Reflections on reflection

Good heavens! Is that the time? It seems that we just celebrated last Christmas and here we are again. I’m working on a journal article based on my PhD research listening to Christmas music sweltering through 30 degree heat here in Sydney and starting to drift away and ponder the year that was. A lot of people do that. Take stock, review the year, revisit their goals (for the more organised among us). It’s a fantastic practice, one that I often, if sporadically, do.

Reflection is such a key part of learning. I’ve just finished writing the first draft of my Results chapter and one of the findings was around a lack of reflection in workplace learning. In the case of my research it appeared when I asked people about the greatest barrier to their learning. Not surprisingly ALL the participants answered that time was the main barrier for them.  In this case a lack thereof. I think I may be preaching to the choir here because everyone can relate to the sense of rush and overwhelm that is so endemic these days that it’s almost a badge of honour for some (ask someone how they are these days and you’ll likely get the response “So busy” rather than the traditional “Fine”). This is a problem for effective learning at work or otherwise since this feeling of not having enough time and being constantly rushed is the enemy of reflection. Countless articles have told us that we need to daydream to be creative or that we need to reflect in order to learn properly (see the classic Argryis and Schon for this in a workplace context) but still we struggle.

My research suggests that, in the workplace, it’s because this sort of thinking time is not recognised as learning and is, in fact, seen as unproductive and “slacking off”.  Organisations are doing a great disservice to their employees by not encouraging more…well…thinking time. A lot of successful people incorporate thinking and reflection time into their work practice. The most recent example of this that I saw was the Australian mining magnate and Member of Parliament, Clive Palmer. Whatever you may think of his politics or his antics he was interviewed by Annabel Crabb on her Kitchen Cabinet show on the ABC and revealed that he dedicates 4 hours a day to thinking time. 4 hours! Imagine having the luxury of 4 hours a day to do anything, let alone just think and reflect?! What great insights could you gain from that? What fresh ideas? Of course, 4 hours is beyond the reach of most of us but how about 1 hour, 30 minutes, 15 minutes, 5 minutes at lunch and 5 minutes at the end of the day? Every little helps.

It’s also important to teach people a bit about reflection while you’re at it of course.  Maybe some questions or a template to get them started.  My research participants reported that they struggled for time with reflection but that they didn’t really feel like they knew what they were doing anyway and so any learning gleaned from reflection was ad hoc and came in the form of sudden “ah ha” moments when they had a few minutes to come up for air out of the maelstrom. I’m a big fan of the coaching model GROW. For those not familiar with it you can find a nice little video here. Basically there are sets of questions that go with this framework to help people work through decisions/problems/whatever in a coaching scenario. I’ve also successfully used it when consulting to help get all the client’s needs and expectations down as well as for personal goal setting and reflection. It’s an acronym that stands for Goal/s, Reality, Options, Way Forward. Simple as that. Maybe give it a go with your New Years’ Resolutions!


The brave new world of MOOC design

I’ve been reflecting on MOOCs for a few weeks now ever since the first ever MOOC that I enrolled for imploded after only a couple of days (see it here). Ironically, the course was entitled “Fundamentals of Online Learning” (FOL) – an irony not lost on the hundred or so thousand people who were left without a course when the course co-ordinators were forced to take the course down to look at the design and administration of it. There have been a lot of things written critiquing the handling of the course and how the technology was actually used for it. You can read a very good summary here. What I want to do here is look at what I personally learned about online design from the experience and how pedagogy needs to change to fully utilise the exciting new technologies for collaboration that we now have at our disposal. To do this I’m going to compare the ill-fated Fundamentals course from Coursera to the Santa Fe Institute’s “Introduction to Complexity” (IC) which I started a couple of weeks ago. The experiences have so far been night and day so I’ve tried to categorise some of my comments on the experiences. What I would like to say from the outset is that I harbour no ill-will whatsoever towards the course co-ordinators for FOL. They are, like the rest of us, still learning how to work within this new teaching format. I think that, fundamentally, this is a question of pedagogy and the choices made by the designers.

I’ve grouped my musings into the following areas:

  • Administration and organisation
  • Instructions
  • Technology
  • Pedagogy

Administration and Organisation

From experience with organising large face-to-face events such as lecture programs and conferences, I can say with some authority that the administration and overall level of organisation is critical to a successful event. They same is true, if not moreso, in the online environment. The Coursera FOL offering was organised in that it got off the ground but there were many glitches that should have been ironed out in advance. These will be dealt with in more detail under the headings Instructions and Technology. What I will say is that, as a participant, I found myself wondering many things about the course and having few answers. In contrast to this the SFE IC course was very well organised and clearly articulated. The launch of the course was even delayed by one week to iron out some technical details and was tested before launch (I know some of the testers personally). While I have no idea if the Coursera FOL was tested in this way my experience suggests that it wasn’t and that a lot of trust was placed in the Coursera platform to deliver (an altogether different issue!).


