Sunday, August 6

Courses and Courseware Fading - What's Coming Next?

A few recent posts by Jay Cross, Brent Schlenker, and me (Tony Karrer) discuss Course and Courseware Fading - The Future of eLearning. The general sentiment among many in the workplace learning and performance industry is that the course model is beginning to fade and one of our biggest challenges is figuring out what comes next.

Just as it is today when we design a Blended Learning solution, undoubtedly we will have a variety of delivery models and the specific solution will depend on the situation. But, the challenge before us is that we are only just beginning to understand what these delivery models are, how they work, when they best apply, and the process we must use (see Informal Learning - Let's Get Real). Further, as these delivery models evolve (and they will evolve tremendously over the next few years), we will naturally see change in our matching of learning and performance needs to delivery models.

As the new author on the Learning Circuits blog, I'm hoping to help add to this conversation as it is probably the most important question facing us in eLearning today.


Jim Belshaw said...

I thought that this was a valuable starting post and have published a rather long, too long to repeat here, initial response on my own blog - -under the title "informal learning - the end of courseware?"

Anonymous said...

I posted this comment on Jay Cross's blog but I wonder how Knowledge Factor's Confidence-Based Learning system might be able to meet this need? I also wonder how LCMS' interplay with informal learning? Knowledge Factor's system allows IDs to still have a formal eLearning course however it is not delivered like a formal eLearning course. Instead learners start with a formative assessment that then creates an individualized learning plan for them - and gives them all the content and links for further learning in one system. It's pretty neat. Here's the link:

Tony Karrer said...

Hmmm ... I'll be curious if anyone else has a thought about how an LCMS works with informal learning, but my short answer is that an LMS and an LCMS likely make it HARDER for you to provide good informal learning solutions. Most LMS and LCMS products provide solutions based on the concept of a course and worry about things like registration. Take a look at: Do You WANT an LMS? Does a Learner WANT an LMS?

I'd suggest that instead of an LCMS - you would be much better off starting with something much more free form, e.g., a Wiki as the basis for your solution. It opens you to a different kind of solution.

Anonymous said...

What's coming next?

Shorter, more engaging, and better targeted "snippets" of learning opportunities.

Jim Belshaw said...

I mentioned that I had put up a longish post on my own blog ( on this one.

I am a framework person who likes to fit things into a structure. Without repeating the whole post, a few points that I hope may aid discussion.

I defined informal learning very simply as all learning taking place outside formal education and training structures and associated training mechanisms and courses including short courses.

I then suggested that there were three broad categories of informal learning.
1. Personal learning, where people seak information, knowledge for their own purposes. This is the traditional domain of the public libary and is an area where the internet has had major impact.
2. On-the-job learning where the individual acquires knowledge and skills from colleagues and actually doing. In my view this has always been the dominant source of learning in organisations.
3. Family and community learning where again the individual learns by doing and interacting.

I suggested that when we come to look at the impact of the new technologies including especially the internet, we can see that it has shifted boundaries along three key training dimensions:
1. It has shifted the boundaries between informal and formal learning, increasing the importance of informal learning.
2. Then within the changing domain of formal training, it has affected delivery modes, creating new modes, reducing the importance of traditional modes, facilitating mixed modes.
3. It has also affected content, with some traditional information based content dropping out, new internet and computer related content being added.

None of this is very profound, but it does raise some interesting issues:
1. Given the importance of informal learning, how do we define a process for better integrating formal and informal learning? I see this as partially a management question, partially a training question. In essence, it involves some degree of formalising, some degree of facilitating informal learning.
2. Linked to this, given the importance of on-the job experiences how do we improve perfomance here? By implication, organisation training needs to focus on the 90 per cent, not the 10 per cent. In doing so, how do we integrate previously training with other often separate organisational systems?
3. What should be the role of the trainer in all this? My personal view is that trainers and training skills are potentially very important in developing new approaches.

I have problems when I try to link this thinking to some of the discussion on computer based systems. I simply don't know enough, for example, about the detail of LCMS to see how they might be applied.

I also wonder, and I may be wrong here, if the discussion on technology is not blinding us to the underlying issues? Here I took the force of Tony's comment that LCMS systems might make it harder to provide effective informal learning solutions, but also noted that a wiki is itself a technology solution.

Tony Karrer said...

Kevin said: "What's coming next? Shorter, more engaging, and better targeted "snippets" of learning opportunities."

I agree with you Kevin for a whole lot of reasons, primarily because of the lack of time that people have for long learning engagements. I would also add that this also suggests that they likely will get to the "snippets" through something other than an LMS, and likely as part of their course of work.

