Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In Transition

As you can plainly see, this blog has not been updated in a while. The initial concept for Training Debate was to bring together an ensemble cast to blog on the topics of education and training. Fortunately for those involved, most of our cast members have pursued independent communication exercises, and unfortunately, the core members of this crew are unable to generate the volume of content on these specific topics necessary for a weekly blog.

Most of the posts here were written by Dan Antion and Faith Antion, and I would like to point out that both have targeted their energy toward new blogging efforts. Dan’s new blog is No Facilities and Faith’s is The Sound of Swarming. Both blogs offer a similar mix of rants, opinion and thought-provoking ideas as you found here, but neither are limited to a small range of topics.

We are keeping this site alive for two reasons. One: there is a lot of good content here that remains relevant and is still attracting visitors. Two: there is still hope that others will someday want to blog less frequently than what is required for an independent blog and that we might join forces to meet our original goals.

Thanks for reading!
The Training Debate Team

Sunday, November 28, 2010

First, a Little Rant

clip_image002I got caught up in the Thanksgiving and Holiday Shopping emotion and hype, and I penned two related blog entries. One was on why we should appreciate bloggers. The other, this post, was going to be about, among other things, how to be a good blogger. Well, see the comment section on SharePoint Stories to read about how to be a good blogger, they said it better than I can. That left me with a less-helpful rant about web-based and social media marketing. Still, I am going to get the ball rolling with that, and either through comments or a follow-up post, we will get some useful information on this subject. Actually, I think my rant includes a little bit of useful stuff.

What follows might just be one man’s opinion, but consider that this one man made his wife buy Hellman’s (R) Dijonnaise (TM) instead of mixing mayonnaise with Dijon mustard because I liked that the ad is set to the tune of ‘Duke of Earl”. I have been labeled a ‘marketing sap’ by those most dear to me, and I do admit to buying things based on advertising. I like to think that we all do it, but I am willing to admit this. So, I am the guy you hope to get in the crosshairs of your ad, and here’s what you should know about achieving that goal.

Newton's Third Law – That’s the one that talks about ‘action’ and ‘reaction’, can be applied to website advertising. The harder you make it for me to avoid your ad, the harder I am going to try to avoid it. When I encounter the 8 – 15 second timed full-page entry ads, and the stretch-down or peel-back ads on newspapers, I open something else in another tab and let them play out to a blank wall. I know that free news on the web can’t really be free, but if you virtually blare the music at me, I’m going to run away. I tear the ads off the real (paper) comics on Sunday, I throw out the ads with the perfume samples, and skip the page talking about how I can heat my house for $15 a month – in my face = ignore. On the other hand, I actually look at the tasteful and proportionate ads on the side of a good website.

Do I Know You? – Email advertising has never been something I look forward to reading, but lately, it’s going straight in the trash. If you got my email address from a list, or picked it up because I attended a seminar or worse, a webinar, you better get your facts straight and then tread lightly. I signed up to attend an event in Boston in September, but then an injury kept me from attending. I received over a dozen emails from sponsors of that event, and the only one I read completely was the one that said “sorry you couldn’t make it…” Several actually started with “it was so good to meet you at…” What a good way to begin a relationship, by lying to me. Next, the pushy email reminding me that I didn’t take “just 15 minutes” to complete your survey goes straight to the trashcan. Even if I find 15 minutes I want to kill, it won’t be spent completing your survey. If I am your customer, and you want to ask me something or point something out to me, fine. If we have not done business, don’t pretend to be my buddy.

Following too Close – My following you on Twitter is not an invitation to send me multiple Direct Messages. I don’t even like receiving one DM if it was automated. If you want to know more about me read my tweets, follow the links I put out there, read my blog and look at my pictures. If you don’t really want to know that much about me, that’s fine, just don’t ask me to send you an abridged biography so you can better market to me. I follow people I think I might like. If I read some of their tweets and I do like them, I add them to a list that I read all the time. I follow almost 700 people; less than 10% are on that regular-read list. If you want to get on that list, tweet something interesting!

