We are launching a new Scholar programme about environmental threats to health, with an initial focus on radiation. (I mapped out what this might look like in 2017.) As part of the launch, we are enlisting support of immunization colleagues.
Our immunization programme is our largest and most advanced programme, and still growing fast since its inception in 2016. At The Geneva Learning Foundation, we have spent 5 years pouring mind, body, and soul into building what has become the largest digital platform for national and sub-national immunization leaders.
Yes, there is a linkage as most vaccines are for children, and our first course in the new programme (with WHO) is about communicating radiation risks in paediatric imaging. But I was not sure if our request for help would make sense to the immunization network, especially when so many immunization staff are overwhelmed by COVID-19 vaccine introduction.
Yet, in less than 2 hours, immunization colleagues had already shared the announcement over 300 times. This is an impressive display of solidarity across public health and medicine silos.
We understand the yearning to find a low-cost or no-cost way to spontaneously create a thriving community of practice in which participants engage intensively, volunteer undue amounts of time and effort to keeping the community alive, support other members, and make use of the resources and sharing that emerge.
I have seen many ambitious projects assume that establishing a digital platform will, in and of itself, enable the processes that are needed.
This almost never happens, except in rare circumstances when a fortuitous but accidental sequence of events has prompted stakeholders in exactly the right order, at the right time, and at the point of need.
In our experience, a significant upfront investment is needed for a community to be forged successfully. This investment is not required for the technology platforms but, rather, to support the intensive design and facilitation required to crack the complex equation between motivation, demand and context.
We believe that high-quality facilitation and speed are both vital to demonstrate relevance. If ‘members’ do not quickly see a tangible return for their business needs when they invest time, they will just as quickly stop responding to calls for action.
Busy managers may enjoy connecting socially and exchanging informally with their peers. However, they are likely to find it difficult to justify time doing so. They may say “I’m too busy” but what they usually mean is that the opportunity cost is too high. The Achilles heel of communities of practice is that – just like formal training – require managers to stop work in order to learn. They break the flow of learning in work. Incentives or perks may help substitute for intrinsic motivation, but these will be counter-productive, if only because theylig establish expectations that are difficult to meet over time.
Instead, we earn trust and establish relevance by providing services in ways that save time and help solve their business problems. During the inaugural phase, this is similar to a ‘conciergerie’ service, at the beck and call of the managers who just need to ‘push a button’ to get assistance. The key is that this assistance will rely on the network to gradually build meaningful connections, until managers realize that they can actually call and rely on each other, at the point of need. Bypassing the structure we establish will be the indicator of success.
We are building a human-machine interface to augment networked business problem-solving capability.
While there will be ‘social space’, this space only becomes viable if we first succeed in establishing the human-machine interface to respond to manager needs. We expect the initial focus to be on identifying problems that managers are trying to solve. Success is contingent on establishing a structure and process that provides the ability to interrogate the network, collecting and curating responses that are most likely to be helpful to the problem originator.
The point is to demonstrate that participation and contribution to the network augments individual capabilities and their ability to deliver results, rather than be perceived as a time-suck with high opportunity cost.
We do this in ways, grounded in our successful practice, to foster trust and mutual recognition between managers, leading to their growing engagement with each other as they identify commonalities and their own reasons for deepening collaboration.
We rely on the latest innovative tools, using open source AI (machine learning) and performance support, knowledge management, and feedback systems.
The network itself becomes a Co-Agent, a cybernetic performance, data, and decision support system combining both human and machine elements.
“Please, I need someone to enlighten me on the pros and cons of online courses for active learning and professional development.”
There is quite a bit of contextual information missing to decode what is really being asked. We only know that it is an individual professional from an anglophone country in Africa. Still, I can think of at least three ways to answer this question.
Answer #1. Wrong question.
This is the wrong question. Pros and cons depend on the quality of the pedagogy, the teaching and facilitation team, the resources, technologies used, context, learning and learner objectives… everything except the medium.
