Archives for August 2016

What Agile/Scrum Can Teach Learning

I was recently immersed in the world of Agile/Scrum during the development process for an online course. Scrum is basically an agile framework to help complete complex projects. Originally formulated as a development tool for software projects, it works well for most projects that are potentially innovative, and it has some interesting implications for learning executives. The deployment of the knowhow is an interesting case study in learning vs teaching.

In many ways Agile/Scrum is a study in the learning process itself. Consider its original application for technology, software, specifically. Traditionally software has been developed under a methodology called “waterfall.” The important elements for the discussion here are how the waterfall method addresses complex development projects. The essence of the method involves detailed planning at the outset with extensive effort placed on the deliverables at completion. Increasingly this complex, comprehensive approach has come under scrutiny as the world becomes ever more dynamic, and rapid change becomes the norm rather than the exception.

So, the central question here is: How does Agile/Scrum address the challenges organizations are facing not only in software development but with change in general? Though those who create the tools likely would never directly call the learning a methodology, I will make the presumption that yes, at its heart, the tool is a practical learning methodology that reaches far beyond the scope of a planning and control tool.

During Agile/Scrum implementation there are three people who play major roles in the process: team members, Scrum master and product owner. Every morning at a scheduled time the team meets in a face to face Scrum for a maximum of 15 minutes. At that daily Scrum each team member shares what they did yesterday, since the last Scrum meeting, what they will do today and what may be impeding or blocking their progress.

In addition to the daily Scrum, the team breaks its tasks down into modules called stories. Breaking down the complete project into modular stories is critically important to the learning activity because chunks are easier for learners to digest. The team is challenged to show development to the product owner to get feedback and suggestions — teams are always self-organizing and autonomous, controlling how they get work down and the attendant results. So, unlike classical quality control where error correction is the primary goal, regular comments from the product owner operate as a feedback loop to guide future activities and priorities. The feedback becomes a kind of disciplined and digestible learning exercise that allows for rapid mid-course correction during the project rather than after the total project is complete.

The learning elements of the methodology are very informative. Known for “head down” working practices, software developers interact person to person during the daily Scrum. This develops valuable interpersonal skills. Rather than being allowed to bury themselves in lines of code, team members are required to accomplish a very desirable set of personal skills such as become good problem solvers.

Looking at and communicating various impediments forces team members to think critically about how to reach a goal. The fact that such impediments often involve other members of the team requires communications skills and further hones collaboration and facilitation skills. The Scrum meeting becomes a daily learning exercise on steroids, a vehicle for cultural change as well as problem resolution mechanism.

So, while my first introduction to Agile/Scrum was in the context of software development where it is widely used, my perspective on it has broadened considerably. In the world of left brained, logical software development the methodology is most often referred to as a planning tool. But my interest here as a learning executive is focused on the communication skill development, problem solving and team building. These are all outcomes a learning leader would be proud to engage in.

If the critical elements work for the highly structured software development environment, I would suggest the learning available there is a good framework for organizational change in any realm where real-time collaboration and project management are factors. Never omit good learning because it comes in an unfamiliar package or industry.

AUTHOR: Michael E. Echols is principal and founder of Human Capital LLC and author of “Your Future Is Calling.”

Reprinted from Chief Learning Officer magazine



9 Ways To Use Social Networks In eLearning

The eLearning is a term mostly serving to describe deliberate education with advanced technical user-friendly and intuitive teaching methods. Few of us, however, acknowledge the role different social networks play in teaching us to organize the conventional learning process thus merging it with eLearning step by step. Here you can get a rundown of using social networks in eLearning and how they make it ever more readily accessible and integrated for students. Getting to know how to operate these useful branchy GUIs on their own can make you a power user.

1. Sharing Audio Through iTalk

Running low on reading/writing focus at the lecture? Turn the chore into a podcast! iTalk makes capturing, editing, and distributing vocal audio even easier than it may seem with nowadays advancements. When dealing with a lot of lectures that force you to take notes till your hand withers this comes down as a convenient alternative of having a recorder. Now you can quote the speaker on every word.

2. Sharing Photos And Images Via Instagram

The notorious Instagram. You wouldn’t probably think it has anything to do with academic productivity, but it does actually. Despite having ego-driven activities one click away, many students avail themselves of posting photocopies of learning materials. Instagram excels at making organized collections of photos that are easy to manage and share. You can come up with a unique hashtag that will help your fellow students find the needed photos and pics.

