Monday, August 17, 2009

Webinar hell or some elements of a good class I wish were in more them

The power of education in general and the ability of a good teacher to change lives is one of my last idealisms, so I find it particularly frustrating when i get subjected to presentations by people that haven't given any thought to what constitutes a class or seminar, from the perspective of the teacher or the student... While I've experienced a couple good classes/lunch-in-learns/webinars (notably Avinash Kaushniks clear, informative, concrete webinars), the vast majority of them suck. The most I've been in/to are:

--Some thinly-veiled PR for the organization with a couple generic recommendations (I recently read "advertising" listed a key way to drive traffic! That's a revelation! ) followed by "contact us for more insight/info/consulting"


--A summary of past work/successes, usually bullet pointed, usually just thinly reformatted case studies that were used for an awards submission or new biz pitch.

For example: I recently "listened" to webinar that claimed it would provide advice on how to successfully apply for a certain kind of award (yeah I know, god punishes), but it was nothing but a description of the winning submissions by people that wrote them. No inside info on why they won. No explication of the decisions they made while preparing the submission. No other evidence or analysis of the kinds of submissions that generally win or don't win. Just more communal back slapping.

So as an effort to be positively productive, here are some fo the basic elements that make up a good class, derived from many years on both side of the class room.

1) Tell me something new/challenge or advance conventional thinking. Business courses/webinars seem to be under the delusion that people all agree about how to approach a problem or alternatively that they all share your company's pov. A good course first establishes the range of pov's on the subject. It actually orients the student in relation to past thinking before telling the student how the class is going to challenge or supplement or advance that thinking. And if you aren't going to add anything why are you wasting my time?

2) Address a particular problem and tell me how to solve it with particular details. Don't tell me about a general problem. No problems are general. All problems are particular. Even if I haven't had the particular issue being discussed and am not likely to have it, I'll learn a lot more from the particular choices you made, then general statements about "being transparent" which can mean just about anything. (75% are marketing blog posts are like this too in my snotty opinion) If you want to generalize from the particular experience, that's fine, people love it, but still give me some examples that support the general point.

3) Tell me about your mistakes: We all know that we learn more from our mistakes so why do businesses act like they never make them. I suppose the obvious answer is liability. If you confess publicly to having fucked up, your ex-client and can come back demand reparations (which raises a question about whether you can ever really tell the truth about a business experience and why case studies always read like half the story.). But let's assume it's still possible. At the very least, describe how you made a difficult decision between two equally good choices.

4) Give me some evidence for your point: One of the things that drives me insane about the whole kool-aid drinking aspect of social media is that everyone is always preaching the same gospel to the converted. The only time I've ever seen the writers at Mashable actually muster up the energy for an argument with actual evidence is when they were responding to some criticism about the value of social media. And I'd much prefer if the evidence was more than a charming anecdote about something funny your children did when setting up a lemonade stand. (yes, this is an actual example of a blog post supporting the trendy C. Anderson thesis in "Free")

5) Tell me how your approach resolves a contradictory piece of data: The test of any theoretical or practical framework is its ability to resolve a contradiction by reframing the opposition in a new way. Very few things are more intellectually satisfying than resolving these kind oppositions So if you are a making a point about how easy it is to get people involved in social cause and I happen to know that MOST people are not actively involved in a social cause, then tell me why what you're saying is true in a way that I previously didn't see. What do you see that I don't?

6) Tell me what your course or theory doesn't explain: As we used to say in graduate school, every theory explains only so much. It's important to acknowledge those things that are simply irrelevant to your topic. Don't delude yourself into thinking your theory explains everything. Once your terms become big general inspiring metaphors, they become relatively useless for anything else.

Which is maybe just a long-winded and pretentious way of making big general points like: clearly define your terms, tell me something new, provide evidence, demonstrate a solution with particular details, tell me about your mistakes and what you still don't know....

That would be a nice way to spend a lunch hour


Beecham said...

Great list. (The webinars sound dreadful if they aren't meeting many of these ingredients! This is all stuff I'd hope for in a class.)

I struck by number four (contradictions). It seems close perhaps to Popper's falsifiability, which is, even in science a really high standard.

But if you mean it much more broadly, in the sense of just wanting something that seems on the face of it counterintuitive, then I suspect that's a more academic desire than one characteristic of the business world (I think I've learned this from you). I say this even though people like Gladwell seem to get enormous mileage out of shaping demonstrations around initial contradictions. It sure makes for a really great classroom experience; like anything, though, I suppose I've seen it used for both good and bad in the classroom.

sk said...

Thanks Bee. It actually was my second #4 (one of the many typos you inspired me to clean up. Poppers falsifiability would be, I'm afraid, way too high a standard for most claims about business, if only because it's so hard to control the variables. So yes, I do mean it a more general way. Maybe even more general then the always bracing use of counter-intuitive claims which, as you point out, Gladwell has turned into a popular art form. At the simplest level, I just meant that a great course helps you see some part of the world in a new way. And one of the most exciting and inspiring new ways is to reframe an apparent opposition so that it opens up new possibilities for thought and action.

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