icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an  ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.


Chronological Index | Subject Index

Mirror, mirror on my screen …revisited

About being an e-Learning entrepreneur

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2018). Mirror, mirror on my screen …revisited. About being an e-Learning entrepreneur. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 7.9 (September).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2018). Mirror, mirror on my screen …revisited. About being an e-Learning entrepreneur. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 7.9 (September).

If we wish our civilization to survive we must break with the habit of deference to great men.
Karl Popper

London, 15 November 2018 - A first version of this article was written and published online in a Wiki platform in 2010, to support a project I had agreed with the late Bob McKee, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, some outcomes of which I presented to the audience of an international conference later that year. Seen in retrospect, that project offers the opportunity to notice dynamics in the management of knowledge transfer I will consider in forthcoming articles of icm2re next year.

Hic and nunc, I have just felt it is the right time to have another look at the reflections on my professional adventures - as somebody called what I actually lived as a dedicated career through almost four decades - for the advancement of what we now normally call data engineering and, in general, information sciences.

For the incurably curious reader, previous notable occasions I had to publicly manifest such commitment were, as far as I can remember, for instance: in 1993 an article on the best skills for horizon scanning and intelligence through full-text online databases, access to which was considered prerogative of the data scientists of the time; in 1996, a speech on the future professional identity for information intermediaries in the new online landscape post-internet; and again in 2003, a speech at the 7th Italian congress of special librarians (that the italian R&D and academic community sorted out to call advanced documentalists ); in 2007, another speech at a conference on libraries and lifelong learning; in 2012 the infamous, post-project review of my entrepreneurial endeavours in the e-learning sector commissioned by an academic journal and then brutally censored (The missing business case: rise and fall of an information literacy training programme, available here in the self-archived version I published soon after).

Each time, the focus of such reflections had quite changed and I found myself amused to see things differently, with either a deeper understanding of some aspects or juxtaposing another perspective.

So it is the same story of professional practices, technology and personal development coming up each time with surprisingly different narratives and references to different contexts.

A victorian story?

In 2010 the occasion that triggered my Wiki article was an extraordinary exhibition organised by the Wellcome Collection in London, about the history of private museums of anatomical models in Europe in the XIX Century: very successful, embroidering current scientific notions with victorian entertainment and storytelling, those totally private initiatives were often prosecuted for obscenity, closed down by the authorities and prohibited tout court.

Perhaps we should try to understand more of our current education systems, both public and private, thinking they have originated pretty much in the same era.

The Wellcome exhibition gave me the inspiration for the infamous censored article for "Library Trends" in which I decided to apply the post-project review approach to the strategic operation I had pioneered and championed with my training business, showing directions and case studies for lifelong learning policies nobody had actually commissioned nor asked me to do. They just seemed fitting for purpose for the development of the information society.

Both in 2010 and today, it looks like for more than ten years, between 1997 and 2007, I succeeded in organising, selling and delivering successful training services to the early-adopters of internet and e-learning technologies because, in a certain sense, I did not know that… the mission, from a political point of view, was really impossible!

A private agency in the training sector in Europe - in any part of Europe, UK included - is an almost crazy thing to think about because the market is so dominated by public funding. It is totally controlled by political and institutional stakeholders (universities, their consortia, large media conglomerates and consultancies) up to the point that whatever innovative market proposition ends into just a new brief for the usual subcontractors, killing any form of real competition - and with it most of the creativity we could expect from a free market, before it can even get a chance of conquering a significative market share.

Lucky me, and for several years, I was not perceived as a substantial threat. On the contrary, my clients - major players and policy decision makers - saw with favour the fact I was acting as positive change lever and an innovation agent, opening up new routes for professional and market developments. I was, in sum, for several years, too small for being considered relevant as a competitor and too extravagantly innovative and ahead of the times to appear as an influencer. Until, well... things change at all times, don't they?

How did I make it?

Shaping and sharing good practices with professional trainers, engineers and management consultants was indeed a passion. So that in my spare time I volunteered with various professional associations to discuss the findings of what worked and what did not. It does not seem the lessons learned were trivial as on reflections they seem still very true today.

