eLearning and the School Calendar

The school year is about to begin, but let’s think about issues that arise when the school year ends. In particular, Most states mandate that their local school districts conduct 180 days of educational instruction.* Colleges and universities have similar educational rules, though their mandates are specific to mandatory attendance for individual courses. Problems emerge on both levels when the weather or unforeseen events prevent educational institutions from conducting normal activities. The major culprit familiar to those in northern states, of course, is the “snow day.” While children rejoice in not having to go to school and relish the opportunity to play in the snow, they tend to be less enthusiastic about “snow days” after realizing in the following June that they have to spend more days in school in order to make up for missed days. The issue exists on the collegiate level, though professors and students are forced to squeeze extra course-time in at the end of the semester. Why does this matter and how can eLearning come to the rescue?

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_the_United_States#cite_ref-50

Issues Associated With Altered School Calendars

1. Student Learning Impact. One might think that an extended school calendar to make up for “snow days” would impact student learning in a negative fashion: students are less motivated and more distracted. The results of this issue are mixed. A 2012 Harvard study determined that there was not a correlation of lower test scores with “snow days.”


However, a study performed by the state of Maryland came to the opposite conclusion regarding unscheduled school closures: 3% lower test scores for third-graders (with a smaller margin for fifth and sixth-graders).


While social scientists may debate the educational impact of “snow days,” there are impacts that are clear and irrefutable. For example, state-wide and national test dates for Advanced Placement or, for example, the SATs, will not change based on “snow days” in more northern parts of a state or nation. As a result, students taking these exams would have had fewer school days and hours for preparation.

2. Economic Impact. Starting school after Labor Day has been the prevailing tradition in most states and school districts. However, unforeseen school cancellations have led various school districts to start their school calendar in August. While some parents might be pleased to send their children off to school early, the hospitality industry has vociferously lobbied against the shifting of this schedule. Why? It cuts short the vacation season. Amusement and theme park attendance decrease, and local merchants face a measurable drop in their expected income.

Integrating eLearning with the School Calendar

In order to grapple with the problems noted above, eLearning can play a significant if not central role in maintaining the pace of school calendars. The web site Education Dive recently published an article about various school districts abandoning the “snow day” in favor of eLearning. This effort is part of the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee effort to introduce eLearning into the state policy. A similar strategy was adopted in 2014 by Ohio, which passed a law empowering school districts to utilize three virtual classroom days in order to make up for the “snow day.” The state of Indiana adopted a similar law.




On the collegiate and university level, however, the prevalence of eLearning has already been built into the fabric of educational operations. It would be the rare institution of higher education that has not adopted a Learning Management System of one sort or another. Blackboard is an industry leader, and it, as do others, have dedicated modules, such as Collaborate, that permit the live operation of classes for remote locations. (In fact, my wife did this during a “snow day” at American University this year and was able to interact with students in an unexpectedly engaging way while avoiding a “make-up class.”)

What might be some of the challenges for implementing such a strategy/law?

  • Technological Gaps: While narrowing, economic and social gaps exist for families who can neither afford Internet connectivity nor computers. Rural school districts may also face added challenges in the context of the widespread availability of high-speed Internet.
  • Parental Familiarity: Similarly, while becoming far less of an issue, some students will have parents uninitiated in computer technology and unable to facilitate eLearning at home for their children.

Despite challenges, there also are opportunities:

  • An increasing number of school districts promoting a 1:1 student-to-computer ratio.
  • Tech-savvy parents who cannot only facilitate eLearning in their homes, but also telecommute to their place of employment.

Given the rise and scope of eLearning in a range of educational institutions, the days of “snow days” may become a thing of the past and nostalgic movies.


Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist


Updating Your Learning Management Systems (Part 2)

Last week, we discussed the need for updating and refining content material in your LMS modules. Updating makes sense for a number of reasons: simple spelling, grammar, syntax, and the like; factual errors and inconsistencies; and, incorporating new information into the body your module.

Yet administrators should update and refine their content material for reasons of presentation as well. By presentation, we are not talking about the addition of “bells & whistles”; users are annoyed and distracted by superfluous presentation accents. Rather, updating LMS module presentation includes changes with the existing material and adding other types of material that will accent the existing material.

Presentation Updates

  1. Previous Feedback and Soliciting Opinions. Co-workers, students, trainees—your target audience is one of the best sources for appreciating the efficacy of your LMS modules. They are the perfect demographic for collecting feedback and soliciting opinions and the most valuable, as they most likely are going to be very similar to those to follow. Require participants to answer a training survey about the module and actually use that material. Try to group comments into categories and think about how you can update/refine your module to meet their collective concerns.
  2. Complexity. These are common criticisms for some training modules: “it’s too hard”; “I did not understand a thing after XYZ”; or, “why do we have to learn this” (which is often code for “I don’t understand this”). Administrators and training professionals can respond to concerns/complaints about difficulty by shrugging, “Ah, they’ll never learn” or “They’re not trying hard enough.” This may or may not be the case, but it frequently is due to a number of reasons that can be remedied by changing the style of presentation:
    • Terms. As the trainer, it can be easy to assume that everyone understands the module language or the way that you are using it. Creating definitions are valuable even in higher-level trainings. It makes sure everyone is on the same page. The definition need not be center stage, but can be off to the side so as not to detract from the flow of your argument.
    • Logical Steps. As you are writing your text, be sure that you do not skip over ideas and explanations in pursuit of parsimony. There are different levels of competency for the range of students who will utilize your module; be sure your argument is logical and in order.
    • Accenting Concepts. Admittedly,  given topic may be complex. If possible, break the ostensible “order” and spend time developing key concepts at greater length. Slightly different than terms, key concepts are ideas that have lots of background and assumptions into them. Again, this makes sure every user is on the same page.
  3. Augmenting Existing Material. In the spirit of adding terms and key concepts, the use of diagrams, photographs, and videos can be extremely valuable. Employing diagrams is especially valuable as they can encapsulate a wide-range of concepts and dynamics in a single image or in a succession of images. If you don’t have the right diagram at hand, don’t use something inadequate. Think about creating your own or get in-house talent to assist you. It’s worth the effort.

One should be judicious in the use of photographs and videos. You should not include them simply because you have it. There needs to be a reason and rationale that contributes to the overall training. If your training is barren of these resources, though, you might consider adding some photographs, as they can break up and accent your texts and intrigue your users. One needs to be even more circumspect in the use of videos. First, be sure that your use of videos—and photographs for that matter—follow legal copyright guidelines. Second, if the LMS module is going to be used in the context of an in-person training session, be sure the amount of video time warrants its inclusion.

All of these ideas for updates and refinements are nothing earth shattering. They are simple steps one takes in any creative enterprise. Yes, your LMS content is an expression of creativity; if you think of your work this way, then you will take more care and interest in the process of crafting its content and presentation.

Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist


Updating Your Learning Management Systems (Part 1)

When discussing updating Learning Management Systems (LMS), people often think of how they can buy additional computers, create more robust networks, and add new software. We’re not going to deal with that issue in this blog. Rather, the issue this week regards how organizations update the content and/or presentation of their learning modules. Organizations may have on-line training for orientation, compliance, various skill set demonstrations, and, obviously, a myriad of other educational objectives. The content of certain trainings rarely changes, but for others the content might change on a yearly, monthly, or even weekly basis.

