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Blending your online sessions with Patti Shank

In this podcast Robin is talking with Patti Shank about blending learning design for live online sessions. Patti Shank focuses on transforming research into learning with tactics and practical approaches we can use in workplace learning. A lot of her recent focus has been on assessment and she uses examples in this podcast from her Writing Learning Assessments course.

The rush to provide live learning often highlights what is wrong with our face-to-face session, as too often face-to-face is focused on content delivery. Patti and Robin start off by talking about what synchronous learning and asynchronous learning is best suited from a learning design perspective. Asynchronous learning is better for content, synchronous learning is great for aiding learners with their deep mental processing.

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Blending Your Online Sessions with Patti Shank

Robin: At the moment, there's been a rush to live online learning sessions. What does the research show around blended learning?

Synchronous or Asynchronous Learning

Patti: Well, what I'd like to do first is kind of define that. The central theme in research is combining classroom with digital but I think it's too small. Some of the more recent research shows that's too narrow a view that in most cases, especially now when we're talking about people rushing, that the blend we're talking about is asynchronous or on-demand with synchronous or live learning. What the research shows is when done well and that's a big if, if we're going to do it well, that we get better outcomes from blending synchronous and asynchronous. Because synchronous and asynchronous learning elements have different characteristics and benefits and challenges and when you put them together they fix each other's challenges.

Robin: There's a few different layers to this as well and the first one is synchronous always just seems so simple. That you can get a group of people together, it feels agile, you can start to deliver a course quickly but when it’s used for learning that is better done with synchronous learning e.g.  content-driven approaches, that's where it sort of falls down. I think when people talk about live learning not being engaging, it's actually because they are using it for the wrong things.

Patti: I think you're right and in part two of the set of articles about how to choose modalities that I've written for the eLearning Industry, it became very clear to me in doing the reading that they really have very different purposes. And while synchronous or live or virtual classroom, seems easier and it seems more like a classroom ... and the reason it seems more like a classroom, it's a special case of classroom, right? It is classroom learning, it's just at a distance.

But just like the classroom isn't good for everything or doesn't work super-well for everything, synchronous doesn't work super-well for everything but by all means, there's no wrong way to start. Just start and then start learning how to make it better. A lot of people when this first started were yelling on Twitter, "They're doing it wrong. They have to do it right. It takes months and months." Well, they didn't have months and months and it is okay to start somewhere and then successively improve it, right?

Robin: I think that's such an exciting thing that's happening at the moment, that sense of just getting started, doing things differently.  In the learning and education field, it's about online delivery, in retail, it's about e-commerce. It's just about giving things a try, figuring out what might be the right hacks or quickest way that works for a particular person and a particular group. It might not be perfect but at least it's happening. 

Patti: I would agree with that. I mean, it's okay if it's not perfect and it's okay if it's not even all that good. Just start somewhere and then make a concerted effort to get better if you're going to continue to do this long-term.

Robin: What do you think the real sweet spot is for synchronous learning sessions? What sorts of learning experiences should they be used for?

Social Aspects of Synchronous Learning

Patti: What the research says is what the sweet spot for synchronous is, is social aspects. It's not the presentation of content. Presentation of content, asynchronous modalities like video and audio and recorded presentations and that sort of thing is a sweet spot for that and here's the reason. If I'm presenting synchronously, I'm dragging everybody along at the same pace, right? Some people are going to be left in the dust and some people are going to be bored and people who have less prior knowledge are going to be lost because the instructor is going at the pace the instructor is going at. So, that's not the sweet spot.

The sweet spot is the social aspect and there's tonnes of social aspects. There's everything from help and support like, "I don't know how to do this. I don't know how. I don't know what this means," to different points of view, diversity of opinion, various insights, sharing resources, to very high-end things like doing activities together and learning together by doing them together. So, it's kind of a flipped model where we save the asynchronous for content delivery and we use the synchronous for doing activities as a group and learning from each other.

Robin: When you talked about a couple of examples of asynchronous as well, you talked about things that are media-based as well, video and audio, which can actually still be quite rapid and agile. A facilitator can essentially record half an hour's worth of podcast, which is more interesting than ranting for half an hour during a synchronous session because people can control their playback speed, they can pause and stop it, rather than everyone moving through that same content in the same way.

Patti: This is both good and bad but they also get a choice of, "I already know that. I'm not going to watch it."

Robin: The possibilities of social learning in live sessions, has a nice hierarchy of complexity that starts with basic problem solving e.g. “I'm having trouble with..." To the whole more structured learning activities, role plays, debates, exploring case studies.  