Sigh, ah, sweet clarity. I am not perfect in this regard myself. I often assume that my instructions to participants are self-evident when perhaps they are not. Having said that there was a lot of confusion in the FOL course around what exactly you were meant to do and when. Instructions on how to sign up for a group were unclear and there was no real mention of why we were even meant to sign up for a group. People were deleting other people’s names by accident and generally creating havoc in there. While this would be manageable in a smaller course, when you multiply the participant numbers a few thousand times over you have some grasp of the true chaos that emerged. In contrast the SFI IC course was incredibly clear. While there was no attempt to corral people into small groups for discussions (and it must be said there is a significantly smaller number of participants involved) the course structure was clear and you knew what you needed to do to complete the course. This was facilitated by a couple of introductory videos that set out the course and how it would work – fantastic.

Use of Technology

The Coursera FOL course started to fall apart at the outset by using technology that could not handle the sheer volume of people who needed to access it. The organisers tried to get everyone to access a Google Spreadsheet in order to join these small groups and the spreadsheets crashed almost immediately. Data was getting lost and tempers got frayed. An increasing number of emails came out from the organisers explaining what was going on and what they were doing about it. In the end it was a bit of a free-for-all and the actual course content for week 1 was lost in the middle. There seemed to be a built in assumption that participants could self-organise into groups and that it would all be obvious – it wasn’t. In contrast the SFE IC (which is still running by the way) sits on a purpose built website and used tried and tested technologies. There are short video lectures to watch and some software to download for the assignments but that’s about it. A perfect illustration of the KISS principle.

The first few areas of critique are fairly high level, more annoying than anything and more easily fixed. The area in which I think the FOL MOOC, and indeed MOOCs more generally, fall down is in the area of pedagogy.


The FOL designers made classic pedagogic choices in terms of people working collaboratively in small groups but the problem was that  platform could not cope. I can see where they were coming from. Anyone who works in adult education would tell you that you need to create sharing opportunities between participants to allow for rich discussions to occur. The issue with the MOOC format is the “M” – Massive. I can say from the experience of working for a large retailer that scale adds a new dimension to a learning experience and that compromises must be made. For the learning practitioner there is a choice at this point – embrace the scale and sacrifice some dearly held beliefs about the best pedagogy and look at what works with the scale to get your message across. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen, this is a compromise that MOOC designers are not keen to make. Interestingly, the Santa Fe Institute IC course is not put together by people who claim to be “professional” learning practitioners in the sense that it is their day job. They are first and foremost scientists who educate. I think this makes for a different learning design which suits the MOOC format. MOOCs are best suited when using a traditional lecture format as universities have done for years.

It’s also always important to consider one’s audience when designing a course. Who is likely to enrol in a MOOC and why? Do these people expect to be engaging in collaborative learning or are they happy with a video lecture and self-paced format? This research still needs to be done but I think it might be safe to say that people who sign up for MOOCs are intrinsically motivated and interested in the content. As such, I believe that they are more likely to engage with a lecture format as they want the content itself. Perhaps I’m generalising but it’s worth thinking about in the context of MOOCs.

At the end of the day I’m not sure about the MOOC format overall. Will it replace us all? I doubt it. There are still issues with assessment and quality that are yet to be resolved. It might encourage more people to continue learning after their time in “formal” learning institutions has ended and I think that can only be a good thing. There are some who take a very pessimistic view and say that MOOCs are already on the way out. I don’t take quite so strong a view. I think that they will evolve and gradually find their place within the broader practice of learning. Just as e-learning programs were touted as replacing the Learning and Development Department before everyone worked out that they were just another tool to be deployed as needed, I think that we will gradually find this for MOOCs. I can see them as being very useful for lifelong learning, for introductory university courses or to supplement a face-to-face tutorial. However they’re used, we need to develop a pedagogy that suits this new format.

What’s the main thing I learned from my experience? There are two things. As a learner I found that I am still as strapped for time as ever and motivation is an eternal struggle (more on this later) and as an educator I learned to keep it simple and think about the needs of the audience and the best way to deliver this within the constraints of the technology and the teaching format.

When you just don’t hit the nail on the head

Last week marked my return to face-to-face facilitation. It’s been a few years for me since my last role didn’t need me to take to the front of the room very often as I managed the people who did  and then I was living overseas. I was understandably nervous about it. Did I still have “it”? Could I engage with the audience, get the point across and create a valuable experience? To add to the pressure this is a major initiative for the organisation and we don’t want to poison the well with sub-standard learning experiences. It’s also a sort of justification for my very existence at this organisation. No pressure then.