In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss the need for updating based on changes in content. Next week, we’ll cover issues regarding changes in presentation.

The Need for Updating and Refining—In General

Corporations should always take a look at their educational material in the context of updating. This is not change for the sake of change, but should be part of a general internal process of assessment and reassessment. Much updating takes place on the “fly,” as it were; that is, when a problem is identified, the relevant administrator will make a change. For example, imagine an employee contact form that does not have a space for an emergency contact; an administrator—especially in a smaller organization—will simply change the template and print out new copies of the form. That might seem like a trivial example, but, actually, it is relevant to training.

How is this relevant in the world of training? How many of us have gone to mandatory, annual trainings with the same trainer using the exact same PowerPoint? How often have you noticed that all of the mistakes you noticed last year are still in the presentation this year? It makes one think that the trainer simply blew the dust of her/his presentation and mouthed the same thing. In fact, some trainers might even start such meetings with the comment, “I know nobody wants to be here, but we have to do this . . .” The issue at hand is not the trainers temperament per se, but the care placed in crafting educational material. Poor material serves to inhibit the desire and ability to learn.

Types of Content Changes

Administrators should keep in mind several different issues while refining and updating the organization’s educational material. Some of these changes are simple and almost technical, while others are of a more substantive nature.

  1. Basic Changes. Those creating and/or maintaining the educational and training material must attend to basic issues. Some might suggest, “Don’t sweat the small things,” but if you don’t take your own work seriously, then it’s hard for others to do the same. Grammar, spelling, syntax, sentence and paragraph structure—all of these things matter. These errors are easy to correct. Don’t let their presence in your materials serve as a learning distraction. There are particular challenges for the “PowerPoint” variety of trainings; this format uses bullet points with short, pithy statements. Grammar and syntax is this framework can get confusing.  Do I capitalize the first word of subheading or list? What if I have a second sentence after the first one? If you’d like to be a stickler, then check the Chicago Manual of Style (6:130-131). However, an easy rule to follow is this: pick a “rule” in your style and be consistent. It’s the inconsistencies that are distracting. (Though use of the CMS is not a bad choice.)
  2. Factual Errors and/or Inconsistencies. Nothing undercuts student interest more than a teacher or training material that presents incorrect information. Say what? That would never happen. Wrong. I have seen it happen any number of times. Sometimes I would address that at the time and others after the training. It’s extremely discouraging when the trainer does not entertain the possibility of being incorrect. At colleges or paid trainings, students feel like they are wasting their money; at the workplace, it undercuts morale and respect in a profound manner. Checking for errors of this sort is not easy. Such is not identified by spell-check, and, especially if you were the author of the material, realizing these problems is challenging by definition. In your mind, it was not an error when you wrote it . . . Getting others, informed others, to read your materials is always essential. Similarly, while, as a trainer, you are supposed to be the “expert,” encourage your students to point out parts of the training that could be corrected. You want to create a community of learning and critical thinking, not a herd of sheep who abide by your every word. In fact, you may find that any given student may be more knowledgeable than you.
  3. “New” Information. “There’s nothing new under the sun.” “I’ve seen it all.” “What’s old is new again.” This type of aphorism is a valuable heuristic to ward off the hex of novelty and the fallacy of presentism. Yet at the same time, attitudes like this inadvertently feed into an intellectual laziness and auger against materially new and valuable information. Let’s break this down into several sub-categories:
  • Technical Information. A good example for this sub-category is the annual, mandatory training, for example, compliance training. Most performing this type of training are on top of their field and are aware of new material to be integrated into their training.  For example, the City Council and the Federal Government passes a new ethics law regarding government employees. This most certainly would or should be included in the training. Indeed, sending this information out prior to the training, along with the e-mail announcement can pique interest in the training and spark greater dialogue during the meeting. Another update in this regard might be operational modifications. Imagine a complex machine is malfunctioning not only at your plant throughout the country. Training might need to include information, for example, about warnings and new safety protocols. While updates of this sort happen in real-time on-the-job, for reasons of safety if not liability, organizations should update any written material as well.
  • Alternative Approaches. This type of information update frequently occurs, for example, in clinical trainings. A previous training may include three modalities for treating a certain condition; however, since the last training, the FDA may have approved a new modality of treatment. Similar to clinical modalities, one may deliver a lecture on political analysis, a matter subject to frequent changes. A professor may have to re-write her/his lecture to reassess massive shifts in voting behavior and political identification. Political pundits may argue that all of the old assumptions have to be thrown out the window . . .
  • Contrary Information. Trainings are filled with content that make references to “no known cases” or “yet to be found.” As we all know, unprecedented, new cases can and do occur. So the keeper of an organization’s training material should update a training to include that new case or discovery. For example, imagine a legal training on labor law; a new precedent could happen at any time. Include it in the text of the training instead of just orally referring to it in passing. Likewise, while valuable in and of itself, check other parts of your training for consistency with the “new” information.
  • Timely Examples and References. The use of contemporary examples and references may seem superfluous, but they serve an important function of making the training real and tangible to the student. The class or training is not just some dry material one is forced to learn, but a matter that could have a personal impact. Again, let’s use compliance training as an example: news of a local government official who violated the new ethics law and was fined $10,000. This will get their attention. There are countless other examples one can and should draw upon. Think about drawing upon ideas and matters in popular culture or political life and relate that to your training. What does this mean? Imagine CPR trainings with instructors referring to how CPR was represented in a recent television episode. Was it realistic? This makes the training material seem relevant while also engaging the students.

There are other categories of content that should be updated, but you get the picture. Trainers and educators should be mindful. Your degree of mindfulness is communicated to your students through your material. Take it seriously.

Next week, we’ll look at updates and refinements in the presentation of your training. Till then, keep cool.

Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist


Talent Management Systems (Part Three)

Over the past two blogs, we dealt with different dimensions of Talent Management Systems (TMS), recruitment and performance management. The last part of this series will deal with the remaining dimension, compensation management.

TMS compensation management modules include a variety of components. Before jumping into this, let’s recall the basis for compensation management and TMS platforms in general: human resources.

Let’s look at the foundation for most organizations:

Employee Handbook and Corporate Policy: Creating employee and organizational policy are one of the primary responsibilities for any HR division. During my early workforce years, I received the “employee handbook” upon starting a new job and was required to sign a form affirming my reception of that document. This followed the business practice of informing employees about the range of entitlements and responsibilities; this also served as a basis to limit liability on behalf of the organization. With the advent of digital information and the Internet, much of this information shifted to on-line platforms and automated employee alerts to inform employees about changes in organizational policy; employees now are directed to follow a hyperlink taking to a site detailing policy changes and requiring them to check a box to connote that they have read the policy. In some ways, the employee handbook is annotated outline of a TMS. Some of this information, naturally, covers issues of compensation management.

Money for Nothing and  . . . ?

With apologies to Dire Straights for riffing on the lyrics to their controversial 1985 rock song, money rarely is given for nothing; rather, for workers, employee compensation is best understood in the context of time management, benefits, employee classification, and work performance.

