MARGIE MEACHAM – CRYSTAL BALLING WITH LEARNNOVATORS
ABOUT MARGIE MEACHAM:
Author and Learning Consultant Margie Meacham first became interested in helping people learn when she was a little girl struggling with first grade. While she didn’t discover it until much later, Margie is dyslexic and was finding it hard to keep up with her classmates. Eventually she figured out how her mind works and graduated high school as her class valedictorian and summa cum laude from her Bachelor and Master’s level programs. Today, she teaches instructional designers, trainers, speakers, and leaders how to design and deliver training that is compelling, memorable and immediately useful by applying the latest discoveries from the converging fields of cognitive science and artificial intelligence. The author of “Brain Matters: How to help anyone learn anything using neuroscience” and “AI in Talent Development: Capitalize on the AI Revolution to Transform the Way You Work, Learn, and Live” believes that if you understand how the brain works you can become a better teacher, trainer, leader, spouse or parent and have more fun doing it.
Margie has been a featured speaker at several ATD events and facilitates the ATD online course Essentials of Brain-Based Learning. She also facilitates ATD ACLP certification courses and writes one of the Top 100 blogs on neuroscience.
Learn more about Margie on her website at www.learningtogo.info and follow her on Twitter @margiemeacham, or sign up for her free newsletter to get the latest “news you can use” from neuroscience and machine learning.
ABOUT THIS INTERVIEW SERIES:
Crystal Balling with Learnnovators is a thought-provoking interview series that attempts to gaze into the future of e-learning. It comprises stimulating discussions with industry experts and product evangelists on emerging trends in the learning landscape.
Join us on this exciting journey as we engage with thought leaders and learning innovators to see what the future of our industry looks like.
1. LEARNNOVATORS: We are great fans of you, Margie. You are an expert instructional design and performance improvement consultant who has been continuously inspiring the world to design better and meaningful learning experiences. It’s an honor to have you here today to discuss the past, present, and future of workplace learning.
Known as “The Brain Lady,” you are a self-described scholar-practitioner who is considered an expert on topics related to learning, specifically neuroscience. You have been trying to help the community better understand ‘brain science’ and ways to bring that into learning design. What does your experience say about the changing nature of workplace learning based on the latest research on neuroscience?
MARGIE MEACHAM: In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly every organization had to pivot to virtual and self-paced training over the past year, forcing us all to rethink how we do our work and collaborate in a digital world. This transition had some significant consequences that have changed the workplace – and workplace learning. For example, while we quickly adapted to virtual meetings and virtual learning events, we didn’t realize the effects of being almost constantly online. The human brain isn’t built for our world. It needs time to evolve, and that takes place too slowly, over generations. So, we are facing “zoom fatigue,” making it harder to focus and remember. We are experiencing prolonged periods of stress, in some cases even to the point of developing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Depression and anxiety are also on the rise. The virus itself can have lasting effects on the body, including the brain. We are just beginning to understand the impact of these events in terms of our cognitive abilities.
While all this is very concerning, there is some positive news. The global attention on finding a vaccine has accelerated investments in science, engineering, and artificial intelligence. AI is already embedded in many parts of our economy. Now we are seeing it in Learning and Development. AI can be used to personalize the digital experience, reducing stress, and make learning more relevant by leading learners to the experiences and content that are most valuable to them. And the discoveries of how our brain works can help learning professionals employ new strategies to develop and manage workplace learning. The digital world is not going away; it will only become more and more intense. But we can help our learners adapt by taking care of their brains. Reducing stress, spacing out digital experiences, using stories to link disparate content together. All of these are strategies that are emerging from the combination of AI and brain science. It’s an exciting time to be a learning professional!
2. LEARNNOVATORS: You say, “I believe we are on the verge of so many wonderful discoveries about how we learn… We have no limits to what we can accomplish with our wonderful brains―the best survival machines ever built.” It was inspiring to read how you first became interested in the brain when you had undiagnosed dyslexia as a child, but eventually overcame the challenges of your learning disability to earn your master’s degree in education. Looking back, how has your journey, of understanding more about the brain to ‘help others learn’, been so far? What would be your message to learning professionals, especially those who are not well-versed with neuroscience, to bring the best of brain science into their learning and performance support solutions?
