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4 reasons why ‘experience’ is the focus in learning now

There’s been a shift in learning technology over the last two decades – from systems that help companies run their training more efficiently, to technology that puts the emphasis on the individual learner. Why did this happen? And is it a real, permanent shift or just another L&D fad? I hope it’s a permanent change because there are strong macro drivers in society, the economy and the world of work that have led us to a position where getting the learner experience right is absolutely the critical focus for L&D success now.

Elearning isn’t as popular a term as it once was. But there’s another ‘e’-word you’ll find pretty impossible to avoid now if you’re the sort of person who attends learning industry events and reads learning blogs. It seems that just about everybody is talking about the learner experience.

The ‘experience’ word is everywhere. While the learning management system was once the only game in town, we now have this new thing, the learning experience platform. Learning designers are now learning experience designers. 

It’s not just in learning that you hear the ‘e’word. HR people focus on the ‘employee experience’. In marketing circles you’ll hear a lot of talk about the ‘customer experience’, and they also obsess about the ‘brand experience’. What is going on?

If we’re being honest, many such buzzwords come along in L&D and often disappear again just as quickly. Some are merely fads (learning is Second Life anyone?). But there are strong reasons for believing that the current focus on the learner experience might be a bit more durable than most. 

Why? Because when you look at workplace learning through a long lens, and think how the world has changed around us since we first started launching online courses from learning management systems in the late 1990s, you quickly realise how massive the scope of changes has been since then.

In the Learning Pool white paper, Powering the Modern Learner Experience: Next-Generation Learning Tools Come of Age, these changes are grouped into four main areas:

  • Work
  • Employment
  • Technology
  • Learning Theory

Four key drivers of learning change

No single one of these areas could be said to have sole responsibility for bringing about a situation where the learner experience becomes the necessary and even inevitable focus for learning departments. But taken together, they exert a strong pressure for that to be the way we look at things now.

Changes in working patterns

In the two decades or so during which the LMS was the dominant paradigm of learning systems, powerful forces including globalisation, the rapid evolution of the internet and innovations in consumer electronics have changed the world of work profoundly.

Growth of the ‘on-demand’ economy. Numbers of freelance workers in the economy have risen dramatically since the turn of the millennium. In the US they are growing three times faster than the traditional workforce, and by 2027 freelancers are expected to form the majority.

Contingent or ‘extended’ workforce. Further to the above, businesses now deploy whole cohorts of contingent workers to meet skills gaps and achieve particular strategic goals. These workers need to be onboarded, trained in relevant skill sets and given the knowledge to work in compliance with industry regulation, but trying to do this within the corporate LMS can be a struggle.

Flexible working. Flexibility is now the most-desired non-monetary benefits for US workers, a trend that is only likely to continue. Flexible and remote working, however, carry a risk of isolation which throws more emphasis on the social aspect of learning – something that can be ill-served by an LMS structured around self-paced elearning modules as the default mode of delivery.          

Accelerating product cycles. Product development cycle times decreased significantly over the 15–20 years to 2010 and with the key drivers of technological innovation on exponential curves, there is no sign of this trend slowing anytime soon. This has been a significant driver of recent developments such as ‘microlearning’, curation and user-generated content. It may also be fuelling a culture of self-directed learning as learners seek to avoid the friction associated with learning departments where access to learning has to be requested and approved.

A new organizational paradigm. Between 1983 and 2013, more than 90% of non-financial S&P companies dropped out of the index. With disruption from younger, tech-enabled competitors affecting all sectors to greater or lesser degree, there has been a big drive for organisations towards digital transformation, adopting more agile structures and processes. 

This new paradigm breaks down the idea of an organization as a directed, hierarchical structure where employees are given their career direction from above and spoon-fed training. But it also puts pressure on organizations to reskill more effectively, and to support continuous learning so as to keep up with the pace of technology-driven change.

Changes in employee circumstances and expectations

Changes in the organization have been accompanied by, and to some extent have caused, changes in the employer/employee relationship. The dynamics of this relationship have changed radically since the 1980s with the transition from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy. 

Shortened tenure expectations. Levels of employee engagement are low, and today’s employees feel far less sense of obligation towards their employer, and are more ready to move if the grass looks greener on the other side of the fence.

Pressures of the always-on, wired world. Meanwhile, since the advent of Web 2.0, social media, smart mobile devices and always-on internet, the pace of life has been cranked up for these employees both at work and at home. A more information-rich environment has produced higher expectations around what we should all be able to accomplish with that information and how quickly.

Technological change

As Moore’s Law propelled technological advance along exponential growth curves, technology became the engine of radical and often unpredictable changes in business and society.

Mobility. The advent of the smartphone placed an unprecedented amount of computing power and information in the hands of ordinary people, a development that went hand in hand with the extraordinary growth of social media. As cloud computing increased and more and more applications became portable between the user’s different devices, an expectation arose that work-based applications such as the company LMS should behave this way too. 