  1. Time Management: This is one of the fundamental elements in compensation management modules for every TMS. As with payroll management corporations like Paychex or ADP, compensation management modules can help corporations manage their bi-weekly or bi-monthly payrolls. As with weekly “timesheets,” employees are required to record online the number of hours worked, which then would be approved by their managers. Though such systems, employees can access information about how many hours they earned for the last pay period, for the past year, or earlier; similarly, they are capable of checking their rate of pay. Other information can be found, such as, IRS tax forms and the like.
  2. Benefits: As with salary, employees can use a compensation management module to check the status of the accrual of sick leave, vacation leave, and other benefits such as disability, health, and life insurance. The former elements of benefits naturally is directly linked into time management, since most employers—though not all—will link the awarding of sick and vacation leave with the number of hours worked. That is, for example, an employee would earn XX hours of sick/vacation leave for every eighty hours worked. Many employers, though, differentiate the rate of accrual based on the number of years of service at the organization: an employee having worked at the organization for ten years might accrue sick/vacation leave at twice the rate. Other benefits might include an employee’s enrollment in various types of insurance, especially health insurance. Generally speaking, the benefits tab of the compensation platform simply documents date and type of insurance and directs employees to the corporate portal for the insurance company. This also is the case for employees enrolling into retirement accounts via their employer. (It is rare these days, quite rare, when employees have pension plans to monitor.) Some employers will contribute a certain percentage of the employee’s income into that worker’s retirement account, which, for many, will only be available once the employee has been “vested” with a certain number of years of labor: with five years of labor, ½ the amount is vested; with ten years of labor, the entire company contribution is vested. Stock options and other ownerships mechanisms are benefits available to employees working for only certain type of corporations. Such benefits are frequently given to managers and executives as an incentive to accept employment and/or maintain corporate loyalty. Increasingly, though, such options are available to employees at all levels. In fact, numerous corporations are founded upon the principle of employee ownership.
  3. Employee Classification: The classification of employees is an element initially linked with recruitment and subsequently linked with performance management. Employees of all sorts are organized into job types, which are grouped into job categories. For example, in the administrative group, there may be job types such as clerical assistant, human resource technician or payroll administrator. In the operations group, there may be numerous sub-divisions based on the variety of operations; in this regard, there may be a single job type that cuts across the different sub-divisions, such as technician, senior technician, quality control analyst, et cetera. Frequently, corporations will create unified compensation and/or salary ranges for a single job type with a clearly delineated series of steps within a given level. For example, an employee may be classed as a Senior Technician Grade 10, and within that specific grade there will be numerous pay “steps.” Grade 11 for the Senior Technician generally will be at a higher pay level, and an employee’s elevation to that higher grade almost always is based on performance management. Similarly, an employee movement from one job type to the next is based on a managerial mandate or an external/internal recruitment process. Time management, benefits, and employee classification directly factor into corporate overhead and are used in real-time analysis about project budgets and timelines.
  4. Performance Management and Compensation Management Linkage: As discussed in the previous blog, performance management is an essential element for corporate and project management. Assessing employee performance not only is useful for meeting contractual responsibilities but also maintaining and improving corporate efficiency and morale. If employees do not see a direct relationship between their work performance and their paycheck, they are less likely to be vested in the work no less the corporation. As such, many corporations have annual if not annual and mid-year assessments. In addition to pay increases via employee classification, some organizations provide additional mechanisms for compensation.
    • Work Bonus—organizations generally provide work bonuses in two ways: discrete, specific work performance and yearly awards. In the former category, managers are often given incentives to complete contracts in advance of deadline and under budget. Non-managerial employees most commonly receive work bonuses in the context of overtime pay (which is mandated in every state). End-of-the-year bonuses are an alternative profit-sharing mechanism granted by organizational executives to “share the wealth” and to foster morale. This latter type frequently is utilized to reward dedicated and prolonged work over the course of the year.
    • Employee Rewards and Recognition—a similar type of compensation is for employee rewards and recognition. Such is granted by management and executives for exceptional employee commitment and work for a given project an/or period. While without a direct financial dimension, the nature of such compensation should not be undervalued. While rewards and recognition are clearly valuable in the context of employee morale, they are of particular value to the employee in the context of career development. A resume filled with a record of steady work and rewards/recognition is more likely to stand out than those without such.

TMS in Corporate Perspective

Compensation management, as with the other modules in a TMS platform, must be understood in the larger corporate context of budget allocations and planning. None of the aforementioned TMS modules operate in a vacuum and generally operate in a dynamic fashion with the others.

Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  1. Sick Leave and Vacation Pay: This element would seem to be very basic and straightforward, but it is not. Imagine this: a large corporation has thousands of employees, each of whom has a specific number of accrued sick leave and vacation pay. However, that accrual of leave is not just numbers but directly translate into debits on the corporate ledger. It is for this reason that the majority of organizations have a limit for the amount of hours and the length of time that leave hours may be saved. This leads to the well-known “use-it-or-loose-it” dictum. Such dynamics then create a feedback loop into human resource policy as noted above.
  2. Contractual Requirements: While not discussed specifically in this series of blogs, learning management is a key element in contract competition. Many RFPs (Requests For Proposals) have specific mandates to have workers with a certain level of education and/or training. Thoughtful executives will be able to analyze the status of their workforce and determine corporate need for educational planning in the context corporate growth.

Talent Management Systems are integral parts of any organization. While technology garners a great deal of attention, the workforce remains the backbone of the modern corporation. TMS platforms empower managers and executives to make the best use of its human resources and plan for the future.


Talent Management Systems (Part Two)

Last week, we entered into the world of Talent Management Systems (TMS), which are software platforms that empower corporate users to analyze and manage numerous organizational goals. The first conceptual pillar, or organizational goal, is the recruitment of new employees. We’ll skip over the second pillar, corporate learning, since that concept and those issues have been dealt with extensively in our blogs about Learning Management Systems (LMS). That leaves us with the third pillar, Performance Management.

Hey, Boss . . . How am I Doing?

The employee and employer relationship is founded upon a very basic understanding: the business owner gives compensation to her or his employee in exchange for the worker’s labor. Normally this compensation is monetary, that is, a salary or hourly wage, but compensation packages generally include a range of benefits, such as disability/health insurance, earned sick leave and vacation time, in addition to retirement plans. This, on one hand, is all very contractual: do the job and get paid, but that’s only based on a limited notion of employee motivation.

One can understand the rationale for employment from three different perspectives. First, as noted above, an employee offers her or his labor in exchange for compensation.  This is extremely significant and should not be dismissed. Employees must be able to support themselves, their families, and even extended families; likewise, employees use work money for pleasurable pursuits outside of work: leisure activities, travel, and other discretionary purchases. For employers, they want their employees to do the job.

Second, many employees take great personal and professional pride in their work; it’s not just for the money, as their identity is intertwined with their profession. I’m not just an employee, but a skilled engineer or graphic designer. Similarly, employers want their employees to have a sense of pride, as this inevitably translates into a superior product (not to mention a happy, stable workforce).

Last, some employees view work in the context of a transformative activity, that is, work promotes and helps bring about valued social change. Such is the case for not-for-profit employees, but also is the case for individuals working in the arts, helping professions, and technology. Here, the employer wants the employee to take a sense of ownership over their work and the entire business enterprise.

For most employees, their work rationale is not just based on one of the factors but frequently a mixture of two or even three. An employer assesses and manages employee performance in a similar fashion. In this regard employers and employees can assess work progress using the performance management module in various TMS platforms.

