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Reflections on Learning Technologies 2010 #LT10ukLearning & Skills Group, Learning Ecosystem 10360 views
This was my second year at the Learning Technologies conference in London. I had the privilege of working with Patrick Dunn (who is leading the creative network which is The Difference Engine) to run a workshop session on Learning Ecosystems. It seemed to go down well with the few (carefully selected) people that I asked to give feedback.
Our workshop was followed by Andy Jones, speaking about his experiences of moving "from elearning to knowledge sharing" at Thomson Reuters. At the heart of that was the idea that trainers are not the right people to be taking new ideas out to the workforce. Instead, they pull in champions from the business to design materials, take ownership for them and then to spread the message back in the business. Makes perfect sense, and is a far more scalable and cost-effective way of supporting change.
There were two things that really grabbed me over the two days:
- The amount of evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, to support the concepts/ideas of social learning, communities of practice and learning ecosystems. This came from a range of sources, but primarily Josh Bersin and Mark Oehlert. As soon as their slides come online, I'll reflect more on this.
- The disconnect between what was happening upstairs at the conference and down on the 2nd floor at the exhibition.
Jane Hart described the exhibition as showing "first generation elearning", and I'd have to agree. When asked about what was down there, I described it as "same old, same old". It seemed like every stand was either trying to sell you a Learning Management System, a means of turning Powerpoints into online "learning" materials, or bespoke materials development.
There were exceptions of course. Caspian Learning stands out, with their Thinking Worlds games designer (review to come), and Infinity Learning, with their Involve system that takes ideas from Amazon in providing access to learning materials. Although I would like to take issue with their negative statements about free systems (I'm assuming they mean Moodle et al), which are simply spreading unjustified Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - especially when you consider their own website is built on the open-source Wordpress content management system!
Outdated products, which won't work
Vendors go where the money is. The people holding the purse strings are probably not the ones who are attending the conference. That's a pity, because if they did, they would see that they are, quite often, spending money on outdated ideas - many of which just will not really add any value to the business.
Outdated is a strong word. But let's take Learning Management Systems as an example. In the discussion below, please note that for me, learning does not equate to remembering. Instead learning = change.
Many (most) of the systems on the market today are based on the idea that you can deliver learning. That learning is a commodity which can be pushed into someone. Nowhere in any educational theory does this concept exist. Behaviourism says that behaviours can be changed based on a stimulus. Cognitivism says that people learn by organising knowledge into coherent structures. Constructivism says that we learn through the process of taking other people's ideas and building our own out of them. Connectivism says that we learn through making connections between internally and externally held knowledge. (For more on these start with http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_theory_%28education%29 ).
Nowhere in these theories is there any space for the statement "delivering learning". Yes, we can deliver materials, lectures, workshops and spaces designed for learning to take place. We don't deliver learning any more than the Tesco's van delivers good health. Learning is an individual process of change.
OK. So can we manage learning? That depends on what you mean by management. For many, management = control. So that's what they look for in a learning management system. But can we really control the process of learning? Can we really say who should learn what, and when, and how? No. Not really. We can provide motivational factors, environments that are conducive to learning, and materials that are designed to help people learn. But no way can we say that any of these will ensure learning has taken place.
Most learning management systems are based around the "management" part, and very little on the learning part. As environments conducive to learning, they are sadly lacking. Similarly very little emphasis is placed on the cultural aspects and the motivating factors which Josh and Mark so eloquently described.
We like our systems. I like systems. They help us feel in control of things. Sometimes they're even useful. The trouble is, the individual process of learning just doesn't fit nicely in systems. Learning is messy. It happens at the oddest times, for the strangest reasons. Trying to systemise learning is like trying to pick up milk in your hands. Yes, some of it might stick, but that will be the exception rather than the rule.
We do need systems. But we need ones that will are based around learners and the various ways in which they will learn (NB. Not learning styles - they are a discredited concept - but the fact that we all have different factors at different times that will help us to learn better). Systems that are designed around the manager or around the business needs are not learning systems. They might be content delivery systems or tracking systems. But there's no way you can say they are supporting real learning. They simply provide measurements that are easy to make.
