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elearnspace Interview
Jay Cross

 

October 27 , 2002

elearnspace: First - a bit about yourself - your background is steeped in business, education, and the Internet, so obviously these three merged into elearning. You are a graduate of Princeton and a Harvard MBA, with additional study in everything from instructional design, systems analysis, and direct marketing to leadership and learning. Beyond that, any information about you that your readers might find interesting?
Cross: For one thing, I live in Berkeley, California -- "The People's Republic of Berkeley" -- which is home to many independently-minded thinkers, and this fits with my contrarian viewpoint on a lot of things. People here are skeptical about everything. My home office is ringed by redwoods and oddball characters. I try to walk in the woods every day. Sometimes I get a Nobel Laureate's mail by mistake. I love it here.

I am a Southerner born in Hope, Arkansas, in the same room as Bill Clinton. Before coming to California 25 years ago, I had lived in Texas, Rhode Island, Virginia, Paris, Heidelberg, Boston, and West Point.

elearnspace: Elearning is an aggregation industry - it draws from various existing fields - notably education and technology. What is it that drew you to this field in the first place? In fact, I've read that you coined the term "elearning".
Cross: I wasn't drawn to it so much as it grew around me. I'd been in the traditional training business off and on for about 30 years, and I find it a marvelous business. It's rewarding because you can see people grow as a result of your efforts. I just love it because there is so much leverage in training and education. A little input can lead to a lot of enjoyment and production.

"Then the web came along. I was just entranced. I thought this is it. It was flexible, it was everywhere, it was visual as well as text, and I started saying "We've got to get into this - our customers will demand it.""

I've also always been involved with computers. My first job out of college was selling mainframes for NCR. I've run a couple of software startups. Computing is another area where the potential is just limitless.

As for getting into elearning, I managing marketing for a successful training firm. Our company fell in love with CD's because they were so much better training tools than books. And compared to instructor-led training, CD's could scale.

Then the web came along. I was entranced. The web was flexible, it was everywhere, it was visual as well as text, and I started saying "We've got to get into this - our customers will demand it." My boss thought I was nuts. It was the wrong time, the wrong company to do it, so I was canned. I continued researching the possibilities, talking with Cisco, Sun, Intel, Netscape, and anyone else who seemed hip. The industry just started happening around me. It was delightful to have the convergence take place and to be in at the beginning.

When CBT Systems was contemplating becoming SmartForce, "the eLearning Company," they put "eLearning" into a search engine. It pointed to internettime.com, internettime.com, internettime.com, internettime.com, internettime.com, internettime.com, internettime.com, internettime.com, and Cisco.com. I've been advising organizations about eLearning ever since.

elearnspace: What is it that keeps you in elearning?
Cross: Well, I'm not in elearning. I think that elearning as a term has begun to have some bad baggage and is becoming dated. The term focuses too much on "Hey, isn't the Internet cool" and too little on "Do people behave any differently after they finished?". To me, the term "blended" only shows the narrow-mindedness of people who thought they could get away with computer only-training. I have said all along that elearning is augmentation of learning. It's only a tool in a nifty toolbox.

The learning revolution can be declared a success when the term elearning fades away, and it's "Well of course that's how you do things. You always use the Net when you think of training". Can you imagine a corporate effort where there is something important people have to know, and it doesn't include the Net somehow?

elearnspace: Turning to your site InternetTime.com. You started off blogging and carrying news items. You mentioned recently that as a result of sites like elearningpost, OLDaily, and Learning Circuits, which provide excellent news and resources, you are refocusing your site? How so and what's your vision with it?
Cross: Well, the evolution goes further back. I'd been keeping a link list, rather than a blog, for a long, long time. I had a webpage when Mosaic came out. Back then you needed a road map, there was no Google or Yahoo!. You'd find a link and trade it with your buddies! Then as I wrote more, I used it as a research tool, and it was like I was just sharing my notes with the rest of the world. It became a library of stuff that I'd found or written. I then became interested in blogging. I realized that my interest is in what's changing and what's new. Now I focus on new issues and trends, and caring less about the formalized "this has been decided" stuff.

