Monthly Archives: October 2014

Technology and Learning Design for Autism

Today, we’re sharing the second in our series on entrepreneurs who are using technology and learning design for social impact. We’re talking with Nancy Munro, founder and CEO of KnowledgeShift, a company providing learning services and technologies in a range of industries. Mobi-RolePlay is a KnowledgeShift offering that supports learners who have autism.

Designs2Learn: Can you provide a quick snapshot of KnowledgeShift? How’d you get started, what services you provide, etc.?

Nancy Munro: KnowledgeShift started out as a company that provided customized eLearning services to large corporations.  As time went on, we became experts on various technologies used to deploy, measure and evaluate adult learning in a corporate environment.

How did the idea of Mobi-RolePlay come about?

Approximately 5 years ago, we knew that mobile learning was going to be a new emerging market in the learning space, but we didn’t want to get into the business of creating “apps. ”  So by happenstance, I stumbled up on IVR (interactive voice response) technology and a light bulb went off.  This technology would allow me to build interactive conversations that work not only from mobile phones – but any phone!  It was much easier to deploy and manage that working with Apple or Android software for mobile applications.  We then went down the path of creating simulated role-playing.  The application allows for someone to practice having a conversation with a real person.  The real person has been pre-recorded, but it still feels like you’re talking to them live.  As we created simulations for professional situations a friend of mine who is a speech therapist suggested building some for kids that have autism to practice social conversations.

What have been some of the biggest challenges in working on a project such as Mobi-RolePlay for learners with autism?

The first phase of launching Mobi-RolePlay for kids with autism was – figuring out what they talk about, which types of conversations to build for each developmental level and how to make it all seem natural.

What kind of responses have you gotten to the offering? 

We have sat down with teachers and schools who work with kids with autism. They all love the idea of allowing the student to practice on their own.  Teachers really liked the fact that they could build their own conversations based upon what each student needed to focus on.  The application comes with a built in library of practice conversations, but the real bonus is tailoring the role-plays to each student.

We did get mixed feedback on the fact that the student has to use a telephone to connect to the simulations.  So we are working on a version that can be deployed from a computer using the built in microphone of the computer to capture their responses for each conversation.

What are some other social impact projects on your roadmap? 

We currently donate the use of Mobi-RolePlay to anyone who wants to use it for their child or student with autism.  We have also begun working with colleges and universities who participate in a national role-playing program for students who are seeking a BS degree with an emphasis on selling.  We are donating the use of Mobi-RolePlay to any college who wants to use this with their students to help them practice sales role-playing as part of the annual curriculum. This competition is held annually through the Pi Sigma Epsilon organization.  Currently we have three colleges using Mobi-RolePlay for this, the most involved of which is Northern IL University.

What advice do you have for others who are interested in focusing their talent and expertise on social impact projects?

Luckily we have an alternative source of revenue from the corporate side of the business, so we do not have the pressure of generating income from the use of this with students.  Just in general for anyone wanting to start a business, make sure your business plan recognizes that it may take more time than you estimate to really get momentum.  That being said, some of the more social focused programs ramp up faster because of the story behind what they are trying to accomplish.  Leverage social media as much as you can – if it’s a great story the network will help spread the word more effectively than you could do on your own—but be authentic, that same network that can be your arms and legs for momentum and quickly cut you off at the knees if they sense your intentions are not genuine.

Thanks for your time, Nancy, and for the work you do. We look forward to hearing more about the evolution of the Mobi-RolePlay technology in both the corporate and educational spaces.

See these sites for more on KnowledgeShift and Mobi-RolePlay. Stay tuned to Designs2Learn for more on learning design and technology for social impact.

Why Not a 14th or 15th Grade to Better Prepare Students for the Real World?

Frustrated high school studentA recent article in Slate, aptly titled “Welcome to 13th Grade,” reports on an Oregon initiative to add a 13th year to the high school experience in order to help better prepare students for college. The program uses the state allowance of $6,500 per student to fund each participant, who exits the program with not only a high school diploma, but also with the option to enter college as sophomores. This may sound attractive and appropriate given the challenges with community college completion rates in Oregon and elsewhere, but there’s certainly a global perspective that needs to be examined here.

