Technology can be a great enabler for learning, but it’s not guaranteed to make us learn better. Used correctly, it can enhance, equalise and facilitate learning, used poorly it simply commands and controls. It’s both an infrastructure and a mindset, but doesn’t guarantee a great learning culture. I’ve mapped out a few of the ways that we use technology in learning and wanted to think about what they mean, then to consider how we use them most often: we should ask the question, are we getting it right?
Let’s consider each of these areas in turn. Technology facilitates learning: it does this by providing an infrastructure for distribution and by enabling us to create interactive and engaging materials. In this sense, it’s like a pen and paper: it enables us to take ideas out of our heads and to make them concrete, make them easier to share beyond our immediate physical boundaries. I can speak to a room full of people, but i’m limited by how loud and clear my voice it. Writing ideas down lets me share them more widely, different technologies (from wax scrapers and slate tablets for the Romans through to quills, pens and email) have enabled this facilitation in different ways through the ages, but there has always been a link between technology and our ability to broadcast to ever wider audiences, our ability to catch transient ideas and pin them to the wall, to capture what we think right now. Technology facilitates learning by providing infrastructure and the ability to tell stories in ever more creative ways, but it doesn’t guarantee the quality of those stories: that’s it’s limiting factor, it can enable the transmission of poor narratives, of incoherent stories.
Learning technology provides access: this is how we often use it in organisations, to give access to learning materials. Because of it’s versatility, it can provide access for different people in different ways, dependent upon location, qualifications or needs. Providing access is good, but it easily slips into a mindset of control and secrecy. Organisations can’t allow themselves to hide the best stuff away, as if giving people access to knowledge were a bad thing. Generosity and sharing are secrets to success in the Social Age, and organisations should consider whether it’s ever (outside of the control of proprietary knowledge) right to hide learning away, to limit it to parts of a population: perhaps we could risk letting everyone learn, whatever their role? It’s arguable that equalising access could make it easier for people to be inspired, to be creative, to be ambitious, to learn. The role of learning technology to provide access is incredibly useful, the backbone of global organisations, but it doesn’t hurt to think about what we are providing access to and when we are hiding things away.
Learning technology can be proactive: it doesn’t need to wait for me to ask for something, to consciously seek out new courses or information, rather it can proactively push things out to me, dependent upon where i am, what i’ve scored, what it (or someone else) thinks i should know or dependant upon time. It can push as well as waiting for me to pull. This is a good thing, as long as the ‘push‘ equates to my social expectations and other commitments. I’ve characterised technology previously as either social or formal and it’s easy for too much ‘push‘ to make the technology seem overly formal. In itself, that’s not a bad thing, unless it crosses social boundaries: my phone comes with me wherever i go, if it starts to nag me about work, i will simply re-categorise it as ‘formal‘ and leave it at home. In the Social Age, where technology should be enabling us by connecting us to our learning communities, we can’t afford to alienate the technology by pushing too much, or by pushing things that don’t need it!
Using learning technology for assessment is widespread: for compliance, annual accreditation, tests at the end of e-learning, there are whole software solutions based around assessment and, on the whole, you have to ask yourself why. Specifically, why are we assessing this at all? There’s no point in assessment if we don’t do anything with it, and i don’t mean presenting the learner with a certificate to print out that says 8/10. Sure, there are times when this is appropriate, but there are many times when we assess learning through simplistic methods simply because we can, not because we’ve thought of anything meaningful to do with that information. Better instead to start by thinking about outcomes: how are we going to enable learners to think/act/do things differently as a result of the learning once they rejoin their everyday reality, and how will assessment support it. The most important skill we can develop around assessment is knowing when not to use it at all. When we do use it, developing more sophisticated approaches, such as scaffolded scenario based learning where we can measure diagnostic skills, application and judgement, are more valuable and more interesting for the learner. Assessment is another part of learning technology that we should apply with prudence.
Technology lets us enhance the learning experience: the use of audio, video, interactivity, graphics, all of the wonderful features and functions that make developers lives so interesting are there to make the learning experience richer. And indeed they do, as long as they have a purpose: any form of enhancement should be in service of better telling the story, of providing a more coherent and engaging learning experience. It’s no use having a really engaging experience that delivers no learning, nor is there any point in a great learning narrative that nobody can be bothered to read because it looks or acts so dull. The balance is what we’re aiming for: technology to let us deliver coherent and engaging stories, not just technology for the sake of what it can do. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean it’s worth doing.
Learning technology can be an equaliser: it can provide access to people with disabilities, it can facilitate access across borders or boundaries, it can connect us irrespective of distance or time, but we can’t afford to leave anyone behind. As well as providing access to formal, sanctioned, learning spaces, it can also connect us to underground learning, to the things they never wanted to learn. Technology can equalise because it can let us circumvent controls, can let us get around restrictions.
Learning Management Systems allow us to coordinate learning, they reinforce our ability to create narratives over time, to schedule the right learning at the right point in a course. The scheduling capability of technology, as well as the ability to build dependencies, means that, when we get it right, learning can be tailored to the needs of each individual far better. If we get it wrong, it just means we push material to the wrong people at the wrong time. The challenge here is that this isn’t really an issue of technology, it’s an issue of understanding the everyday reality of your learners: systems can generally do whatever you want them to do, it’s a case of configuring it to the right approach, something that vendors of systems may be ill placed to do. It’s more about mindset than technology.
Technology is a great enabler: when every device for consumption becomes a unit of production, when we can record and broadcast from our phones, tablets and homes, technology has enabled us to learn. So are we including this capability within our organisational approach? For me, this is one of the greatest benefits of a social learning approach: it lets us tap into the very best of what technology can offer, plus the very best understanding of how we engage socially to form communities and to use those communities in flexible ways, for challenge, for support, to share and to learn. The challenge here is to ensure that our organisational approach sits in line with these social approaches: are we resisting the flood or ready to harness it’s energy?
My last three points around learning technology can be viewed as going to the dark side… we use technology to command, control and restrict.
My views here are more subjective: clearly there are organisational and legal reasons why certain materials are controlled, and why we limit access, but i’m looking beyond that. I’m more concerned why, in the Social Age, when our approaches to work should be evolving, that organisations are still obsessed with whether you’re looking at Facebook or stopping you booking a holiday.
Using technology to command people to do things just speeds up our adaptation to avoid those very things. Nobody is fooled by auto generated reminders. They’re usually just offensive. We need to be very careful how we configure learning technology to issue commands or reminders to people and, again, this is something that vendors are often not well placed to help with (although they may have the power to make it happen). I have become highly efficient at filtering out the numerous reminders that pop into my inbox or up on my phone throughout the day: it’s not a good way of getting my attention. I’m not alone. We need to use these push notifications with care.
Similarly, control and restriction of knowledge is not helpful in a world where agile learners are those ones who can find things out quickly and synthesise meaning from the results. Instead of hiding things away, we should be obsessed with sharing them and in exploring the meaning that groups can create upon those things. Meaning is different from knowledge, but meaning is what we are striving for: meaning that lets us make things relevant to our everyday reality.
Learning technology has changed the face of learning, but it’s not without it’s risks. If you looked at learning within your organisation, and looked at these measures, would you find you veered towards the light or the dark side? Do you focus too much on infrastructure and not enough on potential? Do you do things that are hard at the cost of getting easy things right? Can you take anything forward to influence future strategy? These headings may not be right for you, but can you find a balance between command and control and enablement?
Technology doesn’t guarantee learning, but it may facilitate it, if we get it right.