Core changes rarely come easy to existing systems. Change
builds incrementally. First it builds on what exists – using existing
models, approaches, language, and habits. But, as Kuhn suggested, periodically,
we encounter such an array of anomalies in existing world views, that
we must essentially reframe the space.
Video was initially used as a tool to record stage productions.
The left over remnants of the world view still exist in the term “motion
pictures” - a term used for convenience, not for meaning, as we
no longer see video only as moving pictures. We have now come to understand
video as a unique medium with unique affordances. In our views of learning
and technology, we are at a similar point. Instead of duplicating existing
classroom activities, we can create new, richer, more contextual learning
Like video assumed to do the work of stage productions,
or the web to do the work of books, or elearning to duplicate the activities
of classrooms, we stand at a point of transformation. The baton of each
generation is passed on to the next – the agricultural era to the
industrial, the industrial to the technological, and the technological
to the knowledge. We are at the jumping off point now, where learning
becomes a keystone in any organization’s strategy.
And so, we build for a world that no longer exists. We
are entering an age of complex, challenging (wicked) problems. Linear,
cause-effect reasoning no longer suffice. Static, context-less, content-centric
approaches will not work. As Einstein has stated, significant problems
facing our generation will not be solved at the same level of thinking
which created the problems. Global warming. Population growth. Epidemics.
Our education system is simply not equipping individuals to deal with
the issues. Nor are most corporate training approaches preparing individuals
for globally complex markets where immediate knowledge of trends or impacting
factors is required.
We are building for a world that no longer exists. Our
learning models of today are not where they need to be to help us succeed
in the future. Educationally, we are trying to enter the automobile era
by developing the equestrian skills of our learners.
There are simple and trite things that we can say about
knowledge: it’s growing rapidly, it’s becoming more complex,
it’s global, and that it’s connected.
…and learning: it’s social, it’s informal,
it’s continuous, it’s embedded in the daily activities of
I assume these to be evident, and won’t tire you
with extensive proclamations of these changes.
A few key changes are worth highlight, however. The subtlety
with which these changes moved into our lives leaves us partly blind to
the depth of their impact.
Co-creation and participation.
or BBC’s new initiative Your News –
entirely consisting of user-created content. Bloggers comprise an additional
avenue to established news outlets. Open source software has a long history
of partnering with its users – each user is a potential contributor
to the application. ZeFrank has
utilized various participatory tools in engaging his online viewers –
included wiki-based chess, Fabuloso Fridays (where users write the show),
and creating an “earth sandwich”.
Social software…connecting with others…social
networks – the term “social” is a fashionable adjective
to describe new software, organizational design and learning. While the
use is gaining hype-status, the concept is critical. Knowledge and learning
as social. Distributed knowledge is required to manage the complexity
of knowledge today. We need to move beyond ourselves and into a socially-mediated,
technology-enabled environment. The ability to collectively create and
collectively understand (or understand based on the collective) is critical.
David Weinberger suggests that social technologies are
enabling “the great complexification” – a trend at odds
with the objective of distilled simplicity sought by marketers. Complexifying
issues enables comprehension of diverse factors potentially impacting
successful decision making. But to act, we do need to simplify. We need
simplicity in achieving complex tasks. The distillation toward simplicity
should be in our hands, not it the hands of others. In particular, we
require simple technologies - for example, the tools we use for learning
should not be more difficult than the act or objective of learning we
Recombination & new tools
Text is being extended by multimedia – audio, videos,
games. The capacity to control, to build, to recreate, or to build on
the work of others is now often in the hands of individuals themselves.
Content creator and consumer are being blurred.
Mobile technology is an additional consideration for
learning professionals and business leaders. Few technologies have experienced
the rapid growth of mobiles. With over 2 billion devices in use, mobiles
eclipse the estimated 750 million PCs. The thumb generation
sees the internet as something that comes to them…not something
they go to. Consideration to mobiles, games and simulations (like Second Life where virtual blends with real)
are important considerations for future learning environments. Our learning
content must be available to the device and in the environment they desire.
