Holes, not drills – the changing landscape of learning

By Mark Story, Head of Learning Innovation

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I have been preparing to give a keynote speech for a Festival of Learning Conference in the HE Sector and rather ambitiously, I want to talk about the future of learning and what that means for the learning professional.

It occurs to me that often (especially in the workplace) the motivation behind learning a thing is to be able to do a thing. This brought to might the old ‘Marketing Myopia’ adage coined by Theodore Levitt in the 1960’s that companies are often too focused on their product or service and not the customers wants and needs – summed up by saying “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

Applying this same thought to the learning sector, I have not only witnessed but also been party to creating extensive learning programmes (making drills) to address problems, rather than start from the point of needing a hole. This is because it’s the business I’m in and creating learning programme is what I do.

My observation of technology is that we are already at a place in time where there are exponentially more options for meeting the needs of a business than creating learning interventions, i.e. there are multiple ways of creating holes.

For example, only a few years ago we would run a couple of days face to face training to train staff on company systems. We would gather people from all over the country, book out a hotel and they would all sit in a classroom going through key tasks on key systems. Obviously, the outcomes were variable – depending on how much the learner had slept, the temperature of the room, the amount of carbs offered at lunch, the nature of the facilitator etc, the learner would get some knowledge and skill to take back with them.

Now, product tour software such as Intercom, Storylane, Walkme and Userpilot and even standard authoring tools like Articulate can create in-system guidance that enables the learner to just start ‘doing’ and using the system – effectively reducing the time it takes to be productive from 1 to 0.

We’re all probably familiar with little guidance walk-throughs when we first download an app so we’ll all be familiar with this type of in-line, in-system mini-guidance. But behind that is the art of designing intuitive systems and processes that minimise the learning required. Any smart phone user today is operating a complex set of systems intuitively, with very little learning required.

Systems are just one use case. Over the last few years I have seen the implementation of observe.ai – a ‘conversation intelligence engine’ that listens to phone conversations and can be trained to understand the nature of the conversation and the dynamics between the two people of the phone. The system can provide instant feedback on the quality of the call. This feedback loop, against a predetermined standard generates the learning from the doing.

In a growing number of engineering scenarios, field engineers are using AR glasses that link to a central control in which experts can guide engineers remotely to fix problems themselves, removing the need for additional training for infrequent issues or the additional cost and time of bringing out expert engineers. 

Low-code tools are now enabling more direct ‘doing’ in a range of tech areas. Years ago, the dark art of building websites was the domain (pun intended) of web wizards, now coding tools can enable my 81 year old mum to set up a shop to sell her imported jewellery in a matter of minutes. These tools have been available for some time, but more recently we’re seeing this extend to app development, gaming and a host of more bespoke system uses.

These are just some examples of where learning is being looked at differently. It’s either being designed out of the process all together, or significantly reduced, or it’s being incorporated into the doing of things.

So if that’s the current movement of the sector, what’s the destination or at least the interesting stops along the way? Could wearable tech or ‘inserted’ hardware (!) provide us with the ability to become a martial arts expert or helicopter pilot instantly (a nod to the Matrix films)? Could product and UI/UX design create things so intuitive that we can just get on and do? How long before Google Translate enables us to communicate in real time in any language? These futures are already emerging and it’s exciting to see where they’ll lead.

The impact on the learning professional is significant. No longer will they be manufacturers of drills, but rather enablers of holes. This will require more integration into the businesses they serve, into product development, software engineering and operations functions. It will require more understanding of developments in technology and methods to keep up to date. And it will require flexible mindsets and creativity to envision solutions that are unique to the problems at hand.

At FuturU, closing the gap between learning and doing is a central pursuit – exploring technologies that can enable learners to move to a guided doing phase in consequence free environments. This pursuit is enshrined in 2 of our stated values: Innovative – which means we challenge the status quo, offering new perspectives and we spend our time doing things that are really hard and; Seeking the Exceptional – which means we’re excited by these challenges and we’re bold and unapologetic about our vision for the future.

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