Friday, September 30, 2005

Learning from vaporware: how small is the future?

Small is the new big. Nanotechnology is the next big thing. Micro-payment transactions proliferate. From the business-card sized iPod Nano to the 100-minute bible, everything is being reduced to smaller or faster objects of consumption. This should be familiar to trainers who for years have been under pressure to reduce course length, cut times to competency, and walk on water. But some things can’t get smaller: you can shrink a Wurlitzer jukebox to something you could slip in your wallet, but you can’t make the songs it plays any shorter.

Can traditional learning experiences be decimated and served up in nano-chunks without losing effectiveness? Or might they actually be enhanced? Unlike music, where the song is the focus, learning is all about impact on performance – the ‘course’ itself doesn’t matter. If we are to take custom-tailoring of learning experiences to heart, the more granular our solutions, the more accurately we can fit each learner’s individual needs.

Smallness is one of the key characteristics of the content of Internet 2.0 and, in turn, of what is becoming known as “e-learning 2.0”. Big chunks of solidified content are simply not easy to look into or combine. With sandstone blocks you can build pyramids; with sand you can build anything from beaches to hourglasses.

Perhaps one of the greatest shortcomings of the early web and the applications that have to date been enabled by it is that it has primarily been about recording, organizing, and making accessible "stuff" from the past. There's great value in that. But the necessary emphasis on the here-and-now, and on the future, is rapidly coming into focus. It's not content, or even context, but process that gets us where we are going. We are not what we have done, but what we are trying to do. All of the diverse components of e-learning 2.0 aim to fill the vast white spaces between the legacy content piles with dynamic processes that can instantly mine the relevant diamonds from those piles, and pull them together in real-time into something unique and immediately useful. Some of those processes are lively discussion, synergistic collaboration, spontaneous project work, and nano-customization. Just as micro-transactions are starting to make e-commerce really different from traditional commerce, micro-learning experiences will make e-learning 2.0 really different from Model-T e-learning. Or that’s the theory.

Smallness is increasingly important in all data flows, and learning is simply another kind of dataflow. If learning is water, old-school SCORM learning objects are ice-cubes: uniform, predictable and transportable, but they melt and lose their usefulness rapidly. What we really need to do is vaporize the water. Knowledge vapor is simply learning liberated, in its smallest possible components – unlike learning objects, if you do not contain it, it disseminates itself far and wide, except where the circumstances are created to condense it back into liquid, or ice, again. The best technology available right now for vaporizing and liberating learning and for finding, filtering, and condensing it as needed, is the human mind. Of course lots of cool web technologies are emerging to help facilitate that process (e-mail was probably the first; blogs and wikis are getting there, as are communities of practice; mobile broadband helps). But technology is not the real key to the success of e-learning 2.0. What connects all our small pieces of learning is not a technology, but our humanity.

As far as jargon goes, I must confess to having major objections to the term "2.0" as applied to the web and to e-learning. It suggests a formal release of a new beta-tested version under some kind of planned production process. That's not the way things work any more. The evolution of technology and our ability and willingness to use it creatively has outpaced our ability to manage it, at least in any traditional sense of the word "manage." Trying to "manage" internet-enabled progress is increasingly delusional, like King Canute trying to command the tide not to come in. Agility, opportunism, plasticity, and instinct need to replace outmoded notions of structure, hierarchy, and traditional planning and financial controls, not to mention the sacred cow of centralized "managed" corporate learning.

But since (largely thanks to stock markets, tax authorities, and standardized accounting practices) our current economies rest on those rotting bureaucratic timbers, the bigger corporations may not be able to change, to take the right actions, in time to stay relevant and save themselves.

Google rose from nothing to become the new Microsoft so rapidly it looked like a conjuring trick. China makes 80% of everything sold by Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, a transformation that took less than five years. Before the ink was dry on most American e-learning IPO’s, Indian companies were eating their lunch. It may be only months before the next new megacorp bursts from the web and makes even Google look tired and outdated. What role will training play in the success, or failure, of those endeavors? Can you train an organization to be agile, instinctive, anticipatory, and adaptive? Or can we merely work to remove the containment of knowledge and facilitate the vaporization of learning?


Valerie Bock (Q2Learning) said...

Can traditional learning experiences be decimated and served up in nano-chunks without losing effectiveness?

Depends. "Serving up" presumes some foreknowledge of the tastes and needs of the individual who is being served.

Google only kinda knows me. So when I go looking for information I need, it doesn't know when I use a search term that the reason I'm using *that* search term is because I'm unfamiliar with the one which will really get me what I'm looking for. What Google serves up to me is only sometimes what I really need.

If we are talking about equipping the people who are entrusted with achieving our organizational mission with the information they need, we have to do better than that.

As you say, The best technology available right now for vaporizing and liberating learning and for finding, filtering, and condensing it as needed, is the human mind.

So maybe what we ought to be doing, more importantly than getting all those little vaporous molecules of knowledge out there and searchable, is getting minds together to talk about what they know and how it affects what they do.

Most of us have experience with saving days worth of work thanks to a quick conversation in a hallway with someone who, knowing what we were about, mentioned something that we didn't even know to ask about. Technology enables us to have similar "hallway" conversations with colleagues flung far across space and time.

Embodied knowledge, knowledge which comes wrapped in a joke or a wry observation of shared challenge, is much more usable than knowledge out of context. We should be getting our contexts together more often, and more effectively.

Stargirl said...

Some like it hot, some like it cold, some like it in the pot ninedays old.
Is smaller better? It depends on your personality and what you like. I like small. Compact seems to make sense when it feels like I have very little space. But, of course, the reason I have so little space is because all my small things sit piled up between all my other things until I use them, but my big things don't get lost and therefore get used more. Is smaller better? Not only does it depend on your personality, but it also depends on how you look at it.

Stargirl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Smaller things can be better, but if they are too small, they can lose their effectiveness and even become literally lost. As long as all of these "microscopic" items still carry the weight of their larger counterparts, I guess it's okay.
Joe Finnigan