Friday, May 28, 2004

Teaching robots

This article from MIT's Technology Review discusses how robots are being taught using artificial neural networks and the process of natural selection/survival of the fittest. Very interesting stuff with important implications for the future.

I'm on my way out for the long weekend, looking forward to some rest.
Conference musings

So our conference is over, and it was a great success. I'm not just saying that because I work for ASTD. As I wrote articles for the conference daily newspaper, worked in the bookstore, and just generally talked to people, I heard great feedback.

Exhibitors in the expo were pleased with the amount of traffic and that people are starting to buy again. I guess that means the economy really is beginning to rebound. Bookstore sales uphold that hypothesis.

Attendees were enthusiastic and excited. It was nice for me to get out and interact with people who are reading our content. Often writing articles (or even blog entries) is like dropping words into a big black hole--we often don't know how they're received. Every once in a while we get feedback that an article was really helpful or that someone didn't like an article, but responses of both types are somewhat rare. (Although I'm happy to say we do get a lot more of the first than the second.)

The conference daily newspaper, resurrected this year, was a big hit. I'm guessing we'll be doing it again next year, although I don't know that for sure.

I can't say too much about sessions since I was mainly working on the paper or in the bookstore, but one that I did go to and enjoy was Sam Adkins's on "Patterns and Pioneers of Innovation: Advanced Learning Technology Today and Tomorrow." Adkins, senior director of research for the Workflow Institute, has written quite a bit for T+D magazine and Learning Circuits; he's a true visionary.

Adkins discussed artificial intelligence, service-oriented architecture (SOA), multi-dimensional learning (including affective learning), Web services and their use in learning, "portlets," new workflow tools, and more.

The presentation is available on the conference Website. Adkins's articles are available on the T+D Website in the June 2003, November 2003, and February 2004 issues and in Learning Circuits (search the LC archives with Adkins's last name to get a complete list).

If you missed the conference this year, consider attending and/or presenting in 2005. The deadline to submit presentation proposals is next Friday. Go here for more information.

Monday, May 24, 2004

On the expo floor

Today I visited the expo at our ASTD International Conference and Exposition, where 340 booths represent a wide range of companies from all over the world. I talked with a handful of them but at least glanced at all of them.

The booth that's drawing the most attention is an oxygen bar. You can inhale oxygen mixed with aromatherapy (orange and peppermint, lavender and tangerine, cranberry, or mountain berry) to feel energized and to detoxify. I'm not sure how well it worked on me--I mainly felt a tickling feeling in my nose as the oxygen went in. But it was fun to try because I'd heard of oxygen bars but never experienced one.

The same company also offers a live animated character, "Dr. D", who interacts with attendees via a flat-panel screen and wireless camera. He is created by a "virtual puppeteer," a human with electrodes on his face to register his expressions.

Giveaways are always popular at expos. This year's favorites are Gillegan's Island bobbleheads ("your e-learning data won't be lost on a three-hour tour"); green sponge dinosaurs("don't buy a dinosaur--go ASP"); and blinky smiley faces and squishy brains. There is also a lot of candy offered, as usual.

New or different offerings or booths I noticed on my rapid tour of the expo floor:
-- interactive whiteboards (you can project images from your computer and then write on them)
-- experiential training through drumming
-- interactive training games for PowerPoint using remote controls
-- an ergonomic flipchart/whiteboard that moves up and down, has pockets for pens and other materials, and has no rounded edges
-- corporate space camp!

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Twenty-five thousand books

The number is almost inconceivable. But I can picture exactly what that looks like, having helped to unpack, inventory, and shelve a portion of those yesterday at the ASTD bookstore for our International Conference and Exposition. As I mentioned yesterday, there are also 10,000 Infolines, 1000 audio recordings, and 3000 logo items.

It takes two days to set up the bookstore and half a day to break it down. Picture a Barnes and Noble bookstore being completely created in two days and you have a good idea of how this works. At 17,000 square feet, the size is about the same.

This was my first experience helping out at the ASTD bookstore and I have to give mammoth kudos to the staff who do this every year. Especially this year, when the bookstore has doubled in size. If you're at the conference, stop by and see the store and the result of everyone's hard work. You won't be disappointed at the offerings!

Thursday, May 20, 2004

A backstage peek at the hustle and bustle

Here at ASTD we're in the final countdown for the 2004 International Conference and Exposition, taking place this Sunday through next Thursday (May 23-27th) at the Washington, D.C., Convention Center. (For anyone interested, walk-on registration is available.)

I thought I'd give you all a little backstage peek at what goes into putting together this conference, which brings thousands of workplace learning and performance professionals together for 300 sessions in 9 tracks, plus 18 preconference workshops, 6 conferences-within-a-conference, 88 author signings and chat sessions, the largest EXPO floor in the industry (55,400 square feet), and the ASTD store that has nearly doubled in size from last year (17,000 square feet this year).

