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How Digital Learning Became Connected Learning

This post from Andrew Joly, LEO’s Director of Strategic Design, looks at how digital learning has evolved to become connected learning—where social learning and data-led learning ecosystems combine to deliver game-changing opportunities for learning and organizational performance.

The Journey From Digital Learning to Connected Learning

Connected learning references two distinct and powerful drivers in the evolution of digitally-enabled learning that have been evolving as key themes in our thinking. Until now they have remained largely independent of one another, in both a strategic and delivery context.

The connected learning revolution we are currently experiencing is a culmination of technological improvements that allow people to learn from each other and technologies to talk to each other.

But how did we get here—and what have we learned along the way?

A Brief History: The Evolution of Digital Learning

When digital learning (or eLearning) arrived it solved some massive issues. It offered global distribution, consistent messaging and efficient, high-value learning solutions. Often driven by commercial imperatives, it certainly saved us a lot of money.

Did it work? Well—yes… as part of a learning blend, it certainly did its job. It served incredibly efficiently as a publishing model. But it had its limitations. It offered a one-size-fits-all approach, and was often a solitary experience for the learner, with individuals at their PCs, in isolation of each other and even their business.

In many ways, the emergence of digital learning took the social aspects of learning away; validation, knowledge sharing and collective decision-making was not facilitated by the early digital platforms.

What about the emergent systems that delivered digital learning? It is fair to say that early learning management systems, largely associated with eLearning delivery and event booking, were often more top-down and business-focused than solutions aimed at solving learners’ real needs.

The Early Stages of Data-Driven Learning

A key value that these delivery systems gave us, however, was the first sets of data associated with their use by learners—albeit often limited to a relatively small set of factors such as completion rates, assessment scores or time spent learning.

This offered the first glimpses of how you could start to measure the effectiveness of learning. With only a few data points available, it was often hard to correlate these results with other business KPIs, or to separate out other influencing factors. Understandably the metrics gathered were often not used to prove the effectiveness of learning, but simply to prove take-up.

Improving the Learner Journey With Personalization

Back at the learner end, early eLearning was delivered predominantly as text on a screen, perhaps with a picture, while the forward button provided the largest part of the interactive experience. A limited choice of media, combined with the isolated approach, did little to reward the user with an engaging experience.

To counter this we saw attempts to humanize the experience, to break the isolation of digital learning. We designed in-program touches to suggest there was a person on the other side of the screen, such as addressing the user by name. Light touch personalization of scenarios and the use of avatars were added to make us feel invested in—and part of—a digital experience.

These were all attempts to try to build a connection with our learners. Their impact was perhaps restricted by technological limitations, and were half-heartedly received by learners.

‘Clippy’ in Microsoft Word was a great example. Designed as a helpful tool, it was intended to recognize user behavior and offer automated assistance when required. But its effectiveness was limited. It would pop up when not needed and distract you from your work. Half of the suggestions would be off-kilter with user intent, and when you did engage, Clippy’s search functionality left a lot to be desired. It ended up being seen by many as far more irritating than helpful.

The Growing Need for Knowledge-Sharing Platforms

As technology advanced, so did the ability to easily connect with other people using online tools and channels. MSN (Windows Live) Messenger, AOL, Yahoo Messenger, and Skype gained massive popularity as the dawn of the internet reached home users in the late 90s and into the turn of the millennium.

These technologies, however, were still new and—in a learning and business context—often only adapted by specific communities, like the technology sector itself. The example of Xerox is perhaps the most famous, but we also saw communities of practice emerge in similar cohorts of learners where knowledge sharing and support was critical to performance.

Xerox: Communities of Practice

In the early 90s, Xerox engineers found that their training didn’t support or meet their needs while fixing copy machines on site. There were standard training documents but they did not cover the range of scenarios that the engineers actually faced in the field.

Initially engineers developed their own, informal, knowledge-sharing systems to document, catalog and support each other informally. Xerox head office quickly recognized the power of this system and developed an in-house version, creating forums and messaging systems to provide a home for this knowledge. This effectively formed one of the earliest knowledge-sharing platforms, distributing a goldmine of information to a global network of engineers.

Using technology in this way to nurture social learning certainly took its time to evolve. But clues were there that suggested that learners would find a way to speak to each other, to validate their opinions and inform their decision-making processes.

Social Learning Starts to Integrate Into Digital Learning

At LEO Learning, our lightbulb moment, where we truly realized the potential of integrating social learning with digital learning content came about some years ago, from what was essentially an added value design decision.

A learner forum added to an eLearning course for secondary school headteachers became an unexpected success, at a time when few people were naturally connecting online. Feedback from the headteachers indicated that, yes the course had been useful, but the chance to connect and validate ideas with other headteachers (a role so often isolated and highly time-pressured) was invaluable.

What happened next? Well, while eLearning became steadily more sophisticated and engaging in terms of media, design and interactivity—and a few interesting instances of social learning and connected learners emerged—the experience for the learner generally continued to be isolated, with limited opportunities for designers to deploy the power of social learning via networked communication.

It took until relatively recently for things to change. Our fully connected life out of work has moved, culturally, into the workplace, along with a degree of confidence and comfort associated with sharing, supporting and asking for support from others.

Interacting with each other on digital platforms, thanks to social media, is a way of life. So our learning designers and strategists can finally deploy the power of relationships between learners and managers, learners and other learners and indeed learners and their organisations, into powerful, collaborative, change and development programs.

In a systems context, connected business tools, system integration and the power of data-driven business networks have finally empowered, or perhaps demanded, that learning and knowledge systems become fully integrated also. Protocols such as xAPI are enabling multiple types of learner behavior to be tracked, and along with multiple business KPIs, to be plugged into highly flexible, affordable analytics tools such as Learning Record Stores. These not only show us the results of our efforts, but also provide the foundation of a data-driven future.

And so we have come out of a world of learner and system isolation and built a world of collaborative systems and learners. Our people, systems, processes and tools are readily joined up to form the flexible connected organizations of the future.

This blog post is an excerpt from our ebook ‘Connected Learning: How to Harness the Power of Social, Data, and Networks’.

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