Among the critical success factors that guaranteed me a lucky pioneer position in the e-learning market - and for an unusually long period of time - I still think I must quote the fact that I've always worked with:

In retrospect, all the terrific technical lessons learned indicated the need for change management practices to be embedded within the commissioning side but also throughout the whole process of designing, developing and delivering online courses and particularly:

  1. the need to target the majority of people attending any training program concerning new subjects or practices in a completely different way than the early adopters' niches;
  2. the convenience to adopt a prototype and usability test approach for the first edition of every course with a new format. This became my first rule and seemed to be particularly convenient when we did not have the minimum number of participants to cover the costs of the first edition of a new course. It seems to me also a good way to identify and recruit testers among peers and potential partners or competitors, before marketing the new initiative to a wider audience;
  3. the importance of defining, benchmarking and agreeing quality monitoring measures and performance indicators at industry level. These measures have to be collected and both the teachers and the pupils are to be tracked and assessed through every activity during the online courses, in order to introduce variations to the instructional materials, to re-shape, adapt or re-design formats, storyboards and roles continuously. At such level, the e-learning paradigm shift poses dramatical socio-technical challenges (because the alternative to major reshape of people behaviours and institutional processes is just simply automation of tasks and therefore erosion of the labour market for the whole of the professional communities involved in education).

Not so transferable skills?

Approaching the design and marketing of e-learning services with such an entrepreneurial and R&D mindset gave me the opportunity to acquire a solid understanding of adult education and learning processes in a lifelong learning perspective. It was incidental to my own consultant and independent scholar investigations that remained focussed on the relationships between technology, policies and decision making. But it seemed to me we could not move any further, and surely not in a sustainable way, to bring digital innovations within consolidated organisations and market sectors without considering human factors at first.

Well known principles and methods of pedagogy and andragogy were constantly confirmed or challenged by the nature of the interactive formats I created: seeing and managing influence dynamics in a participatory way within the online environment made impossible to fix the "course formulas" once and for all, as I was expected to do with a standard product (as it happened throughout the previous generations of traditional curricula or distance learning that have become successful exactly because of their static and long lasting nature, such as the Open University courses).

One of the aspects I had to consider with my online classes was the participants’ need to be able to attend the courses according to job rotations or similar requirements. They had small flexible chunks of disposable time useful to do or review exercises in a collaborative way, through comparisons and discussions that did not require contemporary presence nor high level of reasoning / concentration. The asynchronous nature, the components and the format of the online courses allowed that expectation to be easily fulfilled without degrading the whole, rich learning experience.

The online courses programmes were very successful, especially between 1999 and 2001, with more than 96% of the attendees fully satisfied about their experiences and learning outcomes.

But these were just the early adopters' segment of the market - not yet subject to other market forces and pressures - such as the incredibly fast success of You Tube that in only three years, between 2005 and 2007, completely changed the expectations, audiences and attitudes towards online contents and then the requirement.

The majority of my e-learning “late comers” clients showed, on the contrary, preferences for self-instructional materials, without forums or discussions. They would be happy to be supported by direct and timely help from experts and tutors only on demand, for very specific problems or Q&A sessions. I invented then a “tutor in a box” interactive interface in the mid 2000s and then I found incredibly complicated - between 2001 and 2007, in a climate of increasing political hostility, to afford videos developments that my target would also found quite frustrating, timely and costly to access from a multiplicity of devices. There were no smartphones yet but people loved the freedom to work from home or bring their laptops everywhere thanks to the internet.

In a nutshell, my e-learning “constructivist" formulas evolved in a variety of different micro formats that were best suited for different thinking styles, from the very cooperative online classroom environment to the highly structured tutorials with almost no need for any help desk support at all.

The learning outcomes of some classes and programmes would remain deeply depending on tailored coaching, tutoring and counselling, whereas others would rely on the quality of and easy access to predefined online contents: but they were all services without almost any video at all. Some costly experiments have not broken the evidence that video-lectures were poor if not totally incompatible with the attention, concentration, interests and priorities of people attending the courses during their working hours.

Was I, with all my Palestra Internet Panta Rei, ideologically against videos or television formats for educational purposes? Mocking me, a number of colleagues seemed to support such a silly argument. Of course it is impossible to be at the same time fascinated, intrigued and involved in technological developments - as I have been for my whole life - and ideologically against any of them, so that I have never been keen on entering this stream (very conspicuous though) of instrumental and biased reflections in media and cultural studies.

And yet, there is possibly an element of truth in that: whatever preferences we have about educational or instructional design and cultural stances, these reflect not only our personalities but also our relationship with political and market powers, in today e-learning new businesses as in the London's private science museums of 19th Century or in the Greece's academy and lyceum schools of the 4th Century bc.

After ten years of supplying information management and learning services to academic, corporate research and media clients, isn't surprising that I have been unable or perhaps banned not only from working in the sector but also from using my knowledge and skills in other industries? My post project review in 2010 was just one of the innumerable obstacles and barriers I have come through preventing me to return to have any possible voice and role in the sector.

Don't have I acquired any transferable expertise? Yes and not. Yes, it is surprising that institutions whose mission is to suppot people in their efforts to make sense of the world have no capacity to absorbe and integrate the work of creative people and innovators that usually anticipate new visions and sources of meanings. And no, it is not surprising after all because powerful burocracies very rarely understand and anticipate change, they tend instead to apply parochial views to disciplines' boundaries and advances, and do not want to change anything in their daily routines - no matter how educated they are. Transferable skills need open doors to be transferred. And this is perhaps the reason why the sector seems, thirty years after the invention of the world wide web, still wondering what has to be done with e-learning projects in spite of a couple of generations of e-learning experts... gone mad!

