Is digital L&D struggling to develop useful standards?

My adventures in digital learning over the last many years often feel like a quest to resolve the tension between standardisation and flexibility. Standards are one of the building blocks of technological development and of successful digital products and services. They are important because they allow an audience enough predictability to be confident in the experience; stakeholders enough confidence to know what they are investing in and providers the ability to efficiently develop and manage their services. The digital world is complicated and expensive without them.

In the learning world, digital standards seem hard to come by as yet. The classroom event, in its various guises, is a standard unit of delivery that allows a great deal of flexibility and variety within the format. Whilst the outcomes are elusive and unreliable to monitor, the classroom standard is easy to describe and matches a number of desired, if not proven, outcomes.

“The course” is something of a standard unit in a digital context and has a useful shorthand meaning (up to a point, at least). It declares to the audience that there is learning within some kind of designed structure. There are so many variants however, in its current state of maturity, that the punter might expect anything between a 10 minute and a three year experience of varying modes and media. It’s a weak standard so far, perhaps, but there is plenty of investment in it and it will continue to develop through experimentation.

It is notable that the most successful technology standards in L&D are gathered around administration and management of courses; concentrating on assignment, monitoring and completion of them. There is little, if any, user value in these standard features though and there is plenty of room for growth. xAPI is a new(ish) standard but again, solves an administration and management problem rather than the consumer need (so far at least).

The lack of standards probably indicates the stage of maturity of the sector rather than a particular barrier. There is plenty of valuable work going on without them. There is a standardisation challenge however. Commercially, standard approaches and tools give teams (whether vendors or customers) access to important advantages: 

  • We can replicate what we make
  • We can repeat how we make it
  • We can manage resources efficiently
  • We can reduce cost at high volumes

Doing these things well marks out providers of a service from providers of projects and programmes (the ‘agency’ approach maybe).

There is often anxiety about the flexibility and creativity of a standardised approach. Won’t everything look and feel the same if they have to meet a standard? How will we apply them to the context of the learner and the customer organisation if everything looks the same? In digital terms, this might be what differentiates a system from a product. A system works the way it works (you know…in a systematic way) and does not alter much for context. A product solves a set of problems for its users and adapts quickly throughout its lifecycle to keep doing so. It can be applied to multiple problems. YouTube is probably the most successful learning product we have yet seen in this respect and has well established standards. TikTok looks like it is travelling in a similar direction. The formats and wrappers are the same but the application of them is endlessly flexible.

Maybe the learning technologies world is still standardising the wrong things?

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