Thoughts on Constraints and Instructional Design

I can't believe I'm doing this: writing another puzzling mix blog post. It's the SECOND one in as many days! Does two posts a streak make?

Anyway, when I was a training program manager at an Intel fab in the Arizona desert a while back I learned about this thing called Constraint Management. It's a vital consideration in the manufacturing world. Basically it's all about identifying the choke point in your process: acknowledging that the best your process can perform is dictated by its slowest performer. It surprises me, in a mild sort of way, that 13 years after leaving Intel I remember as much about constraint management as I do. For that I owe one Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt and a book he wrote, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement.

The Intel course I took where I got a chance to read The Goal was called Theory of Constraints. It was a dry subject to me and one which, if not for Goldratt's The Goal, I would probably have long ago forgotten. What made the subject so vivid and memorable is the story within the book. In it there's this factory manager faced with a dilemna: his plant will soon close if he can't get widgets out the door efficiently (and cheaply). The manager tries all of the usual things to no avail. It isn't until he's out with his son on a Boy Scout camping trip that he figures things out. The catalyst, what got him to understand constraints and to identify his factory's, dawned on him whilst watching the boys troop along on their way to a campsite. The ah-ha: the slowest sets the pace.

Sadly, the Theory of Constraints isn't something they teach you at instructional design school. If you get exposed to it at all it was probably during a project management lesson in an educational technology course. But constraints are so important to an instructional designer.

A couple of hours ago I read an article on ASTD's website written by Aaron Silvers. It was about designing with service in mind. Providing service to a population is very important. But by the end of the article I came away not quite sure what it was really about. Maybe it's because in the article he touches on something I have no direct experience with: Tin-Can. I think it's something akin to a learning management system (LMS), though I can't say for certain.

One thing I am sure about, however, is that the article doesn't touch on any constraints. It doesn't say anything about the economic or political realities of learning organizations and how these impact design.

For example, mid-way into the article Silvers talks about “higher customer engagement” using twitter. Engagement is something to be sought after. Okay, cool. Maybe I'm beginning to get it after all. But what about those organizations that do not allow their employees to tweet, either whilst they're working or about what they do? The article begins with a blurb from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talking about a new Kindle. Silvers then describes the topic of “making things that matter” and how doing so is more important than ever. But he doesn't talk about how there is an organizational context that constrains the acquisition and application of these things.

Another point I don't get in the article concerns what Silvers and Craig Wiggins label “our kind of people.” I think they're talking about the sorts of people that make up the population of instructional designers.

Anyway, I'm going off on an unintentional tangent. The point of my writing just now is to get us, our kind of people–instructional designers, thinking about constraints. The things that limit us in what we do, in the service and experience we provide to our learners, not all of whom possess the gifts of sight and hearing to name a couple more constraints.

Wiggins and Silvers mention something called “patterns”. I hope that whatever they are they're designed not just with service in mind, encompassing all that might be possible, but with a eye towards the constraints that instructional designers and their learner populations face every day.

I'll leave you with: To the instructional designer that came up with using Goldratt's The Goal in Intel's Theory of Constraints class: thank you very much!

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Accelerated Learning and Learning Styles

The handwriting is on the (rock) wall: All that we know, ourselves included, will some day be squished into another stratigraphic layer of the geological record.

What's this talk about rock and squished have to do with Accelerated Learning and Learning Styles? At face value, not much actually, other than I sort of like thinking of squished rock and the stories that each layer tells us.

My first conscious, as opposed to the many accidental and serendipitous times I must have unknowingly brushed against it on my way to becoming who I am today, experience with accelerated learning and learning styles I owe to Intel and Dave Meier.

In 1993 Intel was on the cusp of taking over the mantle of semiconductor designing and manufacturing powerhouse. It got there thanks to three things: its engineering and manufacturing prowess and training. In 1993 Intel announced the Pentium chip; later that same year I went to work with them as a manufacturing technican/peer trainer. At this point in my career I'd been an electronics technician with the military and the semiconductor industry for over 15 years. I thought I knew about training, from the receiving end anyway. I was wrong.

In 1993 Intel began construction of these monster factories, fabs in Intel-speak. The one I went to work at was Fab 11 in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. I was quite surprised to learn as I went through new employee orientation that the fab was still in an early phase of construction. The surprise came from the fact that by November 3, 1993 — the day I started — Intel had already hired many hundreds of people to work in fab 11. Who does this: hire people to work in a factory that is still months away from occupancy? Intel.

