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Dealing with disruption – which way forward?

This post was written by Lars Hyland and first appeared on the Epic blog on 11th September 2013.

dealing with disruption in technologyLars Hyland is Epic’s Head of Consulting Services. He talks about disruptive innovation and what that means for learning technologies. (This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in the Inside Learning Technologies magazine.)

Why is the learning profession, both in the workplace and in education, taking so long to truly embrace the transformational nature of the technology around us? This is not to say that technology has not been present in what we do; clearly it has and it continues to grow. But to date it has most often been on the periphery, without really changing the fundamental processes that drive effective learning.

As a result, most people’s experience of e-learning is an e-enabled variation of what has gone before. Some prime examples of this are PowerPoint presentations, video lectures, digitised workbooks, simple quizzes and assessments. These all have the benefit of easier, more flexible access, but in isolation they don’t necessarily truly attempt to improve the actual learning process.

In the education sector, universities across the world are being confronted with a need to radically adapt their proposition in the face of online learning services such as MOOC providers EdX, Coursera and Udacity. This is just another instance of what Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen calls Disruptive Innovation, which arose from his observations of competition within the automotive and computer technology sectors in the 1990s. This time the target is education and training.

We are finally at a tipping point where the economic conditions and ubiquity of technology are such that it is possible to deconstruct and rebuild the learning experience around a more personalised and adaptive model of how we learn and acquire new skills and behaviours.

A focus on effectiveness

As learning professionals, we would probably all agree that these elements should be present in an effective learning experience:

ENGAGEMENT This means attracting and holding attention through clear, persuasive reasons for undertaking and committing to this learning. Why do I have to do this? What are the benefits to me?
CONTEXT Context is ensuring the learning content and activities use recognisable scenarios and situations that the learner can immediately relate to.
FEEDBACK The learning experience adapts to the personalised needs of the learner, providing additional support where required or recognising evidence of early comprehension and allowing accelerated progress.
DELIBERATE PRACTICE Repeated opportunities allow learners to practice new knowledge and skills in ways that closely simulate real world situations.
REINFORCEMENT Effective learning recognises that without ongoing support learners quickly forget and revert to existing behaviours rather than truly habitualising new behaviours.

Unfortunately many of these components do not feature strongly enough (if at all) in the offered learning experience because they are perceived as either too time-consuming, expensive or administratively difficult to implement. It is now imperative that we put effectiveness ahead of efficiency of delivery.

Take a fresh look at your learning strategy

In order to harness these opportunities, now is a good time to review your learning and development strategy to ensure you have the right resources, tools and structures and work practices in place that can put effectiveness first and leverage technology at a more fundamental level. A good place to start is to clarify how each of the elements mentioned above can be built in as standard to every learning opportunity you offer.

ENGAGEMENT How closely integrated are your communications and learning activities? Can you bring these together to offer a more sophisticated design that balances attention (campaign) and instructional pedagogy (course)?
CONTEXT How much of your training portfolio is designed for your specific organisational needs? What can be supplemented with contextual activities to aid learning transfer?
FEEDBACK Have you engaged your management community to provide coaching support for their staff so that new behaviours are given the opportunity to take hold? Are you tracking and capturing the right data to help learners improve their performance?
DELIBERATE PRACTICE Do your learning designs include opportunities to practice safely and repeatedly?
REINFORCEMENT What mechanisms do you have in place to reach staff and prompt recall of what they have learned and to take action when required?

What is likely to emerge from this process is a list of fresh requirements that may require changes to existing technology infrastructure such as your Learning Management System (LMS), your readiness to support mobile devices (take a look at the eLearning Guild’s April 2013 mobile learning report for some excellent case studies) and your ability to enable a tighter integration of learning and performance support with your business critical systems. Your internal teams will need to acquire new skills in designing learning that blends offline and online activities in more sophisticated ways as well as learn to use interactive authoring tools that can deliver richer interactions and simulations that are contextual and offer meaningful practice.

Sticking with a traditional strategy that does not put effectiveness first will very quickly lead to competitive disadvantage. So while this may seem a significant undertaking, many organisations are already embarking on this journey, taking advantage of available expertise to accelerate the review process, build a robust and evidenced business case and then collaboratively support its execution. It will take courage to disrupt your own organisation’s current status quo in order to prepare it for the major disruption in learning that lies ahead. Are you ready to take on the challenge?

Lars believes that technology should move to the heart of your learning strategy and has designed Epic’s consulting services to deliver step changes in learning effectiveness and efficiency of delivery. How do you see your learning strategy changing? Leave a comment below.