Whether we call it training, digital learning or online education, it strikes me that there’s a good question to ask ourselves. “Is it wrapping its metaphorical head round the Internet, or is it wrapping the Internet round its head?”
Earlier this summer, Harold Jarche (whose biography you can read here, and whose work focuses on both learning and networks) published a blog post, Learning is Connecting, which takes polite task with a 1999 quote from a Cisco CEO:
Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make email usage look like a rounding error.”
Those among us of a networked persuasion (and I’m using the phrase to mean more than just wires and screens) are, understandably, very much in the ‘pro’ camp when it comes to computer-mediated education. They are eager to position education and learning in a context: a new workplace paradigm that is characterised by a particular vocabulary. Buzzword Bingo enthusiasts will recognise many of these terms – ‘connected’, ‘social’, ‘group’, ‘collaborative’, ‘work teams’.
Not words that should be unexpected, perhaps: we are many, many years beyond the point at which we can claim that the Internet has had a minimal impact on life as it is lived offline. This broadening of outlook beyond the content and delivery of learning is to be applauded too: learning should take place in the places that we work (even if those are often our living rooms during times that might previously have been clearly marked as ‘downtime’), and should acknowledge and reflect the changing nature of working practices.
As Jarche’s referencing of Jane Hart’s top web tools for learning illustrates, we are also magpie-like in our eagerness to co-opt the latest shiny wonders for our own purposes and desires, even if seeing Dropbox in the Top 10 gave me pause for thought: a very handy way of sharing and syncing files, but arguably not directly a learning tool? But then even those of us who don’t see a learning delivery possibility everywhere we look are largely incapable of resisting the digital allure. When is the last time you spent a working day without at least checking your email? (Given that you are reading a blog on some kind of screen, I’d hazard a guess it may be some time back.)
The forward-facing, ‘this is where the world is heading’ nature of this debate also carries an inevitable buzz: the future is – or perhaps, more accurately, can always be positioned as – ‘sexy’. (Not a word that educationalists often embrace, but one that’s over-used in many a marketing circle.) But I do sometimes wonder if the metaphorical curtains might need to be pulled back just a fraction further, not least as I’m not yet entirely convinced that the nexus of knowledge and network value is inevitably the pot of gold at the end of the silicon rainbow. Even the shiniest gold coins have a flip side. The rise of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) is a recent example of a gold-rush that may have consequences beyond the intended: one disillusioned commenter on a Psychology Today article shines a light, possibly rather melodramatically, on one possible meaning for those who have previously completed their education by more conventional means:
The mere fact that the content is available for free either at a public library or on Wikipedia means that my education is worth zero and therefore I am too.”
The ‘communities’ that are referenced so frequently in the contemporary literature of online learning are virtual ones in many ways: examples of what urban planner Melvin Webber called ‘communities without propinquity’. (Webber’s thinking was influential in the design of Milton Keynes, close to ASK’s HQ, and – as his obituaries show – the verdict remains somewhat open.) While efforts are made to ensure that the learning is engaging and that it is aligned with the business, I wonder if the ‘feeling of belonging’ is similarly problematic in these learning environments as it can be for residents for new towns informed by lofty ideals. These are ‘communities’ in which absences can pass entirely unannounced: if ‘in space, no-one can hear you scream’, then online no-one might notice the metaphorical milk bottles accumulating on the doorstep. There is more to ‘belonging’ than having a currently valid log in. While people are heavily present in the writings of Jarche, Hart and many others, they are present in the rather abstract manner that trees are present in architects’ drawings of new towns – a sort of quasi-street furniture that seems to be there more to populate the future dream than to truly inhabit it.
It’s refreshing, therefore, to read the words of Roger Schank – also referenced by Jarche – when he writes (in an article that shakes its head both angrily and forlornly about much of the work of Higher Education in the online learning arena):
What is education? It’s an experience, mentored by an expert, in which the student tries to accomplish something, fails, and then after some discussion with peers and mentors, tries again.”
I still, however, sometimes get the same sensation that I feel when I see an artist’s impression of some yet-to-be-constructed ‘utopia’ – a nagging doubt that the human beings, their role in the dream and the impact that their real behaviour will have upon it have not been fully fleshed out or thought through. While Jarche writes frequently about Personal Knowledge Management (PKM), which we might loosely define as the key skill/behaviour for our present and coming times, my focus keeps pulling back to that slightly broader picture and asking if all this ‘networked thinking’ has managed to connect all of the dots.
I’ve previously referenced an article by Mark Gould that addressed the sense of personal ownership as it relates to knowledge, and to knowledge management at an organisation level:
Going back to KM, this identity crisis is what often concerns people about organisationally forced (or incentivised) knowledge sharing. Once they share, they lose control of the information they provided. They also run the risk that the information will be misused without reference back to them. It isn’t surprising that people react to this kind of KM in the same way that concerned citizens have reacted to identity cards in the UK: rather than No2ID, we haveNo2KM (stop the database organisation).”
This relationship between individual and organisation doesn’t exist solely in terms of ‘how shall we deliver learning to them?’: it exists 9 – 5, and often rather longer. And the written contract may allow for non-working hours, but the psychological one is rather more pervasive: organisations may, in some cases, be flatter than they were, but employer/employee is not a meeting of equal status. As learning becomes the new work (another Jarche-ism), personal knowledge becomes personal value to a greater extent than before and Mark Gould’s observations are underlined.
There are tensions at play here that extend beyond the remit or reach of learning designers and deliverers. A Korn Ferry research publication, A Scholarly Investigation Of Generational Workforce Differences: Debunking The Myths, was sceptical that research fully proved generational generalisations, including the notion that younger generations are more loyal to their own learning than their employers, but it is tempting to ask the question ‘from the other end of the telescope’. To use learning not just to improve organisational performance but possibly also to encourage greater talent retention is one thing, but in an era where many organisations are careful no longer to speak of career progression (let alone ‘jobs for life’), employee loyalty may be an unrealistic ask. (Recent London Business School/Deloitte research would seem to agree.)
Yet it’s an important question, surely? There seems little mileage in working to promote retention of learning in a context where retention of those doing the learning is not also equally valued. We may, whether employees are willing or not, seek to capture as much of their knowledge as possible in KM systems, intranets, group forums and a million other co-opted platforms, but it is not knowledge alone that delivers performance. Other elements need to come into play, not least reward and recognition systems that are fully informed by the motivations of those that they would reward. There is little benefit in ensuring that the learning stays in their heads (and their actions and behaviours) unless their heads stay in the building.