X Marks the Spot: What Lies Under the ‘X’ in LXP?
There is a degree of uncertainty about what we should call the learning experience platform. LXP might be taking the lead, but other terms are still in the running. Debate continues, with the grounds of contention seeming to be chiefly around the word ‘experience’, the ‘x’ in LXP. Why is this word so contentious? And does the lack of agreement signal a deeper unease about the concept of ‘a learning experience’?
Adding an ‘x’ to an acronym tends to confer an air of mystery. We’re used to associating this final letter of our alphabet with something missing, omitted or deliberately concealed, like the spot on a treasure map where they buried the gold. X is a wild card, an unknown. It could mean nothing or everything. TV pop talent is said to have the X-factor. X-rays penetrate the every day and might tell you how long you have to live. Such a range of possibilities give the letter an ambivalent, and therefore all the more powerful, charge. This charismatic character dangling off the end of that line of 25 more functionally inclined letters somehow ups the ante wherever it is added. In xAPI for instance – or LXP.
Perhaps this is why, in the war of TLAs (three-letter acronyms), LXP seems likely to triumph over the more pedestrian LEP. However, some reject the word it stands for in those two TLAs – ‘experience’ – all together.
In the Learning Pool whitepaper, Powering the Modern Learner Experience, this is discussed and the view of Craig Weiss noted, who dislikes the term learning experience platform because ‘it really makes no sense … everything we do can turn into a learning experience.’
And yet more and more people are talking about learning experiences. Google searches for the term ‘learning experience’ have increased steadily over the last decade and a half, while searches for the ‘learning course’ have declined equally steadily during the same period. We now have a new job title in L&D, a learning experience designer. Clearly the term has meaning for some. And the Learning Pool whitepaper gives a detailed description of the many underlying forces, including changes in working patterns, employee attitudes, and expectations, technology and learning theory that have brought this way of thinking about learning to the fore.
Do these disputes really matter, though? Is it not simply pedantic to pick up on the different terms people use?
What’s in a name?
Changes of terms across an industry often signal significant changes of thought and opinion. And often these changes come about not through the relatively orderly process of academic publication and citation, but through a communal agreement mostly tacit and unspoken. No, we won’t use those terms anymore, we’ll use these ones – said nobody ever (apart from bloggers): it’s just understood. As if through the operation of some Jungian collective unconscious in learning, people just start talking that way.
In a practice-focused domain like organizational learning, such changes of wording are almost never merely at the whim of fashion. They happen by necessity. So here’s a theory, which I’ll put up if only in order to have it knocked down again, about why we use the ‘experience’ word so much now and why, despite its widespread currency, there still seems something slightly mysterious about the space it occupies that leads us to mark it with an ‘x’.
Resources not courses
Arguably, ‘learning experience’ became more useful as a term once it was widely believed that we needed to move beyond the training course as the default mode of instruction in organizational learning. Nick Shackleton-Jones was perhaps one of the most high-profile – though certainly not the only – learning guru to point out that the over-reliance on courses was, in the age of Google, becoming counter-productive. What had once been a means of disseminating information – quite an efficient one by the standards of the time – was now beginning to look more like a mechanism for hiding it: locking information away within an unsearchable content wrapper.
As the rapid growth of internet-connected personal devices such as the smartphone put these tools into the pocket of every employee, it seemed less and less efficient to carry on disseminating information to employees in the form of courses (either offline or online) many of which were little more than recitals of facts and processes to be memorized, an end that might be better achieved through checklists or cheat-sheets. Momentum grew behind the Shackleton-Jones idea of ‘resources not courses,’ a mantra that achieved widespread use and has since become his catchphrase (he fears it might end up on his gravestone).
However, smashing up an entity like ‘The Course’ that had seemed so fundamental to training for so long was a bit like splitting the atom – not only in that it produced a surge of energy, but also in that it released and revealed constituent particles, which now had to be studied and named. The ‘content’ particle is the easy one to identify. But once you have stripped out the informational content from a course and turned it into a set of resources, what remains? Surely it would be too reductive to say there is nothing else. But that something else, it seems, might potentially be slippery and harder to pin down.
Shackleton-Jones is not in any doubt: he says we should be creating two types of things, resources, and experiences. Those are the two particles, if you like, that he sees resulting from the nuclear fission that happened in that atom-splitting moment when we began to move beyond the limiting idea of the course.
So should we just ignore Craig Weiss’s slightly bad-tempered assault on the idea of a learning experience and just accept it as the new elemental particle, alongside informational content, that makeup what we used to think of as a course?
For complicated reasons I can’t quite agree 100% with Craig Weiss, but I think there is something in his basic objection to the term ‘learning experience’ – that it is too broad and all-inclusive – deserves consideration. If anything at all that happens to us during the day can be a learning experience, then how can we throw a boundary around this thing we call ‘A learning experience’? Where are its edges?
That question sent me back to Kolb, and his definition of experiential learning – at which point a trip down the rabbit-hole beckoned. I feel it’s a necessary trip … but perhaps not in this blog post.
The main point here is that a learning experience is far harder to define than a learning resource. And this is where some of the mystery creeps in. We all might feel that we know what we mean when we use the term ‘learning experience’. In popular jargon, it has quite a clear meaning. When someone says, ‘well that was a learning experience’, we understand that something has happened to them: e.g. ‘I won’t run with scissors again’.
But when we use the phrase in the context of L&D, do we use it with a similarly clear sense of common understanding? I’m not sure we do. A learning experience in the professional context could mean anything from watching a short video to attending a five-day residential course, to cleaning out a nuclear reactor in a VR simulation. What are the commonalities that these very disparate experiences share, the necessary and sufficient conditions that allow for them all to be categorized as learning experiences: do we know?
Some will have answers to this question that they find satisfying enough. The vast majority of people will not trouble themselves about definitions and just forge ahead creating learning experiences. However, others (present author included) will continue to be curious about the term and will want to enquire further. Perhaps, for the moment, ‘x’ marks the spot.
Read the whitepaper: Powering the Modern Learner Experience
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