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Parkin Space: The Future is Getting Smaller


Godfrey ParkinBitesize learning, just in time and in manageable chunks - small is no new concept for training. But just how small can something get before it ceases to be what it started out as? Godfrey Parkin investigates.

Small is the new big. Nanotechnology is the next big thing. Micro-payment transactions proliferate. From the business-card sized iPod Nano to the 100-minute bible, everything is being reduced to smaller or faster objects of consumption. This should be familiar to trainers who for years have been under pressure to reduce course length, cut times to competency, and walk on water. But some things can’t get smaller: you can shrink a Wurlitzer jukebox to something you could slip in your wallet, but you can’t make the songs it plays any shorter.

Can traditional learning experiences be decimated and served up in nano-chunks without losing effectiveness? Or might they actually be enhanced? Unlike music, where the song is the focus, learning is all about impact on performance – the ‘course’ itself doesn’t matter. If we are to take custom-tailoring of learning experiences to heart, the more granular our solutions, the more accurately we can fit each learner’s individual needs.

Smallness is one of the key characteristics of the content of Internet 2.0 and, in turn, of what is becoming known as “e-learning 2.0”. Big chunks of solidified content are simply not easy to look into or combine. With sandstone blocks you can build pyramids; with sand you can build anything from beaches to hourglasses.

Perhaps one of the greatest shortcomings of the early web and all the applications that have to date been enabled by it is that it has primarily been about recording, organising, and making accessible "stuff" from the past. There's great value in that. But the necessary emphasis on the here-and-now, and on the future, is rapidly coming into focus. It's not content, or even context, but process that gets us where we are going. We are not what we have done, but what we are trying to do. All of the diverse components of e-learning 2.0 aim to fill the vast white spaces between the legacy content piles with dynamic processes that can instantly mine the relevant diamonds from those piles, and pull them together in real-time into something unique and immediately useful. Some of those processes are lively discussion, synergistic collaboration, spontaneous project work, and nano-customisation. Just as micro-transactions are starting to make e-commerce really different from traditional commerce, micro-learning experiences will make e-learning 2.0 really different from Model-T e-learning. Or that’s the theory.

Smallness is increasingly important in all data flows, and learning is simply another kind of dataflow. If learning is water, old-school SCORM learning objects are ice-cubes: uniform, predictable and transportable, but they melt and lose their usefulness rapidly. What we really need to do is vaporise the water. Knowledge vapour is simply learning liberated, in its smallest possible components – unlike learning objects, if you do not contain it, it disseminates itself far and wide, except where the circumstances are created to condense it back into liquid, or ice, again. The best technology available right now for vaporising and liberating learning and for finding, filtering, and condensing it as needed, is the human mind. Of course lots of cool web technologies are emerging to help facilitate that process (e-mail was probably the first; blogs and wikis are getting there, as are communities of practice; mobile broadband helps). But technology is not the real key to the success of e-learning 2.0. What connects all our small pieces of learning is not a technology, but our humanity.

As far as jargon goes, I must confess to having major objections to the term "2.0" as applied to the web and to e-learning. It suggests a formal release of a new beta-tested version under some kind of planned production process. That's not the way things work any more. The evolution of technology and our ability and willingness to use it creatively has outpaced our ability to manage it, at least in any traditional sense of the word "manage." Trying to "manage" internet-enabled progress is increasingly delusional, like King Canute trying to command the tide not to come in. Agility, opportunism, plasticity, and instinct need to replace outmoded notions of structure, hierarchy, and traditional planning and financial controls, not to mention the sacred cow of centralized "managed" corporate learning.

But since (largely thanks to stock markets, tax authorities, and standardized accounting practices) our current economies rest on those rotting bureaucratic timbers, the bigger corporations may not be able to change, to take the right actions, in time to stay relevant and save themselves.

Google rose from nothing to become the new Microsoft so rapidly it looked like a conjuring trick. China makes 80% of everything sold by Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, a transformation that took less than five years. Before the ink was dry on most American e-learning IPO’s, Indian companies were eating their lunch. It may be only months before the next new megacorp bursts from the web and makes even Google look tired and outdated. What role will training play in the success, or failure, of those endeavours? Can you train an organisation to be agile, instinctive, anticipatory, and adaptive? Or can we merely work to remove the containment of knowledge and facilitate the vaporisation of learning?

* Read more of Godfrey Parkin's columns here.


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