Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Senior Management Un-Meeting

It took a number of attempts and rescheduling but I FINALLY introduced our Senior Management to Moodle. This took a bit of politicking on the Boss's part and some formal letter skill on mine. Below is the letter I used to bribe them to put together a meeting:

[Insert wonderful practice administrator name here]:

I have been in the process of putting together a Learning Management System (Moodle) to help us keep track of the tutorials. This tool will be an important part of the upgrades scheduled for next year, including TW v. 11 and FlowCast 4.0.

It will give your staff and providers more access to training (rather than waiting for a week or more) and gives them more learning choices. For users who are in and out of the MFA (Residents and Med Students), they will be able to receive training as they need it, rather than just take 1 June course and not use the system until 4 months later when they are on rotation.

The training in the tutorials, will be more consistent than face-to-face sessions and the users can go back to any tutorial they see fit. You will also be able to get reports showing who has been trained on which material, how much time they spent on particular items, and how they scored.

The tool will not replace the face-to-face sessions we provide.

I would love to have an opportunity to show this tool to you.

Please let me know what dates and times are most convenient for you this week. I hope to open this system up to your staff and providers within the next couple of weeks and would love your feedback.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Wendy


For the first time in memory, 4 of the 5 practice administrators agreed to meet at exactly the same time! WITHOUT THE CEO!!!!! The 5th I had already given access to and she has been playing around in the system. Of course, this may have more to do with the Boss's "behind-the-scenes" politicking than my persuasive writing skills.

I tend to walk into these meetings expecting to get jumped. They did have a bunch of questions, but they liked my answers. 3 things turned them on about Moodle:

1) Flexibility - We are not wedded to a set structure for a course. I even put together some experimental areas for the PGAs to play. One already has been in the system digging around and manipulating course settings. VERY exciting when someone wants to get their hands on something - then actually DOES so.

I have started putting together some "Project" courses to serve as collaboration spaces for cross-departmental projects. Much easier than e-mailed documents and NT folder permissions

2)24/7 access - Currently, our tutorials reside on our intranet. If the person is not in our building, they can't get to the tutorials. We will have outside access turned on (hopefully) next week. Other big advantage - the managers will not have to wait for trainer availability or for classroom availability for training.

3) Reporting - Managers like reports. One report they all wanted to see us develop: Tutorials scores vs. time in position. (or....if they flunk the course, how quickly do they wash out).

Not knowing anything about the HR system that has just been implemented (only HR knows anything about this HR system - IT was not involved), I want to investigate whether we can hook directly into this mystery system (maybe as a web page) or if we need to come up with some other solution (database course, new fields, etc).

The PGAs also thought that a pre-employment course would be a good idea. Since I mentioned that our reporting will be based on users rather than departments (too much float between departments), we can run reports on 2 accounts (the Novell + the manual account that has to be generated before employment) so that we can get a total picture of that person's activity. (Of course, the issue with the pre-employment course is that we need someone to tell us what should be IN that course. That's a whole 'nother issue....)

As a result of the meeting:
- I have been invited to present Moodle to 20 division managers next week. It appears that course requests and material will be coming to me from the Manager level in our organization.

- I have already opened up Moodle to general access, if the practice administrators want to give the current URL to their end users.

- Vandana and I will be sitting down with the back-end database building reports. We are going to try and get as many of these reports available through the end-User Moodle interface as possible. This should be interesting......

I figure that December and January will be Pilot months. The pilot group will be (relatively) self-selecting. A combination of new employees taken there by excited PGAs and curious, self-motivated current employees. I think this will give me sufficiently broad metrics so that when it really counts (February), we have everything working and the scoring reports most accurately reflect our needs.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Comprehension and Retention - participation

In
Paul Murphy's experiment
he provides a document that might require some prior familiarity with the topic. I know this is not in the scope of his experiment, but I am curious to hear how well people feel they retain the information in any of the categories if they are not familiar or comfortable with the content. If you decide to do the experiment, please comment and let me know your impressions.

Further instructions from Mr. Murphy:

Please be aware that we want to end up with roughly equal numbers of people in all four categories, but that most people will find it easier to provide on-screen/immediate responses than on-paper/delayed ones. In other words, please try to recruit some people for each category with special emphasis on the later (more difficult to get) groupings as listed below:

1) on screen, immediate answers
2) on screen, day later answers
3) on paper, immediate answers
4) on paper, day later answers


Being lazy, I chose option 1. I wish he provided feedback so I could see how far off I was with my answers.