Review a course against criteria like the above, not as an abstract consideration. Define your own goals. What are you hoping to achieve?
What is the relationship between perceived quality and cost?
The residential experience is still perceived as the gold standard for education. And it tends to be the most expensive.
To what extent are your choices driven by an economic imperative?
Are you considering an online course because you cannot afford a residential experience or it is otherwise not feasible (lack of time, inability to travel)? Are you assuming that lower cost signifies lower quality? What kind of credential will have value that you are willing to pay for? Will potential employers recognize this credential?
Answer #2. The research says digital is better.
Years ago, Bill Cope pointed me to the two most comprehensive meta-analyses (here and here) comparing online, blended, and face-to-face learning outcomes. One way to summarize these studies? Since 1992, people who learn online get slightly better learning outcomes than those who learn face-to-face, after leveling for all other differences. Furthermore, there appeared to be no benefit from blended learning, except for the fact that people tend to spend more time learning because they do more work, tending to repeat practice online with practice face-to-face.
Of course, it is much more complicated than that.
People fear losing per diem (receiving cash for attendance), the ability to create new relationships and see people they know and work with remotely, travel and other perks, time away from work… that is usually where resistance to digital learning comes from. There is also a lot of really bad, ineffective digital learning that is very damaging, replicating the worst of face-to-face methods and practice.
Learning outcomes are often just one goal being sought through training. (Conventional instructional design sees this as a problem. In fact, it is an amazing opportunity for those of us who are interested in education as a philosophy for change.)
Access to opportunities, professional network development, credentials of value, and many other goals may actually be more valued by learners than the knowledge acquired. Knowledge acquisition is likely to be the least valuable part of learning beyond the basics.
The key consideration is the rate of change of the digital transformation that is sweeping across our societies. This has enabled new ways to work and learn remotely. For example, coaches and mentors will hold Skype calls without even realizing that they have gone “digital” and are now practicing digital learning. They may in fact still be adamant about their skepticism that it is possible “learn online” and remain attached to sharing physical space to practice their craft, oblivious to their own dependence on technology and the way it benefits them.
Almost a decade ago, Nathan Jurgenson coined the term digital dualism, “the habit of viewing the online and offline as largely distinct.”
“But this idea that we are trading the offline for the online, though it dominates how we think of the digital and the physical, is myopic. It fails to capture the plain fact that our lived reality is the result of the constant interpenetration of the online and offline. That is, we live in an augmented reality that exists at the intersection of materiality and information, physicality and digitality, bodies and technology, atoms and bits, the off and the online. It is wrong to say ‘IRL’ to mean offline: Facebook is real life.“
Of course, digital learning is imperfect. It remains horribly clunky, ironically difficult to use, and mired with the legacy of transmissive lectures, an obsession with summative assessment, and a foggy nebula of evidence. Yet that it beside the point. Why? It is very early days and what matters is the accelerating pace of change: everything in digital learning is changing all the time, with new tools, platforms, processes constantly improving.
With face-to-face training, the rate of change is, to put it politely, slow. Face-to-face is a wonderful medium. Sharing physical space is our most familiar gateway to intimacy. It is an “always-on” experience, rendering isolation from other humans painful in some instances and a relief in others. However, the use of physical space for learning has finite limits, as some of the basic constraints of physical space are immutable. For example, simultaneous dialogue in which everyone has a voice is difficult to achieve in a physical space. (It’s called ‘everyone’s yelling at each other’ in a room and the chat box in a digital space.) It works best in formats that are low volume due to high cost, and the most effective formats are difficult if not impossible to scale.
The possibilities with digital seem endless by comparison — despite the current clunkiness, limitations, and frustrations that face-to-face trainers may feel because they lose the familiarity of experience that they are used to, digital means are enabling new ways of doing new things. And that is what we need because it is obvious that the conventional means we have been using are failing to deliver the outcomes we need.
