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An Interview With Bryan Chapman, Chief Learning Strategist at Chapman Alliance
On Changes to the e-Learning Landscape

By Lisa Gulatieri, Bryan Chapman / April 2010

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Bryan Chapman is chief learning strategist at the Chapman Alliance, a company whose goal is to help organizations apply what is known about learning from the body of research that exists to their practices, initiatives, and business strategies. In other words, Chapman's focus is on application and delivery.

I heard Chapman present at Online Learning, a small conference in New York last year. I followed up with him to discuss in more detail innovations in online learning delivery, as well as what changes he sees coming to the e-learning landscape. —Lisa Gualtieri

Lisa Gualtieri: Which technological advancements are you most excited about? Which do you believe will have the greatest impact on workplace learning?

Bryan Chapman: Although I'm watching emerging technologies and practices on several fronts, there are two main areas that excite me the most. The first is the whole area of social learning and watching some companies that have been very successful integrating formal, informal, and mobile learning practices. The second is the practice of single-source development of learning content which is still not mainstream, but is coming on quickly.

To date, social learning has been hard to translate to an actual strategy because people think of it as something that just happens spontaneously, often using free tools like blog software and wikis; but it's so much more than that. With just a little bit of planning and focus, a social learning environment can achieve major business objectives. I really like what Pfizer has done in creating a product information database, called Pfizerpedia, for teaching and learning simply using a wiki framework and soliciting the help of hundreds of authors along the way. What a valuable tool! The power of user-generated content is real and can be a game changer moving forward.

The drivers behind the whole single-source development movement are driven by a completely different set of needs. Social learning isn't really that hard to implement, and the barriers to entry are fairly low for all. On the other hand, companies and educational providers who have been creating technology-based training for a long time hit a wall when they develop such a large amount of content that things start getting inefficient.

Content becomes siloed, hidden on someone's desktop... somewhere. So many changes are needed on the existing content that they literally spend more time altering what they have than creating new content. The problem is compounded by new technologies, as there is increased pressure to deliver content in many different formats, from formal online learning courses, to performance support, to resources for instructor-led training, visuals used in the classroom, mobile devices, etc.

Do you have to have a different strategy for each format? No. The answer is single-source development, but the solution requires changes in technology and big changes in how we create learning. It requires more discipline, more strategy, and the ability to help developers really think about how they create content for multiple formats.

There are some companies that are very successful at converging instructor-led training, e-learning, and even documentation (for products, for example), but it takes some clever planning to make it a reality.

LG: How did the recession affect e-learning? Do you see changes with the current economic situation on corporate e-learning? What about in your own consultancy?

BC: Interestingly, the recession didn't really slow down the demand for consulting, at least from my perspective. However, I have noticed a change in the types of projects.

I've been taking on a lot of projects recently for which the consulting is all about how to do more with fewer resources, whereas in the past, the focus was on scaling up large learning infrastructures. It's interesting. A lot of the innovations we've been talking about are exactly what senior training folks seem to be most concerned with. People want to create content better, faster, and cheaper, providing great opportunities to look harder at best practices for rapid development.

Social learning also seems to be more appealing because I can increase the size of my learning content developers if I can recruit and train volunteers to produce user-generated content and then reuse that content to augment catalogs of formal learning materials. Even single-sourcing eliminates redundancies in organizations where content may be created as instructor-led training, then later create the e-learning version, etc.

Will Thalheimer runs a social network for independent consultants across the learning industry, and he has done a few surveys about how the economy is effecting their business. Without going into too much detail here, there are many consultants who are feeling the pinch of the recession with observations such as, "Sales cycles seem to be longer," "We've had more companies canceling consulting contracts than ever before," or "Companies tend to be using smaller consulting projects versus the larger ones we used to see in the past."

So, yes, the recession has had an effect, but there's still a lot of work to be done if you can adapt to helping companies meet their challenges.

On a rosy note, I have seen a big uptake in the number of people posting high-quality, and very cool, senior learning job positions on LinkedIn, through headhunters, and by email requests. The jobs are out there if you have good experience. Just to give you an idea of what some of these look like, I recently received inquiries for a position as an "eContent Learning Manager," and another for "VP of Advanced Learning Technologies."

LG: Your prediction for e-learning in 2010 was that social learning will achieve adulthood. Can you expand on what an organization can do to successfully adopt and promote social learning?

BC: It's a natural prediction because of what we've seen with some early adopters like Sun Microsystems, Pfizer, Motorola University, and others. People are already out there paving the way for us. Sun has very successfully created a new paradigm of learning where the formal LMS is now only part of the corporate learning experience. They literally created a whole new portal-based front end, using a creative combination of open source tools, where employees first encounter a social learning experience, but they can also dive into mandatory and structured learning from the same interface. This is significant. We can learn from their experience and see how it adapts to our environment.