Patti: Right, exactly. All of those things that are so important. And so the bottom line is we shouldn't be using ... and when I say shouldn't, I don't mean you can't, I'm not saying everyone shouldn't. I'm saying in general we should be saving content delivery for asynchronous because it allows people more time and more depth of processing, which they don't have time for in most synchronous sessions and using synchronous for bringing everybody together, creating a group atmosphere, learning from others, finding out what other people know and working through things together. It's kind of silly to do PowerPoint delivery when you can just record that stuff pretty easily.

Robin: It's just a good example of where you can essentially just record the PowerPoint and give it to people beforehand.  People are talking to me about trying to uplift their live sessions and it’s actually, it's not to do with your delivery, it's not to do with cute little facilitation ideas, it's to do with the fundamental nature of your learning design.  

Patti: I love that. There's a fundamental difference in their natures and doing silly games and stuff like that doesn't level it up. In some sessions that might be fine, especially when the point of the session is to get to know the other learners, right? Because you're going to be spending the next six weeks learning with them, you want people to know each other. I mean, there's a lot of reasons for synchronous and it's all the stuff we know about what makes social learning important and good and delivering content to people is not a very good reason for social learning. There's a lot of good reasons for social learning but that's not one of them.

Robin: To pick up on a statement you just said, deep mental processing. What do you mean by mental processing?

Deep Mental Processing

Patti: Some of the folks who discuss what learning is, what changes happen in the brain, talk about the process, it's not the content that causes processing. It can, but when we're designing formal instruction, the purpose of what we're doing is deep mental processing, so that people process what they're learning in a way that causes changes in the brain and it's at the brain level, that's the point. What we're trying to do and I'm writing part three right now and I have this quote from Kirschner, from his paper on “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work,” if we haven't committed something to long-term memory, we have not increased anyone's knowledge or skills. They cannot use it. They can not do anything with it. They don't understand or whatever.

So, our goal in instruction is to induce deep mental processing. Efraut Furst has done a really good job of explaining this on her website, what we're trying to do is to get people to process in a way that helps them do what they need to be able to do with that content. She has a scale and I've used this before. I've called it different things but at the bottom level, we're learning, which is being able to recite facts, define words but we can't do anything with it yet. Then there's understanding, to understand how.

So, I'll give you an example. When we're in grade school and I'm assuming this is true all over the world but I may be wrong, we are often given lists of words to memorise and memorise what they mean. The deep mental processing that always happens is to use the new words in a sentence because that's the context in which words are used, communicating something that means something. So, the deep mental processing is one, you may pick the definition from a list of definitions or you may define it in your own words. That's at the learn level and at the understand level, you can use it in a sentence that actually makes sense? Then application is to actually take that into your own language, how you speak and things you say and just apply those words in everyday use without having to go through the difficulty of making that first sentence with the word in it.

So, it's the same thing. One of the things I talked about in part three is, very early on in my career I was an optician and I ran an optical store. So, one of the things we might be training people who work in an optical store to do is the characteristics of a new optical lens and so, we're teaching them that it has a higher refractive index, it's thinner, you can make the following grooves on it, so you can use it in the following types of optical frames. So we're moving from this new lens, understanding its characteristics, which moves us up into understanding and then using those characteristics to be able to use that lens in making glasses for people. So, deep processing is not just anything, it's the type of processing that helps them get to application. First to understanding and then to application.

Robin: I really love the word processing as a way of explaining learning. I think about it in terms of you might hear something, read something but you don't take it on board until you've actually done your own processing.      

It was a really important moment for me in my thinking  around instructional design to realise, "Learners need to have some knowledge, to start with, before you can do activities "

There's nothing wrong with it at all. It's moving through a phase but you do need to actually get that to happen because quite often people can't do that until they've done that.  There is a little arc that you talked about there as well.

Patti: Efraut Furst has a great website that explains what it means to process? What does it mean to understand and what is ‘meaning making?’ These are all terms used in the research and it's our job. Our job is to get people through from learning, to understanding, to use and if we don't do that, it's just content and content isn't enough.

Robin: Content's a different thing to learning as well. Synchronous sessions and live sessions are fantastic moments to help learners with processing.

Patti: Agree.

Robin: Especially because essentially it's a moment where a facilitator will connect with you, you can work with a group, work with people to help them build that understanding. What are some of the strategies that you see as powerful for building mental processes?

Multiple-choice Questions

Patti: In the next week I'm teaching a class in writing multiple choice questions and I've got two live sessions and a whole bunch of asynchronous content including a discussion forum, so that as people are moving along, they can ask questions or give insights and that sort of thing. The live sessions are concentrating on the main insights and the uses of what I am teaching. So, we are going through multiple choice questions. One of the live sessions is on multiple choice question writing flaws. So, I start out with, "Here's the top five flaws. Now we're going to go through the next 20 multiple choice questions, look for the flaws and discuss, what's the problem? What do you see here and how would you fix it?" And those are at the application level but first we're looking for, what's the problem? And that's at the understanding level.

