Engaging Your Virtual Learners

Learner engagement isn’t unique to virtual environments or “elearning”. It’s a problem in classrooms, training centers, and seminars across the world. For a long time, the rule has been: the Learner will get out of this what he/she is willing to put in.

I can’t refute that logic. One needs some kind of buy-in or commitment from a Learner. But there are ways to increase the likelihood of engaging these learners — and some that do so specifically in a virtual environment. Let’s chat about a few of those that might not be as well documented as others.

Promoting The Peer Environment

Learners are people. People want to connect. Some writers built their careers writing about this. Teachers should dedicate some real thinking time to how their content promotes, or disables, this basic instinct.

In a virtual environment, peers can be thousand miles away. Peers can be from different age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc…But what they have in common is being in the same “place” at the same time. In this way, your job is to remind them they are peers. It may not be immediately obvious. Remind them they’re in this together. Create an environment dedicated to their belonging, even if there isn’t so much tying them together outside of your content.

If you can attach the content to the connection (the actor to his cast), engagement will grow simply because its at the core of the relationship. Think about it this way: when you’re out with a friend of a friend, or an in-law, what is most commonly talked about? Your shared friend or family member. It’s the object that ties that remains at the center. Make that your learning content.

‘How’ not ‘What’

If you’ve Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People, this idea might sound familiar. If you want a real response from a Learner, ask a ‘how’ question not a ‘what’ question.

What I do mean by that? Ask for the bigger picture. Don’t stop at “what would you do here?” Instead, ask “how would you solve this?” Let Learners start completely anew. Have them talk about their thought process before the actual doing. This will have them engaged in the process, because they are intuitively tying themselves to it. A ‘what’ question can separate the person from the action. That’s disengagement. We’re not here for that.

We ask about personal systems in our Training program. Instead of asking what a Learner’s system is, we ask how they designed it, how it works for them, and how they see it scaling in the future.

This gives Learners an opportunity to talk about their own creation. Not the system itself; but how it came to be, challenges along the way, and ultimately the success of it emerging. You can see some love and beaming in their responses. This is a good thing.

Let Them “Cheat”

I often wonder if schools could take a different approach to “cheating” (by which I mean copying or collaborating on answers or homework or tests). There are some tactical positives to it. A focus on the results and not the process is one. And while that’s not what you want an education system based on, it’s certainly not an automatic “bad”.

Ultimately, in corporate learning, we want problem-solvers who produce something good or valuable. How that’s done, in certain situations, is an afterthought. Still, cheating has a dirty name in the education system and children are discouraged from thinking outside the system. Add to this that as education has gotten more competitive, cheating is on the rise. What if we embraced it somehow instead of outright discouraged it?

And let’s not ignore the possibilities it has for engagement – the topic of this blogpost. There’s still some interaction that has to come from cheating, and these interactions can range to full-on learning endeavors. Sometimes, increasing engagement means giving up some control as the ‘trainer’ and letting peers teach peers.

Let’s Stop Evaluating on Averages When the Mode Means More.

Original Post [Medium]


Full post:

There are times I watch my sister — a 5th grader — mull about the world and I marvel at her energy. She bounces around, she sits, runs, does twirling back-handstands off the couch onto the ground, plays games, plays the Viola, does her homework…etc. She has the capacity to do, variously, in one hour what I can in a day. Sometimes, it feels like there are five of her around me.

And while that youthful energy astounds me, there’s something else I wonder sometimes. How could her teachers possibly center in on the real her?

Looked at another way, youthful energy is just another way of describingmassive inconsistency.

And we all have that. Days where we swear we aren’t ourselves. We feel like our minds somewhere else. Or the work we produced is unrecognizable weeks later. “That’s not me,” you say some foggy mornings. And you mean it.

And yet, from basic education on up to corporate education, we’re evaluated in a way that suggests all of these inconsistencies tell the story of who we are. You take Geometry and you get a ‘B’. You bust yourself for sales one quarter and you earn a 91 on your employee report.

These are the final demarcations of your actions for a period of time. This ‘B’ represents your knowledge of that semester’s Geometry cirriculum.

But there was always that one section in Geometry you really got. And that one section you never did. You aced one test but failed another….One month of your quarter you killed it. The other was bleak. It’s been like this —this pitter patter of performance— for decades now.

And we’re grading as such. On averages. What all of these wavering scores equal out to when added up and divided by the # of evaluating presences.

This average is allegedly our story. Who we are. How we perform.

And yet what that gives you is a number that you never really are. It’s a balancing act, but it’s not your common state. It’s a number that tries to describe who you are, by not describing who you are.

And it’s doing us no favors.

We started this whole thing with an assumption:

Scoring things on a percentage scale should give us meaningful data. That the % you score at is the % you attained of perfection.

But that assumption has led us awry. It supposes that we could be described in this range somewhere, and that, in that description, it could prescribe us a marker. But we’ve seen that with averages, this marker is incomplete.

