Over the last ten years, the learning industry has tried to reinvent itself many times—first through Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSS), then through Knowledge Management and Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS), and again through EPSS in the form of "Workflow Learning." Unfortunately, each new vision suffered from fundamental flaws. The problem is it's just as time-consuming to create new content in any of these models as it is to create effective courseware, requiring just as much, if not more, time from subject matter experts (SMEs), and just as much "processing" by instructional designers.
None of these approaches delivered on the promises associated with them, forcing those of us in the learning profession to continue delivering traditional training and courseware. That's not to say we haven't innovated or advanced the profession. We've created software simulation tools, collaborative authoring tools, social simulators, virtual classroom paradigms, and PowerPoint converters—to name just a few. But none of these dramatically changed how we play the game. So far, our combined innovation has resulted in yet more courseware—better courseware, differently delivered courseware, but courseware nonetheless.
What's the Problem with Courseware?
Courseware development is typically a big, episodic undertaking that requires a significant time investment from many people with deep and varied expertise. Subject matter experts, in particular, typically commit many hours to developing just one course. But when SMEs are required to spend time distilling, conveying, and reviewing their expertise as courseware, they are not doing their "real" jobs. This one issue accounts for most of the reluctance and friction that occurs during the development process.
Then, too, learners usually don't retain as much information from long, sustained periods of instruction as they do from smaller snippets of information. Student retention after a typical instructor-led training event, for instance, is only 58 percent immediately following the event. Within just two days, retention drops to 33 percent. And like SMEs, learners are ill served by the disconnection between "real work" and training.
Research by Will Thalheimer suggests learners perform significantly better when training is aligned with "real-world performance context," the antithesis of what happens with courseware. Thalheimer also found "spacing repetition and practice over time" improves learner performance in the real world. Given that completion rates for online learning range between 20 and 40 percent, it does not seem likely many learners are completing Web-based training courses multiple times. Sixty to eighty percent of learners aren't even finishing courses the first time.
Web 2.0 technology has the potential to change all of this. Tools such as blogs, wikis, discussion forums, podcasts, microblogs, online file repositories, and video enable anyone in an organization (including SMEs) to easily create content. Unlike training, which is heavy and episodic, Web 2.0 technologies enable the creation and consumption of bite-sized content in a continuous stream. For SMEs, this means content creation can be done more naturally in the flow of their real work, resulting in more willing participation and less resistance, and for learners, it means content can be consumed at a time of need, and in "real-world" contexts. Web 2.0 content is fluid without being overly structured or transient. Unlike knowledge management solutions, it doesn't force structure or impose taxonomies. And unlike a water cooler, or "over the cube wall" support session, it has a permanence and search-ability that grows over time.
This presents learning professionals with an incredible opportunity to transform learning from episodic, infrequent, unwieldy courseware to a more ongoing, sensible, and sustainable model. With Web 2.0, we have the chance to re-imagine the learning experience from "something that happens to us" to "something we collectively create." We can transform our perception of learning from “something that interrupts our 'real' work" to "something that is intrinsic to our 'real' work."
To realize this, we need to rethink both our roles and our vision of training. We also need to reevaluate our relationships with SMEs, and our expectations of them, as well as the role of the learner. As trainers and learning development professionals, we're all familiar with the adage, "Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime." Typically, we apply this approach to how we teach students new skills that are related to our business objectives. As we think about the transition to user-generated content, however, we need to think about teaching our learners and SMEs to teach—basically a "train-the-trainer" model.
In order to effect this change, we need to critically examine our content development models. For most of the industry, the standard courseware development model is linear and expert-driven. It relies heavily on instructional designers as the conduit through which information flows. The instructional designer, however, is not just a passive pipe; he or she also transforms the raw expertise into consumable content that reflects instructional principles and the unique needs of the learning audience. This process improves the overall quality of content delivery, and likewise, increases the chances learners will absorb and retain more of the training. But there is a price to pay for this "content processing"—timelines that measure weeks and months, and bottlenecks the production process. As we look forward to a Learning 2.0 model, we need to determine how best to preserve the quality and value of content, while producing significantly more of it in less time.
Fortunately, two related industries have already begun transitioning to a newer model: the encyclopedia and news industries. Wikipedia boasts more than 1.2 million pages of content. By contrast, Encyclopedia Britannica—the equivalent of our structured, vetted, and processed learning content—includes just 80,000 articles. Some question the accuracy of Wikipedia by comparison to a "real" encyclopedia, but there is no denying Wikipedia is more accurate from articles 80,001 to 1,200,000, if only because there is no alternative.
