Archive for March, 2009

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Worker

March 29, 2009

fawlty-towersI have been on the road with Learning Pool for almost 6 months now and it has been a real change from my life in the public sector. 

There are so many things that are new to me and every day on the road is an adventure.  I hadn’t realised how naïve I was in the ways of travel and hotel life.

Last month I found myself booked into a hotel at the Basildon Festival Leisure Park.  It sounds, great doesn’t it ?  Well it wasn’t.

Picture a very large car park surrounded by a couple of hotels, a bowling alley, a cinema, a night club (known locally as Baz Vegas) and lots of eateries that would love to be classed as restaurants but are just food chain outlets.   Those Essex youths love the sound of their big exhaust pipes.

I foolishly ate at a Chinese buffet.  Now, in my humble opinion, Chinese food should be fresh, hot from a wok and subtly flavoured not left sitting in big vats under electric warming lights, getting  gloopier by the second.  And this delicate food deserves to be eaten in more sedate surroundings than something that resembles an aircraft hanger and sounds like a school canteen.

The service was good, too good.  When I asked how the buffet process worked, my waitress who had just showed me to a table told me to get up and go help myself.  What she actually said was “Get a plate and eat as much as you can.”  It felt like a challenge but I didn’t take her up on it.

Whilst on the subject of food on the road I must mention the glory that is hot sausage sandwiches available at some train stations.  Never, never be tempted by a hot sausage sandwich at a train station.  I did and have fortunately lived to tell the tale. 

I just didn’t expect the woman behind the counter to take a cellophane wrapped breadbun that contained already cooked sausages and stick it in the microwave  for 2 minutes.  This cookery method results in a chewy, steamed bread roll that rubberized sausage –not for the faint hearted.

Something else I have found out about whilst hotel hopping down the east of England is bed scarves.  Seriously, bed scarves.

I don’t know when it started and I don’t know what they are for but often I walk into a hotel room to find someone has draped a large piece of shiny material across the bottom of the bed.   Occasionnaly this “scarf” is accompanied by matching bed cushions too. 

Why?  Surely cushions are for sofas and chairs, scarves are for necks?

All I need on my bed are covers and pillows.  What I don’t need are bed accessories that I have to remove at night before I get into bed and that I feel obliged to put back tidily in the morning so the maid doesn’t think bad of me.

Finally, to close this ramble I must mention last week’s hotel.

I turned up at reception and gave my name and the receptionist said “Ah yes, Learning Tool.”  We laughed at the typing error when I worked out that she wasn’t  being rude.

There are other stories, some not fit for this blog, so this may not be the last you hear of my Learning Pool travels. 



On the right track

March 27, 2009

choc-digestives1The days of eating like a Hobbit in the Lord of the Rings are over.  Well, for the time being that is – until I go on a cruise where the food is all inclusive.

I’m miserably restricting myself to a reduced amount of calories a day, based on the Weight Watchers Points system – I have been wondering whether my attempt to lose weight via this method will prove to be more successful than previous attempts I have done by myself.

I am so peckish all the time and am missing things like bacon rolls, crisps and chocolate.  The system does allow you to eat what you want, as long as you take account of it in your daily points allowance.

Unfortunately for me, having a large glass of wine, or a pint of larger and a lovely delicious (ok…fattening) snack, just about uses up all my points for the day.

But I have lost a fair few pounds these last few weeks, so I’ll just have to persevere if I want to feel comfortable in some of the posh frocks I have for the cruise.  I’ll just have to make sure I wear them on the first few days!!

I have tried several ways to lose weight myself in the past couple of years, but I’ve never had much luck.  I don’t seem to have much will power when it comes to food and drink and I seem to convince myself that something as small as a few tiny squares of chocolate or a few odd biscuits won’t make much of a difference.

So, why is this working for me now?

Well, Weight Watchers has been operating successfully for years and the secret to its worldwide success is due in no small part to ‘tracking’ and ‘monitoring’.

 The process of tracking everything you eat, as well as examining activities and achievements, has been proven to help.