Elements of TMS Performance Management

  1. Performance Management and LMS: While performance management is differentiated from the LMS module in TMS platforms, they clearly share a related goal. In the modern workplace, employees must retain and increase work-related knowledge and skill sets in order to meet performance standards and contribute to organizational goals in a competitive market.
  2. Goal and Task Tracking: Every single successful business must be able to track its daily tasks and work products and be able to link that with their overall goals, be it production quotas, contractual deadlines and the like. One of the major elements of goal and task tracking, though, is setting individual goals—individual service plans (ISP). Here in concert with her or his manager, the employee seeks to make performance improvements based on the mid- or previous year evaluation. This can include production goals that include quantify but also might include goals such as decreasing the number of products that might have to be discarded due to substandard workmanship. All of this serves as a basis to inform not only education but also compensation as well. Similar to ISPs, corporate managers may seek to use TMS performance management to track various project benchmarks that have contractual obligations. This, obviously, is less of an issue for “simple” projects but is quite essential for complicated, interdependent projects with rigid contracts. Organizational planners also try to determine whether or not employees are successful in integrating education and training into their work. Moreover there is a feedback dynamic between the performance management and LMS modules. In the process of determining “employee effectiveness,” managers frequently identify problems that will serve to update elements in the organizational educational and training program. This, too, serves as part of the basis in determining compensation.
  3. Varied Alert Systems: In tandem with goal and task setting, performance management modules alert managers and workers whether or not production output are meeting corporate and/or contractual expectations. Sometimes such alerts will be providing information that already is known: yes, production has not met expectation because of a broken assembly line machine. However, such alerts can highlight subtle decreases in production rate that have impact latter stages of the production cycle. Here, just think about how a motorist pulled off to the side of the road by a police officer slows traffic on both sides of the road; when motorists slow down, then those behind them slow down as well, which creates a ripple effect. The same exists in the work process. So varied alert systems can help identify and prevent larger system dysfunction as well. This element in production management also is valuable in the context of assisting employees to meet goals in their ISPs. It is far easier for a worker to meet goals if he or she receives regular (sometimes constant) feedback about their work. Receiving negative feedback at an annual evaluation would feel punitive if workers had not been given opportunities to correct mistakes during the course of the year.
  4. Workflow Automation: The ability to automate various elements of the production process can create efficiencies and streamlines the production cycle in general. In lieu of a managerial decision, automation can queue workers at various stages of the production cycle to speed up and/or shift production responsibilities so that managers can direct their attention to monitoring and/or resolving problems that need their direct attention. Automation of this sort creates value not only in terms of production economies but also with corporate morale. While corporate owners certainly do not want idle workers, dedicated employees need to feel their effort and time is not wasted. Workflow automation can avoid this type of dysfunction. Similarly, managers and workers alike can take pride in a smooth-running business operation.
  5. Employee Surveys: Contrary to the traditional top-down style of management, organizations are enlisting the support of their employees in order to better assess and understand the production process and their operations in general. Such surveys can include an array of topics: the educational and training program, managerial behavior and style, et cetera. As with ISPs, employee surveys can be elicited on an annual basis or can be linked to specific projects or educational programs. Employee surveys truly only have value if workers feel that input has value. That is, do managers change training programs, have employee-managerial dynamics changed, have future contracts been written in a fashion to create realistic deadlines? Employee feedback is the dimension of employee-managerial relationships that provide greatest insight into corporate morale. As noted in the section above, the “work contract” is not only the basis for monetary compensation but also for a fulfilling work experience. Are employees developing career-advancing skills, do employees feel valued, do employees appreciate that the work is directed toward a socially-valued outcome?

Next week, let’s turn to the final element of TMS platforms, compensation management and can see how all of the elements are TMS systems are integrated.

Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., JAG Learning Strategist

Talent Management Systems (Part One)

In past blogs, we dealt in depth about Learning Management Systems (LMS) while detailing various ways to assess the value of an organization’s educational program and chart the educational progress of an employee (the Kirkpatrick Model). A number of corporations have developed software platforms that add additional elements to the LMS concept. Talent Management Systems (TMS) are software packages that help organizations analyze and manage information spanning from the recruitment stage through basic human resources.

The following are just a sampling of the existing vendors:

  • SuccessFactors
  • Oracle Talent Cloud
  • Cornerstone on Demand
  • Workday

The TMS trend is pervasive not only in the corporate sector but throughout government. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) embraces the TMS approach in its mission (https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/human-capital-management/talent-management/) as does the U.S. Veterans Administration is one of the largest bureaucratic entities within the U.S. Government. With a huge central, Washington-based nerve center, the VA has operations spread throughout multiple locations within each of the fifty states.


Let’s look at the basic elements of the TMS concept.

The Four Pillars of TMS

Various software vendors have created platforms geared toward the larger, corporate partner, but smaller solutions exist as well. A central feature of any TMS is human resources (HR). The four pillars of TMS are the following: recruitment, corporate learning, performance management, and compensation management.


Each pillar represents a different albeit integrated TMS module that is used for overall employee acquisition, development, and management. For this blog, let’s look at the issue of recruitment.

The World of Recruitment

After graduating from graduate school back in the 1980s, I remember looking through the New York Times and Washington Post Sunday editions to scour their respective employment posting. I was looking for work in the field of international affairs and defense contracting. Most of the jobs were geared toward individuals with advanced experience. The key concept back in those days was “networking.” So I spoke with friends in the field, attended professional mixers, stopped by Capitol Hill every Friday to check its job board; the process was never-ending and laborious. As we all know, things have changed greatly.

Especially with impact of technology in virtually every professional field, employers are seeking applicants with a robust and wide-ranging skill set. In many fields, employers have difficulty finding the right candidate and must vie for polished candidates with an ever-growing base of corporate competitors. Compared to previous decades, employers rarely use the newspaper-based model for seeking candidates. Rather, most employers use a variety of search and recruitment methods: corporate website postings, online job-listing sites, online resume-listing sites, and the like. True, many corporations, especially for higher-level management positions, will still seek out “head-hunting services,” but even much of that has been supplanted through online systems. In fact, or should one say indeed, I was surprised to the level of being shocked upon reading news that 65% of all online hires and 72% of interviews took place through the website Indeed.com.


Let’s look at some of the components of organizational recruitment:

  • job boards
  • search engines
  • social media
  • automation (regarding character recognition and resume auto-fill features)
  • candidate acquisition
  • screening/testing
  • video interviewing
  • applicant tracking
  • on-boarding


TMS software varies in its platform portfolios of services. So let’s look at some examples: various TMS packages are capable of searching external resume posting sites to identify candidates matching selected job requirements. In this regard SAP SuccessFactors identifies the following recruitment features on its website:

  1. Source with global job distribution: 4,000 job boards, social networks, universities, and schools in more than 80 countries
  2. Engage candidates with career sites and remarketing: this component deals with active candidates while fostering a community of passive candidates
  3. Comprehensive applicant management: this touches upon organizing identified professionals, planning phone and/or video interviews, et cetera.

Other TMS platforms include options such as screening applicants through online testing. Testing of this sort can query applicants on their knowledge base or seek responses for questions to identify personality and work weaknesses and strengths. One such major not-for-profit organization that uses such an approach is Ashoka (Innovators for the Public).

