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Essay

What is Learning in the Age of Technology?

Digital learning isn’t just about convenience, speed and scalability. It’s about personalization, navigation and experiential learning.

By Veronica Thomas and Yoshie Tomozumi Nakamura

co_1228_lead1_302While the definition of learning has been debated for centuries, for the purposes of this article we will define learning as a process for acquiring new information that when internalized results in change or transformation. We use the term “knowledge economy” to describe an economy driven by technical and scientific advancements dependent upon knowledge and information production and dissemination.

What happens when information production and dissemination outpace learning? Increasingly VUCA — volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous — business environments are the result.

With VUCA as the “new normal” and “creating an agile workforce” as the buzzword du jour, learning leaders face increasing pressures to help organizations change quickly. The good news is talent managers have a wide variety of educational options available, and digital learning platforms are viewed as viable learning solutions because they are scalable, cost effective, flexible and convenient. However, there are some pitfalls to pursuing convenience, speed and scalability in digital learning.

Learning leaders can avoid these pitfalls by paying attention to three other criteria: personalization, navigation and experiential learning.

  1. Personalization: Using the traditional one-size-fits-all learning approach that was efficient and suitable to train workers for industrial-age jobs is no longer effective in a knowledge-economy that is continuously disrupted by technology. Succeeding in a knowledge economy will require employees to develop a lifelong learning habit, increase self-awareness, understand their learning styles and functional competence, be able to crystalize their professional challenges and goals, and stay motivated to develop realistic and sustainable learning plans to meet their performance goals.

Talent managers can take lessons from businesses like Fitbit and become more obsessive about personalization in e-learning, which can improve employee engagement and loyalty. Just as Fitbit offers products, experiences and motivation to help users reach their health and fitness goals, talent development professionals should create a “LearningBit” for each employee.

The LearningBit could be any type of internal or external mechanism that, like a fitness device, supports learner autonomy. Learning experiences would be customizable to the user’s current skill level, and allow the individual to set increasingly difficult goals to encourage continuous learning and development. With the LearningBit, or its equivalent, individuals can be autonomous in their digital learning endeavors because they are in control of their own actions.

  1. Navigation: Given the abundance of e-learning content, it is important to help users navigate through a proliferation of digital learning choices by providing recommendations. These recommendations should be based on a variety of inputs including assessments, learning goals and organizational needs. Organizations can create either a content-based recommendation system like Apple’s “Siri,” or provide digital navigators to help individuals find the right content in a timely manner. Human navigators or facilitators in digital courses also will be effective in helping individuals think through and solve navigational issues during their learning journey.
  1. Experiential learning: Developing the muscles to function in VUCA environments requires experiential learning, or learning by doing, and reflective practices. Learning leaders can facilitate this critical process by providing activities that have the learner do something, observe themselves and others in the process of experimentation, report on what happened, reflect on what it means, check their assumptions with other learners, consider new ways of thinking about the issue, and consider what learnings they can apply to similar real-life issues. If the identified digital courses do not provide experiential learning opportunities, supplement course offerings with doing and reflection opportunities that are applicable to an organization’s needs.

It remains to be seen whether scalable e-learning actually leads to individual and organizational transformation. Learning complex higher-order and critical thinking skills quickly seems highly counterintuitive. Learning leaders should consider three other criteria beyond convenience, speed and scalability — personalization, navigation and experiential learning. Rather than redefining learning, those criteria will enhance learning in a knowledge economy.

Veronica Thomas is director of digital learning, and Yoshie Tomozumi Nakamura is director of organizational learning and research at Columbia Business School Executive Education.

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