Tony Karrer said...

Jim - great post and comments. I agree with most of what you are saying and definitely echo your concern that we don't have a clearly defined process for informal learning design.

I would also say that we don't have nearly the experience level with informal learning delivery models. That's the reason that often the discussions ends up talking about technology. The delivery models are sometimes closely linked to technology. For example, the read/write web as exemplified by Wikis provides a fairly interesting new opportunity for informal learning. So do blogs.

At the same time, other technology (LMS, LCMS) can actually get in the way of discussion because they point us towards delivery models that are not as effective for some learning needs.

Jim - I am curious about your comment about the "underlying issue"?

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for the kind words, Tony. You asked what I meant by the underlying issues.

By underlying issues I simply mean reexamination of the purpose of training, its place in the organisation, its integration with other organisation functions. I sometimes feel today that learning and development has become a ghetto within another ghetto, HR. We need to break this if we are to better handle informal learning.

To do this, we need to deconstruct the elements in informal learning to see how training might fit in. It is hard to talk about best delivery systems without having first defined the need that training is to serve, the impediments that have to be overcome if that training is to be effective.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean by example.

I think that everybody would accept the general need to make new staff productive as quickly as possible. If we can halve the time required to get them to the minimum required performance point, then we have a clearly defined and measurable gain.

This is an area where informal learning in the way that I have defined it is very important even where the organisation has a structured induction program. Too often, those induction programs are ineffective and may even be seen on ground by managers as a performance impediment because they take people away from work. Here we in fact have a clash between the dictates of the organisation and work needs including informal learning requirements.

Given that informal learning is critical, how can we improve it to reduce learning curve times? What role should training play in the process?

A leading electronics company in the medical area was experiencing rapid growth requiring it to increase its workforce on the assembly line. Staff turnover was quite high, increasing recruitment requirements. Staff came from many different countries, raising cross-cultural and language issues. So the challenge here was to find a way to speed up acquisition of the required knowledge and skills.

The solution adopted in this case was the partial substitution of formal for informal learning, so it’s a solution that actually fits within the traditional training paradigm. The trainer worked with the foremen to define the competencies that they would expect the workers to have at the end of a three month period. This was then used as a base to create a simple self-paced computer learning package that was then field tested.

While the program did have positive outcomes, it was not as successful as had been hoped. This was partly due to internal company issues, but it also reflected the nature of the workforce itself which made self paced computer based learning less effective. Workers continued to prefer learning by direct contact so the supervisors retained their core if informal training role.

This leads into a broader issue, one that is common in all organisations. If managers, senior professionals are going to be key in informal learning, how do we improve their capacity to do this?

The conventional Australian response to this problem takes place along two dimensions and fits within the traditional courseware/credential paradigm.

The first dimension has been the definition of specific national competencies in work place assessment and training attached to specific qualifications from leve1 to diploma. The second, the definition of specific national management competencies also attached to specific qualifications from level 1 to diploma.

This broad brush approach may work in a general sense in improving training and management, although I have reservations here, but does not really address the informal learning question because it is just to general and broadbrush.

To really improve informal learning, we have to zero in on informal learning as a process both in general and in the context of specific organisations. Once we understand this, then we can define the appropriate responses.

Peter Shea said...

Jim & Co,

Let me toss in my two cents here since, like the rest of you, this subject has been on my mind.

In the colleges where I've worked, the allure of the completely online campus has began to fade. Convenience aside, many students lack the discipline that a complete online curriculum requires. Plus, they miss the social dimension that brick and mortar schools provide. So, I too, see blended learning as the next big thing.

Still, what I think is missing is a sufficently big push into interactive learning modules & simulations. The current set-up is too accomodating of the old model where the emphasis is on information-transfer.

What we need is a Wikipedia-like database that offers interactive modules that engage learners in both tradtional academic subjects & workforce related skills--a learning space where the traditional barrier between "school knowledge/skill" and "work knowledge/skill" is eliminated.

I've begun a (very, very modest) attempt to build something like that on my own. Anyone who cares to join me is welcome.

jay said...

Permit me to add a few observations.

In informal learning situations, the learner is the LCMS.

Informal and formal learning are ranges along numerous dimensions of learning overall. These include such things as volatility of the content, scheduled or not, intentionality, structure, control, specificity of outcomes, controversy, and team vs. individual.

Let's avoid the needless oversimplification of talking about informal learning and formal learning as if they were different things.

Does training have a role in this? If the goal is performance, the pathway beckons. If the goal is classes, training will be marginalized.

Unknown said...

This is very interesting. I find myself in an odd position reacting to the idea that courses are fading away.