3. Hosting Complex Folder Trees With Wunderlist

A great finding for a scatterbrain student, this web app will help you organize all the material you need to process. Folders, deadlines, commenting, reminders, check lists will help you and your supervisor to hold all the essentials in focus.

4.  Collaborating In Google Docs

This one should not be a stranger to anyone. Giving multiple access to text documents with traceable edit history and commenting has never been easier. In addition, it is used both by businesses and any kind of student teams with both basic and more complex written goals.

5. Taking Notes And Scheduling In Evernote

Originally designed as a database to remember everything, Evernote is a very useful tool for writers. Now it serves as a digital draft book you can pop up on your laptop or mobile device any time the inspiration strikes you. And, of course, the reminder functionality is still there. It’ll help you keep track of all you need as a convenient to do list.

6. Bookmarking With Pocket

Is your browser bookmark folder a painful display? An infinite roll of links stretching into infinity and beyond? If you really have a lot of links to keep organized and ready, the Pocket will help. It takes bookmarking to the “all you could think of” level with shared bookmark folders, collaborative editing, and organizing.

7. Sharing Vids With Vine

here is no better platform for posting short videos that yield high engagement. Viral videos are not the only side of the coin. In the fast paced environment of our world, Vine is also used for giving highlights of interesting lectures. With long videos the key points would otherwise be overlooked due to time constraints. Few people will go through an hour long video. Vine brings the compromise of 6 seconds.

8. Structuring Your Tasks With Trello

Trello is used by multinational corporations and its features will greatly benefit student teams too. Advanced scheduling and file hosting features make it an ultimate platform for collaboration that will introduce real time project management to young adults. Delivered in a sticky-note-like drag and drop fashion this task management platform makes goal completion feel very physical and rewarding.

9. Communicating Via Snapchat

This popular student app allows real time collaboration during the learning sessions. If integrated into the classroom by a teacher, students can do centralized commenting, image/link sharing, and texting. It truly makes empowering lessons, utilizing their potential to the fullest. Just don’t mix up the private chat with that one of teacher’s.

Of course there are more social networks that contribute to better learning and, most importantly, to connecting people. Additionally usage of complex social networks in eLearning provides a valuable learning experience on its own that prepares the students for difficult tasks and challenges of collaborative work in the modern conditions. So you better embrace it because eLearning has more or less permeated into everything.


Reprinted from eLearning Industry

Fitness Monitors Threaten to Oversaturate the Health Data Market

Some of the hottest selling wellness products on the market right now are apps and gadgets that monitor a person’s vital signs, such as Fitbit, Nike+ and a slew of different step-counting gizmos.

While these products are all the rage for independent consumers and employers who seek to promote better health among their employees, several wellness experts have expressed concern that the physical wellness data market is becoming oversaturated and the attention spent on the other aspects of wellness — such as mental, social and financial wellness — is getting lost in the pursuit of miles walked and stairs climbed.

Michael Fauscette, chief research officer at G2 Crowd, says physical wellness data has received so much attention due to the desire from individuals to be physically healthy and because physical wellness is much easier to track and manage, as opposed to the other pillars of wellness.

The easiest wellness

“We have this major proliferation of devices and yet we haven’t gotten to the point where the features and the benefits are compelling enough for everyone to want to participate,” Fauscette says. “Physical wellness is an easy place to focus because you can instrument that, it’s obvious, it has outward benefits and, in other words, it’s the easiest.”

Dave Osterndorf, partner and chief actuary for Health Exchange Resources, agrees. He says that while wellness experts discuss expanding into other avenues of wellness such as mental, social and financial, very little is being done to expand into those realms.

“Historically, it has been a challenge for people to put those total health pieces together as effectively as they can,” says Osterndorf. “An employer’s ability to tie together everything from an employee’s 401(k) and HSA balance, to their health status information and any kind of individual healthcare plan, to their underlying benefits programs and over into EAPs and workplace wellness efforts, have all been put into different pieces that are typically run by different vendors.”

Osterndorf admits that while it is “a nice idea” for employers to integrate all aspects of wellness into one program; gathering these elements from different fit-tech providers can be tricky.

Shan Fowler, a thought leader for Benefitfocus, says he has seen many tech companies attempt to enter the health data market ever since Benefitfocus began as a tech startup themselves back in 2000. He adds that many have failed due to issues such as funding difficulties and missing their target audience.

“There are several overlapping circles that influence investment in health data,” Fowler says. “It can fall into several categories, like claims data, wearable data or electronic health records.”