What does this answer mean to the potential purchaser of education? If digital is the new default, quality and value in education are in flux, more than they have been for centuries. There are new factors to consider in the complex equation of when and how to invest in one’s professional development. The medium is just one consideration, but may not be a matter of choice.
Image: International fruit combo. Personal collection.
xAPI and other “X”-buzzwords are just the latest tin con by desperate LMS vendors.
Fantasizing that VR or AR will save us perpetuates the persistent confusion between tools and process.
As ‘learning leaders’ we are condemning ourselves to irrelevance by chasing ephemeral fads, investing in empty gimmicks, and embracing bearded gurus spouting non-sense.
‘Learning in the flow of work’ is a successful consultant’s buzz word, but will not help us any more than 70-20-10 did.
Leadership ‘development’ remains about pampering a few executives old enough to appreciate cushy hotel and conference rooms.
Kirkpatrick died, replaced by a coterie of rabid Kirkpatrick wannabes frothing at the mouth about their new, convoluted learning ‘measurement’ systems, pretending they are now driven by research, in denial that evidence for education in general – and for learning and development in particular – is pathetically weak.
Clutching the pearls of ‘strategic relevance’ to the business supported by pseudo-studies to measure ROI is, at best, a tenuous proposition when every choice in the labyrinth of possibilities leads to the dead end of a cost center in perpetuity.
How could the role of education for the future be limited to providing better tools, in the midst of a Fourth Industrial Revolution or Second Machine Age, in which a range of new technologies are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds?
It is mostly a failure of imagination. That is the only reason to shed a tear.
Business gets done by groups in workshops and meetings and by individuals in private conversation. There is an undeniable cultural advantage for diplomacy that comes from looking your interlocutor in the eye.
Emerging digital platforms are in the margins of this business.
The pioneers are creaky in their infrastructure and, ironically, playing catch-up. They have long lost the initial burst of enthusiasm that led to their creation. Yet they are still here, alive and kicking with funding that can support, in principle, their reinvention. For this, they need courage and creativity, especially if they function in a bureaucratic environment.
Then there are new platforms in search of purpose and the users it would bring. Sometimes, it is the other way around.
No platform is perfect. All of them have strengths, experience, insights, and the potential to be more in the future than what they are now. Some have already achieved individual impact and continue to do so.
There is no doubt in my mind that, sooner than we think, our platforms – or the ones that will replace them – will be core to achieving the strategy being defined now for the coming decade.
Digital transformation has swallowed enough industries that we now understand how it works.
If you think about the newspaper industry, their web sites started in the margins too.
Digital technologies provide a new economy of effort. In our context, we now have the means to address professionals working in the very communities where targets are either achieved or not. In fact, two-thirds of our cohorts do not work in the capital city but in the regions and districts.
What is the incentive for collaboration between digital platforms? We are all competing for the same resources, jostling for recognition, striving to demonstrate that we are contributing to the business.
There are practical, operational reasons to share content, ideas, lessons learned. This can help each platform improve, for the benefit of the network that we all want to serve. Such service improvement is necessary and important.
We can imagine a collective effort in which platforms rally around a shared goal and establish a shared measurement system to track progress.
Yet, this too would be short-sighted.
Yes, through a process of accretion, digital platforms will move from margin to center. They will not only be relevant to the business, they will be the business.
The opportunity is for us to harness this process and accelerate the transformation so that it serves the strategic goals that are being defined today.
To seize this opportunity, we need to start with the reality check:
Access is no longer the problem. (There is still a border beyond which there are no cell phone towers, but this border keeps receding.)
Digital literacy is the problem.
Many learners in these platforms are discovering key online resources, available for years on the open web. A small but significant proportion may be part of the next billion of Internet users, joining to learn, not to surf.
For this, we need a “no wrong door policy”. Wherever people enter the system, they need to find the pipes or pathways that will connect them to the destination that will help them solve the problem they are tackling. This is not about finding content, but the process of discovery that comes from connecting with others.
