Game changers for learning

In the final article of a series on the changing face of L&D, Nigel Paine looks at technology

What’s going on? CIOs running to catch up. Thousands of people bringing their own devices into work and demanding that they are plugged in to the corporate networks. People expecting to switch seamlessly from their desktop computer, to their laptop computer, to their tablet device, and to their smartphone and back again with no loss of data and complete integrity and overlap between the software running those systems and devices.
Add in a world where hundreds of thousands of apps can be purchased for less than £1, and even our tried and tested Microsoft Office now sits in the cloud as Office 365 and nothing much works without ubiquitous connectivity. We are seeing a new universe in which all the laws of IT regulation and management are being turned upside down. It affects every single aspect of our working life. There is no reason why learning and development should escape the consequences.
The shift
We’re seeing a number of powerful movements. Nicholas Negroponte in his seminal book Being Digital surmised that in the future, better use of communications technologies will mean everything that goes through the air will move to wires and everything that is on wires will move through the air1. This is now known as the Negroponte Switch and it has come spectacularly true in the years since the 1995 prediction. Our beloved ethernet is almost obsolete because the internet increasingly comes through the air. Our TV aerials are obsolete as most of our television increasingly comes down a cable.
There are other switches too: huge ‘do it all’, complex software is being replaced by small-scale apps that plug into each other to create unique complex software ecosystems that are neither controlled by Microsoft, Oracle or anyone else.
The mobile operating system, once seen as an irrelevant inconvenience in the eyes of much corporate IT, is now becoming as important as any other OS. And links between desktop operating systems and mobile operating systems are not just desirable but absolutely essential and increasingly ingrained. And even the humble web browser has been transformed by Google into an operating system in its own right.
Technology is personalising. Everybody’s smartphone is unique because the configuration of apps is unique. Increasingly, people at work want learning that is devised for them, not for 100,000 people: one size is starting to fit one.
Technology is also learning about us. The more we use something, the more it attempts to understand and anticipate what we need in order to make our life easier and more focused.
Current trends and who is using them
The first trend is around games, gamification and simulation. Using gaming techniques to encourage participation and challenge is nothing new. Anyone who has an airline frequent flyer card is aware of the pressure to climb through the various levels on offer and accrue higher and higher status as a result.  Frequent flyer programmes gamify the idea of flying. Sticking with one airline, or one airline group is massively seductive once you commit. No sooner have you gained a particular tier level, or a specific number of tier points, than all scores are wiped and you have to start all over again to retain that tier. Exactly the same logic is applied to learning where leader boards, expert status and lots more can await the 
high-performing individual.
Increasingly, simulation is being used to engage the learner by presenting situations that the learner has to deal with in real time. This used to be done expensively in a simultaneous face-to-face environment. Sophisticated software allows simulations to be built and delivered online. This allows infinite practise for the learner and scripted simulations can be rolled out again and again or reused with modified scenarios.
We know from neuroscience (see the Royal Society pamphlet Brain Waves 22) that the environment is an important contributor to successful learning. Dark basement rooms with bland decorations and no atmosphere or natural light are shockingly easy places to build demotivation. If we go for more interesting physical environments, it is no less important to go for more interesting online environments. Many of the current generation of LMSs hardly play lip service to the environment user experience. Those organisations that have built a compelling, attractive and consistent learning environment get enhanced learning, increased willingness to linger in the environment, and more effective outcomes. It is much harder to build engagement in a boring environment, and therefore the focus should be not only on learning materials but where and how it is located to make it work effectively. There are easy wins for those organisations who grasp this quickly and react accordingly. 
There are many interesting learning apps that are designed to both stand alone or integrate into corporate learning environments. If you look at software like ApprenNet, which allows the learner to compare his or her performance against experts online, or NoddlePod, which builds sophisticated learning repositories in order that participants on a particular course can share resources, they work beautifully on their own.They are also designed to integrate with a whole range of corporate learning environments, so they do what they do very well, and leave other functionality to other software packages. Connectivity is of the essence and is built in at design level rather than as an afterthought.