MARGIE MEACHAM: One of the things I’ve learned is that everyone’s brain is unique. We all struggle and excel in different ways. So, one of the best things a learning professional can do is embrace this diversity and look for ways to increase personalization and foster learner choice. I can tell you from experience that “one size fits all” training is really a case of “one size fits none.” There are many ways to become more aware of how neuroscience is changing our understanding of the learning process. For example, there are many books on the subject, but the very process of writing and publishing a book means that the content will be at least several years old by the time you read it. The converging disciplines we call “neuroscience” are changing so rapidly that it is risky to rely too much on books for the latest information. However, most learning professionals don’t have access to the many peer-reviewed journals covering cognitive science – and they certainly don’t have the time to do so.
This is why I worked with ATD to create our Brain-Based Learning Essentials course. I update it every time I teach it, so my participants can gain the benefit of my curated summary of brain-based learning design and delivery tactics that translate right into actions we can take today. The Association for Talent Development is an excellent non-profit organization that is dedicated to advancing the learning profession and I highly recommend it.
3. LEARNNOVATORS: You have been voicing your concerns on the poor quality of e-learning courses. It is thought-provoking to hear you say, “Many learning activities are still firmly rooted in the days of medieval monks; forcing people to sit quietly in classrooms, or stare at screens until their eyes glaze over.” We know that e-learning hasn’t yet started leveraging the incredible power of the internet or the web. For example, we still do not see successful e-learning implementations that are powered by real-time interactive and collaborative learning modalities. When it comes to e-learning, we are locked inside a dreaded silo, whereas the games that keep kids as well as adults engrossed today are ‘real-time’ and ‘multiplayer.’ Not a lot has changed with respect to e-learning in all these years compared to the advancements in other aspects of our lives. Would you subscribe to the thinking that e-learning is yet to evolve to remain relevant in this digital and social age? If yes, what would be your suggestions for e-learning to step up?
MARGIE MEACHAM: Perhaps we’ve all become too comfortable with our current tools and design methods for self-paced e-learning. I noticed something a few years in my interactions with my clients. More and more of them were telling me that their current program wasn’t “interactive” enough. Yet, when I looked at the courses, there was plenty of what I would consider to be interaction – click to reveal more content, follow a link to more information, branching scenarios, review games, etc. These techniques, once considered leading edge, no longer resonate with our learners, who experience far more engaging content in their social media. In my research for my latest book, AI in Talent Development, I discovered that chatbots are an underused alternative. I’ve started building courses that allow the learner to engage with a chatbot, creating a simulated conversation that can feel very real when designed correctly. Because our brains do not distinguish between real and imagined experiences, these conversations can help people practice soft skills, quiz them on recall, or conduct reflective journeys. Depending on the degree of intelligence behind the bot program, it can adapt to the responses of the learner, making the experience far more personal than traditional e-learning.
4. LEARNNOVATORS: To quote Clive Shepherd from his first post ‘Bringing eLearning to the Twentieth Century’ (published in 2005), “E-learning (and for that matter a great deal of classroom training) is founded on 20th century assumptions about the roles and responsibilities of trainers and learners in the process of learning. It still treats the learner as an empty and largely unquestioning vessel into which you can pour the required knowledge, skills and attitudes.” Today, when we look at his 900th and last post, do you think e-learning has evolved enough in the last 16 years to meet the demands of today’s learners? What has changed and what has not? What, according to you, is the future?