The timing of the article amused me, as I had just had two conversations, one with a high school senior and one with a university junior that led me to wonder about some of the issues surrounding the 13th-year plan, and specifically how much time we give our kids to prepare for college and the working world. The high-schooler was telling me that she planned to opt out of some AP exams and was willing to retake the subjects again in college if necessary. “Maybe I’ll get a better teacher. Maybe I’ll be able to understand it better.” The university student was experiencing challenges in time management given the workload implicit in a degree program requiring extensive reading assignments.

I actually even said to the high schooler “I know you wouldn’t want to have any more high school, but I wonder if you all actually have enough time . . .” Needless to say, I was cut short and left to ruminate on this paradox on my own. We’re working so hard to get our kids out of high school yet so many arrive at college unprepared for the rigor, the level of inquiry, and the day-to-day management of their lives? Some of these challenges are generations-old adjustments that are made throughout the college experience, as students mature with the curriculum. Others could probably be alleviated with additional support within the school environment, and many universities offer Bootcamp-like training or additional support for specific skills-building activities. But, if we look at the bigger picture and as we consider students preparing to enter the workforce and contribute to our ever-complex global economy, is more time in high school really the answer here?

The Oregon plan seems to be a band aid solution, representative of larger issues in PK-12 curriculum. The challenges are getting increasingly complex. How will we stem the tide of change as the world becomes ever more sophisticated? The concept of preparing students for jobs that don’t even yet exist, was stunningly presented by the Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod “Did You Know” presentation first in 2007, and has been rifted on by countless numbers of educators and pundits since. We don’t know what we don’t know, yet we need to keep preparing for it. The solution is not more years of high school, but more in-depth, inquiry-based, maker-driven, project-based, curricula that prepares this generation and succeeding ones how to problem solve rather than how to take exams that only teach them how to . . . take exams.

The expanding curriculum design that we are seeing across the country, greater access to online, personalized learning programs and the growing partnerships that are evolving to help enhance the educational experience within the schools is a great start to getting us closer to where we need to be. More practical, experiential learning experiences will go a huge way to bridging existing and future gaps. More practical internships earlier on in the PK-12 years will make an obvious impact as well.

A 13th year will undoubtedly help a number of students bridge the gap between what they have learned to date and what they need to properly function in the college environment, but we need to consider expanded and alternate approaches throughout the continuum of the educational experience to truly prepare people for an ever-changing workplace in the global economy.

For more insights on the impact of effective design on the educational experience, visit us at Designs2Learn.

E-Learning Days Support a Wide Range of Practical Learning Experiences

boy outdoors with tablet PCFall is an increasingly brief season here in the Northeast, so as temperatures finally start dropping, my thoughts move toward winter and a trend we started observing last year in which schools are replacing snow days with elearning days. During these days, students may attend webinars, Skype sessions, or work online completing on-demand learning modules. Living in New York City, where our new Mayor didn’t seem to know what a snow day was last winter, I’ve got a lot of sympathy for our kids having to trek through storm conditions to make it to school. Wouldn’t it be great if we had “E-Learning Days” instead?

Beyond the obvious benefits of reducing days missed when an actual snow day is called, or the challenges of getting everyone to the buildings when a snow day is not called, this approach goes a long way to building our kids’ skills at navigating technology-enhanced learning experiences and future workplace skills in both formal and informal ways.

1. Virtual Workplace Skills

Many of us have been working vitually for years. How many of you recall what your first virtual gig was like? By building in full-day “E-Learning Days” into the school calendar, we are prepping our young people for a world in which more and more jobs are either full-time virtual or at least some portion.

2. Online Study Skills

While nearly all school kids these days use the Internet for some portion of their homework research or support, working through activities designed specifically for the Web will contribute to computer and Web literacy. Building these skills over time through both formal and informal Web-based activities can help cut through some of the cacophony our kids are exposed to when left to their own devices (literally). These skills are essential to the 21st century workplace.

3. Independent Study Skills

Individual assignments can help to address specific gaps in certain academic areas, or can be used to allow students to explore certain topics in depth according to personal interest. Either way, E-Learning Days can be used to focus on individualized learning and help strengthen students’ skills and motivation. So much of what we learn on the job is individualized or self-directed. What better way to prepare for that than while still in school? A brief check-in via Skype with a classroom teacher could provide just the type of targeted feedback students need to progress with these activities.