Explosion of online content. As bandwidth increased and costs of media production plummeted, image- and video-based content exploded on the internet. Meanwhile tools for cheap content-generation proliferated, and at the same time, social media platforms such as Facebook, Linkedin and especially YouTube normalized the phenomenon of user-generated content that had started with blogs and forums.

Suddenly, everyone on the internet was a publisher. With print publishers and mainstream media no longer the gatekeeper of news and ideas, learning departments being the exclusive controllers of learning content within organisations began to seem anachronistic.

Growth in sophistication of data analytics

The first generation of learning systems relied on the industry-specific standard SCORM for tracking, which tracks a very limited number of data points. As data became routinely referred to as ‘the new oil’, it seemed that learning platforms were still in the steam age when it came to analytics. In an industry not historically that hot on evaluation, awareness began to grow that while the rest of the enterprise was massively increasing its use of big data, and real-time analytics, learning lagged. 

But attempts to update SCORM 1.2 had only partial success, and it was not until the advent of xAPI (also known as Tin Can or the Experience API) that SCORM received a viable successor that could help bring L&D into the data age.

Artificial Intelligence

In the last decade AI has emerged as a critical technology driver that is starting to have effects in almost every business to greater or lesser degree.  Many new jobs are likely to be created and old ones reconfigured as machines take over more and more routine thinking tasks from humans. 

Those who have to manage such automated tasks and functions need at least an understanding of how AI does what it does. Those who jobs are replaced wholesale will need to retrain.   

These new knowledge and skills needs will increasingly become a focus for L&D. They also intensify the need for learning systems that can support continuous learning and effective reskilling at pace and at scale.

Changes in the theoretical underpinnings of workplace learning

Creating self-paced online learning required theoretical underpinnings, since the experience and charisma of human trainers could not be leaned on, as it often was in the world of stand-up training, to produce a satisfactory result. However the models that came from pre-internet distance learning did not seem sufficient to cover this new situation.

Instructional design orthodoxies fail

As the first decade of the new millennium wore on, more and more dissatisfaction was expressed with a great deal of the academic and other literature that formed the canon of instructional design.

With its roots in military training and perhaps too much early influence from the behaviourist theories training was seen to have a slightly shaky intellectual foundation, and thoughts moved towards a more person-centred and less directive set of models for workplace learning. 

New input from neuroscience, psychology

Further broadsides came from the rapidly developing field of neuroscience, whose insights, along with those provided by psychology, seemed to contradict much of the received wisdom in ID (although without necessarily replacing it with a clear set of best practices). 

70:20:10, J.I.T., courses not resources, micro, social, gamified …

In this slightly chaotic situation, views coalesced around some broad areas of agreement:

  • Informal as well as formal learning was important to the way adults learn
  • The 70:20:10 observation downgraded the importance of formal instruction in favour of social learning and learning on the job 
  • ‘Just in Time’ performance support, possible in a connected, always-on world, obviated the need for much ‘just-in-time’ learning and could be delivered ‘in the flow of work’ – the ‘GPS for the workplace’ concept popularised by Nick Shackleton-Jones, Bob Mosher and many others.
  • ‘A course’ was no longer the default unit of instruction (‘resources not courses’ became the mantra); instead, resources and experiences from different sources and in different ‘modalities’ could be organised into personalised ‘learning pathways’  
  • Content should be smaller (micro-learning, nano-learning)
  • Designers had to work harder at engaging learners, drawing on insights from neuroscience, psychology and the consumer realm that propelled them in the direction of game-based learning and widespread gamification
  • The isolation of ‘online’ created a drive to force more social interaction 
  • With so much free content on offer, varying greatly in quality, curation was now a core activity 
  • And finally, we came to some agreement around the importance of creating experiences that connected on a more visceral, emotional level to really shape behavioral change.

The dawn of a new learner experience

As the third decade of the 21st century dawns, it is clear that the shape of workplace learning has changed irrevocably. Digital and face-to-face delivery achieved parity some time ago. We have moved away from a paradigm in which training was almost always a course, delivered by a human to groups of other humans in a single place, and involving a lot of bulk information transfer – towards a paradigm that is more about experiences.

The most obvious and tangible efficiency gain brought about by digital transformation in learning has been the delegating of a lot of the bulk information transfer to digital means. This has brought down training costs, and in doing so has emphasized the premium given to face-to-face time, and experiences – either those we have in human-to-human contact, or the more immersive end of what interactive digital media can provide. 

Learning management systems have been moving in lockstep with these developments for some time – perhaps a few paces behind, but always responsive to the new needs of organizations. However, a time came when the LMS model could not be stretched any further, and a new kind of entity altogether had to evolve to meet the demands of this new, learner-centred paradigm. We haven’t all quite agreed on what to call it yet, but most people are happy with the label learning experience platform – LEP or LXP – and that’s what why I advocated for going ‘all-in’ at Learning Pool with Learning Pool Platform.  If you want to know more about what a learning experience platform is, and how quickly it’s being adopted by the market, we have commissioned original research which you can read in our white paper.

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