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Rethinking learning technology

Rethinking learning technology
Published: July 9, 2020
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We need to urgently rethink how we use technology to learn

Last week we heard that Microsoft are exploring the idea of building their own learning application to work within Teams. Last week, here at Impact we also completed our work on integrating our own learning application, air, into Teams. Given the exploding interest in how to learn online, we wanted to state that, at Impact, we are heading in a completely different direction to Microsoft and to explain why.

We believe learning is at a crossroads; our learning methodologies and approaches are being fundamentally challenged by the socio-economic conditions driven by Covid-19. Put simply, too much of what passes for learning is not fit for purpose; it hasn’t been for some time and only now are we seeing the problems we have created clearly. A detailed critique of our collective failure to update our learning thinking and methods is beyond the scope of this piece. But there are a number of issues driving the emergent practice of online learning that are relevant to the wider issues of transforming our approach to how learning works.

Learning input vs. performance outcome

First up is the tension between learning input and performance outcome. In organisations we spend more time focused on creating inputs than we do on understanding how to achieve the desired outcomes. One of the biggest failures in organisational learning is the inability to move the dial on people performance: lots of input but not much outcome. We am reminded of an old quote:

‘We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.’

Again and again we have seen company leaders accept that they need to transform the performance of their people, but with no real idea how to do this, they end up reorganising instead. The equivalent of this in organisational learning and development is the content library. With no idea how to transform the performance of employees, we give them access to lots of learning content instead. The task of learning technologies then becomes, to quote Josh Bersin, to solve the problem of ‘discovering, consuming, tracking and reporting’ on content.

It doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter how great the software is at searching, classifying, presenting and tracking employees’ ‘consumption’ of content because you can’t learn to transform your performance by watching a video, reading a PowerPoint slide deck, or listening to an expert tell you all about it.

Of course, you can learn to change a tyre, fix a tap or format a document through these methods. But those aren’t the sort of performance challenges and skills requirements that are confronting organisations (or society) right now. These learning challenges are complex, social, relational, multi-dimensional, systemic and more. The level of difficulty in meeting a learning challenge is directly proportional to how important that learning is. And the most important learning right now, the learning that transforms performance, is what we call meta-learning (others might refer to them as soft skills or Powerskills). They are meta because they affect everything else, because they are at the heart of so many elements of outstanding individual and group/team performance.

Some of these problems relate to a belief that learners are simply passive consumers of content, and that responsibility lies with the consumer to ‘discover’ the right content to meet their particular learning need at that particular time. It also assumes that learning is easy: ‘Just watch the video dummy!’ Improving organisational performance ­­– agility, innovation, problem solving, team work etc. – is really hard to do. The learning inputs have to be proportionate to the scale of the challenge.

It is sad to see that solid ideas like ‘learning in the flow of work’ have been misappropriated by the L&D industry as a call for reductive efficiency, where employees access a piece of learning content only at the moment they need it. We take our experience of learning how to change a tyre via YouTube and build an organisational learning strategy around it, calling it ‘resources not courses’ and using ‘learning in the flow of work’ to explain how efficient our inputs are. Let us be clear, no employee pondering how to improve her leadership and communications performance decides to jump onto the company LXP for a quick transformational video tip. That’s one reason why organisations’ content libraries are massively underused, why online learning courses have terrible completion rates, and why the performance of middle managers is still a huge issue.

We need to focus our attention on the performance outcomes end of the learning problem, not the content input end.

Learning is a process not an event

The quality of a learning outcome depends on the quality of the learning design. Not only have we made a mistake in focusing on the content input end, we have also paid little or no attention to the design of the learning process itself.

Every piece of learning library content has had to be designed in some way – the order of the PowerPoint slides, the structure of the video lecture and so on. The problem is that too many of those designs aren’t very good. The deeper problem is that the design of any content needs to work with other content so that the learner progresses along a deliberate path, enabling them to make connections and build on what they already know.

But very few online learning resources have been created in a way that means they hang together coherently. So called ‘courses’ are often just discrete bits of content lumped together, created at different times, by different people, using different approaches to learning design.

Our underlying assumption is that learning design doesn’t matter as long as the content is made available. But learning design is crucially important in helping us understand and apply our learning.

The most important thing we can do to transform the effectiveness of our organisational learning approach is to embrace deliberate, expert and professionally led learning design.

Good design:

  • engages the learner
  • motivates and animates the learning process
  • finds the right balance between challenge and support
  • understands how to move people emotionally as well as intellectually
  • focuses on the performance outcome
  • embeds practice into the learning process
  • uses social and relational processes to get feedback and structure active reflection
  • integrates what we know about learning theory as relevant to the desired learning outcome
  • focuses on use, and on the application of knowledge, skills and expertise not just the transfer of knowledge

We are awash with disconnected and incoherent content and a learning technology industry focused on creating better tools to navigate bigger and bigger libraries. There is a huge opportunity to use learning technology to create, test, share and improve learning designs that work to tackle common problems and drive performance improvement. These opportunities are largely missed.

Work in the flow of learning: air and MS Teams

At Impact, we decided to create our own learning application, air, because we couldn’t find any learning technology that provided an open canvas for expert learning designers that were focused on helping organisations transform people performance. Everywhere we looked we just saw content library viewers of different levels of sophistication.

We now have over 3,000 users of air, with numbers growing very fast across the world. All of our participant groups are on their own unique learning journey, designed specifically for the nature of the performance problem and the unique organisational context within which that problem exists.

air can easily pull down content from anywhere and everywhere when it makes sense from a learning design perspective to do so. In this sense, our approach helps static libraries of content to be used and applied much more effectively.

We have also been working to integrate the learning process into the flow of work, which brings us to our collaboration with MS Teams. Impact are a power user of Teams. We were early adopters, transitioning successfully from Slack and embedding 365 into our operations and strategy. We are now helping many of our clients learn more about how to use Teams effectively too.

We now have the capacity to connect air – and our learning designs – into the everyday flow of work that MS Teams helps to organise and communicate. Users work in Teams and learn through air, seamlessly moving between the two pieces of software. This connection provides a huge advantage to our learning designers, who can now deliver on the promise of ‘learning in the flow of work’ by embedding and constantly adapting the learning design into the work that is being done. We know that we can only deliver ‘learning in the flow of work’ if our learning designs are adaptive, with ‘work in the flow of learning’ as the performance promise driving the learning need.

We believe that Microsoft will design a learning app that will simply replicate the core functionality of every other piece of learning technology we see: a window to a content library.

We are sure that Microsoft will do it really well and they will be focused on continuing to add weight to their LinkedIn Learning content libraries. But we believe that we need to urgently rethink how we use technology to provide universal access to learning that works as a vehicle to change the world for the better, before it is too late.

Learn more about our approach to digital learning.