Masie's Learning 2016Elliott Masie’s Learning conference is quite unlike any other learning conference you’re likely to attend. Home to 1,700 learning leaders, Masie’s event spans three days, Broadway shows, Astronauts, Pit Crew challenges and a whole lot of Disney. Like I said, it’s different.

Due to a last minute change in travel plans I found myself with just 8 hours to explore Masie’s world, which was a bit of a blow but also presented an interesting challenge. How much could you fit in a working day?

Monday, October 24: Day One of Learning 2016 Conference

The benefit of holding your conference in a hotel complex is that everyone is hanging out and you can start and end things how you want. The bad thing about this being an American conference is that means sessions start at 8am. You wouldn’t catch the English doing that sort of thing…

Fortunately the jet lag meant I’d been up for hours. So, for what can only be the second time in my life, I made it to the 8am sessions. First up Learning Systems…

8.00am: Learning Systems – From Surviving to Thriving in a Chaotic Expanding Field

One of the key features of the Masie conference is that presenters are limited to 5 slides –  which means more conversation. In this case the three presenters (Matthew Daniel, Ekta Lall Mittal, and Frank Nguyen),  all with great experiences of deploying Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and associated systems in the Enterprise, interspersed live audience polls to help frame the conversation.

With maybe 80 or so people in the room, not all of whom voted, the results of the polls are not exactly scientific but they do give insight into what people are making of their LMS:

  • 65% of respondents felt that they were under pressure to change their LMS or otherwise evolve a new approach to their learning systems
  • But 74% of the audience said they use less than half of the functionality available to them in their existing systems
  • And 60% of participants said it took 3 or more years to adopt new learning technology in their organisation
  • 73% of the participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement ‘I would like to get rid of our LMS and do something different’

When asked what key feature they wanted to do more of using their dream learning systems, Social came out top by some margin but gamification, experience tracking and content discovery were all strong themes.  The biggest barrier to making the switch came from business stakeholders and company culture – 41% of respondents thought this was a key blocker, more so than budget and dollars (31%).

The first two presenters told case studies about their adoption of LMSs and some associated systems, but the third, Frank Nguyen (Divisional Vice President Learning at Sears), told us they had just switched off their final LMS implementation this past summer.

An organisation of 72,000 people had moved wholesale away from the LMS model and towards an integrated ecosystem of next generation tools – social, gamification and performance support based. All of this was enabled by their adoption of xAPI and putting a Learning Record Store (LRS) at the heart of the business.

The room was asked to raise hands if they too had got themselves an LRS and started this approach. Whilst a couple folks said yes, their answers made it obvious that they hadn’t done what Sears was doing and didn’t quite understand the dictionary definition of what an LRS actually is.

No matter; change is in the air. A room full of people were saying that they had to switch to more continuous learning models to account for volatility in their businesses and the markets they operate in. The only problem is, they only get to make these decisions once or twice a decade. And the major source of research, Gartner et al, still lists out top LMS rather than ‘approaches’ in their buying guides.

John May, an acquaintance of mine from Holland, asked some tricky questions to push this agenda – where do you go to get recommendations of systems that are NOT learning management systems? Right now, it seems, there is no straightforward answer to that question.

9.15am: Ready, Set, Curate – What Should I Do Next?

My ‘Ready, Set, Curate!’ co-author Allison Anderson was running a session on getting started with digital curation that I hitched a ride on presenting. Curation continues to be a topic of interest and Allison is the best at framing how folks can operationalize and actually start doing curation in the learning space. I’d spoil it for you if I told you all the answers, so go buy the book!

10.30am: Anderson Cooper’s Keynote Session

I actually ducked out the first half of the session as I had to go check out (12 hours after arriving). When I came back Anderson Cooper was holding court with some very funny stories about his life and experiences. A big theme for Elliott this year was the role of women in the workplace and Anderson was quick to push this agenda.

I don’t know that I learnt much (other than don’t invite Kathy Griffin to your house, which frankly was a long shot anyhow) and whilst seeing celeb’s is kinda cool, I’d rather have been in sessions given the time I had. Unfortunately the keynotes stand alone so you don’t get a choice in what you see for these couple hours.

Following the morning keynote was a lunch break that gave me a bit of time to catch up with my friend Job Bilson from BrightAlley in the Netherlands. They have done some excellent work with KLM and putting apps into the hands of flight attendants, which they spoke about later in the conference.

We both agreed that the Masie conference is quite unlike any other we attend in learning. It’s a really good place to attend as a vendor to hear about the problems our customers (or the people we’d like to be customers) are actually facing. To find the solutions you could probably look to conferences outside of learning, as there wasn’t much we hadn’t heard of before.  But, that said, both HT2 and BrightAlley are pretty innovative as far as vendors go.