It went OK. I was hoping for fantastic – as we all do, naturally – but it was just fair to good. It was the first run for this program that I designed myself. I think I knew it when I left the room actually. I just didn’t get the vibe that the workshop had hit the mark. I was disappointed, searching for answers to improve the situation and wondering if I’d lost my facilitation mojo. The feedback from participants helped. Luckily many people were willing to offer feedback about what would improve the workshop for them. I am always grateful to those people. There were a few passionate haters. About 3 out of 22 based on the feedback I saw. Not a significant sample but still made me wonder. Was it me? Was it the content or activities? Were their expectations different to what was delivered? I may never know but I certainly gave me food for thought.

I next run this workshop in 2 weeks interstate. I’ve made some changes based on my own observations and the participant feedback but I’m still nervous. I’ve had my confidence dented a little but as they say, you need to get back on the horse.

Like any good learning geek I’ve reflected on this experience to see what I can learn from it. Here it is:

  • You just don’t always hit the nail on the head. That’s OK but you need to make sure you learn something from the experience
  • Be open to feedback, even if you’re not sure you want to hear it
  • Be open to changing the way you do things
  • Ask for feedback to see where you can improve
  • Be really clear about expectations. Talk about it, then talk about it again. Sometimes no matter how much you state what the workshop covers some people still don’t feel like they got what they wanted/were promised

I’m not perfect, I don’t know it all, and I’m thankful in a way to have this sort of experience to remind  me. We all have average days sometimes and that’s OK. Wish me luck next time!

Learning on the road

I am the first to admit that I can be a bit of a stick beak. When I’m on the train for the morning commute I just can’t help but glance up from my book occasionally to see what my fellow travellers are up to. This morning my seat companion was doing something that warmed my little learning geek heart – she had a self-paced “Learn to Speak Spanish” book. Oh joy! People are still learning for fun in their own time!

In my day-to-day practice in the corporate LOD world I can sometimes become despondent about people not wanting to complete their development plans (a world of issues there, I know), not wanting to devote time to learning but at the same time whinging that they never get to go to anything like so-and-so at the next desk. It can be all too easy for me to forget that these same people are quite probably taking evening classes in origami, learning a language or turning to YouTube to learn a new crochet stitch.

We’re all learning all the time, whether intentional (like reading a book to learn Spanish) or unintentional (watching a reality cooking show and picking up a few tips along the way). The issue is convincing people of this and that learning at work need not be particularly effortful since it is something they are, in all probability, already doing.

It occurs to me though that maybe it’s like kids and vegetables. Maybe it’s better to “hide” the learning in other things that people enjoy more? Like the child who will happily eat spinach in a lasagne but claims to hate the stuff maybe learning practitioners need to get better at creating informal learning experiences that embed learning in practice and so make it just part of the everyday. The big question is how to do that in a world of compliance training, certificates and ROI. Watch this space.


I am, by nature, a goal setter and maker of lists. It follows then that every year for as long as I can remember, I’ve set about making New Years Resolutions. Big, lofty goals for how I would be a better person and achieve wonderful things for the coming year. When I say that I am a goal setter and list maker it does not follow that I always follow them and, like many people, I always find myself in June wondering what happened to my resolve and why I haven’t been following my resolutions. They’re always great – very ambitious and detailed – but not always motivating. This year I am determined to change that.

I firmly believe that you do need some focus for the year otherwise you find yourself sitting around on NYE with a glass of champagne in your hand wondering where the year went (or is that just me?). With this in mind, I looked around a little online and started to think about a different way to look at my goals for the year. Notice that I didn’t say resolutions there, they are goals and focus areas. I picked 6 areas that I want to focus on and made some goals to sit underneath. I have 4 key goals for the year (one is a home renovation! Help!) that will help me measure progress. I still have resolutions but I have relegated them to more of a loose list of “rules” to help guide me. Let me explain. I thought about how I’d like to do things differently in 2013. One of the things about me is that I can be a bit of a perfectionist (stop laughing husband), OK, quite a lot actually. When I thought about it, I really waster a lot of time trying for perfection when done will do so there are a couple of resolutions to help me manage my time: “Keep it simple”, “Important first”, “Enjoy the journey”, “Not everything needs to be organised” and, my favourite, “Perfection is the enemy of done” (borrowed from this book).

I also found a great planning resources on a blog by Susannah Conway where the writer talked about having a word for the year that sums up what you want out of the year. This was an easy one – “Simplify”. There are many things in my life that I’d like to simplify, including how I work, so this seemed like a good all-encompassing word.

I had intended, like any good learning geek, to reflect my 2012 and distil my learning. Hmmm, not much time for that but I feel like this is something I do all year anyway so I’m happy with that. Maybe next year (she says with a cringe).