To give you a visual image of how large this all is--in the store, there will be 25,000 books from the ASTD Press and other publishers, 10,000 Infoline issues, 1000 audio recordings of conference sessions and books on tape, and 3000 logo items. The EXPO will have 340 companies to visit, 130 of which are new this year.

As you can imagine, things have been a bit frenetic for the past few weeks. All of the ASTD staff have been hard at work getting their piece of the puzzle ready. From where I sit, I have a view of the hard-working store staff who have been receiving, unpacking, inventorying, and repacking the contents of scores of boxes--not to mention wrapping and labeling the contents. Some of us in the content department helped out with a little of that--but our assistance was just a small part of a process that's been going on for weeks.

Between the store staff and the education department gathering the binders, books, and papers for various educational offerings, the halls of the sixth floor have been filled with boxes piled higher than I am--so high that you couldn't see the staff member whose desk was behind them. Most of the boxes are now cleared out, having been loaded earlier this week into the truck that took them to the D.C. Convention Center.

I and the other members of the T+D magazine staff have transformed for the conference into newspaper reporters. This year there will be a conference daily newspaper each day that will provide feature articles about speakers, awards, the ASTD 60th anniversary celebration, the EXPO, the launch of the ASTD Competency Study, and more. In addition, the paper will include program updates, D.C. tourist info, attendee interviews, puzzles and trivia, and more.

I'll be scurrying around working on the daily, attending sessions, and meeting with suppliers, so I won't have a whole lot of time to blog, but I'll try to post at least one entry from on site and one wrap-up when I return. I know Jay Cross will most likely be covering the conference as well on his Internet Time blog.

If any blog readers are at the conference, please do come up and say hi. I'll be wearing an ASTD name tag. And if you're interested in getting published in an ASTD book, T+D magazine, Learning Circuits, or Infoline, make sure to attend the sunrise session on Sunday at 7:30 a.m. to find out how.
Get fit, do more

From Shape magazine: As people's fitness improves, so does the quantity of work they perform. So said a recent study of people in a variety of occupations. "Physical activity is important to overall psychological and physical health," says Mark Roberts (M.D., Ph.D.) of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in Arlington Heights, Illinois. "It makes sense that active people would be better equipped to meet the challenges of their workday."

I know I get a boost of energy when I actually make it to the gym. The study is a good argument for companies to offer health benefits such as onsite gyms or discounted gym memberships. And for me to get back to regular workouts. Fortunately, Roberts says in the Shape article that "being active doesn't have to mean running marathons. It can be anything you do to increase your heart rate."

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Calming computer messages boost users' problem-solving performance

Are your learners frustrated with computer-based training and online learning? Software glitches, slow-loading Webpages, and other technical issues can make learners wish for a traditional classroom. Of course you want to fix the technical issues as quickly as possible, but in the meantime the computer could help soothe your learners--and might get them to perform better on computer-based or online assessments.

A study performed at the University of Tampere in Finland found that when computer users who experienced software delays were given positive messages via the computer's speech synthesizer, the users not only smiled more but also did better on problem-solving exercises they were then given. (The study was written about in the April 2004 issue of Interacting with Computers and reported in MIT's Technology Review.)

Users were asked to solve a color puzzle using a mouse, and the computer choreographed periodic delays in the mouse movements. Users received positive messages such as "The problem will soon be happily over" (rough translation from Finnish), negative messages such as "This is annoying," or no message at all. When users received positive messages, their performance was better than with negative or no messages. It's unclear whether the results would've been the same if the messages were given via text rather than audio.

Some Websites do already give users reassuring messages when a page is loading slowly--this doesn't take much sophisticated technical expertise beyond what is needed to design a page. It doesn't seem much harder to program a virtual classroom program, for instance, to provide a reassuring message if it suddenly quits or boots a user out for no apparent reason.

In fact, why not make all computer messages positive and reassuring, so that people can perform better on all their tasks? "This application has unexpectedly quit" could turn into "We know software glitches are frustrating and we regret that one just happened. But it will be okay. Restart the application and everything should work just fine."

Somehow I don't see Microsoft embracing this type of change.

Friday, May 14, 2004

E-Learning Extravaganza

Here are various e-learning tidbits I've collected this week.

What to look for in live e-learning. Are you looking to license a virtual classroom or Web-conferencing solution? conducted an online survey asking people what they thought were the most important features in a live e-learning solution. The top five answers were:
* ease of use
* application sharing
* interactivity (polling, hand raising)
* good speed in low bandwidth
* VoIP

Guide to Distributed Learning Environments. This Web reference from the University of Alberta is chock-full of information. The guide looks at instructional design, project management, and evaluation. Specific topics include analysis and design, development, production, implementation, and more. There's a lot of text to read, so you might want to print it out rather than straining your eyes to read it all on-screen.

