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Serendipitous learning

June 08, 2001 By Maish Nichani

You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You'll learn things you never knew you never knew

- Vanessa Williams in " Colors of the wind"
for the Disney movie "Pocahontas"

"Serendipity" is the key word that comes to mind on reading the above verse. And serendipitous experiences is what the Web is all about too. For example, when I browse for books at Amazon.com, I usually end up buying serendipitously. And I do the same at eBay too. In fact, a part of my browsing experience is an eager wait to be inspired by the unexpected. And I'm sure you've had similar experiences. In this article, I will try to explore some of this phenomena, and relate it to the design of online learning environments.

John Seely Brown, Chief Scientist at Xerox PARC, in a paper titled "Growing Up Digital" (pdf file, 395 Kb), cites some changes the Web is making towards how people learn:

Most of us experienced formal learning in an authority-based, lecture-oriented school. Now, with incredibly amounts of information available through the Web, we find a "new" kind of learning assuming pre-eminenceÑlearning that's discovery based. We are constantly discovering new things as we browse through the emergent digital "libraries".

In another of his papers, Stolen Knowledge, John likens the notion of learning from the unexpected to "stealing" knowledge, and he urges the need to provide environments that are rich enough to encourage this kind of stealing:

One of the powerful implications of this view is that the best way to support learning is from the demand side rather than the supply side. That is, rather than deciding ahead of time what a learner needs to know and making this explicitly available to the exclusion of everything else, designers and instructors need to make available as much as possible of the whole rich web of practice-explicit and implicit-allowing the learner to call upon aspects of practice, latent in the periphery, as they are needed.

Let's try and understand what John means by taking a look at Adobe's support site. The reason why I chose a support site is because it has lot to do with this type of learning.

Some of the features of the support site include:

These support features are built around my motive for searching for a solution/answer. And this is very dependent on the time I have on my hands. For example, if I am under a tight schedule to deliver a Photoshop project, and I get an error message using the application, I will first search the knowledge base to find a quick fix (my motive) to my problem. And if I can't find it there, I will use the support forums to directly converse with the support guys. The emphasis here is to get an immediate solution to my problem.

On the other hand, if I have put aside some time to give my client an innovative and creative product (e.g. during the "discover" phase of the project life cycle), I might delve into the training or technical guides, hoping to catch on to some serendipitous insights that might unleash an idea virus that I could share with my project members and, which in turn, could give my client a competitive advantage!

Consider this tutorial, "Creative blurring in Photoshop". Now, the only reason why I would take this tutorial is when I have a direct need for doing soÑto highlight certain focus areas when designing an interface, etc. And when I have a time limit in which to do so. Would I take the tutorial when I am simply browsing for ideas? Well, No. It's just too cumbersome.

But, I would browse online articles, read blogs, IM with experts, etc. Why? These are easily digestible pieces informationÑpersonal stories and eventsÑthat immediately build a context. For example, after reading the article on what design legend David Carson said about the subtlety of out-of-focus photos, I might want to take a tutorial on "Creative blurring in Photoshop".

Synthesizing from the above, we can say that:

Well-defined motive... but little time... ask friends; search knowledge base; search forums; take just-in-time tutorial
Well-defined motive... and more time... take multiple tutorials; become choosy; have long lunch breaks
Searching for serendipitous inspiration... but little time... ask/beg friends; panic; or fall back to well-defined motive
Searching for serendipitous inspiration... and more time... browse, hunt for insights, competitive advantage, etc.

The above table relates well to the manner in which we normally seek information on the Web as a part of our daily work. In this First Monday research report, "Information Seeking on the Web: An Integrated Model of Browsing and Searching", the authors have created a matrix, which I've shamelessly copied for you below, that reveals the different modes of scanning:

Scanning Modes Information Need Information Seeking Information Use
Undirected Viewing General areas of interest; specific need to be revealed "Sweeping"
Scan broadly a diversity of sources, taking advantage of what's easily accessible
"Browsing"
Serendipitous discovery
Conditioned Viewing Able to recognize topics of interest "Discriminating"
Browse in pre-selected sources on pre-specified topics of interest
"Learning"
Increase knowledge about topics of interest
Informal Search Able to formulate simple queries "Satisfying"
Search is focused on area or topic, but a good-enough search is satisfactory
"Selecting"
Increase knowledge on area within narrow boundaries
Formal Search Able to specify targets in detail "Optimizing"
Systematic gathering of information about an entity, following some method or procedure
"Retrieving"
Formal use of information for decision-, policy-making

No full-length analysis of this pattern here, just wanted to bring out the areas that I am focusing on in this articleÑUndirected Viewing. But, you might notice that there is a serendipitous element in all other modes of scanning too.