I know this is an informal study, and I am proud of myself for not "cheating," but I was strongly tempted to look at the survey, figure out the questions, then read for the answers. A more formal experiment needs to limit access to the quiz until after the subject reads the document.

I do hope someone bites and takes Mr. Murphy's recommendation to formalize this for a grant application. I have always sensed there was a difference between how people read and interpret screens vs. how they read and interpret paper. It would be nice to see formal research on these differences. The resulting research could help us create even better online learning.

Comprehension and Retention

Paul Murphy is doing an informal experiment that could shape everything we are doing as eLearning specialists. He needs 100s of people to help. I figure if I can rope myself and 2 others to do this, he will eventually have his statistics.

Directions are in his ZDNet post Comprehension and Retention. The experiment is on my to do list for this evening.

I'd love to hear your feedback on the experiment, both the design and your experiences with it.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

"New" Technologies - Blogging

Blogging is just public journal writing. I've had friends who have been doing this "online" since the BBSs in the late 80s. Journaling (with simple paper/pen/scissors/glue technology) has been an educational technique for much longer and a very solid one.

Dr. Marshall Fishwick, during his Popular Culture class at Virginia Tech in the early 90s, gave the best example of an educational journal assignment. Figuring that his students were in tune with the current zeitgeist, he asked us to keep a daily journal with pictures and media clippings. We had to find events in our day-to-day life that directly related to the week’s topic. He had us turn in sections a few times that semester, just to make sure that we were doing the assignment. Admittedly, this led to a frantic evening before turn-in dates hacking up magazines and taking pictures of my drunken friends on more than one occasion. The end-product was a large notebook chronicling the culture of the time and, in retrospect, my own evolution. Because we didn’t share these journals with anyone other than Dr. Fishwick, they became private conversations between the student and professor.

I was fortunate to take the Popular Culture class with one of the founders of that academic movement and its best early practitioner. Most people will never be lucky enough to have direct, face-to-face access to experts at that level.

The public nature of blogging is its strength. The professor can easily check daily progress on the journal and comment quickly on each posting’s relevance. Fellow students can share ideas and resources. Most importantly, it is easier to collaborate with experts around the world. Since I’ve been blogging, I’ve been amazed at the caliber of the professionals who have contacted me as a result of a post.

We have so much access to information and to each other. It would be a shame not to take advantage of it for education.

I don’t know if Dr. Fishwick had his students create early blogs before he retired in 2003. I suspect that if he was alive and teaching today, his journal assignment would have evolved into a blogging assignment. With pictures and video, of course.

Rest in peace Dr. Fishwick, and thank you.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What I Want for Xmas.....


Dear Santa:

I have been a very good girl this year. Really.

All I want for Xmas is a Nintendo Wii.

I know this sounds like a strange request from a non-gamer, but I want to use it for work-type things.

Really.

It seems that the new controller may help us become more emotionally invested in the game, thereby making it more realistic. And there's a cool game called Trauma Center:Second Opinion that I might be able to share with my doctors. It's getting good reviews. Oh, and there's a golf game in Wii Sports (comes with the console) that might help my swing. I hope they bring out the next Tiger Woods game on this console.

Thanks for hearing me out, Santa. If I get the Nintendo Wii under my Xmas tree, I promise to be extra special good next year.

Your Friend,
Wendy

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"New" Technologies - Interactive Video

I have been watching, with some bemusement, the excitement over "new" technologies: interactive video conferencing, blogging, and videos via YouTube/Google Video.

These "technologies" have been around for a long time. What we are seeing is subtle modifications of old themes. Furthermore, I’m not seeing a huge change in the methods people use to educate as a result of these technologies.

This starts a series of essays containing my thoughts on these technologies.

---------------------
Interactive Video is essentially the old camera-phone idea come to life. Face-to-face discussion over a distance.

I started in Instructional Technology through interactive video conferencing - both proprietary systems (Verizon's MIDLN) and early H.323 IP-based conferencing. The current buzz around interactive video is a result of reductions in time delays (the kung-fu movie effect) and better video display technology (plasma screens and high def protocols).

Despite these improvements, interactive video will continue to suffer from the strange detachment participants feel during an interactive video conference. Interesting classroom management issues also arise with the ability of the students to mute themselves (or you), difficulties seeing who is talking (unless you are looking at a HUGE screen – it’s difficult to see lips move and subtleties in body language), and the need to manage multiple groups of students at the same time.