First, I cam to the world of learning and Education through running simulations, then managing action learning teams, and then training.

With that in mind, I feel that courses are very valuable. I have been involved with programs and learning interventions that were supposed to be 100% egalitarian, and they fail quite often. Some knowlege disparity, with an individual having frameworks or experience to share really helps learning.

I am not sure courses are the right answer, but I fear that people will start 'throwing away' courses and embracing an equally one-sided design of expereintial, informal, untracked learning. My intuition says there is a balance here, and I am beginning my dissertation focussing on the question of what that balance should be.

Aside from my concern about swiging the L&E pendulum too far away from courses, I have a more immediate thought. When are informal learning opportunities no longer informal? how much assistance in the process of informal learning can we interject before it becomes interference?

That question is one that haunts me, because of the distinction between informal learning and formal, non-training learning. partially this is semantics, but it is also a question about the social dynamics of learning and the resiliency of a social learning process in the face of imposed social stuctures.

It is entirely possible, and I fear likely, that too much external structure- be it from computor or manager - can change an informal learning opportunity into a learning not about the desired topic, but about how to manage the LMS/manager. I am not certain of this, but it lingers in the back of my head when I do client work around org learning.

Jim Belshaw said...

There have been a number of interesting comments since my last post. I have held off responding to give other people a chance to respond

I see that Tony is now on vacation and hence will presumably not be making input as discussion moderator, so thought that a further post might help keep discussion going pending creation of the new wiki. As you know, I think that this is an important topic.

I start my response by seeking clarification on a definitional question. What do people mean by learning?

I ask this because of a feeling that part of the differences in response may relate to differences in the way the term learning is used.

Now all this can be a bit slippery in semantic terms, so bear with me.

The term learning is sometimes used as in e-learning as a shorthand term for types of delivery mechanisms.

I personally use the term learning in the context of the individual as a simple descriptor of the acquisition by the individual of specific knowledge, skills, judgement and attitudes. So defined in this way we have the individual, the process by which the individual has learned and the things that the individual has learned. I break the things learned into these broad categories because they involve different learning processes.

In considering the learning process, I make a further distinction between the process from an individual perspective and the mechanism used to support/stimulate that process.

To illustrate. Skills acquisition involves the combination of knowledge (the what to do, how we are meant to do it) with practice (learning how to do). That practice can occur in a variety of ways including simulation and on-the-job.

My very simple definition of informal learning as all learning taking place outside formal education and training structures and associated training mechanisms and courses including short courses flowed from this structure. Learning may fit along a continuum and involve similar processes – here I do take the force of Jay’s comment - “Let's avoid the needless oversimplification of talking about informal learning and formal learning as if they were different things” – but the mechanisms are different.

Is this important? I think it is just at present. Now here I would like to take Jay’s second last point – “Does training have a role in this? If the goal is performance, the pathway beckons” - as a mantra. Consider the following, all current Belshaw pre-occupations:
1. If 90 per cent of internal knowledge acquisition and skills formation at individual level within organisations takes place through informal learning in the way I have defined it, then improved performance here has an obvious performance impact. So, and repeating a point made in an earlier post, how do we do it? To make my own position clear, in recent writings on improved people management in professional services - - I have argued strongly that ways to improve informal learning should be built into training strategies.
2. All formal learning actually involves a mix of formal and informal learning. I think that the comment of 21stcenturyshae brought this point out when he said that “in the colleges where I've worked, the allure of the completely online campus has began to fade.” Whether at conferences, in training experiences, at university, the interaction between participants, the individual follow up by participants, are all important to the learning experience. So how do we better recognise and integrate the two? Again this is a current pre-occupation of mine because the debate currently underway on future directions in Australian higher education largely ignores the importance of the informal learning component
3. Community and regional development is another long-standing interest of mine. What makes one community more creative than another, better able to respond to challenges? Here the role of informal learning in knowledge and skills formation within communities appears to be important in explaining part but only part of the difference in patterns between communities. Again I have argued that new training approaches have a role to play in accelerating and complimenting informal learning.

This has become another long and quite time consuming post to write, so I will finish here. Individual comments have raised some interesting practical issues, but I will leave any response here to another day if the discussion continues.

Unknown said...
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Peter Isackson said...

May I be so presumptuous as to propose a change of perspective to help make some sense out of an issue where everyone seems to agree and disagree at the same time? This appears to be typically what is now trendily called a culture war. As a professional in the intercultural field, this amuses me in the same way that Swift amused us by the debates between bigendians and littleendians. There’s only one egg, even if the two ends are shaped differently (I guess this is the point Jay was making).