Whoosh! Next frame. Let's take the fabric of the above scenario and slap it onto the corporate learning scene. Let's focus on the e-learning part here. Here too, we have the equivalent of the knowledge base and support forums, mostly in the form of KM systems, and we have the training and technical guides in the form of online courses. Seems to fit perfectly, doesn't it? Well, it would have but for lack one important facet Ñ the ability to get inspired and to try something new.

In many companies, the effort is on to buy LMSs and populate them with off-the-shelf courses to provide Just-In-Time (JIT) learningÑa method more aptly referred to as "spray-and-pray". This could be likened to building an e-learning library, which is quite fineÑbetter to have a library than none at all. But, the emphasis shouldn't just be in the building part, it should also be focused onto getting employees inspired and motivated to learn from the library. As we have seen, the JIT part is fine when there is a direct, or a predetermined need. But, there should also be the part that inspires a indirect need. The part where you venture into the "digital library" just to see what you might come up with.

It's easy to do this in a physical library and with real booksÑyou could read random pages, view reviews on the jacket, look up the author profile, discuss with friends, etc. But, try doing the same with courses in a LMS. The moment you try to access a tutorial, you're going to have the IMS/AICC devil tracking your moves, and putting a metric beside your name while initiating another trigger elsewhere, much like trying to access a protected piece of art in a museum.

To look for a solution, we can borrow a leaf or two from the likes of Amazon.com, and REI, the adventure sports gear retailer. Both heavily use specific content through user reviews, articles, stories, interviews, reports, etc., around their products to inspire consumers. It is this content built around the products that gives a face with which the consumer can converse. Some call this type of content " empowering content":

So if you're building Web content, you may want to consider whether your content is going to help people get something done. Whether, for want of a better term, it is going to empower them.

Off-line, this kind of empowerment comes from real world interactionsÑby attending seminars, conferences, workshops, having water-cooler talks, coffee-table chats, etc. On-line, this kind of empowering content comes mostly from the likes of articles, forums, blogs, IM, e-mail, etc.

Corporate intranets do have the articles, forums, e-mails, IMs, and more recently, blogs to keep the conversations going. But, as far as the courses in the LMSs are concerned, there is hardly any specific empowering content around them to make them attractive when searching for inspiration.

So, what we need is a face around the courses that converses with learners. A face that has interesting stories to tell by way of articles, trends, analysis, insights, reports, forums, etc. A face that offers the opportunity to get serendipitously empowered. A blog in this case seems to be a very promising candidate.

But here's another interesting development that might have some repercussions on how we can build empowering content around courses. And it has to do with the nature of online advertising banners.

We are all used to the common 728 X 90 pixel banners appearing at the top of webpages. Now, as we all know, the click through rate for these banners is low. Reason: the ads never really inspire us enough to make us want to click them, which is why we reflexively ignore them.

Now, CNET has come up with larger sized ads called Messaging Plus Units (MPUs). These 360 X 300 pixel rich media ads are interactive, and offer deep, substantive information (to view some in action, click on any current story on news.com). They are like embedded mini websites, which users can click and explore. The advantage: users can get a feel of what to expect before they click the ad and go to the company's site. For example, consider an article on Java, and a MPU for Sun embedded in the article. As the article is on Java, SUN's MPU can provide a mini website on the latest developments in JavaÑnew downloads, new features, white papers, etc. A user can go through the content and go to Sun's site only if she figures it worth doing so. While on another article, this time on webservers, SUN can choose to embed their webserver MPU, and a user can go through similar kind of information, but this time on SUN webservers, before she decides to go to Sun's site.

sample learning scenario

Now consider this learning scenario: Quality articles, interviews, marketing reports, etc. written around possible learning opportunities are accessible by all employees. This content is further enhanced by having tutorial-based MPUs embedded into them showcasing the stuff that can be learnt if the complete tutorial is taken. Now, for example, when a customer support officer is empowered by reading an article on some fantastic deed done by a Nordstrom employee, she can also view the "Facing the Angry Customer" MPU embedded in the article, which might give her the motivation to take the complete course. So, here the story is the main constructor, and the course a satisfying appendage.

Possible? In an article for Wired, Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder and director of the MIT Media Laboratory, reminisced:

Undeniably, browsing can be fun and useful but, as with tourism, only so much and so often. Funny how we use the words cruising and surfing to describe our behavior on the Web. How often do we invoke the words learning or engaging when we browse?

This article was written with the aim of answering these questions, but more towards the hope that this would ignite some kind of serendipitous learning, and empower you to discuss your thoughts below so that we can walk the footsteps of this stranger together :)

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