable environment like this. Participants may want to change priorities in midstream as they gain a more thorough understanding of the foundation technologies and how they are applied. Fresh case examples are bound to crop up. And of course, there’s the need to keep up after our month together is up.

We decided to adopt a different metaphor. We are building a community. The community will take part in directing our emphasis. We may split into several special-interest tracks and then reform as a group. We’ll invite alumni from prior un-workshops to join in as they like. The community’s wiki, Web sites and mail-serves will live on in perpetuity.

The above appears in this month’s CLO magazine. Graphic is from XPLANE. Here’s a little more. (CLO does not permit columnists to use graphics.)

In the beginning, there were ideas. Wise people put them together in packages. Imagine, if you will, that ideas are gummi bears, the sticky but wonderful German candy. So one package might contain algebra ideas; another one, geometry; and a third, running marathons.

Over time, the ideas in the package stick together. If you are going to learn about triangles, you are also going to learn about circles, lines, Pythagoreus, logic, circumference, and angles. It’s all in the package. If all you wanted was to learn about triangles, you’re out of luck. No one offers Triangles 101. It’s as if you’d put the package of gummi bears in the glove compartment of your car and forgotten about them. You end up with a tangle of congealed gummi bear the size of a tennis ball. We call the gummi bear ball a course.

Networks enable us to atomize the conglomerate, to break out the individual gummi bears. If you want to learn about triangles, but not circumference, be our guest. The ideas have always been separate. They got put in the same package because is was easier to distribute that way, back before networks enabled you to take as much as as little as you needed.

I really like the red ones.