There is also the notion that someone else monitoring you via weekly weigh-ins also spurs you on to achieve your goals. Believe me, you want to ensure you have done as well as you can each week, when you know someone else is monitoring!

So, this got me thinking about our DLE and the various reasons why we monitor and track learner progress.

In the main, it seems DLE users are monitoring and tracking courses which learners ‘must complete’ to comply with legislative training needs.  The DLE is perfect for this and the monitoring reporting shows most mandatory courses are being completed satisfactorily.

However, there are other occasions where DLE reporting suggests other courses aren’t being used as much as a council would like.

So, maybe we should do more to encourage learners to complete courses by reminding them that they are ‘being monitored’? It might help nudge them on more.

Given that most learners have set goals to achieve in line with their performance, maybe they too could keep some sort of tracker about their progress through courses?

Maybe their line manager could do the equivalent of a monthly weigh-in of sorts, using the information in the DLE, to check the learner is keeping on track.

The people behind the Weight Watchers organisation know a thing or two about motivating and encouraging so maybe some of their methods can be used elsewhere.

Now then, back to my own tracking.  How many points have I got left today, I wonder?  Enough for a jaffa cake? 


Sowing the Seeds

March 26, 2009

seedlingIsn’t it good to chat to someone who knows what they’re talking about?  There’s something really satisfying about talking to people who are the experts in their chosen fields.  It’s almost as if their wisdom might somehow magically rub off on to you.

This thought struck me recently after I’d had a lovely phone conversation with one of our customers, Phil, who just happens to be a very keen vegetable gardener.  I’d called him up to talk about something to do with work and got into chatting about what seeds and bulbs he’s sown recently and what lovely dishes he was going to cook up with all the produce from his allotment. 

After a good fifteen minutes of chat talking about everything from using seaweed as a fertiliser to growing tomatoes in hanging baskets we realised the time and got back to the work in hand.

This is a bit like the conversations I also have with my father-in-law, Seamus.  There’s another very lovely man who is an undertaker, musician, Web 2. 0 enthusiast, author, songwriter and, in his spare time, a fiddle repair man.  It’s fair to say that he has many strings to his bow. 

Seamus has many visitors from all over Ireland and the UK who bring their precious fiddles and violins to him for repair and he’s often to be found surfing eBay, on the lookout for a broken instrument in need of some tlc or major overhaul.  The irony is that he doesn’t play the fiddle very well himself, he’s a guitar man, but however he does it, he manages to make even the sorriest instrument sing high and sweet again.   His next project is to build a full size harp from scratch, when he gets a moment.

I also met a true craftsman recently, Joe from Alpha Stained Glass windows in Derry.  Joe and his team create the most beautiful windows in a whole rainbow of colours from all sizes of what is just, essentially, pieces of coloured glass.  But the skill that goes into making the windows, large or small, traditional or contemporary, is something else. 

We’re very lucky to have one of their creations here at Pool Heights.  And the way the staircase lights up on a sunny afternoon as the sun streams through the window that Joe and his team created for us is truly uplifting.

Not only is it soul enhancing to listen to someone talk with a passion about their ‘thing’ but it’s amazing what you can learn.  When you hear the enthusiasm in their voice or pick up the knowledge from their written words you get your own little ‘can do’ bean to sow yourself.

So thank you to the Joe’s, Seamus’ and Phil’s out there – you’re an inspiration.


m-learning: just another fad?

March 23, 2009

mlearningDuring the mid to late 1990’s we saw the emergence of e-learning; during the early 2000’s the new phrase of ‘blended’ learning was all the rage; and over the last twelve months m-learning has become the latest buzz word to grip the learning and development profession. 

So, will m-learning be the next big thing?

In this article Darren Hockley, Managing Director of DeltaNet International Limited, explores the relative merits of m-learning and gives us his views on how successful it will be.  But before we consider the merits of m-learning, perhaps we should look back at the impact e-learning and blended learning have had on the way we learn today.

e-learning can no longer be considered a new way of learning.  According to a recent study, over 57% of Learning and Development managers confirmed that their organisation now offered some form of e-learning to its staff. 

