Author Archives: robertmulcahy

About robertmulcahy

I am the director of learning for the assurance practice at RSM US, LLP. I have a doctorate from the University of Minnesota in Curriculum and Instruction (Learning Technologies).

Don’t Remind Me Later

I’ve had a Yahoo! mail account for a long, long time. I’ve always used it as the address I can give to commercial websites, forum logins, etc.; anything that could generate spam. Works great. I check it daily either through the web interface or through the Gmail app on my phone.

The past few months, every time I visit through the web interface, several seconds into the visit I get the following pop up.

access

I believe this is because I also have Yahoo! mail hooked up to the Gmail app. I tried using the official Yahoo! app a few years ago, but it was a battery draining mess. It may be better now, but I’m not inclined to try again and it works fine through Gmail. So every single time I click “I understand the risks.” Of course, it often appears in the middle of doing something else like opening an email, which then falls, so I have to reopen that email. First world problems.

What bothers me is that there is no “Don’t show this again” checkbox. This means Yahoo!’s strategy is to annoy me into doing what it wants. That’s no way to treat users. If they just want to disallow third party logins, fine, go ahead. If on the other hand this is a courtesy warning to help me, great, then leave me alone once I’ve confirmed I understand the risks.

I see this a lot in UI design, usually in the form of the interface asking me to do something and giving two choices: OK and Remind Me Later. There are certainly instances where this is the appropriate set of choices, such as if you are using a trial version of a piece of software. But usually this sort of thing is used to try and force me into doing things that they want me to do, like rate their app, rather than being reserved for things I logically need to do.

It takes a special disrespect for users to try and annoy then into doing what you want them to do. Take a stand, UI designers; the choices should be OK, Remind Me Later, and No.

Learning Athlete, Part 1: Breaks

We put together some internal working teams at my firm to address some learning-related questions that are sometimes posed to us. One of the teams is focused on energy management. Intuitively, what we eat and drink and how we sleep and feel affects our ability to learn, but framing this in terms of “energy management” was new to me–an interesting frame*.

We are looking at several energy management topics. One of them is breaks. Are more shorter breaks better than fewer longer ones?

The individual assigned to this question came back unable to find empirical guidance. It doesn’t seem there is a definitive answer (though my intuition says more, shorter breaks is better for learning, though if asked I suspect more learners would choose fewer longer breaks [or fewer shorter breaks to end the class earlier] so they can use the time more effectively to check in with clients or respond to emails).

To her credit, she quickly focused on what can be done from an instructional design perspective to get participants to move around and/or mentally shift gears, which should offer a mental refocus, not unlike a break. Makes sense to me.

I wonder, though, if there isn’t guidance or inspiration we can take from best practices around breaks as it relates to workplace productivity.

*I recognize that the practical impact of energy management is probably swamped by quality of the instructors, relevance of the instruction, instructional design, etc. This is strictly all-else-being-equal territory.

1912 Vision for Schools

I’m reading The End of Average by Todd Rose. Really interesting so far.

Early in the book he talks a little about the history of education in this country and the struggle between humanist education and Taylorist.

He includes a quote I enjoyed, from the General Education Board, funded by John D. Rockefeller, in 1912. I love the clarity of the message (if not the message!).

We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or of science. We are not to raise up from among them authors, orators, poets, or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians…nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply….The task that we have set before ourselves is very simple as well as very beautiful…we will organize our children into a little community and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.

Luck

In The Success Equation, Michael J. Mauboussin makes an interesting point about the role of luck in sports. He frames it in a way I hadn’t thought of before. In sports, any win is part skill and part luck. Different sports depend on different ratios of skill to luck.

Any sport that depended entirely on luck would have all teams normally distributed around a .500 winning percentage (for instance, if competitive coin flipping was a sport). If a win were determined entirely by skill, there would be an even distribution across the spectrum of winning percentages–the best player or team would be undefeated, the worst winless, and everyone else distributed throughout based on skill level. Where a sport lies between these two extremes is a measure of how much luck is in play.

Baseball, on this scale, is about one-third luck. Soccer and football are similar, hockey a little more dependent on luck (53%), and basketball far more dependent on skill than luck (12% luck).

The role of luck is dependent in large part on parity. If two players are exactly equal in skill, then by definition luck would determine the outcome. Basketball teams, because they are restricted mostly to very tall people (and the average height has been rising over time), have a much smaller population of potential players, which leads to a higher variance of skill (the larger the pool of potential players, the easier it is to stock teams with players near the upper limit of skill).

Isn’t that interesting?

How can we determine the role of luck in the success of instruction?

Controls

I direct learning for a CPA firm. I’m not a CPA, but I feel like I learn a lot from them.

One concept that auditors talk a lot about is controls. Controls are processes, tools, and checkpoints that businesses have in place to guard against error and fraud. For instance, if a large transaction requires the signature of the CFO, that’s a control. Password-protecting critical financial systems is a control.

In short, controls are a concept that auditors understand because auditors know that businesses with poor controls in place are going to be a lot harder to audit.

I’ve used controls as a way to explain the importance of measuring mastery of learning objectives. When an auditor–indeed, most any professional–is asked to design a course for less experienced professionals, their default is to typically treat it more like a presentation than a course and include little interactivity and no means for instructors to assess how well learners grasp the material before moving on to the next topic.

One could argue in good faith that it is the learner’s responsibility to learn. That as a professional if someone is struggling, it is on them to recognize that reality and take steps to ameliorate it. In reality, that puts the firm at risk.

So when I talk about introducing checkpoints and polling questions and case studies, I sometimes talk about them in terms of controls. Without those elements built into the course, we have no way of knowing if a course was effective (and more formatively, instructors will have no way of knowing whether what they are doing is working or whether they need to do something else).

Auditors know what separates a strong control from a weak one, so this becomes a powerful way to make the case for investing in classroom activities that provide evidence of learning.

Wellness: Return on Investment

I was challenged recently about whether the food and breaks at our internal learning conferences are conducive to learning from an energy management standpoint.

That challenge seems reasonable. No matter whether a course is well- or poorly-designed, the physical state and alertness of learners should impact learning. So, I’m reading about it.

One incidental thing that was interesting to read: apparently wellness programs at work return on average $5.50 on every dollar. That’s impressive, and appears to be from a pretty good meta-analysis*. The building my firm is in just installed a free gym downstairs, and I get a lot of use out of it; I hope I earn my firm back that kind of return for whatever they are paying.

*Frustratingly, the meta-analysis is behind a huge paywall. I could only find a brief, so it is hard to know what all the assumptions and limitations are.

Optimal Length of Instructional Video

Someone recently pointed out this research to me. Prof Guo believes, based on the data collected from thousands of educational videos served on EdX, that six minutes is the optimal educational video length. People are willing to watch six minutes, but for every minute longer than that, the average number of minutes drops–drops not just as percentage, but in terms of the total number of minutes. If learners see that a video is 20 minutes long, they’ll quit well before six minutes (perhaps with good intentions of coming back later, but they don’t).

This is interesting for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that the governing body over learning for CPA firms recently gave the OK for firms to give formal credit for nano-learning. But to give credit, nano-learnings have to be at least 10 minutes long. EdX’s data* suggests that’s almost 70% too long!

*Of course, EdX’s data is not specific to adults learning in a professional setting. And naturally there are any number of factors in play that would make a three minute video seem interminable and a fifteen minute or even an hour long video fly by. But it’s still interesting stuff.