4. Group Study Skills

Group projects seem to be the most challenging of all in the K-12 realm. But somehow, when we get to the workplace, we are expected to work in teams to complete projects and make money for our employers.

E-Learning Day group projects could be incorporated into a curriculum to help build these skills over time. Rubrics for and guidance in navigating team communications, team motivation, and creating a congenial group/team working environment could significantly improve the quality of not only the group experience but the actual project as well.

5. Online Communications Skills

Do kids really need this, you ask? Well, sure, most of our kids can text and use SnapChat, Facebook messaging, etc., but using an online chat tool, such as Skype, for example, to conference with teachers, group members, peer advisors, etc., could take these skills to new (and more productive) levels. All of us in the workplace turn to these tools as part of the daily process of getting our jobs done, in both formal (webinars, team meetings) and less formal (just-in-time support for an urgent work problem) ways.

“E-Learning Days” (and more than three of them a year) can bring us a lot closer to a 70:20:10 learning model in which formal and informal learning interventions and collaborative experiences are blended to create a more realistic and pragmatic K-12 school experience.

And that can bring our students a lot closer to being prepared to enter the workplace!

Keep watching us at Designs2Learn for more on the latest learning trends across the educational continuum.

Lessons from The Magic School Bus

The_Magic_School_Bus_title_creditOr “Take Chances, Make Mistakes, Get Messy” but Consider These Tips . . . “

The Magic School Bus series has been captivating readers since 1985, and with 87 million books in print, continues to enhance the lives of readers of all ages to this day. Lily Tomlin’s voice portrayal of the eccentric Miss Frizzle on the television animated series brought the series to new levels of popularity starting in 1994, and a new Netflix series will bring on new magic starting in 2016. While the anthropomorphic bus is a star in its own right, it really is Miss Valerie Felicity Frizzle who carries the stories in both print and on televisions and her popularity continues to grow through Cosplay and appearances at Com Con and via the creative energy of hundreds of fan artists across the globe.

So, we are all quite taken with her thirst for adventure and her ability to turn things around. But the truth is that we’d probably approach a real-life Miss Frizzle with some amount of caution, judging her initially for her fashion choices and her apparently scattered approach to classroom . . . er . . . management.

But whereas things typically begin in a less-than-calm manner in Miss Frizzle’s classroom, and although things do not often go according to plan, the outcome of each adventure is, actually, real learning. Frizzle is more in control than she appears to be and constantly adapts according to the need (as does the actual school bus). The kids are engaged in hands-on problem solving. Everyone learns something and is satisfied with the results.

So, while we absolutely advocate experimentation, and we understand that as educational practices evolve over time with the adoption and adaptation of technology, some best practices need to be maintained to maximize success and minimize failure in all online educational programs.

  • Start with what you know about best practices in teaching and learning.
  • Evaluate how the technology can support those practices and if not, consider how to adapt one or the other to achieve the best outcomes for your intended audience.
  • Consider optimal means of maintaining contact with your student audience, both programmatically/administratively and as part of the learning design.
  • Partner effectively to achieve optimal results.

We’re in the midst of a period of great experimentation, and there are fantastic tools and platforms being developed every day. We do need to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy; but we also need to know how to best serve our student audience in the process of innovating.

To learn more about best practices for being part of today’s educational evolution, contact us at Designs2Learn.

70:20:10 Starting with K-12


70:20:10 is most often spoken and written about in the context of corporate training and workplace performance improvement. But if you look at today’s educational landscape, you’ll see that our students can greatly benefit from expanding the universe of support they receive as they make their way from childhood to working adults. At K16, where we support multiple approaches to learning along the continuum of one’s educational “career,” we believe that 70:20:10 is an appropriate lens through which to view today’s educational market. Optimal learning is best achieved when learners at all stages of their education have access to multiple sources of expertise, learning content, and collaboration. Is there a right mix? What are the factors to be considered when applying a 70:20:10 approach to learning at all levels?

