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.