All of this goal-setting makes me wonder about how we set goals at work (I’ve done that too for 2013 but only the first quarter since things change so much so fast). Should we “simplify” our performance systems? Why do we need them to be so convoluted? Complicated may look clever but it takes too much time and effort to follow. That was my problem in years past. I has beautifully articulated goals for the year but then no real impetus to follow them. Let’s see in a year if my simplify approach works.

So what about 70:20:10?

I’m currently working with an organisation who uses the 70:20:10 framework. I realise that is hardly newsworthy these days but it has got me thinking. Since I’m researching the experience of learning within complex organisations for my PhD, I’ve been reflecting on the usefulness of 70:20:10 and whether it really is the right tool for the job in the current organisational environment.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree in principle with what it articulates, namely that we learn mainly through experience. I question whether it has become just another fad. Are all learning professionals who are using 70:20:10 really aware of what it is for and what it offers? Deakin University recently published a white paper that talks about 70:20:10 – how it’s used in organisations and how it could be best utilised.

Often I have heard HR, learning and even other professionals in workplaces wax lyrical about the virtues of 70:20:10 but when you actually ask them to describe it they often (but not always) come up short. A lot of managers and executive types seem to think of it as an excuse to spend less money on learning initiatives. Others think that it means that all “formal” learning experiences are somehow worthless and that all learning must be through projects and mentoring programs.

I believe that none of this is completely true. The 70:20:10 model is just that – a model. It’s a useful heuristic to guide thinking but it shouldn’t be the alpha and omega of learning in the workplace. You need to take into account the needs of the learners and of the business as well. You wouldn’t tell a trainee Qantas pilot to “learn from experience because research says that’s more effective” – would you? (I really hope that you answered no to that…especially if you work for an airline!).

As usual, balance is key. Too often learning practitioners (mia culpa) are swept along with the latest and greatest, or just the most famous, without pausing to reflect on the true underlying needs. We go for either/or rather than a combination of what fits.

Not much has changed for women

When I was a young, enthusiastic uni student (still enthusiastic but not so young!) I believed that we had really made some head-way with equality in the workplace. Sure, there were some pockets of sexist idiots but basically the feminist project had worked. As I get older and gain more experience of the world I am, sadly, revising my position on this. All of the media activity in the past 24 hours has got me thinking about this again. It seems that the media is full of discussions about women in leadership in Australia and why there seems to be so little progress in getting more women into the top echelons of management in both large and small organisations.

For example:

Australian firms trail world for women in top roles –

Female Leader concerns despite triumphs of ASX200 –

While this is important I can’t help but think that this is not where we should be spending our energy. Of course we need more women in leadership roles (if they want to – that’s another story). I think that there is definitely a lot of work to do about entrenched sexism in the Australian workplace generally, not just at the management/executive level. By and large, these are educated women who can look after themselves and potentially seek employment elsewhere with a more appreciative or flexible employer should the need arise. It is the women further down the workplace food chain that worry me. The women too dependent on their jobs to take a stand, the women with few skills who think that they have no options, the women with no confidence who don’t feel like they can argue back. These are the women who still need help. An older female colleague once said to me (rather unbelievably) that we shouldn’t “rock the boat”. Her perspective was that she’d made it by “playing the game the boys’ way” and that the problem was, more or less, “solved”. I couldn’t, and still can’t, believe this attitude from a woman who really could have made a difference.

Just yesterday I was powerfully reminded of this by a phone call from a friend who had just had an appalling experience when applying for a job. My friend, a woman, works in hospitality management, specifically managing pubs and clubs. She has a lot of experience in this area and had applied for a new role that would be a promotion. Although this can be a male dominated area she’d never really come up against blatant sexism before…until last night. She got an email follow-up to her interview. They told her that she was a great candidate and they would definitely hire her for one of their other pubs but that for the job she had applied for the selection committee had decided that they needed a man to do the job. They actually put than in an email. She was, naturally, shocked, angry and upset. The only reason they had given for not getting the job was her gender. The most galling thing was that there doesn’t seem to be any recourse. Sure, you can go back to the employer and complain but where will that really get you. Legal avenues are risky and expensive. She doesn’t want her currently employer to find out that she’s applied elsewhere and she’s conscious that this is a small world and she doesn’t want to get a reputation for “being a trouble-maker”. What else is left?

I can’t believe that this can happen in 2012. At least these guys were honest though to give them some credit. How many employers make decisions like this every day but cover themselves with platitudes about not being the right candidate, stiff competition and all that. None of that helps my friend and women like her though. This is a situation that must play out repeatedly across many industries and roles across the nation. I’m lucky, I’ve always worked in a female dominated field. That hasn’t always stopped inappropriate questions about when I might start a family or whether my husband agrees with a decision I’ve made but by and large that’s as bad as I’ve ever had to put up with. The fact that I’ve ever had to put up with this at all is a truly sad indictment of the Australian workplace and we need to do something about it. My daughter is one year old and I am sad that this is the world she will one day need to navigate.