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Parkin Space: E-learning in the Fast Lane


Godfrey Parkin If e-learning were a car it would be a Model T-Ford – functional, but very same-ish. Godfrey Parkin believes it's time to move up a gear.

E-learning, as it exists in the mainstream today, is learning at the old Ford Model-T stage. You can have any colour you want so long as it’s black. It’s mass-market, course-centric, object-based, and centralised. Essentially, it is training as usual, but at a distance, with a little digital convenience thrown in for both learners and administrators.

While e-learning exploits some of the capability of the web, it does not leverage the power of networking, and it certainly has not allowed the nature of the web to influence the essential characteristics of 20th century training. Those characteristics (architected, structured, hierarchical, linear, centralised, authored, non-customised, curricular, driven by corporate needs, one-way, controlled, tested, administered, and prescribed) are simply no longer relevant in the chaotically evolving business and culture of today.

This would not really matter, except for two things: the norms, expectations and behaviours of “Newmil” employees – and Newmil consumers – are changing, from the bottom up, the way companies think and act; and departments other than training are already evolving away from the formal, centralised, slow-changing habits of last century. Trainers are in the uncomfortable position of having to respond to the expectations of people who are already ahead of them on the learning curve, while being held back by the weight of traditional processes, practices, and dogma.

There is much talk these days about e-learning 2.0, its implications for strategy, and its likely impact on training practitioners and vendors. The “e-learning 2.0” name is a ghastly and inappropriate label that comes directly from the equally misleading term “web 2.0” being used to describe the latest evolutions of web usage. It’s inappropriate because it suggests a finite release of a formal upgrade, which is the opposite of what is really happening. It’s hard to see the renewed freedom, informality, creativity, transparency, and revolutionary chaos through the label it’s been given. The big bang of new approaches to finding, building, and applying knowledge is a renaissance, not a software release.

The notion of web 2.0 is, in brief, that the way we use the web today is significantly different from the way we used it 10 years ago. Applications and interfaces are changing the way we access, and even perceive, information.

Take mapping, for example. Google Maps and Yahoo Maps are so different from Map Quest’s static old product as to be barely in the same marketplace. You can not only zoom in and out and drag around the maps, you can overlay them on aerial photos, and search them for points of interest such as hotels or restaurants, and click to make reservations. Now, with connections to blogging and image-storage sites like Flickr, you can click a map to link to photos of specific location taken by people who have been there, and you can read their comments. With another click you can call a comment author anywhere in the world, and talk to them for free using VOIP.

There’s a new seamlessness to data flows that allows us to approach knowledge acquisition from multiple perspectives. Web 2.0 is a shift away from centralisation and hierarchy towards distributed knowledge, online communities, and personal learning networks.

The implications for trainers are profound. Twentieth century training paradigms led to the proliferation of Learning Management Systems, and all the evil expediencies that they spawned. Corporations now have a hefty investment (in both cash and credibility) in such systems, so they continue to dominate strategic thinking.

Many years ago, in my anti-SCORM rants, I used to maintain that an insistence on one particular object-centred design would shut companies off from other more relevant, flexible, and effective applications of ubiquitous networking. Sadly, I was right, at least for the most part. Those LMS-constrained strategies are now making it much harder for training departments to make the conceptual changes that would allow them to embrace the chaotic flux induced by web 2.0.

Learning is not the end result of a series of training events; it is an evolving capacity enabled by personal learning networks that are characterised by user-created content, intuitive search and retrieval, and social interaction at any distance. To stay relevant, trainers, and training departments, need to evolve into enablers rather than controllers, facilitators rather than teachers, and synthesizers rather than authors.

One of the reasons why it is important for corporations to embrace informal learning and distributed knowledge is the inherent adaptability that it provides. The traditional training approach of defining performance needs and learning objectives for a group of people, then designing, building, and deploying “a course” is too slow and expensive to be viable when needs change daily, or when only one person has the need. New integration tools like SuprGlu may help us step toward the point where we are creating learning experiences very rapidly by pulling input from all around us. But currently the life expectancy of any training course is rapidly shrinking at the same time as the costs of creating it may be growing. Informal social learning relies on rapidly crystallising out of the distributed knowledge network just that which is needed by an individual to get the job done. Since the knowledge in the network is constantly updating itself, it is always relevant, always current, and always available.

Leveraging the informality of learning networks may allow us to guide learners to the places or processes where their needs can most effectively be met, but I’m not convinced that interfering in the process itself is even a viable thing to do. But we should be doing everything we can to make available the tools and policies that encourage the development of learning networks and stimulate or support informal learning.

One thing that other professions have learned from Newmil behaviour is that if you don’t help them to do things their way, you will be bypassed and ignored, becoming increasingly irrelevant to the individuals and to the company they work for.

* Read more of Godfrey Parkin's columns here.


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