We were also both a little bit scared by the lack of age diversity in the audience. This isn’t an arena where young people thrive.  Elliott instigated the 30 under 30 a few years back (I was in the inaugural intake and my colleague James Mullaney – HT2’s Technical Director –  joined the programme two years ago).

But, honestly, it felt like these 30 people were the only people under 30 at the conference. Out of 1,700…

1.45pm: Introduction to xAPI

Obviously I know a bit about xAPI so I wasn’t here for the learning so much as I was to listen to the audience reaction. The panel (Paul Jesukiewicz, Tom King, Will Peratino) was mostly Q&A and the audience got a bit bogged down in personal learning records and job profile mapping. This is stuff that blows people’s minds – the transfer of digital learning records into lifelong experience repositories and portfolios.

The ambition is great but people cotton on quickly that it’s a long and difficult road to realise the dream – a decade or more away for most.  When the conversation turned back towards informal learning experiences and really measuring things that, right now, we often presume are too hard to measure, it got interesting…

Watershed shared a great case study from healthcare. I talked about our work on measuring social learning at IHG and on the national scope of the Jisc open learning analytics project. The Office of People Management talked about some of their efforts to improve the way they collect data through millions of interactions (part of which meant moving to Moodle and using the xAPI Logstore plugin that we co-created with the CLC).

Personally, I’d have stuck to the more operational reality of what’s going on in learning right now for this type of session. Our learners are creating an absolute tonne of data that we are failing to capture to improve our businesses and our learning. Increasingly businesses are being tempted by new vendor offerings that go beyond the LMS (see 8am session) but they don’t have any sort of strategy for data standardisation or ownership. [A guy in the first session] was at pains to suggest that the real benefit of gamification wasn’t about gaming, it was about the rich data it provides.

Put simply, this data is being created in proprietary ways and locked into systems that will be hard to migrate away from when your business changes (and it will change sooner than you think). Businesses need to make sure that they own standard copies of experience data for their current and future business requirements. Right now you can either watch the data being created flow past and into vendors pockets, or you can get in the stream and start taking ownership.

xAPI is the industry’s vehicle to make this happen, nothing else comes close. What’s more, it is seeking to replace something that is as old as most of the graduates your company will take on next year.

SCORM is 20 years old. What other legacy system in the world of Enterprise IT exists that literally has not changed in that time (SCORM 2004 excluded as it never got the traction that 1.2 has)? We gleefully declare in RFI’s and RFP’s that our systems must be SCORM compliant. That’s like saying your next generation VR games must be compatible with a Nintendo Gameboy.

SCORM isn’t going to get updated, it isn’t going to change. Every time you insist on more SCORM you insist in persisting a specification that isn’t really supported by anyone or anything anymore. That strikes me as a risk.

xAPI offers a method to both replace SCORM and start taking ownership of the wider activity stream of data that is being created by new learning systems. It is quite technical and (in parts) fairly dull work. But it will enable so much exciting work in the future.

We’re going to be offering up a comprehensive 50 page guide to getting started in the coming weeks; be sure to get your free copy.

2.30pm: Book Signing!

ATD, who published my book Ready, Set, Curate earlier in the year, organised a book signing for Allison and myself to attend. I say both of us; they didn’t actually know I was coming to the event, so I played tag along.  

And in the event, I turned up 20 minutes late because I was getting irate in the xAPI session.  Allison took it in her stride, which was very good of her because I totally left her sitting on a table on her own. Sorry Allison!

I’m not sure our book is going to set many sales records for ATD, but it does serve as a good introduction to the world of digital curation in learning and a few people were kind enough to buy a copy and get it signed, which is pretty weird from the author’s point of view if you’re not Dan Brown or something.

3.15pm: Barracuda Bowl – Four Pitches from Learning Startups

Earlier in the year I was asked to present to another Masie conference as part of their take on ‘Shark Tank’ (aka. Dragons Den). I had just 5 minutes with no slides to pitch my learning start-up and then answer some tough questions. It was fairly terrifying, so I felt like I could sympathise with four companies who were once again asked to do exactly this same setup in front of a live audience at Learning 2016.

Our colleague and customer Doug Lynch was the chief co-ordinator and he set up the room of 50 or so audience members to listen to four pitches (three delivered on Skype, one in person), which we would then vote on for the winner.

Pitch 1: Wrainbro

A young startup that is just finding its feet with its first customers, Wrainbro offers a game-based learning solution. In Q&A we learned that GameLearn was the most approximate competition in the marketplace, except Wrainbro would be fully mobile compatible and be great with data.

For those who don’t know, GameLearn have made a range of off-the-shelf games that aim to help companies teach a range of soft skills to their employees. It’s an interesting model because the games themselves can be quite well developed – they are looking to sell the same title as a license fee again and again, so you get bigger budgets to develop the game in the first place.

Wrainbro also went on to say that their offer would be more customizable than GameLearn. The pitch went down well with the audience who remain interested, if a little skeptical, about games but many could see themselves using the product in theory.