OK, I’m done ranting for 2010. With a little luck, next week you will read some specific advice for successfully using the web, email and social media for marketing. If you think you already have that answer, please add your thoughts as a comment and save me the trouble of writing next week’s blog.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Some Sad Truths about Public Education in America

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I have been trying to think of something federal besides Title 1 Reading support, Head Start and the school breakfast program that has had a dramatic, positive impact on public education in my thirty-three year career in teaching and I’m having a difficult time. The July 23rd issue of “The Week” reported on a Brown University study involving students at a private high school in
Rhode Island.  The school agreed to delay the start of school by half an hour, moving from 8:00 to 8:30 am with startling positive results, including a near 50% drop in tardiness.  In my experience, there is little that benefits a struggling student more than being in class when it
begins.  The last two sentences of the excerpt say it all:  "School districts have resisted calls to start school later, though, citing factors like bus schedules and parents’ work hours.  ‘It’s about adult convenience,’ says Mel Riddle of the National Association of School Principals.  ‘It’s not about learning.’"  Perhaps those officials heading the latest reform movement, "Race to the Top" (RT3, as I’m going to call it) could agree on one question to ask with respect to all parts of their initiative: Is this about learning?

If so, they could create a matrix revealing each element of their initiative for which they were able to answer "yes" to that question.  After separating the “yes’s” from the "no’s", or even those where the answer was "yes, but,” the public would be able to respond appropriately. Some publications may consider this point ancillary, but this question should be an obvious priority for parents as well as education administrators.

Our local school district made changes in the schedule this spring for two weeks in order to make up a snow day.  They split time to both start earlier and end later.  Teachers, myself included, noticed that we had time to repeat the homework at the end of class and have students check to make sure they had written it down, and the addition of as little as four minutes of time for which we had not planned additional activity, resulted in a noticeably more relaxed atmosphere during those two weeks. It might be that the relaxation was due in part to the elimination of a day at the end of the year, but it was a moot point for discussion, as the bus company informed us that, in no uncertain terms, they would be unable to accommodate such a schedule for the following year.

What will follow is an introduction to RT3 pros and cons or basics - - I might put off why I wouldn't want my principal being the only determining factor in whether or not I deserve additional performance-based pay.  I certainly would not want that pay determined by how my current 8th graders score on the ITBS as compared to last year's 8th graders, a Granfalloon (meaningless association) as Kurt Vonnegut would put it.  (Oh, yeah, we already have that, and it is called "No Child Left Behind!") Instead, base it on how Bobby J. did this year compared to last year and we're getting somewhere.  Better yet, judge my performance on how he did on an assessment based on district requirements (which do not coincide, by the way, to the ITBS) and we're getting closer.  Now, throw in a safeguard* against him drawing interesting patterns on his score sheet because he's angry that Dad left Mom, he was caught cheating on my semester exam, or he lost his place on the track team, and we're approaching something I'd be willing to put in my contract.

School districts and union leaders were asked to sign on to an RT3 ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ that included an agreement to use certain district assessments to determine performance-based pay. The memoranda were incomplete, however, since in my state no such assessment had been identified and would not be until we were notified whether our application had been filed. Even our local school board rejected the idea of signing a blank contract! We were not confident that the assessment would be anything other than the ITBS in the same format that had been used for NCLB, comparing Macintosh apples to Fuji apples. We were given no assurance that we would have input into the selection of that assessment. We were in the process of making a ten percent cut in a 30 million dollar budget and this still seemed too far to ask us to simply trust our government.

Another area parents should voice concern about is the origin of certain pots of the project’s federal funding. Most parents and non-parent citizens are aware that in troubled schools where students are permitted to opt for schooling in another district, they take some money with them to their new school. Schools are obligated to either transport students to those new schools or pay for such transportation. Under NCLB the Bush Administration allowed schools to use Title 1 money to pay for that transportation. Title 1 money is intended for remedial reading, so districts could be using money intended to support disadvantaged and/or underperforming students in order to transport other students to better, or at least less troubled, schools. So in these matters it is vital to ask from what other programs the money may be redirected.