For school systems with limited resources and topics with few specialists, interactive video permits the use of synchronous educational techniques across distances. That said, I haven't seen any huge advances in instruction as a result of the technology. Savvy educators spend most of the air time with student presentations, discussion groups, and synchronous group projects with one team consisting of members from each of the different sites. Sadly, most of the classes I observed used the classic "talking head" method with the addition of PowerPoint.

The most promising part of interactive video technology, in my mind, is not the conferences over TV sets, but the ability to share other people's computers - editing files at the source, playing with systems, seeing what a student is seeing on his or her computer and asking questions in real-time. WebEx and Microsoft Live Meeting are commercial examples of this technology. I find VNC access and LogMeIn with a phone call (or Skype)to be just as powerful (and much cheaper) if you are working within a network of trusted computers. Facial expressions are the only thing missing from these technologies.

If interactive video is going to be a fully robust educational technology, I see 2 areas for improvement:

1) Technologically figure out a way to decrease the physical detachment felt when using this technology.

2) Change our instructional techniques to best utilize the synchronous nature of the technology. Historically, this technology is expensive – if we are going to use this at all, we might as well use the technology to its best advantage.
_______________________________________________________________________________
The reference link for issues with Interactive Video Teleconferencing is part of the ACM Digital Library.

Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems archive
INTERACT '93 and CHI '93 conference companion on Human factors in computing systems table of contents

Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Pages: 109 - 110
Year of Publication: 1993
ISBN:0-89791-574-7
Authors Maximilian Ott C&C Research Laboratories, NEC, 4 Independence Way, Princeton, NJ
John P. Lewis C&C Research Laboratories, NEC, 4 Independence Way, Princeton, NJ
Ingemar Cox NEC Research Institute, 4 Independence Way, Princeton, NJ

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Crashing Moodle

Last week, the Moodle server crashed. The initial problem - a line in the config file for the Apache Web server changed. Ta and I still don't know WHY this line changed.

Ta's techie notes follow below:
Here's the events and what was done:

On Tuesday, Moodle crashed due to configuration file change
on Apache.

C:\xampplite\apache\conf\httpd.conf
(this is a standard file name within the server for most Moodle installs - yours may vary - Wendy)

Someone uncommented this line from the configuration file
#tb LoadModule ssl_module modules/mod_ssl.so

Now Apache loads which drives the website

Today, Wendy made some minor changes, and the server crashed. Unfortunately, in the services for Windows, Apache and Mysql were set to manual mode instead of automatic start on Server boot. So, after setting those services to automatic - Apache and Mysql should automatically start after a server reboot.


Our audit trail showed an internal IP address which turned out to be the server itself.

Ta fixed the problem, but since the crash - the server now has a habit of not finding the page as I do simple tasks: adding files, importing courses, running files. Nothing out of the ordinary and nothing consistent. Most of the time, if I get out of IE and get back in, I can log back in and continue what I am doing. But I have also had to go directly into the server and restart the Apache2 service or the Moodle CRON job.

I'm writing this because I have crashed the server for the 3rd time today. This is bad.

1) I am the only person currently on the server. So what happens when I get 100 hits at a time?

2) My end-users have little patience with technology and I envision phone calls at 2am wondering why they can't get to the tutorials.

Ta and I's current conclusion: our Apache2 install is unstable. We don't know why. I fear it may be our recycled hardware. Ta and I are still researching the issue and Ta will be putting a query on the Moodle Boards.

Any thoughts / ideas are welcome.

Cancelled Benchmarks

The Senior Management meeting didn't happen yesterday. A shame since I showed up to work extra early in my best dress clothes.

This means I have an extra 2 weeks (at least) to tweak the system and load up courses.

I LOVE the Import function in Moodle that allows me to copy courses from other categories. I organized the courses by job description and department. As a result, lots of duplicate courses. Copy / Paste/ Edit. This is how I've spent the past 20 working hours.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The 3 Roles for Future Educators

I had an epiphany on the way home from work yesterday....

I see 3 roles that eduators play that will allow us to adapt to the changes in our environment:

Librarian - Librarians gather, collect, and categorize resources to help you answer the question / do the task at hand.

Editor - Editors help people organize information in ways that make sense, eliminating the irrelevant.

Cheerleader - Cheerleaders motivate and engage the audience.