The Schools’ Role in 70:20:10

We suspect that the mixture will change over time, but in the earliest stages of development, a brick and mortar school can be an appropriate core component for young learners. Schools continue to be instrumental in the introduction of key learning concepts, core subject matter, and opportunities for socialization. Think of it like a “flipped version” of 70:20:10 where the schools (the “formal” part of the mix) provide the bulk of support during the early years.

It should, however, also be noted, that for practitioners of homeschooling and more specifically unschooling, DIY learning, the proportions may be closer to the original concept of 70:20:10, where self-directed learners are availing themselves of resources on hand to satisfy learning needs they have designed for themselves.

So even amongst school-aged children, there can be different perspectives on the appropriate mix.

Changing Proportions

As the bulk of mainstream learners grow with age, so too will their ability to reach out to and avail themselves of additional sources of expertise, learning content and collaboration. Therefore, the “mixture” may change as one gets older.

As students mature and take on more actual problem-solving activities, the concept of 70% of learning being devoted to real-life (on-the-job) tasks comes more into play.

As the role of higher educational institutions evolves, students will be aggregating knowledge and certification from a broader array of sources and institutions. As such, traditional universities will continue to play a vital role, but perhaps not as the sole provider of the educational experience or the institution granting the credit hours or degree.

Expertise on Demand

The role of experts and mentors along the continuum of learning experiences has evolved with the technology, but the premise is pretty much the same. Students continue to reach out to friends and advisers to help them along the way. Only now, there is technology to expand the network that our students have access to and through which they get support for their educational activities.

Looking Beyond the Numbers

We know that most applications of 70:20:10 may not prescribe the same exact percentages to different types of learning experiences, but instead we look to 70:20:10 to consider the overall ecosystem of support provided to people as they strive to solve problems and perform better in the workplace. We’re now considering the broader spectrum of learning experiences starting with the youngest children to see how we can best leverage today’s technology and business partnerships to improve educational experiences and results. Most importantly, we’d like to see how we can mix things up to better prepare students of all ages for engagement in our ever changing society.

Stay tuned to Designs2Learn for more on how effective design and technology supports learning in today’s complex educational and workplace environments.


A (Cautionary) Tale of Two Students

Happy and sad face.This is not a story of wealth and poverty in the traditional sense, but it does address the issue of opportunity, and the decisions made when learning design lacks the context required to motivate individual learners within a system.

The two students at the heart of this story are sisters, raised in moderate circumstances in one of the richest cities in the world. Their education began as it does with so many children in this city, with an anxious parent researching pre-school opportunities at the elder child’s birth, making the round of school visits when that child turned two years old, taking the radical chance of applying to only one of the top contenders, and being lucky enough to get accepted.

It continues with the nail-biting episodes of applying with the second sibling during a re-examination of the school’s sibling policy and the fortune of acceptance despite clear criteria communicated during the whole nail-biting episode.

Fast forward past the elementary and middle school years except to acknowledge the drama therein regarding out-of-catchment campaigns and testing aimed at both parents and children trying to prove their suitability in these new arenas. We land now at the high school years at two of the top public high schools, two of the most difficult to get into but worlds apart in their focus, numbers of students, and, perhaps the only way to articulate this . . . spirit.

In one school, the student shared the hallways with 500 or so other classmates and maintained a high average in what the school proclaimed to be a progressive curriculum, mostly made of core subject areas (college prep), and sought to enhance her studies with electives more in line with her personal interests, creative writing and the visual arts.

In the other school, the student spent her day with over 2000 other students, all pursuing their degrees in a two-pronged, arts and academic focused curriculum that required three periods of study in the arts on top of the traditional academic subject areas.

The student in the first school began to question the validity of her studies early on and became particularly agitated as the college selection process geared up in junior year. The majority of her free time was spent on her own arts projects in somewhat solitary pursuit of accomplishing goals set for herself in areas totally outside the realm of the school curriculum. By the fall of her senior year, she had left school, no longer able to continue within a system that did not map to her own set of core values. She eventually completed her high school diploma working with an accredited online school, where she was able to incorporate her love for the arts into her final requirements, working closely with a set of dedicated faculty who understood, nurtured, and respected the additional effort required to complete projects in this manner.