Pitch 2: StudyTree

StudyTree is an early stage startup looking to transform student success with the provision of an ‘Artificial Advisor’; an AI-based tool that can offer performance support and feedback to the student through the browser.

This was pretty interesting to me for a couple reasons. First, Student Success is a big agenda in Higher Education right now and taking lessons from this arena into the corporate world is quite a big opportunity. Second, the provision for good feedback to students who might be falling behind is really quite immature in many universities. They lack a scalable strategy.

StudyTree brought a range of techniques, such as connecting students to each other to form ‘jigsaw study groups’ to the table, as well as integrations into the LMS and calendar to help make learning a habit. They’ve been deployed as a pilot and had good feedback.

I pushed them in questioning about what that feedback actually looked like and, so far, it looks like qualitative survey data that students like it. I’ll get more excited when it can be linked to outcomes, but I completely acknowledge that will take time.

The audience felt this one didn’t apply to the corporate world so much. I agree the pitch was very much ‘we’ve got this tool for education, I’m sure it will be useful in corporate, we just aren’t sure how’. But that’s the way of these things and I thought this showed the potential of emerging technology better than any others.

Pitch 3: ExpertKnowledge

Co-founder Ryan Austin presented in person a new tool from his company ExpertKnowledge called Synapse. This was a really well targeted presentation; Synapse was created to transform the learning design process and I’d say 90% of the people in the room were suffering from problems in this area.

Ryan called Synapse a ‘Learning Design System’ and told us that it transformed the way learning designers collect information from Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and completely streamlines the storyboarding process into a collaborative exercise. Ultimately, using Synapse will reduce time to market for new learning experiences.

I had to raise a point in the room at just how popular the idea of streamlining course creation was; to me it felt like we spend a lot of time talking about how we really want technology to be better for learners and then we go invest in more tools that make administration easier. Is this yet another tool of rapid development? Or will it actually make it easier to make something that isn’t another course?

One could argue that a smoother design process will make for better learning. Another person might argue that that’s bullshit and the want for better tools of administration shows the true nature of L&D – that no one wants to create more work for themselves.

Either way, I think this pitch struck me as the most likely to be commercially successful with this audience. Given the chance to pilot something like this, I get the feeling 30 or 40 people in the room would have done it. Credit must go to Ryan for the thought that has gone into making that sort of attraction possible; it won’t have been an accident and the product sounds good.

Pitch 4: CaseWorx

A good pitch that was hampered by a bad Skype connection, CaseWorx are working on a method that helps executives improve their decision making skills through interactive video case studies.  

From what I could glean, this is high-end interactive video case study technology (which I’m seeing more and more about) that makes scenario-based learning as authentic as possible. It is to be a mostly custom service, with some templates available for the Higher Education market. We never really got to the bottom of whether this was a service or a technology; I settled on it being a bit of both. CaseWorx has a platform to make these scenarios, but they are most likely the product of their high-end video capabilities and storytelling experience.

I wasn’t surprised to see leadership learning guru Nigel Paine enthusiastically backing a better approach to case studies – the mainstay of executive development. Both he and I were of the opinion that this market is ripe for disruption. There is probably some similarity between this pitch and the Wrainbro approach – more immersive, high-end learning techniques that go above and beyond what we can product in-house being offered as a service.

It was interesting, but I’ve seen a number of initiatives in the area, so I’m not sure how original it is as an innovation.

And the winner is…

All of the pitches were performed well in difficult, pressurized circumstances. All impressed. The initiative itself is impressive – I would love to see more opportunities for early stage corporate learning startups like this. We sorely miss this sort of concept in the UK.

I voted for StudyTree because its use of new technology excited me the most; other people aren’t doing what they are doing. Others voted differently because they wanted to actually see these tools in their day-to-day life right now. It serves as a reminder that being really innovative is very rarely were the money is. Researching the problems your target audience is actually suffering from and making tech that fits that need is a much quicker path to success.

4pm: Time to Fly

And then it was over; time for me to leave. I would have liked to stay on; there was more to learn and lots more to listen in on.

The scale and range of the sessions on offer is quite breath-taking; literally hundreds, and you can’t be in them all. But I felt like I got enough out of just 8 hours to mean a diversion between Toronto (where I’d started) and Los Angeles (where I was heading) was well worth my time.

If you’re from Europe I’d recommend a trip to next year (2017): There really is nothing else quite like it! 

Along with our Red Panda Product Manager Emma, I’ll be attending Masie’s Learning again in 2017 – see you there?

About the author

Ben leads the passionate team at HT2 Labs and is a globally-recognised thought-leader in Learning Technology with more than 15 years industry experience. His doctorate research broke new ground studying the impact of gamification on adult social learning. He has authored and contributed chapters for four books in the last two years, published peer-reviewed academic papers and presented at TEDx.

Read more from Ben

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