The battle for the screens and for the eyeballs

Staying on pragmatical grounds, it stills seems to me that in innumerable circumstances educational videos can be very boring and totally ineffective if they are not produced with care and skilfulness - and that make them expensive. The attention span over the internet is very short and whilst is true we learn at all times through all sorts of experiences, studying new abstract concepts and acquiring new techniques or procedural knowledge in a short period of time requires both high levels of concentration and highly structured and consistent quality of contents.

Of course, literacies goals for the digital world can be seen (and marketed) as business justifications for many years to come - in the UK a number of organisations have such a mission of targeting any digital divide gap, including a Royal Digital Literacy charity. These organisations are pools of interactions, innovation and creativity open to wide audiences and with extraordinary potential for connecting consumers behaviours, brands and digital literacies.

However it looks like the professional and academic offer is still puzzled in 2018 with the same two main problems that have been affecting the e-Learning market since the late 1990s: sustainable interoperability among platforms over time and perception and measurements of quality of products and services.

Who on earth does have the resources, creativity and strength to afford costly developments of formats that would inexorably discourage the clients, become rapidly technologically obsolete and in the best scenarios trigger fierce competition and adverse reactions from universities?

Perhaps the passage from the manuscript era to the printed books - that lasted a couple of centuries after all - generated similar trade offs and socio-political problems and we could learn more about the digital future studying the history of our remote as well as recent past.

Between 2001 and 2005 huge efforts towards the development of international standard were mostly inconclusive but for the aviation industry that agreed guidelines and recommendations (AICC), always very practical and supportive of the huge training demand in their sector.

With a larger scope, the USA Department of Defence's ADL initiative (started in 1997) had in the meantime reached a greater alignment with internet based architectures than the AICC.

So that it seemed at a certain point “natural” that ADL (the acronym of which means Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative) would become the market standard, theoretically allowing contents to be re-assembled, combined and re-used seamlessly across the whole spectrum of devices and interfaces that deliver web-based learning and educational services, no matter their business models.

For such reasons, in 2014 the AICC was discontinued and this facilitated the launch of the heir of the ADL initiative, the CMI5 standard, in 2016, bringing - again, theoretically! - within the ADL framework all the previous ideas, expertise, know-how, functionalities and technical choices.

The reality is that the market in the meantime has not followed such technical endeavours and it is still fragmented and commercially disarticulated and fragile as it was in the late 1990s. It has just added more ripples and layers to deal with, for the delight of e-learning and IT corporate managers.

Much of the difficulties encountered in the early internet and e-learning developments at technical level with the videos formats have now eventually found a solution but (quite unbelievably if one considers the progresses reached by Amazon Prime or Netflix in streaming complex audiovisual contents with high levels of personalisation), it looks like there is either a shortage of instructional-video designers at worldwide levels or everybody is hypnotised by viral and trivial You Tube formats and unable to go any further.

There are still practical problems for data communication and real time sequencing of e-Learning contents but these seem more depending on management and business solutions than on technical problems per se.

Streaming Video-on-Demand (SVOD) and Over-the-Top services (so called because videos are delivered through apps or via web and accessible via multiple devices) have brought to the desktop of trainers, teachers and educators from all walks of life the power of broadcasting.

Everybody can reach everybody else. Does it matter for educational purposes?

These professionals as well as amateur teachers can now compete with professional tv and video producers and content creators employed by terrestrial, cable and satellite tv or other traditional printed and audiovisual media, no matter what is their background or level of ICT expertise.

I have recently explored and assessed the availability of technical contents and training courses related to traditional areas of office productivity - such as spreadsheets software, web editors and the like - and I have been literally overwhelmed not only with the massive quantity of free university courses and syllabi, You Tube videos or Microsoft and Apple websites. What I really did not expect to see is a flourishing abundance of semi professional and professional contents sold by a new generation of aggregators: these e-learning vendors and platforms have implemented services mostly based on textual, interactive or audiovisual formats that are in fact very similar to those I designed in the late 1990s and early 2000s but for not having any real tutoring or coaching option. Here, everybody can be a teacher now using standardised tools and formats, and of course short videos prevail.

Is everybody a teacher now?

In spite of its apparent fast pace, the e-learning sector seems a quite sluggish world in which, as in many other segments of the media and creative industry, it is very difficult to earn a living without any mechanism for accessing and re-distributing the huge wealth created by online advertising (see on this point my ideas about the syndication right, in icm2re 4.9).

