· 9 min read · Features

The future of learning and development: leaving the classroom and embracing the iPad?

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Right now, Boyd Glover, head of skills, Dixons Retail, is justifiably being labelled as one of the learning and development (L&D) community’s trailblazers. Its online learning platform, The Edge, is deliberately fashioned to look like the BBC’s iPlayer. Its content is never more then three clicks away and it is being accessed by organically-emerging communities of users within Dixons.

According to Glover, this is where the future of L&D lies - although, in his world, it is his present. "YouTube is now the second most popular search engine," he says, "so our system replicates this in a corporate environment, and we get 15 million page hits every four weeks."

Through this system, Dixons' training team can post material, host virtual train-the-trainer sessions, run web chats and instant-message trainees. More importantly, its 25,000 staff can create their own content too. "When we challenged our salespeople to share tips for selling laptops, we got 520 video clips within a month," says Glover. "Others in their communities can rate these, so that the most useful appear first - a bit like how Google rankings work."

For every one Glover, though, there are likely to be 100 L&D professionals for whom the training reality is quite different.

Three years ago, Adam Williams, learning and development manager for air traffic control provider NATS, bought a new learning management system (LMS) to record training. It has the potential to run cloud-based virtual classroom training and host e-learning, but this is not yet fully up and running.

"I was told I was behind the curve even then," recalls Williams. "But we know what works for us. Mobile-learning (m-learning), and just-in-time learning hasn't percolated down to us. We are a traditional organisation, using lots of classroom-based learning, but that is fine for staff too. If there was demand for newer stuff, technology would not be the barrier, but there is not."

It is obvious that when you have two very different real-world extremes, debate will continue to rage over how the future of L&D should or will pan out. In what would be anathema to Glover, NATS' Williams knows e-learning only achieves 10%-30% completion rates. "Most people don't want to do it at home either," he adds [whereas, for Glover, 8% of training is done at home]. And yet all the time, Williams says he (and his peers), are bombarded by vendor (and increasingly academia-led) notions about where they should be taking their learning. It is no wonder L&D professionals often have crises in confidence. "I can't decide if it's rhetoric, or if it's what people really want," admits Williams.

He is referring to the future-gazing rhetoric of the thinkers/influencers in this space. "Formal versus informal content was where we were two years ago. The next advance is working out where blended learning - a combination of the two - now sits in the world of social learning," argues Vincent Belliveau, GM EMEA, for provider Cornerstone OnDemand. "Blended learning - how firms mix their online and offline training - should really be thought of as how they mix structured, formal learning, with unstructured, informal and collaborative learning," adds Gerry Griffin, director, m-learning, at Skill-Pill.

What they are both saying is that formal learning is dead, and that the future is bite-sized learning, done in social-networking-style environments, and where information posted by trainees to each other is as important as material from the centre, if not more so.

But perhaps this is why this future world still jars with L&D professionals, many of whom are accustomed to being custodians of learning and in control of what staff learn. It suggests, some say, that the direction L&D takes is as much down to L&D professionals' own prejudices or fears or hang-ups about what their future roles will be, as it is about technology.

"Tracking of learning is business capability stuff. That is fine, but fails to see what learning has really been all about - a non-stop continuum," says Belliveau. Consultant Nigel Paine, former head of L&D at the BBC, argues that L&D professionals should not fear being usurped by user-generated content, but accept their roles will change. "They need to move to become curators of media; they will be judged by a wider learning community, of people who control their own learning themselves. Staff will organise their own continuous learning. They won't get 'given' stuff anymore. The days of L&D professionals dishing out learning need to go, fast."

At the recent Learning Technologies Show at London Olympia in January, LMS provider Redtray asked L&D professionals where they were on this futures trajectory. Disappointingly, perhaps, on-the-job training was preferred by 30% of respondents, while 29% said they had no plans to introduce items such as iPads into the training mix. Some 34% said they had no plans to alter the technology platforms they were running. It is yet more evidence of a disconnect between L&D theory and the reality at the coalface.

"The future the thinkers envision will only happen if L&D people make it so, but many don't know what to think about technology," argues Redtray executive, Aneta Sokolowska. "There is definitely an 'education-before- implementation' piece needed. But it is also down to how L&D and HR work too. HR still wants data on what competencies people have; but this is becoming far removed from the concept of continuous/social learning, where you can't hold or tie down this information anymore." She adds: "The broader question is, where does learning stop and HR begin? If a learning management system also manages payroll, it has probably gone too far."

Steve Wheeler, associate professor of learning technology at Plymouth University, admits that because of all this, there remains an element of chicken and egg about where L&D will go. "Trainers still have scepticism - even with products such as iPads," he says. "Most is perceived fear rather than reality, and if they read the growing body of research around 'learning environments' [this, he says, is the next big area - places that are familiar to people, either digital or physical], they would see it's a real opportunity." He adds: "More L&D professionals need to take this plunge; the better they are at anticipating change, the better they are at responding to it."

Wheeler adds: "L&D professionals can't stop trainees pursuing their own pathways", arguing it is simply pointless trying to. Paine, meanwhile, believes the future is about "being more relevant to people". He says: "L&D heads simply have to offer more tools in the kitbag - you can configure an e-learning web-page to be an app in minutes. Anyone not using apps really is off their trolley. Tablets are not a bandwagon; multi- platform is here to stay. Learning has to adapt to what people prefer."

It seems more employees (perhaps not at NATS) do prefer using their own equipment. Seattle-based business technology firm Avanade found 88% of staff use their own computing technologies for business purposes. Both Paine and Wheeler argue more companies need to have an L&D policy for what's being dubbed the BYOD ('bring your own device') trend. Paine says staff are often being prevented from integrating their own devices by over-zealous IT departments. Avanade supports this, finding 64% of IT managers surveyed thought it was too risky to have personal PDAs integrated into the business network. "Traditional training departments operating like this are doomed," says Paine.

