Why the Real Power of eLearning is Social

This post was prompted by a webinar I gave on behalf of Citrix/GoToWebinar on 6th July 2011 and originally posted as a guest post on the Learning Pool blog. I’ve made a few changes to it here.

Looking Back

social learningeLearning has been with us in one form or another for at least the past 50 years, maybe longer.

the first player on the enterprise eLearning block was the University
of Illinois’ PLATO learning management system, built in 1960 to deliver
training through user terminals (which, even then, had touch-screens).

would argue that quite a few of today’s LMS offerings haven’t advanced a
great deal from PLATO. They serve up content and track activity.

image image

Plato IV LMS circa 1972

Personal Journey

own exposure to eLearning began back in 1964 when learning speed
reading via an electronic system at my secondary school. The speed
reading machine was about the size of a large refrigerator and probably
weighed roughly the same (maybe they even shared components). However
despite the obvious limitations, technology was making its way into
learning through a number of routes even back then.

My first
involvement in working with learning technologies that we’d recognise
today was when tutoring at the University of Sydney in the early 1970s.
In the School of Biological Sciences lectures were pre-recorded and
delivered across the campus on TV screens and the labs were supported
with tape-driven experiential learning activities. Content was still
analogue, but delivered in ‘e’ format.

My exposure to eLearning
in the early 1980s really got me ‘hooked’ on the potential of
technology in learning. At the time I was running online collaborative
learning courses. The ‘hooking’ was reinforced later in the 1980s when I
was reviewing Interactive Video training programmes for the UK National
Interactive Video Centre). I saw some great ‘interactive’ and engaging
learning activities in those big 12” disks – the content was used to
support experiential learning. At the same time I had the pleasure of
sitting on the national steering committee of the TTNS service in the UK
– an innovative collaboration between British Telecom and (I hardly
bear mention in the current UK ‘hacking scandal’ climate) Rupert
Murdoch’s News International. TTNS supported technology-based learning
for schools and Further/Higher education in the UK. Every schoolchild in
the UK had an email box on the Telecom Gold service – a very innovative step at the time.

Why Look Back?

point of looking back is that it helps understand the fact that various
forms of technology-based learning have been around for a long time,
and that some of the pedagogies that were used in early days were equal,
or superior, to the predominantly ‘course vending machine’ approaches
that emerged in the late 1990s on the back of generic course catalogues
and with content-led eLearning generally. Some of these 1990s models, to
a greater or lesser extent, are still with us.

I think it’s a good time now to both look back and look forward and to re-think our approach to eLearning generally.

Significant Hurdles

Rossett recently made it clear that there are still significant
eLearning hurdles to jump in an article titled “Engaging with the new
eLearning” published by Adobe. Allison pointed out that an observation
she made almost 10 years ago still hasn’t been addressed. This is what
she wrote in 2002:

“The good news is plentiful. eLearning
enables us to deliver both learning and information at will, dynamically
and immediately. It allows us to tap the knowledge of experts and
non-experts and catapult those messages beyond classroom walls and into
the workplace. And …it lets us know, through the magic of technology,
who is learning, referring, and contributing—and who isn’t.

there’s the bad news. Many simply fail to embrace eLearning. Like the
sophomore taking a course called “Introduction to Western Civilization”
via distance learning falling behind on assignments or the customer
service representative who looks at two of the six eLearning modules and
completes only one, or the supervisor, who had the best intentions, but
is too busy with work to be anybody’s e-coach”.

Allison goes on to point out that “Every
industry study reveals marked increases in training and development
delivered via eLearning, often with disappointing numbers characterising
participation and persistence….participants in eLearning programs are less likely to follow through than in an instructor-led program

should give us cause to pause and think – and re-think – about our
approach to eLearning . Not so much about eLearning as an approach in
general – there’s plenty of evidence that it can be an effective way to
assist and speed development – but we need to think about HOW we are employing and deploying eLearning. There’s clearly room for improvement there.

This also raises another fundamental question for me.

The question is this:

do current ideas about eLearning fit into the ‘new world’ of work and
in the new world of building workforce capability in the 21st century?

A great deal has changed since the term eLearning
first entered the vocabulary in 1999 and since web-based courses and
modules started appearing in volume in the early 2000s. We need to
rethink eLearning in light of these changes and other changes that are
only now starting to impact the world of work.

The Changes Needed

A major driver for us to re-think eLearning approaches is the move away from the 20th Century ‘push’ models of learning – with modules, courses, content and curricula being pushed at employees.

We’re seeing a move towards a 21st Century ‘pull’ model – where workers ‘pull’ the learning and performance resources they need when they need to improve their work performance.
They may need a course, but are more likely just to need some
‘here-and-now’ support to solve a problem or overcome an obstacle and
then move on.

