Riding the new technology wave

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Written by Training Journal on 1 September 2012 in Interviews

Technology expert Steve Wheeler talks to TJ about its power to support learning in the workplace

Mobile devices can be "incredibly powerful" in the workplace and more employers need to accept their potential for supporting learning.

They are part of a wave of new technology that's rolling into organisations and that could, in a few short years, consign the old, familiar ways of supporting learning to the deep. In their place will come devices that respond to people's natural gestures, or that instantly provide information about the world around you, or that enable employees to work more collaboratively.

And L&D professionals must be able to model best practice: charting a safe passage through these unfamiliar waters for organisations and their employees until they reach the calm waters of digital fluency.

That's the message from Steve Wheeler (pictured below), associate professor of learning technologies at the University of Plymouth. He predicts that, over the next few years, the workplace will experience an influx of technology that will enable people to learn in new ways.

"Having mobile devices in the workplace is an incredibly powerful idea. Anyone who bans employees from using them has to really think again," he tells TJ. "It' s such an empowering set of tools. It's great for a number of things. It gives you a personalised learning experience, for example: any handheld device, whether it's a voting device or a smartphone or a games console, will allow you to control and personalise the tools you're using.

"If managers take these tools away or refuse to allow employees to use them, I think employees are going to use them for other reasons [than learning or other tasks beneficial to the organisation]. We should be allowing employees to use them more in the workplace to gain more knowledge about what they are doing or to give them information."

Wheeler believes the rise of the mobile device is part of the increasing socialisation of learning, moving away from employees being passive receivers of information to them actively generating, sharing, evaluating and using it. Social learning is also the true definition, for him, of 'flipped learning' - he laughingly rejects the idea that flipped learning is simply a trainer giving participants some work to do before the course or workshop starts.

"Flipping the classroom, for me, is when you flip the rules," he explains. "The teacher becomes the learner and the learner becomes the teacher.

"You can do it in different ways. I establish a contract with my students at the start of a course that we will learn together. I don't set myself up as being the font of all knowledge - there are times when my students teach me things. I'm an IT specialist but I don't pretend to know everything, because I don't."

He invites his students to teach in his place if they bring new knowledge to his classes. "You learn more if you have to teach something. You're standing up in front of a group of people who will question you. You have to think more deeply about it and you become much more critically engaged with the content," he says.

"Social learning is that: working together as a team. There is a lot more dialogue and a lot less structure - one has to give way to another."

Wheeler will be talking about new and emerging technologies and methods, and how they can be used to create authentic learning, in his keynote speech at next month's World of Learning conference. He will be discussing:

  • social media for collaborative learning
  • mobile devices and 'on-the-move' learning
  • open learning, open content and Creative Commons
  • augmented and mixed reality learning
  • natural gesture devices.

At the moment we are at the 'touch' stage of natural gesturing - devices such as iPads and smartphones respond to, and interpret, actions such as swiping, pinching and poking - but Wheeler predicts that "non-touch" devices such as Microsoft's Xbox 360 Kinect games console, which enables users to play computer games without using a controller, will soon make their way into the corporate learning arena.

"With non-touch systems you're using your whole body to interact with computers," he says, describing a "Minority Report-style" scenario in which people use "big screens" similar to the 3D, multi-touch interfaces used by Tom Cruise's character, Pre-Crime captain John Anderton.

In the film, directed by Steven Spielberg, Anderton heads up a police unit that stops murders before they happen, based on visions of the future provided by a group of people with precognitive abilities. According to Wikipedia, the screens he is depicted using - a "spatial operating environment" - were designed by the film's science and technology adviser, John Underkoffler, and came out of a "think tank summit" of experts, held by Spielberg before the film went into production to try to create a plausible version of the future (the film is set in 2054).

And Spielberg seems to have possessed uncannily precognitive powers himself in that respect - as Wheeler demonstrates, the film has, since its release a decade ago, become almost a byword for the technological and social developments that have happened since 2002. Everything from cloud computing, the iPhone and retina scanners to racial profiling and increasing surveillance seem to have the Minority Report soubriquet attached.

