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Blake Beus


Director of Learning Solutions

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Adopting disruptive technology in eLearning


What is Disruptive Technology?

Look at a typical college classroom today and you’ll see a lot of laptops. Students use them to take notes, access course materials, and compare sources. Of course, they also use them to browse Facebook and shop online. The technology has obvious advantages, but it also shifts attention away from the lecturer at the front of the room. So, professors must decide: are the advantages of allowing laptops in class worth the threat they pose to the traditional lecture format?

Laptops are a classic example of disruptive technology. Disruptive technology is a new device or service that suddenly displaces an old way of doing things. When this happens, an industry or institution has to choose whether to invest significant resources to accommodate the new technology. Postponing the change will help preserve the existing model—but it may mean passing up a valuable opportunity to improve the way we learn and work.    

In eLearning, examples of disruptive technology abound. Mobile devices, social media, the cloud, HTML5, video streaming, self-publishing media, and virtual reality and wearable tech all challenge a tried-and-true way of learning, clicking through pages on a desktop screen.

Of course, some of these technologies are more disruptive than others. Smart phones require responsive design for a smaller screen size; they may also require different timing, but remain in many ways compatible with existing employee onboarding models. Virtual reality, on the other hand, demands a completely new framework.

The Advantages of Disruptive Tech

Despite the challenge of revising an existing framework, there are a number of reasons that disruptive technology is a necessary investment for L&D. First and foremost, it creates a more attentive and versatile learner. Take mobile learning as an example.

The rise of mLearning corresponds to an increasingly mobile, remote, and distracted workforce. “In today's hyper social and mobile world it's a battle for attention,” writes Brent Schlenker. “Attention is the most valued resource in today's market place… [a]nd what you are interested in, you are most likely to learn more deeply.”

Just as college professors can’t help the fact that more and more students are working on laptops, employers can’t deny that workers now spend vast amounts of time on their phones. But instead of seeing mobile adaptation as a necessary concession to today’s iPhone junkie, instructional designers should see it as a new way to enter the psychological space of the learner. There’s no question people are interested in their phones, and as Schlenker emphasizes, interest equals better learning.   

But designing for mobile is about more than just grabbing attention. It’s also about creativity. Jim Euchner, editor-in-chief of Research-Technology Management, points out that “Digital natives, who grew up in an environment pervaded by connected digital devices and continually remade by rapid waves of technological innovation, are comfortable experimenting and absorbing personal risks to pursue an idea.”

While Euchner’s statement applies directly to millennials, it must also apply to technologically-immersed employees of all ages. This active, experimental disposition has good consequences for eLearning.

It means that learners working on phones or tablets are more prepared to engage in constructive activities, rather than passively absorbing information. mLearning colonizes valuable space that the learner already associates with creative activity and attentive absorption. And of course, it also makes learning possible in a range of new physical environments, including on-the-job and downtime settings. Some commentators refer to this as “all the time, everywhere learning.” 

Many of the same advantages apply to other disruptive technologies, including social media, video streaming, and wearable tech. They place learners in a setting in which they are used to being engaged. Personalization is yet another area in which new learning strategies overlap with the private tech lives of learners.

How Learning Strategists Can Adopt Disruptive Tech

As your L&D team prepares to incorporate disruptive technologies, current and hypothetical, here are three general considerations to keep in mind.

  • “Go where the learners are”: this is a helpful catchphrase from Schlenker. It means that L&D should be attentive to the technologies that employees are using on their own time. If learners are already familiar/comfortable with a device, focus your design efforts there.
  • Quick is good: mobile and other non-desktop platforms for learning are usually conducive to shorter sections and activities. Click here to see a guide to how to time different mLearning content.
  • The more immersive, the better: remember that attention is the most valuable resource in today’s learning environment. Technologies such as VR that maximize immersion are going to be a strong investment.  

Like laptops in the classroom, many of these disruptive technologies do take a toll—that’s why they’re disruptive. But instructional design has an especially high incentive for embracing rather than shying away from innovative tech. That’s because good instructional design is focused on the learner, and must be able to identify and capitalize on the learner’s mental habits. When new technologies help us do that, adopting them is an easy choice.

One Response

  1. A lot of disruptive
    A lot of disruptive technologies are being introduced in some areas of education, for example in Medicine virtual reality is being used to teach students anatomy and physiology.

    Great post, thank you for sharing.


Author Profile Picture
Blake Beus

Director of Learning Solutions

Read more from Blake Beus

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