Wouldn’t you rather, on a scale that demarcates your approach of perfection, know where you stand on a consistent basis?

Isn’t the whole point to prescribe a reality? To understand a being and their place?

Who you are is not who you never are. It’s who you are most of the time. Who we expect, and, yes, might not always get, but when we aren’t getting this “you” it’s our perception of missing that consistency.

Anecdotally, have you ever tried to score something consistently on a 1-10 or or 1-100 rating. Chances are, if you have, you’ve discovered something peculiar. Most of your grades come out to fit inside much smaller range.

Take IMDB movie ratings, for example. Each movie on there is scored on a 1-10 scale by viewers and users. The top-rated movie is the The Shawshank Redemption. Great flick. My favorite movie of all time —City of God— comes in right after. They both scored a 9.2 from user voters.

And, yet, the stunningly underwhelming 1999 feature Forces of Nature with Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock (which you may find yourself watching at 3am on Comedy Central on lowly Tuesday nights) has a rating of 5.3.

Now, I’m more than willing to bow to the “voting effect” (in which people that like the movie are more likely to vote and vote high), but still. We’re talking the difference between a masterpiece and a flop at only 3.9 points. Less than 40% of a difference on the scale.

The same is true in our education system. An A+ is a 100, right? But an F is anything less than, usually, 60%. Again, 40% differential between the best you can do and the “rest”. And then you have the drop-off where, in this system, a 12% is the same as a 51%, bell curve not involved.

This is bad. This is, quite simply, a lazy way to tell the story.

And yet this is what we permeate and perpetrate. A’s through F’s.

Here’s another one:

Margaret is a student. She takes five tests throughout the course (sounds familiar from your University days, right?). She scores a 92%, another 91%, a 87%, 80% and then, and then, on her last exam, she gets a 40%.

What’s her average? Well, if all is weighted equally, it’s a 78%. Person A scored a C+.

But Margaret’s work in the class suggests much more than a C+. She aced two tests and nearly a third.

We’ve seen this. And if we haven’t seen it, certainly we’ve been riddled by fear of it.

Average-based grading systems both take into account the extreme examples (of both poor performance and stellar), and forget about them completely in the name of finding a middle ground.

So as an evaluator, you’re seeing inconsistencies play into a score without even being able to recognize the inconsistencies.

Consistency is how you evaluate things in your own life. Take your car for example.

If your car gave you a different output each day, even if it was mostly on the positive side, you’d go a bit crazy. Not knowing is an enormous human fear. Not being able to count on something we utilize is tough. Really, really tough. Say your car is an all-star 25% of the time, decent and average another 40%, and the other 35% it broke down, leaked, etc…you’d start slamming your hand on the dash.

But, it’d still average out to being okay. It’d still, by average, be a “good car”. Well, a good used car.

What you ask for when buying something is consistency. What is this product going to give me day and day out.

Same with a person who works with you, for you, or above you. It’s not going to win anyone over if you say Tom is uber-productive on Tuesdays and the rest of the week, well who knows. You can’t rely on Tom in a standard environment. [And that is what I’m going for here: standard environments. The education system, for instance, I’d like to see to measure on this rather than just total output or a ROWE type assessment]

I’ll take the Tom that I can measure accurately. As a teacher, I can see where he is and work with him on improving. But without knowing where he’s at, well, it makes that latter part nearly impossible.

I’m in a position where part of my job is to evaluate people. My team wanted to bring some objectivity into our evaluation systems and for a while we used a 1-10 system.

Guess what we found? 90% of scores were between 6-8. Worse, a rare “4/10″ on a task could bring an average down egregiously. The stray and inconsistent “10″ made candidates appear better than they were.

One day, I happened to meet an old teacher from my high school. He told me of a new grading system he was implementing that was loosely based off another teacher’s idea on an “evidence-based” assessment system for grading.

It struck a chord in me. It made more sense than 1-10, more than A’s, B’s and F’s.

So we adapted it. We use a 1-4 system now. No “.5’s” allowed. You have to pick 1, 2, 3 or 4.

We look in three different verticals for each evaluation. Each vertical gets a 1-4.

From there, we use a “Double Mode” system.

The mode, for those that can’t quite bring that to the front of the mind, is the most common number.

The mode is, in short, the measure of consistency instead of amalgamating inconsistency as an average does.

We find Mode1 — the most common number. And then we find Mode2—the second most common. Together, these give us our score and paint our picture.

This is how this person performs most of the time. And that information is greatly more important to know than where work averages out to.

We’re working on telling a story by prescribing a consistency to our people. It’s working so far and we can read into those we’re evaluating so much more fully than before (with averages).

It begs the larger question. In our wide systems — education, employee evaluation, etc..— why strive to paint an incomplete picture. Just because it’s easier?

Let’s ditch the system and work a la mode.