Distinct divide

Fowler says there is distinct divide between products and apps that are marketed toward individual consumers and products that are marketed toward employers. Fowler mentioned wearables such as Fitbit and the app MapMyRun, which was purchased by Under Armor, are focused more toward independent consumers, while programs that focus on claims data and biometric screenings are being marketed toward employers seeking to build a strong wellness program within their company.

These employers offer workers some amazing perks along the lines of tech titans like the social media giant.

“Large companies see health data as a way to continue having influence in people management, and one of the biggest proponents to seeing so many start-ups is because of the Affordable Care Act,” Fowler says. “There is a direct result where grants were being assigned by the ACA to health insurance co-ops to drive a more value-based healthcare as opposed to what we currently have: ‘fee for service.’”

After the government shutdown in 2013, one of the agreements to getting the government back up and running was the discontinuation of funding co-ops. This has left many start-ups that were being funded to eventually go under before their five-year period of investment could finish.

“On the flipside, last year, the government invested $5.8 million in the healthcare space and I think it hasn’t been entirely insulated but fairly well insulated so that we don’t suffer from problems like other countries have,” Fowler says.

Experts like Fauscette say health data still has a long way to go before all avenues of expansion have been covered. Plus, although the market may be oversaturated now, the market has yet to mature fully to allow for innovators to explore profitable options.

Reprinted from Employee Benefit News


Will the Nanodegree Replace the Bachelor’s?

High-tech companies need employees with particular skills; many talented professionals want to learn those skills yet are reluctant to commit to the time and cost of a formal degree program. What’s the solution?

A growing number of adult learners are turning to “alternative credentials.” This umbrella term embraces a broad set of programs that mark, measure, and stamp—with a nonacademic seal of approval—specific sets of skills.

The programs go by many names: microcredentials, nanodegrees, certificates, professional degrees, Open Badges, and more. In some cases, corporations hampered by the dearth of qualified applicants have set up their own programs—for example, Microsoft announced its new “professional degree” program for aspiring data scientists in July; the courses are offered through In June, Google and Udacity launched a nanodegree class in Android programming basics. Amazon Web Services offers several “certification” courses. Some have a broader target: So-called “coding bootcamps” have sprung up all over the world, according to, which offers reviews, ratings, and other resources for potential students.

Though prevalent in high tech, alternative credentialing has a much broader reach. Professionals, whether they be realtors, copy editors, or dog trainers, can earn credentials through professional support organizations like NAR , ACES, and CCPDT; and the Mozilla Open Badges program pretty much sets the sky as the limit for creating and awarding badges based on knowledge, skills, or experience.

Accredited universities are taking notice and increasingly getting in on the game, according to a June 2016 report from UPCEA, a membership organization for professional, continuing, and online education institutions. UPCEA defines alternative credentials as “competencies, skills, and learning outcomes derived from assessment-based, non-degree activities” that “align to specific, timely needs in the workforce.”

The report studies the increasing popularity of alternative credentialing opportunities, particularly with younger adults; it notes the “critical role in revenue and revenue planning for academic institutions” of these types of programs, saying that they are important to universities’ future success.

Will alternative credentials replace academic degrees?

Individuals’ drive to measure and certify their skills and knowledge in consistent, nonacademic ways is not new. The Open Badges movement has been gaining ground for a few years; Khan Academy launched 10 years ago; and two Stanford University professors offered the first truly massive MOOC in 2012, leading to the founding of Udacity. Even before microcredentials moved online, universities, community colleges, and nonacademic organizations offered certificates in anything ranging from teaching English as a second language to paralegal studies to EMT-B certification. The Open University accepted its first students (in the UK) in 1971, broadcasting courses via television and radio.

Alternative credentials might be offered as certificate or non-degree programs at accredited universities; as seminars ranging from several hours to several weeks, presented by professional organizations or nonprofits; or as continuing education programs that are required in some professions.

Some programs target working professionals who seek to update or expand their skill sets; others target career-changers, nontraditional students, or those who simply need or want to improve their marketability but cannot—for a variety of reasons—attend a traditional degree-seeking program.

More and more alternative credentials are offered via online or blended learning platforms, many of them asynchronous, generating a wealth of learning opportunities for all. This is particularly significant for people who live in places with limited in-person educational opportunities or those whose work, family, and other obligations limit their availability during daytime and weekday hours. Asynchronous eLearning is, of course, available to anyone with Internet access, free time, and a thirst for knowledge.