Return on investment - why bother?
The constant question that came up throughout the conference was "How do you measure the return on social learning?"
We're very hung up on that idea. So hung up that we try to measure anything that will stand still long enough. We track "progress" through SCORM packages - knowing full well that all it measures is the number of times someone clicked a button. We count attendance at workshops - although all that shows is your workshops were popular. We quiz people at the end of our materials - knowing that they will have forgotten most of it 20 minutes later.
We are making the measurable important rather than the important measurable.
What's important? Whether change has taken place in that individual that leads to measurable impact on the organisation.
These are hard things to measure. We need to accept that. Often only a university research project will collect the hard evidence that shows that it was your learning intervention that made the impact on the organisation.
I don't believe most L&D departments really want to face the cost of providing that sort of evidence. So, instead, we provide lots of numbers that demonstrate that people like what we're providing. By doing so we run the risk of the business treating the L&D department as irrelevant to the real business.
So what evidence can we provide that we're actually making a difference?
A lot of it is a matter of perception. Does the business trust us? Do we speak the language of the business? Do we understand what the business needs are? Are we ready to challenge the business when a performance or a compliance problem is immediately seen as a learning problem? (On that matter, why is compliance always seen as a learning problem? In my opinion it's internal communication and management that have the key roles to ensure compliance. L&D have wrongly taken responsibility for it, and thus diminished their standing within the business.)
As I said earlier, learning is a messy process. Similarly evidence gathering will have to be messy. It might be anecdotal, or based on case studies, or surveys of managers and learners. But it should always focus, not on the learning intervention, but on the change that was intended from it.
This rambling reflection has helped me to realise that effective L&D departments must:
- understand the needs of the business in depth and in detail.
- create environments, materials and interventions that are based on a solid theoretical understanding of how people learn.
- work to ensure that the culture within the organisation becomes more conducive to people sharing, learning and changing
- be prepared to use proper educational research methods to evaluate the effectiveness of their interventions.
Changes I would like to see to the conference
Just to finish off with. There are a few things I think would help to breakdown the disconnect mentioned above:
- More opportunity for vendors to be challenged by the speakers in public
- Small group facilitated conversations, perhaps organised by sector, by product or by idea. It is so easy to miss out on conversations that are taking place just because the conference is now so large. So let's structure it a little (not too much!)
I have to agree with most of what you say above. However, come to think of it corporate learning (workplace training) has been like this for ages. The advent of internet has only brought the old offline system online whether it’s delivery, assessment, or ROI measurement. I think the culprit is not the LMS but the mindset - in most cases of those who write the cheques. This mindset will take time to change. Fundamentally not all organizations are ready for Learning 2.0 (or 3.0). The silver lining though is that we are all getting affected with new technology in our personal lives so adoption of the same in creating new systems for workplace learning/training could be faster than we imagine. And we as vendors are certainly seeing the shift happening - but it is SLOW. After Josh’s session I asked him about the future of eLearning content. His view was that it will remain important for some time and then will gradually reduce in importance.
I just fear that the disconnect that you speak of between the conference and exhibition does not become too confusing or frustrating for HR & Training Managers who attend such conferences, go back brimming with new ideas and find the blockade of old mindset back at their workplace.
I like your suggestions for changes to the conference. Just that a lot of vendors would chicken out leading to funding problems . Also should we not have the conference sessions (and of not just this conference) delivery also be reviewed? Make it more focused on the change that we want to bring.
I also put up my recap of LT10 Day 1 here. You may want to read and comment.
Thanks for sharing your views. Very interesting!
Mark, great posting - I particularly like the section - “Outdated products, which won’t work” - and your suggestion of “challenging the vendors” who think they can spread “unjustified Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt” without reprisal.
I would like to see/hear from more people (at the exhibition) about the how/why they think we should use technology, and not the hard-sell of their products.
