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Clark Quinn: eLearning Thought Leader Q&A


Debunking Myths And Delving Into Cognitive Science With Clark Quinn

Clark Quinn is the director of Quinnovation, an independent learning experience design strategy consultancy, and co-organizer of The Learning Development Accelerator, an online community that brings L&D professionals together. Through his endeavors, Dr. Quinn utilized evidence-based practices to help companies “work smarter.” He is an internationally known consultant, speaker, and author, who combines his deep understanding of cognition with broad experience in technology to improve organizational execution, innovation, and performance. Today, he speaks with us about utilizing learning tech, debunking the “learning styles” myth, and creating a solid learning culture framework.

What do you think is one of the most damaging myths or misconceptions about utilizing learning technology that prevents organizations from achieving their L&D goals?

I think learning styles is probably the most damaging myth, though it’s not specific to learning technology. We can’t reliably diagnose styles (the psychometrics of the various instruments don’t pass the minimum standard), and there’s also no conclusive evidence that trying to adjust learning on the basis of styles leads to improved outcomes (more to the contrary). Fortunately, we have the alternative of designing for the learning, not the learner.

If I had to pick a particular technology myth, I suppose I’d put “digital means we learn differently” on trial. The notion that our brains have changed since the introduction of digital technology really isn’t cogent; our physiology doesn’t change that fast. The ways we can create experiences may have been made easier, but our brains haven’t changed and we still need practice and feedback to learn.

Alternatively, I’d attack the “tech solves all problems” myth, where we think a particular technology is a panacea—video, microlearning, AI, VR—all the things are being touted as the answer. Instead, we need to understand the unique affordances of different technology and use as appropriate.

What is one of your standout eLearning client success stories?

My favorite success was the solution we created for the Australian Children’s Welfare Organization. It met a real need: kids “in care” (e.g. who grow up without typical parental models) surviving after they age out. It was a true serious game, with an underlying model and probability. It had a coaching engine with graduated hints. Further, we ported it to the web where it might have been the first serious game playable in a browser without Flash. It also led to two publications:

Quinn, C. N. (1996). Designing an instructional game: reflections on Quest for Independence. Education and Information Technologies, 1 (3&4). 251-269.

Quinn, C. N. & Ahyong, G. (1998). Web Quest: Porting Quest for Independence to the World Wide Web. Education and Information Technologies, 3 (1). 51-78.

Amazingly, you can still play it!

In your opinion, what is one of the most common mistakes that organizations make when trying to enhance workplace performance through L&D?

My cheeky answer is, “L&D isn’t doing near what it could and should, and what it is doing, it is doing badly. Other than that, it’s fine.” In short, we do two things wrong: our learning solutions aren’t well designed, and we don’t go beyond “the course” to performance support, let alone to facilitating innovation. I couple that with an admonition to a) start measuring impact, not just efficiency, and b) work internally on creating a learning culture to truly own it before taking it to the rest of the organization.

You’ve penned numerous books about creating meaningful learning experiences and learning science. Can you tell our readers a bit more about them and where they can find your works?

At core, they’re about looking at how we can leverage our understanding of cognition to improve our ability to learn and perform. Games have been a recurrent theme throughout my career, and that’s impacted both my first and most recent books. My books on myths and learning science reflect my status as a cognitive geek. The books on mLearning and the L&D revolution reflect how we can use technology and science to assist people not just through courses, but through the full suite of performance and development. You can find out more about all of them here. Thanks for asking!

Can you offer new learning experience designers some words of wisdom to create results-driven courses by leveraging cognitive science?

Well, the first word of advice is to learn the cognitive (and learning) science behind successful outcomes. Understand the processes of perception, attention, elaboration, and retrieval, and the properties of sensory, working, and long-term memory. Then, understand the implications: the necessity of meaningful practice and feedback, and the role of mental models and examples. Then, add in the emotional component: build motivation and confidence, and keep anxiety under control by making it “safe” via the introduction and also the closing. The most important thing I’d emphasize, of course, is the necessity of sufficient contextualized practice and appropriate feedback.

Wrapping Up

We’d like to thank Clark Quinn for participating in our Thought Leader Q&A. Clark was also featured in our eLearning Trailblazers: Learning Experience Design Experts list for his commitment to sharing unique expertise, design insights, and insider know-how with our eLearning community.

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