Monday, December 29, 2008

Year in review: things I learned

Its almost the end of 2008, and everyone and their brother is doing a "year in review" list. As I am a sheep (baaaa!), here is my list of the things that I learned this year:

  • Starting a company is hard (had to go with the obvious one first)
  • Starting a company without millions of dollars to fund it is really hard
  • Starting a company without millions of dollars to fund it in a recession is really, really hard
  • Blogging can be therapeutic (for me, at least!)
  • Virtual worlds are still very much in their infancy and companies won't be doing widespread adoptions until the technology is more interoperable with existing technologies 
  • Technology companies driving the sales of virtual worlds for enterprise is a recipe for disaster for the industry
  • Other smart people are out there trying to figure out how to leverage new technologies for learning
  • I learned about a lot of these smart people through some of these technologies (thank you Twitter!)
  • Avatars really can create a link to physiological and emotional responses in a 3D environment
  • You can develop friendships with people who "live" in your computer, but real life friendships and relationships are still so much better, and shouldn't be neglected
  • Being a Pollyanna is sometimes necessary, and sometimes harmful
  • Traveling a lot makes you forget who you are a little
  • There's a big difference between entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs, and sometimes who is and who isn't surprises you
  • Its important to have a good lawyer (sharkweasel) and a good accountant
  • Its important to have a good mentor
  • Its important to have a good friend who you don't work with
  • It helps to be friends with the people you work with
  • Patience is more than a virtue, its a necessity
  • Everyone should be so lucky to love what they do
All in all, there were lots of things I learned this year--about running a business, about the industry I'm in, about myself. I'm looking forward to continuing my education in 2009.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Social media literacy

Many moons ago, I did my Master's thesis on media literacy in education. It was a pretty unconventional topic at the time, but I was intrigued by the application of critical thinking skills to the analysis of popular media, specifically advertising and news. With the media affecting so much of kids lives, I felt like learning how to find truth in media was just as important to learn as analyzing a Shakespearean sonnet.

Funny, and sad to admit, but the Internet was just not a major media player at the time I did my thesis. I've thought over the last decade or so about how my research might have been different given the paradigm shift in how people get information and entertainment. And in the last couple years, with the emergence of social media, I've really adjusted my thinking even more.

Let's start with a definition of media literacy. There are lots of them, but I like this one from Rick Shepard:

Media literacy is an informed, critical understanding of the mass media. It involves examining the techniques, technologies and institutions involved in media production; being able to critically analyze media messages; and recognizing the role audiences play in making meaning from those messages.
Source: Rick Shepherd, "Why Teach Media Literacy," Teach Magazine, Quadrant Educational Media Services, Toronto, ON, Canada, Oct/Nov 1993.

Check out more definitions and opinions on the Media Awareness Network.

One of the most interesting things about media literacy for me was the "third level" of study: looking at who controlled and filtered the messages conveyed through the media and to what purpose. I'm not typically a conspiracy theorist, but I do believe that people always have a purpose, and power corrupts absolutely. Thus the emergence of the "liberal media" and Fox News--news with an underlying purpose of pushing their "agenda."

So how does this relate to social media? And is there such a thing as social media literacy?

Social media, although diverse and much more egalitarian in its source, is still a form of media. No matter the source of content, the principles of media literacy still apply. Questions like: Who is the source? What is their agenda? What perspectives are you not hearing? --are all questions that should be applied to any form of communication in order to truly "get it." Social media may not always have the same goal of mass media in communicating a message to a large, diverse audience, but applying the same analysis principles is essential to understanding the purpose of the messages communicated. In fact, its essential that as new technologies and methods of communication are adopted that we look at how communication is changing, and why.

One of the challenges I had in studying media literacy was that, in the end, what media education hopes to teach is the critical analysis of media messages. What essentially are media messages? Communication. Communication is a much broader scope than just media, so then, is the critical analysis of communication simply "literacy"? The traditional understanding of literacy is simply being able to read. But in order to truly succeed in modern culture, you must be able to do more than just read. You need to be able to "read between the lines," to question, to challenge, to critique. Check out this article about the need for integrating social media literacy into mainstream education.

As social media expands and media changes and evolves, critical thinking skills are a constant.

So, yes, there is such a thing as social media literacy, just as there is media literacy, just as there is literacy. There is simply more of a need for awareness of the importance of critical analysis of all of the forms of communication you are exposed to every day.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The day after

If you celebrate it, I hope you had a Merry Christmas. If you don't, I hope that you and the people you love spent time together this week, celebrating Hannukah, Kwaanza, Festivus, or just hanging out together.