Let’s recount the corporate rationale for utilizing a recruiting TMS module:

  1. a fast, comprehensive approach to search for candidates and maintain a passive pool of candidates during non-job search periods
  2. a fast, efficient method to identify and rank qualified candidates
  3. an organized and, for some, multi-faceted screening tool
  4. a calendar-based, scheduling tool for interviewing
  5. a fast, accurate method to track the recruitment stage for each candidate
  6. an overall TMS integrated platform to determine possible salary ranges
  7. a mechanism to generate offer letters
  8. a means to on-board successful applicants while integrating them into the broader organizational employee HR system

One can see how a TMS recruitment module could be successful for large corporations. For example, SAS SuccessFactors identifies Allstate, Amtrack, and Brooks Brothers as some of their corporate partners.

Next week, given our past handlings of Learning Management Systems, we’ll go straight into the TMS performance management module.

Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., JAG Learning Strategist


Photo-Realistic Animation (Part Two): The Uncanny Valley

In the earlier blog dealing with the issue of photo-realistic animation, we looked at basic terminology and types of animation, which is a central storytelling tool in training. Four types of animation were identified: stick figures, cartoon characters, realistic characters, and photo-realistic characters. The last type was reserved for this blog. Photo-realistic animation injects an interesting and often unsettling element into the field of animation. In order to appreciate this element, one needs to investigate the nature of photo-realistic reproduction and the central issue, the emergence of the uncanny valley. Moreover, when assessing negative features associated with photo-realistic animation, one needs to place it in a broader cultural context.

The Work of Art in the Digital Age of Photo-Realistic Reproduction

The title chosen for this subsection is a conscious allusion to the famous essay written by Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Written in 1935, Benjamin discussed how artistic works, such as painting and even theatrical plays, were devalued due the process of mechanical reproduction. He made this conclusion based on his argument that the true artistic value, the “aura,” of the work was lost in its reproduction. In short, art lost its cultural authenticity when it became a product of consumerism instead of aesthetic reflection. The culprits of his cultural descent included printmaking, photography, and cinema. This neo-Marxist critique, more importantly for Benjamin, explained how capitalist societies politically deluded and pacified the masses.

Walter Benjamin, c. 1924

Wikipedia Commons

Placing the issue of political analysis aside for the moment, the “artistic” goal, for some, when engaging in “mechanical reproduction” was to create duplicates as close to the original as possible. In many ways, the photograph was the model for this endeavor. We now are at a very different stage regarding the types of technology utilized in reproduction.

In the digital age, as noted in a previous blog, we see a comparable cultural lament; new forms of reproduction are replacing the older “mechanical” forms, the rise of the digital at the expense of the analog. While the photograph was viewed as the epitome of accurate reproduction, digital photographic formats have created the means for expanded content manipulation as well as the ability to generate new content devoid and separate from any external reality. This is where the world of photo-realistic animation comes into the picture.

Photo-Realistic Representation

The previous blog differentiated amongst four different forms of animation. Excluding photo-realistic representation, the other forms harbored no pretence of even trying to mimic reality in a manner that would fool an observer. Photo-realistic animation, however, does seek to replicate scenes, as a conscious goal, as one would see them in a photograph or live-action cinema. For some, this is where a problem emerges. Like in the era of mechanical reproduction, concerned parties view the issue of authenticity as the key element. For Benjamin, the loss of authenticity eclipsed the political identity of citizens; for those concerned with photo-realistic representation, that gap in authenticity generates an unsettling sensibility regarding the nature of human identity itself.

Masahiro Mori


The Uncanny Valley. The concept of the uncanny valley was coined Masahiro Mori, a Japanese professor in robotics. Born in 1927, Mori published the seminal article titled “The Uncanny Valley” in the journal Energy. Simply stated, Mori’s thesis is the following:

“I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear like a human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley (Figure 1), which I call the uncanny valley.  . . . One might say that the prosthetic hand has achieved a degree of resemblance to the human form, perhaps on par with false teeth. However, once we realize that the hand that looked real at first sight is actually artificial, we experience an eerie sensation. For example, we could be started during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness. When this happens, we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand become uncanny.” (For an English translation, see: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/6213238/?reload=true.)

Mori argues that the genesis of the uncanny valley is based on the human anxiety over death and the drive for self-preservation. Others have linked its genesis to the drive for mate selection, cognitive dissonance, and religious sensibilities among others.

Mori posits a strong relationship between the effect of movement and the uncanny valley. If robotic movement begins to mimic human motion, then its level of affinity is increased. However, simple replication of certain types of motion is not enough, as there is a large-range of human movements that might not or could not be programmed into a robot. As a result, Mori suggests that scientists consciously pursue a nonhuman design in order to generate a safe level of affinity.

While Mori’s concept specifically dealt with human-like qualities in robots, it is relevant in the entire range of projects that seek to replicate human qualities, which include appearance, movement, and voice.

The Range of the Uncanny Valley

To best appreciate the visual sense of the uncanny valley, one needs to be able to clearly see and interact with the range of images, so a selection of large images are included below:

Android: Hiroshi Ishiguro and Double (Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratory), 2013

Website: http://www.cubo.cc/creepygirl/

Movie: Polar Express (2004)

Video Game: Medal of Honor: Warfighter

In comparison, let’s look at a spectrum of images created, from the most-robot like to the most human:

Maya B. Mathura & David B. Reichling


Let’s look at other ways the uncanny valley phenomena has been observed in the range of evolution:

  1. Monkeys: Princeton researchers presented evidence arguing that monkeys also respond the uncanny valley.


  1. Computer chat bots have been categorized in the realm of the uncanny valley.


For many years if not decades, the ability to generate life-like creations have been limited by restrictions in technology. If we had better technology, wouldn’t we have better representations and reproductions? Well that’s true. Ironically, the issue of hyperrealism has not only impacted the digital world of computers but also the “authentic” art world of canvas-based painting.

Phillip Weber, Bless 3, Antonia (2012)


Countervailing Factors

There are a number of factors that force one to reconsider the operative concept of the uncanny valley:

  1. Human Robot/Interaction: In a recent significant research article in the field, Jakub A. Zlotowski and his colleagues posit that the perception of the uncanny valley can be impacted by human/robot interactions. That is, many of the studies on the uncanny valley focus on experiments with subject responses to digital images and/or videos. Zlotowski determined that “repeated interactions [with the robot] was sufficient to reduce eeriness irrespective of the robot’s embodiment.” This factor, of course, does not obtain in the same way when investigating the uncanny valley in scenarios based in the context of videos itself, for example, in the field of training.


  1. Japan and Robot Culture: While the notion of the uncanny valley originated from Japan, it is useful, extremely useful, to highlight the cultural differences between the East and the West. It should not be a surprise, simply based on popular media coverage, that the Japanese have a strong affinity for modern robot culture. This sensibility, though, is rooted in the Karakuri tradition, which shielded technology to promote “feelings and emotions;” a similar sense existed in Eastern attitudes toward marionettes. In comparison, the Western automata tradition was based on mimicry and scientific knowledge.


  1. Improving Technology: In a recent article in the magazine Wired, Sandra Upton argues that advances in artificial intelligence brings into question the continuing validity of the uncanny valley.  Upton argues that the algorithms in various digital tools, such as Adobe’s Sensei, are so powerful as to create products that almost are indistinguishable from reality. She states bluntly that this could be, actually, the technological basis for Fake News.