This is just a very cursory swipe at a couple of glaringly obvious questions educators have about RT3 but it allows for the start of a conversation. Other posts will return to questions surrounding evaluation and performance-based pay, including, but not limited to: how to compensate those who contribute to student progress, but whose contributions are not assessed by standardized tests; how much of an evaluation should be weighted toward test performance vs. other factors; and whether the federal government will ever stop the practice of legislating unfunded mandates.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

When Free is too Expensive

clip_image002One of my tasks this weekend was to configure a new laptop for my wife. This wasn’t a big job; her “must have” requests were pretty simple, on paper. But the experience reminded me of many of the things I have come to hate about software. High on that list is the oversight of some really simple features; I am not going to dwell on this, but I will talk briefly about one: ‘Migrate’. Why is it so hard for software developers to realize that, if we like their product, eventually we are going to want to move it (or at least our data) to a new machine? I feel like I am standing on solid ground asking that question, as I have been a software developer for over 30 years. I absolutely fail to understand why FireFox and Thunderbird don’t have an “import from my old machine” option. I know, they are free products, and they are great products, but when I searched for instructions for moving her Thunderbird profile from her old machine, I was convinced that “…cross the river Styx” was going to be one of the steps. I am grateful to Paul at KKoncepts for his blog entry, although I question his opening statement “it is actually quite easy…”

Later in the installation process, I installed the Adobe Reader, another great free product. Fortunately, I am more comfortable with Internet Explorer, so I started my journey from that browser. Several steps into the process, I received a message that presented itself as part warning and part error. “…cannot install the Google Toolbar because Internet Explorer is not your default browser.” My first thought was “what a great technique!” Seriously, why would I want the Google Toolbar to be installed with the Acrobat Reader (or at all for that matter)? I am sure that Adobe gets some payment from Google to bundle this installation, thereby funding the delivery of the otherwise “free” product. Personally, I’d rather pay $9.95 for the Reader than have that toolbar installed.

Earlier this year, I was helping my mother-in-law clean-up her machine. The process brought a night of mixed emotions. First, I got to spend several hours talking to a person I don’t often talk with; that was actually nice. Second, I was working remote using GoToMeeting fixing a computer that is 1,500 miles away; that was very cool. Third, I spent most of the time uninstalling software that she never intended to load, that was no longer working – that was frustrating. She had so many “toolbars” installed in Internet Explorer that her browser window was almost too small to use. Most of the toolbars were associated with trials of software she did not want, had never purchased and no longer worked. The trial installations had been checked as part of the default settings during the installation of other software; settings she was uncomfortable turning off. That type of product bundling should be a criminal offense.

We learned a long time ago to say no to the “extra undercoating” and “UV protection coating” applied by the dealer when we buy a new car. We learned to carefully consider extended warrantees that almost equal the replacement cost of an item. We are gradually learning not to “supersize” those fries and that soda. We need to become equally vigilant when it comes to software. Unfortunately, vigilance isn’t enough; we also have to learn more about our PCs. If we have anti-virus software, and we should, we need to realize that we don’t want a free trial of another anti-virus product. If we are not given a choice during the installation of Product A and Anti-virus Product B is installed, we need to know how to “remove” that program. Fortunately, there are blogs like Paul’s to help, but we need to know enough to put that help to use. If you are uncomfortable with your PC, take an adult education class in your area. Our small town offers these at the high school for a modest fee and at the Senior Center for free; your town probably has similar offerings. Also, we need to start demanding better products from the people we do pay. Why should you pay service techs to remove free trials that are making your computer run slow when the store they work for sold you the computer with those trials loaded? Ask them to remove those items when you buy the computer.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Staying On Track

clip_image002A few days ago, I gave the kind of presentation I both enjoy and worry about the most. This was a technical presentation to an audience that was as technically competent as me or more so. In addition, my position was at least a little bit controversial. This presentation went well, but a similar presentation 10 years ago resulted in a little bit of a train wreck. I will credit Toastmasters for the different outcome of these two meetings, since I have worked through numerous speeches designed to elicit tough feedback.