Wikipedia allows anyone to create content, and then enables anyone to "police" the content by editing it as necessary. So one model to consider is an infrastructure that allows employees to create and police their own content. This model can be surprisingly effective. Just over two years ago, Intel set up an internal wiki called Intelpedia. In the two years since its launch, employees have created more than 20,000 pages of content, all of it self-policed. In that time, not one article has ever been removed for inaccuracies, confidentiality issues, or inappropriateness. Today, there are 5,000 active authors.
Another option is become more proactive in soliciting and managing contributions. Over the last few years, the news industry in the United States has been disrupted by the emergence of the blogosphere. In South Korea, however, the news industry has proven more adaptable. Rather than compete with citizen journalists, a company called OhmyNews directly solicits contributions from them. These contributions are then vetted, edited, and compiled into news articles. Fifty professionals manage this process, and more than 40,000 amateur reporters contribute to it, submitting an average of 150 to 200 articles per day. These amateur articles now account for more than two-thirds of the content.
The Intelpedia and OhmyNews models both present viable options for incorporating Web 2.0 development into our learning programs, and we should probably pursue both. We clearly need to create and maintain a viable infrastructure to enable the creation and sharing of user-generated content. According to most studies, "formal" training only accounts for 20 to 30 percent of the skills learners use on the job. The rest of their critical skills are learned from peers and on-the-job experience. Like Encyclopedia Britannica, we’re spending all of our time and energy refining the content to perfection, and therefore missing entire categories and sub-categories of business-critical knowledge, skills, and expertise. By empowering learners to create their own content, we can begin to fill those gaps, much in the way Intel has. More importantly, we can establish some visibility into the content, providing an opportunity to manage and influence this critical information flow.
The key challenge in this model is quality. We've all been in subject matter expert discussions that leave us scratching our heads. Many SMEs are too close to their own expertise. They often have a difficult time distilling key concepts and underlying principles for the layperson. This is where the unique expertise of instructional designers can provide strategic value to the organization. We need to figure out how to teach our SMEs (and the rest of the organization) how to teach. It's unlikely that many of our students will ever become true instructional designers, but we can enable organizations to improve their collective ability to convey information and expertise in a way that's more easily consumed and digested by others. By improving the quality and quantity of information exchange throughout the organization, we provide strategic value. By contrast, if we produce yet one more piece of courseware, we are providing more limited tactical value.
During this transition to a more open, user-generated paradigm, we also can design strategies around the OhmyNews model. On our way to platforms and complete openness, we may want to solicit contributions and then edit, validate, and assemble these—not necessarily into courses, but into "clean and accurate" Web 2.0 content. This strategy may backfire by providing too much structure and too many bottlenecks, but for change-resistant organizations, or highly sensitive content, it might offer a viable transitional approach.
For years, training departments have been at the forefront of creating online information and training. As more and more companies begin to embrace user-generated content and participation-oriented activities, we have the opportunity to play a unique role in our companies by sharing training expertise, managing required infrastructure, and championing adoption of a more involved, conversational culture.
This doesn't mean traditional learning and courseware models should be abandoned, any more than instructor-led models were abandoned with the advent of computer and Web-based training. Courseware, curriculum, and learning management systems are still necessary elements in any learning strategy, particularly for those industries with compliance and certification challenges. Learning 2.0 is just another tool in the toolbox. But unlike other learning tools, our Web 2.0 hammers and saws come with carpenters in tow—often hundreds, or even thousands, of them.
It's this transition to social learning and user-generated content that makes this paradigm shift so different from the EPSS, LCMS, and Knowledge Management movements. In each of the prior cases, the actors were all the same, even if the show had a new name.
Experts wrote it, experts starred in it, and experts produced it. Learning 2.0 is about the learner: learners write it, learners star in it, and learners often produce it.
This means our roles must change. Rather than acting as unidirectional conduits from expert to learner, we need to connect learners to experts, and learners to each other. We need to own the Learning 2.0 infrastructure, and think strategically about which types of content should still be delivered as courseware, and which should be created by the masses. We need to transform our roles from trainers and designers to coaches and facilitators who help others share their expertise. These are big transitions, to be sure, but they also are natural evolutions of our current roles. If we embrace these changes, Learning 2.0 has the potential to completely transform learning and development as we know it today, and by extension, the organization as well.
David Wilkins is senior director of content strategy for Mzinga, a provider of on-demand workplace, customer community, and Learning 2.0 solutions. Mzinga solutions combine social networking and Web 2.0 technologies with a comprehensive learning suite. For more information, visit www.mzinga.com.