How the Web is changing how we learn – and what it means for today’s L&D

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 09.07.18Article written for the 50th edition of the Inside Learning Technologies magazine, October 2014

For the last 8 years I have been compiling a list of the Top 100 Tools for Learning_ from the contributions of learning professionals worldwide – both from education as well as those involved in workplace learning. It clearly shows that a growing number of individuals are using the Web to learn in many different ways – either out of personal interest or to meet a professional need or solve a performance problem. For instance

  • They are accessing a wide variety of instructional and informational resources – not just MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) but videos, podcasts, and other resources
  • They are building a professional network of trusted colleagues – both inside and outside their organization – with whom they connect on a regularly basis to exchange ideas, resources, and links and from whom they learn on a continuous basis – sometimes without realizing it. Many in fact refer to their network as their Personal Learning Network (or PLN)
  • They are keeping up to date with what’s happening in their industry and profession in a wide range of other ways including reading blogs and web feeds, as well and through curated online magazines.

In fact, the way that many people learn now is characterized by a range of features that differ substantially from traditional training approaches.

It is social: Many people are learning – not simply with or alongside others but from the shared experiences and ideas of others – in the professional learning networks of trusted connections that each of them has individually built. Traditional learning, on the other hand, is largely based on learning from content that has been authoritatively designed, developed and delivered by “experts”.

It is continuous: Many people are benefiting from a constant drip-feed or flow of information or resources, or conversations with colleagues, all of which over time builds up into a large amount of knowledge and shared experiences. Whereas of course, most training is event-based, and “packaged up” with definitive start and end points.

It happens in short bursts: People are making use of short, bite-sized, “snackable” pieces of content – both instructional and informational (that perhaps take 15-20 minutes to consume) – as well as have brief interactions with others. They tend to avoid long, drawn out resources that take time to work through, and yet of course this is how most training/e-learning is designed and delivered – in the form of long training events or huge online courses.

It happens on demand: When faced with a learning or performance problem, people look for quick and easy solutions – by searching themselves for an answer on the Web, or else asking their PLN to recommend a resource.

  1. They don’t want to take a course to “study” the problem; they just want to solve it and get on with their work.
  2. They don’t need to take a test to know whether they have understood the solution, they know if they have been successful because they will have solved their problem.
  3. They don’t need to remember the content – just where to find the resource again should they need it.

It is autonomous: People are in total control of what they do, the relationships they build, and how much time they spend time on any activity – based on what value it brings them and to what extent it meets their interest or need. Even when participating in MOOCs they drop in and out as suits them. Once again, this is very different from the traditional approach to face-to-face or online training which is instructor-led or  instructionally designed, highly prescriptive, and based largely on spoon-feeding content  to learners, who have very little autonomy to diverge from the path.  Autonomy is a powerful motivator as Dan Pink has shown in Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. In fact, he goes as far as to say  “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” 

It is often serendipitous: Although some learning is planned, people are also learning just by hanging out in social networks, gradually assimilating new ideas and experiences – frequently without even realising it.

It appears that many people now prefer to work and learn in these new ways, and no longer want to sit in a classroom or work through long online courses and click the next button. In fact they become quite angry when they are required to do so, as Nick Shackleton Jones points out. Indeed the 2014 results of my Learning in the Workplace Survey show_that, just as for the previous two years, company training and e-learning is the lowest rated way to learn at work, whereas knowledge sharing within teams, personal and professional networking, and searching the Web are the most valued ways to learn at work.

Learning in the workplace is no longer all about the “authoritative voice” – that is experts telling employees what they need to know, and training them in the skills they need to do their jobs. Today’s workers learn as much, if not more

  • from the shared workplace experiences of others – as well as from their own experiences
  • in serendipitous, aha moments that can bring enormous insight into problems and issues
  • from having quick and easy access to content and/or people when they need to solve a problem
  • from a continuous stream of new ideas and thinking from other colleagues, practitioners, experts, thought leaders etc – both inside and outside the organisation

In consequence with easy access to a wide range of online tools, services and resources, individuals and teams are often bypassing L&D departments to address their own learning and performance problems. Often this takes place well under the radar of IT – particular where access to public social media sites is blocked in organizations that have yet to recognize the value of the Social Web.

So what does this all mean for today’s Learning & Development departments? Well it is not just a matter of creating better training or e-learning, but extending their role and encouraging and supporting the many new ways that people are learning.  In particular it means helping individuals acquire the new skills to make the most of their time on the Web, so that they can bring fresh ideas and thinking into their work teams and groups[v].  These new learning skills include how and where to build and grow their personal learning networks, how to locate appropriate and valid resources, how to manage information overload, how to record and evidence their learning, and how to “work out loud” and share what they find and learn with their team.

There are already a number of workplace learning practitioners who live and breathe this new approach to learning. They walk the talk, and demonstrate the value of different ways of learning for themselves, and in their organisations they are leading the change for a new learning culture and mindset that views learning in the modern workplace as much broader than just training.

Is your team ready to begin the move beyond e-learning towards supporting new ways of learning in the modern workplace?  It starts with the first step.