Envisioning the future of e-learning

Leading Canadian educator and strategic futurist Wayne Hodgins was the winner of the 1988 Marshall McLuhan Most Distinguished Teacher Award. In his roles as Director of Worldwide Learning Strategies at Autodesk, Mr. Hodgins is the chief architect and strategic futurist responsible for increasing human performance. He is also the President and co-founder of Learnativity.org, which works at the intersection of learning, productivity, creativity and activity and is the inflection point of the New Learning Economy.

Q:What is e-learning according to Wayne Hodgins?

Hodgins: I believe that e-learning will be a relatively short-lived term used at the early stages of the revolution of learning. If we are going to insist on having a prefix for learning then I would want it to be ‘me-learning’. The grand vision or future of learning I am championing is the state when every person on the planet experiences personalized learning experiences every day. When every teachable moment or every opportunity or need for learning can be met in a way that is adapted to suit the unique set of variables that define any situation. me-learning!

Q: We have seen a lot of innovation on the technological side in the last years. How would you consider the situation on the pedagogical side of things?

Hodgins: I think that we have barely begun to consider and focus on the pedagogical aspects. I am particularly struck by the almost complete lack of attention to the radical changes required to our thinking and practices of teaching, instruction and how to best help others learn. In my work around the world I find an almost universal consensus about the radical shift to a very learner-centric model of learning. However there appears to be almost no discussion or consideration about how this will require an equally radical shift in the instructional models, teaching methods and overall pedagogy to effectively support learner-centric learning. As a result I think we are still at the very earliest stage of the revolution and evolution in learning and also very early in seeing the benefits this will all bring. In the future we will see the realization of the vision that many of us share as both learners, teachers, managers and parents for mass customized or personalized learning that is highly effective, very efficient and produces similarly spectacular results and positive change.

Q: You are referred to as the “father” of Learning Objects. Can you explain that concept?

Hodgins: My journey into this world of learning objects started with an ‘epiphany moment’: watching my children play with LEGO™ blocks many years ago. My daughter preferred instructions, directions and a pre-determined end result, whereas my son preferred complete freedom and creativity to construct things of his own design. It struck me that both had their wonderfully different needs met equally well with these simple blocks of plastic.

I began what has been a long and winding but fabulous journey of refining a dream of a world where all “content” exists at just the right and lowest possible size, much like the individual blocks that make up LEGO™ systems. In this vision, these “prime sized” blocks of content have a fundamental “standard,” the equivalent of the “pin size” of the LEGO™ blocks, such that they can be assembled into literally any shape, size, and function. This, by the way, is what led me and others to see the need for standards, and resulted in such things as the IEEE LTSC, ARIADNE, CEN/ISSS, ADL SCORM, etc. However the real power lies in their fundamental simplicity and reusability at their lowest level and the ability to create almost anything you can imagine as a result.

Q: How can raw data be transformed into useable knowledge?

Hodgins: Context is what is required to transform essentially meaningless data into useful information by making it relevant to the person(s) consuming it. Context is also the most critical factor for successful learning – the more context, relevance and meaning, the more learning and retention and value. The conversion of raw data into useful information and knowledge occurs as context is added, not so much in the form of the content itself but rather through the design of the Learning Object assembly that is to be delivered to the user – the information blocks chosen to make up the content, the sequencing of the content for the learning experience, and the situation within which this will all be used by the learner.

Current impediments to sharing or re-using information across organizational boundaries are the high cost, time, and difficulty of reformatting, re-categorizing, editing out examples that are irrelevant to the new audience, and integrating it all to match organization-specific circumstances, disciplines, and proprietary information. The key is to have structured data that is broken down into small individual blocks of information, each one tagged with appropriate metadata so they can be discovered and selected to match the requirements at hand and then assembled into a “just right” package of content. This dramatically increases the ability to re-use individual information blocks for completely different purposes or put them into different contexts by choosing just the ones needed and assembling them in the right sequence, to the right medium or device.

Q: Can you provide a short insight into your keynote address, “The Future of E-learning”?

Hodgins: The title is “me-learning: What if the impossible isn’t?”. In this presentation I will pose and respond to questions such as: What if the impossible isn’t? What if it is now possible to have personalized learning experiences for every person on the planet every day? Imagine the difference in the world this would make! If it is now within our grasp to transform this vision into a reality, would we not be compelled – even responsible – to go after it?

Now is the time for true transformation. Not merely adjusting and modifying past and present models, but true systemic, holistic and revolutionary change required to design and build nothing less than the future of education, training and learning itself. However, because incrementalism is the enemy of innovation we will want and need to creatively destroy the current models in order to then re-design and build their new replacements.

A grand vision to be sure, but one that is no longer impossible. We have a plethora of tools, technology, standards and an almost embarrassing richness of enablers. What’s more, we have ourselves; a most creative bunch when spurred by necessity, common purpose, enthusiasm and collaboration. Together we can build one of the brightest futures ever.

Jonathon Levy has pioneered the adoption of new executive learning strategies. Previous career stations were Vice President for Online Learning Solutions at Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation and Executive Director of Cornell University’s Office of Distance Learning. As a globally-recognized learning expert he serves as an advisor to the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD “Brain Trust”). Currently Mr. Levy is the Senior Learning Strategist of Marketspace.