Some of the strategies or tactics, if we want to get more granular, are asking important questions to find out whether people do understand and having people define things to make sure they've got the basic understanding of what it is we're talking about. Then just moving up from terminology to understanding questions. I use multiple choice questions throughout my sessions on multiple choice questions and some of them are poorly written on purpose, so that someone will stop and say, "Hold on a second, Patti, answer C isn't plausible. So, how is it that you're teaching us to write plausible distractors or wrong answers and your answers..." And it's like, it's there for you to find.

Patti: Then we're moving up to, "Okay, here is the learning objective. Here's a stem. Give me a good correct answer." Then we talk about that correct answer. "Are there any problems with it?" So we are actually doing and this is what First talks about and others talk about as well, that we are actually doing in our exercises what people need to be able to do, so that they are getting hands-on help with doing it before they try to do it themselves.

Robin: I love that strategy, Patti, of including things you know that are wrong in a session so people can spot them.

Patti: And they do and it's really quite lovely. To be honest with you, sometimes I mess up and I didn't intend for it to be a bad question but it is and so, that's a learning experience that we all get. It's like, "Wait a minute, Patti, your answers are plausible but they're super confusing, so let's rewrite this."

Robin: Writing multiple choice questions is hard.

Patti: It's hard.

Robin: You need a role model. Sometimes the facilitator and the learning leader's not perfect, your role models, that sort of frustration that everyone's going to experience as they're doing that as well. I also really like that sense of getting people to define things so you can check in to their understanding, which is essentially part of them building a mental process about understanding. Then moving on to that sense of problem solving, of spotting, identifying and then actually working through the activities together, so it better prepares them for doing it themselves as well. It's just a really nice sort of sequence. Because sometimes what I'm seeing is, I think people naturally sometimes do these things face-to-face but they don't always explicitly do it in live sessions. They don't think through the actual learning sequence quite nicely or quite as well.

Patti: I think you're right and one of the things I've noticed with my own instructional elements is when I'm doing videos for people, I tend to leave that out there because there's no social. I've learned I also have to embed deep processing in my asynchronous elements intentionally. So, when I'm doing a session on how to write a multiple ... so for instance, how to write the correct answer, how to write the stem, how to write a distractor; I put questions in there, I tell people to pause. It's like, "Here's the learning objective. Can you think of one question you might ask that would assess this objective?"

I spend a lot of time in my multiple choice questions course, teaching people to use learning objectives to write multiple choice questions because otherwise, you're just writing questions about content, right? So, I've started doing it in my asynchronous elements as well. It doesn't work as well, I don't think because if people don't hit the pause button ... and look, I don't want to say, "Pause," 4,000 times during a 10 minute presentation. So, I want to teach them to pause when I ask a question and then I want them to learn how to do that but they don't have to do it and two seconds later I'm giving them the answer. So, it's not as good an experience. I think synchronous is better for that but I can do it anyway and I should do it.

Robin: The workbooks have got a bit of a bad rap   

Patti: Right, yes.

Robin: But they can often be used for doing exactly what we're talking about, which is providing a piece of content and asking a question. In our own learning platform, Glasshouse, the way we've been able to do it is, you have a bit of content, a piece of video and then we do an activity that is a learning log.  As the learner is working through the experience, all the thoughts in the log are collected on page.  Workbooks seem like an old fashion idea but they can be powerful.   

Synchronous Content

Patti: I use a workbook. My multiple choice questions course, instead of having page after page with a next button of me presenting content to people, what I decided is, I was going to write a book. And it's, I don't know, probably around 100 pages and it's the things you need to know in order to write good assessments and specifically multiple choice and the first time I taught this, people said the equivalent of, "Oh, how quaint. Patti gave us a book to learn from."

But here's the thing, it's also written as performance support. So, you can use it afterwards and you're not going to come back to the course afterwards and find page 24 out of 75 and it's like, "What did Patti say about the top three things we need to do for writing good distractors?" It's in the book. They can download it and they have it. As the course goes on, there's also video and there's also job aids but they've got the performance support in the book and I don't have a problem with that.

Robin: I think that's a lovely example of synchronous content as well and getting the content out of the learning experience and putting it into the book. There's nothing wrong with books. 

Patti: I mean, they're not necessarily instructional. They can be. You can try very hard to make them instructional but with a table of contents so that you can find things and indexed and various other things, you can make these pieces of content very valuable for long-term as opposed to course pages which people will likely not go back to because they're not organised in a way that they're useful for long-term.

Robin: I've looked at some of our data in our learning management systems, I see no evidence that anyone ever goes back to an eLearning module. 