The student in the second school thrived in an environment designed to nurture both academic and artistic talent. Performance was embedded into the curriculum and continuous improvement measured for both artistic and academic pursuits. Family involvement in the form of concert attendance, studio meetings and regular discussions over new pieces being studied and practiced was a natural byproduct of the school design.

Both students demonstrated highly creative instincts throughout childhood, lovers of literature, storytellers both, and both placed high value on the creation of (albeit different) artistic products. What happened during their final years within the compulsory educational system provides a cautionary tale for all of us, particularly those of us charged with the design of learning experiences across the educational continuum. Context is of vital importance, even and perhaps especially for our youngest of learners. While the context evolves as you move from youth to adulthood, from student to worker, most of us need a reason to be learning something. The more context we can provide, and the earlier we do so, the better.

Have You Hugged Your Millennial Today?

iStock_000012999746SmallYesterday’s post on LinkedIn by Lee McEnany Caraher on the “5 Tips for Working with Boomers” inspired me into a little bit of TBT action in terms of bringing back this post from earlier this year. I thought it only fair to provide some tips for working more effectively with millennials.

I have to start out by saying that I borrowed the idea for this title from Michael Rochelle of Brandon Hall Group, who advised an audience of webinar a while back to do just that: Hug your millennials. That informative session, called “Top Talent Management Trends,” and the fact that, as Rochelle noted, millennials will be the majority by 2018, resulted in our creating a list of 10 ways we think you can keep your millennials happy and productively employed.

1. Always make sure your millennials know how they are doing.

Progress reports are an easy addition to your employee portal to help motivate people to complete their training courses, certifications, tasks, etc. Do this on a regular basis rather than simply annually.

2. Communicate frequently with your millennials about what they need to be doing.

Development plans with clearly articulated goals should be a part of any system to help drive performance forward.

3. Be sure to make your experts accessible to your millennials.

Team pages and expert forums are only a couple of ways that employees can seek expert advice to help move projects forward, close sales, etc.

4. Create a culture and work environment where millennials can seek the support and easily collaborate with their peers.

Millennials have been doing this throughout their school years through Facebook, Tumblr and other tools. Anyone who has parented a teenager knows that very few assignments get completed singlehandedly. Associate groups and peer-to-peer forums are just two ways that employees can share knowledge and expertise.

5. Provide easy access to informational resources that will help your millennials succeed on the job.

Well-architected libraries and repositories of information tagged and indexed according to job role or work group, etc. can make information more meaningful and help employees sort through “the tsunami” of information out there today.

6. Design concise, engaging, and targeted training for your millennials.

Todd Tauber of Bersin by Deloitte shared a great data point a while back from the Pew Research Center on about how most millennials sleep with their phones, which when coupled with how they use social networking sites and download videos gives you a great indication of how targeted your learning needs to be.

7. Ensure that your millennials feel connected to the company’s success.

Frequently refreshed content about corporate initiatives, incentive programs for top sales performance or other ways of recognizing contributions to your company’s success can help increase the level of engagement and help drive your key performance indicators in the right direction.

8. Make it as easy as possible for managers to see how their millennials are doing.

One of the greatest obstacles to improving performance is the inability to track and report on it effectively. Managers need easy-to-use dashboards to view learning progress, comment on work products, update development plans, etc.

9. Provide easy-to-use feedback tools for managers to work with.

Whether it’s setting goals, commenting on the development plan, or providing feedback on a business presentation, unless managers have the right tools, it will be hard to steer our millennials in the right direction.

10. Capture and provide the data for senior leadership to see that your learning and development processes and tools are clearly engaging your millennials in ways that help drive the company objectives.

Rochelle noted since the 1930s, we have moved from an apprentice-centered, to a teaching-centered, learning-centered, and now relationship-centered learning approach. In truth everything is more connected, and we all take a part in driving the success of the company forward. Rich reporting dashboards can help everyone, from individual employees to managers and leadership, see these connections more effectively.

OK, admittedly, our top ten could apply to any aged employee, but given specifics of millennial DNA, it behooves us to focus on the type of engagement that will not only result in more successful employee retention but also higher levels of productivity and overall increased revenues.

As Rochelle noted, we need to link everyone by technology and “picking the wrong technology is the worst think you can do.”

Stayed tuned to Designs2Learn for more on best practices in learning, design, and technology.