A recent BusinessWeek article
stated, we are now in an era of “internet of things” where
everyday items can be added to the network (through RFID). It may be a
t-shirt traveling a production line, or it may be your mobile phone. More
and more, everything is becoming network aware. Anything can be exposed
to a network. A world completely and constantly networked. This has huge
implications to how we design our learning.
A large scale restructuring is creating a revolution
in our methods of communicating. Blogs, wikis, video logs, podcasts, social
book marking, image sharing sites, aggregators, and RSS feeds are part
of a continually developing toolset providing individuals great levels
of control (and a rich sequence of buzzwords for mockery and ridicule).
Knowledge is fluid
When information changes slowly, it acquires a form,
i.e. it becomes a product. So we can consume content as products –
books, journals, etc. In segments of rapid change, we require a different
approach. Instead of consuming product-based knowledge, we must become
skilled at interacting with knowledge as a process. Instead of pre-defined
containers into which we place new knowledge, we permit knowledge itself
to emerge. Organization assigned by each individual (required for making
decisions and action) is more contextual than categorization defined in
Knowledge is a constant quest of humanity. Information
asymmetries (with information defined as the building block of knowledge)
held the many at the feet of the few…doctors, lawyers, marketers,
real estate agents. Yet the digital Gutenberg has reached the public.
The internet laid bare information previously reserved for the few, the
initiated. We are now able to receive instant information on events around
the world – we can browse the world with online satellite images
– mobile tools enable continued connectivity to information, friends,
family, and work. We can walk into a doctor’s office knowing our
symptoms, and having researched potential illnesses. We can research existing
market trends, instead of relying on financial advisors.
Our access to knowledge is no longer our key concern.
It is our ability to cope, or our ability to translate abundance into
some type of action that is most important today. It is no longer more
knowledge we need. It is our ability to act on what we already hold. How
does a corporation manage the wealth of customer feedback found in blogs?
How does an organization foster passionate commitment by engaging clients?
How does a salesperson make sense of trends, local market fluctuations,
media perceptions? How does a researcher extract meaning from growing
mounds of data – often cross-discipline? How do we function when
knowledge exceeds our ability to grasp it?
Abundance changes habits. Money is perhaps the simplest
example, but abundance in that regard applies to a select few. Information
abundance, however, confronts everyone. Much like extremely wealthy individuals
have a choice to not perform menial tasks, our relationship to information
must also change. We no longer process information at a basic level. We
seek to process knowledge from information patterns revealed by technology.
Social bookmarking and tagging are first generation tools
providing insight into how technology assists in learning and knowledge
growth. Consider the flickr
tag cloud. Or University of Manitoba’s virtual learning commons
(content is a conduit for conversation), or social bookmarking sites like
Digg or del.icio.us.
The pattern represents information filtered by a network. We then
move to meaning-making, not information processing.
As we move to increased emphasis on pattern recognition,
we have to revisit how we design our learning itself. The shift from static
to dynamic is only now beginning to filter through our organizations.
As knowledge morphs, so too must our organizational learning design. Command
and control needs to shift to foster and promote.
Innovation is a function of chaos. The more prepared
and more capable we are to function in the space of not knowing, the more
likely will be our ability to innovate.
In our training needs, innovation is a significant challenge.
We have done well in the past to wait for change to occur,
and then to react. Instead, today we must anticipate. Consider two different
scenarios: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape in contrast
with Google and Microsoft. In a period of a few years, Microsoft decimated Netscape’s
market share. Once Microsoft identified Netscape as a risk, it was able
to refocus its corporate activities rapidly to confront the challenge.
Google, on the other hand, has been identified as a Microsoft
threat for several years, but is continuing to grow its
market share in search. Microsoft has not yet created an effective
strategy to compete with Google. If current indications of search growth
and market share, coupled with ongoing additions to their social software
and web operating systems, Microsoft must awaken to a changed game of
No one took a course on how to compete with Microsoft.
And no one at Microsoft will take a course to learn how to compete with
Google. The learning involved in this space will happen as a function
of doing – continual, experimental, and ongoing. Seed, select, amplify
(Meyer and Davis).
