Nuts and Bolts: We Need New Words

We need new words.

1. A word for group try-out-and-learn activity?

Over the years I have done a lot of work with InSync Training, good folks who specialize in teaching good practice in designing and delivering for the virtual classroom (WebEx, Adobe Connect, etc.) For years, troubleshooting these products with users came down to little more than “Are you on a PC or a Mac?”  But the game changed when the vendors started rolling out mobile apps.

Recognizing that our learner base was going to need help with this, and that we couldn’t possibly do all the experimenting by ourselves, InSync owner Jennifer Hofmann and I set up an hour-long app-testing-session. The plan: We’d try WebEx for the first half hour and Adobe Connect for the next half hour, with anyone who cared to join us. 

We would give links to people so they could join each session; prior to joining the session they could download the product’s app (if they didn’t already have it) to whatever device they wanted to use.  We posted the following invitation via our community Facebook group:

“Hello everyone. As so many folks now have iPads, smartphones, and other devices, several of us wanted to try out the mobile apps for a couple of popular virtual classroom tools. We’re just getting together to try them out and see how they work—there’s no presentation or instruction, and we can offer no troubleshooting or advice.  We’re learning, too.”

It turned out that there’s no word for this. We really don’t have anything that means: “Let’s all get together and learn something.” So to emphasize the uncertainty and lack of structure we called it a “web conferencing rodeo.”

It also turned out that many people can’t conceptualize the idea of learning something if it isn’t presented in a traditional form. People contacted us to say they “were sorry they would miss the class” and “I am looking forward to the training,” even though we were very clear that there was no instruction or formality other than the time and the tool.

We learned a lot, by the way, the way most learning happens: as something a bit messy and chaotic. While all the apps were (to our surprise) very stable, we learned how the products displayed differently on different devices. People took screenshots and uploaded them to the Facebook group with “This is how it looks on my Droid,” “Here’s what I see on my iPad.” So apart from “Are you on a PC or a Mac?” we realized going forward that those of us in the biz also needed to ask: “Which device are you on, and which version of the app did you download?” And really: How much more could be learned if more leaders were willing to say, “We’re learning, too”?

So: We need a new word. Maybe one of the reasons social learning is generally so opaque in organizations is that we don’t quite know what to call it. I’m thinking management won’t go for “rodeo.”

2. A name for activities that improve performance when people already know how to do the necessary thing

Last month in Nuts & Bolts I wrote about the importance of the instructional designer who’s charged with creating a course to design the assessment before moving on to develop content. My buddy Jane Hart sent a note: “And remember you may not need a course at all.” 

She’s right, of course. While the focus of my column took “develop a course” as a given in that situation, I see plenty of instances where the stated performance outcome does not require any sort of instruction at all. People often just need to be able to find something: a job aid, a document that outlines the details, or the person in the building who did it before. Or they need practice at assembling the widget or creating the animation or drawing the cow. Or they don’t need anything at all: Someone somewhere decided people need “training” when they’re already performing just fine. (I know … I know…)

So we have instructional designers whose job is defined as creating “courses,” which is of course exactly what they will do. Can’t blame them.

We need a new word for what we do in these situations. Or maybe, like this very publication, we need to start using the word “solution” instead of words like “training” or “module” or “course” or even “experience.” Because once we use those words, the fence is already up around the answer.

3. A name for “just sharing, not teaching”

Since grad school I’ve been interested in better ways of sharing tacit knowledge, and ever since I published “Narrating Our Work” here last August I’ve been increasingly curious about using new technologies for it. I’ve always been a writer, but I thought I’d try my hand at some other approaches.

After finishing a recent work project, I figured I’d just put on a headset and make a YouTube video of myself talking through some slides about the challenge and what I did with it. The video runs long, I missed mentioning a big point about the final product, and I keep thinking I need to redo it, but that flies in the face of my insistence that narrating work is “fast and easy” to do. (If you’re interested, the video is at http://youtu.be/48Al6OR9U00). I sent it around to a few friends first and asked what they thought. One in particular had a very hard time understanding that it was not “instruction”—“What’s your objective? What do you mean for the learner to take away? What performance are you after?” Well … I’m not. I didn’t have any “learners” in mind, but hope viewers find something useful about working with SMEs or dealing with dry content, or see an introduction to behaviorist and constructivist models of designing instruction. But I’m just sharing, not explicitly teaching.

So: Maybe we need a new word for that, too. “Narrating work” and “working out loud” are clear enough to me, but maybe not to others.

Any suggestions? Any other new words needed?

We need new words. And not buzzy ones! We have plenty of those already.

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