Closing Thoughts

When reflecting upon these discussions, we are directed back to some of our original questions. Benjamin investigated how mechanical reproduction impacted our ability to maintain authenticity and class insight. Mori broached the same question in the context of the fabrication of robots; for Mori, though, the matter dealt more with the issue of authenticity and human consanguinity with robots.

All withstanding, one is forced to deal with the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the limits and range of artificial intelligence. Mori dealt with this issue in his 1974 book The Buddha in the Robot: A Robot Engineer’s Thoughts on Science and Religion. In this work, he claimed that robots can give us insight into our own ethics and concluded that robots are capable of cultivating a Buddha-like nature. So our initial investigation looked at the experiential pitfalls of using photo-realistic animation and ended up by asking existential questions about the nature of humanity. But how does this factor into the more discrete issue of training? In short, as suggested by Mori himself, one should tread carefully in using animation that is too accurate, as technological limitations may lead you to slip into the uncanny valley.

As always, let us know what you think!

Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist


Photo-Realistic Animation (Part One): A Review of Terminology and Types

Last week, we finished up a three-part series comparing books with tablets, which served, among other things, to delve into the experiential dimension of eLearning. This two-part blog will continue in the experiential vein by reviewing user preferences regarding the issue of photo-realistic animation.

Before diving into photo-realistic animation and the peculiar world of the uncanny valley, let’s review some basic terminology and Types.

Animation Terminology

The word “animation” conjures up images of Saturday morning cartoons and major motion pictures. However, animation simply is the means of creating the illusion of motion by using images (pictures and/or photographs). The mechanisms of creating modern animation, as one might surmise, draws upon the history of optical discovery and innovation; witness the kineograph (the flipbook), praxinoscope, thaumatrope, and the zoetrope. Given childhood memories, my favorite is the flipbook: I remember going to the shoe store and putting a nickel in a machine with a handle that I’d crank to “flip” through a series of different photographs to create the illusion of motion, and, importantly for our purposes, a narrative. The flipbook also is the direct precursor of cinematography, the motion picture.

In the world of motion pictures, there are a variety of styles of animation: traditional, stop-motion, and computer generated. Traditional animation employed cinema frames (cells) that were manually drawn by artists to literally trace the motion of objects and characters, which was, in a manner of thinking, analogical; stop-motion animation entailed miniscule movements of actual objects that were photographed and compiled into a motion picture. Both forms are extremely time consuming in general and even more with increased levels of fluidity. Computer-generated animation, of course, has transformed the type of artisanship and increased the range of possibilities.

Let’s shift to the world of e-Learning . . .

Animation and eLearning

There are two primary ways of using the term animation in eLearning, both of which are employed in the context of presentations. The first deals with textual presentation techniques; here, think of PowerPoint presentations.

All of us have sat through countless PowerPoint presentations and noticed there are two schools of thought: those who use animation and those who don’t. Among the ones that do, there is a subspecies of presenters who go way overboard as it were. What are we talking about? Let’s look at some examples:

Texts that “appear,” “fly,” “blink,” “fade,” and the like—all with a click of the projector remote. Used judiciously, such features may enhance a presentation; used indiscriminately, they are maddening. For example . . . [though imagine it moving …]

  1. Animation Terminology

Ok. That was the first type of animation used in eLearning. That’s not what we are talking about. The form of animation increasingly used in presentations and on-line modules is more closely akin to the animation in the previous section: video content that employs a scene, characters, and context, in other words, a narrative. Another way of thinking about narrative in the context of eLearning is storytelling. When we think about storytelling and eLearning we think about training.

So how does storytelling fit into the scheme of eLearning?

The heretofore-traditional mode of training was with an in-person expert imparting information and moderating discussion. Obviously, this has continuing currency and value. But . . . for the training that is repeated, and repeated, for class after class, for new employee after new employee, there is value—not to mention savings—in animation. Moreover, animation often can demonstrate scenarios that cannot be easily replicated at in-person trainings.

Animation and Storytelling

As one can imagine, utilizing live-action “actors” to create training scenarios and storylines can be a painstaking if not expensive enterprise. That’s one of the reasons why training administrators rely upon animation, which generally speaking draws upon computer software programs that generate animated scenes.

Trainers can employ animation in a number of fashions: traditional animated frames with captions and/or talk-over narrative and, more intensively, actual video presentations. In the context of this following discussion, we are not using the term “animation” in the conventional sense of creating the illusion of movement. Rather, we are using the term to connote a style of representation associated with traditional notions of cartoon-style drawing. There are different styles of animated storytelling: stick figures, cartoon characters, realistic characters, and photo-realistic characters.

Stick Figures:

Given our level of digital sophistication, and contrary to what one might suspect, storytelling can be compelling and pedagogically valuable when using stick figures in training. Such figures have been used since the dawn of cinema; witness Émile Cohl’s short, Fantasmagorie (1908). See:



While having no pretension of realism or ostensible sophistication, stick figures can be rather compelling in their simplicity by generating a direct narrative without distracting backdrops. For example, R.J. Miller presented its value at a recent iConference, “Draw My Life: Creative Reflection Through Stick Figure Storytelling.”


The Draw My Life video notion has a wide following and has been used by celebrities such as Taylor Swift in their social media.

While “stick figure” animation may be characters, they may just as likely be other images sequentially drawn together; here, think whiteboard-brainstorming sessions. What might be lacking in stick figure animation can be gained with the concepts accented by compelling and affirmative audio storytelling. In addition, the appeal of stick figures is evident in the popularity of applications such as Pivot Animator and Stykz.

Cartoon Characters:

The use of cartoon characters can be highly useful in training sessions for a number of reasons. First, familiarity for younger learners can create an initial positive disposition. Second, cartoons can present characters that are non-threatening; this obviously can be of value with younger learners, but also can be useful for adults when dealing with difficult and emotionally sensitive subjects. A non-pictorial analogy is the use of dolls by therapists when working with child victims of trauma. Third, cartoons can assist educators in presenting abstract, complex concepts.

Rees J (2005) The Problem with Academic Medicine: Engineering Our Way into and out of the Mess. PLoS Med 2(4): e111. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020111, Wikipedia Commons, and,

JAG Global Learning

There is, moreover, research suggesting that the use of nonsensical figures can be understood and recalled better when receiving interpretive, contextual commentary. See BowerGH, MBKarlin, ADueck,  “Comprehension and memory for pictures,” Memory & Cognition, March 1975 (2): 216:20.

Separately, in economics education, research has revealed value in the use of cartoon characters in constructive and collaborative learning with the potential for impacting critical thinking. See van WykMM, “The Use of Cartoons as a Teaching Tool to Enhance Student Learning in Economics Education,” Journal of Social Science, 26(2): 117-30.

Alternatively, however, a more recent study has found that while cartoon characters might be thought to capture interest more quickly, participants liked human spokespersons better. BhutadaNS, BLRollins, and MPerrii, “Impact of Animated Spokes-Characters in Print Direct-to-Consumer Prescription Drug Advertising:An Elaboration Likelihood Model Approach,” Health Communication, 2017, Volume 32, Issue 4, 391-400.

