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Stephen Walker

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Learning delivery: Technology is the midwife


Stephen Walker reviews the impact of technology on different learning delivery needs. He thinks we should be wary of confusing knowledge test results with ability to perform.

If learning is the offspring of the marriage of content and format then technology is the midwife, the means of delivery. There is no doubt that many people find technology alluring. The rush to buy the latest mobile phone is an example. I know people who lose so much time managing their time through mobile phone apps. Technology is an enabler, increasing effectiveness of, or making possible new, learning delivery channels.

What is important is that the form of the content is delivered in a way commensurate to learning. Not all subjects can be learnt the same way: try learning to swim for the first time from a book. Let’s get back to first principles and explore delivery mechanisms and relevance using technology with which our great-grandparents would be familiar.

Closed loop learning

Training is a fundamentally simple process - the devil is in the detail. The devil covers a broad spectrum which I have simplified to three examples.

Snakes and Ladders

This board game, seemingly invented over 400 years ago, is a game of pure chance. Progress along the track is determined by the throw of a dice and the help or hindrance delivered by the snakes and ladders. There is no element of skill, the player is at the mercy of luck and the dice throw. If you play the game often enough you will win through pure chance.

Might I draw a parallel with online learning and testing here? If you can skip over comprehension straight to the test stage and randomly answer the test questions, you will pass eventually. Even if you remember the right answers, comprehension is not in the loop. The learning may or may not be of value, but everybody gets to pass.


The owner of this product believes that half a billion people have played Monopoly. I’ll take a chance that you have. The gameplay is based on the throw of two dice so there is a random element but your decisions on what to buy, what to develop and your negotiations with other players bring in an element of skill. Players need to learn the 'content' of the board: the rents and the ROI on property developments. An awareness of the risks and strategy you use to handle them is a big factor in winning play.

If 'winning' is the test then players need to learn and comprehend the game play to adopt the best behaviour. It is possible to win on random chance but extremely unlikely. Monopoly winners have learnt something, comprehended it and shown they can use that learning. A technology that provides this type of learning and testing does suggest the successfully tested candidate has comprehended and learned a skill. This type of learning is engaging and leads to positive feelings encouraging further study.


This board game was invented in the 50s and contains no element of chance whatsoever. The game play is through strategic negotiation, alliances and joint action, to achieve territorial gains. There is no rule requiring honesty (but a dishonest player is unlikely to be trusted again). The map, Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, does create a structure. Players need to adopt a negotiating stance based on their home base to slowly gain dominance.

To win this game you have to comprehend the underlying structure of the map, be competent in your negotiations and quickly learn who and when to trust. There is no doubt that luck plays no part in this game. Successful players demonstrate their application of sound judgment in their negotiations and decisions. This is an excellent learning model.

Knowledge + understanding of the environment = good judgment + effective action.


Simulators offer an environment that tests the learner in a varied and demanding environment. Flight simulators test the basic skills of takeoff and landing very well (thankfully) but also introduce random conditions to explore the trainee pilot’s abilities. The application of artificial intelligence (AI) to testing environments is a big step forward. However some AI is limited and repeated tests show that certain conditions bring forth the same 'random' AI reaction. This means you can learn to pass the test instead of comprehending the situation.

Simulators do not have to be 'one person games'. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMPORG) bring together hundreds of people to interact in a simulated environment. The intelligence is real even though the environment is artificial. My own tabletop group learning activities are a simulation of real life played out within a carefully constructed environment to demonstrate some fundamentals about work and management. In my case AI does not have the capability to deliver the full range of human emotions and intellect that the training is demonstrating, exploring and seeking to create understanding.

Simulators are best used as a platform which enables communication within a structured environment that the trainer can design. For this reason I do not understand the lure of the outward bound style of training – I couldn’t control the environment, experiences and outcomes adequately. However, I read that the Star Trek Holodeck is a plausible innovation now. It is said that Star Trek has driven product innovation for 50 years, so why not in the training industry too? No need for tabletop simulations, you can design the environment and the 'human' AI interaction and simply make it so.

Step by step

The training of ability is a three-step process:

  1. Learn the facts

  2. Comprehend the process

  3. Practice judgment

Different learning processes and technologies are relevant across different subjects and different stages. As the trainer you have to decide which provides the best learning environment for your students. You can’t train ability through multiple choice questions on a mobile phone! I think you would want your airline pilot, surgeon and car mechanic to have had some real world experience of the process and been tested on their judgments.

An open question

While researching this article I posed myself a new question, new to me at least. As a society we highly value exam results. Good grades get you to a top university and a good degree gets you a good job. That is all based on learning and regurgitating the facts, not on being able to do anything. Where is the ability in the processes and the proof of judgment?

If you look around you will see a club of such regurgitators in Westminster. Is this why we get eloquent argument and ineffective action? Would we be better off to ask for five years in local government as an apprenticeship for our MPs? They would have experience of a similar process and use their judgment. I would like to hear your comments. I do hope I am wrong.


Whatever learning technology you use, from chalk and talk to Matrix-style Craniplug, it has to be:

  • Appropriate to the content

  • Convenient to the trainee

  • Effective for learning

There are many ways to shuffle these choices and cost is another factor. Don’t let the effectiveness of your training be a lottery: remove the risk and create something special.

Stephen is a co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop organisation behaviour to drive greater performance. He has worked for notable organisations such as Corning, De La Rue and Buhler and has been hired to help Philips, Lloyds TSB and a raft of others. A published author of articles and Conference speaker, Stephen delivers workshops across the country. It is all about “making people more effective” he says. You can follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Blog.

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