Preparation – The key to surviving a tough audience is to know what they might challenge you on. Prepare your answers to every question you can anticipate. The other side of preparation is to present the opposition yourself. The first hard question I got was the easiest to answer; I simply said “I am going to talk about that in a few slides.” You still have to be careful though; sometimes, you hear a few words and respond with a prepared answer that misses the mark. When that happens, you look like a politician.
Response – In addition to making sure that you are answering the question that was asked, you need to consider if you should answer it. Sometimes, the best response is “I would prefer to discuss that with you after this session”. I am not recommending that as a way to dodge a hard question; rather, take the question off-line if the discussion is too far off topic. Remember that your audience came to hear what you have to say. If you choose to answer the question, do so in a way that puts the issue to rest. I actually got into a little trouble on this point last week. I brushed off a question with a quick answer. That spawned another question and we ended up going back and forth for a minute or two.  In the future, I need to remember to pause, think about the question and carefully craft a good answer.
Follow-up – One way to make your presentation better, is to work the questions into it. If you answered a question early in the presentation that becomes relevant again later, highlight that fact. Look back to the person who asked the question and say something like “this goes back to what you were asking about earlier…” Not only does this show that you are paying attention, it brings the audience into your presentation.  There are three ways to cast this remark. One is a simple nod of recognition. The second is a comment that leaves room for a comment by the person who asked the question. The third alternative is one you should always avoid; that’s when you put the person on the spot to respond.
I would never suggest that you go out looking for confrontation, but a slightly controversial topic can make for a fun presentation. The audience gets engaged and the presentation becomes something larger than what you prepared. Done right, it can be fun. Done wrong, well, the picture at the top says it all.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Surveys

This post is a slight departure from our normal style, but it has to do with the subject of 'feedback' which we have addressed here on numerous ocassions. Feedback is important to maintain quality training and trainers often rely on surveys to obtain feedback. With that brief introduction, let's move on to my mini-rant.

Last week, I received an email inviting me to complete a survey in order to “help Adobe improve their products". As a “thank you”, I would be entered to win one of five (5) $100 prizes.
I am not a fan of surveys, and the 10-15 minutes that this survey was estimated to require really wasn’t available in my day. I decided to complete the survey during lunch, because I welcomed the opportunity to give some feedback to Adobe. At about the 7% complete mark, I was asked to indicate where I work in our organization. I selected “Information Technology” and the survey abruptly ended. I guess Adobe doesn’t care what the geek has to say. I tweeted about this. Two days later, I received another invitation, but I was just as quickly rejected from that one. This time, I sent the company conducting the survey, Mindwave Research, an email. Before I reveal the conclusion of this encounter, let me share a few thoughts about why this was the wrong way to handle a customer:
  • Demographics – In this day and age, Adobe should know more about me than this survey indicated they do. I have been purchasing and registering Adobe products for our company for over 10 years. Mindwave should have known I worked in IT. I don’t understand why companies collect demographic data about their customers and then ignore that data when it would be useful.
  • Common Courtesy – What harm would there have been in letting me complete the survey? If they wanted to filter out results from IT people, that would have been easy to do after the fact. What is gained by telling the person who pays for your product that you don’t value his opinion?
  • Information – Maybe, just maybe, I actually use the Adobe products I buy for our company. And, maybe, I have some useful comments. How about “it would be nice if InDesign was backward compatible like Photoshop”. Or, “it should be easier to share styles and retain settings and styles from version to version”.
Think about this scenario for a minute. Is this how you would handle the situation if you were conducting the survey in person? No, if you were doing this in person, where your time would be much more valuable, you would either continue asking questions, or explain to me why opinions from IT guys were not required. It would have been very easy to route me to a page that said why my opinion wasn’t desired but still give me a single multi-line entry field to give Adobe a few thoughts. Take my input, enter me in the contest, part friends; how hard would that have been?
I will give Mindwave credit; they did respond to my email. They agreed to enter me into the contest – two times – to make up for the “confusion and  inconvenience” caused by inviting me to participate in the survey twice. They still did not let me participate in the survey; I guess they really don’t want the opinion of an IT guy.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Storytelling

