The digital transformation of learning: Social, informal, self-service, and enjoyable

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ZDNet | | Sep 6, 2017

Technology has long been used to improve how we learn, but today's digital advances, particularly with social media, have taken learning in powerful new -- and for some -- entirely unexpected directions.

The vast co-created commons of the Internet have long been seen as a way for the connected and motivated to learn on their own. However, as digital has fundamentally changed how we find knowledge and share information with each other, it has also steadily shifted the landscape of learning itself: The typical person today is far more likely to reach for their mobile phone to learn something than find a relevant book or go to the library.

Call it the digitization of learning or just the realization of the the promise of the Internet, it's become abundantly clear that freeform online repositories of knowledge such as YouTube and Wikipedia, as well as dozens of open, high quality digital learning platforms such as Coursera, Open Culture, or the Khan Academy have become leading new instruments for global learning.

It's also not an accident that each of these examples are rooted in mass collaboration and/or online community. In fact, it's the rise and continued growth of massively open online courses (MOOCs) over the last few years was perhaps the harbinger of a major change traditional learning. Even many formal learning institutions have accepted the inevitable and began to take up the supremely easy-to-use digital tools along with a mindset of democratization that has begun to infuse the world of education.

In the traditional world of corporate education -- employee orientation, onboarding, and skill building, for example -- passive learning was and still is the norm, consisting largely of sitting down and then consuming pre-packaged content in bulk that's presented formally by an educator.

Digital learning has consumerized

This is sharp contrast to the digital era, where knowledge is pervasive, instantly searchable, consumable on-demand, and kept continuously up-to-date by millions of daily global contributors to the online commons. This allows learning -- for better or worse, depending on the critic -- to be far more situational, on-demand, self-directed, infinitely customized, even outright enjoyable, depending on the user experience, all of which leads to more profound engagement of learners.

In addition, the rise of social networking technology has allowed people with similar learning interests to come together as a group to share knowledge on a subject -- and perhaps even more significantly -- to express their passion for an area of learning. This can create deeper, more intense, and more immersive educational experiences within a community of like-minded learners.

All of these trends in digital learning have had a dramatic impact on an important segment of the software industry used for corporate learning and development, the increasingly venerable -- and some would say outdated -- learning management system (LMS), which like so many aspects of the enterprise, has been profoundly challenged by the many innovations coming from the world of consumer technology.

The rise of community-centric learning

In my own work, I've seen in the last couple of years that talent development staff no longer push so hard for rote digital learning systems. Instead, it is now often seen in the industry literature -- such as this recent example from the Association for Talent Development -- to praise models for learning that are more interactive, community-based, peer-produced, and individually-guided. Learning from internal experts, group conversation, and through shared media such as photos and video is increasingly the norm, as corporate spending on formal learning correspondingly drops.

Given the need for continuous learning by workers in the fast-evolving digital economy, the LMS industry, by all estimates, will neverthless continue to grow as it too absorbs these lessons. In fact, these new forms of situated learning are leading to a third wave of learning management tools (the first two waves being the emergence of traditional LMS systems and then the standardization of them.)

This third wave of digital learning, for want of a general consensus on a term, could be called social learning. That is, the use of digital platforms to bring together communities of interest within an organization -- and often indeed from anywhere -- to learn about a subject better through interaction with and insights from each other, though usually some relevant authoritative content still has a role in that process.

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The resulting learning content, much of it created by more advanced learners for beginners, is much more experiential and rooted in the context of the work the organization does. Video has also become a major player in enabling what is known as 'microlearning', often via short clips that can be created and shared in learning communities, and then discussed. Consuming these videos on mobile devices on demand when needed is another notable trend.

The early numbers from social learning make interesting reading. Initial studies have shown that there's as much as a 75:1 return-on-investment (ROI) ratio for the approach compared to traditional Web-based education. As a result of such insights, this year fully 73% of organizations are planning on increasing their investments in social learning.

To get a sense of the changes in the digital learning space, I reached out to a well-known expert in online education, Megan Torrance, founder of TorranceLearning:

I see organizations making a move to a more ubiquitous, and at the same time democratized, learning environment. The information to do the job exists within or alongside the work itself, not tucked away in a byzantine course catalog many clicks away.

Contributions from peers, internal experts, external sources and leaders complement the formal instruction provided by the learning & development teams, and the organization's body of knowledge is constantly refreshed. Universal search tools surface learning objects from a variety of locations all in one place. Usage and ratings data are stored centrally - not siloed in many separate tools -- and the employee has a comprehensive record of his or her own learning and insights.

The learning function in this new environment provides structure, foundational curricula and the tools by which the organization's conversation can take place. When change, or even crisis, happens, the organization already has the learning and social pathways by which to take fast action, communicate broadly, and gather important information for decision-making.

From this we can clearly see that learning is shift to be integrated much more into the flow of work and situated as a capability within the modern digital workplace.

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