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No hope and no hype: fear, loathing and learned helplessness at LT2014

This post was written by John Helmer and first appeared on the LINE blog on 17th February 2014.

John Helmer reports from this January’s Learning Technologies Exhibition and Conference at Olympia.

The bull market in e-learning has been running for so long that we now take it for granted each year’s Learning Technologies Exhibition will be bigger, better and more hideously overcrowded than the last. And so it was this year. There were differences enough this year to make it worth blogging about, but also worrying signs, particularly upstairs in the conference, that a few people’s styluses are getting too firmly stuck in the groove.

Hype cycle in slo-mo shock

Unusually, there seemed to be no particular ‘next big thing’ at the event this year – no single subject that everybody was blagging each other about. In past years there have tended to be headline trends, such as mobile learning (several times for that one), or informal learning (it’s been going longer than you think), or last year, Tin Can. But this year … nothing. Is this the sign of an industry growing up a bit; getting over its obsession with hype and buzzwords? Or perhaps it’s just that the appetite for new tools, platforms and standards has abated somewhat as everybody tries to work out how to use all the shiny new stuff they’ve bought over the last few years.

Industry insiders seemed more preoccupied this year with how much Epic had paid to reproduce that Times Square experience on its video-tower dominated stand. (Ok it was classier than that: Piccadilly Circus maybe).

The generation game

If the floor seemed to have hit a newly pragmatic stride, however, upstairs in the conference it was business as usual. In fact some of it was a bit too usual.

The first day’s proceedings got off to an encouraging start, with a spirited keynote from Brian Solis. Solis advises Silicon Valley start-ups, and with that three-point hankie in the top pocket of his suit, probably looks a bit slicker than his clientele. In this, as well as in his accent, I was slightly reminded of Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman – but it was a purely superficial resemblance. None of Goodman’s coruscating cynicism was on show … well maybe just a bit. And no bad thing at that.

Solis had some suitably world-weary things to about ’shiny object syndrome’, and even the means by which he was delivering his talk: ’Nothing says the future of learning like a PowerPoint deck’. Lol.

As a ‘digital anthropologist’ Solis studies what happens when technology and society evolve faster than our ability to adapt to either. He had many interesting and insightful things to say on this subject – although you sort of wondered afterwards exactly what he had really told you.

Quite soon afterwards the famous Marc Prensky (the serious games man) took the podium … and said several of the same things. Even down to using identical images and anecdotes. At a rough estimate there was about a 5% overlap between the two decks. Another reason, perhaps to be a bit cynical about PowerPoint.

We should be heartened, I suppose, when great minds think alike, though it does make things a tad repetitious. With so much unanimity on display, what most stuck in my mind was the one subject they differed on significantly.

Where Prensky still bangs on about that old Digital Imigrants / Digital Natives thing, Solis seems to have moved on a bit. He talks about Generation C – the ‘C’ standing for connected. Apparently the age divide isn’t so critical anymore. Which comes as a huge relief to late boomers like me, who suspect that they actually spend rather too much time online rather than in meatspace with their families, and don’t necessarily appreciate being told from the conference platform that they might just as well give up and go polish their Mont Blanc fountain pen collections instead.

Rebels without an MBA

If my enthusiasm for the upper floor was starting to wane by now, nothing much was done to repair the situation by a double-headed presentation on disruptive technologies. We were asked why we thought it was that Blockbusters and Kodak had gone out of business. The answer, more implied than stated, admittedly, seemed to be that the leaders of these businesses were stupid people, who had their heads in the sand and couldn’t adapt to change.

OK it was actually put a bit more politely than that. A number of psychology papers were quoted, and charts flashed up that described in some detail the stages through which people pass when faced with disruptive change (denial, immune reaction, etc.). But this concentration on the psychological literature, with no reference to other fields of study such as, for instance, economics, that might have something to say about why large, powerful organizations with access to capital, staffed by talented, hardworking people, can suddenly fail, only served to reinforce the impression that the people who ran Blockbusters and Kodak – and anybody, in fact, who ever found themselves on the wrong side of a technological paradigm shift – had something mentally wrong with them.

It is clear that neither of the presenters had read Michael Neilsen’s thoughtful blog post about what happened to the Wall Street Journal when blogs like TechCrunch came along, and why simple economics often prevents incumbents in an industry defending themselves effectively against disruptive incomers: ‘Even smart and good organizations can fail in the face of disruptive change,’ says Neilsen and, ‘there are common underlying structural reasons why that’s the case’.

OK it would be unfair to castigate the presenters for having missed one particular article; but the far-more-famous Clay Shirky of NYU has written at length about these issues, as has Clayton Christiansen of Harvard, and no more than the usually obligatory five minutes on Google and Wikipedia should have been sufficient to alert the speakers to the existence of other perspectives on the subject about which they had allotted to speak, technology disruption, other than the psychological one.

Learned helplessness

This purblindness on the business aspects of disruption was symptomatic in my view of a wider failure in parts of the guru community; an inability or unwillingness to engage with the critical question of exactly why technology innovation in L&D meets so much resistance – and, equally importantly, what can be done to change that attitude.

The impression was allowed to persist that simple organisational inertia, and the stupidity of upper management, are alone to blame – which made the session, ultimately, about as edifying as a bitching session around the corporate water-cooler. Surely this can’t but contribute to the attitude of learned helplessness one sometimes encounters in L&D; a helplessness no doubt related to the lowly perceived status the discipline often has within organisations?

If I was less passive aggressive I might have said something during the Q&A, but I didn’t sense any sort of mood in the room to do anything other than wring hands and blame someone else. Unfortunately the truth is that it’s L&D that is facing disruption, and the danger is not so much that innovation won’t happen, but that it will happen elsewhere in the business, with the training department being sidelined.

This is a governance issue, at its heart – and there are, after all, plenty of people around who can give constructive advice about learning governance, including Charles Jennings, Towards Maturity and – ahem – LINE Consulting.

Time to can the potty pix?

As the first day of the conference ground to a close, and the Hand and Flower beckoned, I fell to wondering where I had heard this slogan before in a presentation: ‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn’. The answer is that I have heard this quote or one of its many variants just about every single year since I first started coming to Learning Technologies in 1999. People, change the record.

Neither was I entirely sure why every single presentation deck had to include an image of someone on the toilet using a digital device.

In fact, why not ban PowerPoint altogether? If L&D is going to think its way out of the predicament it is currently in, it is going to need something more than a bunch of hastily slung-together decks full of funny/inspirational/touching memes scarfed from social media, accompanied by a script full of platitudes and motherhood statements.

And now for the good news …

But enough griping. There were many excellent sessions in this year’s conference, which as ever was expertly sequenced, and thoughtfully chaired by Don Taylor, Vaughan Waller, et al. I particularly enjoyed David Kelly’s account of life as a Google ‘Glasshole’, and a steamy grunt ’n’ grapple session of a debate about MOOCs with Donald Clark facing off in characteristically combative form against Crispin Weston. Which is not even to mention the many interesting floor seminars, including those by LINE’s Andrew Joly and Steve Barden/Paul Thorpe. We’ll be covering more of the good talks from LT 2014 in subsequent posts, and I hope to be seeing all my friends at Learning Technologies again next year – unless I’ve already earned myself a lifetime ban!