In the academic world, e-learning is widely used by schools, colleges and universities.  e-learning is firmly established as an accepted method of providing learning and development opportunities.  But to reach this level of acceptance has taken over 10 years and a few ups and downs along the way.

Blended learning is the phrase used to describe a learning strategy that includes more than one method of delivering learning and development interventions.  A blended learning solution will normally included some e-learning which will be combined with one or more of the traditional methods including face to face training, books, videos, training DVDs, seminars, workshops, distance learning packs, etc.

The reality is that we have been using blended learning solutions for as long as we have been learning, we just didn’t call it blended learning.

So, what is m-learning and what does the future hold for it?

m-learning (otherwise known as ‘mobile’ learning) takes e-learning one step further; rather than completing a learning intervention on our desktop or laptop computers  will we now be able to study an m-learning course on portable computer devices such as PDAs, mobile phones and palm top computers?

Technology has advanced at lightening speed and in particular, convergence has had a major impact on how we live our lives.  Little more than a few years ago a mobile phone was exactly that; now the latest mobile phones are powerful computer devices that allow you to listen to music and watch videos, take photographs and send these to our friends and family, send and receive messages and emails, browse the internet on the move and basically perform any activity that you can use a personal computer for.

And with relatively short contract periods and high levels of saturation most people will have one of the latest mobile phones in their pockets or handbags within a short space of time.  Add to this the list of other portable computing devices commonly available- such as PDAs and palm top computers- and you can see why the technologists think that m-learning is the next logical step.

So, if we accept that most people will soon be carrying a device capable of accessing an m-learning course then the next thing to consider is how the course will be delivered to the device.

Network providers are investing heavily to upgrade the networks, with 3G services already providing broadband connections to our portable computer devices.  Coverage can be ‘sketchy’ outside of the bigger cities and towns and physical barriers can significantly weaken the strength of the signal, for example in certain parts of a building. However, with continued investment these problems will soon be overcome; or at least be minimalised.

The large amount of digital storage available on these new devices could be used to download and store the m-learning courses locally when there is a network connection so that the learner can access the m-learning course later even if the network connection is no longer available.

We have seen that potential learners have the devices readily available to become m-learners, and that the infrastructure is there to support them, but what else do we need to think about?

Existing e-learning content can easily be repositioned to work on the smaller screens that these devices come with; organisations have built up their own resources to be able to produce e-learning internally and there is a ready made industry of willing e-learning developers waiting to build content.  So, if there is a demand, the content can quickly be made available to the willing m-learner.

This leads us to the final question: Will the learners be happy to use m-learning?

Undoubtedly, a small percentage of people will readily embrace m-learning, enjoying the freedom this will bring them; and these people are likely to be keen adopters of new technology.  However, the vast majority of us are likely to be more sceptical as is common with all change.

It has been proven that if you provide a comfortable and practical environment you can significantly enhance the learning experience, and this is often reflected in the investments made in our training rooms. If the learner is not comfortable and receptive to learning then learning will not happen; or at best will be diluted.

To expect learners to spend significant amounts of time interacting with small devices that have tiny screens and keyboards is likely to be a doomed strategy.  For this reason, I believe much of the learning we undertake is unsuitable for m-learning and will need to be done using more traditional interventions. 

One opportunity would be to use business strategy games to help learners develop and practice new skills.  The serious games industry is now firmly established and is one of the more creative approaches to using e-learning. These solutions are expensive to produce but, with many people already playing games on these devices, they are likely to be more appealing to the learner.

Probably the best opportunity available to us is to use these devices to provide support to employees within the workplace.  Increasingly we treat information and knowledge as a commodity expecting it to be available to us at all times.  So why not make our knowledge bases available to people in the field through these mobile computing devices?