Rapid development tools are also becoming more sophisticated. Raptivity has brought out a new package which allows the provider to manipulate video material, annotate it and use it in any number of other learning packages. There are tools that allow  developers to build in media elements that can be served from the cloud, or build simple animation and, as mentioned above, simple simulations. If you want to create screens that slowly build up with an imaginary hand doing a drawing or writing, that’s possible too, and if you want to build in tests and refresher material that is also very simple to do. You select the appropriate tools ranging from simple and inexpensive, to the highly sophisticated and they all work together in a seamless user experience. Never before has the provider been given so much choice. It is quite possible to tailor the tools to the needs of the organisation or even the learner. 
Big learning data is here. Last month’s article in Training Journal discussed how it was being used now and offered some snapshots into the future. It is clear that gathering more data outside the limited data gathering of an LMS delivers massive insights that will be used to not just improve learning but improve the organisation as a whole.
What do we do now?
There is enough in these pages to alarm any reader! However, there should be enough to inspire and excite as well. We are going through a new era of technology that has been enhanced by the increasing sophistication the internet, increasing power of processors, innovation at the device level and the availability of mass storage in the cloud at a reasonable price. There are now hundreds of gigabytes available for every single person on the planet, and as the internet of things grows, a large number of objects will talk to one another. This shift in technology is markedly different from previous shifts and could be described as a genuine game changer. 
Here are a number of hints and tips to help you make sense of all of this. My first recommendation is focus! Technology is endlessly fascinating but contains more rabbit holes than anything else. Pick an element that will enhance what you do and where you can articulate a specific need, then do your research carefully. You need scouts!  Scouts are friends and colleagues who will send you reviews, articles or even connect you with users. They scan the environment, help you pick what is most relevant and stop you getting lost in the massive amount of data and comment around any new technology. 
Technology choice should be a team effort. Encourage members of your team to take an interest in a specific technology area and get to know about it in more depth. Allow them time to talk, read and maybe even visit companies who have already implemented these technologies. Their job is not to hoard this knowledge but share it so that the team itself becomes more expert. If you project forward, you will have far better conversations around the use of learning technologies than you do now. Share out the exploration challenges and let the whole team build its expertise.
Experiment! Have a small budget and a small space on- or off-line to test out technologies. Never believe the hype. What seems to work well in one organisation can fail spectacularly in the next, and indeed vice versa. You should avoid expensive and high-profile failures by experimenting. Experiments involve real users and allow you to test out the usage in as realistic an environment as possible. You never roll anything out until you are certain it is going to work.
Get in the habit of asking people what technologies powered an initiative that you admire. We often get sucked into the learning process and forget about the scaffolding. That habit will make you aware of how technology is evolving, and when the same names keep cropping up, you know there is something worth investigating.
Avoid the need to be a ‘me too’ organisation. In other words, just because something looks good and appears to be compelling does not mean you have to implement it. Choose carefully where you make your investments of time and money. Going after shiny, new objects is always a huge mistake. And when it is obviously not working, fail fast and get out quickly.
Write in some conspicuous place the following two words: ‘evidence based’. Check your research and gather data yourself so that you are working out the best implementations and not simply getting caught up in the ‘everybody loves this’ syndrome. This will trip you up pretty quickly. That approach also allows everyone else’s prejudices to come into play. When you are actually talking evidence, disagreement has to be matched by other evidence not opinion. Particularly in the area of technology, the more evidence the better, and assemble your evidence carefully before you demand large investments and major roll-outs.
It is inconceivable that any learning and development operation in any company, large or small, will survive with only minimal use of technology. Even the biggest and richest companies are moving more and more of their learning operation online. If big prestigious universities like Harvard and Stanford can see the value of online learning and maintain standards as well as issue certification, it is hard to see why any organisation wants to do it any other way. There are so many proven models and exceptional technologies around at the moment that offer so many compelling options that it is hard not to feel that this is the age of learning technology. Don’t be a dinosaur. This stuff is fun, engaging and moves with the flow of the changing workplace and the expectations of the workforce. 


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