Update on MIT's OpenCourseWare program. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched its groundbreaking OpenCourseWare project four years ago, letting people around the world access course materials online for free. Since 2001, MIT has received more than 20,000 emails thanking the school for promoting the free spread of knowledge. And the project has become a model for other institutions interested in doing the same thing.

Bad news about bogus degrees. In March, I wrote about online diploma mills that churn out fake degrees for money and how to tell whether an institution wasn't up on the up-and-up (click on the March archive on the sidebar and go to March 24th). Well, according to Federal Computer Week, hundreds of U.S. federal employees have received degrees from diploma mills, and have used government money to do so. Yikes! I don't want those people running my government!

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Quote of the day

In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find
themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.
-- Eric Hoffer

Thanks to HeartMath's daily quotes for this one.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

More on storytelling in organizations

Here are two good links posted on Contentious, the blog of writer, editor, and trainer Amy Gahran.

Goldenfleece. Described on its Website as "an international community of practice devoted to storytelling in business and organizations." The site offers links to articles, books, and organizations; a listserv; information about monthly meetings and an annual conference; and more.

A chronology of organizational storytelling. Site creater Seth Kahan is working on a list of storytelling developments in organizations. It's pretty comprehensive already, but people are invited to email him with suggestions for additional items. Many items have links for more information. Additional storytelling links are available at the top of the page.

Monday, May 10, 2004

"Information, Silence, and Sanctuary"

Information overload: Most of us face it. According to an article in Knight-Ridder newspapers, the amount of new "words, sounds, pictures and numbers produced and stored on paper, film or computer disks" has almost doubled in the past three years.

There's even a name for a new kind of depression that comes from info overload. In December's T+D magazine, I wrote about NEDS, New Economy Depression Syndrome, "a form of self-reinforcing depression, which is caused by information overload, constant interruption, and reduction in relationship quality. The victim feels a sense of being overwhelmed, helpless, and ultimately alone."

But one man is fighting back. An article in today's Washington Post talks about David Levy, a professor in the Information School at the University of Washington (state). Despite being so plugged-in, or perhaps because of it, Levy believes that, as the Post puts it, "information polluted people need to organize and protect psychic space and quiet time."

Levy takes one day a week to be unplugged from the Internet, email, television, and telephone. As an observant Jew, that day is Friday night to Saturday night, the Jewish Sabbath. But this idea is a great one that people of all backgrounds could follow.

Levy also takes aikido on his lunch breaks and meditates before work. He believes that people can be more productive at work if they allow time to pause and reflect. Each person must find what works for him- or herself, he says, but he also puts responsibility on businesses. Managers need to allow workers time to do things that don't look like work. "Information is not enough," he says.

This week in Seattle is a two-day "Conference on Information, Silence, and Sanctuary" that Levy organized. The program will bring together such speakers as John Seely Brown, author of The Social Life of Information (I wrote about him in an April 26th blog entry); Benedictine monk Mark Barrett; and Geof Bowker, UC San Diego historian of technology.

Should be interesting. I'm hoping more information about the proceedings will be posted on the conference Website after things wrap up.

(Side note and shameless plug: A new technology called RSS is helping info overloaded people keep up with the Websites and blogs they visit on a regular basis. Some of you are using RSS already to read this blog, but do you know about its applications for learning? See my first quarterly Trends article in Learning Circuits for more.)

Thursday, May 06, 2004

More blending of the computer and real worlds (augmented reality)

PacManhattan recreates the Pacman arcade game in the New York City streets. Players run around the Washington Square Park area of Manhattan. Instead of just being a physical real-life game, PacManhattan uses cell phones, wireless internet connections, and custom software to connect players with the control room. Internet viewers can then follow the game online.

Look for more and more of these types of blendings. Coming soon to a training program near you.

(Thanks to SmartMobs for this link.)

Update: Wired News just ran a story about PacManhattan.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Two good links for Wednesday reading

1) New classroom tool. Traditional training and online learning are blending in more than just trainers' toolkits. Tools from one are being, and will be, used in the other. I gave some examples a few posts back in terms of augmented reality. Here's another example--a device that brings the polling capability that exists in most virtual classrooms to traditional classrooms. Will this take off? The article mentions that similar devices were installed--and subsequently removed because of lack of use--at Sanford University 30 years ago. But maybe now learners used to the fast-paced, interactive nature of many virtual classrooms will really take advantage of a tool like this.

2) "Theory and Practice of Online Learning." This extensive free PDF is aimed at the higher education market but there's much useful information in it for anyone developing or using e-learning. Canada's Open University has been doing distance learning for more than 30 years--these are their lessons learned. The 454-page book covers educational theory, e-learning technologies, teaching skills, copyright issues, and much more.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

This is a test

My Bloglines feed reader program is telling me it's having trouble getting the feed for this blog. I'm wondering whether that's why the reader stats have dipped dramatically this week. This is a test message to see if the feed comes through.

Let me know if you read me loud and clear or whether you're encountering problems but still managing to read postings. Thanks!