A good dunking at Learning Technologies 2015

This post is no longer as current as I had first hoped it would be. Time has the better of me in recent weeks and my editorial attention was elsewhere. So…not quite ‘now’ perhaps but still relevant I believe.

The ‘next big thing’ is a typical theme of most conferences. Technology conferences, rightly, spend a great deal of energy on the the quest for the new revolution. In the Learning Technologies proceedings, mobile and social have been the next big thing for a few years now, in our endless future.

About time for a new new thing then.

In answer to this need, onto the stage comes the always valuable Donald Clark. Every movement needs a sceptical challenge and Donald plays this role very well. He shines a clear light of common sense and deep experience into the murkier corners of accepted eLearning practice and doctrine, never losing sight of the practical realities of most organisations and those who work in them. To me however, this presentation cast Donald in a different role (to me at least). That of evangelist.

So much conference time and exhibition floor space is invested in the quest for engagement or its even more elusive cousin, immersion. The offers of a simple route to a truly engaging and immersive learning experience are manifold. They rarely deliver, I suspect.

The odds are stacked against immersion in the eLearning world. The LMS is a poor place to begin your swim and yet is so often where we would have people jump in. The subject matter does not often lend itself to engagement either. It is infrequently the subject of genuine choice or presented and delivered in a preferred mode or package. Engaging content (or its attempt) has, in many ways, become a means of distracting learners from the poverty of the overall experience. Brilliant tools for doing, less so for dunking.

So, when Donald began enthusiastically painting his picture of immersive learning experiences I was somewhat sceptical and suspicious myself. This changed quickly though as real examples were brought to life during the talk. Each were consumer grade experiences, becoming more obvious, familiar and available in many real world cases. The acquisition of Occulus Rift by Facebook was a distant signal of the potential which is now coming to life. Similarly, the Microsoft HoloLens brings real life applications into the consumer market. These technologies are now being marketed as tools for us to play, explore and learn with. Mark Zuckerberg chose education as a potential use of VR some time ago as their deal was announced. I should have paid closer attention then.

What is different about this new big thing is, I think, a tangible delivery against the real learning outcomes we are all so interested in. Users are clearly engaged and properly so. They can be emotionally and viscerally connected to the world they are participating in. Experiences are memorable in a way a screen struggles to match (at least whilst novelty is still a factor). Crucially a safe space to fail and practice is at hand. A rehearsal space to try and try again without breaking anything or risking the humiliation of getting things wrong. Applications of these tools quickly spring to mind across so many topics and skills.

So, I find myself to be an enthusiast, looking forward to these technologies and seeing how we might use them in a learning context.  No, they won’t substitute everything (no one thing ever does). There is much to learn about how best to apply them and many mistakes to make along the way. The skills required to make them work are, I suspect, very rare in the L&D world. I will not be taking my eye off the ‘find things out and get things done’ approach quite yet. That is the real current value and is hard enough to get right, even with familiar tools.

I am keen to have a go at this new stuff though.

Technology and storytelling – not the same old story?

Engagement is one of those often used words in the learning technology world. Overused I believe. Often when we talk about engagement we would be better served by ‘interesting’ and ‘useful’. Both are easier to understand and more achievable. When it comes to telling stories though, some form of engagement and emotional response is closer to the heart of the matter. A good story must be engaging or it does not deserve the label.

Rogier Postma has crafted this video essay about how technology is changing what stories can be and are becoming. He has researched this very thoroughly and packs the price with great cases. He looks at journalism examples of today, games development and virtual reality to describe the landscape. What happens when the player is at the centre of the story and chooses the narrative by what they do? What becomes possible when the experience genuinely feels real? This is perhaps where the mythical immersive experience becomes realistic and content can become genuinely engaging through interactivity? Those emotional stories through technology may not be so far away.

Seven days to change the world of corporate systems?

In the last seven days I have had seven conversations about enterprise technology. Those systems that run our workplaces. The content of these conversations has been almost entirely gathered around how poor it is. These seven conversations took place in coffee shops, conference rooms, meeting rooms, a bar and one symposium room, no less. They took place with technology providers (vendors in the industry vernacular), industry analysts, learning technology managers, senior HR executives and training managers (or L&D executives). The industries represented in these conversations include: utilities, retail, accounting, construction, higher education, oil and gas, banking, broadcasting, food and drinks (or maybe it was food & drink?). Not scientific but a pretty good sample. Next week, I will attend Learning Technologies and I anticipate similar themes to be rehearsed.

These are the themes that arose in those conversations. Interestingly, much of the sentiment was personal – the voice of the individual user:

  • Everything seems so complicated to use…
  • …the systems need a training course
  • I don’t understand what the terms mean…the language is weird
  • I can’t take my stuff with me when I leave…
  • ….I can’t access my stuff when I’m ‘out of the office’ wherever that may be
  • I can’t take my stuff with me when I leave the company
  • Coming to work is like going back in technology time
  • It doesn’t really work on my phone
  • These steps take a long time
  • I’m not sure how well I’m doing – there is no feedback
  • It’s really hard to find the people who know
  • My browser doesn’t really work with that
  • I’m not sure if I can make a suggestion or a comment – will anyone hear?

I suspect that these themes are familiar and the list could go on (and on and on). We all know that it is easy to moan and whine. It is much easier than offering a solution. The point here is though that most of us use better tools in our everyday lives than we do as employees. IT is this experience which is turning the spotlight on poor enterprise technologies. Something clearly can be done, we just aren’t doing it yet. Things have moved on very far very fast on the outside and corporate IT is struggling to keep the pace.

If you think my seven day odyssey is unusual then do let me know. If not, then it seems that some opportunities arise for enterprising product developers in this area? Even if onely part of this has merit. Those canny start ups in California and Hoxton are orbiting this area now and finding pain points to alleviate. This will be pain relief for users (employees) which makes their working lives easier. It will also make their workplaces more attractive to join and remain in.