A few weeks ago, while we still had the chance to travel
We went to the Learning Technologies Fair at the Excel Centre in London. As always, it was packed full of shiny and attractive stands promising the world and we were excited to see what was out there in the world of digital learning. So, this is what we learned.
1. It's not really about technology any more
This was the big one. All the companies showcasing their tech were careful to tell us that learning technology relies first and foremost on learning design – that is, taking learners' needs and wants into account before thinking of the technology required to fulfil them. Alongside this, they made sure to show where their technology slotted into a wider learning ecosystem and how it contributed to the development of a true learning culture.
However, it has to be said that it was hard to see where the learner needs and culture considerations showed themselves in the actual solutions.
So, we have a good message overall regarding the importance of design, learner needs and learning culture, but we saw too many "games" and "platforms" that were mostly just differentiated by having one or more gimmicky add-ons to add gamification, social learning, micro-learning, adaptive learning or AI into the mix – you can assume that all of them are in double quotation marks :-D
It's understandable though why the companies have taken the route they have when a concrete "product" is so much easier to make a sales argument for.
We would, however, strongly advocate that the message of impact first (learners and business needs) and content last (learning material and technology) is the right one.
2. Long-promised technologies are still at very different levels of maturity
I already mentioned gamification, social learning, micro-learning, adaptive learning and AI and these have been on everyone's lips now for a few years. We can also add VR/AR to this list too. I'll just now briefly go through each and give you an idea of the maturity of each.
- Micro-learning – I'm happy to report that this technology is quite mature, in that it requires nothing more than a good content delivery system to work. One thing to note is that micro-learning pieces should be 2 minutes or less per day and should involve spaced repetition. So, automated notifications are a helpful addition to any micro-learning set-up you want to use. Luckily, these solutions are also mature if you have the time to set them up.
- VR/AR – At last, I think I can say that we have good working VR/AR out there now. There were a couple of super examples. For the right learning objectives, VR/AR is definitely an impactful choice. Of course, it will cost, but it's certainly worth looking at for practical training of skilled technicians and operatives. Lower cost (and quality) options are hitting the market too, so we will also be able to use some VR/AR "lite" soon.
- Gamification – If we consider gamification to be serious games with points, badges and leader boards, then the technology is mature. However, if we correctly consider gamification in learning to be a smart combination of design, digital marketing techniques and pedagogical know-how, the technology is still at an early stage. We did see some encouraging signs, so let's see what next year brings.
- Adaptive learning – This is an interesting topic, where the technology works to ensure that each learner follows their own path to 100% proficiency in a given skill. This contrasts with everyone doing the same or similar and proficiency levels being different. There were some initial demos and quite strong claims; however, we didn’t see a concrete example that blew our minds yet. At least some aspects of this can already be designed into learning experiences, and that is encouraging.
- AI – It’s not time for the Terminators just yet. The focus was very much on augmented intelligence, which means “intelligence” that can make tasks that humans can do themselves easier and more efficient. Simple bots and other automation solutions are available for this. More advanced AI is still suffering from the problem of contextual understanding, something that humans can do naturally. Only the most expensive and advanced systems can handle this at all and, even then, not brilliantly.
3. Learning is not a solo activity
By far the most common trait of all the technology on show was social learning. We should now be able to say that the days of individual learners learning in a lonely bubble are soon over. There are standalone learning solutions that make learning from and with others easy and efficient. On the other hand, any kind of social platform like Teams, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and so on could be used smartly to make the social part of learning integral to the learning experience. This is not a question of the technology itself; rather, it is a question of imagination and design mixed with strong pedagogical know-how.
In summary, we believe that technology in learning is there to support and facilitate a great learning experience for learners and achieve impact for businesses. It is not a solution itself. We are at the stage where we can use existing technology to improve not only the experience, but also the measurement of learning impact. As before, the secret is in the design; the technology is just making it easier to turn our imagination into reality.