Enter your email address to receive a twice-weekly newsletter on learning/technology.

Powered by ymlp.com

| Starting | Enabling | Doing | Evaluating | Managing | Resources | Home

elearnspace Interview
Maish R Nichani

February 18, 2003

Maish R Nichani is the Chief Editor of elearningpost, "an intelligent digest of daily links to articles and news stories about Corporate Learning, Community Building, Instructional Design, Knowledge Management, Personalization and more." I had the opportunity to interview Maish via email. He reveals his characteristic insight and effective integration of complex ideas...and shares his background and learning philosohpies.

elearnspace: What's your background...and the path to your current interest in technology/learning?
Maish: Like many in this age, I've been cross-trained--mostly because of the supply and demand of the times! I graduated as a Mechanical Engineer (ME) from BMS College in Bangalore, India. I chose Mechanical Engineering simply because there were too few Computer Engineering (my first choice) seats going around in those days (this was just before the computer boom). But luckily for me, at that time I was more interested in playing tennis tournaments, so this second choice did not affect me. In fact, from hindsight, this lack of a strong preference actually helped me enjoy Mechanical Engineering!

But computers and programming were too intriguing and inviting to neglect in 1989, so I enrolled to learn Basic, Fortran, and Pascal programming. Engineering concepts and programming logic are so reinforcing that I quickly took a liking to the combination. Guess, this started my indulgence in cross-linking and cross-learning!

My first job was not with a mechanical engineering firm, but with an advertising firm specializing in 3D animation. I was one of the animators--my engineering CAD/CAM skills came in use here. A few years later, my 3D skills landed me a job with a real innovative company developing multimedia CD-ROMS, especially for children. I was still doing 3D, but the open environment helped me "steal" knowledge from some real smart visual and interaction designers--knowledge that would help form strong inclinations towards innovative designs.

Not knowing how and why "instructional design" was done, I decided to take advantage of a master's level course in Instructional Design at the National Technological University in Singapore. Because the course was new, and because luck had given me an inspiring and forward thinking supervisor, I had all opportunities to explore this rather dry subject. And I did. My final dissertation was about cross-linking innovative business models with learning models on the Internet. So I explored Amazon.com's collaborative filtering mechanism, Slashdot's ranking system, The Well's online community, Yahoo!'s personalization, Xerox's knowledge management, Expert-Exchange's expert system, etc. As most of this kind of literature is usually found in magazines, I started my daily ritual of reading online magazines.

During this time, my good friend and a real smart interaction designer, Venkat Rajamanikam, was also exploring the Net for ideas. We started sharing links and articles, at times 6-7 of them daily. Then one day, he pointed me out to Blogger. We registered for the blog and chose a name--elearningpost.

elearnspace: You select a broad range of articles relating to elearning, knowledge management, management, marketing, social change, etc. What is your personal philosophy of learning/education...and how is it reflected in the links you select?
Maish: We learn in many, many different ways. And more importantly, we learn differently under different contexts. And that’s the beauty of learning--its emergent--you can't pin it down with rules.

One of the e-learning companies I worked with had Gagne's 9 events as a part of the process that every instruction had to go through. They strongly believed that this would produce high quality and effective instruction. The problem was that the learners viewed the courses as lullabies!

That's the problem with heuristics--they belie designers into thinking that they know it all. Heuristics, rules, and processes are just blinders. They limit your vision. They are handy only when they are used with a heavy dose of practice.

"Heuristics, rules, and processes are just blinders. They limit your vision. They are handy only when they are used with a heavy dose of practice."

Both process and practice make a discipline. Process gives structure but it is the practice that will ensure that cause and effect are properly dealt with. As learning is emergent, we need to be constantly looking at disciplines that are affecting it on a daily basis. This is why it's necessary to look to marketing, social change, negotiation, decision-making, information architecture, etc., as relevant links.

elearnspace: Your site, elearningpost, attracts a large readership and is frequently referenced in listservs, newsgroups, and other blogs. To what do you attribute this success?
Maish: It's interesting to observe that most elearningpost readers share a similar philosophy--learning as emergent--with regards to learning in general and e-learning in specific. I would say that two attributes of the daily links nail down this philosophy: 1) Variety, and 2) Relevance.