Trainers and instructional developers play these roles every day - usually in combination.

I know that when I create new training material the first thing I do is figure out what the training thing needs to accomplish. This is an editorial function.

Next, I marshall my resources. Not just books - experts, tools, graphics, movies, web sites, anything I can get my hands on to achieve the goal. Librarians are fabulous resource collectors. With the amount of information out there, we should be too.

Once I have most of what I need, I start organizing the material into something that makes sense to me and, hopefully, to others. Again, an editorial function.

We can then use our cheerleading skills to encourage people to work with us through the learning process. We play cheerleader every time we give feedback, engage the audience, and motivate the student to explore more.

I see the mentoring function we perform as a cheerleader role too. How many of you remember the inane chants from your college football games? The cheerleaders mentored you towards that learning.

From what I've seen - educators are the best at combining these three functions and we can use these skills to insert ourselves into this new world of wikis, blogs, webs, and rapid change.

Go Team!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Free Learning - and you are not involved

Anna Farmer, over at The Engaging Brand lists 8 Free Ways to Help People Learn at Work.

Notice how NONE of the solutions include a trainer, an instructional designer, or any educational development models. No mention of eLearning, courseware, or anything that smacks of a classroom.

Anna's emphasis is on business, leadership, and management. This is where many of our clients (corporate management) see the future of "training" - easy access to information, mentors, and collaborative tools. NOT courses.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

ISD, ADDIE, HPT

The Learning Circuits Blog: November's The Big Question
Are our models (ISD, ADDIE, HPT, etc.) relevant in the future?


I really hate to say this, but I often see a huge gap between what we design and what happens in the classroom whether we use these models or not. I'm in the (not so) envious position of doing both the design and the training in my organization so my comments reflect my perspective (and, probably, my lack of professionalism) on this topic.

What I design: Courses with concrete measureable objectives developed as a result of detailed analysis of the organization's needs. The courses contain appropriate tutorials, exercises, and tests in a logical order - each section building on the other. I do my best to use good ISD whenever I develop a course.

What happens in the classroom:
- The realization that the student(s) either don't have the prerequisites complete or have already been doing what I am supposed to show them, thereby not needing the training in the first place. - This occurs despite my attempts to get a feel for the student's prior knowledge.

- Interruptions to the class - Since I work with doctors, the patient's are ALWAYS first whether they are in the classroom for me or not.

- Lack of time - "I know that you have 3 hours of material to cover. Can you do it in 1?"

- Addressing issues as they come up rather than in the nice order that I placed them in in the first place - In my mind the first rule of adult education is relevancy. I am more likely to keep their attention if I answer their question NOW than wait 30 minutes.

In some ways, eLearning makes it easier to enforce these models on the delivery end. The next question is....do we want to? The longer I work, the more I realize that the old roles of "Trainer" and "Instructional Designer" are becoming irrelevant.

I know Karl Kapp believes we should start pushing back and demanding more time and attention. However, I work at the mercy of my employers. If I were a consultant, it would be easier for me to push back. I might also find myself without work.

I am also not convinced that an organization's desire for rapid, just-in-time training is a bad thing. With fuzzy corporate requirements, the lack of standard workflows throughout most organizations, and rapid environmental change, employees still have to spend time with others to get current information. Unless we are in the thick of things, there is no way our training will be able to reflect the reality of our students.

Harold Jarche eloquently observed in his response to the Big Question:
Training often worked before, or at least didn’t create more problems, when work processes and organisations were stable. As we move to more networked businesses, training’s weaknesses are becoming evident. These weaknesses are also evident when we don’t really know what the performance objectives are in a constantly evolving society, economy and marketplace.

The one comment I hear more than any other these days from my students is "This is all well and good, but it won't make much sense until I use it in the clinic." This despite my best efforts to mirror the work processes and situations our doctors, clinicians and staff find themselves in daily.

Because the context in which the students use the tools or knowledge we teach changes constantly, our challenge as educators may be to find ways to teach within this environment.

Cognitive and Motor Skills

I view software application training as, fundamentally, a combination of cognitive and motor skills. This line of research will impact the way I design my online tutorials.

Because so many of us read our blogs off of feeds rather than off of the site, I wanted to share Alvaro's comments in a post so that they aren't missed. He was kind enough to share Dr. Wayne Shebilske's response to his interview.

You can find Dr. Shebilske's paper at www.psychonomic.org/archive.

