Time to move beyond digital learning 1.0 and the virtual classroom?

Ben Thompson is smarter than I. This is made clear to me with almost every post he writes. The good thing is that the ideas he shares tend to jump my thinking forwards. In this piece, about the development of Social Media 2.0, a chord struck in my head about why L&D is stuck in the dim chamber of the virtual classroom. The name of the experience is instructive: we are stuck in the analogue world and missing the possible digital benefits.

Describing the development of various product categories, Ben says: “It is always tricky to look at the analog world if you are trying to understand the digital one. When it comes to designing products, a pattern you see repeatedly is copying what came before, poorly, and only later creating something native to the medium.” He offers the examples of text based news sites being slow, poorly targeted and thus, low in advertising yield. News services struggle. Then the feed comes along and allows a personal news experience for everyone, constantly updated for everyone with previously impossible ad targeting. (Then we got Facebook which may be less cause for celebration).

As an example, in the L&D context, Robin Hoyle makes the point well regarding the limitations of the webinar: whenever it is employed as a substitute for the classroom, it does poorly. It does not deliver the benefits of the analogue world. In fact, they are more elusive than ever online. The virtual classroom is a poor copy of the physical version, delivering few of the benefits. For the learner (?) there is no time away from the desk, no bar in the evening, no lunch break with new network members. No chatting really – or not the same chatting at all. You can, I guess, zone out though and stare. For the teacher, there is no reading of the room, no design on the fly and much less of the ego fulfilling front-of-room experience.

So, the experience is thinner and whispier all round. A poor substitute. Note that the performance or behaviour benefits are set aside in the comparison. That is deliberate. That’s not what we miss about the being in the room. What the L&D world misses about the classroom is instruction – the teaching and how it feels.

Robin Hoyle suggests a route forward with the application of other deign elements. A focus on some unique benefits of digital can show a useful direction.

So, what are the unique digital benefits that support performance development in and around the workplace? What are the elements of the digital world which can create value that the 1.0 teaching tools inherently lack? Here are some starters to consider:

  • Collaborative working: the ability to simultaneously work on the same thing from different places: document sharing and editing feels like a must-have in any workplace
  • Asynchronous communication in groups: the humble chat room, or a Slack channel, or a WhatsApp group, or Teams or whatever
  • Conversation tools: the ability to chat through the keyboard brings conversation into the heart of work. Messaging tools are informal, immediate and more human than email. Also often integrated with the above tools (personally, I think conversational experiences in digital contexts are a game changer)
  • Data: (not tracking, please not that) collecting information about and analysing user activity is a foundation of digital progress. In the learning context, showing your users that you know what they are doing and have done then offering feedback should be a game changer.
  • Distributed working: team and productivity tools are advancing very rapidly and supporting our ability to work together across geographies and timelines within and beyond organisation boundaries.

There are a couple of thoughts I am trying to organise about that quickly created list. Firstly, these are not teaching or instruction tools or technologies. They are the fundamentals of the new ways of working we are experiencing and improving. For L&D, the anxiety is that these are not our tools. Unlike the LMS or the authoring system, they are workplace tools. Our challenge is to emerge from the Learning Technology woods and join the organisation where it lives and works on its own terms. A reinvention might be needed to refocus away from instruction and towards performance problem solving.

Further to this, they are built on connection and data, the two pillars of the digital world. I wonder whether this is where the jump beyond learning 1.0 can be made. The familiar methods and modes of the first flush of Learning Technology never quite made the best of these pillars. The LMS is poorly connected or connecting and reduces data to tracking of attendance and completion. The virtual classroom connects the instructor with their students but does little to meaningfully facilitate conversation or collaboration, certainly beyond the passing moment of the event itself. (And the poverty of data from these tools is embarrassing in 2021). Instruction tools tend to trap the learner in the moment and the format, whether the classroom or the module.

So, were I as smart as Mr Thompson, I would suggest that the services which make the most of the native advantages of digital are the ones to watch for performance development. My amateur hunch is that these are likely to come from outside the typical industry definition or membership. That’s how the Facebook feed disrupted the news industry fater all.

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