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Tomorrow calling: what 25 years of tech change has taught us

This post was written by John Helmer and first appeared on the LINE blog on 28th January 2014.

professional maleOn the occasion of LINE’s quarter-century anniversary celebrations, John Helmer explores ‘lessons learned’ from the company’s 25 years at the forefront of innovation and change in technology-enabled learning and communications.

1989 was the year Nintendo released their first Gameboy. It was the year Apple released the Macintosh portable, which was the size of a small suitcase – more ‘luggable’ than portable, as commentators of the time remarked. Mobile phones would no longer look like house bricks after the release of Motorola’s sleek MicroTAC, that year, which was also the world’s first flip phone, but they would still be analogue for quite a while. Digital had still not fully arrived. As for the World Wide Web – well it hadn’t yet had been invented. And the term ‘e-learning’ was ten years in the future…

A lot has happened in technology since then. Here are a few reflections for the future that arise from looking back at the last 25 years’ worth of technology change, through the lens of LINE’s involvement in learning and communications. Call it ‘lessons learned’!

LINE’s CEO Piers Lea wrote very engagingly about the early days of LINE on this blog at the time of the 21st Anniversary: for this piece we’d like to give some perspective on LINE’s observation of technology change during the last quarter-century, and perhaps some insights that can be used to guide the way we look at new developments in our field.

Older male professional on an old phone

Mobile is an interesting case in point. By 2001, mobile devices (which in those days meant phones and PDAs, pretty much) had reached a stage where they could be considered as delivery vehicles for learning. LINE did some pioneering work that year with Palm in California. In the years following, each of which was hailed at its outset by someone or other as ‘the year m-learning comes of age’, LINE continued to work with clients on pilots and proof-of-concept initiatives, and programmes that were actually used in anger and in fact proved very effective as learning – but mainstream adoption failed to materialize. Despite all the books, conference speeches, webinars, white papers, slide-shares and analyst reports in the meantime telling us that this year, positively, definitely, everybody was going to be delivering their learning via mobile, in reality, it was not until the last couple of years that we have begun to see organisations getting interested in large numbers.

The chart in Fig 1 tells the story of adoption, which is that it finally took off after a pretty slow start (note that between 2006 and 2008 it actually slipped back for a couple of years!).

Graph of the change in mobile learning
[image caption] Fig 1. Mobile adoption (source: Towards Maturity)

You can also see from the blue bars on this chart that after years of inflated expectations, the market now seems to be under-estimating the adoption trend suggested by the actual figures.

This story tells us a number of things.

Firstly, new ideas and technologies can take quite a while to travel through the various stages of the hype cycle – scaling the Peak of Inflated Expectations, plunging into the Trough of Disillusionment, then hauling themselves painfully up the Slope of Enlightenment … finally to reach the Plateau of Productivity, where they achieve mainstream usage.

Although almost all new technologies are doomed to traverse this obstacle course, they don’t all take it at the same speed, and the pace at which any particular technology travels is not easily predictable. Some yomp straight through. Others spend years in the trough – and not all of them make it out again: occasionally, when it looks like they’ve gone into the trough, they’ve actually dropped off a cliff, never to be heard from again (learning in Second Life, anyone?).

Patience is necessary to ride out this curve, and commitment to the vision. All this time, LINE was working with clients iteratively on mobile; experimenting, assessing, refocusing. Finally the moment was right to productise, and in 2012, LINE released LINEstream, at the point when a technical architecture to meet the mobile publishing requirement at enterprise scale was at last truly viable.

Maturation of the devices, infrastructure and technical standards to this point undoubtedly played a part in why mobile didn’t take off earlier. Before the invention of the smartphone, when Blackberry dominated, screen sizes, bandwidth, multimedia capability were extremely limited for learning purposes. But even after the introduction of the first iPhone, in 2007, adoption lagged for several years. Board rooms finally began to see the potential ahead of L&D departments, but what really made the difference was user adoption. The workforce began to expect that learning and communications would be delivered via mobile – and L&D had to respond.

