Top Tools: Emerging Trends

Learning Technologies Magazine, October 2010

This is a two-part article that looks at the emerging trends in learning tools and the implications for Learning & Development. In this part, Jane Hart, a Social Business Consultant from the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, looks at the trends emerging from her annual Top 100 Tools for Learning list.

For the last 4 years I have been compiling a list of the Top 100 Tools for Learning generated from the Top 10 Tools contributions of learning professionals worldwide - both from education (teachers, academics, etc) as well as those involved in workplace learning (learning managers, instructional designers, trainers, consultants, analysts, etc).

Although it is often pointed out to me that this is a self-selecting bunch of contributors – ones who are perhaps more web savvy than a large number of workplace learning professionals – it generates a huge amount of interest each year. For instance the presentation I created about the 2009 Top 100 Tools list has had nearly 90,000 views in the 9 months it has been hosted on Slideshare. Hence, it is now considered a valuable longitudinal study.

At the time of writing this article (mid-September), this year’s list has not been finalised, but with well over 400 contributions so far, it is already possible to see those emerging as frontrunners in the list. The Top 10 tools on this year’s list, for instance, make interesting reading, and is currently as follows:

  1. Twitter – micro-updating tool
  2. YouTube – video hosting and sharing tool
  3. GoogleDocs – online collaboration tool
  4. Delicious – social bookmarking tool
  5. Slideshare – presentation hosting and sharing tool
  6. Google Reader – RSS feed reader
  7. WordPress – blogging tool
  8. Skype – instant messaging and VoIP call tool
  9. Moodle – course management system
  10. Facebook – social networking site

The full Top 100 Tools list is available HERE. When you take a look at it you will note that it also provides the rankings of each of the tools over the last 4 years. This offers some valuable insights into the trends that are emerging in terms of the popularity and use of learning tools and systems – particularly when read in conjunction with the individual contributions to the list, which often provide reasons for tool choices. So what trends are we seeing this year? Here are four key trends.

1 – The increasing consumerization of IT

“Consumerization of IT” is the term applied to the use of users’ own software tools and devices to address their own needs in organisations. Over the last 4 years there has been a steady increase in the use of consumer tools for learning, as the majority of the tools on the list demonstrate. For instance, very few LMSs have appeared on the Top 100 lists – in fact, the only one to have shown a regular and steady position is Moodle. There are many reasons for the decreasing use of enterprise systems: they often do not have the functionality that is required by users and are often seen as unwieldy and not very user friendly, and because it is very easy for individuals to set up accounts on online tools (the vast majority of which are free) and then use them with others, a lot of “learning activity” is now taking place outside the organisational firewall – “in the cloud”. Personal devices like iPods, iPhones and iPads are also on the increase as “learning devices”, as it is also much easier to access the online tools on these devices rather than on enterprise PCs, which are often configured not to allow

users to install their own software or else because access to certain online tools is actually banned in the organisation.

2 – Learning, working and personal tools are merging

This increase in consumerization of IT is resulting in the merging of tools being used for personal as well as for learning and working purposes. Previous comments about the Top 100 Tools list have been that the tools appearing on the list are not “dedicated” learning tools ; and this would be fair comment again this year. However, this should be seen as a strength rather than a weakness. In addition to the reasons given above why these tools have become so popular, another is that many learning professionals prefer to exploit the tools that they and their learners are using on a daily basis (e.g. Facebook and Twitter) as they often feel it is more appropriate to take the learning to the learners, rather than force the learners to come to the learning – all too often hosted on unpopular, and as I have stated earlier, not very user-friendly enterprise systems. Many of the tools on the Top 100 Tools list , which started life as personal tools are now evolving into valuable working and learning tools.

3- Social tools predominate

The majority of the tools on the Top 100 list are also very “social” tools, that is tools that support the co-creation of content, as well as the connection, communication and collaboration of individuals, and the sharing of resources, ideas and experiences. The popularity of pure content-creation and delivery tools appears to be on the decline as social learning becomes a key theme within education and workplace learning. Learning professionals are recognising the huge value of encouraging participation and interaction of learners in training, rather than focusing on the delivery of passive (albeit highly content-rich) online courses – both in terms of the learning outcomes as well as in terms of the cost and effort involved in creating programmes.

4 – Personal (informal) learning is under the individual’s control

With the easy availability of tools, as we have seen above, people are now “doing their own thing”. This is not just the case for those who are designing and/or delivering training or education for formal learners, but also by many to address their own learning and performance needs. There is a huge amount of evidence that shows that individuals (and teams) are using these tools for their own personal, informal learning. Instead of going to the LMS to find answers to their questions or solve problems, they are using tools like Google, Wikipedia or YouTube, or simply posting questions to their networks on Twitter or Facebook in order to get immediate, up-to-date and relevant answers. It is interesting to note that the success of their “learning” is measured in how well it helps them to address the learning or performance issue in hand, not in course completion data in the LMS. In very many cases, individuals are therefore now directing and managing their own learning primarily though the use of these new tools

So what do these four trends show?

They show that increasingly, “learning” – if we use the term in the broadest sense possible, i.e. one that includes both formal and informal learning – is now by-passing the traditional L&D function, and in doing so is beginning to have a fundamental impact on the state and shape of workplace learning today

What does this then mean for Learning & Development departments and professionals?

It means a substantial shift in their role and activities, and in the second part of this article I take a closer look at the implications for L&D, and in particular how the function will need to change to ensure it doesn’t risk irrelevance in the organisation.