As you have observed, the links are not only from various sources but also have some relevance to the practice of learning. And I guess readers like this composition!

elearnspace: What is the history of elearningpost? What are your goals? What do you seek to accomplish?
Maish: In the short-term, I will get back to writing articles and exploring new trends. I will also be exploring different interactive delivery methods. But again, all this is in the same vein--to explore the emergence. For example, Venkat and I are exploring some intriguing similarities between architecture and knowledge management! And it's exposing us to some interesting areas!

elearnspace: You seem to highlight trends well before they become mainstream (as evidenced by your articles on blogging, knowledge management, reusable learning objects) What do you see as existing trends? Where is the learning/knowledge management field heading?
Maish: I guess the aspect of highlighting trends is built into the fabric of blogs. Let me explain. There is this wonderful article in Harvard Business Review titled "Building an Innovation Factory" by Andrew Hargadon and Rob Sutton (June-July 2000). This article describes the innovation process as analyzed in many industries:

1) Constantly Capture ideas
2) Keep these alive
3) Explore new uses for them
4) Build prototypes to test them out

These four steps highlight the implicit relationship between a blog and its authors/readers. From my experience, a blog captures ideas and keeps it alive (steps 1 & 2). But the blog also gives the authors/readers something back--a fertile ground to explore new uses and opportunities to build and experiment with prototypes.

Elearningpost gives me an opportunity to play with existing ideas and explore new uses. So in essence, the KM blogging idea is just a new use.

For example, if you glance through most business magazines today, you will be bombarded with calls for innovation and strategy by understanding consumer needs and observing consumer behavior. Now, Is this news relevant to organizational learning? I think so. One of the reasons that e-learning is considered by many to be very dull and boring is because of the habit of managing learners as mere cogs-in-the-training wheel (similar to Frederick Taylor's scientific management concepts). To build effective and exciting solutions we need to get into the habit of understanding our learners and their practices intimately. A possible learning path (a new use) is to observe how other disciplines are coping with similar problems.

"To build effective and exciting solutions we need to get into the habit of understanding our learners and their practices intimately."

elearnspace: What do these trends say about existing societal climate? What is happening in business/society that drives these trends?
Maish: To answer this question, let's reflect on the most important current event of the day--the standoff in Iraq. Last weekend, we saw millions of anti-war demonstrators taking part in peace processions in many countries. Now, processions of this scale have taken place before, but what's really interesting about these processions is that many of the protestors were first-timers. They are displaying their stand on the meaning and value they attach to a war with Iraq. And this emergence of a desire to find order in the value and meaning sums up the societal change that is taking root. The same is true for organizations.

Unless we start empathizing with the values and meaning our knowledge workers attach to their work, we are going to go around in circles. And we've being doing that for a long time. The motto of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair was Science Finds--Industry Applies--Man Conforms. Donald Norman in his book, Things That Make Us Smart, made a call to change that motto to People Propose--Science Studies--Technology Conforms. Take a look at the current state of e-learning, How far have we come? Not far enough, but at least the current trends are pointing us in the right direction.

"Higher education institutions have noun-based uses for knowledge (theory, process, discovery, etc.), while corporations have verb-based uses for knowledge (practice, value, innovation, etc.). These different contexts allow for different sets of activities which gives rise to their characteristic natures."

elearnspace: How is learning different between corporate and higher education? Who has a better perspective/direction?
Maish: I've worked for both corporate and higher education institutions and I find that both have different uses for knowledge. Higher education institutions have noun-based uses for knowledge (theory, process, discovery, etc.), while corporations have verb-based uses for knowledge (practice, value, innovation, etc.). These different contexts allow for different sets of activities which gives rise to their characteristic natures.

The corporate nature (verb-based) is to constantly "tinker" with processes and practices--to keep experimenting and working the knowledge. The constant experimentation is required to use processes and practices that work and eliminate those that don't. This verb-based operation is characteristic with organizational disciplines such as sales, marketing and strategy, but not with learning. With learning, the training departments seem to be having an identity crisis; they think their organization is noun-based. That is why we see so many fervid pushes to purchase off-the-shelf content and LMSs simply to get streams of test and assessment data to pin-point competency discrepancies.

For this field to bloom, I think that we need advances in both these areas, so rather than opting for an either-or situation, I would think that we could find meaning and value in relating the two in some way. So, both the business and the academic perspectives are different but equally important.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License