Insights: E-learning design is changing

This post continues my commentary to the Learning Insights 2012 Report produced by Kineo for e.learning age magazine. The fifth of ten ‘insights’ is that ‘E-learning design is changing’.
For at least ten years I have been trying to broaden the use of the term ‘e-learning’ to include any use of technology to assist the process of learning, whether that’s synchronous or asynchronous, interactive or linear, collaborative or self-study. The term has always been used this broadly in education, but in the corporate sector it continues to mean one thing only: interactive self-study tutorials, in the style of good old CBT (computer-based training). I have now just about given up on this. I’m beginning to accept this narrow definition and use the term ‘learning technologies’ for the broader perspective.
This diversion into semantics matters when you try to interpret this fifth insight. It matters because the term e-learning is so ambiguous and there are, in fact, two very different developments taking place:
E-learning itself is changing
This change is evolutionary and based on an improved understanding of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to formal e-learning tutorials. The better and more successful materials are much shorter (or at least much more modular, making it possible to learn in small chunks), visually more rich, more focused on key concepts and principles rather than mountains of detail, and much more interactive.
I don’t think gamification or virtual worlds have had that much of an impact, interesting as they are – perhaps when the economy improves, we’ll see more risks taken in these areas. What we are seeing is better storytelling and, above all, a much-improved use of learning scenarios. These are all very positive developments as far as I’m concerned.
Often what people really want is not e-learning at all
By contrast, this change is revolutionary and driven by the very different experience that we have when we access information online on a day-to-day basis. If you want to know about, say, photography – one of my current interests – the first thing you do is go to Google and YouTube. Your search doesn’t lead you to slide shows full of bullet points and multiple-choice questions, but to blogs, Wikipedia articles, screencasts and lots and lots of videos.
You know the detailed information will always be available online so you don’t bother trying to learn any of that. You want the big picture, the important ideas, lots of tips and tricks, and demonstrations of the key skills. If you have questions, you go to the forums. If you want to benchmark your progress against that of your peers, you join groups, share your work and provide helpful critiques to others. We are completely accustomed to learning in this fashion and very satisfied with how well it works. We cannot see why things should be so different at work.
So e-learning design is changing because, more often than not, it’s not traditional e-learning that people want. They’re looking for resources not courses. They want these resources in all sorts of forms – plain text will often do, graphics are nice, but they particularly like video. They are not expecting these resources to be fully-functioning learning objects, that take a learning objective through to its conclusion. Rather they want to pick and choose from a range of materials that can each make a contribution to whatever evolving goals they may have.
We’re looking for a new breed of digital learning content designers. Yes, they will be able to analyse a need and understand an audience but, most importantly, they will be great communicators in a wide variety of media. Some will specialise in the e-learning tutorials with which we’re all familiar, but many more will never get to write a multiple-choice question.

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