Skip to content
Learning Suite: The past of learning systems

Learning Suite: The past of learning systems

In the late 2010s, market analyst Josh Bersin noticed a significant shift in the way workplace professionals learned. Described as ‘distracted’ and ‘impatient’, untethered from traditional work structured and used to accessing information ‘on-demand’, the concept of the modern learner was born.

But this concept came as something of a challenge to makers of learning systems. It was widely felt (as Fosway’s research showed) that their platforms and products were not really meeting the needs of this modern learner.

The answer to this challenge was a whole wave of innovation; learning experience platforms (LXPs), next-generation learning environments (NGLEs) and specialist providers. This wave is still rippling through the industry, but to truly understand the shape of this wave and what is happening to the design of learning suites today we must look out how this disconnect between buyers and sellers came about.

Training in the 20th Century

The story of workplace L&D begins at the end of the 19th Century when, for the first time, systemized workplace training alongside the rise of scientific management was being seen.

Knowledge transfer between workers and from workers to tools, processes, and documentation, as well as the passing on of best practices, were key aspects of scientific management. Job training, along with all other aspects of work, was to be considered and improved upon in the light of its contribution to greater efficiency and productivity. But the 20th Century was when organizational learning really took off.

This evolutionary path begins, broadly speaking, with describing or evaluating specific training efforts, with a focus on efficiency. The 1940s saw a dawning interest in factors that predict training success, particularly in military settings, driving urgent needs for more effective, scalable, and so more systematized training methodologies. It was also in the 1940s that we began to see research on methods and instruments for measuring learning.

The computer age dawns in business

Imagine a learning system with functionality to deliver personalization, individual learning paths, social and collaborative learning, games-based learning, sophisticated interactivity and adaptive learning, and AI-driven interactions with learners. Could we find this today in a contemporary learning suite? Quite possibly. Would we expect to find it in a learning system of 1971? Almost certainly not. But, in actual fact, all this functionality was present in some form in the experimental learning system PLATO pioneered at the University of Illinois.

The use of computers in organizational learning diverged fairly early on from what was going on in academic circles, although there were and remain areas of overlap, including some technologies and technology standards (e.g. SCORM) common to both.

Learning Suites emerge

From the late 1980s onward, Bill Gates’s goal of a computer on every desk steadily became a reality in business. These PCs ran office-productivity software applications for word processing, spreadsheets, email, presentations, and databases, replacing the old paper-based processes with digital equivalents.

This type of software suite was based on the needs of an individual performing a range of different work tasks (e.g. writing and printing documents, tracking budgets, creating slide presentations) and needing a set of tools to do all those things that used common design conventions for interface and interaction. The use of such common conventions made things much easier for that individual: learn one of the suite’s programs and you already had a head start when it came to learning another.

As PCs steadily became mainstream in the organizational environment, we all became habituated to the ease and convenience of the software suite. As the tools themselves became more sophisticated and powerful, however, it became harder to learn how to use them. Just the manual and onboard help was not enough—you needed to be trained and retrained whenever a new version came out. And with a PC on every desk and stand-up training delivered by humans so expensive to do at scale, it made sense to write a software application that could undertake the training much more cheaply—and on the same machine on which the work was being done. Hey presto, online learning has a value proposition. Entrepreneurs took note, and the e-learning industry was born.

Early e-learning programs came on physical media—floppy disks, laser disks, etc.—but distributing these and sharing them around the organization was a nightmare. Also, it was impossible to keep track of who was learning what and therefore difficult to see in any detail how much money was being saved by having fewer human trainers.

The LMS was the answer to this conundrum; a piece of administrative software that could sit on the corporate LAN (or WAN) and help the bean-counters of the training department keep track of what was going on, an activity that now, thanks to the LMS, required not only a lot less paper but also considerably fewer bean-counters in the training department.

It was these cost savings in staffing, travel, and bricks-and-mortar training centers that drove the dynamic expansion of workplace online learning in the 1990s and beyond. It is also, arguably, one of the reasons why the academic and organizational realms began to diverge in their discussions of online learning.

Learning suite systems come of age

In the year 2000, all the parts that made up the e-learning market began to fall in place, providing a set of complementary and interlinked applications that could be thought of, and were described in marketing literature, as a “suite.” Under the hood, of course, the reality was a lot messier than the neat-looking diagrams in corporate brochures suggested. When a learntech company acquired a competitor, it would take on its proprietary software and might spend years trying to integrate it effectively, so many systems were full of inelegant “kludges.” LMS systems that had been developed within a client-server environment had to be rewritten for the web as more and more systems moved to the SaaS (software as a service) model (competing with newer systems that were “born on the web”).

E-learning content (often, confusingly referred to as “the learning”) was launched and tracked by the LMS, controlled by the training manager, and accessed by the learners. SMEs could author e-learning content with intuitive, easy-to-use authoring tools, which would be made compatible with any LMS through the emerging SCORM standard—a kind of magic glue that held the whole system together.

When content was king

The vision of an e-learning system, hatched in 2000, engaged and excited many in the workplace learning community, but it worried others—including many who were among the most invested in learning technologies and particularly those best versed in learning theory.

It seemed for many that far too much emphasis was being placed on content, which was now front and center of the process—and on one type of content in particular: the self-paced e-learning course or module. Fears grew—as e-learning modules proved an extremely successful way for large companies to tick boxes against increasingly onerous regulatory compliance obligations—that we were spawning a type of e-learning monoculture.

One of the problems was that practitioners had found e-learning to be unpopular with many of their learners. Although a great deal of the e-learning content produced in these years was attractive, engaging, and instructional sound, not all of it was great. In an emerging industry, with low barriers to entry and not much in the way of established quality norms, it was almost inevitable that some of the production was going to be poorly designed, page-turning content that tended to give the form as a whole a bad reputation. The phrase “click-next” e-learning began to be heard.

In addition, learners were not blind to the economics of the situation. With digital learning far less expensive to deliver than face-to-face interventions, a perception grew in parts of the workforces that online learning was a downmarket, lower-quality type of training.

Blended learning emerged quite quickly as a way of bringing face-to-face elements of learning delivery back into the mix and, when it worked well, of harnessing the beneficial effects of spaced repetition and transfer of learning into the workplace for learning. But there was often some cynicism about how well blended learning actually worked in practice. Often the blend seemed too “lumpy,” with the elearning module(s) not gelling particularly well with human elements, feeling too generic, or like a bolt-on to the process. And modules themselves, purely through the way they were designed, didn’t always blend well.

The century moved into its second decade, and Web 2.0 began to have a big influence on technology. This was the era when the tech giants that are now so salient in our world—Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, etc.—came to dominate. Web development moved to a more user-centered perspective, and we saw the rise of social platforms fueled by user-generated content.

To find out more about the forces that shaped the learning suite as we know it today, download our new whitepaper, Suite Dreams, now.

Got a learning problem to solve?

Get in touch to discover how we can help

CTA background