Rethink our spaces and structures
We are dealing with a new type of knowledge, requiring
us to rethink courses and programs. We are dealing with knowledge that
develops too quickly to be held in the mind of any one individual. Complexity
is compounded by our reliance on approaches at odds with our evolving
relationship with knowledge, and thereby our need for learning. This requires
the use of filtering agents (in the form of networks) to stay current.
Current approaches to training do not work with the emerging
traits of knowledge. As Bill Gates states
- schools, even when working as designed, fail our learners. We need to
rethink our spaces and structures of learning. Our views of learning have
not really changed substantially in the last several hundred years: the
expert in front, the seekers of knowledge in rows. This model is effective
for certain types of knowledge – particularly foundational or static
knowledge, even though our growing understanding of learning is translating
into increased reliance on socially mediated approaches. I personally
enjoy a well-crafted lecture. I also enjoy listening to a speaker who
has thought deeply on issues and treats audience members with the fruits
of hard mental labor in a clearly presented call to action (audience members
may find this lacking in my presentation!).
The concern facing us now is that less and less of our
knowledge is of the type well-suited to lectures. More and more of our
knowledge requires a specific type of learning – according the concerns
I’ve listed previously. How well does our classroom model work for
this emerging knowledge landscape - a landscape proliferated with mobile
devices, social networks, real-time access to information, competing global
economies, and a myriad of other complexity-inducing factors?
Consideration of context, networks, ecologies, and systems
provides insight on directions required as we move forward. How we design
our learning. How we release new products. How we develop organizational
leaders. How we enter new markets. How we develop our students. How we
physically design our offices. The changes that have for many years slowly
seeped into our organizations are now at a point of washing over and transforming
our spaces and structures of knowledge.
We need to consider two approaches as we move forward:
networks and ecologies.
Networks are pervasive – they form the backbone
of our society, our biology, and our world. Networks exist in every aspect
of life – including – literally - our DNA. We see networks
in our travel system – how our airlines works, our family and work
relationships. We identify our selves with particular organizations –
churches or religious body. Networks are the girder around which society,
and life itself, are formed.
The network serves as an offloading tool – holding
knowledge. In a sense, the networks we create become our learning –
that is, our capacity to stay current, informed, and knowledgeable.
Unfortunately, in the softer sciences – such as
our understanding of learning – we have largely ignored the power
of networks. That’s beginning to change with increased understanding
of neural networks and secrets being pried from the former black box of
the human mind. But overall, little network-thinking makes its way explicitly
into our learning design. Our training systems should foster deeper levels
of networking – forming connections with knowledge sources that
will serve us well even as existing knowledge is eroded and rendered obsolete
by the acidic nature of change. Network formation is the act of sharing
and distributing knowledge. A course provides for short-term knowledge
needs. A well-crafted network, provides for continual, life-long learning.
We need to stop asking our learners to come to our content.
Our content should come to them – in their space. An LMS –
or any other so-called elearning tool becomes one that distributes content
to learners in their native tool.
Betting against networks is, in
the eyes of CEO of Google Eric Schmidt “foolish you’re
betting against human ingenuity and creativity”.
Networks need to occur in something. Networks are structures.
We need to create diverse ecologies in which networks can grow and flourish.
An ecology is a chaotic messy space that enables individuals to learn
and form connections.
engineers to commit 20% of their work time to exploring personal ideas
and interests. Innovation and functioning in chaotic markets is not something
that happens in the absence of different modes of operation. Status quo
operations produce status quo results. The real question is whether status
All of this needs to happen in a systems model –
where we see holistically, rather than isolated elements. Increasingly
in our emerging educational technology field – a moderate is viewed
as radical. Seeing complex, holistic view of the multiple facets of learning
and the complex landscape of knowledge gives way to pithy, one-dimensional
hype or vendor-speak. Much like the politician with the best ideas fails
to capture the ear of the voting public…losing ground instead to
a “sound bite” opponent. As learning moves deeper and deeper
into mission-critical status in our organizations, we must begin to perceive
it in its entirety – making distinctions of approach and form based
on our intended outcome or objectives. We need to pursue a balanced and
Context is the key. Failure to account for context in
learning planning and design may add more confusion, rather than clarity,
to a learning challenge. Holistic views of learning and knowledge development
translate to corporate bottoms lines; to better learning in a classroom;
to more fully equipped members of society. Numerous elements are involved
in the interplay – the hard elements of rules and structures, with
the soft elements of human behaviour, motivation, incentives, or ideals.
