The game of course

The largest obstacle holding L&D professionals back from taking advantage of network technologies, distributed networks, social connections, peer interaction, and informal learning may be their bedrock belief that learning = courses.

What’s a course? Where did courses come from?

The word course derives from twelfth-century French for running or moving forward. Over time, it morphed into meaning the circuit that was being run on, as in racecourse. In the fourteen century, academics started using the term to mean a planned series of study. Today, a course is a standard unit of measure of learning. Vendors sell training by the course. Students complete certain courses to earn a degree.

Courses are usually formal, in that the curriculum is defined by an outside authority. Courses are usually delivered in the same format regardless of the difficulty or breadth of the content, as for instance the 50-minute classes we endured in school and college. A cut-off score on a test supposedly verifies that the course’s lessons were learned.

Some people erroneously equate courses and learning. You need to learn something, you better take a course.

In point of fact, very little adult learning occurs in courses. People learn from experience, from solving problems, from asking questions, from mimicking others, and from trying various things until they hit upon the thing that works for them. Most adults studiously avoid taking courses. They resent them.

Few experienced people in business can dedicate a full hour to anything, particularly if they only want to learn two minutes of information embedded somewhere in the middle of a fifty-minute course. They have their own agendas; they have work to do. They lack the patience to wade through recitations of what they already know and lessons on things they don’t deem relevant to their work. They know what they want to know and that’s all they’re motivated to learn. It’s like walking into a discount superstore to buy a bag of licorice and finding the only size of licorice they sell is the three gallon 24-pack. It’s often easier to just go without.

In the past, I’ve sounded a wake-up call that most learning does not take place in courses. If that’s all we’re offering, we aren’t serving our internal customers. When this message fell on deaf ears, I wrote that courses are dead. I think I underplayed the message. Actually, courses are a ticking time bomb. If courses are the only way you enable experienced workers to learn what they need to know in order to excel, you’re not fulfilling your professional responsibilities. Tech-savvy hactivists are replacing the passive and obedient older workforce we’ve been accustomed to. Real soon now, you’ll be confronted with workers who are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more. If you don’t hack the system, they will.

Courses are boxes, and everyone but the new kids on the block believes it’s good to think outside of the box.

A major obstacle confronting L&D people participating in Internet Time Alliance workshops on social and informal learning is the difficulty of letting go of the course concept and the sense of control it gives designers, planners, and instructors. Harold and Jane explain that informal learning entails sharing control of learning with learners. Some participants can’t get their heads around this. They ask how we can be assured that people learn the right stuff, measure outcomes, and certify completion.
At least half of the organizations we talk with are hamstrung by their slavish belief that courses = learning. (Never mind that you don’t measure what’s going on in courses, either).

Are you up for a challenge?

Join me next week for a simple game.

Set-up and rules:

First, load up on the spirit of social, informal, experiential, network-assisted learning by attending Harold and Jane’s workshops, listening to Clark or Charles’ presentations, reading our blogs and books, and/or drinking the Social Business zeitgeist from Fast Company, Andy McAfee, Working Smarter Daily, or McKinsey & Co.

Next, seat four to six people around a poker table or small conference table. At least half the players should be trainers, instructional designers, or HR professionals.

Players stack 4 quarters in front of their place at the table.

The dealer/convener opens a conversation about how workers or managers in their company could more effectively learn a particular skill. The conversation may ramble into talk of incentives and measurement, but players should guide it back to the theme of how employees can get better at that particular skill. The objective is to avoid the language of top-down courses and formal learning.

Players make suggestions one to three paragraphs in length, one after another, beginning with the player to the left of the dealer. It’s fair to build on one another’s ideas. The talking stick passes counter-clockwise at the end of each turn.

A player who says “COURSE” or “INSTRUCTOR” or “TEACHER” or “TEST” or “GRADES” puts a quarter in the pot for each occurrence.

Players with competitive natures usually wait until a person has said their three paragraphs, hoping they’ll blurt out several of the forbidden terms in one turn (which will cost them several quarters).

Play continues until only one person still has quarters; that person takes the pot.

Let’s see if you can prescribe a learning solution without resorting to the controlling world of courses.

Join me next week on Google+. I’ll deal. Up to ten of us can play. We’ll webcast the event.

Email me in advance at [email protected], subject: game. Google+, our gaming platform, works best when I invite participants in advance by email.

Time: 10 am Pacific time, Wednesday, August 15th. I’m +jaycross on Google+. If you haven’t used G+ yet, download the app in advance and set it up. This is not rocket science but you’ll miss the beginning of the game if you wait until the last minute. If you haven’t tried Google+, well, you should.


Bomb image by mcol, courtesy Open Clip Art Library