Online Edition - July 2000
Issue Highlight -
- Friends of mine showed me a letter recently that I thought you might find interesting. It might be a sign of things to come in this New Economy:
Is Anyone Out There?
Increasing A Good Idea's Profitability
Internal Quality Audits
Every Summit Beckons A Conqueror
Finding Your Way Home In The Workplace
Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Heard on the Street
Is Anyone Out
Using the Web to Create Global Communications and Learning
“If we think of the Internet as
another medium, we’re sunk... We need to think of the
Internet as a container for media and a space for
collaboration—just like the classroom has always been for
us.” So states Valorie Beer, Ph.D., and author of
“The Web Learning Fieldbook.”
And Beer should know. She has worked with Apple Computer in a variety of roles including manager of field training, Netscape as director, learning technology and, most recently, E*trade.
Beer realizes that corporations are spending billions of dollars on Web-based training. But many are just slapping material up on a Web page and expecting employees and students to learn. She firmly believes that to use the Web intelligently and effectively as a teaching medium, you have to understand how to create a learning environment.
Privately, Beer worries about what the fabric of our culture is losing to the seemingly unending rush to grasp the Web as an exciting alternative to connecting with those closest to us. She has a Ph.D. in education from the University of Southern California.
She recently spoke with News for A Change Editor Bill Brewer about the explosive growth of Web-based training, distance learning and creating global communities.
NFC: Where is the teacher in Web-based learning?
Beer: Learning happens in communities. You can absorb information, but until you try the behavior out, no learning has really occurred because you haven’t had a chance to try it and get feedback. That’s what the community is all about. Pointing and clicking is not a community or a conversation. You’ve got to pay attention to the construction of the learning environment first and then pick the medium. So, if a community is important to learning, then you’ve got to construct that. Figure out who your mentors are going to be, who the coaches are going to be, how the learner is going to contribute back to the curriculum, and then figure out how the Web can help you do that. Unless you’ve thought carefully about the kind of community and the kind of interaction and conversation you want people to have, the Web isn’t going to help you.
NFC: Do you know of any studies that have shown how effective distance learning is?
Beer: All the studies that I have seen say that it does, in fact, reach more audience. And, I suppose, in a sense you could take that as an indicator of learning that some people would not otherwise have gotten. All of the studies have ended up talking about the instructional design. Not about the medium. If the instructional design is good, the learners can learn and the instructors can teach, regardless of the medium. You could do it on a wet paper towel, and it would still work. But, if the instructional design isn’t good, then the satellite, or the Web or whatever, isn’t going to do it. When I was doing the research for the book, I looked at 256 purportedly educational Web sites, and I liked five of them because I thought they inspired the conversation.
One of my favorites is Access Excellence, which is on Genentech’s site for K-12 biology teachers. They have an extraordinary amount of resources. Now, this is not for the kids, this is for the teachers. But this is one of the places where the line between teacher and learner blurs. They’ve got all kinds of lesson plans and very well moderated chat rooms, which are conversations.
One of the things that we forget to do is ask the learner how they like to learn. I was just working with a company recently that had a really big wake-up call. It’s a dot-com. The training organization assumed that you could put all of this stuff out on the Web. So, during the classroom component, they demonstrated the Web site with all these tools that the training managers could use. The managers got very uncomfortable. One of them finally raised his hand and said, “Um, can we have a binder?” They wanted the paper. A lot of people don’t like to sit in front of the screen and read. The Web is a piece of a learning environment, it should not be thought of as the whole thing that’s going to do away with every other modality we’ve ever thought of, because it’s not.
NFC: Do you think it would be different if we were taught to read on the computer?
Beer: Maybe, because we’re taught to hold a book. I don’t know a lot of places that are teaching reading online. In fact, I sort of hope they don’t. The thing the Web will be good for is inspiring the conversation amongst people who cannot, or would never meet, because of time or distance.
So, as an educational tool, I think it will probably have two purposes. First, the delivery of the prerequisite, factual information, which doesn’t require a whole lot of reading. And then the enabler of the distance conversations that might never have happened.
NFC: But we’re going to be thinking of conversation in a different way because conversation is more than just our talking.
Beer: That’s a good point. I think that probably balances out—what is lost in the distance conversation, vs. what is gained by being able to talk to the person, even at a distance. What worries me about the ability to log on and have a simultaneous conversation with 100 people about a very fascinating topic is: What warm-blooded, wonderful, eager people in your home are you ignoring while you’re online? And that one person in your home, that child or that spouse, can never hope to be as interesting collectively as 100 people that you meet online. I am very worried about what the larger social fabric of being able to communicate across great distances, with huge numbers of people, does to the fabric of the relationships in the immediate environment.
NFC: Do you think there’ll be a backlash to this at some point?