A widespread example of how this has already been done is the use of satellite navigation systems.  No longer do we consult atlases or route planners in advance of a journey; instead we arm ourselves with a postcode, jump into the car, tap a few keys and off we go.  We don’t expect to ‘learn’ the journey through this experience; we know we can always use the satellite navigation system if we need to make the same journey again.

Using this concept, why not provide work related support to our employees?

If you are a central heating engineer and are working on a type of boiler for the first time wouldn’t it be great to access an interactive guide on how this works and what needs to be maintained?  Or maybe, your sales people could access important information about a client before going into a meeting? 

The applications are endless but critically are designed to provide small amounts of information ‘just in time’.

When e-learning was first introduced back in the 1990’s we were told to expect a paradigm shift that would see an end for face to face training.  History tells us this is not the case, and the e-learning industry suffered several setbacks of a result of this misplaced enthusiasm.  Therefore, a more conservative approach will need to taken if m-learning is not to suffer the same setback.

Darren Hockley

Mind your language

March 18, 2009


Just so that you know,  if you work in local government you shouldn’t be using these words as they’re meaningless, confusing and generally not understood by most people.

Going to be pretty quiet round here then …………..


PS.  Ok, you can use them.  But if you’re absolutely, cross your heart sure that the people you’re talking to do actually have a tiny bit of intelligence.  But only if you’re sure.  Wouldn’t want to confuse the poppets.

“No nay neverrr, no more”

March 17, 2009

bodhranWorking up in the garret in Clarendon Street, sometimes called the eyrie, is a new experience for me.

Firstly, there are three Andrews up here at the moment which makes any form of meaningful communication virtually impossible.

Secondly, I didn’t realise how much I missed the office banter… bouncing ideas off the creative team (having my ideas purloined for our in house competition!).

You just don’t get this working from home, nor do you get the occasional cup of tea which, as anyone who has attended a recent Authoring Tool workshop will understand, is best when made by someone else.

Highlights, so far, has to have been getting first pint of Guinness in with the band in Peadar’s bar striking up ‘Wild Rover’, then moving on to ‘No Man’s Land’.   How clever was I to coincide my visit to colleagues with an international day of celebrating all things irish?

Later in another pub up the road the we sang along to ‘Whiskey in the jar’.  It’s St Patrick’s Day today (loved the Eastenders take on getting the day wrong) so possibly more merriment tonight.  Possibly?  Who am I kidding?

Now did I pack my bodhran? Altogether,  “And it’s no nay never, tum, tum tum tum…”

Andy H

How we really learn

March 11, 2009

cookiesI met a very nice man recently at an eLearning Network event called ‘Making the case for eLearning.’ 

Charles Jennings spent many years working for Reuters where he was in charge of developing the knowledge, skills and capabilities of over 16,00 staff worldwide.  Quite a remit. 

It was very interesting to hear Charles talk about his experiences of developing knowledge at this global organisation who’s business is trading in knowledge. 

I enjoyed hearing about the 8 principles that underpinned the learning strategy in the organisation, the first of which is that VUCA impacts everything we do (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity).  A principle that is definately not unique to a successful multi-national corporation, in this day and age, that’s for sure. 

Charles spoke a lot of common sense, weaving in research and theories from academia in an interesting and relevant way.   And, like the best truisms we know, when he explained his thinking there were a few “Of course!” moments for me. 

But the bit I liked best about Charles’ spot, apart from the references to his native Australia, was the 70:20:10 rule that Reuters practice. 

This rule states that 70% of all learning is achieved through experience; 20% through others; and the remaining 10% is achieved through structured off the job training, like e-learning.

I was struck by the relative unimportance of e-learning in the mix which, at the time, was like a bucket of cold water after having spent a full day talking about How To Make The Case For eLearning In Your Organsiation. 

But how utterly true, I mused, thinking about the current learning experiences of my 4 year old and how he is learning to bake biscuits and have a temper tantrum (the latter = his father, the former = his mother, of course).  Formal learning really does play a minority role for him.

And I wondered how the 70:20:10 theory is being practiced in other organisations.  For example, is this how today’s social workers are trained?


