Dispatch from the Digital Frontier: The Aughts, the Ought-Nots, and the Ought-Oh's

It may have been the “Decade from Hell,” as TIME Magazine declared the twenty-aughts. Still, there were some very important advances in the world of technology that will have profound effects on how and where learning is done and on the learning business in the next decade. Following is my report on the innovations of the aughts that will have the greatest impact on the e-Learning business in the twenty-teens. Plus, a concern that overrides everything else.

“To Infinity, and Beyond…”

Database technology underlies much of the exciting development work of the last decade. Google Search engine, Google ads, and Google Analytics are all possible because of sophisticated database algorithms. So, too, the many flavors of enterprise applications, including our own LMS/LCMS. And don’t forget multiplayer Web-based videogames – they couldn’t exist without database technology.

In fact, one of the database technologies that e-Learning professionals are likely to build on is the way videogames use predictive analytics techniques to advance players through a game. Pragmatic Solutions (www.pr-sol.com) provides the back-end technologies to America’s Army 3 (http://bit.ly/4oKaE); a number of the game’s new missions use Pragmatic’s predictive analytics engine to assign troops to new tasks based on their previous in-game performance. Is there a predictive LMS in our future?

Back to Google: For several years, a question that begins with “What is…?” has frequently been met with the answer, “Google it.” This year, however, things got both more and less complicated as the world of search took a giant leap forward. Microsoft and an Ohio-based company called Wolfram Research each released search tools that purport to answer other of life’s questions (really – enter “the meaning of life” in the Wolfram search field at http://www.wolframalpha.com/. You’ll see.)

Microsoft’s Bing (www.bing.com) takes a more commercial orientation, and is built to assist users in connecting with products and services. The eponymous Wolfram|Alpha (www.wolframalpha.com) is billed as a computational engine that gives users answers to questions about quantity (e.g., number of unemployed teachers in Ohio 2000-2009) and other numeric relationships of data (e.g., carbon footprint driving 536 miles at 32mpg).

Database technology keeps making it easier for people to find the information they want, to organize information in a way that is most useful at the moment, and to deeply mine information for new interpretations and meanings. “DIY Learning,” as I like to call it, is just around the bend.

One of the reasons DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Learning is going to take off is that the social networking phenomenon has been so big. Nothing since the demolition of the Berlin Wall has brought people in the world together in such profound ways. Social networking links colleagues together from around the world, enables students to find teachers and tutors of arcane subject matter, and facilitates small donations to goat breeders in Namibia.

Social networking systems are to people what search engines are to data. By connecting ourselves to others, we amplify our own value and meaning. And, as a result, we gain a sense of our own abilities – to find the help we need through our network, if nothing else. In other words, we are starting to learn (again) how to learn on our own.

A natural by-product of people coming together, as in the virtual places that social networking sites are, is play (Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, English edition 1950). And so, from social networking has come social gaming. If Zynga’s (www.zynga.com) Mafia Wars and Farmville have taught us anything, it’s that a good incentive scheme matched with a clever storyline are the ticket to repeat users. E-Learning designers are beginning to gravitate to this message, so expect to see a significant uptake in online game-based learning.

Sibling technology to social gaming and multiplayer online games is virtual world technology. A number of online virtual worlds launched during the aughts, but most turned out to be ought-nots. Breakouts include World of Warcraft (in the game space), Second Life (in higher ed/corporate university), Habbo Hotel (social site for teens), and Webkinz (social site for children). For the most part, however, virtual world technology continues to seek its niche.

And in our ever-more-complex and demanding lives, how are users managing to engage with all these culturally disruptive innovations of recent years? This past summer, Apple (www.apple.com) wowed us with the most enticing upgrade yet of its iPhone franchise: the iPhone 3GS with iPhone OS 3. Not only does it have all the things we expect from a smartphone (e.g., wireless 3G telephony, on-board browser for on-demand, high-speed internet connectivity, full suite of pre-loaded applications to enhance productivity, a video camera), but Apple has introduced a host of new capabilities in this upgrade that are significant to learning product designers:

  • Multi-touch gesture computing and optional voice activation (enables accessibility)
  • Enough memory and processing power to move data between applications and enable voice interaction simultaneously
  • Accelerometer (adds motion as an input mode)
  • GPS (enables location-based applications and interactions)

Each of these capabilities adds a new dimension to the ways a user can interact with the device. In the aggregate, the iPhone 3GS’s hardware and software enable users to use text, voice, gestures/touch, and motion commands to:

  • locate digital content of any format available on the public Internet
  • consume digital content of any format
  • dynamically interact with digital content
  • create, publish, and send digital content of any format
  • communicate with others in any digital format (except, for now, video-chat)
  • navigate from one location to another

The device goes anywhere except underwater, and connects anywhere that AT&T and its partners provide a signal.

But Apple hasn’t just left it at the iPhone. Rather, they’ve created an entire commercial ecosystem to support the device and its users. By now, everyone is familiar with the phrase, “There’s an app for that,” meaning an iPhone app available through the app store department of Apple’s iTunes. Among the 100,000+ titles in the app store are apps for every conceivable purpose. These include learning, certification, and productivity tools on a range of topics. (Look for the upcoming launch of my new blog “app.titude” for iPhone learning app news and reviews.)

One of the reasons the app store has taken off is that Apple has released the SDK for the iPhone. It’s free to download, complete with documentation. In addition, compatible development tools and services are quickly becoming available for those who prefer to script and author rather than code. As more corporate IT departments move to support the iPhone, e-Learning developers will be increasingly drawn to the iPhone as a powerful delivery platform for training and support, whether for commercial or proprietary deployments.

Of course, one of the things that will attract e-Learning developers to the iPhone is the ease with which users can create their own content in response to learning or productivity needs. All this new content (see the Guild’s upcoming report on User-Generated Content) will need to find a home, and be organized and tagged for the benefit of other users. Which brings us back full-circle to the role of database technologies in our future…

… But proceed with caution

Social networking, and the ever-more-popular 140-character status updates, has eroded personal barriers and privacy at the same time that they have promoted a sense of large-scale community and togetherness. It is not uncommon for my Facebook Wall to be filled with photo updates (many having been taken with cameras that do geo-coding and processed with photo software that uses face recognition) and blurbs about the lives of friends and family. LinkedIn users publish upcoming travel plans and every possible contact option. Twitterers tweet about where, what, and with whom they are eating. We are inviting, in the most naïve ways, the world to enter our lives in intimate detail.

At some point, this openness will turn into disaster. The Craigslist Killer and the Facebook Mom are the tip of the iceberg in the evil world of nefarious intent. Technology, the innocent and neutral facilitator of life’s activities, will become the unwitting accomplice in a heinous scheme.

Learning designers must be aware of this potential, using every opportunity to teach “Safe Tech” among users. While we are unlikely to prevent a significant security breach, we can certainly encourage the behaviors and practices that minimize personal security risks.

Here’s wishing you and yours a joyful holiday season and a Happy New Year! May the new decade bring peace and prosperity to all.

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