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The Challenges of Integrating Learning 2.0

by Chris King

July 6, 2009

Feature

by Chris King

July 6, 2009

E-Learning design based on collaboration, informal learning, and blends of various modalities requires a great deal of thought and attention. This doesn't just happen, and it represents a major challenge to everyone involved in learning. Learning 2.0 is here to stay: it is driven by serious and relentless demands from the business environment. Here are some guidelines for managers, designers, instructors, and learners.

Part of Gartner’s Hype Cycle is the stage known as the Peak of Inflated Expectations, where a frenzy of publicity typically generates over-enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations. As the hype continues to build around Web 2.0 tools, and the impending (or ongoing, depending on who you ask) revolution of Learning 2.0, a note of caution is in order as we climb towards that Peak.

Do not underestimate the challenges of integrating Learning 2.0 for designers, instructors and learners. “Learning at the time and place of need” does not happen without careful planning and meticulous preparation. And guess who gets to do all of the painstaking preparation? That would be you, dear reader.

Learning 2.0 is an attitude

Learning 2.0 is a wide-open frontier with steadily shifting boundaries. For the purposes of this article, “Learning 2.0” means the tools and techniques of instructional design built upon Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, social bookmarking, wikis, Podcasts, and social networks. It can be informal learning facilitated by social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn. Or it can be delivery of information in short chunks to learners needing on-the-job support via the venerable blog and Podcast. Learning 2.0 can utilize the “wisdom of the crowd” to select from the best e-Learning courses or trusted sources of information. It can even mean employing a virtual classroom instead of a physical classroom. Regardless of the tools in use, the read/write/share approach that characterizes Web 2.0 is the critical component of Learning 2.0.

“Yes, yes,” you are saying. “Remember when Web-based training meant the end of the classroom? This seems like déjà vu all over again. When can I go back to making training like I used to?” There’s a good reason why you should take this seriously now. Learning 2.0 is nearing a tipping point, the moment when something reaches critical mass and is forever changed. For e-Learning, this point is a remarkable convergence of three trends: growing acknowledgment from business leaders that learning must happen continuously within our organizations (thank you, Peter Senge!); demand from a workforce increasingly familiar with Web 2.0 tools and concepts (even if they can’t articulate it as such); and a business climate vastly different from even the beginning of this decade, where speed is valued over complexity and flexibility over comprehensiveness.

New tools for new times

Thankfully, there are at least four good reasons Learning 2.0 is well suited for this new business reality. First, it allows us to design interventions in an environment where constant learning is vital for success. It is no longer enough to design a comprehensive learning event, if that event requires participants to unplug from their daily work. Not only is it nearly impossible to keep the learners’ attention for such an uninterrupted block of time, but the months needed to develop the course mean the content may be near the end of its shelf life before the course is implemented. This does not mean the end of the long-format training event – for example, it is still viable for leadership development or other corporate culture-building programs. But it does mean people cannot expect to simply attend training twice a year and still be successful. Learning has to happen continuously, on the job, and on a broad front.

Second, the Learning 2.0 path to the content is faster. How many times are your users frustrated because it takes them ten clicks through the LMS to drill down to the course module containing the particular business process they need to review? Learning 2.0 provides the tools to flatten this hierarchy and get the content closer to that moment of need. This alone could be one of the ways to sell Learning 2.0 to frustrated users with ever-shrinking attention spans. Combined with more sophisticated search engines, a short path to content is a clear advantage over the current state.

Third, technology is a multiplier, facilitating an extension of learning beyond the classroom or LMS. Barriers to technology are only temporary, so it is dangerous to assume that the status quo will persist. For example, the iPhone currently will not access your LMS because Apple’s iPhone operating system lacks support for any version of Java. Yet once that technological barrier is overcome, the floodgates will open for mobile learning. Will your content be ready? If a learner needs to brush up on negotiation techniques while en route to the client meeting, Web 2.0 technology can make that happen. When e-Learning is a platform and not an application, and when lightweight development models facilitate loose connectivity between systems, Learning 2.0 becomes possible.

Finally, Learning 2.0 is low-profile learning. There is not a huge amount of overhead or back-office support needed when your workers are creating their own learning interventions. Think that sounds far-fetched? Learning is happening every day within your organization, outside of your control. Consider this “based-on-a-true-story” event: A successful engagement manager from the client side of your organization contacts your boss because his team has created a training guide for implementing a proprietary process. He wants to distribute the training guide throughout the organization to ensure other engagement teams are implementing the process at the same level of quality. You and your boss review the guide and agree this is a valuable tool that the teams should use. How do you circulate it across the organization without becoming the delivery bottleneck? Learning 2.0 provides a self-service framework that becomes a trusted source (a learning department blog or wiki, for instance) for distributing this user-generated content.