The scores on the doors

March 5, 2009

number-4So the last ever CPA scores have been released today for the 150 single-tier English authorities.  Councils up and down the country will either be giving themselves a well-deserved pat on the back or kicking themselves for having lost ground.

We’ve been studying the form and, I must admit, some CPA-speak seems a bit crazy to innocent bystanders like ourselves.

For example, how can an organisation lose a star but be described as ‘improving strongly’?

But rather than try and figure out how the minds of the Audit Commission statisticians work, let’s just park that to come back to another day.  One when we all have enough time in our lives to read the Audit Commission’s somewhat indecipherable website.

Three councils are so aggrieved with their CPA scores that they’ve taken the decision to go to judicial review – and we’ll all be watching over the next while to see how that pans out.  Check out our quick poll to give your opinion on whether this is the right approach, and see if others agree with you.

We know it’s selfish but to be honest, our interest is focused mainly around our own dear customers and how they have fared.   And the answer is rather well, it would seem.

Nearly half (62 to be exact) of the 150 councils scored are members of the Learning Pool ‘club’ and over 85% of those authorities have been described as ‘improving well’ or ‘improving strongly’ – the highest categories awarded on the direction of travel scores.

Four of our customers have been 4* authorities since the start of CPA seven years ago and they are City of London, LB Bexley, Sunderland council and City of Westminster.  Well done to you for providing consistently excellent services.  They say there’s only one way to go when you’ve reached the top but you are all the exception that proves the rule.

Eight of our customers have moved up a star and one, Bury council, has moved up two stars.  Only one other council in England has achieved that level of improvement.  Overall, 35 councils have achieved a direction of travel described as “improving strongly” and we are delighted that almost 45% of those are Learning Pool customers.

So what’s our take on the numbers?

We would never claim to be behind any successes achieved by our customers, the credit is all yours.  However, we like to think that there is some correlation between councils that are part of Learning Pool and achieving good CPA scores because it’s all about having a certain mindset, driving culture change and creating improvement.

And as an aside, we are pleased (relieved?) to see that the councils our three Account Managers left to join Learning Pool from have all managed to hang onto their 4* ratings.

We at Learning Pool are planning how we can help our councils continue to do so well in the move to the new Comprehensive Area Assessment regime which starts 1st April.

We firmly believe that our customers are strategic thinkers and planners and many of them are already considering how they can provide wider reaching learning environments to their partners and beyond.  We’re here if any of you need any help.


George Bernard Shaw explains Learning Pool

March 3, 2009

girl-and-apple-bought“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple.

But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

George Bernard Shaw

And that, my friends, is the Learning Pool philosophy in a nutshell!


Hands off my Kebab

March 1, 2009

kebabSome of you will no doubt have seen the report recently which seems to imply that my favourite fast food is just not good.
What’s a thousand calories between friends and where is the problem in not knowing exactly what meat is in there?  That’s half the fun.
I loved the bit in the report that said “35 per cent of the kebabs tested by the experts contained a different meat from what was claimed”.  Where have they ever said what meat it’s supposed to be?  I have only ever seen signs that say it’s Donner meat.

Young people could be forgiven for thinking that a Donner is a wild, yet boneless, animal that lives in the hills of Turkey rather like the wild haggis that roam free in Scottish glens.
I don’t mind that the same slab of mysterious meat may have been rotating on the skewer for days in a shop that is almost always done out in a garish colour scheme with stools that are bolted down (possibly to avoid slippage).
Don’t get me wrong.  I am not a completely unhealthy slob.  I always have salad and sauce too. I’m sure that that portion of salad goes a long way to satisfying my 5 a day.
You may wonder where all this is going.  How does it relate to blended learning?  Well, iIt doesn’t.  It’s just me having a rant and standing up for a food I like when I know I shouldn’t.

You know what they say: “A little of what you fancy”.  I don’t know who “they” are but after reading the news report I think “they” may have got it wrong this time.

But “they” also said “Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse.”  Do I still qualify?