Smartphones and tablets, had become part of people’s everyday lives. They used them to organise their music, their photographs, their diaries, their address books; to find their way around unfamiliar towns and cities, to book hotels and flights, to translate menus – to access information and to learn things … These devices and the apps written for them are, in essence, workflow tools ¬– workflow tools for your life and for your personal knowledge needs. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before it dawned on employees that they had better workflow tools in their personal possession than they were given at work, and started wanting to bring them into the office (or the factory). Enter BYOD.(Bring your own device)

LINE’s early work for Palm onwards shows that mobile learning was perfectly feasible for years before employee pressure (and boardroom diktat) caused widespread adoption, despite device limitations. In practice it was blocked by a variety of organisational factors – lack of L&D understanding, unwillingness to commit the necessary budget on something new and untested, the many issues brought the the table by IT, which tend to come in three-letter acronym form: TCO, SLA, etc. But above all, because it lacked a strong driver.

There are some lessons here, one of which is to keep a close eye on your learners – how are they using technology in their lives? And how are they using it to learn? We might also pause to reflect on how quickly, and how radically, social trends in the wider world can bring changes that cause us to reset our expectations about workplace learning. Until BYOD happened, for example, everybody assumed that mobile learning would be written for mandated devices, which would in most cases mean designing around the devices that the organisation was already supplying to its employees. Either that, or budget would have to be found for supply of learning-specific devices to suit the content. BYOD changed all that.

Learning technologies aren’t just for learning

Leading on from this point about changes in the wider world, it is important not to forget that the things we call learning technologies are quite rarely used exclusively for learning. For instance, ebooks figure in most e-learning taxonomies, but the Kindle-owner on the train reading 50 Shades of Grey, with very few exceptions, is unlikely to be learning anything that will help them in their professional career. Virtual classroom software is basically virtual meeting software repurposed. Even when a technology appears to be highly specialized, as with learning management systems (LMS), if we take our e-learning blinkers off for a second, we can see that it belongs in a category of management systems for various organisational functions that are virtually identical at code level.

This being the case, we ignore at our peril the extent to which all of these apparently distinct software categories are subject to macro trends and drivers that affect whole families of technology products (Moore’s law and Murphy’s law, to name but two).
There is in particular one macro-scale movement that is seen again and again in digital industries, right across the world of business.

The two phases of digital change

Take an existing, physical world industry such as publishing, education, newspapers, the music business, movies – or for that matter organisational training – that is making the transition to digital, and watch how it changes over a period of years. You’ll notice two distinct phases.

First comes direct, like-for-like replacement of physical stuff with virtual stuff: books become ebooks, magazines become emagazines, training courses become ecourses, record collections become digital record collections.

But then, in the next phase those traditional content wrappers dissolve. People stop buying albums altogether and buy collections of individual tracks instead, and eventually stop buying music altogether in favour of renting access to all the music in the world they might want for $10 per month – and you have Spotify. People notice that some of the books they have in their shelves – OED, Good Beer Guide, Wisden – aren’t really books at all but databases; so why make them into ebooks – why not make an app? Suddenly people stop buying the A to Z and start using Goggle Maps instead.

The same thing is happening in our world of training courses. The traditional content wrapper – the training course – is coming apart. Why buy a map to the knowledge area you need to explore, when you can have a 24/7 interactive tool that guides you every step of the way on your learning journey? The future is learner journeys, and e-learning products that look more like workflow tools than inert lumps of content.

Is e-learning too inward-looking?

We talk a lot about community in e-learning, but the truth is it can be a bit of a hermetic community. We too often fail to see the connections with the larger currents of change outside our own village. This is is a mistake, because organisations experience change on a broad front, and people issues often show up outside the normal bounds of the training remit (one reason why not all our clients are Heads of L&D, or even HR directors). Suppliers and practitioners alike must be able to respond to these challenges at the scale, and in the manner that the issues present themselves.

So what are our lessons learned?

• Don’t underestimate how fundamentally technology can change things
• Think outside your silo
• Five years is a long time in digital technology, but sometimes a new way of doing things can take longer than that to be accepted
• Change is a constant: don’t assume you can keep on trundling along the same old train tracks, with a few minor adjustments, for the rest of your working life

… And above all, as you cruise the aisles at Learning Technologies this month, bombarded with cunningly crafted marketing messages about the latest Big New Thing – don’t believe the hype!