So, here’s the situation at the moment: today’s business environment demands new rules for designing learning interventions, and the value proposition of Learning 2.0 fits this new environment well. The technology is tested, relatively stable, and most IT shops have already embraced the Web services backbone supporting Web 2.0 like DHTML, SOAP, AJAX and others. Organizations are becoming more dispersed, whether by choice or not, providing the business justification for technology that facilitates interactivity and connectedness amongst employees. Finally, satisfaction with (asynchronous) e-Learning continues to plummet, creating a demand for a different learning experience. The worst kept secret in our industry is that there is a vast amount of ineffective or just plain bad asynchronous e-Learning out there. Note here I say “different” and not “better” – it is up to us to capitalize on this opportunity to create better learning experiences! All of these things combine to create a moment of acceptance for this new set of tools. The door is open for Learning 2.0.

Are you convinced yet that you need to give this Learning 2.0 thing another look? I hope so. Let’s explore the perspectives of the three main participants: designer, instructor, and learner. There are many familiar features in Learning 2.0 for all three of these communities. But there are enough differences between old and new to make assumptions more treacherous than usual.

Instructional designer: new decisions

These are the challenges facing designers: unfamiliar design templates and more interactions that need attention during the design phase.

Learning 2.0 is so new there are few templates or rules of thumb yet for designers. It’s a big blank whiteboard right now. In order to bring some order to this intimidating openness, let’s apply a couple of frameworks. To start, we could adapt the situational leadership model Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard created in the 1960s. Hersey and Blanchard note that leaders should make a determination of the guidance needed by team members, based on the specific situation and people involved. Leaders should choose one of four styles, based on the amount of direction and support needed. In defining the leadership styles, Hersey and Blanchard also described the team members in terms of their developmental levels:

  • Level 1: Low Competence, High Commitment – These team members lack specific skills, but have the motivation and willingness to learn
  • Level 2: Some Competence, Low Commitment – Team members with some relevant skills, but they are uncomfortable in the situation and need some help and direction
  • Level 3: High Competence, Variable Commitment – Team members who are experienced and capable, but who may lack the confidence or motivation required
  • Level 4: High Competence, High Commitment – Team members who are experienced, comfortable with the skills, and motivated to accomplish the tasks at hand

Now, team member developmental levels can provide a framework for designers of Learning 2.0.  Designers can apply them to learners in today’s business world. They describe levels of interaction between learner and instructor or facilitator. For instance, a Level 1 learner is motivated to learn but lacks basic skills. This person thus needs some extra attention at the beginning of the course but should be relatively independent by the end of the course. The Level 1 learner will need help setting up a blog and understanding how to create a post, but will be a willing contributor after mastering those skills. A Level 2 or Level 3 learner will require extra attention throughout the course. These learners will need individual coaching to get their blog started, and constant reminders to ensure participation. On the other hand, instructors can take advantage of the Level 4 learners – they make excellent informal coaches and advocates for the technologies you are utilizing.

Another new design framework made possible by Learning 2.0 is the extension of learning beyond a single event. The technology allows an eight-hour course to be delivered in eight one-hour blocks once a week over two months. Blogs and wikis allow the discussion to continue in the time between class sessions. Podcasts and RSS deliver content to the learners in measured doses, keeping the information fresh in their minds. Although this requires more forethought from designers, the greater granularity allows for better retention rates and deeper learning.

In this granular world, classroom time is maintained or reduced but the number of interactions between learner and content increases. Learners have more contexts around the content, and more chances for cognitive rehearsal to reinforce understanding. Where learners are learning from each other as well as the experts, designers must include more opportunities both to check for understanding, and to provide remediation to prevent the introduction of errors. All of these events should be consciously designed to provide the most efficient learning. This new format is novel for now, but the learning curve is not much different than that of traditional instructional design.

Instructor: the Learning 2.0 classroom is familiar but different

While designers are busy constructing more chunks, instructors assume a modified role as well. The talking heads of our industry have been preparing us for this shift for years, however. Remember the tired phrase from countless training conferences, “Now you’re not the Sage on the Stage, but the Guide on the Side?” Web 2.0 tools finally make this transition possible. In fact, some instructors are already onto the next evolutionary step, the “Community Manager,” whose role is cultivating a thriving community around one or more areas of learning.

