Monday, May 17, 2010

What is the Future of e-Learning?

Just recently, someone asked me, "Where do you think eLearning is going to be in the next 3 to 5 years, given the rise of "Web 2.0" and social media? Great question! I think the seeds of the future are here, in front of us.

One of the ideas I collected when I was an MBA student at the Simon School (excellent program, by the way!) was that notion of information costs. Information costs mean that decision making is more effective when it is executed closest to the place where the question arises because detail and meaning are lost in the transfer of information. For example, let's say you own a big retail chain that caters to the 20 something crowd. And you aren't a 20 something. You are a 50 something who has money and business experience, but not the life that is typical of your typical customer.

When you are deciding what merchandise you should stock, you are probably doing a lot of things like asking representative samples of your customers their opinions and using statistical analysis to determine what you are selling. Those sorts of things are what people do to answer the question, "How many pairs of skinny jeans should I buy this quarter?"

But the 20 something salesclerk in your shop knows that people try on your faded and ripped jeans but they rarely buy them. She knows that they like the edgey look but they hate the fact that the waist band is just a smidge too tight. She knows that if the waistband was, say 1/8" bigger, people would be buying those faded and ripped jeans every time. And since your biggest competitor doesn't offer them, you would be selling them to everyone who wanted them.

So the 20 something salesclerk who you pay a little over minimum wage, actually knows more about your business than you do. Why? Because she is closer to the place where the customer is making the decision about what pair of jeans to buy. If you could somehow empower that 20 something salesclerk to actually order the stock for her store (oops, I mean YOUR store!), you might actually do better than you are doing now.

What does this mean for eLearning? That most efficient decision for what to learn is the one made by the student.

The World Wide Web is becoming more and more democratizing as it develops. Where content was more or less controlled by subject matter experts or webmasters in the past, now we see content being developed by unlikely individuals (like me!) and groups of people. Now we have blogging and crowd sourcing. Anyone can be located and linked to or friended. Universities are making their teaching content available for free. Search engines are incredibly powerful. This means learners will be able to and want to direct their own learning. They won't be looking to anonymous experts in text books, or for Grand Poopbas of Learning to tell them what they need to learn and in what order.

So we are now in a time when the efficiency of learner-directed learning can be combined with easily located and rich content. And here's another factor. Employers are asking their teams to actually create knowledge. Unless you want a job that uses the phrase, "Do you want fries with that?", that's what you are going to be asked to do. Most of the other kind of jobs, the jobs our fathers had, have moved to other locations where labor is cheaper than it can be here.

So what changes to our eLearning does this demand?

It is critically important that we give our students a framework for evaluating their own gaps in skill, experience, and knowledge. If they don't have a way to determine those gaps, they can't accurately determine what they need to learn. I don't think I can ever think of an instance where a course or a class started with a methodology for the student to self-evaluate. Either the instructor assumed that if I was in the class I need to know the material, or the instructor managed the evaluation process and owned the results. This is going to have to stop. I predict that students will simply not participate in learning experiences that don't include this element.

Additionally, our content needs to be chunked in to smaller bites and indexed so that learners can locate the specific piece they want to find. Learners need an easy way to build on existing content, to make connections with others and to vet the expertise of their fellow collaborators. That's what the future of eLearning will look like.


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