Instructional Design Basics


Secret Signs for Learning


Before formal institutions of knowledge became widespread, secret societies arose to pass on knowledge. Tradesman and artisans grouped together to share and pass on their skills. In this model an apprentice was taken and shown the ways of the trade. Then after several years they were allowed to go on their own. At this stage they were shown the secret signs of their society which was important as these signals were the certification to others in their trade—their proof that they were legit.

These days are gone and our legitimacy comes in the form of degrees.  Here colleges, universities and other formal institutions declare who is legit and ready to take on the world. There’s no need for secret handshakes as we now have transcripts documenting our proficiencies.   

However, new technologies and shifting attitudes on the value of formal degrees have people questioning our existing system. Today I’ll talk about some of these technologies and what they may mean for our field.

Cheap Content

Recently, Massive Open Online Classes or MOOCs have received a lot buzz.  Here several influential learning institutions are offering online courses that are open to the public at large. Besides being open, these courses can also be taken at little or no cost.  Now anyone with an internet connection can sign up and take a class from MIT or Harvard.   Besides these institutions, other content organizations have addressed similar learning needs.   KHAN Academy, iTunesU, YOUTube and others have been providing access to online educational content for some time.

All of this is great as it has created a flood of quality online educational content that everyone can access.  The dream of the internet finally opening up education can now be realized.  So Timmy, sitting in an isolated community can become a computer engineer by taking free or inexpensive online content.

However, the reality for Timmy is that this doesn’t mean that he can get a job as a computer engineer. Here formality still rules and documenting competency is a much needed requirement for the HR folks.  So today, Timmy’s resume gets booted out of the system as soon as he submits it.

Too Legit To Quit

For some time people have been working on a way to track informal learning.  This is important as a large part of what we know is gained by informal means.  We read an article, watch a video, discuss a topic or participate in other activities that have us accessing, reviewing and synthesizing content.   And all of this is done without the guidance and validation of a formal source of authority.

This is a problem though as the lack of formality makes it hard to prove our legitimacy. So how do you prove to your boss or the HR folks that you:

  • read 5 articles on networking technologies
  • participated in a local hackathon or
  • watched a YouTube video on Setting up DHCP into a Cisco router?

Formal content has Learning Management Systems (LMS); SCORM; and other means to track participation and completion results.  These technologies allow for the creation and maintenance of user transcripts that documents our proficiencies.

ADL’s Training & Learning Architecture (TLA) is a new set of technologies that is emerging to give this ability to informal content.  Two keys to this are:

Experience API

This is a technology that will track informal content by Noun, Verb and
Object.  This concept is similar to the Likes and other features we see in popular Social Media sites and in these sites we may soon see posts like:

    • Timmy read TCP vs UDP
    • Timmy watched Netcat – Tutorial
    • Timmy set up a Wireless router

Learner Profiles

This upcoming technology will describe information about a learner’s preferences, competencies, and experiences. This will act as a centralized transcript that a user owns—this will eventually mean that your learning is no longer trapped in one system.

You won’t have a separate transcript stuck at your college, one stuck at that job you worked at several years ago, or even a transcript for you current job.  Rather you will have your own unique learning record that you can control.  This centralize transcript will be your record of completion—and quite possibly your signal of legitimacy.

Why Corporate Training Should Get Involved

Such a model will cause some warranted resistance from the establishment, as it may be ripe for gaming and or cheating.  This is true in the immediate future but that doesn’t mean your company shouldn’t get involved in it as a nice thing about these technologies is that it opens up your possibilities.

For example the MOOCs above have finally realized the economies of scale inherent in online learning.  Some of these courses have gotten their cost per student to around $2.  With this kind of cost, you could create your own content to deliver to the public at large. This would be content that is specific to your organization, content that is specific to a particular job and finally content that is tracked and reported on in the form of a transcript.

Better yet, as a company, you could identify existing content that meets your needs and define paths for it. So for an entry level IS position someone may need to take the equivalent of:    

Part of this will require some formal assessment and validation from your organization.  This may be done with some existing social media features like LinkedIn’s endorsements and recommendations or some other future metric that predicts competency.  Working with regional leaders, teachers, and experts to serve as mentors and guides can open up other opportunities to validate legitimacy.  Finally designing your own forms of assessments like tests and checklists can serves as ways to determine who is competent for a specific field.

All of this is still some time away from now and it will definitely bring some challenges as verification and validation of skills isn’t going to be easy.  I look forward to the day though that we no longer rely solely on formal degrees and Timmy gets his shot.

In this regard, I hope these changes bring back the secret signs as handshake like the below would be fun: