Wednesday, October 12

Confessions of an e-learning dropout

Six months or so of focusing on a real (rather than a virtual) theme -- in this case, intercultural communication -- led me far away from the specific “culture of e-learning” shared by the participants of this blog, although my intercultural work inevitably involves online deployment. Coming back into the fold by posting a message on this blog is in itself an interesting cultural experience, a kind of re-entry shock.

Having spent so much time with a broadly international crowd of people who spend very little, if any, of theirs speculating about the future of technology for training has allowed me to take some distance and possibly see a few things with more focus. One of the things that strikes me is how linked e-learning culture is to certain trends in the U.S. economy, even though the implications are necessarily global. And if I mention “e-learning culture” it means that I can identify a group of people who share that culture (namely, us) in contrast to all the other groups of people that don’t share it. Which introduces the somewhat embarrassing question of whether e-learning culture is really compatible with other cultures.

Listening to Eliot Masie correctly telling me (through an audio feed) that memory sticks will allow all sorts of things that no one could have imagined made me realize why I seriously doubt that any of what he describes will ever make an impact on learning. I feel exactly the same way about games, simulations and all kinds of “ideal” and idealized content (and I’ve spent twenty years of my life designing, producing and publishing the stuff). It all makes sense… but, when all is said and done, it just doesn’t seem to take off, even though we can usually get it to work (and even prove that it can produce results).

One of the major reasons for failure is culture specific: Eliot’s idea – and many others born out of technological innovation -- supposes learners are social monads, the thought of which is relatively easy to entertain in an individualist culture such as that of the U.S. but unimaginable elsewhere. And even in the U.S. it’s easier to imagine than achieve, because even though our culture teaches us to think of ourselves as monads and our pragmatic sense tells us to try out any promising solution, we actually aren’t monads: we are heavily linked to others through visible and invisible social networks (that, by the way, only vaguely parallel our technical networks). And those networks provide most of our models of behavior, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Looking back at fifty years of technological innovation, what do I see? The only true revolutionary breakthrough in training technology is… the flipchart! It changed things much more than we think (PowerPoint did as well, but in a totally different – and I would say regressive - direction). CBT/multimedia/eLearning has produced a niche market for products and services but bears less resemblance to a revolutionary development in training than it does to the hula-hoop (a great concept, a new and intriguing object, fun to have a go at, a winning topic of conversation, mildly frustrating to start using, possibly addictive in the short term but destined to have a short lifetime). What’s great about the flipchart is that nobody noticed it or talked about it. It arrived stealthily and did its job, allowing us to create, store, distribute and display flexible information in original ways. It also provided a fascinating link to group dynamics, giving trainers a tool to change learners’ perception of the learning environment and the goals associated with it (e.g. by having groups work in parallel and post their results on the wall). It was (and is) absolutely wonderful technology. And using it requires only minimal writing and drawing talents plus a bit of imagination on what to do with the pages. And best of all, no rival vendors telling you that their flipchart has more features than the one you just bought (and should feel guilty about). And no yearly upgrades!

So my suggestion is to do something similar with all our electronic technologies. Adopt and use them because we need them for storage and communication (independently of training) and then just have them around to help those who have something to teach others (formally or informally) get their messages across. Let’s stop building, advertising and selling systems and technologies that will provide the solution. Where Plato banned poets from the Republic, I would ban the vendors. People will end up providing the solution if you let them just use the technology they spontaneously accept for other purposes. Down with the constraints of training-specific technology. And down with instructional design (yeah, Jay, I’m with you as usual).


Peter Isackson said...

Please don’t misconstrue my remarks or my tone. I certainly wasn't attempting to be personal or even criticizing your contribution. Just trying to put it into my own perspective. I used it as an example of things I myself have always done and said, though definitely with less public exposure. I find the kind of innovative use of technology your describe intriguing and exciting and am grateful to you for enlightening me about it. But at the same time I have to recognize that its impact tends to be limited… which is a source of frustration for all of us.

After listening to your podcast I thought to myself, “who might I tell about this here in France?”. And I quickly realized that the answer was “no one” other than a few friends (the “us” I mocked in my posting), because the cultural gap is so great between the people who can use technology in the way you described and those who need to use it for odd things such as learning. Unhappily, this is more true of our likely clients than it is of the population at large.

By the way, I’m rather involved in China these days, and I find very intriguing what you report from your experience of Internet caf├ęs. That seems to me consistent with the new culture of China as is your culturally pertinent remark about such practice being “alien to the first world”. That was in fact part of the point I was making. Attitudes towards technology and the initiatives that can be expected of people with regard to its use are very different across cultures. There has, for example, been a widespread fatalistic belief especially here in Europe that the rest of the world will end up, with about a ten year delay, using technology in a way that has been decided by the market leaders in the US (you might call it the Bill Gates is God syndrome). That is beginning to change, under the pressure of economic, political and cultural events.

Elliot, your wisdom – whether it’s your own or that of the crowds you frequent – is always interesting and valuable. Please don’t take offense when some of us use random examples of it to point out ironies that apply to much more general matters.


Anonymous said...

Here's some more fuel for this interesting fire. This comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education study just completed about the adoption and impact of technology on campuses in the US.

Students did not rush to consume new forms of online digital content for studying.

Institutions did not jump on the bandwagon to allow commercial benefits (either to themselves or third party vendors) from student portals.

The very large majority of faculty have not opted to become “course developers” and develop online courses using the CMS.

Use of digital content and third-party digital courses by faculty has remained in a small minority.

Portals attempting to aggregate courses from multiple institutions have mostly failed with a few limited exceptions.

High production value courses, sometimes featuring leading authorities or fancy problem-based, interactive learning approaches, have seen several dramatic flops with only a few limited successes in niche areas, such as remedial math.

While use of PowerPoint, and in some cases the Internet, has become mainstream, in general faculty don’t feel that all the technology in the smart classrooms has significantly improved the teaching or the learning experience.

Looks like the book, the whiteboard, and the flipchart are still one of the best technologies for learning. Especially when coupled with a really good teacher.

Stormy said...

Whew! Interesting discussion. I work for a company whose focus is "technology". In the training areas of the company, we need to provide content to a number of people world-wide in a reasonable time frame. Some of those people are at customer sites -- billing! They can't come in for a class.

We have to make technology work for training. That said, being a technology company, people get really excited about the "tools". But we don't focus much on ISD. Sly has the right idea. We can't just embrase the tools -- we have to learn to utilize the tools in the best way to accomlish learning.

The problem is that Instructional Designers are not (usually) technologists and some of these new tools are a bit challenging to apply, and we need help! And we need help in more areas than just using the tools.

It's the old e-learning complaint. "I converted my powerpoint slides and put them on my web site, but people just aren't learning from them. E-Learning doesn't work!"

-Sally Boyd

Anonymous said...

Interesting conversation. In traditional instructor-led / classroom training, the instructors basically are receptive to the effects of what / how / where / when they teach / instruct and make adjustments as they go along. Thus there is a corrective mechanism that works well and that is why teachers and instructors are valuable. When we come to e-learning it appears that the process is open-ended (not a closed-loop). There needs to be a corrective action by the training professionals / vendors / consultants in making e-learning / technology-enabled learning reach its intended potential / go higher.

Often e-learning / training modules needs adjustments and re-engineering to make them work to its desired performance levels and impact.