Wendy, thanks for such a nice summary. Happy that you enjoyed the interview.

Wanted to let you and your readers know that the US-based professor doing some replication studies based on Prof. Gopher's work came to the site and left a very useful comment, which I copy here

"Your excellent interview with Dr. Gopher reminded me why so many of us have followed his lead in training complex skills. I hope that your interview inspires others. They will find that he is generous with his ideas, time, energy, and infectious positive spirit. Working with him to replicate experiments and extend ideas is both productive and enjoyable.

Your interview includes a reference to an article by my colleagues and me. I want to update the reference and provide a related reference to a Web-based Archive.

Shebilske, W. L., Volz, R. A., Gildea, K. M., Workman, J. W., Nanjanath, M., Cao, S., & Whetzel, J. (2005). Revised Space Fortress: A validation study. Behavior Research Methods, 37, 591-601.

Volz, R.A., Johnson, J.C., Cao, S., Nanjanath, M., Whetzel, J., Ioerger, T.R., Raman, B., Shebilske, W.L., and Xu, Dianxiang (2005). Fine-Grained data acquisition and agent oriented tools for distributed training protocol research: Revised Space Fortress. Down Load Technical Supplement, Psychonomic Society Web-based Archive (see 37,591-601). .

The journal article's abstract describes both:

Abstract
We describe briefly the redevelopment of Space Fortress (SF), a research tool widely used to study training of complex tasks involving both cognitive and motor skills, to execute on current generation systems with significantly extended capabilities, and then compare the performance of human participants on an original PC version of SF with the Revised Space Fortress (RSF). Participants trained on SF or RSF for 10 sets of 8 3-min practice trials and 2 3-min test trials. They then took tests on retention, resistance to secondary task interference, and transfer to a different control system. They then switched from SF to RSF or from RSF to SF for two sets of final tests and completed rating scales comparing RSF and SF. Slight differences were predicted based on a scoring error in the original version of SF used and on slightly more precise joystick control in RSF. The predictions were supported. The SF group started better, but did worse when they transferred to RSF. Despite the disadvantage of having to be cautious in generalizing from RSF to SF, RSF has many advantages, which include accommodating new PC hardware and new training techniques. A monograph that presents the methodology used in creating RSF, details on its performance and validation, and directions on how to download free copies of the system may be downloaded from www.psychonomic.org/archive/.

The extended capabilities for RSF include a) being executable on current generation platforms, b) being written in a mostly platform independent manner, c) being executable in a distributed environment, d) having hooks built in for the incorporation of intelligent agents to play various roles, such as partners and coaches e) providing a general experiment definition mechanism, f) supporting teamwork through being able to flexibly assign different input controls to different members of a team, g) maintaining all data in a central database rather than having to manually merge data sets after the fact, and h) having playback capability, which enables researchers to review all actions that occurred during an experiment and to take new measures. Experimenters can design measures before an experiment to test specific hypotheses with a rigorous laboratory task. They can also use playback to discover and explore unanticipated events. Although simpler and more complex synthetic task environments can be advantageous for some goals, Danny Gopher, our colleagues, and I believe that Space Fortress remains an important tool for scientists and trainers. Please feel free to contact me (wayne.shebilske@wright.edu) for additional help downloading and using RSF."

Regards,

Alvaro

Monday, November 06, 2006

Are we Overcomplicating our eLearning?

In his comments to my last post, Alvaro pointed to an interview he did with Prof. Daniel Gopher at SharpBrains. Dr. Gopher notes:

The need for physical fidelity is not based on research, at least for the type of high-performance training we are talking about. In fact, a simple environment may be better in that it does not create the illusion of reality. Simulations can be very expensive and complex, sometimes even costing as much as the real thing, which limits the access to training. Not only that, but the whole effort may be futile, given that some important features can not be replicated (such as gravitation free tilted or inverted flight), and even result in negative transfer, because learners pick up on specific training features or sensations that do not exist in the real situation.

For the high-end gaming developers, Dr. Gopher suggests that the emphasis on "realism" may be misguided. He cites a side-by-side comparison between a simple computer game and a sophisticated, graphically rich flight simulator and notes that the simple game was more effective.

For those of us who create low-budget, high-speed eLearning, his findings are very encouraging. His recommendation: analyze the cognitive skills involved, then develop a simulation that trains those skills.

Common sense - but how many times have you seen eLearning that is pretty to look at and useless for training?

