Rejecting one-size-fits-all learning also means rejecting the delusion of a “total” learning platform

a bolt inside a nut that it too big for it

It was interesting to see a recent article proclaiming something along these lines: the age of generic, one-size fits all learning is finished! It seemed like the article was simultaneously a tearful salute to the baroque glories of a golden age of elearning courses like Model T Ford cars and a trumpet blast to welcome its replacement: personalised learning, the wondrous future!

But this “era of one-size fits all learning” never existed. As I have mentioned in a previous post, the practice and experience of learning has always been highly personalised. The Socratic method is personalised and that is 2,400 years old. It is just that now our learning technology is catching up. But it’s good to see growing recognition of what we’ve been working on and talking about throughout the year: personalisation is absolutely indispensable.

But what I want to take issue with in this post is a different side to the personalisation debate. This is the idea of implementing a new platform to achieve a personalised approach which does everything, manages everything – formal and informal learning – and also replaces everything. The ‘complete’ solution which is increasingly promoted by vendors in our industry.

There is a pleasing ring to the idea of capturing the “total” of learning with a brand new totalitarian platform to do it.

The only problem is that this ideology is total nonsense. Informal learning cannot be channelled or controlled and it takes place continually in all settings: via email, web browsers, instant messaging tools and, dare I say it, through actual spoken conversations which are not automatically recorded in some system (if they were, they wouldn’t take place in the same way).

The idea that a single system can somehow encompass the infinite array of human experience which constitutes organisational knowledge and learning is, at best, rather arrogant and at worst, a wasteful distraction.

The idea also flies in the face of how and why we actually use technology. A website or an app remains remarkably similar to a hammer or a car. We use technology as a tool to achieve a specific purpose. Even when that purpose is as multifarious as ‘being connected with friends and family’, Facebook’s proposition, it is still quite specific. Most technologies are even more specific: apps for taxis or websites for renting a room. This specificity of purpose goes hand in hand with personalisation – which works best when the goal is clearly defined – and platforms within organisations should be similarly focussed on a goal, an outcome.

“Engagement” is not a goal, it’s a metric to measure and a means to achieve specific objectives. A system designed to simply achieve “engagement” is basically designed to achieve nothing at all.

So I think that the notion of implementing a complete learning system, motivated by a vision of “engagement” is a 21st century version of the blighted attitude which has afflicted HR-tech for decades.

Of course, this set-up is as profitable for vendors as it is harmful for organisations. If only our customers truly engaged with our product, the sales people cry, truly maximised the potential of our stack, then all their problems would be solved!

But organisations do not have a vested interest in implementing or ‘maximising’ anything that doesn’t suit their operational set-up. And employees? They will continue using the best tool for the job. So when it comes to informal learning, it won’t be the fantabulous new complete learning system which gets used, but existing channels: emails, social networks, water-coolers.

Learning technology providers have a genuine role to play here, I think, but it is very different to all the marketing spin about complete, end-to-end, turnkey, 360 degree (pick your cliché!)  solutions.

We are aiming to introduce content and platform solutions that boost performance, either close to or at the point of the need. Increasingly what we see as “elearning” will migrate away from legacy learning management systems (and new “complete” systems designed around the same delusion of “one best place” for learning to happen). Our interventions will take place on enterprise social networks, at virtual and physical meet-ups, on specialised mobile apps and yes, sometimes, on an LMS.

What will tie this together is not a single platform to replace everything – an absurd proposition – but integrated reporting solutions using common standards similar to the xAPI principle.

As for tracking specific acts of informal teaching and learning, I think the idea of recording that kind of discussion amongst people in its entirety is totally unworkable and even counterproductive. People don’t like being snooped on, which is another reason why really crucial acts of informal learning will never go through the systems that supposedly facilitate it.

But what we can track is levels of engagement and competence within organisations, and use this to target and personalise face to face interventions which focus on application and performance. This is the concept of ‘flipped blended learning’ which my colleague Ruth has written about: performance surgery instead of a communications sledgehammer.

Of course, I am not saying that organisations should not purchase new platforms for learning or upgrade existing ones. Legacy systems urgently need to be replaced.

But I am saying that the platform is not a solution in itself, it’s a tool. If you charge into a big LMS project with a heart full of hopes and dreams but only a fuzzy idea of “engagement” and “better reporting” as a goal, don’t expect it to go very well or deliver a return on investment.

A bridge between two existing systems and a decent reporting dashboard may be cheaper, quicker and much more effective.

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Toby Harris - Consultant

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