MARGIE MEACHAM: I addressed my thoughts on the future of e-learning in the previous question, so let’s expand on that. Artificial Intelligence is all around us, in our banking, our online shopping, even our streaming services for entertainment. It’s controlling the lighting on our campuses and city blocks, it’s monitoring our security cameras, and it’s helping neuroscientists map the complex thing we know – the human brain. Yet learning professionals in general have been slow to use the tools that are readily available for other purposes. What would it be like if each learner could be “interviewed” by your LMS and then get a recommendation of a series of courses tailored to those individual responses? While I’d like to say this is the future, the truth is that it is already happening today. We’re just not seeing it much in L&D yet. But that is starting to change. I suspect that the term “e-learning” may be fading away, even though the approach will be with us for some time to come.
5. LEARNNOVATORS: Donald Clark says, “If we want online learning to improve, it must get smarter. For 30 years we’ve been largely delivering rather flat and linear media… Smarter online learning needs smart software, and everyone agrees that AI is smart.” We know that you are associated with some of the most advanced authoring tools in the market today such as RevWork (https://revwork.ai/) and have been evangelizing the learning community on its value. In this context, would you agree that rapid e-learning authoring tools have contributed to the poor quality of e-learning? If yes, what are some of the functionalities that these authoring tools lack presently and should start adopting to support modern workplace learning? What do they need to do to catch up with the technologies of today? What will future authoring platforms look like?
MARGIE MEACHAM: I don’t aspire to blaming or crediting any tool for our own performance. Authoring tools don’t make great or ineffective training – people do. And this will continue to be true, even as we integrate more and more intelligence into our process. The exciting work being done by RevWork, Mobile Coach, and many others gives us the opportunity to truly personalize learning. An AI-driven approach can adapt to changing business priorities, hiring patterns, and learner gaps much more quickly than even an army of human developers. I see it as a tool, not a replacement for the work of the learning professional. However, to use this tool wisely, we need to become educated about how AI works and how we can manage the results.
6. LEARNNOVATORS: To quote Andrew Jacobs, “Your online offer has to be as simple to use as Google, recommending like Amazon, as comprehensive as Wikipedia.” We agree with Andrew on this thought since we, too, believe that online learning cannot be too ‘distant’ from these other online experiences. In fact, we feel that online learning should ‘mimic’ the positive qualities of online experiences since this is the expectation, considering that our learners are digital natives. Would you agree with this view? If yes, what would be your recommendation for learning designers to transform themselves into the role of learning experience designers? If not, how do you justify e-learning interfaces not being in sync with the transformational changes happening in the other applications, we use in our daily lives?
MARGIE MEACHAM: I completely agree with your statement that online learning needs to give the learner the same quality of engagement they have come to expect in their digital lives. I don’t know that there is any reason to “justify” the fact that this evolution in learning and development is a bit behind. Much like the integration of AI and machine learning into our design approach, transforming the learning experience to look and feel more like social media is an ongoing journey. The first step is to start thinking differently and make incremental changes where we can. Much of the e-learning that is in use today was built years ago, and it is starting to look quite dated, especially to more tech savvy learners. It is up to us to think about learning and design in new ways, but it won’t happen overnight.
7. LEARNNOVATORS: To quote Mark Britz, “Just like Amazon will wipe out convenience stores, technology like voice, chat, and enterprise social will continue to pressure the course factory model of L&D. Tech has a knack for cutting out the “middle man” and since L&D sits between expertise and novice or knowing and unknowing, the need now is to carve more channels not create more content. L&D must get involved or get out of the way.” What would be your recommendations for L&D to remain relevant?
MARGIE MEACHAM: I love this quote from Mark. He has essentially summarized my entire book, AI in Talent Development, in a single paragraph. It’s tempting to fall back on things that have “always worked,” but if last year has taught us anything, it is the hard lesson that everything changes. Including our roles in L&D.
8. LEARNNOVATORS: To quote Future of Work Strategist Heather McGowan, “The end state of being “educated” is just no longer meaningful. An individual must have learning agility―the ability to learn, adapt, and apply in quick cycles.” Interestingly, though an ardent practitioner of continuous learning, you believe that to help learners prepare for the uncertain future ahead, we must first teach them the fundamentals of learning. What are some of the key things that we learning professionals should do to help our people understand the art and science of learning in order to empower them to be agile learners? What strategies would you propose to make these two key aspects integral parts of our organizational learning culture? How can we equip our organizations to become ‘learning organizations’ that are truly prepared for the future of work?
