The past two decades have seen a number of technological changes that have reshaped the learning industry, with indications that another wave of disruption will occur in the next few decades.
Sometimes early promise has disappointed, but with the blistering pace of development currently emerging, we can expect the next development to solve the problem. For instance, while online learning has been criticised for low course completion rates usually below 10% globally, we have demonstrated in Nigeria that it is possible to exceed 80% completion rates for online learning under conditions that favour engagement.
A study we recently undertook shows that technology is changing the world of learning across a broad spectrum: from school learners accessing world-class teaching on basic mobile phones to higher education institutions making the best and most expensive professors available for free to the world.
Rapid advances in technology that some people believe threaten up to half of current jobs, and may create as many entirely new jobs, have combined with shifts in demographics to necessitate an unprecedented upgrade in workforce skills. Learning once at the beginning of a career is no longer enough; workers of the future will have to learn new jobs throughout their careers. The learning industry is undergoing a fundamental shift to address these challenges.
For example, technology has enabled the “flipped classroom” to emerge, with obvious applications for on-the-job learning. Popularised by the Khan Academy in Silicon Valley, this flips classroom time and homework time. Students receive instruction at home by online video instead of in class, and then use valuable classroom time to discuss, practise and seek guidance at the point it is needed, rather than struggling to apply complex concepts alone at home. This optimises the expensive time spent together in class with an expert while allowing technology to provide the content efficiently at the place and time of the learner’s choice.
We can learn important lessons from some of the leading universities that have been piloting the use of technology in learning. The most common approaches are Virtual Learning Environments, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Blended Learning. Virtual Learning Environments are ‘online learning spaces’, where learners can access content, share ideas, and work on projects together. Massive Open Online Courses, while only a component of what universities seek to offer are transforming student expectations and ambitions.
Many of these lessons from universities are being applied to workplace learning too. As in higher education, there is a general recognition that company learning and development programmes have not adequately supported business performance. It is understood that learning events like courses or workshops are not enough and more attention needs to be given to learning as a process, including mobile, informal, social and personalised learning, all supporting practical assignments.
The early days of eLearning in the 1990s were all about formal learning through courses and using technology to deliver those courses in a more flexible and affordable way. Today, it’s all about the learner and learning outside of those formal course channels. The reason courses often don’t work for companies is that it is impossible to remember everything we need to know when studying outside the workplace; courses or learning events happen and then are forgotten. Learning needs to be applied in context when needed. This is why the focus on learning within organisations should be on achieving performance rather than remembering information.
Learning managers are now required to move beyond selecting courses to focus on activities such as curating available material, and then guiding and connecting people to suitable resources, tools, and experts for knowledge sharing. They are more and more often asked to be administrators of complex ecosystems that support learning in an organisation, rather than simply managing the delivery of courses. The key focus is on supporting informal learning, social and personalised learning, and the use of comprehensive measurement and analysis of results to improve learning outcomes.
Informal learning happens across organisations regardless of whether or not it is recognised and supported. There is a fundamental shift away from formal training as the key knowledge driver of performance in an organisation to more informal and ‘just-in-time’ learning. At the centre of informal learning are developments that support learning ‘at the point of need’, including better mobile accessibility (through responsive design), improved usability, comprehensive search, new ways of building content that produce shorter and more searchable objects, and forums to support and improve performance.
Learning is moving from ‘push’ to ‘pull’. Learning and development departments are no longer solely responsible for pushing content to learners through a series of workshops. Instead, learners are ‘pulling’ information from everywhere they can and expect resources, content and knowledge to be readily available to them. This is supported by two key changes. The first is a move towards cloud computing. The second is more comprehensive, predictive and all-encompassing search – the ability to search for information at the point of need using key words or Meta tags. If the information is not available in the learning system or company knowledge bank, millennials will look elsewhere, and those resources may not be of the same quality as those held within company systems.
To support informal learning, content must be mobile, searchable, and cover a wealth of topics, processes and skills. In order to develop specialised learning material in an affordable and timely manner, many companies are moving away from comprehensive (and often static) eLearning courses developed with older instructional design methodologies, towards ‘Rapid eLearning’, which allows them to develop specialised learning content that includes their own organisational context, rules and culture.