Thank you Alvaro for the lead and your nice comments!!!!!

Friday, November 03, 2006

Training Pilots

Clark Aldrich, in Learning Circuits, emphasized the importance of training pilots during the training development process. Lack of training pilot = invitation to failure.

In his comments to the post, Dave Lee outlined the following issues caught by a good pilot program. (I'm going to copy this verbatim because he was so eloquent):

1) False assumptions about content progression. Your SME's already know the answers and have created short cuts for themselves that make them more efficient. The SME's you have review the content now the same shortcuts. When key steps are missing, learners don't get it you have a breakdown that needs to be fixed.

1b) Jargon, jargon, jargon. SME's use it. Learners don't know it. Facilitators often don't know it. (which can undermine the facilitator's credibility.

2) False assumptions about pacing. That activity you thought would take 15 minutes requires 12 minutes of setup and then runs for 30 minutes.

3) Ideas that looked good on paper but just didn't fly in real context. That team activity using hula hoops to teach Venn Diagrams sounded great but what a flop. The older employees spent time showing the younger employees how a hula hoop works.

4) Great activity once the facilitator figured out the poor facilitator guides.

5) Lack of clear link between activities and the learning objectives. Invariably signaled by an insistent raised hand follow by "why would we want to do this anyway?"

____________________________________________________

I have mentioned before that I am piloting my LMS with the IT group. They are also looking at the tutorials (again). There are 2 issues with this particular pilot group.

1) They are subject matter experts so they are able to make assumptions that shouldn't be made within the context of training.

2) They are computer savvy so they will forgive lack of navigational clarity.

I built the LMS this early with a "self-selecting" pilot in mind. We are not replacing our current strategy now, so I have time to get some feedback. Here is my current thinking:

- We are going to open up the LMS to all users on November 15th. Big announcement and directions for use will be sent to everyone. Hopefully, I will get some self-selected users who will play with this.

- Arlene (the Medicine trainer) will be shown how to use the system and asked for feedback.

- The Pilot Physicians will also be shown the system and asked to log in.

- People who come to me for training will be asked to log into the system. The face-to-face training will be used to evaluate the tutorials and the student's reactions to the content, organization, and technology.

- People who have been using our intranet site to find the tutorials will be redirected to Moodle. All of the contents from the previous site will be in there. I have posted a feedback forum in each of the courses.

- All upgrade information will be posted as a separate course in Moodle. Users will be directed to Moodle so that we get them used to looking in the system for new information. This requires convincing the System Administrator to stop sending the group e-mails.

- I have built some project courses to get our IT group using Moodle as a project workspace. This should reduce the amount of time we spend trying to find documents in multiple folders and reduce the stress on our shared servers. Moodle as Knowledge Management tool.

My hope is that by the time when this system HAS TO WORK (February/March 2007 is the current timeframe) we have good training content and a functional LMS / KM tool.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Question of Relevancy

In my post "Too Much Information..." Anonymous wrote:

I think your question is best addressed by reflecting on what is the best use of your mental and emotional energy. What is the quality of the material you are hectically keeping abreast of? How challenging is it? How gratifying? How much does it demand of you and how much do you contribute to it? If the answers to these questions seem one-sided, then the media is getting the best of you.

He or she is probably right. It's easy to get distracted if you have "infovore" tendencies.

Since I am currently in the midst of serious tutorial production, I find myself skimming through my current string of blogs, newsletters, and podcasts - mostly to distract myself during stuck moments rather than "researching" solutions.

This is not nearly as unproductive as it sounds.

While I was writing my Master's Thesis - before widespread e-mail, widely digitized source materials, and Google Search - our professors encouraged us to put all of our notes on 3x5 index cards. Citation information at the top of the card, the relevant quote in the body. When you were ready to write, you would reorganize the cards into the appropriate order and write your paper based on the cards. The thinking behind this technique is that the paper would practically write itself once you have organized the cards.

Invariably, as I was writing, I would remember a citation didn't seem relevant enough for the effort of putting it on a card. I would then waste a day in the library among the stacks scrambling to find the source. Half of the time, the source was only loosely related to the topic at hand.

I firmly believe that knowledge advances within the gaps between fields. Seemingly "irrelevant" sources contain kernels of ideas that can lead to solutions. This is why I read blogs on multiple, unrelated topics and play with tools that I don't need right now. I may find a use for it later.