Q: What have been, in your opinion, the fundamental steps in e-learning until now?

Levy: The field is marked by a juxtaposition of new technology and old pedagogy. The confusion and mixed messages in our field today are prevalent largely because the sustainable model for the use of technology in learning – a predictable model that invites large-scale investment and has meaningful measurable outcomes – has yet to be widely recognized. The landscape of knowledge acquisition and knowledge use is changing.

To understand where it is all headed, it is important to differentiate between the academic model and the performance model. Academic programs – classes, courses, exams – may be useful when the main goal is knowledge as an end in itself, intellectual achievement. But in the workplace it is performance that matters, and, more than ever before, performance must be executed in an environment where individuals, teams and business units must learn, adapt and excel in real time in the face of constant change. In the workplace, knowledge is no longer an end in itself; it is a means to an end. In the academic model success is measured by attendance, completion and test scores; there is a supplier definition of success, and the learner is evaluated. Contrast this to the enterprise model, where success is measured by individual and organizational achievement; the learner defines success, and the supplier is evaluated.

Q: How would you define an up-to-date approach to e-learning?

Levy: There is much debate over the best way to combine learning and technology: live classes at a distance, asynchronous courses, “blended” models, and so on. All of those models derive from the hundreds of years old classroom solution, wherein one knowledgeable person has the “answer” and everyone else supposedly starts from the same place to obtain it. These are the worst of all possible solutions for the over-burdened knowledge worker in a rapidly-changing environment. Not only do these models ignore what the knowledge worker already knows, they also ignore our most important and expensive corporate asset: the knowledge worker’s time. An up-to-date corporate learning model is one that allows organizations to benefit most from the unique blend of knowledge and creative intelligence that each knowledge worker brings to the enterprise. The learning resources are dynamically assembled by each knowledge worker in the context of what they know and the work they are performing at the moment. This is a natural method of learning, gaining knowledge in real-time as required.

Q: What are your predicitions for the future evolution of technology based learning?

Levy: Next year [2005] the name of the game will be results, with metrics in the form of revenues and time to market. Where last year the focus was Human Resources, next year the focus will be Human Capital. The vocabulary is changing from learning strategy to productivity and business strategy. Increasingly online learning is about competitiveness. Last year our goals were to reduce costs, increase e-learning, acquire an E-learning Management System, integrate with Human Resources Information Solution, create or buy libraries, conduct virtual classes and roll-out subject-specific content. Next year we will use online learning to reduce time to market, increase productivity, blend knowledge and information management, integrate with Customer Relationship Management and Enterprise Resource Planning and combine dynamic granules with captured tacit knowledge. We are moving from learning strategies to business strategies as the driver of activity. As the vision emerges, the end game will increasingly focus on the place where knowledge, technology and awareness converge.

Q: What does sustainability mean in the context of corporate e-learning?

Levy: Only recently have technologies evolved to the state where, by creatively linking disparate knowledge and information systems, we can begin to get a whiff of the end game: an immersive environment that allows knowledge workers who must continuously adapt to successive waves of change to instantly and dynamically scoop up the knowledge that each uniquely requires at that moment, and/or have it pushed to them as they need it. That’s sustainability.

Q: How can e-learning help developing countries to bridge the educational and economical gap?

Levy: While much of the thinking around just-in-time learning is aimed at knowledge workers in highly industrialized nations, such integrated knowledge systems have profound application in less developed nations as well. There, the need is great and the traditional academic infrastructure cannot move quickly enough to keep up with the demand. An entirely new “disruptive model” of learning – just-in-time learning – can help those nations leapfrog past the industrialized nations, where corporations have huge sunk costs in older technologies that mitigate against imaginative and more scaleable solutions. China did just that with cell phones, leaping past the wired infrastructure of the west directly to mobile telecommunications. Government, education and business will need to work together in this new model to create national taxonomies – South Africa has already begun this process – and thereby national standards for learning objects and transferable competency maps. National knowledge infrastructures can provide each country with a measure of competitive advantage.

Q: We are currently in the transition from the labour-based societies of the Agricultural and IndustrialRevolutions to knowledge-based societies – the so-called third revolution. What will come after that? What could be the next revolution?

Levy: All of these so-called “revolutions” are really just different stages of human evolution, and each is based on increasing leverage – the application of creative intelligence to do less and accomplish more. The next “revolution” after the so-called knowledge-based society is simply a continuation of the same natural evolutionary thrust. It uses ancient technology based not on expanding knowledge, but on expanding the container of knowledge. Using the subtlest laws of nature, the technology of expanding human consciousness – meditation – broadens the conscious capacity of the human mind itself. We already see a number of progressive corporations actively promoting techniques of expanding human awareness, such as Transcendental Meditation, for their managers and knowledge workforce. One global pharma suggests that its managers have a 10-minute quiet meditation session before collectively making important decisions, the idea being that by so-doing they will bring maximum capability to the decision. Thus, while the third revolution increased the amount of knowledge available for the mind, the fourth revolution is increasing the amount of mind available for the knowledge. The dawn of the “fourth revolution” appears to already be upon us. 055394

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