Common features of alternative credential programs include a shorter time frame for completion than a four-year baccalaureate or a graduate degree and, generally, a much lower price tag. They tend to have fewer prerequisites or admission requirements, and nanodegrees and certificates generally offer a much narrower focus than a liberal-arts degree. Certificate and “professional degree” programs like Microsoft’s hone a very specific skill set, aiming to prepare students for particular types of jobs or careers. Another common feature, this one shared with academic degrees: None promise employment to students who complete them.

All of this evidence suggests that microcredentials, badges, and other alternative credentials are more likely to complement academic degree studies than to replace them. In the United States, the skyrocketing cost of a university education puts that option out of reach for many young adults, even as more jobs demand education beyond high school; alternative credentials offer a learning path for these individuals.

Caveat emptor

As with any unsupervised online study, the challenges are many: It’s still easy to fake many things online, from the identity of the learner to the veracity of test responses to the bona fides of the granter of the badge or certificate. The ongoing furor over for-profit universities in the United States that didn’t deliver on promises to students serves as a warning. Unaccredited programs have even greater potential for problems, since there is little or no oversight of many of them.

UPCEA’s June report warns: “Many of the new private sector providers struggle to deliver consistent quality in learning design, assessment, and outcome certification, and their instructors have varying levels of competency.” While UPCEA identifies this as an opening for accredited universities to jump onto the alternative credentialing bandwagon, leveraging their reputations and educated faculties, consumers should see it as notice to thoroughly investigate a program before plunking down a tuition payment.

Potential benefits abound

Despite the potential pitfalls, alternative credentialing could offer tremendous benefits to employers and potential or actual employees.

UPCEA’s report mentions a few: “Because they are offered outside the traditional academic degree channels, noncredit offerings can be created more quickly, often in response to the needs of local or regional employers.” These programs can offer innovative courses of study that address real needs and market demands. Learners hoping to attain or improve their employment are likely to be highly motivated.

The potential of alternative credentials has been embraced more eagerly by businesses, thus far, than by academic institutions. UPCEA found that “in industry, the IT and business sectors are the leading adopters of verified digital credentials in the form of badges, followed by health care and advanced manufacturing.”

In fact, the UPCEA report includes a somewhat ominous warning to academic institutions. Its report cites 2014 studies that found that, while 96 percent of chief academic officers surveyed by Inside Higher Ed believed universities were successfully preparing their graduates for the workplace, only 11 percent of the business leaders surveyed by Gallup agreed.

Reflecting this disconnect, businesses are turning inward to nurture and promote the skills they need by designing degree, certificate, or badge programs. And many offer those credentials beyond their walls and existing employee bases. IBM promotes its Open Badge program as a way for professionals to display and share their accomplishments, measure “résumé-worthy IBM skills,” and validate and verify achievements. The IBM website proclaims, “Anyone can get an IBM Open Badge, except a few which are limited to IBM employees only.”

Portable, shareable, recognized credentials, if they gain broad marketplace acceptance, can back up the carefully crafted lists of skills on a résumé, add weight to a person’s social media profile, and provide credibility for bloggers.


Reprinted from Learning Solutions Magazine

Reference link to article for references / footnotes



Are Companies Obligated to Write Reference Letters?

I mentioned in my #SHRM16 wrap-up that I spoke at a pre-conference workshop on social media strategies. This question came up at the workshop and someone else asked it on HR Bartender just a few days ago. It’s obviously a popular topic.

“If an employee’s current manager refuses to provide a letter of reference, even if employee is in good standing, is that an EEOC violation?”

During the workshop, Jonathan Segal, a partner with the law firm Duane Morris LLP fielded the question, so I asked if he would help us here. And thankfully he said yes. Jonathan has helped us out before, most recently with the final ruling from the U.S. Department of Labor on the changes to the overtime rule in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA.)

I know I don’t have to remind you, but just in case, please remember that Jonathan has a regular full-time job and he’s doing this as a way to give back to the profession. His comments should not be construed as legal advice or as pertaining to any specific factual situations. If you have detailed questions, you should address them directly with your friendly neighborhood labor attorney.

Jonathan, let’s make sure we’re on the same page with this topic. Are reference letters, recommendations, and endorsements considered the same thing? Why or why not? (HRB readers: You’ll see where we’re going with this in a moment.)

Jonathan Segal, performance, appraisal, performance appraisal, legal, policy, performance review[Segal] The label really does not matter. What matters is that you are communicating information about a current or former employee. A substantive letter of reference or affirmative recommendation has more business and legal significance than a ‘LinkedIn’ endorsement or the like. It has more business significance because there is content and for the same reason it has more legal significance.