MARGIE MEACHAM: While it is impossible to completely predict the future, one thing we know for sure – there are going to be many changes in the future of work. Luckily, our brains are uniquely adapted to change, and are rewiring themselves constantly.
Studies show that learners who understand how their brain works are more efficient at learning new things. This can be as simple as incorporating a section called “How to Get the Most Out of This Training” at the start of every course. Barbara Oakley also has some great content on Coursera called Learning How to Learn, which is based on her book by the same name. It’s one of the most popular courses on the platform and I highly recommend it.
9. LEARNNOVATORS: We have always been guided by these words of wisdom by the late Jay Cross: “Dialogue is the most powerful learning technology on earth.” Traditional e-learning has been about command and control, thanks to its tight design. However, we believe that new technologies such as chatbots can help a course break free of its closed/tight navigation design. Our experience in this regard has also shown that chatbots can help us ‘pull’ what we need when we need it from a vast repository of information in the most natural way―by chatting. This can be helpful for modern learners who may prefer to learn on their own (by creating their own learning paths). Being big proponents of chatbots in learning, we have a few questions for you: What role do you foresee for chatbots to break the silos of our traditional course designs? What, according to you, is the potential for conversational (dialog-based) learning to bring learning to where employees really are (into their flow of work)? What would be your message to learning designers to ‘design training to be delivered by bots?’
MARGIE MEACHAM: Like many of us, Jay was a friend and a mentor to me, and I often find myself returning to things he said more than a decade ago. Of course, learning through dialogue wasn’t invented by Jay Cross. We know that the ancient Greeks perfected the Socratic method about 2400 years ago, and it has been a cornerstone of learning ever since. Joe Ganci and I started experimenting with using chatbots for learning a few years ago, and I’ve continued to pursue this idea with many of my clients. In some of your earlier questions, you seem to be seeking a fresh approach to e-learning. One way to do that is with a chatbot. While you can embed a bot into your e-learning experience, perhaps the most powerful method is to simply make the bot itself the learning experience. For example, I built a bot for a school system to teach kids about the plight of the honeybee. The kids ask the queen bee questions and she responds with answers, links, and more questions for them. Your brain does not distinguish between a face-to-face and a digital conversation, so the dialogue effect that Jay was talking about is still taking place. Natural Language Processing enables chatbots and other AI applications to become more and more conversational. In addition, the bot is conducting a unique conversation with every single student, for a highly engaging experience. Mobile Coach has a bot that answers questions COVID-19, and I’m working with them to build a series of educational bots for the United Nations right now. It’s a great way to take advantage of our brain’s compulsion for conversation and social learning.
10. LEARNNOVATORS: As we understand, aside from being the latest bandwagon in town, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has real power, when used well, to transform learning and make it truly ‘personalized.’ Here, we are reminded of this interesting story by Ashok Goel, a professor of Computer Science and Cognitive Science in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology. He created Jill Watson, an AI teaching assistant, whom he used for one of his grad-level classes, without any of his students noticing. We believe that we should learn to see how best we can leverage the tremendous power of such a technology to make learning a much more personalized experience. What do you think learning leaders should keep in mind while experimenting with this evolving technology to make ‘artificial teachers’ or ‘virtual teaching assistants?’ Will AI take over the roles of teachers or trainers and make them redundant? If you agree, how do you think teachers and trainers should upskill themselves to avoid becoming ‘outdated?’
MARGIE MEACHAM: As a matter of fact, when I read about professor Goel’s work, I wrote a blog post titled “Don’t Look Now, But We May Have Just Missed the Singularity.” It was really the start of my interest in AI as a learning technology, and started me on the path that eventually led to my exploration of chatbots as learning delivery and support mechanisms. While certain educator tasks can and are being automated by AI, I think it is a great oversimplification to say that teachers will be “replaced” by robots, at least in the near term. However, AI is already part of the team in many organizations, and we should all prepare ourselves to engage with AI “coworkers” in the future.
