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Five Trends in Learning Delivery in 2011

This is a year of opportunity for chief learning officers to assess their learning strategy in the context of a constantly evolving and changing business environment. The challenges for today’s CLOs are more complex than ever: They are required not only to demonstrate clear value and business relevance for their learning strategy on a global stage, but also their ability to link learning and performance programs directly to the goals of their organization, despite constraints in time, budget and talent. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary skills on the part of our CLOs as they creatively balance the demand for knowledge and information against the realities of changing content and instructional design, disappearing content expertise, disruptive technologies, demand for on-the-job proficiency and an increasingly dispersed workforce with less tolerance for off-the-job formal learning.

Last year saw the introduction of new technologies that could increase access to information but blurred the lines between learning content, learners and expertise. Organizations embraced experimentation with mobile or tablet devices for learning, immersive 3-D or collaborative environments, and the incorporation of wikis, micro-blogging or podcasts as learning tools. So what is on the horizon for 2011? Let’s take a look.

Increased Fidelity of Experience

As access to learners becomes increasingly precious, managers are demanding that learning be as relevant to the job as possible. This means an increased demand for highly relevant experience, immediate transfer of content to on-the-job proficiency, and the ability to provide a holistic learning experience that models job requirements, such as the ability to demonstrate multiple skills and decision-making in a robust learning exercise. The ability for learning to apply to real life is termed “fidelity” by the industry. We’ve seen an increase in complex gaming, immersive simulations and the use of technology as a business modeling engine. Examples of complex gaming include a group of engineers who compete in an online game to design the best solution or a group of sales executives who participate in a sales conference game to test and challenge their ability to gather information about a prospective client in order to present a proposal. While most organizations have courseware to support competencies for particular roles, some are looking at learning activities that challenge cross-functional groups of learners to work together for an improved business result. Fidelity can be a highly desirable design element where online learning looks exactly like the Web page of the firm or dynamically renders images of a tool for technology training.

Business modeling is another tool that can be used to create a high fidelity experience for the learner. Unlike branched solutions — where a learner selects from a given set of options and then continues on that path, choosing from a fixed set of options — business modeling allows the learner to make multiple discreet decisions. The modeling engine provides each learner with unique feedback and allows the learner to see both the relationship and the magnitude of decisions. An example is financial training for managers of a business unit. The learner is challenged to respond to the loss of a major customer, in which he or she looks at aspects of the business and decides whether to increase, decrease or not change new sales efforts. Similar decisions are made for managing inventory, employee morale, etc. The model then shows the impact of the multiple decisions.

Kiosk Learning

Retail and customer service counter industries are moving into using devices, such as the iPod Touch — and, more recently, the iPad — as tools to access learning. Many organizations have groups of employees who are remote from computers, or their computers may be point-of-sale devices or call center workstations that have limited capacity to run engaging learning that includes multimedia. An iPad allows multiple users to learn on a single device, so iPads posted at remote locations become digital learning kiosks. Additionally, iPads allow for multiple user log-ons, so that learning can be tracked by user through distance-learning applications.

Such learning kiosks enhance on-the-job accessibility to learning: The learner avoids travel to a learning location and can make use of any downtime. A key advantage of the learning kiosk concept is putting the learning at the point of need – not only for traditional courseware, but also on-the-job support. Examples of the use of kiosk learning in retail range from skills enhancement training for customer serving counter agents at an international airline to new product training for retail store counter clerks that can be updated as customer sales and data evolve.

Crowdsourcing for Learning Assignments

Web 2.0 tools and platforms continue to provide a collaborative environment for knowledge workers and learners. Although the most popular tools in use are still simple solutions, such as e-mail, instant messaging, Web conferencing and file sharing, users are becoming more sophisticated in combining various tools to meet their particular need. Skype is making inroads in the corporate world for connecting learners to tutors or subject matter experts. There’s also a trend toward embedding wikis and blogs into learning programs or instant messaging into other collaboration events in an effort to improve e-learning effectiveness. Organizations are investing in external tools, such as NewsGator or Q2 Learning to provide robust collaboration environments, whereas lighter tools such as Ning and Moodle are still popular for blogging and discussions. Google is focusing on collaboration tools, and Google Apps are being used in education and are crossing over to the corporate sector for document creation with real-time editing, sharing controls and seamless compatibility for learners.

Examples of crowdsourcing as a learning strategy range from the capture of best practices during planning process training for a military group to capturing cadres of learners’ assignments posted for technical training on SharePoint for an energy company.

Data Mining

Micro-learning and user-generated content in blogs, wikis and YouTube-like video servers can become information overload to learners. While access to thousands of knowledge objects may initially be appealing to learners, they can quickly become discouraged and disinterested if their search results are not relevant. The key for learners is to access knowledge sites and get exactly what they need and only what they need. First and foremost, knowledge systems must have robust search and tagging systems to accommodate data inquiry. Additionally, users must either be trained to use the system or, more preferably, the system should be a highly intuitive one that guides the user and recognizes his or her preferences. Intelligent systems search for relevant words, such as the Google search engine does; these systems look at the affinity of a learner’s search pattern and then make intelligent recommendations. While CLOs may or may not manage knowledge management systems, it will be important to contribute input into how these systems will support access for learners.

The LMS Adds Informal Learning

Learning encompasses both performance readiness through formal learning and performance proficiency as well as support through informal learning and social networking. The traditional LMS hosting a catalog of courseware may not be robust enough to support a learner’s need to search for specific formal learning support objects and provide ready access to knowledge objects and collaboration sites. Many of the LMS providers are responding by adding their version of wikis, blogs and communities of interest.

There is strong interest in overlaying the traditional LMS interface with a “front door” portal that not only provides links to traditional courseware on the LMS, but also provides access to informal learning, such as wikis and blogs. This type of portal is more demand-ready so that the user can easily browse for topics or take an assessment to identify a gap in knowledge, with the gap report providing links to both formal courseware and informal learning content that addresses the identified need.

So What Does The Future Hold?

Technology will continue to push our comfort zone, with avatar experiences in 3-D on mobile devices; use of cloud computing to enable access to software; holographic imaging to increase the fidelity of a learning environment; personal LMS sites for users to track firm, academic and other professional experiences; and increased capability for augmented reality solutions with cheaper broadband access through a wide range of devices.

What about traditional instructor-led courseware? It won’t go away, but firms will continue to be more selective on when to use traditional face-to-face group learning. The experiences will be richer, simulating on-the-job experiences for immediate job transfer. Firms will look to tools and templates for rapid authoring of instructor-led courseware.

Caroline Avey is a learning strategist and director of innovative learning solutions at ACS Learning Services, a Xerox company and learning and development service provider. She can be reached at editor@clomedia.com.

Click here to read more of CLO’s coverage of the tools and technology impacting learning this year via our Special Report on Learning Delivery.