Learning Delivery, Opinion, Selling Up Selling Down

A Brave New World of Learning

We have seen the future of learning and the enemy is us.

Bob Mosher is a senior partner and chief learning evangelist for APPLY Synergies, a strategic consulting firm.

One of the things I love most about our industry and probably the main reason I’ve stayed in this business for more than 35 years is learning professionals are some of the most compassionate and caring people I know. I like hanging with people like that and try my best to live up to your example.

The time you put into worrying about the learners you’ve been entrusted with is admirable. The responsibility you take for owning all that comes with developing and maintaining effective learning and development deliverables is herculean. By nature, L&D folks care and would do anything to help learners succeed. That is a wonderful quality I hope fundamentally never changes.

With that all said, we have come to an interesting crossroads in our industry — a place where that level of commitment and ownership has actually hurt us.

Over time, an interesting concept has slowly begun creeping into the dialogue. It started in the late 1990s when we started throwing around words like “customized learning.” That became “tailored learning” then “just-in time learning” then “blended learning” and finally “personalized learning.”

Each evolution of the term was one step closer to the goal of creating a deliverable designed to the specific needs of the individual learner. At first, we attempted to do it in the classroom and later with e-learning. With the just-in-time promise, we made the bold attempt to do it in the workflow. That’s when things fell apart.

Tailoring the classroom was one thing because it was still our domain and we controlled it. But once we wandered into the workflow it exposed an interesting challenge. Once the learner was allowed to decide if our deliverables were personalized, many struggled to see the relevance and find the time to participate.

It begs the question about who is actually in control of personalized learning. The answer runs counter to our DNA as learning professionals and what gets many of us up in the morning. Two striking things emerged:

  • Personalized learning rarely happens in a classroom.
  • Once we define a tailored course, it’s no longer personalized; it’s predetermined.

Personalized learning by definition is controlled and tailored by the learner. This is such a difficult thing for us to understand and build because the learning experience has always begun with our good work and design. It’s hard to make the shift to a more open architecture and one where we relinquish control to the learner.

Personalized learning forces us to shift from the distributor of learning to the aggregator of learning options, something we’ve been debating for the past few years. Concepts like user-generated content and content aggregation have been thrown around quite a bit with varying degrees of success. One of the fundamental reasons we’ve struggled is that we haven’t truly understood who owns what at what point in the process and an inability to let go soon enough, if we do at all.

We all know methodology trumps technology and drives the success of most new learning trends and approaches. Could it be that we’ve struggled with personalized learning because creating it involves a new approach to designing and building it?

This one may get me an inbox full of hate mail. Maybe traditional approaches such as ADDIE (Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) need to be replaced or overhauled in a significant way. In my own work I learned that if I’m going to build personalized learning, it has to begin from a workflow- and performance-first approach. Many of the learning technologies I’d used to design deliverables such as e-learning just didn’t map to a personalized learning deliverable.

This challenges us to consider a retooling of sorts on three levels. The first and probably most important is how we position ourselves with those whom we serve. This shift in control is a big deal and one that every stakeholder involved has to understand.

Second, we need to consider design methodologies that build from the workflow and performance back, thereby producing a solution that doesn’t lead with the classroom but rather workflow-embedded options.

And finally, we need to adopt a new set of tools like adaptive learning, social platforms and electronic performance support tools that support a personalized learning framework better than many of the tools we use.

It’s a brave new world that will challenge us on every level as we relinquish control enough to let the learner truly personalize their learning.

Bob Mosher is a senior partner and chief learning evangelist for APPLY Synergies, a strategic consulting firm. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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