I have been an attendee of Learning Technologies conferences since, I think, 2010. Maybe 2009. Every year I have enjoyed my time there. Each subsequent event, I have looked forward to.
At the conference, I have always met people I know and like, in whose views I am interested and perspectives I value. Equally, I look forward to new contacts, with fresh ideas and views who I then look forward to meeting again, at the next event. There is a sound combination of reliability, novelty, theory and practice. I suspect that this is not an easy mix to manage (whatever the performance of the plumbing) and the LT team are to be commended on making it work.
My sample of content and conversation may not be representative but I sensed that themes of design were significant in 2018. User focus, test and trial, data focused decision making, content creation and production came up regularly and frequently. I also sensed a good smattering of practical advice on show in presentations. We all love to see how common problems are tackled.
The perennial conversation point was there as well. Actually, it was everywhere. It sounded like this: “Yes. But what do you do with your LMS? How do you make it useful?”. (This relates to points about the exhibition, below). I wonder if this is unique to the L&D world? An industry with a dominant technology platform approach generating so little positive sentiment.
Artificial intelligence struck me as the major technology theme this year (if not last, as well). I predict Blockchain as the new entrant in the buzz stakes next year. If there is still currency value in it, I also predict the echo of the phrase “it’s like Bitcoin for learning” in the exhibition hall.
The exhibition hall is a different experience to me. Pitched against the more rarefied atmosphere of conference proceedings, it has the ring of a Las Vegas casino about it. Air and light are manufactured and the stands reach higher and further in dimensions, colour and sound. There is clearly abundant commercial energy in the market though – the space was bursting at the seams with exhibitors and visitors. There is no shortage of marketing budgets if stand design and size is any indicator. Hence to ExCel next year.
The content of the exhibition and the conference felt divergent as well. Upstairs, we are awed, scared and inspired by the future. Showcases of fresh ideas and methods are shared. Speakers from beyond the boundaries of the industry share unfamiliar stories. Many phones capture lessons from slide shows to take back to the office.
Downstairs, it still feels like my first visit in 2010. To my untrained eye, there were three segments on show: LMS vendors, exhibiting new releases in the arms race of functions and features; content vendors trying to keep up with social/mobile/gamified/virtual developments and content authoring product suppliers trying to do the same. The addition of content aggregators and curators is, arguably, a new segment but risks being sucked into the gravitational force of the LMS sphere.
Learning technologies, or technologies for those who work in Learning and Development, perhaps?
I realise this is a simplification. I did not visit every stand. From a straw poll of fellow attendees, however, it was a well recognised characterisation. So, what’s going on? Jane Hart releases research every year that demonstrates industry professionals make alternative choices when asked which learning tools they prefer. Jane also shared the sentiment on Twitter and started an interesting debate.
The business of selling learning technologies and the needs of learners appear to have diverged. They do not seem to be coming together quickly either. I am no conference organiser but I would consider changing the title of the event along these lines: “Learning Technologies Conference, incorporating the Exhibition for Learning Technology Budget Holders (or maybe Technologies for those who work in Learning and Development)”. The commercial thrust of the industry is towards the procurement of technology solutions for organisations. If I were a sales director, that is exactly where I would point my teams too. The problem is that following the money does not mean following the user value in the application of the technology. The needs of the budget holder and their seniors are not well aligned with the user needs at the coal face.
The commercial structure of the industry places many barriers and layers between the end user and the developer of the technologies (I have posted on this topic before). This is not a problem that consumer tools face, hence their favourite status amongst industry professionals and users alike. We can easily give them a try and evaluate them for ourselves. It is still interests me that our favourite learning tools – Google, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Microsoft, YouTube etc. – are absent from the floor space. LinkedIn are now the exception to that list and their learning offer seems well placed to be pulled, though widespread consumer usage, into many customer organisations.
Given the apparent growth of the market, there does not seem to be cause for concern for investors. The challenge might come from the user end, however, with start ups shipping away at chinks in the value chain at low to no cost. Perhaps.