The quality of the pipes will determine how quickly platforms become core business, rather than a nice-to-have.
Image: Diving platform on Graveyard Hill in Kabul from TV-Hill, Afghanistan. Photo by Sven Dirks, Wien.
The assumption that countries have the capacity to take on recommendations from the best available knowledge, achieve understanding, and turn them into effective policy and action, leaves unanswered the mechanisms through which a publication, a series of meetings, or a policy comparison may lead to change.
Technology has already transformed the ability of international organizations to move from knowledge production and diplomacy to new forms of scalable, networked action needed to tackle complex global challenges. This has created a significant opportunity for leaders to deliver on their mission.
Some organizations are already offering high-quality, multi-lingual learning. Many are using digital technologies to scale, often at the cost of quality, helping large numbers of learners develop competencies. On their own, these are no longer innovative – much less transformative – goals. Several international organizations have built corporate universities and other types of learning functions that remain confined to the margins of the business and under threat from the next restructuring. None of these initiatives have moved the needle of impact.
At the Geneva Learning Foundation, we have developed a low-cost, scalable package of interventions for international organizations to leverage digital transformation to: (1) bridge the gap between thinking and doing at country level; and (2) foster the emergence of country leadership for positive change.
In our first three years, we have worked with partners across several thematic areas, developing this package to translate global guidelines into effective local action, to support capability development from competency to implementation, and to perform multi-country peer review at scale.
This package can complement or replace existing low-volume, high-cost face-to-face workshops and conferences that are difficult to scale and measure.
It is entirely digital (motivating participants without offering travel, hotel, or per diem) and embedded into work (participants do not need to stop work), significantly reducing both expenditure and opportunity cost, while improving efficacy.
It has fostered the emergence of informal, self-led and motivated groupings of professionals operating across agencies that may provide a different kind of lever for systemic change than traditional top-down approaches to addressing challenges and can replaced failed, conventional training-of-trainer and “cascade” models.
Recognizing the value of such emergent dynamics creates authentic opportunities to accelerate the transformation for impact.
Fostering such emergence is the hard part.
Last but not least, our business modelling demonstrates that, if the organization has healthy relationships with its stakeholders, financial sustainability (cost recovery) can be achieved within three years, so this is not one more mechanism dependent on donor good will.
As we have seen existing partnerships leads to promising results – above and beyond our own expectations – we are slowly growing in confidence about the strengths and sustainability of what began as a series of small-scale pilot projects and experiments.
Along the way, we have also learned how difficult it is to find the right mix of ingredients to move from ideas to successful execution to develop such a programme if it is to contribute to systemic change.
I first remember hearing the phrase “Everyone hates their LMS” from a defrocked priest of higher education.
That made so much sense. At the time, I was wrestling with a stupid, clunky corporate learning management system designed for the most paranoid kind of HR department, touting its 10,000 features, none of which could do what we actually needed. Moodle seemed equally clunky, its pedagogical aspirations lost in the labyrinth of open source development.
The first breakthrough happened when, inspired by connectivist MOOCs, I figured out we could run an open learning journey without an LMS, using nothing more than a blog and a Twitter account. (That defrocked priest dubbed it “FrankenMOOC”, but he was also trying to sell me on using his preferred LMS.) There was something profoundly liberating about working outside the confines of a platform. However, the connectivist ideal proved to be a different kind of labyrinth, with only a chosen few who enjoyed wandering around or getting lost in it.
Digital market share is often measured by the size of your walled garden. By that measure, Facebook rules them all. In education, Moodle must certainly have the largest, albeit balkanized, walled garden.
This is not about the merit or demerit of an LMS or a learning theory. You are missing the point. And my vantage point sits outside of higher education.