In short, it is likely that the value of cartoon characters in storytelling is dependent upon content and context.

Realistic Characters:

Up until relatively recently—I’m talking about a decade or two—realistic style characters have been the animation of choice for many educational administrators. Why? First, many administrators believe realism facilitates translation into the work place. Realistic backdrops, scenarios, and characters—all of these things create a sense of resonance for workers when dealing with a subject. Second, for certain subjects, the style of realism is commensurate with the gravity of the educational content. So, for example, one might not want to employ stick or cartoon characters when training non-violent restraint techniques for use in a psychiatric hospital. Third, realistic characters can be created that more readily reflect the demographics of the employees and/or students. This latter factor probably could not be stressed enough in the context of students embodying and understanding the ideas and narrative of the story.


When comparing the “cartoon” animation in the previous section versus the images presented above, the difference in animation style is patently clear. In thinking of a description to compare the two, one might use the examples of animation in the traditional comics versus graphic novels.

The final form of animation deals with the photo-realistic style. Let’s reserve that and discussions about related issues for next week.

Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist

Books vs. Tablets (Part Three): Literature Review

To finish up this series about comparing the experiential dimension of books versus tablets, let’s look at some articles and research about the issue that touch upon how these different mediums impact learning—understanding, cognition, and retention.

Literature Review

As one might suspect, putting matters of scientific comparisons aside, there are two schools of thought regarding the value of books versus tablets. The first arguing that books will and can never be replaced due to their fundamental sense of familiarity, feel, and natural relationship with the reader; the second argues that books are destined to join the dust pile of history and that tablets will naturally supersede books in a matter of time. Research and studies on this matter seek to differentiate the two less on such visceral reactions and more on issues that can be better qualified and quantified. Let’s look at two reviews.

Twenty-five years ago, Andrew Dillon generated a review of the empirical literature (Dillon, A. (1992) Reading from paper versus screens: a critical review of the empirical literature. Ergonomics, 35(10), 1297-1326.) (Cut-and-paste below)


Dillon breaks down his review into several areas, but notes, all withstanding, that many of the studies are flawed in their research design:

  1. Reading Speed: while noting design flaws that existed in previous studies, Dillon affirms that reading speed is slower from computer screens.
  2. Accuracy: Dillon notes that judging accuracy is more difficult than reading speed per se, as accuracy deals with a number of different issues. If, for example, one is measuring accuracy in terms of “proofreading” texts, then the studies reviewed conclude that screens obtain poorer results than paper. But, the aforementioned studies simply included errors such as extra/missed spaces or double letters instead of common proofreading errors such as misspellings and errors of context and grammar.
  3. Fatigue: Dillon notes that different studies have produced differing conclusions depending upon the subject. While a number have concluded that screens created more eye fatigue, others have found that the difference from fatigue between paper and screens depended upon screen quality.
  4. Comprehension: Post-reading questions were used in many studies to assess comprehension. The studies Dillon reviewed found no discernable difference between paper and screens, though did find a difference between faster and slower readers, with slower readers having greater comprehension. Dillon concluded that comprehension is not adversely impacted when reading from screens versus books and, actually, in certain scenarios may be improved, for example, when writing essay type answers for an open book test using a hyperlinked statistics book.
  5. Preference: Dillon notes that the studies under review in this context did not offer much assistance, as most of the users were relatively “new” users, which may have inadvertently created a negative disposition toward screen reading. Similarly, the preference of books versus screens was heavily influenced by the quality of the paper/books versus the quality of screens. As such, Dillon concludes that preferences are not well understood at that time.

A more recent review, which was widely reported upon in the media, was written by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American: “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper Versus Screens,” April 11, 2013. (Cut-and-paste below)


Jabr notes, digital users previously were reported to have read “slower, less accurately, and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. [Though s]tudies published since the early 1990s have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority have confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens.”

Despite this leveling of differences, Jabr does note continuing differences, which include the tactile dimension of reading in addition to factors that contribute to one’s ability to intuitively navigate a text. This latter dimension also factors into issues regarding content recollection. In this regard, some researchers have found that memory often is linked to the experience of reading, which serves cognitive reflection when attempting to recall the information. For example, one may remember a given fact being in the last paragraph at the bottom of a page at the end of the chapter. Such experiential elements are often lost when using digital texts. Similar dynamics obtain regarding the “rhythm” of flipping through pages and developing a mental map of information in a text.

While participants in recent studies have shown a preference for paper over screens, as Jabr notes, there is information and experiences that cannot be duplicated on paper and can only be relayed via digital means, for example, the Scale of the Universe tool (http://scaleofuniverse.com).

All withstanding, a recent CNN review on this subject have shown some alternative finding, which, in many ways are not surprising:

  • “Students overwhelmingly prefer screen to print.
  • “Reading was significantly faster online than print.
  • “Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print.
  • “Paradoxically, overall comprehension was better for print versus digital reading.
  • “The medium didn’t matter for general questions (like understanding the main idea of the text).
  • “But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.”


The review above demonstrates increasing viability for digital reading in a world previously dominated by books and paper texts. However, it is clear, especially with the rise of digital natives, that preferences and, perhaps, learning realities may be changing with the increasing tide of digital content.

Next week, let’s look at a different experiential dimension of eLearning. For this blog, we’ll look at the issues associated with user preferences when comparing photo-realistic animation versus traditional animation.

Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist

Books vs. Tablets (Part Two): Cultural Context and Experiential Comparison

Last time, we broached the topic of comparing the value of traditional paperbound texts—books—versus computer tablets. Before making an experiential comparison, let’s look at the cultural context as to why this might even be an issue . . .

Cultural Context

The use of computerized tablets in education is quite new. Let’s take a quick review: prior to the iPad—generally considered the first mass market computer tablet—there were other portable electronic devices that used screens, some used for play and others for work. The first widely accessible handheld devices were used for gaming; such devices, of course, were the next step from desktop computer gaming, which supplanted the rows of pinball machines and the newer arcade games utilizing screens, such as Pac Man. By design, handheld devices promoted mobility and, for their youthful users, an opportunity to fixate on their gaming challenges.

Handhelds used for work were designed for a different target population, an older user juggling a range of responsibilities: witness the birth of the computerized personal assistant. While the Apple Newton is a progenitor in this field, the major player was the Palm Pilot, which stored contact information of colleagues, generate To Do Lists, and to plot activities in a calendar capable of providing audible reminders. The Palm was directly comparable to traditional weekly paper organizers, but with an added function, global search capacity. Soon, as expected, competitors arose from Microsoft, the Palm PC, which I actually used for Palm-like functions but also mobile data entry.  Here, as with desktops, we see the burgeoning field of software companies utilizing host operating systems to create applications, apps, to tailor a handheld device for the user’s needs.

During this time period, a cultural divide began to take shape, between those who embraced the new devices and technologies versus those who did not or, at the very least, those who were grumbling if not fumbling ambivalent users.  The advocates saw themselves carrying the technological flag of the future, while others criticized the use of handheld devices due to cost, durability, and their departure from basic sensibility. As with the rise of most impactful technologies, this divide was temporal, which pitted advocates of “progress” versus those of “tradition.”

