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What (some) brilliant minds say about learning

This post is an extract from my regular newsletter. You can sign up to receive it here.

Recent weeks have been busy with getting the Digital Learning Standards Forum up and running. Starting something new is not to be taken lightly. Time is easily consumed as there is nothing to hand upon which to build. It carries the anticipation and excitement of trying to create something afresh, along with the weight of habit and inertia that always surrounds the patterns we create. L&D has many patterns. Some of them are subtle and almost invisible. Studying them with a group of highly experienced, curious and progressive people has been a delight. (You can sign up here if that sounds like you). This activity and the conversations it has created, has given me reason to pause and think about our industry. I wonder about the state it is in and how we can encourage ourselves and each other to strengthen and develop it. In the interest of efficiency, I have stolen some words to exemplify some of these ideas. So, I will rest this issue of the newsletter on the wisdom of others and borrow content from their efforts.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Upton Sinclair, 1934.
Many of us are employed to refine and apply the patterns of the industry. Evidence of the value of these patterns is scant in many cases. Our incentives personally and organisationally reward this activity. The design and delivery of programmes might not always be the answer. Design choices need to take us further and wider.
“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” (Known as The Shirky Principle). Clay Shirky.
Perhaps elaborating on Sinclair’s point above, Shirky is referring to the solution of complex problems in society. L&D has the opportunity to be a contributor to solving those problems (the skills dilemma, for example) and yet our energies are often drawn to solving the problems we see most clearly…the design and delivery of programmes… We need to be wary of an institutional response to individual challenges.
“For many IT departments, adoption becomes the goal internally, too. Adoption focuses on the tech as the outcome, not the desired changes in systems, processes, behaviours and, ideally the culture.” Mark Britz and James Tyer, 2021.
Purchasing and implementing technology is a necessary condition for applying our skills to the problems we need to solve. It is far from sufficient, however. How we use the tools technology offer us is the key to their value. Systems technologies, such as the LMS, can be more problematic as they tend to crystallise process and dictate our behaviours as a result. Systems implementation is not transformational in itself.
“Unlike many other forms of design though, what makes a good service isn’t a matter of personal taste. A service either works or it doesn’t.” Lou Downe, 2020
There are many points to this broad principle. In an L&D context, I think we need to get closer to the ‘working or not’ judgement with observed behaviour. Digital services should provide a rich seam of real user activity to benchmark our contributions against. We rely too heavily, often exclusively, on self reported information from survey inputs. Metrics and measures from user behaviour, of many kinds, should provide the benchmarks that mark our progress.
“Your opportunity as a marketer is the chance to connect the members of the tribe. They’re lonely and disconnected, they fear being unseen, and you, as the agent of change, can make connection happen.” Seth Godin, 2018
Quoting Godin is a classic. Who am I to buck the trend. This raises our sights above design and delivery. We are called on to make meaningful connections with our audiences. Those connections take the form of conversation and rest on long term relationship building. This, in turn, requires a different set of data to benchmark and monitor the quality of those relationships over time. Our typical metrics do not stretch to this value.
“The self-perpetuating patterns that we call human beings are now dependent on clothes, cooked food, vitamins, vaccinations, credit cards, smartphones and the Internet. And – tomorrow if not already today – on AI.” Daniel Dennet, 2019
Changing gears a little, I am uncertain about the specific impacts of AI on L&D beyond the current applications. It is a revolution, though. Dennet is guiding us to think about it as a technology that becomes a constant and inextricable part of our lives (or a further part). ChatGPT is the latest glimpse into our future. Homework will never be the same again. Is information retrieval solved? What are the skills and sensibilities we need to develop and encourage and how? These are not overnight developments or binary changes. The potential is vast.
“Humankind has gotten itself into a fine pickle. We are being exploited by companies that paradoxically deliver services we crave, and at the same time our lives depend on many software-enabled systems that are open to attack.” Rodney Brooks, 2019
And yet…who do we trust? The giants of the commercial technology world now stand in clearer light. The trade of our data for convenience and swift gratification becomes less attractive over time. For learning services, how do we generate and sustain trust? Those attacks Brooks references are not only security and safety risks, they are also exploitation from those bad actors we hear so much about. Cambridge Analytica showed the way. Learning services, I believe, need to use these technology services – what do we offer if not? – and yet we need to do so in ways that encourage and protect the positive outcomes we seek. Interesting times and new balancing acts to perform.
The design and delivery of programmes might be our start point, but cannot be our route forwards. Our standards and benchmarks need a significant refresh to account for the value we want to demonstrate now. They will need to develop significantly from there for whatever is on the way.

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