Today a quick look at freelance jobs websites tells how hard, jeopardised and chaotic is to just get few hours of commissioned work if you are an author, writer, broadcaster or independent trainer and coach that aims at making a living out of such activities.

Indeed, in 2013, the year of my bizarre very british bankruptcy I talked about in icm2re 3.11!, a new standard for e-Learning tutors was achieved under the lifelong learning program "Certified EU e-tutor"(CET) - I robustly campaigned for recognition of such professional figures in the early 2000s, seeing them as a warranty of quality for lifelong learning design and delivery, together with Italian associations of trainers or librarians and libraries and other international experts.

But where are the employment opportunities for teachers, trainers, tutors, coaches in the new world of e-learning platforms and services?

A number of new real time communication and video compression and streaming protocols have been tried and tried again over TCP/IP networks (the native, and quite handicapped from a broadcasting perspective, internet technology) for the last twenty and more years until they have eventually matched with the receivers capabilities and willingness to browse, sneak some glances or immerse themselves in video contents available at an acceptable level of quality (that is when you do not perceive any quality issue any longer).

The experience of watching videos and films online is now integrated with and functional to something else people tend to do, multitasking and easily shifting from a personal to a working agenda and vice-versa, another trend that was heavily (and uselessly) criticised and judged very unprofessional (unbelievably, isn’t it?) only ten years ago!

We commonly watch online tv and movies while doing a wide range of other activities, for several purposes, in a number of settings very different from the living room in which tv sets were used to be at the centre of family lives before the internet.

There are also a number of analytics data models successfully sold to corporate buyers, integrated within learning management systems: such data models carry on highly technical ambitions such as predicting learning results (oh, dear … yes!) or monitoring activities and performance of pupils in all working (or not) circumstances and across all the possible devices.

e-learning analytics technology has become if not more significant than it was in my days at least more reliable and convenient, thanks to real time measurements implemented by major content providers. And with this came the technical possibility to insert ad-breaks within user generated video contents: less a phantasy and more a practical sustainable option to generate income for the future. Perhaps the internet of the future will resemble a generalist global tv channel we all be contributing to as paid authors or paying advertisers.

In sum, if packaging contents' chunks for various learning units, lessons or training modules has now become theoretically convenient and possible in ways that make sense for human beings and machines to do it over the internet, according to models and protocols of communications interpreted in consistent ways, and with a certain level of agreed precision in the use of metadata, we should ask why this e-learning world of new services, all video-dominated, does not take off in terms of business and professional growth?

What is not at all achieved - and perhaps still very long way off - is an agreed basic notion of quality of educational products and services that can be offered and demanded across sectors and cultures in ways that are, if not neutral, at least widely politically and socially acceptable within democratic and open societies.

Conclusions

Today, more then ten years after the closure of my training and e-learning business, it seems to me the online lifelong learning and educational sectors still need to embrace a proper two-way communication paradigm, exactly as it was twenty years ago. The trend to monetise relationships and to use the easiest and most convenient formats, platforms and standards has slowed down the pace of pedagogical innovations. It is quite a frozen sector in a certain sense. Never mind.

This should not discourage e-learning enthusiasts and creative entrepreneurs to use their window of opportunity or go with the wave of this or that technology, if they like to do so, and do their business and try new formats, as I did. However, wherever they turn, they are likely to find pressure to conform to rigid and frustrating specifications, either from a content or from a technical point of view.

It takes a very long long time to transform an industry that counts on a grammar of power and codified formulas consolidated over centuries. New comers can find their space if they dare to do so, unconditionally, knowing that high risks of failure or short life cycle for any formula are endogenous.

The core challenges for educational institutions and their professional workforce consist in coping with and overcoming the perils of losing substance and authority; dealing with high levels of deception and plagiarism, fighting gaming, bullying and gambling practices that make teachers and trainers uncomfortable and exposed to cyber pillories; understanding the complexity of knowledge transfer at scale and across multiple networks, especially in academic environments, increasingly dominated by business logics that are not always scientifically and ethically driven.

Focus on clients habits and constraints and their cognitive load and potential, not on complacency of pupils and advertisers, still seems to me the essential requirement for a transition towards sustainable private e-learning businesses, no matter the technical configurations or the proportion of audiovisual and textual components or analytics sophistication. But engineering this vision is no ordinary business. It possibly requires to the strongest educational voices in our open societies to learn a new grammar of power and become accountable in unprecedented, massively transparent ways.

In a nutshell, the general truth about online learning so far is what Michael G. Moore in 1995 called the end of the distance. All in all, it is quite an obscene prophecy to come to term with for everybody - teachers, tutors and instructors but also policy makers and experts, used to stand behind a podium or to couch with their computers and smartphones always on.