I have always been convinced that one key to future success in web-based learning lies in the notion of the prosumer. Prosumers produce what they consume, and it seemed to me back in the mid 1990’s that creating their own content was something that people really enjoyed doing. I saw this in the fact that e-mail was the most-used application of the Internet. I saw it in the fact that AOL members spent more online time in chat rooms than in any other activity. I saw it in the enormous popularity of online massively multiplayer role-playing games, where, though the environment is provided for them, players create their own unique characters and pursue their own adventures. And I saw it in the early rise to prominence of special interest online communities such as Parent Soup where, much like trdev today, members created content for each other, with some editorial guidance.
In the early days of web-based learning, before the oppressive influence of standardized Learning Management Systems, before SCORM took the spark out of ISD, in amongst the prevailing stand-alone conversions from CD-ROM there was a lot of interesting experimental design going on. Much of that innovative learning design centered on using the web for what it did best – connecting people with people to share experience.
When I started an e-learning company in 1998 to provide a project management curriculum online, I built community into the design, rather than simply replicating the tried-and-true classroom versions of the courses. While the content of the course was delivered in a relatively traditional way, it was structured to have learners collaborate with each other, creating their own supplementary content. Every learner had a SME mentor, who was available by e-mail throughout the course. The pool of SMEs hosted online chat sessions around the clock, covering topics related to course content, where learners could exchange ideas, trade war stories, and get clarification on issues. Those sessions were all logged, scrubbed of proper names, and stored in a searchable online library. After tens of thousands of learners, that organically growing repository of community experience was a fabulous resource. The community was so valued by learners that many subscribed to it after completing their courses, so that they could continue to engage with each other and access the content.
That booming company was acquired by a traditional learning business that had no time for such esoteric notions, and stripped the courses back to computer-pumps-it-at-you mode. They saw e-learning as a way to cut costs even at the expense of dumbing down learning effectiveness, and providing human interaction was considered counterproductive. Whether it was the result of ignorance, tunnel vision, technology standardization, or accountants getting the numbers wrong, such was the fate of most e-learning around the beginning of this century.
But the prosumer market is still with us in other fields, and it is stronger than ever. Blogging is the obvious example, and it is till growing so fast that the statistics are out of date the moment they are published. Along with creating blogs, publishing your own photographs on the web has taken off, aided by free photo-hosting services like Flickr. Communities such as Del.icio.us, which are specifically designed for sharing information and links of mutual interest, are booming. And services like 43Things and Backpack, which help you tie all of these together, are starting to take off.
In training, we are seeing prosumer concepts like informal learning, workflow learning, and collaborative learning coming into vogue. These are still considered by mainstream learning professionals as interesting but impractical, largely because they are hard to conceptualize and harder still to manage. Yet there are so many reasons why we should be dedicating at least some of our resources to experimenting with them. One reason is that there are lots of technologies out there that, with a little imagination, could be used to make collaborative learning more practical. Another reason, the most important, is that people have demonstrated time and again that they like to interact with others, and that they find creating their own content motivating and compelling.
In the computer games industry, the conventional wisdom is that online games that have been massively successful have all allowed players to substantially influence their environment and leave their mark. Much as in the real world of clubs and associations, loyalty is sealed if the participant has invested time, energy, and creativity in building a presence that others can interact with and appreciate.
It’s time we stopped treating e-learners like members of an anonymous audience in a darkened theatre, and started inviting them all up on stage.
Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 26 August 2005