Today, December 26th, is for me, the day after. Christmas is the big day, everything building up to it for months. Planning, preparation, excitement, anticipation...all leading up to one big event. December 26th is the day after, the day where you evaluate the spoils of Christmas.

I think the day after Christmas is really the most important time: evaluation and reflection. The inevitable relief that comes after a major event sinks in and you have time to think about what just happened.

This year, in the craziness and overwhelming amount of stress and work that has come with starting Tandem, Christmas (like so many other things have) took a back seat. We're running lean, and this is the first year that we implemented the "no presents for adults policy" in my family. Even my husband and I didn't exchange gifts; we agreed to make each other something instead.

You know what? This was the best Christmas I've had in a really long time. It wasn't about presents. It wasn't about how much money I spent. It was about being together, playing with the new toys Santa brought, and remembering that the people who you love are the most important thing in life.

Geography and logistics make it impossible for me to be with everyone who I love all at one time. One thing that I realized today in my day-after reflection is that I need to make sure that I take advantage of any opportunity to let the people who I love know how much I appreciate them. So, to my family and my friends who mean so much to me, I'm going to try to spread a little Christmas cheer throughout the year.

Now, let's get ready for New Year's!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The future of learning

After reading this blog post on The Future of the Web, I realized that perhaps I should actually write down the things I've been saying over the course of this year about the future of learning. The end of the year is usually when people start making predictions, and since I'm constantly talking to people about my predictions for what learning will look like in 5, 10, 20 years, I'm ready to put my predictions out there for comments, praise, and here goes. For what they're worth, here are my thoughts on the future of learning...

Within 5 years:
-The majority of the population will have some experience engaging with online content as an avatar
-All Fortune 500 companies will have some implementation of virtual worlds, most likely as a tool for learning and collaboration
-Social networking tools will routinely be used as tools for developing learning communities
-Serious games, simulations, and immersive learning environments will be standard additions to corporate learning curriculum
-Print training modules will no longer be developed and "printed" but will be delivered through interactive and searchable online tools
-Conferences will all incorporate online components, with sessions held virtually and incorporating social media for community building and discussion

Within 10 years:
-The K12 educational system, higher education, and corporate learning will all incorporate virtual worlds as a daily tool integrated into how students and employees learn
-Curriculum will revolve more closely around user-generated content, development of learning communities, and social media
-Knowledge management for enterprise will be dynamic and fluid, facilitated and monitored by the organization but developed and maintained by the learning communities within organizations
-With the capacity to develop experiential learning, performance objectives will usurp learning objectives and ROI (or ROE) will routinely be measured for learning initiatives based on cost savings, revenue generation, decreased turnover, etc.

Within 20 years:
-There will be complete interoperability between the now often divergent learning systems--LMSs, knowledge management, assessment, social media/networks
-People will routinely be immersed in virtual worlds and virtual content online
-People will have an online "identity" which will include an avatar representation that is used to engage with content across the web
-Virtual reality environments will replace 3D immersive environments, allowing for even more experiential learning

I'm sure that I'll be surprised about which of these predictions happen a lot faster than I think, and which of them never materialize. I'm also sure that there will be some amazing breakthrough innovations that I can't imagine that will change the game completely

I'm also pretty sure that I'm going to be really excited to be a hologram someday.

The waiting IS the hardest part

We've been putting together a lot of proposals and pitches for prospective clients. All this activity has been exciting and energizing--frankly, we love what we do, and its fun to talk to people about it. What's not so fun is that in all of these conversations, we're still waiting to see if we get the projects.

The time between pitching and being awarded a project (or not) is brutal. There's not much you can do. You don't want to check in too much and be annoying, but there's also something to be said for a post-pitch follow up. Unless you have an inside track, most of the decision-making on the client side is a bit of a mystery.

All of this is made more difficult by a couple obvious characteristics of Tandem: we're only about a year old, and we're talking about solutions that are relatively new in enterprise learning. People might be interested in the ideas that we have (good!) but nervous about trying something new (bad!). And at the end of the day, their propensity to work with a smaller, agile company with innovative ideas may be trumped by the idea of going with a traditional solution.

