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Hard talk with Thiagi

First published June 14, 2002

elearningpost: Thiagi, describe your specialty area.

Thiagi: My specialty is to avoid all specialties and become a rigid eclectic.
I specialize in reconciling paradoxes. I take light things (such as play and laughter) seriously and serious things (such as e-learning dropout rates) lightly. I specialize in being a global nomad and a cultural marginal. This helps me think like an Asian and like a non-Asian with equal fluency. Some days, I am Gunga Din and other days I am the Pukkah Sahib. This split personality also helps me interact with people from different cultures with equal incompetence.

I specialize in performance-based learning in both senses of the word performance: I focus on improving participants´ measurable performance. I also focus on applying principles and procedures from performance arts. I have been a street-corner magician, stand-up comedian, and an improv actor. I learned more about motivation, instruction, and performance improvement from these experiences than from my doctoral work on instructional systems and cognitive science.

elearningpost: Lately you've been advocating an alternative ID process: the 4Cs (Continuous, Concurrent, Creative, and Co-design) instead of the usual 4Ds (Define, Design, Develop, and Deliver), Can you expand on this?

Thiagi: Actually, I advocate a wide variety of alternative ID processes, including the traditional ISD model–which I use every 29th of February.

One of the alternative approaches that appears to have high face validity (because I see light bulbs going on tops of people´s heads) is the 4C model. It´s not a procedural model, but rather a series of beliefs and principles. And the four C´s are not mutually exclusive; they overlap with each other.

elearningpost: One of your training mantras is "activities instead of content." How do you see this happening in online courses?

Thiagi: I am being misquoted slightly. My mantra is "activities balancing passivity". A corollary (do mantras have corollaries?) is "no meaningless activity for the sake of activities."

Recently I undertook a masochistic exercise of going through several online courses. I did not find too many activities other than mindless multiple-choice questions. But I can´t blame just online courses. There is an imbalance between passive content dumps and active participation in all types of face-to-face and mediated courses.

In designing training courses, I frequently begin by creating activities first and then loading them with content. I use suitable frames or shells to work with different existing sources of content.

Here are some examples:

elearningpost: Talking of structured sharing, another of your training strategies is to "treat adult learners as subject-matter experts who have a wealth of tips, tricks, and shortcuts based on their experience." Many CLOs (Chief Learning Officers) will recognize this as being their core knowledge management strategy as well. But, as many CLOs would have also experienced, it is struggle to get people to readily share their knowledge. What is your perspective on this?

Thiagi: I believe that the secret is to provide both structure and freedom that encourages the sharing of knowledge. I have created a series of activities that do this job in a playful and effective manner, both in face-to-face and virtual situations. My Australian colleague Marie Jasinski and I have been successfully field-testing a low-cost, high-interaction format called e-mail games. Recently, I changed the label to rames (re-usable asynchronous multiplayer exercises) since people confused e-mail games with correspondence chess. Here´s a recent example of a lengthy rames application that treats adult learners as subject-matter experts:

Our goal is to treat participants not as learners but as SMEs from a community of practitioners Our role is that of facilitating mutual learning rather than being a traditional instructional designer.

elearningpost: It is a concealed fact that the ID eventually learns more from designing the training than the eventual learner ever will from undergoing the same training. Designers are made to be active learners, while learners are forced to be passive receivers. There is surely something amiss here. How do you deal with this dilemma in your training programmes?

Thiagi: Seven years ago, one of my clients from a bank told her boss, "Thiagi is so magical that all you have to do is to give him the training topic. In 5 minutes, he´ll be ready to conduct a workshop that is more effective and interesting than a course that someone else spent two months to develop." I was extremely embarrassed by this statement but her boss said, "Let´s check it out."

Several months later, she called me to announce that a local vendor was given two months to develop a 1-day course on an interpersonal skill. She had collected evaluation data from the group. She invited me to come the next week and teach a 1-day workshop on the same topic to the same type of employees. I will be given the topic 5-minutes before the class. I accepted the challenge because it sounded like fun. The topic turned out to be "customer satisfaction". I used a series of structured sharing techniques to ask participants to recall personal critical incidents related to the topic. I invited the group to analyze the concept, identify best practices, share them with each other, and come up with a set of posters to teach them critical practices to others. My job was to facilitate the learning-through-analysis-and-design process. The group had fun and came up with insightful learning. During the day, I had inserted an activity that required participants to prove they had improved their customers´ satisfaction levels during the next two months. As a result of this activity, participants ended up collecting valid Level 4 evaluation data by themselves. The Training Director conceded that I had won the challenge at all four levels.

The simple approach that I use to handle the dilemma is to use a variety of strategies that invite participants to become instructional designers and to act as a self-directed learning team.

elearningpost: I notice that you use many case-studies and stories as a way to get your thoughts across. Could we say that this is a pursuable instructional strategy in both circumstances, face-to-face and online?

Thiagi: I grew up in a story-telling culture, voraciously devoured short stories, and published a collection of my own. So it´s not a surprise that I use stories extensively in my training activities. Although I am not as hyperbolic as Roger Schank, I believe storytelling is an effective strategy in both face-to-face and online situations.

I use stories (disguised as case materials) in all my online training. Obviously, we can post these cases on a website and require learners to respond to what-went-wrong and what-should-we-do-next questions in chat rooms and discussion forums. However we try to take the use of case-studies and stories to a more intriguing level.

Here´s an example: In a recent leadership course, I created three different versions of the same case from the points of view of three different key players. Participants in the course are given one of the three versions to read and analyze. They participate in a threaded discussion (without realizing that there are three different realities). After some initial confusion, participants catch on to what is happening and get an experiential feel for how different people´s perceptions influence their thoughts, feelings, and action.

Here´s another example of interactive use of participant-created cases: We designed an email activity called SIX HEADS that is conducted in six rounds. Each participant´s output at the end of each round is sent to the next participant in the sequence to start the next round.

  1. During the first round of SIX HEADS, each participant is invited to create an authentic mini-case that incorporates a problem to be solved.
  2. During the second round, participants play the role of a consultant and suggest a solution to the problem.
  3. During the third round, participants play the role of cynical bashers and identify the weaknesses, limitations, and negative consequences of the suggested solution.
  4. During the fourth round, participants play the role of admiring boosters and identify the strengths, virtues, and potential positive consequences of the suggested solution.
  5. During the fifth round, participants play the role of enhancers and come up with improved solutions after reviewing the earlier materials.
  6. During the sixth round participants receive the original case and the two different solutions in a random order. They play the role of an evaluator and distribute 13 points between the two solutions to indicate their relative potential effectiveness.

It is amazing how excited participants become when they are asked to tell their own stories and to play with them.

About Thiagi: Dr. Sivasailam "Thiagi" Thiagarajan is the Resident Mad Scientist (a.k.a. Director of Research and Development) at California-based QBInternational, a company that provides custom e-learning solutions.

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