For the next six months I worked at Intel fabs in New Mexico and California. Other new hires went there and to fabs in Oregon, too. I think some even went to nascent fabs in Scotland, but on this point my memory gets a little fuzzy. One thing that is crystal clear in my mind, however, is what I saw the day I got back to New Mexico the following July (1994): an aircraft carrier-sized (what the U.S. Navy calls a “big deck”) building rising up from a mesa overlooking Albuquerque. It was just the shell of a fab: the cleanroom, where the Pentiums were to be made, was still many months away from completion. All this time though Intel was still hiring.

Anyway, to make a long (interesting) story short: one day in early1995 an Intel engineer threw a switch and the fab began to hum. Thirty days or so the first Pentiums shipped to assemby fabs around the world. Product yields, I am still stunned when I think about this, were in the 90 percent range: unheard of in a fab so new: process engineering and designing for manufacturability baby. That's how they did it. That and training.

The accelerated training model Dave Meier developed stresses activites. In a nutshell an instructor/facilitator gets up in front of a class and briefly describes the thing to be learned. Then she gets out of the way and the learners engage in structured (some times not) activities where they work collaboratively on whatever it is they're learning. The course that Dave taught us, us being Fab 11's trainers and peer trainers, was how to train the thousands of people Intel was hiring using David Kolb's learning styles inventory.

In a nutshell Kolb suggests there are four distinct learning styles: Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization and Active Experimentation. People generally favor one of these styles. New Intel hires were asked to complete a survey to determine their learning style. When they got to the fab following orientation they were paired with a trainer who tailored their delivery to their trainee's learning style. The training objectives did not change, only the way in which the trainer worked with the trainee. For example, when I completed the learning styles inventory I learned that I preferred active experimentation: getting in there and doing stuff, making and learning from mistakes along the way. Contrast this with someone who had a reflective observation style: they need to watch and ask questions, sometimes LOTS of questions, before trying a task out.

I have had many painful (and not very productive) learning experiences before going to work with Intel. It happened a lot during prior training that the trainer would put me to sleep going on and on about something when all I wanted to do was get in there and “do”. To be sure, from a safety standpoint making mistakes and learning along the way isn't best practice. But even in safety situations knowing someone's learning styles lets the trainer tailor the learning experience to the individual rather than going with a one-size-fits-all approach.

Which brings me back to the stratigraphic squished layers of the geological record from the opening: if you buy into the belief that we (the total population of diverse individuals that are learners) are unique then it holds that each of us has a preferred way to learn. At the ballpark not all of us snack on peanuts: some enjoy hot dogs others beer, etc. We're all in there: in our learning environments and situations getting squished into conformance. Why can't we tailor the experience?

Now that I'm an instructional designer I try, within my organizational constraints, to present learners with a balanced learning experience. A big part of this is using story. More about this in a later post.

Best Apps for Mobile Learning

One of the reasons I'm into social media is that it helps me connect to a diverse well of thoughts and ideas;most of what I see is water under the bridge: of no particular interest and quickly forgotten. Some stuff I find interesting to some degree because I find it technically interesting, humorous, thought provoking or completely alien to me: the latter being a way of thinking I hadn't previously considered.

Today's post is in response to a thought provoking tweet from @c4lpt inviting me to participate in a survey to help identify the 100 best tools for learning. I decided to focus on mobile since that's where my interests are taking me. I started to list my favorite apps when a stray thought hit me: Can there be such a thing as the 100 best tools/apps? I don't think so. Here's why.

At last count there's something like 908 apps in my family's iTunes with maybe 180 apps on my iPad. I use all of them for mobile learning: authoring and consumption. I don't use all my apps for m-learning all the time: it depends on what I'm working on. @TheConsultantsE gets this.

Anyway, here are my 10 favorite apps at this particular moment. Mostly I use apps for ideation: coming up with instructional strategies. Some of the most used apps I use for ideation are Plants vs Zombies, MindMap and 53 Paper.

I'm out in the field a lot doing front-end analysis, observations and meeting with subject matter experts (SMEs); seriously, in a field far from PCs and networks. QuickOffice Pro HD does an amazing job with MS Office documents. ReaddleDocs opens almost anything for viewing and annotating. DropBox is unbeatable for storing and sharing data in the cloud.

SG Project Pro I use for project management. iAWriter is an easy to use note taking app. Avid Studio is great for video editing. NoteAbility does an admirable job note taking by drawing, typing or recording audio.

So I guess that's 10. Only like I said: it depends. 10 minutes from now or next week or starting my next project some of the apps might be different.