Really interesting post Mark especially your summary re effective L&D departments. I’m still reflecting on the conference but some instant messages that have stayed with me are;
“Think big, start small and move fast” Mark Oehlert
“It’s about culture” Paul Judd
The role of L&D is to “make it happen” Mark Oelhert and one of the first steps of this involve L&D professionals understanding the capabilities of new tools and the impact that these have on organisational learning, the learning ecosystem and business performance.
Hi Mark - great summary. You got in before me (of course!). Presumably one reason that the folks on the exhibition floor keep flogging what they do is because their business models are set up to do it…if you see what I mean. Content providers provide content using large numbers of people that do things like write, design, project manage. I don’t think they want user-generated content to take off do they? Or social/community driven learning? And LMS providers typically have a big stake in “content” too, and they’re somewhat threatened by the idea that systems can evolve organically, without huge licence and upgrade fees. Like I said in my posting a while ago: how much innovation do e-learning providers really want? http://patrickdunn.squarespace.com/occasional-rants/2009/12/23/how-much-innovation-do-e-learning-providers-really-want.html
I enjoyed your summary, Mark, which is characteristically thoughtful and challenging. I agree with most of it but I think I’ve found a paradox. In your comments on LMS you ask, “Can we manage learning?” and you develop your argument. What I’m struggling with is the subsequent ideas for the LT conference and how it might be shaped to fit what Amit has picked up and referred to as “the change we want to bring". It feels like a case in point to me - one’s experience of childhood education, for example, may differ according to the political system one was born into. Similarly our occupational, training and career development is likely to have been shaped by the organisations, insitutions and affiliations of which we have been members. I am still uneasy abnout a completely “laissez faire” approach to L&D which some seem to be advocating. I think it is possible to be progressive and innovative in L&D without tearing up AND burying the map. So when you say “let’s structure it a little” that feels like management, but when Amit speaks of “we” and “changes” that feels like control in order to progress a preferred agenda!
@Phil. Thanks for the challenge. You’re right. There’s a fine line to tread between laissez-faire (which I’m not advocating at all), and top-down management.
The role for L&D in all this is to provide structures, scaffolding, resources, guidance, coaching, support etc which, in the end, encourage people to take responsibility for their own learning.
The key thing for me is that we should no longer see the L&D department as providing training. Instead they should be helping the organisation create solutions for performance problems - of which training is only a very small part.
Well I’d certainly not disagree with that, Mark. Some organisations talk a good game where “internal business consultancy” is concerned, but it’s those who consider training as the last resort rather than the first resort who are the engineers of high performance. It is they who achieve results, sometimes by taking the brave decision to do nothing (or at least no training)! As for the rest, arguing over what delivery platform or learning strtrategies to use is sometimes like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
You’re right. Vendors go where the money is. A pessimistic (realistic?) view might be that, in the absence of demonstrable ROI, the contract between buyer and vendor is simply based on input - ‘delivered’ learning - stuff you can see what you get for you cash. Stuff that your boss can see. This leads to caution and inertia - the enemies of innovation. Innovators are risk-takers but there are precious few risk-takers in the world of corporate L&D (or even those that might circumnavigate their L&D functions). That goes for in-house professionals, consultants and vendors alike. Inevitably, the market won’t support the sheer weight of LMS/rapid tool/content providers and only price will differentiate, like any commodity. It’ll be down to the brave few to stick their necks on the line and lead, not follow. The trick for companies like mine is to be innovative and solvent at the same time. I’m quietly confident.
With all respect, I have to take serious exception to just about everything you say above. Not because it’s wrong, but because it misses the point.
Economic buyers, i.e. companies, membership associations and government agencies, have no mandate for learning per se, whether the learning is framed as cognitive, connectivist, contructivist or anything else. There are a few exceptions. Some organizations are mandated by law to increase workforce skills in certain industries, like the BBC in UK media. However, that is the exception, not the rule.