elearnspace: So what can visitors expect at your site over the next while?
Cross: I'm playing around a lot more with pictures; I'm starting to add sound. I like to pioneer things that others can take and make their own. Last night, I narrated a fifteen minute presentation. Now you can stream it off the web. My book on marketing elearning in-house just came out, so I'm developing a community site to support the book. I imagine the site will probably take on more of a European flavor, because I'm very interested in the global, not just the domestic, marketplace.

"I just love it because there is so much leverage in training and education. A little input can lead to a lot of enjoyment and production."

elearnspace: What about your own view of learning? What role do you see yourself playing in the current elearning industry?
Cross: I don't think of it as a "role". I've given up on formal planning and a lot of the structured approaches I learned while I was an MBA student. I'm just very curious. I like to tinker with things and I like sharing whatever I find with other people. So it will always be experimental.

One thing I love to do is to jam together things from different domains to see what happens. One, of course, was software capabilities and the Net; I called that elearning. Lately I've been thinking about how marketing and learning go together. For a long time, we've used tests and grades to coerce students to learn. In corporations reprimands and salary threats serve are the "motivators.". Neither education nor corporations have done any good marketing -- having the right stuff that draws learners in and appeals to their intrinsic motivation. Undoubtably, I'll be doing more work in this area. Lance Dublin and I are putting together a diagnostic to assess how an organization can leverage its investment in learning through change management and internal marketing. An elearning shop better be in business to serve its customers, the learners.
.

"One thing I love to do is to jam together things from different domains and then see what happens."

elearnspace: What about the concept of "embedded learning"? Stephen Downes has discussed products of the future that have the learning built into it. Is this what you refer to with customer learning?
Cross: The concern should be about the total cost of ownership with any product or service. If I'm going to deal with something, I want to take the easiest path to mastering and using the technology. Let's have a better manual, performance support, have the thing talk to me, make it easier to use, or have it learn to serve me better. I'm 100% in accordance with Stephen on this. I think it's even more open-ended than "embedded learning". Embedded learning sounds like you've got to put it on a chip. I don't put that limit on it. Whatever it takes - and it'll take different things for different types of products.

"We've moved from measuring butts in seats to hits on a web page"

elearnspace: There seems to be a lack of a defining elearning industry community. Pockets of interest seem to bump into each other occasionally, but never seem to gel to create a vibrant community. Is this a symptom of elearning as a young industry? What is needed to enhance the community focus for elearning?
Cross: It may be that community is not what the focus of elearning should be. It could be that it's more important to create vertical markets. It makes more sense, for example, that all the people who are in elearning from agriculture or pharmaceuticals get together, rather than the broad elearning industry.

Now, with that said, eLearning Forum is more of a community. We've grown it from what used to be an informal luncheon group that would meet once a month. We'd have 20 people. Now we have about 60 or more showing up each month, with 1400 people on the mailing list. We're beefing up the website, adding narrated content, there's simple job-finding forums, and committed to doing a better job of serving our remote members through webcasts and discussion. .

elearnspace: What aspects of elearning are flourishing and which are faltering?
Cross: Financial analysts spread the memes on the industry's health, and this was great in the dotcom hay day. Now that Wall Street is in the toilet, elearning coverage is very negative. This obscures some of the great things that are going on inside major organizations, things that don't appear on the analysts' radar. There's a big difference between an investor's look at the market place and what's effective in elearning. Clark Aldrich took a statement that we used to use with banks and applied it to elearning: "Some of these elearning companies may not be around, but elearning is here to stay."

elearnspace: In higher education, there seems to be a bit of a whiplash against the expensive high-cost learning management system. An emerging mind set seems to be that "Well, maybe we don't need to go that formal. Maybe we can just start off with some web pages."
Cross: Absolutely! Allison Rossett talks about over-engineered learning management systems: "We've moved from measuring butts in seats to hits on a web page". That doesn't improve people's learning.