These are the challenges facing instructors: increased workloads, unfamiliar technology, loss of sensory feedback, and uncomfortable learners. For instructors there will be familiar rituals, but many changes in both their role and their responsibilities.

Let’s start with the similarities. An instructor is still responsible for the agenda, classroom setting, pacing delivery, setting and completing objectives, making rules, and refereeing interactions between learners. The instructor must still create a friendly social environment that encourages both learning and participation, and that provides a safe place to practice new skills. Instructors are still expected to know their subjects, to be ready to educate learners on the important points, and to be seen as a subject matter expert (in perception if not in fact). These expectations are well known to both instructors and learners accustomed to the physical classroom.

The challenges come in several forms. The workload for instructors is often higher for Learning 2.0 courses. Pre-course planning and preparation time is more important and more involved. The lack of well-established expectations for this new medium and framework presents another challenge. Learners, faced with strange surroundings and possibly unfamiliar technology, will look to the instructor to set the bar for online behavior both in synchronous sessions and in their timely and consistent participation in asynchronous interactions. Instructors must be prepared to troubleshoot technological issues. With more granular learning, instructors must allow more latitude for learners to chart their own learning path through the content.

In addition, new technologies must be integrated into the instructor’s toolkit. This may present the biggest challenge for a classroom instructor used to “winging it.” Well-adapted to relying on visual cues and sensory-fueled intuition to read the learners and subtly adjust the pace of delivery, a classroom instructor is in a virtual sensory deprivation chamber in the Learning 2.0 world. The instructor must be able to use the technology without conscious thought in order to read the “body language in the bandwidth,” as virtual classroom expert Jennifer Hofmann puts it. With learners relying on the instructor for cues on how to use the technology, an instructor must be self-assured and confident in the use of the various tools at your disposal. Any hesitation with the technology will damage credibility with those reluctant participants who are already looking for a reason why this won’t work.

Finally, the instructor must be a constant communicator. Communication is the glue holding Learning 2.0 together. An instructor must strike a delicate balance between dominating the direction of the group discussion and allowing enough freedom of the discussions so learners are open to participation. The instructor’s role in the classroom is changing, but Learning 2.0 still needs talented instructors to make it all work.

Learners: Adjusting expectations about learning events

Amid all of the subtle changes and additional work piled on the instructor, take a moment to sympathize with learners facing these challenges: unfamiliar technology, a new learning paradigm that pushes them out of their comfort zone, and management that fails to appreciate the benefits of Learning 2.0. At best you can assume a passing familiarity with the technological tools you are asking your learners to use.

There will be hesitation and uncertainty, even from younger learners. While they are familiar with some Web 2.0 tools, do not assume any kind of proficiency in an educational setting. Their former teachers and schools are also struggling with how to integrate these new tools. In addition to intimidating technology, we are asking learners to participate in a classroom very different from the one most familiar to them. Stepping out of that comfort zone is a clear breach of one of the basic adult learning principles.

Adults learn best in a safe, inclusive, comfortable environment that accommodates different levels of self-direction, and in which their opinions are respected, their learning has practical applications, and there are opportunities to share experiences. Learning 2.0 addresses many of these requirements, some better than a traditional classroom. Clearly, Learning 2.0 facilitates different levels of self-direction better than traditional classrooms. Supporting inclusiveness is fundamental to Web 2.0. And sharing experiences is straightforward and relatively easy in the multi-channel Learning 2.0 environment. But the unfamiliar Learning 2.0 experience can be threatening, and not just to the technology-adverse. Interacting with other learners via blog, for instance, will not be comfortable for learners unless they already have experience blogging.

These technical challenges are just half the battle. As we have discussed, Learning 2.0 is more than tools and technologies – it is as much about attitudes and about expectations, the latter being the very thing you need to set and regularly revisit with your learners. Be sure to discuss the expectations of the coursework early and often. Unfortunately, learners have been subjected to passive classes for so long they will need constant reminders to participate. Start slow, with carefully designed guided exercises to introduce the technology first and the information later. Remember Hersey-Blanchard's categories and scaffold accordingly! Learners must have at least a passing level of comfort with the tools and the expectations before they can begin to learn the concepts or skills. Build their comfort level, and before long they will be learning without realizing they are learning.