Beer: Well, I’m feeling it. I just read a book that was actually recommended for the AQP conference, “People and the New Economy 2”, called “The Cluetrain Manifesto.” There’s part of me that wanted to jump up and down for joy for the message that they were saying about communication and community. But, what I really wanted to do when I finished the book, was to send a message to Christopher Locke and say, “Who did you ignore in your immediate environment while you were having these joyful conversations with people around the globe?” If you read the essays, this unbounded joy comes thru and then if you read the bios at the end of the book, inevitably, what each one of them says was, “I thank my family, for basically letting me ignore them while I wrote this book.” I don’t mean to pick on them. That’s sort of the most recent and obvious example.
What I think is so funny is that enrollments in classroom training are at an all-time high. My guess would be that it’s not because of the content, it’s because people want to be there with real people. It’s the social aspect. It’s the intimate aspect. It’s the ability to have that face-to-face conversation. I’m not so sure it’s a backlash so much as a settling down. You can’t believe the number of people that I’ve had say to me within the last two or three months, “You know what? I’ve stopped surfing.”
NFC: Have we lost the ability to bring groups of people together to explore a topic and have a transformative experience? And does the Web reinforce that?
Beer: I’m afraid that’s true. I am hoping that what the Web really will do is let us understand how to have those conversations with people we might never have had, and weave that into the rest of our existence, and not have it be so separate. One of the things about the ubiquity, or perceived ubiquity of the Web, and I think as it becomes more ubiquitous it will help, is to not have education be a place. And maybe what will help is that I can get on and ask my question at 2 a.m., and maybe have a meaningful dialogue with someone in Australia. But nobody’s going to design it that way. It’s going to just grow up organically.
NFC: The technical dos and don’ts in your book seem fairly obvious.
Beer: I think that we still suffer from what I’ll call the “desktop publishing syndrome.” Remember when desktop publishing got started? Everybody was a designer. The newsletters and things like that are a lot better than they were 15 years ago when desktop publishing came out. But, if you’ll remember when it got started, in the first five years of desktop publishing, we saw a lot of things with five photos, 24 fonts and three colors on a page, just because we could.
NFC: Do you think in corporate America training directors see this as basically another way to deliver a manual?
Beer: Yes. And that’s a terrible indictment of my own profession. But we can’t see a lot of the stuff that’s going on because it’s behind firewalls. And I know that there’s a lot of good stuff going on out there. But every time I go to a conference, I would still say, probably, about 80 percent of the training directors out there are putting stuff online because they’ve been mandated to put x percent of their company’s training online. And they take their classroom binder, convert the Word document to HTML and put it on a Web site.
NFC: Why do you think companies are demanding that?
Beer: There are two reasons: cost and what I’ll call an insidious reason. The cost reason is because companies think that if people don’t have to travel to a classroom they’ll save money. What they don’t realize is, of course, to get a really good intranet up and running for learning, it’s about a half million dollars in maintenance a year on the hardware. The other thing that I’m just going to go out on a limb and say, I believe that a lot of employers, especially in a down-market, think that if an employee is going to get educated, they should do it on their own time. And you had better not be studying during work time. Therefore, if you’re going to take this class, you can take it online at home.
I’ve done a lot of work lately on retention. The turnover rates are going up. And this is never a surprise, but compensation and money-related reasons always come in about sixth on those surveys. The number one reason for low retention is always manager quality, which is a huge one. But, number two is always development: How much do I get to learn.
If I’m working 60 hours a week, as long as I’m learning, that might be okay. But, if it just becomes work, then it’s not okay. And I think that we’re going to have a problem. All of the statistics show that the labor market is going to get smaller in our lifetime and our children’s lifetimes. I think that not working people to death and letting them learn is going to be a real tough balance for companies to maintain. I can’t quite see what it is. Maybe it’s the shift to contingent workers where more people become contingent workers so that they can have some of their own time to learn and develop, rather than depending on a company for that.
NFC: You’ve worked for Netscape, Apple and you’ve worked for E*Trade, what was the thing that kept you up at night?
Beer: One can be kept awake at night because one is just absolutely excited about what one is doing. And so the positive answer to your question is: The thing that got me jazzed and got me excited and got me going was surprise-surprise, the people that I was going to get to see and interact with everyday. It was my team. It was the people that kept me going there. In a way I don’t miss Apple and Netscape because I am still friends with all the friends that I made there. So, friendship is not a place, and certainly the connections, the community and the conversation did not stop when I left. The thing that kept me up at night from an anxiety standpoint was how do we keep this together as it grows? It could be that in 100 years, if there are still companies, they aren’t more than 600 people. What I have noticed is that there seems to be an inflection point at about 600 or 700 people when the intimacy seems to go away and the corporate veneer begins to take over. Just as John Scully used to say, “Apple was 17,000 rowboats rather than one big ocean liner.”