Key needs from future learning technologies

Rebecca Ellis, Ex Director, Allision, PLC

Rebecca Ellis, Ex Director, Allision, PLC

In the early 2000s, I implemented my first learning management system (LMS). I was leading learning at a healthcare company that was concerned about tracking compliance and regulatory-related learning. The system was cumbersome to administer and a difficult user interface for our employees to navigate. Still, we figured out how to leverage the system for external customers and were among that LMS vendor’s first clients to conduct e-commerce on their platform. It felt quite revolutionary, yet clunky.

Nearly 20 years later, LMS systems are still quite clunky and, in my opinion, even many of the leading vendors struggle to have a more intuitive design for learners and administrators. This is complicated by the recent introduction of additional learning ecosystem elements like learning record stores, xAPI, content management systems, badge platforms, etc. Perhaps one could argue that learning technologies have evolved over the last two decades, but I would suggest that we aren’t really any better at helping people quickly acquire knowledge through a learning ecosystem, although we may be better able to track what people are seeking knowledge on. Google and YouTube are still my first stops to remember how to do a pivot table in Excel. I bet it’s the same for you, for similar tasks. And, yes, at times I still miss Mr. Clippy.

Building capability in real time

With the introduction of more sophisticated performance support tools like virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, I believe we are at an interesting pivot point in this market, where LMS vendors will figure this out or they won’t survive. Mostly, I think they need to solve for how to be more responsive and to predict learning needs with proactive learning nuggets being delivered in realtime versus waiting for someone to reactively seek information, stopping the work at hand to seek out the answer.

Gary Wise has a strong point of view on the need to deliver and speed up learning at the point of work. “What we see downstream and post-training is a dynamic workplace where moments of need are as discreet as the knowledge workers who confront them. I’ve coined the phrase – Point-of-Work – and it is the source of diverse needs for both performance agility and responsiveness to the dynamics and urgency of workflow challenges.” Gary’s right and we all have some work to do to deliver on this.

In a 2015 study, 91% of L&D practitioners wanted technologies that responded faster to changing business conditions. Gamification technologies, in particular, are helping organizations make some gains. In 2011, a crowd-sourcing platform called Foldit used learning gamification to help 40,000 HIV researchers complete a project that had been ongoing for the last 15 years. e-Learning design tools are also becoming more DIY-friendly, allowing more employees to create modules and micro-learning, taking some of the load off instructional designers, where appropriate, and allowing quick delivery of learning.

Making Learning more Social

We have known for many years that social learning is a critical aspect of spreading knowledge and shared understanding. Social learners know how to leverage the experts around them, physically or virtually, to gain knowledge on demand, when needed. This combats the issues with knowledge retention, as we know little is remembered after a participant attends a formal learning event.

"With the introduction of more sophisticated performance support tools like virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, I believe we are at an interesting pivot point in this market, where LMS vendors will figure this out or they won’t survive"

In the late 2000s, I was at an organization that built a system to sit on top of the LMS to provide a more social aspect to learning. This system worked a lot like Amazon’s recommended book feature today. Learners were able to rate their satisfaction with a learning asset via a star rating system. The system also would suggest new learning modules based on the content the learner had interacted with. It was a “bleeding edge” solution that required internal development, as the market hasn’t caught up.

And, the market is still catching up. As Workday introduced its own integrated LMS, social learning was at the core. Most LMS solutions have had collaboration portals and other social functions for many years, but I think most are just figuring out how to get momentum and genuinely embed it with learning to drive adoption.

Increasing focus on the learner experience

I believe a commitment to be more learner-centric is critical today, as employee expectations and digital tools are evolving. Some of the more recent LMS industry disruptors are winning based on this idea. Lessonly is one such example. They have intentionally stripped out some base functionality you would find in most LMS solutions to focus more narrowly on the functionality that leads to strong learner experience.

Understanding this important, consumer-based shift, you might not be surprised to learn that a new role has emerged in corporate learning, focused on the learner experience. Learning experience designers help create and execute strategies to make the best of an employee learning journey; much like a customer experience designer would borrow from the same set of design thinking tools, like personas and journey maps. When writing this article, as an example, I found learning designer jobs posted for Amazon and IBM. User interface (UX) design is a critical competence in these roles, to complement instructional design skills and experience.

Learning conferences now often dedicate sessions to this new capability. Universities are starting to offer certificate programs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are graduate degrees in the future. I’m personally a bit torn about it. If LMS vendors and instructional designers were providing solutions that inherently enabled solid learner experiences, I don’t think we would need to dedicate internal talent to it. Still, Kirkpatrick Partners continue to remind us that learner satisfaction is at the base of gaining knowledge and skills that lead to results. So, I will continue to support that this is a critical capability within a learning organization, just as understanding customer needs is critical to any organization providing a product or service.

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