But even an endorsement can have legal consequences. Here’s an example: Let’s assume you endorse an employee and then later fire him or her for poor performance. Or, worse yet, you endorse an employee after firing him or her for poor performance.

The former employee’s lawyer argues that the reason given for termination—poor performance—is pretext for unlawful discrimination. The inconsistency that supports the argument: the endorsement that does not jive with reason for termination.

Regardless of their performance, are companies or managers obligated to provide reference letters to employees?

[Segal] No, there is no law that makes it illegal to provide an evaluation, whether it be positive, negative or somewhere in between. Of course, what you say may have consequences. For example, giving a positive letter of reference when someone has engaged in misconduct may give rise to a misrepresentation claim if the employee engages in misconduct for the new employer.

But there are risks in not giving them, too. Every former employee is a potential business influencer in the future. Deny a worthy employee of a reference, when he or she is in a position of power with a customer or potential customer, he or she may remember that.

Many employers give only neutral references, simply confirming dates of employment and position held. If an employer wants to get substantive references from others, then they may need to provide substantive references themselves.

Managers need to make sure that they are permitted to give reference letters. Many employers require that only HR provide them. The manager may think I am doing this in my personal capacity. The plaintiffs’ law may think ‘personal liability.’

I’m glad you brought up employee reference policies. Many organizations have them. What should organizations remember when it comes to policies about employee reference letters?

[Segal] Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Establish who can give reference letters.
  • If only HR can give references, make sure supervisors (and above) know to report any reference requests for them to HR without comment.
  • Respond only to written or electronic requests for references and then confirm that the requesting party is who they say they are. Sadly, there are some individuals who seek to obtain references under false pretenses to manufacture a defamation claim. (Editor’s Comment: UGH!)

2.  Have as your default position that you ‘ordinarily’ will provide neutral references only.

  • When giving a neutral reference, state expressly that it is your general policy to provide neutral references only. That makes it harder for someone to argue there is a negative implication in giving the neutral reference.
  • Note: the use of the word ‘general’ to qualify that policy reserves the right to give substantive references in exceptional cases without rubbing up.
  1. In exceptional circumstances, you may want to provide a substantive reference, such as: outstandingly strong performance or employee misconduct. When giving substantive reference letters:
  • If positive, make clear you give substantive reference only when someone is exceptionally strong and this is one of those cases. This makes it hard for someone to argue that you defamed them by giving them only a neutral reference. It would be an up-hill battle to argue that not saying an employee is exceptionally strong is, by negative implication, defamation.
  • If giving a negative reference, focus on specific behaviors and avoid labels that can be attacked. For example, don’t say ‘Mark is dishonest.’ Say instead: ‘Mark did not disclose material information about a deal when asked.” Remember the truth is a defense to a defamation claim and behaviors are easier to prove than labels. Of course, only include behaviors you can prove.
  1. Educate supervisors and above that endorsement or recommendation on LinkedIn or other social media is a reference.

Speaking of social media, let’s talk about LinkedIn. The platform allows users to “endorse” and “recommend.” What should organizations and individuals understand before providing an endorsement or recommendation on social media?

[Segal] Don’t do it, unless you have approval from your organization. And, HR, approve sparingly. Let’s remember social media is very public. If you want to give a reference, I would consider another forum, such as an old fashion letter. Check Wikipedia for the definition of letter. Here’s why:

Jane gets a neutral reference and accepts it. Then, she sees that Tom got a glowing recommendation on LinkedIn. He deserved it and Jane did not but now it is in Jane’s face. She might allege gender, age, race or other bias, depending on both of their EEO demographics. We can give reference but we need to be savvy on how we do so. Not everything needs to be on social media.

Okay, so forget endorsements/recommendations for a moment. In today’s world of social media, can connecting with someone, liking their postings, or sharing their updates be considered a recommendation or endorsement?

[Segal] Great question. Probably not. But it is better when dealing with a current or former employee to focus on the content and not the person. There is a big difference between ‘great information’ versus ‘wise person.’

Also, include on your Twitter handle something like: Tweet or Retweet does not equal endorsement. It is not a ‘get out of court’ card but helpful. There are other ways to deal with issues on other social media platforms.

If you’re not a current or former employee, there is much less risk in praising an individual. But do so only honestly. Your own credibility suffers if you are not selective in your praise.

My thanks to Jonathan for sharing his knowledge with us. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law or read his blog at Duane Morris. I believe Jonathan is spot on with his comment about personal credibility in providing employee reference letters. Not only do individuals need to know their company policy but they should establish their own personal guidelines when it comes to providing references.


Reprinted from HR BARTENDER



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