Paine admits he was lucky - he had Greg Dyke sitting on his training board at the BBC. Technology-based learning advocate, Simon Busby, former head of the Nokia Academy and now head of training at Orange, also says he was fortunate: "We were training 18-25-year-olds. Putting these people in a classroom is impossible to achieve. But give them bite-sized, on-the-go learning, and it is a different kettle of fish."

Busby argues, as Gen Ys start to get into training roles themselves, the learning culture shift will start to show. "That is when we will see augmented reality and cloud-based learning take off," he adds. "That is when training will be regarded as more about bringing a subject alive, rather than being about the number of heads supported at a cost to the business."

Despite the gloom, Paine, Busby and Wheeler do think there's much to look forward to, especially with a new breed of L&D professionals who are up for the challenge and have a clearer idea of what they want.

Cat Kennedy, learning and talent development manager, Heineken UK, is arguably one of these. In 2010, she decided to build her own performance management and learning system, after finding the market didn't meet her needs. "The culture here is that everything should be simple, so we have built online development guides as a first step to making our learning more 'dip-in'." These comprise everything from an encyclopedia of processes explained, to podcasts, and web links where staff can go for more information.

She says: "I feel far from being left behind. I keep in touch with the vendor space, to see what's there, but I am comfortable our staff have all the tools they need."

PepsiCo's HR manager, learning, development and core process, Libby Minihan, shares this outlook. "We wouldn't try any latent gimmick just for the sake of it," she asserts of her blended learning approach. "For us, 70% of learning is on-the-job. Of the remainder, 75%-80% is formal, and the rest is e-learning and social learning. We don't yet give staff the choice between formal or e-learning for a particular course, but we will start to add more types of learning." She adds: "For us, it is about experimenting. It will always be making decisions about what's best for staff and the business, and we won't try gimmicks just for the sake of them."

But what will please the futurologists though, is that Minihan, for one, certainly demonstrates she is willing to cede the sort of control over learning that has arguably prevented Glover's vision of the future being more widespread. "I don't mind the removal of control," Minihan says. "We have a list of competencies we need to ensure we develop, but beyond that, if I see individuals willing to take learning for themselves, that's fine by me. They'll learn far more effectively, and learn far more. I would love it if everyone did more of this."

The greater the number of HR people thinking like this, the sooner the version of the future that's being predicted will arrive. Roll on, the new Jerusalem.

Dixons Retail: immersive technology

"Learning management systems are great, but they only take you so far. The task of L&D managers is to make good people brilliant, and that means using a blended learning environment. The current trend is online, and all about support groups, and peer-to-peer. So the future has to be about the content staff are willing to generate and share among themselves. It is not push technology, but immersive technology. Self-generated stuff has so much more buy-in.

"At Dixons, we are constantly thinking about how we can do this, and the concept we have come up with is 'point of need' training. Wading through manuals or large e-learning programmes is not quick. Pockets of searchable data, generated by staff in the know, will solve this. This needs to be communities-driven. When we tested it, by asking people to upload their own training videos, we were stunned with the results. And, when some appeared lower in their peer-groups' rating, far from feeling despondent, staff actually re-filmed it, to make it better.

"This is real engagement, creating a culture of continual improvement, which would not have happened the old way. Looking ahead is just about being innovative and being prepared to invest in technology that you know is going to benefit customers."

Boyd Glover, head of skills, Dixons Retail

Augmented reality: fact or fiction

Augmented reality - being able to point your smartphone at something, and have location-based information pop up - has invaded L&D as the latest new learning hope. But is it?

Skill-Pill's Gerry Griffin, for one, is torn: "Is it mobile? Yes. Is it contextual? Yes. That should make it be able to be a learning tool," he mulls. "And yet I don't really think it's quite there yet." At the moment, he thinks marketers have nabbed it first, but for them, he believes it will be a passing fad. That said, he argues trainers need to choose their application of it wisely, to avoid facing a similar fate. He says: "We are working on a project with the London Business School, making it an augmented reality. The idea is that you can go into the library, point your phone at bookshelves there, and have the ability to save material from these books on your phone for download later."

Although Gartner predicted (in 2008) that augmented reality would be one of the top 10 disruptive technologies, its learning take-up has been somewhat slower. Uses being developed include task support - inserting additional information into a field of view. Boeing is testing this with its engine maintenance teams. BMW has famously used this in conjunction with special glasses that mechanics wear, when worn parts of the engine are overlaid onto an image of the engine as they watch it, with instructions of what bolts to undo to perform jobs.

But more companies are entering the fray. UK company ARLearn is bringing it into webcams instead of phones. When a trainer holds a marker (normally a piece of card with a shape on it), the viewer watching it sees a 3D model superimposed over it that rotates or turns as the holder directs. Because of its immersive potential, schools are showing particular interest, but this offers almost limitless possibilities for webcast-type training, where multiple trainees watch/listen to trainers remotely.

The futute is…

Learning journeys

Learning journeys are not learning events - which don't really work - but the journey between events. This can be social learning, but the point is that it can't always be totally open-ended. It needs to be part of a pre-ordained learning process.

Octavius Black, patron of Campaign for Learning and founder, The Mind Gym

Non-touch technologies

I am talking about being able to wave a hand to work/achieve something, like how an X-Box scans your movements. Imagine being in an operating theatre, and you need to start a procedure. You can wave your hand to access learning, or have your hands turned into an avatar that either mimics your moves, or guides your hands to the right areas.

Steve Wheeler, associate professor of learning technology, Plymouth University