If you ever have the chance to hear Charles Beckham, CTO for Sun, speak at a learning conference, go listen to what he has to say.

The most important thing we can do to put ourselves in the right mindset of social learning is to stop thinking of the learning management system as a vending machine for self-paced learning. For example, when users log in to Pfizerpedia, they can choose from three different paths: 1) find content, 2) create content, and 3) organize content.

Can your LMS do that?

Learning is a mix of formal and social learning. We just have to decide if our objective is to engage learners in the process, or continue publishing content and hope they are learning what they need to learn.


  • Wed, 02 Dec 2015
    Post by pastor caio fabio

    The second is the practice of single-source development of learning content which is still not mainstream, but is coming on quickly. pastor caio fabio

  • Sat, 24 Jul 2010
    Post by Charlie

    I agree that whatever method employed to learn must be effective. To me, learning anything that you have an interest in is cool. Trying to force yourself to learn something that you find boring or distasteful is not cool, so whatever the vehicle for learning is doesn't matter as long as the subject sparks your interest.

  • Wed, 02 Sep 2009
    Post by Eric Matas

    I have, personally, about 3 ounces of cool in my more than 200 lb body. I therefore find cool in technology.

    If cool, or clutter or bullet points, detract from the learning, then it needs revision, which could mean removal. I'll bet that there is a lot of elearning right now that is cool (visually or technically) but ineffective.

    Even so, when I sleep on a warm summer night, even though I can sleep just fine as is with my head on that pillow, I still flip it over for one simple reason: it is cool.

  • Sat, 29 Aug 2009
    Post by Shiv Rajendran

    We have been teaching English as a second language in Second Life since 2005. Developing effective pedagogy took years of R&D involving testing with hundreds of students from dozens of countries. The result is an effective online learning environment where students are immersed in an English City populated with roles players and instructors. Where appropriate the role players are industry professionals.

    Ineffective learning programs is caused by a lack of testing and QA processes. It is certainly not unique to Second Life, and can be said of any medium. How good, or bad, a given tool is depends entirely on how you use it.

  • Wed, 26 Aug 2009
    Post by roger schank

    Anders -- you are being unfair. First I did not "dismiss the thousands of learning professionals who are already finding tremendous value in virtual worlds training." You can't make statements like this next one and be taken seriously: "Anyone who's dismissing the coolness of virtual worlds, is declaring their own irrelevance to the new generation of digital natives who knows no boundaries between entertainment and work." Work is still work most of the time. Learning in SL would be work as well, if it were done correctly. You say that: "in an era of "the live web" and "the 3D web," you have to make learning engaging, fun, immersive, social and and cool to even get their attention" This is simply wrong. Children learn to walk and talk the way they always did, by trying and then trying again. The reward is in the success. The learning is in the recovery from failure. Please do go ahead and make learning applications in SL. I never meant to discourage that attempt. I meant to say that if we demand "cool" we are missing the point. If "cool" helps us learn, wonderful. We need to use "cool" when it is actually needed to teach what we are teaching.

  • Wed, 19 Aug 2009
    Post by Steve

    Hi all - Great comments, Roger, Clark, Anders, and folks. Totally agree: cool and ineffective is just a waste of time. And I agree that what Tony O'Driscoll calls the 'routinization' of new technology is a risk; we tend to try to replicate that which is familiar without adequately examining what the new toolset can provide in terms of cool AND effective learning experiences.

    Example: We recently did a teaming event in SL with about a dozen global managers for a company. The metaphor / activity for getting at the business issue (improving virtual teaming behaviors) was building a bridge in SL. Each team had a coach present to observe and give feedback as the teams worked in-world to position bridge parts. As you might expect, many of the typical teaming behaviors (desired and not so) were evidenced.

    But what was a bit more interesting was the fact that the virtual space (aside from providing the obvious collaborative presence and experience without any travel expense) allowed us to challenge the thinking in new ways: Objects in SL can have gravity or not. We rigged the bridge parts to not have gravity. Several teams spent a lot of time trying to build supports for the bridge, when in the end none were needed. This led to a very productive conversation about innovation, and testing assumptions about the nature of the problem and the environment itself.

    You get the idea : )

    Steve Mahaley / Duke CE

  • Wed, 19 Aug 2009
    Post by George Hathaway

    Coolness will help you sell the program to participants. Effectiveness will help you sell it to organizations. Coolness and effectiveness will help you sustain the sale.

    Like any other medium, there is room for abuse. We shouldn't be mis-using a medium just because its cool. Sometimes plain old telephone is the way to go. If you want to do remote experiential learning, applications like Second Life really work well. I have conducted some very basic experiential programs in SL and they have been quite successful.

    Two problems with Second Life: 1) the basic avatars are too cartoonish for many people; 2) Organizations are afraid to put it behind the firewall. I have friends who have had their computers fried by nasty stuff from SL griefers. I never go into SL without wearing a security device on my av. Until this is fixed, or the enterprise aps are perfected, Second Life will continue to be blocked by organizational IT people.

