April 2009


I finally seized the opportunity to see Edward Tufte deliver his one-day workshop Presenting Data and Information. Due to his rockstar reputation, I had some overblown expectations—something more theatrical, with flashy graphics, head stands, perhaps a light show? I spent the first two hours feeling a bit let down until I realized how antipodal his message is to the marketing flash of someone like Seth Godin. Tufte’s presentation is all about delivering substantive content that is cognitively engaging—an approach that he modeled expertly, sans bells and whistles. While I had overestimated Tufte’s histrionics, he did not underestimate my (his audience’s) intelligence.

The workshop is directed more toward those in the business world who need to present data and information to address engineering problems, inform budget decisions, and the like. However, I found a couple of take-aways for trainer-facilitators.

1. The Super Graphic (or Return of the Handout)

There is a tendency (especially in online learning) to reduce data and information to a minimal amount per screen, or to stretch data sets out over a series of screens. This is driven necessarily by the compact pixel real estate of the computer monitor, but the outcome is to shrink information toward meaninglessness or to confound the viewer’s cognitive ability to make comparisons and draw conclusions by scattering the inputs and forcing super-human acts of memorizing.

Enter the SUPER GRAPHIC! This is a printed, efficiently annotated graphic, dense with data, legal size or larger, that allows the learner to scan the entirety of an information set, make comparisons from proximal visual, numerical and textual information, and derive informed, self-propelled conclusions. This kind of information presentation could/should accompany most online training. Many courses include downloadable handouts of resources as more of an addendum than an integral part of the learning. Why not design a course around a super graphic, using the online portion to direct the learner’s attention, inject probing questions, and allow interactions to demonstrate the successful intake of knowledge?

2. Give the learner time to think

Several times during the workshop, Tufte asked the audience to study a data set or super graphic in one of his books, which we all had stacked in front of us. And then he stopped talking. Attention was not focused on the stage but on the pages of our books. There were some low murmurs of people sharing observations but the room of 400+ was otherwise quiet. This went on for five minutes—an eternity of “dead air” in broadcast parlance.

This was an aha! moment for me. Not only is it okay to give learners some studying-thinking time during instruction, it empowers them to absorb, reflect, and contribute to the formation of knowledge. It allows real learning to take place. Isn’t that more important than filling up every second of audio space?

Do I recommend going to see Tufte’s presentation next time he’s in your neighborhood? Sure! Yes, you can buy all the books for approximately half the price of the workshop, but you would miss the directed tour through the material and you would miss Tufte’s modeling of effective delivery.

Advertisements

 

 

Library directors and managers, colleagues have been assuring me recently, play a critical role in the success or failure of workplace learning and performance programs in the organizations they oversee. It goes beyond supporting and approving budgets: if they show an advocate’s interest in what is happening through training programs, check with their colleagues and their staff to see what effect those programs are having, and actually participate in learning opportunities offered within their organizations, they are setting a standard which encourages effective learning and the development of communities of learners.

 

It was no surprise to me, then, that these comments came to mind repeatedly when I was lucky enough to attend the awards ceremony for the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize recipients here in San Francisco last night. The awards honor people who, by the act of living and acting on their beliefs in spite of significant challenges, time constraints, and, occasionally, threats of incarceration and death, train the rest of us to believe that we, too, can make a difference.

 

The usual high profile environmental activists were there: Al Gore and Robert Redford provided opening comments which (globally) warmed up the crowd and reminded all of us that we have a role to play. Singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman provided entertainment by singing one of her own songs (“Talkin’ Bout A Revolution”) and doing a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”—“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

 

But the real stars and trainers were those being honored, including Maria Gunnoe. From her home in the heart of Appalachia, in West Virginia, she stood up against the removal of mountaintops to expedite coal mining because the byproducts of that process are creating toxic wastes which are destroying the area where her family has lived for more than a century. Although neighbors were afraid to testify, she did, and a court ruling halted one particularly damaging mountaintop removal project which was affecting her property. The joy all of us in the audience felt as she accepted her award was tempered by the image of the tall cyclone fence which was constructed around her house and the news that she needed  around-the-clock security protection to counter the threats she was receiving while she carried on her fight.

