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How to breathe life into digital learning

How to breathe life into digital learning
Published: April 5, 2019
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For too many companies the problem with digital learning is that they have invested heavily in new systems only to find that users are not engaged. It is the equivalent of putting on an expensive conference that no-one comes to. A waste of time and money.

But there has never been a more important time for organisational learning. In highly competitive/high change environments the expertise of employees is critical to success. Learning technology offers the prospect of being able to respond at scale to the burgeoning learning needs of employees.

What has gone wrong?

After spending a lot of time looking at a huge range of available learning technologies, our conclusion is that the learning and development industry is still missing learning applications that actually support learning.

There is some great learning software out there, make no mistake. But too many tools we looked at seemed to us simply to be vehicles for presenting content to solitary individuals looking at a screen; using computers simply as video players and/or text readers.

Of course, there are lots of learning contexts that require just a simple download of information; “there’s stuff you need to know to do your job, so here it is!”

Job done?

Yes, there are huge efficiencies in using technology for that kind of learning need.

But in our experience, that kind of learning need isn’t where the performance edge of an organisation is. In a highly competitive/high change environment, just ensuring that all your employees have the basics sorted isn’t going to be a competitive advantage because everybody else is also doing that.

No edge there, right?

The problem seems to be that we end up using an information transfer approach to the design of learning technology and then look to apply that to every type of learning need. “Want to learn how to be a better people leader? We have a video you can look at on your mobile for that.”

Job done?

We don’t think so. And no, adding a multiple-choice questionnaire at the end of the video doesn’t help much either, nor does a league table of who got the highest score on the quiz (or watched the most videos). Adding cartoon figures to explain this leadership stuff also doesn’t help, and neither does having lots of buttons and things that you can click on, or music or… well, you get the point.

Meta skills and tacit knowledge

For us, learning online or learning offline is still learning. And we wouldn’t dream of taking a “one-size fits all” approach to designing offline learning. As learning professionals, we would always connect the need to the method. But we seem to have forgotten all we have discovered about how people learn in the design of a lot of our learning technology; at Impact we always let the learning lead.

We believe that the learning edge that will make the difference between sustainable success and failure is about so-called soft-skills (we prefer meta-skills). Why? Because these are the skills that transcend the narrow confines of a job and relate to the working world as it is; a world where work is fluid, dynamic, emergent, networked and relational.

We know that any organisation’s future success is going to depend on the ability of their employees to be experts in leadership, collaboration, cooperation, teamwork, problem-solving, creativity, learning how to learn and much more. These capabilities depend on tacit or implicit knowledge, the stuff you can’t write down or put in an instructional video. This is where content-led, subject matter expert based learning approaches don’t work, irrespective of how whizzy the technology looks or how professionally produced the content is.

Guiding and accelerating experience

Many of our L&D clients know that they are in competition with other L&D professionals in competitor companies. Our job is to help our clients win. Getting the learning technology right is crucial in building a competitive learning edge.

In our view, all organisations need a supporting technology that helps to accelerate the process of learning from experience, working alongside content libraries and basic skills training systems.

We believe that the only way to accelerate the development of soft/meta skills is through designing and delivering intentional, intensive experiences that confront employees with the learning need directly. This is what our experiential learning methodology does by providing real-play practice alongside expert input, focused feedback and skilled facilitation of reflection, all within the experience.

We need learning technologies that strengthen the quality of blended learning by integrating offline and online learning into a seamless whole, and that can adjust the balance of offline and online activities depending on the specific learning need.

Instead of just absorbing content from screens, we need technology to be able to shape the participants’ learning experience offline by continuing to propel them into structured intentional interactions with colleagues in the real world. The system should act as a guide and coach to help participants through the experience, connecting groups together and setting them practical challenges that they work on at work, together.

Building meta-skills can only happen successfully by pulling learning through structured experience, not just pushing more and more content at employees.

A learning application for experiential learning

We decided that there was a gap in the market for learning technology that supports real world meta-skill learning. We sat experiential learning designers next to software engineers in true creative agency style and waited for the magic to happen.

The result is air, Impact’s own learning technology that we quietly launched on the market a few months ago (we don’t like to make a fuss). We are still learning and developing air alongside our clients as we understand how to breathe life into learning online.

As learning professionals, we all need learning technologies to help us accelerate the process of building the expertise our organisations need in order to win. We must apply what it is we know about how humans learn to the design of learning technology and we must have an adaptive approach that helps adjust the learning design to meet the evolving needs of the work employees are actually doing. Otherwise we will continue to build our fields of dreams, only to discover that no-one came.

Find out more about Impact's bespoke digital learning app.

Grahame Broadbelt is Global Head of Communication and R&D.