11. LEARNNOVATORS: To quote Michael Allen from our interview with him: “I suppose it will surprise readers, but I do expect instructional design to be automated eventually.” It is exciting to hear about the powerful Machine Learning models such as GPT-3 that are poised to power up our learning products soon and even more exciting to look at some of the incredible possibilities. In this context, it is interesting to note that according to you, we’re seeing a merging of the quest for Artificial Intelligence with neuroscience. How do you think Artificial Intelligence will help transform the way we analyze, design, develop, deliver, and evaluate our workplace learning solutions? What, according to you, is the future of learning design? If AI starts designing and creating e-learning solutions soon, what is left to do for the instructional designer? What would be your message for instructional designers to remain relevant?
MARGIE MEACHAM: Thank you so much for this question. I’ve been tracking the convergence of neuroscience and AI for some years now. As a matter of fact, many of the scientists working in both fields are partnering now, to gain a deeper understanding of how neural networks work. It’s really an exciting time to be an instructional designer. AI is already writing most of the news copy we consume online or in newspapers, and it works so well we never even question the “realness” of the author. When AI starts designing and creating e-learning solutions, the instructional designer will likely be a part of the process. All AI applications need to be “trained,” meaning that we run them through a large data set so that they can refine their performance. Just as we would train an assistant or junior copywriter, we need to put in the time to test the performance of the algorithm before we unleash it to the world.
I believe that our work is more relevant than ever, and it is up to us to earn that relevance by staying focused on results and staying up on technology.
12. LEARNNOVATORS: Here’s a thought-provoking message from Graham Brown Martin, “At the start of the fourth industrial revolution, where we must solve the most difficult challenges our species has ever faced, how stupid is it that we’re using AI to improve our memory to pass 19th century exams? Why the heck aren’t we taking our AI with us into the examination room? Only complete morons (or organizations with a vested interest in selling textbooks) would maintain a system that considers the use of modern technology in a test to be cheating. Unless, of course, that they really are just testing memory recall.” What are your views on the traditional testing systems being used today? If you agree with Graham’s thoughts, what kind of a re-imagination is needed to make AI relevant to the demands of the future?
MARGIE MEACHAM: It’s so funny that you mentioned this, because in my research for AI in Talent Development I discovered a really interesting pattern. As each technological disruption occurred, trainers and educators wrung their hands and worried that the new tool would be the ruin of our brains. Chalk boards made students more accepting of errors, fountain pens ruined penmanship, calculators destroyed math abilities, and Google was making us stupid. Today, most technical certifications forbid the use of any kind of reference material or tool, even though in the real world we expect the professional to be familiar with and use these tools. Memory and recall are no longer the standard for measuring knowledge – it’s knowing how to use the resources that are available to yield the best result. A good rule of thumb is any time you have to refer to something as “traditional,” you probably really mean “legacy.” That’s a polite IT term for out-of-date.
13. LEARNNOVATORS: You published your first book, ‘Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience’ in 2015. This book is considered ‘an ideal primer on the most common neuroscience topics and issues that should matter to anyone responsible for designing and delivering employee training.’ How do you think this book has influenced learning practitioners to realize the potential of the human brain in helping people learn and thereby perform better at work?
MARGIE MEACHAM: I’ve updated this book every year since it came out, and I often meet people who say that they enjoyed and learned from my book, so I like to think I’ve made a mark. In addition, the course I developed and teach for ATD, Essentials of Brain-Based Learning, is based on that book, and each year I have the honor to introduce hundreds of learning professionals to the most complex object we know – our amazing brains!
14. LEARNNOVATORS: In the preface of your latest book, ‘AI in Talent Development: Capitalize on the AI Revolution to Transform the Way You Work, Learn, and Live’ published recently by the Association for Talent Development, you say, “The fields of artificial intelligence and talent development have been on a collision course for decades, and their convergence has already occurred. It has just taken many in our profession some time to recognize this fact.” Can you give us an overview of the book for our readers, please? In today’s world in which AI has already started transforming work and the way we learn at work, what would be your advice to organizations to apply the converging sciences of neuroscience and artificial intelligence to develop talent and enhance performance? How should we in talent development prepare ourselves for the upcoming AI revolution?
