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The real problem with learning technologies? "The learner”

May 18, 2017

The most attention I’ve ever received on LinkedIn was not because of a post I had written, but because of a post written about me. It started when my seminar at the Learning Technologies event in London earlier this year more-or-less flopped - hardly anyone showed up. A friend of mine responded to the situation by posting on LinkedIn:

"Learning Industry in a nutshell. One of the smartest guys (@Toby Harris) with one of the best products = empty seats... Loads of stands with outdated products (LMS and content), good looking people with no product knowledge or answers and way too much candy... Come on Learning Industry... Wake up! Stop pushing solutions that never worked and start looking towards your users. They have hated you long enough ;-)”


Boom. 106 likes. My flop had flipped (I think). The post was a refreshing example of passionate, principled negativity in the sea of boosterism that swirls around this event. It provoked a lot of discussion: "that's something we need to hear more often..."

To be fair to the good people of Learning Technologies, I did not pick a great title for my seminar, which probably explains the low numbers. And I don’t think it’s right to say that conventional elearning solutions ‘never worked’. I think the solutions did work and still do work for some of the people, some of the time. Compliance is an important factor here.

But (and it’s a big but) as my friend is bold enough to admit, we can’t hide from the truth that: learning technology isn’t working very well.

In fact, conventional click-next elearning and learning management systems are now in terminal decline. Last year a large-scale analysis of revenues across multiple countries forecasted that five-year compound annual growth rates for self-service elearning have now slipped into negative territory and will continue to decline. Quite simply: ‘the product has reached the end of its product lifecycle’. But nearly every large corporation relies on these dying technologies: SCORM packages and learning management systems.

At the same time, ‘learning with technology’ has never been more popular and more important to the economy. There’s been a total revolution in online learning in the past five years that has transformed the way we curate, consume and recommend learning.

YouTube is everyone’s on-demand LMS for household jobs and DIY: in seconds, everyone can learn things now that used to be passed down from parents or gleaned from friends. More reflective, complex learning used to require visits to a good library or expensive educational services. Now when we have a spare hour we’ll listen to a podcast. When we only have 10 minutes we’ll watch a TED talk. If it’s good content we share it with someone we think will also like it (and this makes WhatsApp, amongst many other things, a constant social learning feed.) And when it comes to what we might view as formal, self-directed learning, as Don Taylor wrote recently, MOOCs are a trend we can’t afford to ignore.

The transformation of learning content we always wanted to happen inside our organisations (social, user-generated, point-of-need and high-impact) has now taken place. But it has taken place outside of our organisations. Not thanks to any of our initiatives, but as a product of an entirely new environment: the mobile, personalized internet.

Yet still we build products like this new environment doesn’t exist: we implement outdated LMS platforms, publish our SCORM packages and dodge the engagement problem by making all of it mandatory.

It’s like if you had to download and burn a DVD to watch a YouTube video. And someone was making you do it.

In this situation, the question that fixates me is why. Why do we remain stuck with our mandatory SCORM packages and our learning management systems? No matter how much vendors and corporate L&D may complain about each other, there must be some conceptual failing in common that ties us together in this death-grip of non-engagement and failure.

Something that prevents us from fixing things, even if we all recognise what’s going wrong... 

Keep reading my article on LinkedIn


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