I see a requirement for two principal changes in
thinking to address the challenge this change presents to Learning
professionals. The changes are these:

1. A move away from content-centric mind-sets.

2. A move away from ‘course’ mind-sets.

Step 1: Leaving Content-Centricity Behind

sure most of us are aware that the major challenge for learning is no
longer about ‘content’ or ‘knowledge’ (if it ever were).

We can
find content whenever we need it. Our lives are inundated with content.
We may not have great filters for content – that’s the real challenge –
but there is no doubt they will arrive in the next few years.

need now is for other skills such as critical thinking and analysis
skills, creative thinking and design skills, networking and
collaboration skills, and, across all of these, effective ‘find’ skills.

The development of these new skills has nothing to do with
content or ‘knowledge transfer’. It requires new mind-sets and
capabilities that I’ve come to call ‘MindFind’ – mind-sets and capabilities that support us in finding the right content when we need it, at the point of need.

the need for content won’t go away completely, but we know that content
is of greatest use when we can access it in the context of a specific
challenge, not when we’re provided it in a class or an eLearning course
and try to remember it until we take the end-of-course test – context is (almost) all.

need an understanding of core concepts, certainly, but Learning
professionals shouldn’t be wasting their time serving up all the details
about ‘task’ in closed eLearning packages. They serves little purpose
and the vast majority is forgotten immediately after the course or
working through the eLearning modules.

The challenge for Learning professionals is all about helping workers make
sense of what is expected of them, how they can gain the right
experiences, how they can get opportunities to practice, how they can
find the right people to help, and how they can have time to reflect on
what they’ve done and what they’ve learned so they do it better next
time. This is not achieved by creating and delivering learning
‘content’. It’s achieved by utilising the right context.

Content to Context

So we need to replace content with context – learning through doing, rather than learning through knowing.

also need to move our focus from ‘know-what’ learning to ‘know-how’
learning. From content-rich to experience-rich. And from ‘know-what’
learning to ‘know-who’ learning as well – we are who we know, and our
expertise is the sum of our own resources and others we can draw on when

The latter is why social learning is such an important
element in learning and needs more focus. It is not just ‘social’ for
the sake of being social. Workers will want to co-create. Lots of the
learning content of the future will be generated by people who are doing
the work rather than by specialist training instructors and learning
specialists. Learning professionals need to think about how they can
facilitate and support this, rather than creating the next greatest
content-heavy eLearning package. Instead they need to think about
helping workers make connections and building communities where they can
mine their own learning.

New Channels

will also expect their learning to be more personalised and available in
a self-service mode so they can get what they want when they want it
and where they happen to be. That means Learning professionals need to
consider new channels for learning.

Last month I was working at the Umm Al-Qura University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia with my Internet Time Alliance
colleague Clark Quinn, and had the opportunity to ask the Dean of IT
about the penetration of smartphones, notebooks and tablets among the
60,000 student population at the university. He estimated 90% had
smartphones and at least 50% currently had tablets or notebooks. I am
sure that penetration is even higher in many other parts of the world,
and not just in the ‘developed’ world, either. A big part of the future
of learning, as with our daily lives, is surely going to be mobile. We
need to make sure that any content that really needs be made available
to help with learning is accessible on multiple platforms.

More to the point, Learning professionals need to be thinking about creating learning EXPERIENCES rather than learning content.

such, we need to move away from content-rich, experience-poor learning
towards a focus on helping workers have rich learning experiences from
which they can develop.

Step 2: De-Focusing from Courses

Learning professionals default to a course mind-set when faced with
designing a solution to any performance problem. It’s an understandable
response. That’s what most have done throughout their careers – design
and deliver courses. Also, courses are relatively straightforward
projects to undertake. Standard instructional design methodologies can
be applied. They consist of a one-off event or a series of events that
can be relatively easily scheduled and delivered. We know how long
they’ll take, what resources they’ll use and we can manage the process
quite easily.

However, we also know that most learning doesn’t
occur in courses or events. It occurs in the workplace, in
bits-and-pieces. It occurs through watching an expert, or through a
conversation we have with colleagues or a manager, or when we make a
mistake and have the opportunity to reflect on how we’d do it next time,
or in one of many other ways. Designing for learning in this
environment is altogether different – and often a more ‘messy’ and
complex matter. But outcomes are likely to be better. People are more
likely to retain the learning they achieve through experience. And this
type of ‘informal’ or workplace learning has been shown to be generally
better received, more effective and less costly than its formal

So de-focusing on courses and re-focusing on
supporting learning in the workplace through social learning approaches
and performance support will be critical in the future. There is no
doubt about that.

In fact, there is a good basis of fact to argue that the real power of eLearning is social and contextual.

Learning professionals that understand and respond to this fact will be
able to demonstrate greater impact. Those that stick to the
content-rich, experience-poor models of the 20th Century will surely be overtaken by events.

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