  • Wed, 19 Aug 2009
    Post by Anders Gronstedt

    Thanks for speaking at our Train for Success in Second Life Roger, it was an awesome meeting! We have a video recording and a downloadable audio podcast from the meeting at: I'm a huge fan of your work and your learning philosophy.

    You ask about an effective application in Second Life, how about Loyalist Colleges finding that Second Life role playing improved the number of border agent students who passed a final evaluation from 56% to 93% when they moved it from the class room? Or Stanford Universitys finding that emergency response exercises in the virtual world is as effective as live emergency response training at a fraction of the cost. There's plenty of evidence of the effectiveness of virtual world learning already. As for cheap, well, Second Life is a consumer application, accounts are free, holding meetings are free, hosting an entire island costs $300 per month. Hiring a firm like mine, the Gronstedt Group, to develop 3D learning programs is not free, but our Second Life projects are frequently a lot less expensive than our 2D simulations.

    I don't think it's fair to dismiss the thousands of learning professionals who are already finding tremendous value in virtual worlds training. It's like dismissing the Internet in 1997 because there was no hard evidence that it worked. I'm certainly not going to apologize for the coolness factor of Second Life. Anyone who's dismissing the coolness of virtual worlds, is declaring their own irrelevance to the new generation of digital natives who knows no boundaries between entertainment and work. I would point anyone to Professor Ed Castronovas latest book "Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality," for a persuasive case that we're entering a "fun economy" where the real world may begin to model its institutions on virtual worlds because the general populace finds them more fun, or dare I say, cool :-) It's not that cool alone makes learning effective, but in an era of "the live web" and "the 3D web," you have to make learning engaging, fun, immersive, social and and cool to even get their attention.

  • Tue, 18 Aug 2009
    Post by Guy Boulet

    Simply using 3D environments because they look cool doen't add any value to your training. There are, of course some applications where virtual environments can add a lot of value to the training. I can understand that decision makers want training to be fun but they must understand that having fun is not warant of effectiveness. Bells and whistles may be cool but they can also be very distractive especially if they do not serve any learning objective.

    Having to walk into a virtual world to a virtual theather to attend an online conference may be cool but it does not add anything to the content of the conference. The same result can be achieved using an online conferencing application with way less distractions. On the other end, using a 3D model of a ship to familarize new crewmembers with the layout of the ship before they can get onboard sounds like a usefull way to use virtual environments for learning.

    When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. As instructional designers we must make sure that our toolbox contains many different tools so we can use the right tool for the job; not the coolest one but the most effective one.

  • Fri, 14 Aug 2009
    Post by Clark Quinn

    Roger, I've seen a real nice Second Life example. When I look at the unique affordances of 2nd Life, it's about being together in 3D, and take those elements to be additive. The example I saw for insurance adjusting, and had a damaged house (tree fell on it) to be assessed (water damage). You could wander around to examine (3D) and make your recommendations about how much of the observable damage came from rain due to the damaged roof, and if there might be other factors.

    A mentor could observe you, and then you could open up the wall, and see how your hypotheses matched the observable evidence and the underlying causation. The social wasn't necessary, but added a powerful learning adjunct to the active practice.

    I agree that there are far too many examples of powerpoint presentations in virtual worlds, but there are powerful learning opportunities as well, with the right match of capability to need. And it might not be cheap, but it certainly could be high value for outcome.

    As you would probably agree, you've got to look at the total learning context, including resources as well as meaningful practice, but 3D social practice has some real opportunities in virtual worlds.

  • Thu, 13 Aug 2009
    Post by Dave Ferguson

    I agree with your thought that an immersive environment like Second Life offers the possibility of simulation, as in your shipping example. I've seen an SL demo of trauma-room training, with an instructor operating the avatar of a patient (so that he could present various symptoms), and the learners having to both diagnose and response.

    Even in the short demo, learner errors led to misdiagnosis, and the patient's condition deteriorated rapidly. The demo didn't try to simulate details (attaching a cuff or physically inserting a drip), which I thought made sense in context. Instead, it highlighted the interaction between patient and trauma specialist: asking questions, choosing tests (e.g., by clicking an instrument), assessing results, and selecting treatments. But your remarks sprang from "giving a talk." I'm not sure I'd equate talking with training, let alone learning. Did you have time beforehand to, um, learn how to present effectively?

    Yes, it's a challenge to juggle both the live audio and the text chat. That's why many people who conduct synchronous online sessions have a partner: there's too much going on for most solo acts.

  • Thu, 13 Aug 2009
    Post by Guy W Wallace

    Bravo! I too would like to see some data on the effectiveness of Second Life - and all sorts of other Web 2.0/Internet-enabled learning technologies. And then compare that with the speed and costs it takes to implement each. That would be "cool."