The backlash isn't confined to higher education. I'm encouraging eLearning Forum to devote a session to "eLearning on a shoestring." There are so many ways to apply the Net to improving performance and many of them are dirt cheap. Just don't expect to buy them from a coin-operated salesperson.

elearnspace: Recently on Elearning Forum, you did a feature on enterprise application integration. An LMS that connects with a CRM and ERP makes a lot of sense. Is that the direction things are going in?
Cross: It seems to be. A number of big learning management system purchases have stalled because buyers are waiting to see what PeopleSoft comes up with in December. The conversation goes like this: "Let's get a learning management system" and the head of finance comes in and says "Look we've already got a contract with SAP. I've looked at these learning management companies, and they may not be around in a year". So there's a lot in favor of integrating ERP and eLearning.

However, there is a mitigating factor. Lots and lots of these enterprise implementations fail to make expectations. Half of these big systems never work. Logically, everything can be put into this one big database, attached to front-ends for learning, ERP, and CRM. Practically, the history to date doesn't suggest that this will work flawlessly. There is a philosophical divide as well, when I look at Southwest Airlines where the spirits are so high and people are intrinsically motivated to do a better job - that beats the pants off a learning management system that basically tells you Charlie's not going to class (even though he may be the best-performing salesperson).

elearnspace: Are there other trends in the elearning industry, beside EAI, that you expect to develop in the future?
Cross: Well, it's no secret that simulation is coming on strong. Now there's more talk than action, but having an immersive learning environment where you learn by doing is fantastic for some things - soft skills, decision making, selling. These are now very labor intensive to teach, and simulations could do a wonderful job.

On another level, and I don't have a feel for when this will happen, but there has to more of a focus on the individual than the organizational. Right now, you take courses, the company pays and keeps track. The learners better track what they take, because when they leave, there's no record of their learning. Increasingly, people are temporary or short-term members of organizations. The ideal management system for a learner would make a learner's record available outside of their organizations. Each person needs their own records.

elearnspace: What about the balance between learning and technology? Currently it seems to be heavily technology focused. What is needed to achieve the proper balance.
Cross: Two quick stories. One, in the summer I attended a session of about 60 people - from IBM, United Technologies, GM - a lot of people who knew what they were doing. The subject was creating a culture of learning. We had people with heavy technology background, and almost every issue we talk about was social. It came down to the people. Technology was always secondary.

"The subject was creating a culture of learning. We had people with heavy technology background, and almost every issue we talk about was social. It came down to the people. Technology was always secondary."

The second story - I was in the computer business in the 60's. The applications we first took on were the ones that were easy to program - accounting, payroll, and banking. In those times, only a fool would suggest using computers to support learning. It was too complex. Elearning is starting the same way by picking the low-hanging fruit. It has been identified too much with technology. IT training works very well for elearning - so it started there. That has been the largest payback to-date. So the attention is focused there. When people see 80% of the action there, they identify the whole field with the technology that supports it.

elearnspace: Where do you go for elearning information?
Cross: I post some of my favorites on my links page. Increasingly I'm getting excited about what I read on people's blogs - David Weinberger, eCLIPSE, and eLearningPost. Sometimes I go to Slashdot. I love the diversity of sources that are available. I like to be challenged by ideas from the outside, so now I'm digging into Stephen Wolfram's site, I'm going to a lot of sites that have to do with graphics, how the brain works, and network phenomena. I look at the Net as being a bunch of Cliff's Notes summaries. So if I'm at some point, and I want to go a little further, I can go to Google and quickly go into greater depth.

elearnspace: Any concluding comments about elearning or the industry?
Cross: Well, intellectually, it's a great time to be alive. One can have a whole lot of fun, there are no boundaries to what one can do. Intangibility is great! The kingdom of ideas is upon us!

   

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