A day in the life of a ‘learning composer’ in 2029

As Saffron Interactive prepares to mark its fifteenth birthday, Toby Harris imagines what the life of a learning designer might look like fifteen years from now…

Kalpana Mukopadhyay wakes up in a single bed in a tiny studio apartment at 5:15am, having slept for just four and a half hours.  Her journey to the office in downtown Pune may take anything between one and three hours today (she’s competing with five million other commuters), so it’s worth getting up early to beat the traffic. Self-driving vehicles were supposed to fix all that.

Before she leaves, Kalpana grabs a steaming plastic cup from beneath a tea-making machine which is shaped like a miniature household shrine – an exact replica of the one her grandparents have at home in the countryside. It’s amazing what you can get made at a 3D printing café these days. Due to critical shortages, the water in the tea is actually Kalpana’s purified urine from the night before. It still has a distinctly acrid taste. So, she reminds herself, it’s worth spending a little more on the touches that make things feel more ‘homely’.

Welcome to 5131

The date is October 20th, 2029. But everywhere the year is listed as 5131, or by its ceremonial name: Sādhārana. India is now the world’s third-largest economy, and fifteen years into the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Hindustani identity politics and panchangam calendars are in vogue with advertisers. Not that a youngish learning composer like Kalpana feels particularly strongly about it.  Her mind is already focused on her to-do list and her most important current project.

Outside, she hops into the back of a passing vehicle which looks a lot like a motorised rickshaw. But there’s no driver, and the front windscreen has been replaced by a noisy, digitised poster advertising toothpaste. The packed streets are a delirious screeching blur of lights and sounds, with shop-fronts piled up eight stories high on either side. The previous night’s debauchery is not even close to being over.

Drone service with a smile

But Kalpana is already miles away. She’s put on a slim pair of glasses which is running a cheap imitation of Google Glass version 105.2, based on open source, 3D printed hardware.  Most of her messages and updates refer to project code 2721TEDN: otherwise known as (the awfully named) ‘Drone Service with a Smile’. This is an augmented reality simulation programme for a population of customer service managers who need to learn about the drone delivery network being rolled out on the East coast of China by Baidu Tencent (BT).

Oh, and there’s a message from Charlie, the odd young guy from England who is interning in India. He’s got a stomach bug again.

When Kalpana arrives at the office and reaches her workstation, she looks to the bank of screens which streams live footage of the research and development team she directly supervises in London. Empty desks in a dimmed office. There’s an encouraging feed of yesterday evening’s updates from the creative writing team on Share (Saffron’s combined ERP, knowledge-base and social networking platform). This group of graduates are busy working up complex branching scenarios for ‘Drone Service with a Smile’ for Kalpana to critique. She takes a moment to look at the jerky images as the scripts translate into an online, live preview, and sighs. An entire level of the course has been set on ‘Floor Four’. Four is a deeply unlucky number in China and she knows it’ll never make it past the SME. With the blink of an eye she absentmindedly reposts a link to a MOOC on Chinese culture to the team. Whenever will they learn?

Falling rotor-blades

Still, it’s essential to dedicate this supplementary brainpower from the London office to the project. BT neglected to tender for the training contract until the drone delivery network was half-finished, and, by the time the contract negotiations were finished, customer service managers were already dealing with those frantic customers who found their sheds flattened by falling packages, or their gardens chopped to shreds by rotor-blades. As a result, the client is demanding that the entire project is completed from start to finish in just under a month.

This year is Saffron’s thirtieth anniversary. Perhaps by its fortieth, companies will take planning for systems training seriously, she muses.

Kalpana’s job description is open-ended. She’s equal parts programmer, pedagogist and project manager. She has no need for authoring tools, which now languish at the low budget end of the elearning market and are mostly freeware. That’s because, like much of her generation, when Kalpana started high school she knew her way around a JQuery library much better than she knew her way around the works of Dickens.

A little like the pioneering learning designers of five decades before, she composes directly into XML. Her project files and assets sit all over the place: in the cloud, on local machines, even on tablets and phones.  An efficiently loose architecture is held together by an authentication protocol which constantly synchs back to the main Saffron infrastructure.

Meet Aalam

As she works, Kalpana is assisted by Aalam. This simple artificial intelligence, making use of some proprietary Saffron algorithms, is currently hooked into the BT knowledge management system and it’s constantly casting its eye over her work, checking it back against BT processes which seem to change every two weeks. Aalam is also helping with Kalpana’s shaky grasp of Mandarin.  When the project finishes in just under two weeks, Aalam will be reconnected to Share so he can focus on helping with internal projects again. Hopefully his little brain won’t get corrupted in the process like last time. Kalpana knows that Aalam can be backed-up, copied and reset just like any other piece of software, but it’s hard not get attached.

At various points during the day, Kalpana checks in on some of other projects she is managing. There are consultants in the field, on location at the offices of a global tobacco company attempting to identify what is wrong with their current appraisal process.

More interesting is a platform-like project for a major shipping company: A distributed system aimed at facilitating (almost) real-time mentoring between crews thousands of miles apart with only sporadic access the internet – and also adjusting their behaviour by subtly modifying rotas, assignment postings and mealtimes based on complex, ongoing diagnostics… Part of it which even Kalpana can’t wrap her head around involves lasers, or neutrino beams, or something like that. An email floats by from an embattled Saffron account manager, trying to explain to the client the difference between change campaigns and outright intimidation tactics.

In the weirdest parts of the day, Kalpana wonders whether using the word ‘learning’ to describe what she creates even makes sense anymore.

Change requests

As the clock inches towards 6pm, an email from an external source appears in the centre of Kalpana’s Share interface and starts bleeping in her ear.  A numbness thumps in her chest as she deciphers the rushed Mandarin characters. It’s the client. The big one….  Baidu Tencent’s CEO has been bombarded with complaints on Sina Weibo and now the government has tightened up its drone-based delivery regulations.

That means most of the customer service processes are being renovated. Which means two or three levels have to be redeveloped, and the gaming logic which Kalpana has been working on for most of the day is completely rewritten. In turn, that means out-of-scope changes and, yes, another round of negotiations. Oh, and the client has added that he doesn’t expect timelines to change either.

I could do with a pint, Kalpana thinks. Today, as it happens, is her thirtieth birthday.

Toby Harris

Toby was the creative lead and platform product manager at Saffron Interactive. He likes it best when he is adding value to the elearning community, developing new thinking about how people development programmes and platforms can drive business performance and prove ROI.

Toby has extensive experience with learning management systems, a frenetic devotion to social media and consequently is able to keep a keen eye on best-practices in the ever-evolving world of elearning.