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3 tech trends that are probably not on your learning radar

Workplace learning professionals would benefit from looking beyond the limits of their bubble to identify the tech trends they should follow.

Here’s an example of some trends that don’t feature in most industry lists.

Listicles abound in our industry, and especially lists of technologies that learning professionals are encouraged to keep their eyes on. By and large, the current crop tends to cover a lot of the same bases: bots are big, VR is coming any day soon, and everybody like to talk about AI (usually in the vaguest possible terms). Perhaps the most useful of the breed is Donald H Taylor’s L&D Global Sentiment Survey, based on views from 1,953 people in 92 countries. It’s good in being data-driven, and because Don is very clear about the basis of the list – it’s a survey of sentiment, not an industry analysis. 

However, it always feels like there is something missing in these lists for me, and that is the wider context for some of the most important of these trends. Sometimes, in order to understand trends like AI or adaptive learning, it pays to look beyond our own industry bubble to what is happening in adjacent business sectors such as marketing or higher education, and even to wider financial, social and geopolitical arenas. 

So here, just by way of a taster, are three trends in technology that I can see have a lot of relevance to learning people, none of which feature in anybody’s learning top lists for 2019 so far as I can see.

Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 appearances before government tribunals in the US and Europe seem in retrospect to have marked a watershed in public attitudes towards the use and ownership of personal data by the tech behemoths.

It was a bit like how Beat Generation author William Burroughs described his seminal 1959 work, The Naked Lunch; ‘a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.’

In the same year, we had a panic around alleged manipulation of elections in the US and UK by foreign powers and a piece of EU legislation that achieved rockstar status in the world of data protection initiatives (against an admittedly low bar): GDPR. 

By the time Shoshana Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ appeared earlier this year, a jeremiad that calls out Facebook, Google, et al for attempting to undermine the very fabric of our democracy, we appeared to be in the grip of a full-scale moral panic. Suddenly people in my friendship group were quitting Facebook and putting sticking plasters over the cameras on their macs. 

New legislation, regulations and guidelines are the inevitable effects of panics like these, with the kick out for the people function not only of compliance training but a host of issues over employee data, use of social media and tighter copyright restrictions under new EU legislation to deal with. We’re seeing a lot of it, globally, this year.

So the top three items on Don Taylor’s 2019 sentiment survey are data-related (personalisation, AI and analytics): if data is the new oil, as people say, it will fuel travel to a lot of new destinations for the people function – but also start a fair few fires that you people-people will have to put out.

With 75% of household predicted to have at least one smart speaker by 2020, we are fast losing our reverence for the holy trinity of mouse, screen and keyboard as the default way to interact with digital technology. As more and more voice devices appear on office desks, both at home and at work we are brought us into a new and closer relationship with AI than was ever possible under the old dispensation.

Speaking on the Inside Voice podcast, David Isbitski, Chief Evangelist for Alexa, drew an interesting comparison with smartphone use. On a phone, you have to call up apps, delivered from an app store, in order to access services. There is an equivalent of the app in voice, called a ‘skill’. However you don’t have to download or update skills with Alexa as you do on your phone, and Alexa has no version update you have to install, it just becomes smarter as time goes on and as you use it more. Isbitski’s vision is a direct, or as he styles it ‘natural’ interaction with the AI, something we haven’t seen before. It’s a step-change.

This has to be an important technology for L&D to monitor and get involved in early.

So let’s get a bit more tactical.

Bots are everywhere, and the technology is readily accessible for people to create their own. But it’s easy to become slightly disillusioned by the quality of interactions you have can with bots at the moment, especially if your hopes have been set overly high by conference platform hype. Natural language processing really isn’t that far advanced (unless our future robot overlords are deliberately playing dumb in order to lull us into a false sense of security).

However, at the lower end of the expectation scale, you occasionally come across something that exceeds rather than deflates expectation.

Online surveys have a lot of uses for learning, and they’re an absolutely central tool in marketing, a world where I spend a lot of my time. But where conventional tools such as  SurveyMonkey played almost completely on the quantitative side of research, I’m now coming across AI-driven tools for conversational surveys such as wizu that cross over into the qualitative side of the field through the use of sentiment analysis. Wizu (other tools are available) is mostly used for customer satisfaction surveys, but with learner experience now one of the biggest watch-words in learning, could equally be used to assess learners’ satisfaction with what you provide, drilling down into free-form text responses to provide much richer data than you’d get from a bank of MCQs.

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About the author

John Helmer FLPI is an experienced communications expert specialising in digital industries and emerging technologies, particularly in learning, HR & education.

Working for many of the leading companies in the learning technologies space, he has striven to connect buyers and vendors in furthering mutual understanding. He created and edited the influential Curve Magazine and Learning Lounge events, and developed the brand for self-directed learning service, me:time.

As a consultant he has developed strategies and thought leadership programmes on behalf of corporates, not-for-profits and public bodies. He is an active blogger, a published novelist and columnist, and appeared on Top of the Pops.


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