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"Spot Learning"
an interview with Jonathon Levy

By Lisa Neal / July 2004

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Jonathon Levy is a visionary in executive education, advocating an innovative approach that combines knowledge management with e-learning. He is the Senior Learning Strategist at the Monitor Company Group. Previously he was Vice President for Online Learning Solutions at Harvard Business School's publishing corporation, where he created a profitable business providing executive performance support modules to over two million managers worldwide. Before that, Jonathon was founding Executive Director of Cornell University's Office of Distance Learning, the first such program in the Ivy League.

LISA NEAL: What has inspired you in your work?

JONATHON LEVY: I was inspired by the opportunity to create new learning opportunities at the convergence of knowledge, technology, and awareness. By way of analogy, in the Boothbay (Maine) Transportation Museum there is a truck from 1915 and next to it a sign: "A truck is not a horse." This sign was aimed at truck buyers, to help them see the potential of a new technology. Although a truck doesn't need to rest like horses do, truck delivery routes were initially the same as the old horse-drawn carriage routes and didn't take advantage of the innovation. That's where e-learning is today: powerful technologies exist but are not being properly used. What we need is "spot learning," a series of transactions to solve immediate problems or fulfill immediate needs. In the stock market there are both futures and a spot market. The traditional system of education functions more like the futures market, wherein a transaction takes place now to yield hoped-for value in the future. In the "spot market" commodities are bought and delivered immediately, "on the spot." In an enterprise, just-in-time performance support is like a spot market for knowledge, providing value as required in real time. To see how this might change what we do, we can use still another transportation metaphor. There are more drivers' licenses in China than cars, which have led to a booming rental car business. This parallels my approach to e-learning, to essentially "rent" knowledge to give learners what they need when they need it, and to assume less time commitment on their part, like the difference between a car renter and owner. This is what busy people need most of the time—not courses.

LISA NEAL: What are your non-transportation sources of inspiration?

JONATHON LEVY: Alvin Toffler, in Future Shock, said that the illiterate of the 21st century are not those who cannot read and write, but rather those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. Knowledge is changing even faster now than when Toffler wrote those words. What inspires me is that today we have an opportunity to relate to unpredictable change in predicable ways by making the solution sustainable. We can start to leverage the knowledge and creativity of the people who work for us, to capitalize on the knowledge workers' knowledge with next-generation performance-support systems. Such systems react to new issues, to change, in real time, making the needed knowledge available on the spot—which is why I call it "Spot Learning."

LISA NEAL: Explain your approach to learning.

JONATHON LEVY: Think about everything you know—how much did you learn from formal education, especially from lectures? I believe in bringing knowledge management and e-learning together, through a personalized and customizable approach. It's like the perfect butler who learns and understands your needs over time based on feedback. This "e-butler" approach to learning includes a knowledge map as a navigation device but also a changing snapshot of every learner's knowledge and expertise. This approach also allows a needed expert to be located in real time by those who require assistance within an organization. Human resources are valuable sources of knowledge if we can identify who knows what. Pointers to knowledgeable people as well as knowledge objects allow the learner to assemble their own learning solutions on the spot.

LISA NEAL: How do you evaluate if this has been effective?

JONATHON LEVY: If someone makes a big sale or creates a new product, or successfully adds value to the organization in other ways, such a person is not asked for their grade in the last course they took. Evaluations make sense if they relate to economic value, not academic value. When we leverage the intelligence of the learner we need to use a different evaluation process to measure accomplishment and achievement. There are different metrics for individual and enterprise success.

LISA NEAL: What do you expect to be the most significant advancement that will take place with online education in the next decade?

JONATHON LEVY: It will cease to be differentiated as "online education." Instead, knowledge will be integrated into the workflow of an organization and obtained in real time as required by different individuals in different styles and starting from different levels of prior knowledge. Different solutions will be matched to the need: Small chunks will be assembled in context for small needs, and highly-targeted "push" will give knowledge workers a "heads-up" to important issues that were not on their radar.


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