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Posted by Tim Martin
Categories: Tin Can
Posted 11 February 2013
First, a story laced with truth and lies.
A couple of years ago, Mike and I decided to hire remote employees at Rustici Software. As “managers”, Mike and I felt it was important to visit our remote employees in their place of business once each year, an audit if you will. We agreed that Mike would visit Ben in Boston, and I would visit Megan in NYC. Mike and I, of course, chose our own tools and techniques as we went to check in on our employees.
Like any good internet hipster, I grabbed my Field Notes notebook and a fancy pen and took off to New York. I spent the better part of a day standing behind Megan writing down every single thing that she did. “Megan turned on the computer, then she read her email. Next, she did some writing, tweeted a few things, and then stood up and drew a picture on the white board. Later, Megan turned on the TV to some children’s show and a child showed up and danced in funny shoes.”
When I returned to Nashville, Mike and I decided to compare notes. For some reason, Mike had elected to record his visit as a series of pictures with Italian captions. Let me tell you this: Mike’s Italian is limited, his handwriting unintellible, and his artwork is chicken scratch.
While each of us could interpret our own notes effectively, our exercise was really ineffective. Neither of us could understand each other’s notes and conclusions at all.
So, this year when we went, we agreed on a few things ahead of time. We decided that we would take our notes in English, and we created a template on which to take our notes. Our worksheet would feature four columns: “timestamp”, “activity”, “output”, and “other notes”. We even had a nice heading at the top that allowed us to write down the name of the person we were auditing.
When we got home this time, Mike and I were able to hand our notes to each other and lo and behold, were both able to read and understand the results of the audit.
Now, this audit thing, had we ever actually done it, would be incredibly stupid for any number of reasons. For one, it would be a serious waste of Tim, Mike, Megan, and Ben’s time to write everything they do down and then make no meaning from it.
But imagine this: What if Mike had done all of his note taking from outside of Ben’s basement window? What if Mike hadn’t even told Ben he was coming, instead electing to collect information stealthily. Well, this would be lame, certainly, and illegal, probably. In this situation, though, who or what would we blame? Is Mike’s notebook at fault? What about our note-taking template? Or, perhaps, is it really Mike who’s to blame?
As you might guess, the Tin Can API could be a part of the story I’ve just told. In our modern, computer based world, the Tin Can API would play the same role as Tim and Mike’s note-taking template. Tin Can is an agreed upon way for two systems to express the things that people do in a consistent fashion. That’s it. We’ve agreed that we’ll express things in a certain way, so that many different systems can understand it, and ultimately reflect it well for the people who care.
We hear occasional concerns about the “big brother” aspects of the Tin Can API. This is absolutely the right time to be having these kinds of conversations. Employers and applications will be able to use the Tin Can API for good, and they could elect to use it for evil. Like Mike, they could use the plumbing defined by the Tin Can API to covertly record things people are doing. Or, if they’re smart, they could use that same Tin Can plumbing with their employee’s permission and input. (One of the big leaps forward with Tin Can is that this shared structure means that employees and students can take these statements with them to other systems. These experiences belong to the individual, and can move in a way they haven’t previously.)
Today, employers and applications have countless ethical decisions to make. Should we install security cameras in every office? Should we track the internet sites visited by our employees at the office? Should we install keyboard tracking software on our work issued computers so that we can track the things our employees type while they’re at home?
Yes, the Tin Can API makes it more efficient for different systems to talk about the things that people do. And yes, that means that employers and applications will be asked, again, to make intelligent and ethical decisions.
Posted by Tim Martin
Posted 23 November 2012
It’s not our role to try and capture and categorise every snippet of new knowledge and behaviour that an individual uses. This is why I am very scared about how the new Tin Can API will be sold to businesses. I have a fear it will be a tool that measures everything but understands nothing about the value of its content (like most LMS I hear some of you say). I believe the manager’s role is to measure the performance in the workplace, yet there seems to be a desire to retain this measurement within L&D to ‘prove’ it was our work that created the difference. What this means is:
- We absolve managers from taking responsibility for measuring their staff’s development
- We create complex metrics
- We create the learning objectives for the performance support
(Context: I’m Tim Martin, a partner at Rustici Software, and have been a part of Project Tin Can from the beginning of the research through detailed specification arguments over the last two weeks. I’ve also suffered through SCORM’s inadequacies over the last 10 years. I know the pain. I’ve also posted this as a response with the original post.)
First of all, let me begin with this. If anyone ever tells you that Tin Can API is “a tool that measures everything but understands nothing about the value of its content”, please stop listening to them.
Second, I think you’re hitting on some really important stuff here. What fascinates me about it, actually, is that you and I _agree_ on a great deal of this. This sentence, in particular, rings true for me.
We absolve managers from taking responsibility for measuring their staff’s development.
In the long term, this is precisely why I find Tin Can exciting. To be clear, Tin Can is not simply a different way to capture learning objectives or scores. When used to its full extent, it will allow people to have a cross-system picture of the things that their staff (or students, or children) are doing. This cross-system, cross-experience picture is almost completely missing from today’s workplace (and schools, and homes). Yes, we have various systems that give us a slice of the picture about what a person is doing. Salesforce can tell us how many sales calls a person makes. Github can tell us how much code a developer produces. But no system can aggregate the activities for a person or a group. And that aggregate picture, well-parsed, will undoubtedly tell us things about the people who are successful and those who aren’t. (Similarly, a single person’s clicks on a website may not be telling, the collection of clicks across people and contexts tells us a story.)
In the immediate, Tin Can will be about eliminating some shortcomings of SCORM, yes. Things like mobile limitations and bad reporting on questions and answers can be solved quickly and simply. So, yes, Tin Can will address those things first. And yes, in the long term, Tin Can is a language that will allow systems to convey the activities of people, whether those activities are small (a learning objective) or huge (a significant accomplishment).
For a period of time, I expect to see Tin Can statements that are marginally more interesting than SCORM data. Did Sam complete his defensive driving course? Did Sally answer the third question correctly? Tool vendors and designers will start by capturing things they already understand in a different language (Tin Can). Step one is always about understanding the basic constructs (scales on a piano, hello, world in a programming language. 2012 and 2013 may be about that simple.
When creative people, though, start thinking about the experiences they actually care to capture, they’ll be able to do more than they could for the last 10 years, and that’s important. If done well (and this is still an if), systems will be able to express people’s activities with limited interference for the participant. When I, as a manager of people at Rustici Software, am able to look at my staff’s experiences across systems, I believe I will be far better able to assess their performance *and enhance it*. As L&D professionals, and as people, I really think that’s about the most important thing we can do in our organizations. I want to help people who are always striving to do better and more interesting work to do just that.
Posted by Tim Martin
Posted 20 August 2012
Several people have been asking us of late how we intend to charge for the Tin Can API/LRS component of SCORM Cloud. To be candid, we haven’t entirely figured out how we should charge for the standalone LRS capability found in SCORM Cloud. So, our thinking is this:
We’re going to wait a little while to figure that out, and during that time, externally-generated Tin Can statements will remain free. For example, statements that originate from our Tin Can bookmarklet will be stored at no cost.
How cool would it be if we could look inside our brains and see what we’re learning and how we’re learning it?
But we can’t do it. We can’t manage learning. So what the heck are we doing with ourselves? Why are we building learning management systems and specifications that help them work better?
It comes down to this: learning is so important that we have to try. We have to do everything in our power to put our students, kids, learners, employees, and volunteers in the environment that gives them the best chance to succeed.