Tappestry: Kicking the Informal Learning (Tin) Can

by JKnox on December 17, 2012

A review by Jessica Knox


(Full disclosure: My employer, Metrix Group, is currently partnering with Float Mobile on an app development project).

As learning professionals we see it everywhere. It’s trending in the corporate learning community. It’s quantified as the 70:20:10 rule, yet those numbers are not evidence-based,  they’re intuitive: it just feels right.

The biggest piece of this pie, the “70″, refers to the 70% of learning believed to occur on the job, by finding just-in-time information, by learning from our peers, by reflecting on our successes and mistakes. But despite being the biggest piece, it’s often the most elusive in the adult learning field. We tend to focus on the 10% that we can easily relate to: formal learning in classrooms, print and online (essentially a lifelong hangover from our educational system) with a nod to the other 20% comprised of coaching, mentoring and learning from others.

In June 2012, at the mLearnCon conference in San Jose, Float Mobile Learning took aim at the elusive 70-20 with the release of the Tappestry app for iOS, Android and the web, and have since released several updates. Tappestry is positioned as the first social network designed specifically for learning. Tappestry most closely resembles Twitter in that users have 140 characters or less to describe what they learned, be it a fact, a conference they attended, an article they read, or a blog entry they wrote. Some features mark a significant departure from Twitter functionality, however, that make this an app “designed specifically for learning”.

The first unique feature is the organization of posts by categories, such as Physics, Basketball, Application Design, and, my personal favourite, Homebrewing (containing one lonely post at the time this article was written – thanks Chad). These categories are colour-coded in the eponymous “Tappestry view” where user posts, each represented by a coloured square, form a visual patchwork of  learning across the network. This view is an ambitious approach to data visualization, but at the same time contributes to my occasional frustration as a user:  looking at this patchwork you don’t know beyond the high level category  what each post contains. An extra click is required to reveal the post; once revealed, they are often quite random and the navigation around the tappestry becomes slightly disorienting. For actually using the app as a resource to find or learn new information, nothing beats the search button, and as usage of the app grows, you will be more likely to find information of relevance and interest.

The second, more substantial unique feature is Tappestry’s ability to track learning events. When you create a post, you are encouraged to use a pre-defined syntax: “I read…”"I achieved…”I learned…”"I attended…” It is no coincidence that this is the same syntax used in the new SCORM specification, Project Tin Can. This specification was developed to enable SCORM to track many of the activities that were meaningful in the real world but inaccessible to tracking in Learning Management Systems. If someone publishes a book on Mobile Learning (hi Gary), they have a different depth of expertise than someone who only answers multiple choice questions on the same topic; previously SCORM could only track the latter.

This tracking functionality is important. It encourages users to develop a record of their learning journey over time, and organizes it for them so they can refer back as need be. The very act of giving informal learning a language and a solidity elevates our understanding of it in the 70-20-10 landscape. This emphasis is echoed by the new Certified Training and Development Professional (CTDP) designation maintenance requirements released by the Canadian Society for Training and Development (CSTD), which recognizes blog entries, workshop facilitation, and on-the-job projects with the same importance as attending CSTD-supplied courses, a stance that I fully support.

The fact that organizations can keep records of these informal activities will also help to increase their visibility and importance. But this ability to track activities, enabled by Tin Can, also raises some questions – large organizations are potentially opening themselves to a flood of new data. How do they make sense of this data and incorporate it into their overall development and evaluation strategies? I have some ideas, but I will save that for another post…

Tappestry raises a bigger question for me about the way we view digital learning tools that may be an unintended result of giving informal learning a more concrete language. I remember a social media guru once saying that she went to Twitter to find answers. Who can deny that their first reaction when they don’t know something is to Google it? Twitter has opened up my knowledge base – as a strategist and designer it allows me to learn and draw inspiration from an incredibly diverse set of people and disciplines, as it is a communication tool that has been embedded into people lives. By creating a separate space for “social learning” and encouraging users to adopt “I learned…, I read…” language, are we insulating and limiting ourselves from something more profound and more real: that there is actually no separation between when we’re learning and living?

Perhaps the ability to integrate the organization and tracking of learning into the channels and tools we already use every day is a next step, once we more universally understand informal learning and how it shapes our skills and knowledge. In the meantime, Tappestry takes us one bold step forward into a more holistic view of learning and development. I look forward to using this tool with my clients, where we can create focused, relevant categories and tackle the pain points I hear so often: how can we capitalize on peer to peer learning and ensure best practices are spread across the organization? How do we stay up to date when our landscape changes so quickly? How do we keep our organizational knowledge secure? Until then, let’s keep weaving.

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