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Special ReportAlec Ross on the Future of Learning

To prepare for the future of learning, CLOs need to be open minded, observe millennials’ behavior for clues and be aware of their own learning habits.

Over the past two decades, technology has transformed every aspect of corporate learning, from the way content is created to where, when and how it is accessed and shared.

According to New York Times bestselling author and innovation expert Alec Ross, this is the only the beginning. Ross, who speaks to audiences around the world about the impact of innovation on the economy and on society, sat down with Chief Learning Officer magazine to share his perspective on how technology will shape the future of learning.

CLO: When you think about the future of learning, what technologies do you think will have the biggest impact?

Alec Ross: Virtual and augmented reality technologies can and will be game-changing in education, but this is probably seven to 10 years away. In the meantime, there will be a number of things that are attempted but which prove pedagogically unsound or ineffective.

Over the shorter-term, we are finally getting to the point of video connected to other enabling technologies producing educational outcomes that are positive and significant. I love the work a company called 2U is doing in partnership with some of America’s best universities.

CLO: How will artificial intelligence change the way we create and engage with information as learners?

Ross: There is positive and negative to this. On the negative side, I see AI-enabled computer programs taking over the jobs of tens of thousands of teachers. Any kind of instruction that can be routinized will likely become a combination of video and computer programs with ever-more-powerful machine learning tools. I confess to not looking forward to this. This will likely be concentrated initially for instruction aimed at lower-skilled professions, which does not make it any easier to stomach.

On the positive side, I see AI becoming an increasingly powerful tool for research. We’ve already seen what algorithms have done for Internet search, enabling information retrieval that would have once been unimaginable. This trend is only going to accelerate and will enable the store of human knowledge to become increasingly accessible.

CLO: What are the biggest challenges companies face today in preparing for — and taking advantage of — this technological evolution?

Ross: One of the trickiest parts is that budgets tend not to be nimble, and learning leaders need the ability to be flexible and to experiment. In my experience, learning leaders are often forced into “all or nothing” investment choices. They have a choice between investing in enterprisewide systems with a multiyear commitment and a lot of risk, or not changing anything, and the latter offers more certainty and security. Learning leaders need to be able to try different programs and methods on different audiences within an enterprise to test and measure the product/market fit; how well a specific program fits their enterprise.

CLO: What advice would you offer learning leaders today on how to prepare for the future of learning?

Ross: The first thing is to be open-minded. Technologies can be painfully overhyped, but we can’t be cynical. Eventually the right technologies emerge that meaningfully enhance the learning environment, and as learning leaders we need to keep our eyes, ears and minds open.

The second thing is to closely observe the learning behaviors of millennials. I’m fascinated by how they learn in part because it’s so different than my own learning modalities. I could be negatively judgmental about it, but it’s important to recognize that millennials make up an ever-larger and more senior part of our workforces; the way they learn and work will only grow in importance.

The third thing I’d flag is our own learning habits. Learning leaders need to be intellectually omnivorous, taking in information from wildly varying sources. We need to be interdisciplinary learners ourselves if we expect to be good stewards of the learning environments in our organizations.

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in Chicago. Comment below, or email@CLOmedia.com.

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