The complexification of knowledge requires that we adopt
an approach that is more reflective of the situations we encounter. Too
often we embark of a training program or a leadership approach that is
ill-suited with the task we are trying to solve. Consider using a formal
training process to foster innovation. Or informal learning for foundational
The clarification of a particular context largely provides
the step forward. For example – innovation requires a different
approach than compliancy-based training. Context determines type of learning
we need to approach.
Global growth in higher education is not developing along
the lines supported by advocates suggesting its obsolescence. World wide
enrolment in higher education will almost double in the next 25 years
(90 million: 2001, 160 million: 2025) (As cited by Diana
Oblinger). We need to see the more complete whole, and not over-react
to developing trends. So it becomes apparent that we need to contextualize
our discussion so as to appropriately highlight the nature of the change
we are advocating.
The world the way it is…
A battle rages between our desires – the world
as we would have it – and the way things unfold as concerns of others
are factored in. No singular model will deliver the full depth of learning
and training required. We must begin to see a rich toolset of different
approaches to learning – formal, informal, mentorship, self-learning,
communities, games and simulations, and performance support.
What then does the model look like? While we cannot fully
define an emergent system, we can describe elements and components.
1. Our ability to be successful at this level requires
increased acceptance of human and technology integrated approaches. Technology
is in the rudimentary stages of providing patterning in complex environments.
Much like graphs of social connections, crime areas, or the spread of
diseases, deep insight can be gained from the patterns produced by behaviours
of individuals online. Tag clouds and social bookmarking reveals insight
into the activities of millions of individuals.
2. The criticality of connections – connect more
of the organization to itself. However, at a certain point of connectedness,
networks may breakdown. Density of connection, as Beinhocker pointed out
in Origin of Wealth (p. 154), can actually paralyze, not liberate an organization.
In order for connectedness to be of value, it needs to be of a type that
is relevant to individuals. Random connections and access to information
not inline with our daily work often does not serve us well (though in
some situations, serendipity does result from random encounters).
3. Balanced & contextual thinking and planning. No
one model meets the needs of the entire space. Success in learning design
and implementation requires balancing impacting factors. Context definition
and holistic thinking are critical.
4. Redesign spaces and structures of learning and knowledge
creation. Instead of relying on highly structured knowledge delivery,
networks and ecologies provide a balance that permits individuals to achieve
learning required by the organization and desired by the learner.
5. “Staying current” experimentation –
not as a buzzword, but as a focused strategy to explore ideas and approaches.
Experimentation is important in competence development – especially
when we are unclear about directions to take. Instead of acting according
to a pre-designed model, we need to rely on “sensing” the
problem or knowledge space.
6. New literacy for individuals. Our quest to repurpose
learning in networks and ecologies will not happen in the absence of developing
new “meta-skills” - the most critical being digital or knowledge
literacy. Individuals need skills to cope in the knowledge avalanche.
Better tools. Better skills. Better methods. The combination of these
three provides the ability to cope and function.
Learning, in how today’s organizations are defined,
is silo-based. We have “learning centers” and “training
departments” – treating learning as if it were a compartment
or corporate activity in which we sometimes engage, rather than a constant,
ongoing process – a thread through the fabric of daily activities.
Learning is a thread that runs through all of life. We do not belong only
in corporate training rooms. The act of learning is ongoing and constant.
An organizations ability to adapt is important to ongoing
survival (even innovation, if you will). But the adaptation must be of
a particular type. It must be progressive, ongoing, punctuated with periodic
bursts (the transformation), but many about progressive, but not overly
reactionary trends to what is going on in the larger learning landscape.
Few organizations will be positioned to adopt wholesales the ideas I’ve
presented. To do so would damage many elements of the system continuing
to work well. But to survive, all organizations need to embrace experimentation
– an ongoing “blood in the corporate veins” type of
experimentation. Policy-induced change can be effective, but most often,
if we follow the lessons of evolving organisms, developing corporate competence
progressively is the best approach for long-term sustained change.