In general, companies buy enterprise technology, including learning management systems, in order to accomplish one or more of the following:
1) Manage risk
2) Reduce cost
3) Increase productivity
4) Foster change
The question to ask is: How effectively do these systems meet needs in these four objective areas? Whether the system is first, second or thirteenth generation is of little concern. And the right people to be asking are not always learning and development executives but rather chief financial officers and their compliance staff, in-house legal counsel, quality assurance managers, sales and service managers, manufacturing and process executives, etc. These are the people who rely on systems to deliver, manage, track and report on certification and license programs, competency management (the demonstrated and achieved kinds of skills and competencies), standard operating procedure promulgation and adherence, etc.
Sometimes I think we made a terrible mistake as an industry by calling these systems learning management systems because they’re not really about learning, at least not in the senses you mean above. It’s not about learning qua learning. It’s about making sure the right people get the information they need to do their jobs, when they need it and in forms that are easy for employees to use in their usual work processes. These systems are about helping companies and governments assure staff and user competence in ways that can be verified and validated.
We have some 800 LMS clients around the world and when we ask our clients what they think their own best use of the systems are, they talk about what they have achieved in terms of improvements in regulatory compliance, quality assurance, time to market efficiencies, workforce productivity, cost reduction, employee empowerment, corporate social responsibility programs and many other practical achievements.
But in 10 years one thing I’ve never heard any of them seriously talk about is constructivist vs. connectivist vs. cognitivist learning theories.
They just don’t care, which is not to say that they don’t care about the fruits of the research – if they can put ideas to practical use in cost effective ways, then bring on the wikis (which we happily incorporate in our offerings).
Jay Shaw, CEO
Thank you for the great review of Learning Technologies 2010.
It is a sad truth that what sells is brought to the shows instead of what is new or inventive.
Thanks for the enlightening and helpful comments as well as the mention for infinity. However, your comments on our attitude to Moodle suggets we didn’t communicate as well as we may have done. Moodle is a fine tool and opensource collaborative work is to be applauded and used wherever possible. Our issue is with vendors who tailor Moodle and charge nose bleed inducing rates for relatively minor enhancements of what is essentially free stuff.
On your disconnect between the conference and the exhibition - I agree there was a lot of old stuff on display and commented as such on my blog on training zone. That said, my issue is that while conference organisers seem to ban the best of the vendors from appearing at conferences as speakers for fear of upsetting the also ran exhibitors who pay for everything, then we will not get the kinds of meetings of minds which we all - as learning professionals - would desire. I know some vendors have in the past tried to sell their products from conference platforms but those who know that they are good long ago recognised that there is no better way of alienating potential customers than doing a sales pitch.
Besides, no vendors would be a fine policy if no conference speaker ever pitched their book, blog or consultancy from the podium.
I just thought I’d respond to Jay Shaw’s comments, as they seemed to summarise for me that kind of disconnected, dare I say cynical, approach to change through learning that I fear makes e-learning’s reputation so poor. Let’s have a look at the four areas his clients wish to accomplish:
1) Manage risk - well, yes. Risk that compliance authorities, for example, may audit an organisation and find that people haven’t read a manual, or ticked a box. Of course, there’s no correlation between ticking a box and performing differently. As one HR Director told me last year “look - the only reason we’re doing this compliance e-learning is to cover ourselves. We’re not expecting people to behave differently in any way. If we were, we’d train them properly.”
2) Reduce cost - yes, ok. Reduce cost of e-learning that on the whole makes no difference. But cheaper ineffective rubbish is still just ineffective rubbish.
3) Increase productivity - evidence please! Productivity of content production is unarguable. We can make more “content", more efficiently than ever before, and put it in front of people in large numbers very quickly; and track whether they’ve seen it. But evidence relating to productivity increases related to e-learning delivered through managed systems is extremely hard to come by.
4) Foster change - oh, but seriously? Really?
One thing that disturbs me about this kind of thing so much is that it’s driven by a “shoot the experts” agenda. Like Jay (I hope), I’m incredibly driven by a need to help people in organisations to change. That’s why I’ve spent years diving into the theory and best practice. Of course, I’d never lecture a CEO on the wonders of constructivismconnectivismblabla’ism or whatever, but I have to know about this stuff to be a professional. Jay’s point is a bit like saying to a structural engineer “Hey look man - that building looks like it’s going to stand up for ever! Who needs engineers?”