The funny thing is, all of this is just speculation, until you hear back from the client. Until then, try to keep busy working on the next presentation...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Virtual Worlds News article on Tandem Learning

A little write up on Tandem Learning today in Virtual Worlds News. If you were wondering, I like Second Life more than Jedd does.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Grey day

I woke up today ready to take stuff on. It didn't quite turn out that way.

When my oldest was a toddler, his favorite book was Dr. Seuss's My Many Colored Days. I still can pretty much recite the whole book word for word, but my favorite day was the grey day. "Grey day. Everything is grey...I watch. But nothing moves today." The illustration was a zoomed-in illustration of a grey owl's huge yellow eyes.

Today was a grey day. Nasty weather, unexpected (and completely unwarranted) harassment from American Express, discussion of end of year financials and planning for next year. I was in a lovely mood.

It would have been easy to let the grey take over and render me motionless. It would be easy to just watch, not move.

Funny thing is, I'm not much of a grey kinda person. By the time I left the office, there was a bit of a spark, and by the time I got home, the fire was raging again. So I'm ending the day ready to take stuff on. Guess it wasn't much of a grey day after all, no matter what the weatherman says.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Take the money or run?

When I started Tandem, I decided that it would be great to do it without finding any outside investors. To be honest, I didn't want to share the fruits of my hard work with someone just because they had some money lying around to let me borrow. I didn't have millions of dollars in the bank, but I did, luckily, have some clients with some projects. And I didn't have a noncompete with my previous employer. So off I went, funding Tandem through project work and trying to run lean.

You may have noticed that the economy is in a recession. It was in a recession when I started Tandem, but nobody was calling it that yet. Now, however, all of the VC that was probably a bit easier to get when I started is not so easy to come by. Check out this TechCrunch article on VC and start ups that really echoes my sentiments. Not only is the nature of VC changing, but project money is a little lighter too. What to do, what to do?

The answer is get innovative. The answer is to look hard at everything that you're doing and cut out all but the important stuff.

I'm not saying I would never take on additional capital. But I am saying that I'd have to feel pretty justified that there were no other options, that I really would need it.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Compiled observations from the I/ITSEC conference

I just attended my first I/ITSEC conference. For those of you interested in an overview of the scene, check out a smarter person's description.

I decided to attend for a few reasons. First, there are a few industries that always have money and spend it on training. Pharma is one, government and military is another. Having tapped the pharma industry for years, I thought it might be nice to expand my radar. Besides opportunity, I found the idea of learning about government and military training fascinating, and definitely out of my comfort zone. Having started in K12 education and then focusing on corporate learning for phase two of my career, I like the challenge of learning about another whole sector that I know very little about.

So, what did I think? Here are my thoughts and observations in no particular order...

Its definitely a man's world. There were barely any women there, much fewer than the tech & gaming conferences. I got looked up and down more than a new cow on auction at the county fair. If I went to a booth with another male, I was ignored (after I was looked up and down). The most useful conversations I had was when I wandered off alone.

There are a lot of acronyms and information about the industry that take some time to learn. It's kinda the same with pharma, but I know all the MLR and MVA and DDMAC stuff like the back of my hand. Getting the lingo down for newbies is a serious undertaking in the government military sector, and it helps to have a friend or two to help you out, which leads me to...

Its nice to have a friend or two to help you out when you're learning about a new market segment. We were lucky to have a pretty selfless guide during the conference. I can't imagine it would have been nearly as useful to go without having someone to give us the lay of the land and introduce us to people.

The expo was all about show, not substance. The booths showcased amazing technology and graphics, but if you asked how the technology could be applied to training, there were a lot of blank stares. For a conference focused on training, that was a little disconcerting. Besides the flight simulators and other tactical learning, I didn't see a lot of innovation on the learning front. Frankly, for a segment with so much money, I was really disappointed with the lack of awesome examples of complex decision-making simulations.

And finally, virtual worlds have a long way to go. There were a couple companies there that I know (Forterra, Caspian Learning, Qwaq, to name a few). I continue to be underwhelmed with how other companies are developing learning using virtual world technology. The capabilities are out there, the application of those capabilities is still not. The panel session that was supposed to focus on developing learning communities using virtual worlds and serious games was a complete disappointment (except for the speaker from North Carolina Virtual Schools). Most of the examples shown had poor user interface design and could have been developed in Flash more easily and cost effectively. The longer people squander virtual world technology on mediocre to poor solutions, the more degraded this technology will be become for new prospective customers and markets. Where are the cool examples, the innovative designs? Where are the tie-ins to existing learning technologies and systems?

Guess we'll have to work on that.