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CIPD warms to learning technologies

John Helmer visits the Exhibition floor at CIPD Learning & Development Show in London’s Olympia and finds evidence of a new attitude to the use of technology for learning.

It has been heartening to see a greater focus on technology in learning from the CIPD recently. This year’s Learning & Development Show at Olympia (formerly known as HRD) offered visible signs of this new attitude. Not least of these was a free floor seminar I attended on ‘Becoming a Digital Learning Content Designer’ run on behalf of CIPD by Clive Shepherd.

So you want to be a digital learning content designer?

Clive is a familiar figure in our industry and has contributed to LINE white papers and events in the past. He has produced a new Digital Learning Design programme with the CIPD which is endorsed by the Elearning Network, and this seminar served as an introduction to the principals of digital learning content design. The fact that CIPD has chosen to throw its weight behind building capability in this area among the membership shows that the skills of digital learning design are becoming a more mainstream part of the learning & development skillset.

Always an engaging presenter, Clive chose a persona-driven approach to identifying the types of people who might need to acquire these skills:
• Josh the trainer, who has the job of delivering induction learning
• Miranda the job-seeker, looking to build a career as a learning designer
• Celia the L&D Manager, who spends her time dealing with external contractors and needs to become a less naïve purchaser of digital learning content

He then extended this approach by adding some users of digital learning content:
• Josh’s daughter, a schoolgirl whose homework is increasingly done using a broad range of digital media
• Miranda’s mother, who uses a Kindle and is doing a MOOC
• Celia’s husband, who uses short YouTube videos to teach himself about DIY

In a simple and approachable way, this allowed Clive to make some useful points about how digital media sit in people’s everyday lives as tools for learning, and what a wide range of different channels there is to consider. It also allowed him, rather sneakily, to move the focus away from the traditional image of e-learning as self-paced modules accessed on a desktop computer, towards a picture of multi-device, multi-modal learning that accords with the more architectural view of learning design that Clive originated and which LINE has helped to develop (see Learning Architectures).

Having welcomed us to the age of digital content, Clive then went on to discuss what sort of person makes a good digital learning content designer. The simple answer was that you have to be the sort of person who likes ‘making stuff’ – once again, a deceptively simple statement. Many people in the training profession, despite their other competencies and personal qualities, will not have this predilection for creative work.

So you want to do social learning?

A different skillset entirely is surely required for social learning, which has less to do with making stuff than with connecting people to relevant content and to each other.

It was good to see a CIPD seminar on Social Learning 101, a subject that only a few years ago would have been considered on the wilder shores of learning innovation. The seminar, ably co-presented by Perry Tims and Thomas Paisely, might not have given a huge amount of advice on how to actually do social learning, but was a great runthrough of the various channels available and what can be done with them, that I actually found quite inspiring.

Aside from the usual suspects; Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ – and a few old favourites such as Slideshare, RSS and the blogging platforms (WordPress, Blogger, Tumbler, etc.) the presenters also covered more recent developments such as Storify, Pocket and IFTTT (If This Then That) and how they can be integrated with each other and with personal notekeeping software such as Evernote.

Although I’m a bit of a social media hack, the seminar opened my eyes a bit to a different vision of the form. Where I’ve tended to see it as a jostle of competing channels, all trying to do basically the same thing, in fact it’s now more like an eco-system of different tools which users can combine and adapt to build personalised information workflows of their own.

The results can be highly individual and even idiosyncratic, but in principle this way of working offers powerful new tools for self-directed learning. Importantly, you don’t have to be a developer to get huge value out of this stuff, but as with other types of digital activity – to echo an earlier point of Clive’s – you do have to be quite organised.

The problem of researching emerging technologies

So making great digital learning calls for creativity, and it also requires and organising, systematising bent.
Organising one’s thought about digital learning itself, however, can prove a major challenge. For many years now CIPD has published an annual report on Learning & Development, and while this report has in recent years reflected a more sophisticated and nuanced view of learning technologies than was previously the case, in my view it still suffers from a taxonomy problem when it comes to digital.

How do you do effective quantative research involving an emerging technology field where there is so little agreement about what particular terms mean? It’s a plus that the report has been fairly consistent about the questions asked over the years, giving it aspects of a longitudinal study. CIPD has adapted those questions as its own view of learning technologies (and, no doubt, what the interviewees say) has broadened; however, laudable as it is, this acknowledement of a growing diversity tends to exacerbate the nomenclature problem.

For instance. Options given in answer to the question, ‘Which three learning and development practices do you most commonly use and which three are the most effective?’ includes, inter alia:
• E-learning methods
• Blended learning
• Collaborative and social learning
• Virtual classrooms

Since no definition of terms is offered, it is not clear whether ‘e-learning methods’ refers solely to self-paced modules of e-learning or follows the broader definition that would include all the others as well, in which case there could well be an overlap between these categories. Also, as a casual reader, I’m not sure either what proportion of ‘collaborative and social learning’ might be technology-enabled – if any. And ‘blended learning’ could notionally include just about any or all of the other categories.

The headline conclusion that ‘the proportion of total training time delivered by e-learning has reduced’ also raises questions – does this mean ‘formal e-learning only’, since a wider range of learning technologies seem to be employed year on year. Also there is a well-documented reduction of training time when e-learning is deployed, which might depress the over-all figure: has this been factored in?

I’m certainly not trying to disparage the report, or the CIPD – these are problems that afflict just about every piece of research on learning technologies I’ve ever seen. But I think it raises an interesting point for the future.

In from the cold?

In the years during which the CIPD’s stance towards digital learning tended to be felt as one of uninterest and even hostility, the industry retreated from this show and concentrated on Learning Technologies in January, which became and remains the most important show for technology enabled learning.

Arguably the industry became more inward-looking during this period, content to develop its ideas and products for the early-adopter community, in the hope that the mainstream would one day come around. Well, that day seems to have arrived some time ago. 74% of respondents to the survey now use learning technologies (stable over the last two years), and with significant consolidation going on, as investment cash flows in from the US and from Publishing, it no longer looks like the ‘cottage industry’ it once was.

As digital moves out of its sulky-adolescent phase and towards greater maturity, the CIPD will increasingly be looked to for guidance on these difficult matters of taxonomy, research, analyst oversight and best practice – that is, after all, what professional societies do – not only from learning technologists also but from the wider learner community. As someone with a fair amount of experience in emerging technology markets, I don’t envy them the task. It’s tough, when innovation is having such a disruptive effect not only on business, but on traditional conceptual structures as well, with Academe largely playing catch-up.

A hard job ahead, then. In the meantime, CIPD should be commended for issuing a report that contains clear-sighted paragraphs like the following about the state of learning technologies within L&D:

‘It is … clear that some pioneering organisations are successfully using more interactive, flexible, experiential and collaborative e-learning methods to develop more complex skills, including through game-based learning, practical exercises,
role-plays, social learning, feedback and simulations. Sophisticated design can generate considerable advantages in terms of cost, connectivity, geographical coverage and ability to continuously engage the learner. While there is a growing
proportion of early adopters leading the way, there is also a degree of scepticism about the effectiveness and longevity of these emerging methods. Time will tell which ones stick, but what’s important is to engage with the debate, test and try out new methods or tools to support your business strategy.’

I don’t think any of us in the learning technologies sector/silo/ghetto/cocoon would disagree with that!

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