MARGIE MEACHAM: As I was writing the book, the world was fighting the COVID-19 pandemic – a battle we have yet to win, although I hope we are beginning to turn the tide in our favor. In that battle, nearly every scientist turned their resources to saving lives and preventing the spread of the virus. Vaccines were developed and approved in record time, compressing work that normally takes years into a few months, and doing so safely. One of the greatest tools we had in this fight has been artificial intelligence. AI can recognize patterns and analyze massive data sets far more efficiently than even an army of humans, and what we learned as a result is going to help us build better solutions as we begin to turn our attention to other challenges in the world. When we understand how the brain learns, we become better teachers, leaders, and training professionals. When we understand how to use AI to accelerate how the brain learns, we put the power of the human brain into the hands of every learner, creating a unique experience, one human brain at a time. It’s a remarkable paradox that the more we understand artificial neural networks, the better equipped we become to support biological ones.
I wrote my book for someone with little or no background in IT or AI, so that it could serve as a starting point for inspiration. You can start almost anywhere in the book and find a practical use you can implement today – from chatbots, to data analytics, to content creation or curation. And the biggest takeaway I hope my readers have is that AI is not a “someday” thing – it’s today. It’s sort of like Alice in Wonderland. You have to run as fast as you can just to stay in one place, so we’d better get started.
15. LEARNNOVATORS: As we understand, you received the “100 Most Talented Global Training & Development Leaders”award from the World Training & Development Congress for 2018 for your extraordinary work in the training field. You have also won the Training Magazine’s Top 125 award for exceptional instructional design. These, we believe, are absolutely deserving recognitions for your incredible work in inspiring the learning community. How do you look at these honourable achievements? How do you think such recognitions will help fuel your vision for the learning community?
MARGIE MEACHAM: First of all, no one wins awards like this on their own. My Training Magazine credential, as well as the Brandon Hall Award, were team efforts, and you won’t find my name on the trophies – you’ll find the names of my clients. That’s how it should be, because I created those winning programs for my clients, and without their vision and support the work would never have been done. The World Training and Development Congress award was given to 100 people in 2018, and again 2019, and so on. So, while it’s always nice to receive recognition, it’s even nicer to be in the company of so many passionate professionals every single day. I love my work, and it shows. I can’t imagine ever doing anything else.
16. LEARNNOVATORS: It is thought-provoking to hear you say, “As learning and development leaders, we need to be aware of all the tools available through science, breaking out of our own patterns and moving into new practices that may make us uncomfortable.” It is great to see you on this inspiring journey to help drive change in how people learn at work. Like you, we too are excited to visualize the future of learning; it looks very bright. We believe that learning will evolve much further than leveraging the power of emerging technologies to incredible dimensions. What are the trends that will shape the future of workplace learning in 2021 and beyond? And what is your vision for the L&D community?
MARGIE MEACHAM: As a woman in STEM, I am heartbroken by the thread of anti-science I see in our world today. To think that there are people who make decisions of life and death – like whether or not to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic, or whether or not to vaccinate their children from deadly infectious diseases. It tells me that the learning community has a lot of work to do. If you are working in the learning profession, you are a science worker. And that means you have a responsibility to be an advocate for evidence-based decisions, inside and outside of the classroom. As exciting as the future can be, it can also be fraught with danger and darkness. If we don’t become the light, we fade into that darkness. It’s not enough to quietly do our jobs – we have to stand up. Or one day, it may be too late to stand for anything at all.
LEARNNOVATORS: Before we sign off, we thank you so much for your time today, Margie. We’ve had an amazing time reading your insights and have had many valuable takeaways. We’ll take these learnings to foster our commitment to practice and promote continuous learning and innovation at work. We eagerly look forward to collaborating with you on some exciting initiatives in future. Thank you!