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Jay Cross: “Blended learning is bunk, informal learning the future”

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Ed's note 9 Nov 2015: Jay Cross was a man who did so much to progress the purpose, direction and future of L&D in business and one of the first names I heard multiple times in passing when I started out as editor of TrainingZone in 2010. And rightly so. He may forever be associated with the term 'elearning' but his work extends to most corners of the industry and he will be missed by so many friends and colleagues. I met him at OEB a couple of times over the years and he was invariably surrounded by a crowd of people, eager for his words of wisdom and generosity. He was never one to pander to groupthink and that was why tags such as 'visionary' followed him and his work around. Here we republish our interview with him from 2008, conducted by freelance writer Mike Levy and published by Susie Finch, TrainingZone's editor at the time. RIP Jay.

- JK

 

Jay Cross, the man who coined the term 'elearning', believes the web is revolutionising the way we learn. Not through the kind of elearning of the 1990s but via the explosion of online communities which effectively democratise the way we learn. Cross believes the era of traditional course-led training is coming to an end and that informal, social learning is the way forward. Mike Levy interviews the guru of new learning approaches.

Jay Cross has been described as a visionary, world-renowned learning strategist and believes he is the man who first coined the term 'elearning' on the web. Now the California-based guru thinks that learning heaven has arrived in the shape of Web 2.0. The CEO of the Internet Time Corporation is currently writing a book on informal learning, which is his passion. Informal learning, says Cross, happens without any pre-set curriculum. "It is the way we learnt before schools were invented to fry our brains," he says.

Cross is angry about the way business is trapped by traditional forms of training and learning. He is enormously excited by Web 2.0 and its ability to put people in touch with one another so that they can learn in communities.

"We should not be talking about blended learning. It arose when people were naïve enough to think that all learning could be done on computer. Blending adds very little to the way we learn."

He bristles when the term 'management of learning' is used. "That means someone has decided what you should learn. Real learning happens when you have a need for it and when you are ready to do it." The man who thought of elearning on the web is scathing about the way computers have been used to offload knowledge on to people who haven't asked for it. "Informal learning happens spontaneously in response to a need. It occurs without any pre-planning or prescriptive menus."

Cross reserves his greatest derision for terms like 'blended learning'. "I don't believe in it – I think it is bull****. It is usually about blending what we already have. We should not be talking about blended learning. It arose when people were naïve enough to think that all learning could be done on computer. Blending adds very little to the way we learn."

Cross's vision of the future is one of 'un-conferencing' (one which is focused and run by participants) and where people are their own 'personal instructional designers'. Cross is working on ways to create an electronic meeting place where expertise, ideas and knowledge can be shared.

Cross says: "The question is not; which course do I go on? But of all the many options for learning, which one do I choose : do I work with an expert, do I want to find it on Google or talk to my friends in the pub, or social network? These are all valid ways of learning."

"The question is not; which course do I go on? But of all the many options for learning, which one do I choose: do I work with an expert, do I want to find it on Google or talk to my friends in the pub, or social network? These are all valid ways of learning."

According to Cross, the power of Web 2.0 with its wikis, blogs and social networks is that people learn as they would through natural conversation and dialogue. This democratisation of learning does mean a perceived loss of control by those who control the training purse strings. Cross finds that many businesses are nervous about the power of informal learning. As he says: "I've been talking to a group of senior corporate executives who were worried about informal learning styles. 'Does it work?' they ask. 'Of course it does, how did you learn to talk, eat or walk'."

The promise of powerful new learning approaches via the web isn't something that fires the average company. Cross sighs, "Most corporations don't think about any kind of learning – all they are interested in is how much we can make in the next quarter. There is an incredible short-term focus in business. It is less so in Asia than in the UK and USA. I took a poll of organisations and half agreed with the statement: 'we are too concerned about the present to do anything about the future'. Three quarters of respondents said that 'if we continue with our present mode of learning and development, we will not be prepared for the future'. The sad thing is that the future is 10 minutes from now - we are far too reactive."

Cross's conversion to the web as a learning platform came more than 10 years ago. "When the web arrived, I thought, the world will not be the same from now on. I kept saying that the web would be the future of education. I was so excited at the new opportunities and became one of the very first bloggers." Cross took a week on a remote Caribbean island to think about what the web meant for the future of learning. He came back and founded Internet Time Group to explore the convergence of learning and communications technology. "Later I started to use the term 'elearning' and people looked at me like I was from another planet. But it started to catch on."

"I've been talking to a group of senior corporate executives who were worried about informal learning styles. 'Does it work?' they ask. 'Of course it does, how did you learn to talk, eat or walk'."

Cross believes that elearning has not lived up to its early promise: "My definition at the time was to create an environment where you were connected to other people and knowledge resources. Six months after we went public, everyone was selling elearning which often meant a helpline to a call-desk or downloading a book."

Even the forward-looking businesses can be slow at taking up these new learning opportunities. Cross points to the Intel Corporation who may be leading edge with their chips but their training department, he says, is totally old style. "They are, like many other businesses, worried about the unsupervised nature of democratised learning and their IT departments have many other priorities other than building online learning communities. Organisations I talk to say that informal learning is too much and we don't have time to think about the future."

To address this last objection, Cross has assembled a formidable team to create an IT platform, Togetherlearn.com, a template for businesses who wish to develop online learning communities tapping into all the Web 2.0 tools. "We had thought about giving this away but this means that business wouldn't take it seriously. We spend three days with the user of this service to make sure it is properly supported with community champions and make sure it is kept alive. That is vital to make online learning communities work well."

What of the role of trainers and coaches in the future. Cross is sanguine, "There will be a role but not necessarily what they are accustomed to. There will be coaches and mentors but the 'sage on the stage' – their days are numbered." His message is simple: with the web, we are all sages now.

Jay Cross is a keynote speaker at the Learning Technology Conference at Olympia in January. For more information visit his wesbite: www.jaycross.com

Mike Levy is a freelance journalist, author, writing and presentations coach. www.writestart.co.uk.

 

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