The other part of the adult learner equation is management. As much as we need to communicate the new expectations of Learning 2.0 to our learners, we must spend equal time educating managers on the expectations and benefits of this new learning style. Managers are accustomed to losing a day or two of productivity when sending their people to training. As formal course time is shrinking, managers need to expect the frequency of work interruptions to increase even though the duration is decreasing. Managers must appreciate the advantages of learners staying engaged with the topic longer. Workers may be back at their desks, but the learning continues. It is up to us to communicate this value to managers.

Here’s an example: a week after her training class, Manager X discovers Josephine Learner reading a blog entry from a fellow classmate about the technique discussed in class. Will Manager X be supportive? Or will Manager X instead feel Josephine Learner is wasting her time and should “get back to work”? What if Jo Learner was reading an e-mail with the same content? Would this be more acceptable? The effect is essentially the same, except the conversation can ensue in a public forum that is searchable and accessible.

We must educate the Manager X types about the benefits of continuous learning to the business as a whole, and we must help them understand that frequent practice of new skills is the key to changing behavior. Better yet, incorporate Learning 2.0 into your management development programs – let managers encounter the power of Learning 2.0 for themselves and create advocates for this new way of learning. The best way for managers to understand the power of Learning 2.0 is to experience it first-hand.

Putting it all in practice

Let’s tie all of this together with a real-world case illustrating how this shift in instructional paradigms plays out for all three groups. This is about a course designed to expose trainers to various Web 2.0 tools and encourage thinking about how to incorporate those tools into learning events.

Over nine weeks, learners meet once a week for one hour via teleconference. (It could be via Web conferencing tool, but let’s keep one foot in the 20th century for now.)

  • Prior to the start of each weekly session, the instructor writes an entry on his blog to focus discussion on the tool.
  • He then reads the participants’ blogs, leaving comments to encourage or correct as needed.
  • He also spends some time searching the Web for any changes or new information about the tool to be discussed in the upcoming session.

During the first part of each one-hour session, the class reviews the content covered in the previous session and discusses the previous week’s blog entries. The instructor invites participation from the Level 2 and Level 3 learners.

The second half of the session is devoted to the next tool. The instructor covers the basics, providing both a framework of knowledge and links to additional information to flesh out that framework.

  • The instructor provides detailed instruction on processes or procedures as needed.
  • The learners start to provide the context during the discussion.
  • The session ends with the standard assignment: actively use a Web 2.0 tool, blog about their experience with the tool, continue the context discussion in their blog, and post comments on at least two classmates’ blogs.

The blogs and comments continue the discussion beyond the teleconference, enriching the conversation.

  • The instructor is able to gauge participation and check for confusion with a review of the weekly blog posts.
  • With the learners’ managers aware of the format of the course, the learners are expected to spend some of their work day thinking about the new tools and how to apply them to their current projects or courses. This practice, along with the workplace context, is important to facilitate transfer to long-term memory.
  • The blog posts and comments provide cognitive rehearsal and reinforcement. The learners are opening themselves to a check for understanding and remediation, either from the instructor or from the Level 4 learners who are picking up on the new content quickly.

Conclusion

Learning 2.0 may be a fancy and nearly overused buzzword right now. But the maturity of the technologies, the evolving business environment, and the embracing of the read/write/share mind-set by users everywhere creates a moment of acceptance for this new instructional model. The Learning 2.0 value proposition is compelling: pervasive learning, a shorter path to the content, utilizing the multiplier effect of technology, and low-profile support needs. Designers, instructors and learners will all encounter novel experiences which will challenge them and stretch their abilities. But with some patience, a little bit of skill, and lots and lots of communication, Learning 2.0 offers genuine benefits to all of us.

References

Gartner’s Hype Cycle. Understanding Hype Cycles. Retrieved July 6, 2009 from http://www.gartner.com/pages/story.php.id.8795.s.8.jsp .

 

Gladwell, Malcolm. (2000) The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. London: Little, Brown and Company.


Hersey, Paul and Blanchard, Kenneth. (2007) Management of Organizational Behavior (9th Edition). New York: Prentice-Hall. (For a summary, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hersey-Blanchard_situational_theory )


Heuer, Barbara P. and King, Kathleen P. "Leading the Band: The Role of the Instructor in Online Learning for Educators," The Journal of Interactive Online Learning, Volume 3, Number 1, Summer 2004, http://www.ncolr.org/jiol/issues/PDF/3.1.5.pdf.


O’Reilly, Tim. (2005) “What is Web 2.0?” http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-is-Web-20.html.



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