Learning and development faces the instant gratification challenge

Prompted by the 10th anniversary of the Training Foundation, its deputy chief executive Adrian Snook reflects on how much the learning and developmemt landscape has changed over the past decade.

Some aspects of passing on knowledge may not have changed much since Plato established his Athenian school of learning a couple of millennia ago, but we have certainly witnessed some momentous developments in the past 10 years.

Let’s start with the brain. Significant advances in our understanding of the power and complexity of human minds – well, most of them anyway – have raised awareness of the degree of ingenuity required to improve learning processes through interactivity and learner-centric methods.

Neuro-linguistic programming, mind-mapping, action learning and emotional intelligence have captured the imagination of many in the learning and development community. They have also helped generate a host of books, events and specialist providers – many of dubious merit. They’ve also fuelled fever-pitch levels of demand for leadership development and coaching – itself a phenomenon of the past decade.

Technology take-off

Ten years ago, there was a general consensus that technology had the potential to transform learning, but rather more discord over how it would do it. The advent of large computer hard discs and CD-Rom marked the early beginnings of direct interaction learning on the PC.

This video technology-driven era was characterised by the richness of media content, but within a couple of years this type of learning had gone online. The rather lovely tele-visual quality of content in these devices was lost to the market and it wasn’t until the arrival of broadband networks nearly a decade later that its like was seen again.

Virtual reality – another hot topic in the training media for several years – proved to be a very damp squib and was confined to a ‘virtual reality’ existence until a more recent resurgence.

But by 1999, online learning was generating huge excitement. Heralded as the future for learning and development and coined ‘e-learning’ by a then virtually unknown Elliott Masie, this phenomenon took first the US and then the UK by storm – although admittedly some of it localised.

Detecting parallels with sex – everyone else is doing it more often and better – I use the term ‘e-ness envy’ to describe a debilitating condition that forces sufferers to invest in futile e-learning projects for reasons of personal prestige.

This early mania for e-learning as a panacea for all training and learning ills passed – thank heaven – pretty soon after the dot.com boom turned to bust.

Over the past five years, e-learning offerings have matured and are now more widespread. Nevertheless, there are still doubts about e-learning’s efficacy compared to other training and learning and development methods.

Meanwhile, although the feely gloves and helmets never did catch on, virtual reality environments are now used to train the military, police and emergency services, while networked ‘serious’ games are being accessed by large numbers of people via conventional PC interfaces.

Future trends

Looking forward from 2008, we face an intriguing development. It seems that learners themselves have been changing over the past 10 years as their brains are subtly rewired by daily interactions with the internet. Generation X learners may be technologically literate, unlike the ‘baby boomer’ generation, but generation Y people, reared with networked technology and e-commerce, have come to expect instant gratification from their learning experiences. Don’t expect them to listen to lengthy trainer-centred presentations or to learn reams of dull facts.

So what of the future? One thing the last decade has taught me is that Samuel Goldwyn had a point when he said: “Only a fool would make predictions – especially about the future.”

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