This technology advanced, though, and generated what many viewed as a new type of social anxiety: Information Overload. How could one keep up with the explosion of information facilitated by the Internet? Was it any easier that all of this information was funneled and/or compacted into new handheld devices, that is, tablets? While the felt anxiety was real, the claim of it being a new type of anxiety was not. Remember the printing press, for example? There are scholarly articles that discuss the issue of information anxiety back in that period too. In addition to information overload, an associated anxiety was generated due to matters of technological competency.

As a result of this division, the cultural divide fed into a cycle of nostalgia and an appreciation of various retro markets. Think of the appeal of Moleskine notepads. This dynamic, while in part being a temporal, did not and does not fall along generational lines. Tradition, and in the minds of some, the analog, is striking back against the pace of technological process, which fed into the slow living movement, which seeks in part to define one’s sense of sensory appreciation and personal value versus the “speed” of modern living.

Regardless of the cultural divide, computer tablets are here to stay. We use them when swiping our credit cards and penning our signature at the new coffee shop. Indeed, it is most telling, perhaps, that Moleskine, originally founded in 1997 as Modo & Modo, began marketing the means of syncing paper and digital planners.

During the consumer ascendency of computerized personal assistants, there was a similar growth in the worlds of cell phones and laptop computers. Cell phones left their clamshell avatar and began to adopt the features of the computerized personal assistant; similarly, laptops sought to claim the computing power of desktops while maintaining its portable, less hefty profile. It’s not surprising, then, that tablets sought to incorporate elements of the new cell phone and laptops.

Experiential Comparison

The discussion below is neither intended as a scientific study nor a technical analysis; rather, it is solely intended to introduce the types of issues one might consider when actually performing such a study or analysis.

Types of Tablets: To begin our comparison, let’s look at the different types of tablets. The focus will not be on proprietary brands or operating systems; rather, one should look at capabilities. Tablets can be broken down into two primary categories: software application driven tablets with computing power versus tablets that function primarily as “readers,” that is, E-readers. While initially not the case, both categories now have incorporated Internet capacity as one of its primary features.

  • Function
    • Content Delivery: Both books and tablets deliver content, though the former is more closely akin with E-readers. Both may have indices; only tablets have a search capacity (restricted by information format).
    • Bibliographic Sources: Both books and tablets have bibliographic guides or references. Tablets with Internet capacity can access certain sources immediately, and with the rise of Internet features, such as, Google Books, tablets can even access otherwise distant content not available in digital format.
    • Referencing: Tablets with Internet capacity can offer content cross-referencing using hyperlink functions.
  • Physical Character
    • Portability and weight: Books and tablets are comparable in portability. Tablets, however, on the whole will be lighter, especially given its storage capacity. Even a single large academic textbook is likely to be heavy and more of a burden to transport.
    • Durability: Books are more durable than tablets in most ways, including likelihood of significant breakage. While users may be able to retrieve content from a storage area, tablet damage is more financially impactful than damages to books.
    • Storability: Given its digital content format, tablets have far, far more storage capacity than books. Problems exist for storing digital content for long periods of time, but similar albeit different problems exist in storing paper book content for long periods of time.
  • Tactile Character: For individuals who grew up reading paper books, magazines, and newspapers, the tactile character of the text can be extremely important. This is the ineffable feel and sense of the reading material, an element of the book versus tablet comparison that may very well be generational.
    • Engagement of composite text: What is it like to hold the text? One or two handed? At a table or in your chair or on your lap? In many ways, tablets are easier to use, since one need not worry the movement of folding pages; on the other hand, one cannot be as cavalier, as it were, when holding a tablet when compared with a book given the high cost of dropping the tablet.
    • Dexterity and style of manipulation: Manipulating a tablet is as easy as flipping through the pages of a book. Again the preference is likely generational; however, one need not “dog-ear” a book page, if one can simply create a digital bookmark.
    • Use of writing implements: Underlining/highlighting passages and marginalia are the set tools of the trade for any student. For some it might be easier to manipulate using paper texts—the ability to cradle the book and write with precision. But it’s probably only a matter of time until tablets can mimic that sense too. On the other hand, an E-reader can still “mark-up” pages without devaluing the text the way such would do with a paper text. Digital writing implements have gone through an evolution concerning their precision; tablet screens are going through a comparable evolution from resistive touch-screens to capacitive touch-screens. In addition, tablet software has made incredible strides toward handwriting and voice recognition.
    • Sensory tactile sensibility: This, for many, is the deal breaker when looking at the entire comparison. Generally speaking, tablets don’t and had never attempted to mimic the tactile feel of using paper. For those who grew up reading and using print, it is really hard to get over this (though all of them would be happy to give up the paper cuts).
  • Visual Character: Visual character is the most significant element to consider when analyzing books versus tablets in the context of education. The other elements dealt largely dealt with matters of preference, sensibility, and the like. However, visual character—the optical nature of the text—impacts cognition and retention the most. Research on this subject will be dealt with during the final blog. The comparison below concerns paper texts and tablets utilizing LCD screens. E-reader tablets, though, utilizing E-ink technology has proven to be more “paper-like” and less computer-like than LCD tablets.
    • Textual character integrity: To the naked eye, the textual character of tablets is comparable to paper texts. But if looked at in perspective, we understand why the issue exists: the character integrity of early dot matrix printers and/or computer screens was highly flawed by contemporary standards. Depending upon tablet choice, the digital resolution can vary, which can translate into varying ease of reading.
    • Textual contrast: In terms of color composition, tablets and digital imagery can mimic the textual contrast present in paper texts. The residual issue is related to the next, element, how the illuminated nature of the majority of tablets impacts the sensory act of reading.
    • Impact of lighting: Without recounting childhood imperatives about not reading in the dark, lighting is a significant factor for both paper text and tablets. The choice of lighting—incandescent versus florescent—is relevant in consideration of paper text; the nature of the tablet illumination is equally significant. Early computer screens dealt with issues of flickering; while that phenomenon is not an issue with tablets per se, there remains an issue regarding the light it emits. As noted above, this issue does not obtain in the same way when comparing certain readers, which utilize E-ink screens.
  • Cost/$$$$: Prior to tablets, this factor primarily centered on choices of hardbound versus paperback and new versus used. However, digital publishing and the Internet have ushered in a range of new choices. While cost is not really a factor when considering content cognition and retention, it is a factor faced by educational institutions when deciding how to use their scarce financial recources.
    • New, used, and rent: The issue of new versus used only obtains for paper texts, not for tablets. The costs, although, for digital content initially was far below that of paper texts. The shipment of paper texts, naturally, included additional costs into this equation, whereas digital texts can simply be downloaded. Colleges made it exceptionally easy to sell back college texts (generally at a substantially lower rate); students can rent content for tablets, through time restrictions for use for non-downloadable, Internet-based reading.
    • Editions, subscriptions, and updates: Educational choices of textual editions always plagued educators and students. Every several years, a textbook might be updated, which prompted many to obtain the new edition at a slightly elevated price point. This, however, created a countervailing force against the used book and “rental” market for paper texts. Digital publishing made creating new editions and updates easier, which made the “newer” content easier to access via the Internet. In this new consumer market, some educational institutions consider maintaining subscriptions to digital content, which enabled users to have access to updated material without making discrete expenditures for individual digital works.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this blog. With this information as a point of reference, let’s look next at the research and studies that assess the value of traditional books versus tablets.

Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist