Learning in a digital age

“Learning, as we know it, is dying”. Those were the words written with a black marker on my bedroom wall, me contemplating in sleeplessness one evening a few months ago; a mythical yet actual prophesy of the future of business learning.

The tri-decade period between the early 1970’s until the embarkation of the “matured Google” was the occupation of predominant classroom-based learning. Initially workers drove to venues, received books, listened to a lecture, looked at a slide, had lunch and completed a feedback form. A revised learning model then later acknowledged modern training principles and lecture was reinforced with questions, classroom activities and group work. It placed pressure on trainers to stop mainstream lecturing and become inclusive. Facilitation and the concept of “death by PowerPoint” were born.

In the last few years experts transformed classroom-based learning into well-planned conceptual experiences. For the masters in facilitation, lecturing was reduced to a bare minimum, supplemented with a variety of open and closed questions, media and facilitation styles meeting all principles of the likes of Kolb, de Bono, Herzberg, and Bloom, effective class-room lay-outs, group-work for the right-brained, reflection for the left, self-exploration activities for the frontal lobes, and the linking of experiences for the learners with strong back-brain development. Classroom-learning achieved its utmost levels of efficiency. Then, along came the mouse.

Click here” was the email invitation sent from Coursera, an online company providing universal access to the world’s best education, for a free training course, endorsed by some of the best Universities world-wide. “Click here” was another invite from Siminars, an e-Learning specialists company, to start your online Microsoft Excel Intermediate course at a fraction of the price of classroom learning. Time management training could now be done at home or in office, saving workers time by not having to sit in a classroom all day. Skill in Office Applications transformed to a need-to-know basis, allowing learners to extract only crucial key skill to complete tasks.

Over and above the formal online learning systems, workers started Googling answers to their business ineptitudes. Phrases like “How does macros work in excel?” providing over 5 million results and “Top 10 principles for effective leaders” exceeding 6 million results gave way to more self-exploration and less classroom learning. A periodical published in 1914, “The Expositor and Current Anecdotes” stated “Educated people are not those who know everything, but rather those who know where to find, at a moment’s notice, the information they desire”. It seems that this technologically ancient phrase became utterly relevant to modern learning. The era of online learning gave birth, but something was missing.

I was involved in setting up an E-learning system for a company wanting to streamline their learning and development by saving costs on facilitator fees and saving time off work for learners. The e-learning system was highly interactive (for its time) and allowed learners to participate in learning at various levels. Initially the e-Learning software would focus on product-related training only, but with time it allowed access to a variety of business and leadership programmes to, saving the company a substantial amount of cash.

In later surveys conducted we concluded that less than 11% of staff regularly accessed the online learning portal and that, although the interactivity, workers did not enjoy having to interact with a computer system. Although higher ratings were obtained for product learning, softer skill was almost unutilised. The company could also not prove increased performance or improved skill based on this transformation. Occasional classroom training still occurred but for most the experience of learning was deducted to an animated lecturer asking monotone questions. Yet again, something was missing.

For us, a strong message came out of the survey. The nature of learning lies in the future of technological capacity. The whole idea of the “blended learning” concept was to supplement a somewhat impersonal computer software system. The inevitable question about the future of classroom training, however, remains unanswered. Hopefully, because of my bias love of facilitation, it will always remain. From experience I know that there are crucial EQ related skill which can only be attained when in direct contact with other individuals. It’s unlikely that training like Anger Management, Emotional Intelligence, Leadership, Coaching and so forth can be wholly replaced by software, unless artificial intelligence rises to that of dynamism and provides a real life human experience. I believe classroom learning has its feet grounded firmly in the near-future of learning. Beyond that I might find myself completing a feedback form on my iPad rating the emotional involvement of a newly formed facilitator version of Siri and five other holographic students.

So in conclusion it’s a principle of integration. Richness and wealth in knowledge can only truly be obtained when it has diversity at hand. I am foreseeing more webinars complemented with online assessments, a bit of iPad reading, a quick classroom meetup, a virtual group activity, a one-on-one in a coaching room, a bit of web research, maybe a visit to the library, and an in-depth discussion with Siri.

The writing is not on the wall anymore. My bedroom has been painted since then. I choose to look at learning with an overwhelmingly sentimental love for the classroom, the laughter, the ah-ha moments, the lightening up, the sometimes tears and often thank you messages on WhatsApp, knowing that there is just as much magic in exploring online learning, and knowing that it is a tricky business to get right.


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