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Becky Norman


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Interview: Graham Brown-Martin on why ‘personalised’ learning is the future


Tell us a bit about the work you’re doing currently, and what got you to where you are today.  

I’ve recently completed a two-year engagement with an ed tech start up called pi-top, where I helped them pivot from being a Raspberry Pi based DIY laptop maker, to a creative learning company focused on project-based learning to teach electronics and coding.

I provided the lead on education strategy, product development, brand and communications strategy with teams in the US, UK and China.

They’ll be releasing the results of that endeavour later this year, after a successful Kickstarter campaign that got funded within four hours.

Prior to this my 30-year career spanned the education, entertainment and technology sectors, where I lead and coached fast growth companies from start-up to scale up.

Through my private practice I’ve also worked in a consulting capacity with organisations including LEGO, KPMG, Prudential and Exxon Mobil, typically around innovation strategy and C-suite coaching.  

Diversity in societal norms, customs, and ethics can nurture technological innovation and the diffusion of new ideas, and thus the production of a greater variety of goods and services.

In your opening keynote on day two of Learning Live, you highlighted that by 2050 we might be seeing one billion people fleeing their homes. How will this affect the world of work, and how should we be preparing for this?  

One billion people is 3.5 times the current population of Europe or the US, so mass migration will become the new normal. To put that in perspective, international migration is currently around 300 million.

Despite what we might read in some media, particularly social media, migration and the arrival of new people from different social and cultural backgrounds has proven to be a positive factor in long-term economic growth.  

Inevitably there will be challenges as a result of workplace heterogeneity that may give rise to coordination problems, as language and cultural barriers increase transaction costs.

Technology can help here. For example, we are already seeing providers such as leveraging the skill base of refugee communities, providing online language learning for professionals and organisations.  

Diversity in societal norms, customs, and ethics can nurture technological innovation and the diffusion of new ideas, and thus the production of a greater variety of goods and services.

At the team level, a wider spectrum of traits is more likely to contain those that are complementary. This will create a richer pool of expertise, experiences, and perspectives can create positive outcomes for organisations willing to grasp them.  

I would therefore propose that we embrace the positive.  

As technology continues to evolve, the jobs available for humans are going to change. Who will be best prepared to adapt to these new roles? Should we be concerned about the worsening of social inequality here?  

Yes, we should be concerned about the impact of technological unemployment and the rising inequality that is a result of downward pressure on income security.

Whilst the so called ‘gig’ economy offers some advantages in the form of flexible hours, many people are now finding themselves on zero hour contracts.

This leads to a lack of social agency and the emergence of new social class, the precariat, who are vulnerable to political radicalisation. We are witnessing this across the western world.  

The logical conclusion of industrialisation, which prompted the transformation of craft production to mass production, is automation – where the human is removed from production altogether and profit is maximised.

We are seeing this on the factory floor and we will see it across all sectors where jobs based on measurements or standardisation are replaced by machines. This will include a large number of white-collar jobs from accountancy and law, to many forms of surgical procedures. 

We’ve seen these kinds of disruptions in the workforce before, but never at exponential scale. 

The upside is that we can automate the work and humanise the jobs. There’s no shortage of jobs where humans are far better than machines, it’s just that we have a deficient global economic system that rewards them.

For example, humans are uniquely suited to jobs that require creative thinking, social interaction or dexterity. Unfortunately, we have education systems from schools to university that continue to train people to compete with machines.

Often this same kind of ‘instruction for memorisation’ training continues into the workplace and thus, ultimately, it’s training people for redundancy.

We need new thinking about the skills we actually need in the workforce in light of technological advancements, rather than pretending we’re still in the 20th century.  

Could you tell us about your views on learner experience design, and the benefits this learner-centred approach can offer?  

I think we have to be careful here and recognise the nuance between instructional design and learning experience design otherwise we end up in an unnecessary and false dichotomy.

All good instructional designers approach their craft from the perspective of the audience and learner.

The origin of instructional design comes from the 1960s, however, when computers were first introduced into the teaching domain.

A reductive view of teaching – and one that has proven to be a successful business model for the textbook and measurement industry – is that it is instruction.

If teaching is instruction, therefore, we can use computers to do that better.

We have the opportunity to provide real and meaningful employment for all, provided we’re willing to change the rules.  

In an age where memorisation is obsolete, however, this approach is becoming less useful, even though it is easy to measure.  

Learning experience design expands on instruction, using a broader range of technological possibilities as well as some quite old ideas that were difficult to scale, such as constructivism and constructionism.

Essentially, these approaches are about applying knowledge to solve abstract and novel challenges where there isn’t a single right answer.

A learning experience designer’s craft, therefore, is to design challenges that lead to learning outcomes that learners discover for themselves, often by creating an artefact in collaboration with others.

This takes the learner beyond being a mere conduit of information to someone who is self-actuated, creative and autonomous.  

The benefit is that this approach nurtures human potential. It is the difference between coaching and teaching, as coaching provides the conditions where learning and growth can take place.  

How optimistic are you about the future of work? Do you think we will find the right solutions in time to overcome the challenges we face?  

I am optimistic about the future of work, provided we make the macro changes necessary to an already deficient economic system.

I am reminded of a time when I was consulting for a government after the 2008 financial crash, where they complained that unemployment levels were so high amongst 18-30 year olds because there were no jobs.

I asked if there were no children that required nurturing, or elderly that needed caring for, housing that required renovating, or open spaces that needed planting. Of course there were and still are, it’s just that we don’t have an economic system that rewards all of things that we value.  

You’re about to enter a new golden age of creativity in your own practice where your ability to innovate is how you will be rewarded.

Do we really need a five-day week when research shows that we are just as productive in three?  

Is Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) such a bad idea when pilots show time and again that it improves economic activity, reduces demands on healthcare and that people not only work, but start new enterprises?  

It’s clear that 20th century authoritarian industrial capitalism is the roadblock here, rather than technological progress.

We have the opportunity to provide real and meaningful employment for all, provided we’re willing to change the rules.  

Finally, what three pieces of advice would you give to future-focused L&D professionals today?  

Don’t get carried away with thinking that technology is a silver bullet. There’s a reason why the word ‘person’ is in ‘personalised learning’ and that’s because computers can’t do it.

At best, they deliver computer adaptive instruction always ending up in the same destination.

Millions have been invested in online ‘personalised learning’, which is really tuition but there remains no solid evidence that students learn more or better when taught by a computer.  

That said, when we think about how we can use technology to improve learning rather than to improve teaching or training we have the potential to move the needle in a more positive direction.

What is the purpose of what you’re doing? I would suggest that creating automaton isn’t it. After all, call centre workers will be replaced by natural language AIs within the next ten years.  

You’re about to enter a new golden age of creativity in your own practice where your ability to innovate is how you will be rewarded. What happens when something is designed for humans, with all their delightful variety and diversity in mind?

Learning Live 2020 takes place from 9 – 10 September in London. Visit for information.

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Becky Norman

Managing Editor

Read more from Becky Norman

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