I’m amused because the idea of “culture wars” is itself a cultural artefact. But that’s another issue for another debate. What I wish to propose is that we start thinking not only about content, information and individual performance as the means and ends of learning, each of which can be analysed separately and optimised, but about the culture of learning for a group of people, or rather flexible groups of people. A manager or a worker in an enterprise belongs simultaneously to a number of groups, which range from the ethnic to the social and from the professional (skill area) to the corporate culture itself (as soon as you have an organization and a mission statement – however hypocritical or misleading its formulation – you have a culture). Each of those groups is evolving, acquiring and adjusting its values and practices. (In a nutshell, that’s the definition of “culture”).

The way this evolution takes place both at the group and individual level can be:

1) the result of benign neglect (the traditional approach)
2) the result of some form of nurturing.

Informal learning is there and always has been, whether we like it or not. As pro-active human beings we are capable of nurturing other things than just our young and of finding more effective ways of doing it. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be “developing” and refining informal learning, if we recognise that it exists and especially if we recognise that it accounts for as much of 90% of our skills. But “there’s no reason” (in my previous sentence) is just a form of culturally transmitted rhetoric. There actually is a reason: informal learning goes against the grain of our inherited culture, an inheritance derived from formal education and industrial organisation.

So I propose that we first make an effort to deconstruct culturally the rhetoric of the debate about informal learning rather than focusing on the details. If we begin to understand what conditions our own thinking (and talking), and if we recognize the universal truth of history that everything new produces (informally) its own culture while incorporating elements of existing culture, we might be able to reframe the debate along lines different than “does it work?” and “is it better than what we had before?”. And we might just dissociate informal learning from the attitude of benign neglect that our present culture seems to associate with the notion of "informal".

As a starter, and as an extension of Peter Senge's "the learning organization", we should be talking about what makes a learning culture and what forces prevent it from developing.

Jim Belshaw said...

Jody, I am sure that you are right that courseware will continue. I also think that informal learning cannot replace the structure and rigour associated with formal learning.

Further, and as Jay said in one of his comments and Peter repeated later, we need to be careful in talking about formal and informal learning as though they were two entirely different things. So we are not really dealing with an either or.

What we are dealing with, I think, is a shift in perspective brought about by a combination of changing technology, broader changes in education and training approaches with rapid social and economic change.

The challenge is to deconstruct these elements. Here I thought that Peter made some very interesting points that bear upon the difficulty of doing this in general and especially in an on-line discussion environment.

We all come at these issues from a frame set by our own experience and cultures. I write from the perspective of manager who moved into training, but who has also been involved in debates about education and training in Australia for much of my working life.

So this sets my frame. Built into it are all sorts of approaches, assumptions and definitions.

To illustrate, competency and competency based approaches are central to my approach to both people management and training. The deconstruction of the elements in training (knowledge, skills, attitude, judgement) that I use flow from this. Each of those elements requires a different training approach to be effective.

Now what I am wondering, and I would be interested in feedback here, is the extent of the differences between the frame I use and those applying especially in the US. This bears upon Peter's comments re cultural wars.

Tony Karrer said...

Wow, I go away on vacation and there's a great conversation without me.

Couple of quick thoughts that will probably not be seen ...

1. I intentionally chose the word fading as opposed to dying which other people have used. The course model (long linear instruction) will always be with us for base concepts, skill building, etc. However, just as instructor-led training in the corporate world is actually declining (which took may years after pundits declared it dying), courseware will lose out to other forms over time. No doubt it will remain for some learning needs.

Some of the rest of the discussion (Peter, Jim) I can't get my head around, but that's not uncommon. I need some time to process it, especially with some context, so ...

Let me jump on the one thing that really caught my eye - Jody said something about the LCMS helping to formalize informal knowledge.

I've been trying to figure out how to present the concept that as learning designers, we make these decisions about what form we are going to use for various needs. For some of the content, we basically end up saying that while we could probably spend the time and money to figure out what to teach people, it's simply not worth it. Thus, we are willing to leave the learner on their own to figure out certain things on their own. After all, that's their job and we don't have the budget to figure it all out for them ahead of time. This line is not at all clear and right now is definitely an art (just as master level performance in chess is an art).

What does this have to do with the LCMS comment - well yes, we've lower the production barrier with things like LCMS and rapid eLearning - but we've not changed the barrier for knowledge creation. Thus, I'm not so sure that the main purpose / goal of using an LCMS is to formalize informal knowledge. To date, LCMS systems have been about lower production barriers and moved production to SMEs, but we've not gone any farther with eliciting implicit knowledge.