Patti: I think you're probably right. There's a great hypothesis that would be wonderful to test. It wouldn't be hard to test because our LMSs would tell us what pages people went back to and here's what I've found, the course system that I use tells me when people are in it and what pages they're on and I've never seen anybody go back. I leave my courses open for people for about a month and I tend to get two or three people who go back in that first week after the course is open and that's it.

Robin: Patti, if someone's starting live online sessions and they realise they need to start to think about blending their learning experience more, what's your biggest piece of wisdom about getting started?

Patti: Well, there's a lot of complexity to that question but I'm a firm believer in giving people the least complex answer possible so they can begin to get some success with whatever. And no, it's not perfect and it may not be exactly what I would do, not saying that I would always pick the best thing either but what I would hope they would consider doing is separating the delivery of content from the processing of the content. One of the easiest things they can do is take the delivery mechanism, meaning the audio, the workbook, the downloadable exercise files, just whatever content they want to deliver and then doing a lot of the processing of that content in live sessions. It's pretty simple to do. You can create a webpage; here's the video and here's the downloadable content. Do that Monday through Wednesday and we'll meet on Thursday and work through some of the issues with the content you just did.

Now, can I bring up a huge problem?

Robin: Yes. Go for it.

Pre-work or no Pre-work

Patti: Here's what I hear. I hear this from synchronous trainers and I've done it myself so I know there's truth to it and that is, no one wants to do "pre-work" and that they, in fact, don't do the pre-work.

So first of all, we need to get rid of the word pre-work. It's not pre-work. It's work, right? It's just we're starting here and then we're doing this and then we're doing this and then we're meeting together to check understanding and work through some situations together. What a couple of synchronous trainers have said to me is, "Look, people don't consider the course as having started unless there's a synchronous session starting it." I said, "Okay, let's start with a synchronous session first that gets people to know each other if that's important and that gets out some major ah-has and some terminology." We're talking about the conceptual stuff.

No, we don't need to do that online live but if that's where we have to start for now, if people don't think the course has started until that happens, let's do a little bit of that and then tell them, "Okay, between Monday and Wednesday, Monday's the first synchronous session and then you've got Tuesday and Wednesday." I'm just making stuff up, right? It could be anything. "Then, you're going to watch these videos and you're going to do a few activities and then we're going to meet together on Wednesday or Thursday. We're going to go over your activities, we're going to check understanding and then we're going to take it in the next step and then you'll have another set of asynchronous elements." Look, pre-work has gotten a bad rap. Nobody wants to do it. Is that true in your world as well?

Robin: I think what you've just given us all and given listeners is just a really great recipe, it’s a nice example of how you can actually work with that notion of moving away from pre-work, introducing synchronous and asynchronous in a really powerful, balanced way where people still get the guidance of synchronous, which is quite often why they are wanting classroom learning. While getting rid of that pre-work or follow-up work that people don't do as well. I think that's a really great template

Patti: We just build it into a package. One of the issues I have with the synchronous elements and this is in the research of a problem, is that they're not compelling in many cases. They sit there and they wait for you, so no one knows if you did them or didn't do them. People have asked me to send them a message every day and tell them, "This is what you have to do today" and I'm fighting with myself because these are adults, man, I don't feel like it's a good process for me to have to push people.

So this is an area where I don't have an answer yet. That's why I'm playing with different ways of doing things and working with synchronous elements in different ways. I don't know.

Do you have any feedback for me? We know research says the asynchronous elements don't have the immediacy of synchronous elements. How do we get people to do them? My initial response is I'm not the traffic cop but it's not a good answer. What are your thoughts about that?

Robin: What I've seen work really well is what I call social contracts, that people when they turn up to the synchronous session almost feel embarrassed when they have to sit there and go, "No, I haven't done it." It’s partly the group dynamics. They actually have to take a bit more responsibility for doing the work.  If the sessions start with “What did you think about such and such resource or what did you learn or what was your reflection on ..?" Learners soon realise if they don’t do the work, they can't participate.     

Patti: I've thought through that and I think that makes sense. I don't want to be the "teacher", and it's like, "What do you mean you didn't do your homework?" There's a parenting instruction that works all on logical consequences. If you didn't do your schoolwork, obviously you can't do X. Right? Because schoolwork always comes first and that's what we've agreed to. I think what you just said is probably a golden tactic. They're going to be lost otherwise.

Robin: Patti, one of the things I really liked that you're doing at the moment is you're actually taking all of the research, distributing it back out to everyone but you're actually applying it in your own programmes as well. I think that's a really powerful thing to be doing.

Patti: Well, I sort of have to. Really, can you tell people you're doing evidence-based instruction and not use that evidence in your own instruction that way? I would get caught. Look, there's a social contract there too. People would be screaming at me. I want my stuff to work too, so I have to use it.

Robin: Thank you for a fantastic conversation.