Several months ago, Phil Clarkson started a discussion on the Training & Development group on LinkedIn titled: “Why don't people like going on training courses?” I commented very early on to that long-running discussion. My comment was about the dry and boring nature of PowerPoint-based training; I mentioned: “…I am trying to introduce storytelling techniques and I have been working to make the material more interesting.” As a result of that comment, I have received several emails asking me to expand on “storytelling techniques.” So…
People love hearing stories, that’s a fact! We have been telling and listening to stories for thousands and thousands of years. Humans have an amazing ability to put themselves in the context of a story, to process the imagery, to imagine the action and to absorb the sensory and emotional information that is offered. Whereas a dry slide of bullet points numbs our imagination, a vivid story encourages us to participate. Earlier this year, I complete the advanced “Storytelling” manual in the Toastmasters club I belong to. During that process, I was told that I am good at storytelling and I received some suggestions for how I could become even better. Incorporating stories into my training classes seemed like a win-win idea.
How you incorporate stories into your training is up to you, but you should play to your strengths, your experience and your audience. Also, play to one particular weakness of your audience, their attention span. By that, I mean that you need to realize that after five or six bullet point slides, you have lost your audience; they have stopped listening. You are not going to “get them back” with a slide full of better bullet points. You are in a hole and you need to stop digging! You can break the monotony with graphics, with video, by interacting with your audience, or by telling a story. Here’s an example from a training session I gave earlier this year.
The subject of this session was “preparing to give a presentation at an event”. One of the topics was all the little things you need to do beyond knowing your subject, knowing your audience and preparing a dynamite presentation. You know, things like turning off Instant Messaging and other things that might pop-up over your slides. Toward the end of this section, I wanted to make the point that “you should be prepared to give this presentation without PowerPoint”, in the event that something goes wrong with slides, computers, projectors, etc. Rather than simply listing all of this stuff on a few slides, I blanked the screen, and I told this true story:
“In 2006, I attended the ACM conference OOPSLA, which was being held at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. Three minutes into a 50 minute presentation, the power failed. Emergency generators restored essential building power, but not the power to the LCD projector or the microphone the speaker was using. Without missing a beat, he stepped down from the stage, walked into the center aisle and asked us all to move closer to where he was standing. He proceeded to deliver the content of his presentation, without the benefit of slides. He substituted gestures and vivid descriptions and he asked us a lot of questions. At the end of 50 minutes, we erupted into some of the loudest applause I have ever heard at OOPSLA.”
As I was telling that story, I moved closer to the audience and worked to draw their focus to me, not the blank screen. After letting the story sink in, I called up the slide that had the bullet points of things you need to remember, including being prepared to work without PowerPoint.
Like you are probably doing right now, anyone in the room who had ever given a presentation could put themselves into the context of that story. They could imagine the speaker’s emotions, and they could imagine themselves reacting in a quick and commanding fashion to take charge of the room. The story caused them to be emotionally involved with my presentation.
I selected that particular story for several reasons. First, I knew the story would spark an emotional impact. Second, the story was not about me. I was participating in the event portrayed in the story and that made it easier for my audience to participate in the story. Also, since I was trading on the speaker’s credibility, I could be bold about highlighting his technique and success.
Some people like to begin their presentation with a story. That is a great idea, but include stories in the body of your session too. Storytelling is an easy form of public speaking to master, and your audience will appreciate the break from the bullets.