Execs are often lost in a dangerous world; it’s our job to help them, not sell them snake oil.
I will take your challenge. Here are some examples in reply to your points:
1) Managing risk – Captain Sullenberger (the pilot who landed the jet on the Hudson River and saved 155 lives) spoke at Learning 2009 and got a standing ovation. His entire speech, and his entire career, was about compliance training. It’s in his book. Pilots practice everything they do online and in simulators (which are heavily optimized cockpit LMSs and in many cases deliver results tracking right back to the airlines’ corporate LMSs – did you know you can get a “zero time” type rating, basically a license to fly certain kinds of planes without actually ever having flown the real thing?). Pilots are periodically tested on their compliance training. One airline we work with give all of their pilots what is called “recurrent training” every three months, essentially ultra-secure online tests managed by the LMS. The questions are pre-approved by the civil aviation authority and the entire system is locked down. If a pilot fails once, he is given a second chance. If he fails a second time, he is not a pilot at that airline anymore. In the United States, the first thing the National Transportation Safety Board investigators usually do after an aircraft incident is pull the training records of the pilots and engineers who last touched the plane. The investigators pull the records from the airline’s LMS. This stuff matters.
2) Reducing cost – Some things cannot be cost effectively done any other way but online. And one person’s idea of “rubbish” is another person’s idea of a ticket to a new life. One popular e-learning area is language acquisition, especially for professionals. Check the NY Times article “The Web Way to Learn a Language” by Eric Taub for recent coverage. Some of the best language learning support I’ve seen is through online services paid for by multinationals and hosted on their LMSs. The company’s costs are relatively modest but the benefits both to the company and to the individuals can be very large.
3) Increasing productivity – One of our LMS clients, a metropolitan police force with more than 15,000 uniformed officers, measure their LMS benefits not only in tax payer money saved, but in lower crime rates because more police officers are on the street and not driving to and from the academy for training. One course that would have taken 15 instructors working full-time four years to deliver the old way was put out to the entire force in three months online. The police think they saved about US$7 million and averted a bunch of crimes by putting the training on their LMS. How’s that for a productivity jump?
4) Fostering change – You’re right about this. It’s hard to measure. I will say the following. One multinational we work with has noticed that the highest and most dedicated use of LMS-mediated learning (often on the employees’ own time) happens in countries like Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and non-coastal China. People are hungry for knowledge. A lot of it is about things people in other countries may take for granted but many people in these countries simply do not know – like how to use Excel. The major suppliers’ online training for Excel is excellent (pardon the word choice). Microsoft courseware is cheap (or free) and globally available. Does that kind of corporate upskilling change the tone, foster innovation somehow? I think so but, as you say, it’s hard to draw the dots between cause and effect when it comes to measuring something as squishy as “change” so I will grant you this point.
To your more general point – that we suppliers could be doing better – you’re right. But God knows we’re trying. The only way we can make money and beat the competition is by continuing to offer better products and services at affordable prices.
My general point was simple – that we in the community often use the same words to mean very different things and end up talking past each other. We should all make an effort to get past that.
I’m more persuaded by Jay Shaw’s arguments. It’s all well and good taking a high-brow, nihilistic view of the industry ‘as is’ as opposed to how we might like it to be, but the truth is that the buy-side simply want a solution to a problem on commercial terms they can understand and sell internally. As it is, too few companies in our market generate decent returns for shareholders and need to ensure focus on areas where there is proper commercial traction, such as compliance and online course delivery, and not be distracted with the new, ‘new’ thing until there is good evidence of (paying) market acceptance. Clearly, large outsourcers like Capita et al prosper delivering some very unsexy ‘first generation’ solutions yet have commercial success and market capitalisations that far exceed anything in the e-learning industry, irrespective of whether one feels they are doing great things or otherwise.
My summary of the points above, and a further commentary on them got too long to be a comment.
So I created a new post for it - called “Dealing with the disconnect“.