 

Then there were Wanze Eduards and Hugo Jabini, who successfully organized entire communities in the Saramaka lands in Suriname (within the Amazonian forests) to halt destructive logging. And Yuyun Ismawati, who helped implement community-based safe and sustainable waste management programs in Indonesian communities through her organization, Bali Fokus. And Olga Speranskaya, a Russian scientist whose community-based efforts have become a model worldwide for efforts to encourage the clean-up of toxic waste sites. And Syeda Rizwana Hasan, an environmental attorney in Bangladesh whose efforts successfully stopped toxin-laden ships from being allowed to be brought up on beaches in her country so the wrecks could be broken into scrap—a process called “ship breaking”—to be resold while the waste polluted the beaches. And, finally, Marc Ona Essangui, a wheelchair-using activist whose successful efforts to stop a massive government-approved mining project in Gabon’s Ivindo National Park (in west central Africa) led to his arrest and detention for several days earlier this year.

 

Each one of them received standing ovations from those of us who were there to hear their acceptance speeches. Hundreds of us joined them at a post-event reception in their honor to shake their hands and thank them for reminding us that significant effects begin with the efforts of individuals. And at least a few of us, in thinking about what we can do in our own lives to make a difference within the communities we serve, were reminded that some of the most effective training comes from those who live the lessons the rest of us still need to learn and follow.

For several years now – at least since the advent of Second Life – learning professionals have been intrigued by the prospects of constructing immersive 3d worlds (metaverses) for training.  It’s easy to understand why: one of the first things I learned in communication theory in undergrad is that aesthetics are powerful.  Even the most astute and discerning among us form initial impressions from outer appearances.  Ooh!  Shiny, shiny!  Let’s go buy the new tech-toy.  I’ll hand it to those wily coyotes at Linden Lab – even this roadrunner was attempting to fast track a Second Life implementation at my library.  Instead of diving off the cliff with nary a look, I decided to hold a magnifying glass up to the app first.  Well, the bloom fell off that rose pretty damn quickly.  I won’t air a laundary list of complaints here, although Wapedia does a decent job summing them up for me.  

 

I’m not here to skewer Second Life, or any of the myriad pretenders to the throne, such as There, IMVU, or Kaneva.  I firmly believe that immersive 3d worlds are a viable learning medium, especially when good rhetorical practices are utilized.  For example, I love the art gallery critique that Michael Connors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison set up a couple years ago.  Beyond teaching in a traditional sense, 3d environments add more interactivity to e-learning experiences, and we know that fully engaged students walk away better equipped to do their jobs.

 

If 3d training is indeed the way of the future, as experts have been extolling for the past few years, why aren’t more organizations taking the leap?  In my opinion, there are two fundamental flaws to most 3d metaverses: the clients needed to run the applications and the metaverse structure itself.  A typical metaverse requires that a client be downloaded and installed on the user’s computer.  For instance, Second Life requires a 21MB client download and then a PC that is decently equipped for gaming.   And let’s not forget that these 3d spaces are bandwidth hogs.  As students of Web 2.0, we have come to expect instant access, simplicity, and portability with online content – things that are conspicuously missing from online 3d worlds.

 

Aside from the technical issues associated with fat clients, the sprawling, unregulated structure of a metaverse is not congruent with fostering an environment for learning.  I acknowledge that you can restrict access to your piece of a metaverse, but the idiocy of a virtual world gone mad is still out there.  Seriously, who wants their 3d library orientation on ABC Island interrupted by some perv bunny rabbit avatar wanting to cyber???  In my estimation, the ideal 3d training environment needs to be self-enclosed and completely removed from a larger world. 

 

There are flickers of hope piercing the matrix.  Big brother Google made strides in tackling the fat client/wide-open world conundrum a little less than a year ago with its ephemeral Lively experiment.  Lively operated as a thin-client, strictly through a web browser.  There was no software to download to participate in this 3d world.  Simply sign in, customize an avatar, and hop into a room if you weren’t inclined to spend five minutes making your own.  If you constructed your own room, you could close it off and make it available by invitation only.  Finally, you also had the option of embedding your room into your webpage.  While Lively is offline (and sorely missed!), Vivaty is a thin service that allows users to create 3d chat rooms that can be embedded in other webpages.  Finally, VastPark has an open source toolset that empowers moderately savvy users to author self-contained 3d environments that can be accessed exclusively through a web browser. 

 

The products that have come from Google, Vivaty, VastPark, and their ilk demonstrate that significant changes have occurred  since Second Life launched six years ago.  Maybe in another three, 3d learning environments will be reality in many organizations.