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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.
- The first C stands for continuous. Among other things, this principle recognizes that the development of an instructional package does not have a clear beginning or ending. Things constantly keep changing-- participants, content, technology, and workplace–and you keep revising and improving the training package. By the same token, you never begin any instructional design from scratch: You build upon existing content and activities from your previous work and other people´s work. You may call this creative plagiarism, benchmarking, or not re-inventing the wheel.
Here´s a brief example: Recently, we "completed" designing an online training course for a high-tech client. In this training package, we used several games that require learners to become fluent in recalling and applying different facts, principles, and procedures. We saved the shells from these games for future use. Right now, I am designing a course on conflict management. Although the technical content of the original course and the "touchy-feely" content of this course appear to be very different, I use the game shells to rapidly design highly interactive training episodes.
- The second C stands for concurrent. The concept is the same as "blending," but I have promised not to use this buzzword. Concurrency refers to the act of conducting instructional analysis, design, evaluation, and revision activities–all at the same time.
An important application of this principle is to combine participants´ job performance with their learning. We try to design all our instruction as OJT. If that is not possible (as in the case of training recruits to fly a plane), we try to simulate the on-the-job environment as closely as possible.
Here´s an aspect of concurrent instructional design that combines delivery and design: If I am the subject-matter expert, I teach a small group of people in a face-to-face situation. We videotape this session. I teach another group, trying to make the second session as different from the first one as possible. Then we analyze the videotapes, figure out which parts can be self-instructional, which parts require collaborative learning, and which parts require a facilitator. If I am not a SME, we use a version of extreme programming. The SME and I sit at the same computer, sharing the same keyboard. I ask the SME to type a question that will require a demonstration of the mastery of a key principle or procedure. I continue with questions based on a template that suits the type of learning. The SME types the answers. I grab the keyboard and edit it. We continue with this dialogue until I am able to respond correctly to the original mastery question. We then bring in a representative learner and have her go through this learning segment, as a test to see if the training segment works. While the learner is going through the segment, we keep our mouth shut unless the learner is absolutely lost and starts screaming in total frustration. Even then we communicate only by changing the text on the screen. This is our approach to combining analysis, design, delivery, evaluation, and revision.
Any training package that is deadly dull and boring is almost invariably produced by the application of the traditional ISD.
- The third C in the 4C model, creative, is my reaction to the fact. I want my training package to be surprising and I want participants to show off their mastery through creative responses. For example, in my change-management workshop, the facilitator is missing and participants see a message on the screen, asking someone to turn the TV on exactly at 8:30 AM. A robot appears on the screen and walks participants through a collaborative exercise to explore the essence of change. After 30 minutes of this activity, the facilitator enters the room and debriefs participants about their reaction to the unexpected icebreaker activity. As another example of creativity, later in the session, participants are required to respond by drawing pictures and composing pieces of music.
- The fourth C, Co-design, refers to empowering the inmates to run the asylum or the learners to teach themselves. Just to practice what I preach, why don´t you tell me what Co-design means?
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:
- I use textra games to enhance text materials from books, reference manuals, reprints, handouts, and job aids. In a textra game called QUESTION CARDS, participants independently read a handout and work in teams to create a large number of cards with questions on one side and answers on the other. I collect these question cards, add some of my own, mix the pile, and conduct a quiz activity using the questions and answers.
- I use infohunt games when the content is available on the Web. In a typical infohunt, participants search for different pieces of information from the Web and analyze, synthesize, and evaluate these pieces of information.
- I use activities called video vitamins with videotaped documentaries, case studies, dramatizations, interviews, and talking-head presentations. These activities encourage participants to review, reflect, and apply new values, concepts, and skills presented in the video. RASHOMON is a typical video vitamin used with case studies and dramas. At the beginning of the activity, I assign key roles from the storyline to different participants. At the conclusion of the video presentation, I assemble participants into same-role teams and have them reconstruct the story from that character's point of view.
- I use lecture games when the content is so novel that it resides only in the mind of an expert. In a lecture game called PUZZLING PRESENTATION, I use a crossword puzzle as a test of mastery of the content. I distribute copies of the crossword puzzle at the beginning of the lecture and encourage mutual learning by asking participants to work in pairs. I ask the expert to give a lecture presentation and stop the presentation from time to time to provide puzzle-solving interludes.
I use different structured sharing activities when I want to elicit content from participants´ own experience and expertise. Many of the activities involve brainstorming, generating bits of content, and organizing the content.
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:
- A multinational high-tech corporation shifted to a team-based work mode, creating a need to train facilitators. We were authorized to conduct a pilot test of a rames approach with a group of 17 participants in different locations.
We sent an email note asking participants to reflect on what makes an effective facilitator. Each participant was asked to send a list of characteristics of effective facilitators. We compiled a consolidated list that contained 20 items (such as confidence, empathic listening, expertise in process skills, flexibility, integrity, and inclusiveness). The second round of the rame required participants to review this list of characteristics and complete two tasks: First, select the three most important characteristics of effective facilitators. Second, predict which three characteristics that most participants would select. Based on participant responses, we arranged the 20 items in order of popularity and declared the participant who made the most accurate prediction to be the winner of the Outstanding Psychic Award. The instructional impact of this rame was to expose participants to different characteristics of an effective facilitator and to have them think about these characteristics.
- We then facilitated another rame called DEFINE. We sent an email note identifying the highest-rated facilitator characteristic (which was confidence). We asked participants to send an operational definition of this characteristic. In response, we received some interesting contextualized definitions. With the help of participants we conducted a content analysis and came up with a list of critical attributes of facilitator´s confidence. The instructional impact of this rame was a deeper understanding of the factors that contribute to effective facilitation.
- The next rame was called DEPOLARIZER. During the first round, we assigned a negative role to half the participants and a positive role to the other half. We asked the first group to send us three or more reasons why facilitator´s confidence could negatively interfere with team performance. We asked the other group to send reasons why confidence could positively enhance team performance. We collected the comments, arranged them with negative and positive comments alternating with each other, and sent them back to participants. The instructional impact of this rame was the realization that different facilitator characteristics may produce different results in different situations.
- We began the next rame, 101 TIPS, by asking participants to contribute practical guidelines for being an effective facilitator. We encouraged them to generate these tips on the basis of the earlier rames, personal experience, what they heard from others, and what they read in books. By sending in a new tip, a participant earned 10 points. In addition, a panel of judges selected the top three tips each day. The best tip received a bonus score of 70 points, the second-best 30 points, and the third-best 10 points. At the end of each round, we sent emails with the latest collection of tips along with the names of the top three scorers. The instructional outcome of this rame was a set of practical tips for effective facilitation and the awareness of different facilitation styles and personal preferences.
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.
- During the first round of SIX HEADS, each participant is invited to create an authentic mini-case that incorporates a problem to be solved.
- During the second round, participants play the role of a consultant and suggest a solution to the problem.
- During the third round, participants play the role of cynical bashers and identify the weaknesses, limitations, and negative consequences of the suggested solution.
- During the fourth round, participants play the role of admiring boosters and identify the strengths, virtues, and potential positive consequences of the suggested solution.
- During the fifth round, participants play the role of enhancers and come up with improved solutions after reviewing the earlier materials.
- 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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