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Promises, Promises at Learning Technologies 2009

By Bob Little / February 2009

TYPE: OPINION
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What holds the business world back—especially in learning technologies terms—is that we keep planting the seed of innovation in the architecture of tradition. So said George Siemens, associate director of R&D at Manitoba University's Learning Technologies Centre, during his keynote speech at the Learning Technologies Conference, held in London late last month. "The possibility to innovate with mobile technologies is enormous," he added, "but it doesn't happen because we keep thinking in traditional terms."

The reigning theme of the conference—which had 400 attendees, its highest number in a decade—was "Next-Generation Learning at Work." The technical program examined how technology-supported learning is crucial to business performance and success. In addition to the obligatory but nonetheless worthy contributions from such luminaries as Jay Cross, Charles Jennings, Tony Buzan, and Gordon Bull, delegates heard about the latest developments in 3D-learning and virtual worlds from Ambient Performance's CEO, Ron Edwards. While the U.K.'s leading corporate learning market analyst, David Wilson, explained the key differences between traditional learning management systems (LMSs) and those being developed to cope with the demands of the modern Web 2.0 world.

"Traditional LMSs are provider-centric; compliance driven; deal with formal learning only; deal in programmes and events; have a structured delivery and controlled content; deal with online learning materials; provide learning materials for learners, and reports for management," said Wilson. The LMS 2.0 adheres to international standards; deals with informal as well as formal learning; provides unstructured access to user-generated learning content; copes with mobile as well as online learning; and allows learners to access materials as and when they require.

"Web 2.0 is changing our thinking and our technology," Wilson added. "At the very least, LMSs now have basic discussion and collaborative tools, including social networking modules—as evidenced in the recently launched Saba Social and Cornerstone OnDemand Connect."

Exhibition
Unlike Saba, Cornerstone OnDemand was on the scene with an exhibition booth that drew a steady stream of those interested in its talent management software. While a number of booths were busy throughout the event, only a small proportion of business was being done in the exhibit hall. The real business was being conducted at the coffee stations and in the exhibition aisles.

The busiest booths were those companies active in both the U.S. and U.K. markets. Neil Lasher, at Trainer1 (which offers tools and training for in-house e-learning developers); Therese Coyne at NIIT (offering its completely outsourced training administration system); Sinead Reynolds-Berti at the talent management software house Cornerstone OnDemand; Boston-based Jeffrey Whitney, vice president of marketing at LCMS vendor OutStart; and fellow LCMS specialist Giunti Labs' JJ Van Delsen all reported a steady stream of interested visitors, as did e-learning content developer Tata Interactive Systems (where visitors were issued a small bottle of gin.) Adobe also maintained a large crowd of people around it (perhaps hoping for some give-away software rather than alcohol).

The most popular institutions and associations represented at the event were the British Institute of Learning and Development (BILD) and the eLearning Network (eLN), a non-profit organization run by the e-learning community for the e-learning community.

Of course, the key question remains whether all this activity is prompted by genuine business opportunities or by desperation.

Time will tell.

It's not just a question of whether learning technologies developers can sign deals but whether they will be paid for the results of their labors after delivering their part of the bargain. It could be an interesting spring and summer.

Delegates' Issues
For those who were there to learn rather than to sell, the key issue on the minds of the delegates was the application of learning technologies in the current economic climate. Sue Curtis, global e-learning manager for logistics giant Exel plc, commented that she was looking for ways to exploit the opportunities that technology-enabled learning offers and embed these into her organization's culture.

Optimum Learning's Phil Green believes the current economic climate makes it more important than ever to ensure learning and development not only fits the organization, but proves their worth. "Are we on the cusp of great achievement or disaster in learning technologies terms?" he asked. "To be successful, we need to place more emphasis on building communities of learners but there are increasing problems with overcoming organisational boundaries as people become more 'defensive' in the current economic conditions."

Nonetheless, Vaughan Waller, head of e-learning at the international accountants and management consultancy, Moore Stephens, was optimistic. "In the current climate, the emphasis is on re-skilling rather than recruiting," he said. "E-learning is the cheapest and a highly effective way of doing this. So there are lots of possibilities for increasing the application of learning technologies. These are exciting times!"



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