The technological developments predicted by Spielberg and his team and that have subsequently been realised are taking L&D in a new, more kinaesthetic direction. They also mean that the 'e' of e-learning no longer just stands for 'electronic' - Wheeler says the time has come to establish a new definition of that very important letter that encompasses all the new ways of delivering learning that do not necessarily have a trainer in a starring role.

It was a debate that had been going on for some time within higher education and it would be "interesting" to bring it into workplace L&D, where its implications were "enormous".

Says Wheeler: "At the moment we have a problem with the way interfaces are designed. We still have opaque technology that requires you to think a lot, and hard, about what you're doing. This means you're not thinking so much about the learning itself.

"We're trying to take it beyond the stage where you have to think about how you're using the device to just thinking about the learning. Effectively the device disappears and you have transparent learning."

Focusing more on kinaesthetic types of learning is simultaneously a step forward - Wheeler identifies it as a second implication of these advances in technology - and a nod to the constructionist approach to learning that was developed in the Fifties and Sixties.

Another visit to Wikipedia reveals that constructionist learning was inspired by the constructivist theory that "individual learners construct mental models to understand the world around them" and goes on to posit that people learn best when they are "also active in making tangible objects in the real world" .

South African mathematician and scientist Seymour Papert developed it and defined it as follows: "From constructivist theories of psychology, we take a view of learning as a reconstruction, rather than as a transmission, of knowledge. Then we extend the idea of manipulative materials to the idea that learning is most effective when part of an activity the learner experiences as constructing a meaningful product."

Wheeler says: "There is evidence that we learn a lot more by doing rather than just thinking.

"This new technology is more integrative. There are going to be better types of learning appearing [as a result of using it]."

He predicts that, within the next one to three years, touch-operated devices such as iPads will become "fairly common" as learning platforms within organisations. A couple of years after that, non-touch devices will make their entrance.

This will mean changes in the way learning is designed and delivered. He also predicts a battle between those L&D professionals who are in the vanguard of those changes and those still hanging on to the conservative, traditional ways of delivering learning - those "still teaching people in rows". People will resist, he warns, and this will result in an uneven application of new technologies in learning: "In some cases, they will radically alter the ways people learn. In other cases, they won't. It will be patchy."

Schools and other educational institutions were leading the way, buying iPads for students to use or allowing pupils to bring their own devices into class, and producing a new generation of digitally-literate people ready, willing and able to use cutting-edge technology in the workplace.

Says Wheeler: "Future innovations will come from schools and large companies, which are also starting to see the benefits of things like BYOD. I think they can learn from each other and they need to start talking together. I'm not sure how they would do it, but they need to have that dialogue very soon. Schools need to listen to what business wants and businesses have got to listen to what schools are doing, so that there is a small transition for people from school to work."

The focus was changing from 'skills' to 'literacies': "A skill will allow you to do something and develop your expertise in it. Literacy goes beyond that and allows you an understanding of the culture within which the skill is situated. It allows you to take the skills you've learned and adapt them, apply them, change them, be more agile in your learning. It's the agility that's important."

L&D professionals were consequently having to be more aware of all the new digital literacies that were taking shape and aware of the possibilities that were opening up. They also had to be aware of the negative effects of the increasing role technology was playing in learning: ensuring technophobes were not prevented from having access to learning, for example.

"There are barriers and issues that emerge from this kind of technology, such as technophobia: some people don't like the technology or don't get on with it. They feel it always goes wrong and that they don't get enough support to learn. There are a lot of psychological responses to it, from running out of the room to a lack of ability to understand how it works.

"L&D professionals have to model best practice. They have to get in there and show people that it's not as hard as they think it is. They need to be really championing the technology. Lots of L&D professionals doubt their own ability to use these tools effectively but they really should attempt to understand the technology more and spend more time developing their skills and literacies in this area."

The World of Learning 2012 conference and exhibition is being held at the NEC, Birmingham, on 2nd and 3rd October. You can find out more about it and book tickets at www.learnevents.com

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