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10 Years of Innovation in Learning


Learning and technologyLike TrainingZone, The Training Foundation will also celebrate the 10th anniversary of its formation this summer. Adrian Snook looks back over the last decade of learning and development.

When thinking about face-to-face learning it is tempting to think that nothing much has changed since Plato established an Athenian school of learning in a grove of trees owned by Academos back in 387 BC. True, the academic model has not evolved much in the last 2,000 years, but many interesting developments have certainly cropped up in the last 10 years.

Our understanding of how the brain works has advanced significantly as a result of cognitive research and modern body scanning techniques, resulting in a rethink on popular theories like the split-brain model. In turn this has prompted greater awareness of the awesome power and complexity of the human mind and the degree of ingenuity required to enhance learning processes through interactivity and improved learner centricity.

Much of the work undertaken by The Training Foundation over the last decade has focused on finding practical applications for this research and making the necessary best-practice models available to training professionals.

"Topics like NLP, mind-mapping, action learning and emotional intelligence have all captured the popular imagination of the L&D community during the last decade."

Adrian Snook, deputy chief executive, The Training Foundation

Topics like NLP, mind-mapping, action learning and emotional intelligence have all captured the popular imagination of the learning and development community to some extent during the last decade, spawning a proliferation of books and events as well as regular features in the training press.

Equally, interest in leadership development and in coaching has also reached what seems like fever pitch over the last five years, spawning a proliferation of providers, some of whom inevitably offer services of dubious merit.

We have experienced more a roller-coaster ride over the last decade in relation to the use of technology to enhance learning. Back in 1998 there was a general feeling that technology had huge potential to transform learning, but the optimum technology platform was still a matter for heated debate.

The ‘bandwidth squeeze’ imposed by floppy discs and other esoteric forms of storage media had been overcome thanks to large PC hard discs and the CD-ROM. As a result, by 1998 an increasing number of lucky people had the benefit of learning by interacting directly with the PC sitting in front of them.

Looking back at learning content from this period of 'direct interaction' one is immediately struck by the richness of the media, the ubiquitous availability of video and so on. By 1998 the effect was almost televisual in terms of quality.

But all this lovely rich media content was destined to disappear within a couple of years as learning went 'online' via dial-up connections and was not to reappear in the mainstream until the arrival of broadband networks nearly 10 years later.

Virtual reality was still very much a hot topic in 1998 and learners wearing ‘feely gloves’ and space age VR helmets regularly featured in the training press. Terms such as computer-based training (CBT), technology-based training (TBT) and computer-based learning (CBL) all had currency in 1998, each of them meaning subtly different things to different people.

However, by 1999 the rise of the internet had created the right conditions for what is now known as e-learning. As is the way with weather patterns, the storm gathered its resources over the USA, crossed the East Coast and made its inexorable way across the Atlantic, with the eye of the e-learning storm making landfall in the UK in late 1998.

I spoke at a CIPD conference entitled TechTraining 1998, also attended by the then virtually unknown US commentator Elliott Masie. His hot tip for the event was to look out for the term ‘e-learning’ and for the concept of learning online, which was generating huge excitement in the US. It turned out that this was an understatement.

The FORTUNE On-Line Learning Supplement published on May 24, 1999 (Vol. 139, no. 10) reported: "According to the most recent study of corporate America made by the Masie Center - a Saratoga Springs, New York-based think tank - 92% of large organizations are implementing some form of On-Line learning this year."

"Over the last five years e-learning has grown up to take its rightful place as a tried-and-tested addition to the L&D toolbox, ideally as part of a carefully blended solution."

In no time industry pundits were queuing up to make pronouncements about the e-learning boom. There were parallels with sex. It became common for senior learning professionals to believe that everyone else was doing it, doing it more often and much better than they were. By 2000 I had coined the term e-ness envy to describe a little known mental condition that forces sufferers to implement poorly thought out, high profile e-learning projects for reasons of personal prestige!

This early mania for e-learning as a panacea for all ills thankfully passed away soon after the dot-com boom turned to bust. I still have a residual phobia about the phrase 'e-learning guru'. I certainly suggest you ignore anyone that still describes themselves as one!

Over the last five years e-learning has grown up to take its rightful place as a tried-and-tested addition to the learning and development toolbox, ideally as part of a carefully blended solution.

During the last decade a large portion of The Training Foundation's efforts have been focused on ensuring that learning and development professionals possess the new skills and knowledge necessary to make the most of learning technologies. I like to think we have played a key part in moving e-learning out of the technologist's ghetto and into the mainstream learning and development community.

Interestingly, Virtual Reality has recently been staging a resurgence - although feely gloves and helmets never did catch on. Today, VR environments are regularly being used to train the military, police and emergency services and networked serious games are being accessed by large numbers of people via more conventional PC interfaces.

As we look forward from 2008 we face a very interesting development. It seems that learners themselves have been changing over the last 10 years, as their brains are subtly rewired by daily interaction with the internet.

Generation X learners like me - born between 1961 and 1981 - had radically different life experiences than those in previous generations. Because we grew up with desktop computers (remember the Commodore 64, ZX81 or Sinclair Spectrum?) generation X’ers were technologically literate to a degree uncommon with previous generations like the Baby Boomers.

However, generation Y learners (born between 1981 and 1995) will soon be making up a significant portion of the workforce. These learners were reared using networked technology and e-commerce and this is conditioning the way they prefer to learn. They have learned to expect instant gratification and have little patience for due process and conventional models. They are used to finding out what they need to know, when they need to know it. Don’t expect generation Y’ers to listen to lengthy trainer-centred presentations or to learn reams of dull facts on the off-chance that they might come in handy one day. That’s what Google is for!

Generation Y learners are also deeply conditioned to distrust communications from anyone they do not know (have you had a suspicious email from your bank lately?) and to rigorously probe surprising claims made by strangers - so 21st Century trainers can expect to have their training expertise challenged pretty regularly (unless your learners have previously checked out your NetRep references with their peers via Google, Wikipedia, Linked-In and Facebook that is).

So how will learning and development need to evolve to cater for the evolving learning preferences of generation Y learners? One thing the last 10 years has taught us is that Samuel Goldwyn had a point when he said, "Only a fool would make predictions - especially about the future."

Adrian Snook is deputy chief executive of The Training Foundation. For more information about the foundation go to:


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