Google’s ubiquitous search provides an interesting exception. By default, its “garden” is the entire Internet. This is how I understand the failure of Google+ as a missed opportunity. Why build a wall when search results could have gone social? (There are smatterings of this in search, for example when results show you reviews or enable you to connect with your search results.)
There is no parallel to this in higher education, where the market is driven by aggregators who partner with universities to leverage, as Burck Smith summarizes it, the “‘iron triangle’ of input-focused accreditation, taxpayer subsidies tied to accreditation, and subjective course articulation”.
It is a fundamental mistake to start building a digital learning system with the choice of platform, for at least two reasons.
First, there is no one platform that will do the job. This is especially true if you are interested in doing more than offering “high-quality learning” and competencies but want to fully leverage the potential of the digital transformation to drive change to tackle complex, global problems. The “course” is the commencement, not the end point. Implementation and impact are no longer the horizon. They are the rational goal that justifies investment in professional education.
Second, focusing on the platform inevitably devolves a learning initiative into a technology project. This is what happened to Moodle. It is akin to e-learning development in which media production metastizes into costly bells-and-whistles.
I know of only one platform that is the pure implementation of a strong pedagogical model. Unfortunately, despite the relevance of its pedagogical model for our future, its technology framework was also built on assumptions of the past, and it is just as proprietary as otherwise inferior commercial platforms.
As technology embedded into the fabric of our cultures, it makes increasingly little sense to refer to a learning initiative as “digital” or “online”. It is just learning. The platforms used to support it should be either those that are already embedded in daily work or whatever the best available product happens to be at the moment, except where specific processes can be automated or facilitated by a specialized tool.
So, what about assessment, credentialing and record-keeping?
The first two benefit from being uncoupled from the process that supports knowledge acquisition and capability development. Sure, we can build separate assessment and credentialing based on direct observation and other forms of testing. This is where subject matter experts can be useful. However, dedicating resources to assessment in an artificial environment may not be nearly as good as figuring out how to do assessment in situ, in line with a philosophy of education that is about fostering leadership and innovation to drive change. Getting results and achieving impact should be the new credential of value.
Why are badges and other forms of micro-credentialing going nowhere fast? First, cracking the armor of accreditation is difficult given the capacity of higher education to resist change. Second, credentialing skills, knowledge, and competencies is no longer the signal that carries value.
The last one is a data problem. Build a modern database. Figure out how to get the data you need in and out. You do not need a learning management system to do that.
Copenhagen. I chat with two “learning consultants”, whose job it is in their respective universities to help faculty improve how they teach.
Much to my dismay, I understand that their role is perceived as being about the adoption of new tools (“Should I use Adobe Connect or Zoom?”). Yet they are a case in point that learning technologists provide a rare opportunity for university faculty to think through how they teach.
In such institutions of teaching and learning, guess who is paid more?
Cue Felder’s infamous quote: “College teaching may be the only skilled profession for which systematic training is neither required nor provided – pizza delivery jobs come with more instruction.”
Subject matter experts are a problem.
They are expensive. If they are good, they tend to be too busy to contribute.
They often confuse knowing with teaching.
Their best intention is to transmit what they know.
They are disappointed and stymied by the apparent passivity of learners. “I wish my students would participate more!”
This problem is compounded by peer learning. It is legitimate to yearn for validation from an established expert. However, the shining light of expertise can blind learners to the potential of what they might achieve together.
What if we flipped convention on its head? Subject matter expertise becomes one input. An important one. But it is pedagogy in the driver’s seat. How we come to know trumps what we know. (What we need to know changes so fast, the former is more important than the latter.)
Renewed relevance of subject matter experts may be in supporting implementation and progression to impact, not in teaching and learning. The expertise that matters is in knowing how to get business done, how to get to a result, how to negotiate the context.
But, then again, teaching and learning that is relevant should encompass that journey to implementation and impact.
If it does not, it is not teaching and there is no learning.
Photo: Bryggerness Plads, Copenhagen (March 2019). Personal collection.