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Shining the Light on Learning: A recap of Training magazine's 2023 conference and expo

By Les Howles / May 2023

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For learning professionals specializing in workplace training and development selecting a premier national conference often boils down to offerings from one of three prominent professional organizations: Training magazine, the Association for Talent Development (ATD), the Learning Guild. This year I attended Training magazine’s 46th Annual Conference and Expo held February 13 through 15 in Orlando, Florida.

Over the last 50 years, Training magazine is a publications and media company that has grown into a professional organization with a social network of more than 180,000 registered members. The organization offers resources and services for learning and development professionals that consists of a monthly magazine, live and online certificate courses, complimentary weekly webinars, workshops, summits, and an impressive online library of professional development resources. Training magazine also sponsors several national conferences per year. Attendees typically include learning professionals from the public and private sectors including corporate, government, military, non-profits, and higher education.

This year more than 1,900 individuals attended the conference filling the spacious and beautiful Disney Coronado Springs Resort’s Convention Center. This year’s conference theme was “Shedding the Light on Learning,” a tie-in with Star Wars. The goal was to provide attendees with “an array of tools, techniques, and technologies to engage learners and ensure that learning sticks.” Major topics focused on learning design, training development and delivery, e-learning, talent management, emerging technologies, leadership development, and more.

The conference program consisted of three keynote general sessions, an expo hall, more than 100 concurrent breakout sessions, and for additional registration fees, certificate workshops, an awards gala dinner, and a learning leader’s summit.

Keynote Speaker’s Big Ideas

Day one of the conference kicked off with a keynote general session. Good keynotes inspire, motivate, and amplify the central theme of a conference, and the best speakers tend to be skilled storytellers. The opening keynote by Matthew Luhn met all these criteria. Luhn is a former story artist and writer for Pixar animated films and author of the book The Best Story Wins. His talk was titled “Connecting Through Stories.” His central premise was that presentations that integrate good stories are transformational. Stories engage audiences by evoking feelings and emotions that make the main message memorable. Mr. Luhn shared a framework and set of principles for crafting impactful stories, which he illustrated by referencing popular animated films that he worked on at Pixar. Although his talk did not directly focus on application to training, it was a reminder and inspiration to learning professionals to leverage the power of story to make learning stick.

After a short break, the second keynote session immediately followed the first, which made for an unusually lengthy conference opening. The speaker was Sarah Eagle Heart who continued with the storytelling theme but with a more autobiographical focus.  Her talk was titled “Changing the Narrative.” Ms. Eagle Heart told her story as a Native American woman growing up on a South Dakota Indian reservation and how she was influenced by her culture’s storytelling tradition. This talk was an interesting personal account about how she pursued her life’s passions overcoming socio-cultural obstacles to eventually becoming an accomplished activist, philanthropic leader, writer, and film producer.

On day two of the conference the third keynote session featured Dr. Temple Grandin, author of the book Visual Thinking and the Autistic Brain. Her talk was titled “Embracing All Kinds of Minds.” This keynote struck a strong chord with the audience and received a standing ovation. When she was a young child Dr. Grandin was diagnosed with delayed speech development, her autism diagnosis would come much later in life. She continuously struggled through an educational system that did not recognize her unique aptitudes. Yet through perseverance and training she went on to become a scientist and professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Grandin explained how people like her often excel in concrete visual thinking and hands-on design tasks. However, this can put them at a disadvantage in many academic and work contexts that have a bias toward abstract symbolic thinking. Amplifying demands for increased diversity in schools and workplaces, she appealed to the audience declaring “You need us!”

A Dynamic Expo Hall as Conference Hub

The expo hall was positioned strategically as the nucleus of the conference for the first two days. It included more than 60 exhibitors and afforded excellent learning opportunities to investigate the evolving landscape of industry products and services. Interspersed throughout the Expo Hall were “Learning Stages” for short presentations that ran concurrently with other conference sessions. One learning stage was called an “Innovations in Training Test Kitchen” that focused on emerging learning technologies. One test kitchen series was sponsored by the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) Institute for Simulations and Training led by Dr. David Metcalf. The UFC team showed examples of extended reality applications developed for government, military, and corporate training. Also discussed were recent developments in the intersection of voice and AI. In addition, the expo had an “AR/VR Pantry” providing attendees with opportunities to experience samples of immersive training.

Exploring the expo hall, examining product demos, and conversing with vendors was especially valuable for me to gain insights into learning and technology trends, a few of which I describe below.

Abundant and personalized LMS. There is no shortage of learning management systems (LMS) and learning platforms for organizations to choose from. The systems I saw have evolved beyond serving as content repositories and course management. LMS interfaces have become more visually appealing and increasingly personalized. Many resembled personalized portals that provide recommended learning paths based on an individual’s job and professional development goals. Most now incorporate xAPI integration, personalized dashboards, and analytics-based progress tracking. Several products were beginning to incorporate AI capabilities.

Beyond content development to content curation. Another noteworthy shift is the growing number of vendors, previously specializing in customized content development, who are now providing more content curation and integration services. This makes sense given the growing volume of learning content often hidden or inaccessible to many organizations. In many ways these service providers are becoming like content brokers and content integrators. They work with organizations to research, identify, curate, and negotiate licenses with a variety of content publishers, and help to integrate disparate learning materials into an organization’s training delivery platforms

Engaging learners through immersive learning strategies. Learner engagement and immersion seemed to be buzz words throughout the expo hall and conference sessions, reflecting the conference goal to “engage learners and make learning stick.” From a learning design perspective, the heart of this shift centers around greater contextualization of learning and a de-emphasis on creating lengthy courses. Learning strategies involving scenarios, simulated job tasks and role plays, small chunk microlearning modules, and making learning material available to individuals near the time of need in the context of work were prominent features of these learning solutions. It reminded me of a recent Learning Guild research report that also identified this trend. Furthermore, immersive learning experiences that fuse context, learning content, and doing through AR and VR are quickly approaching a point where broader adoption by training and development professionals is imminent.

Concurrent Session Highlights and Takeaways

The conference offered more than 120 concurrent sessions that included breakouts, workshops, and expo learning stages. Topics ranged from leadership development and new technology tools to virtual presentation techniques and learning design approaches to engage learners more fully.

There were about a dozen sessions on getting started with AR and VR. AR especially seems to be an attractive entry point for developing extended reality-based training. This is mainly because newly available and easy to use software tools allow training professionals to begin experimenting with the technology. For example, several sessions taught how to create AR using simple tools such as an iPad. At the end of one hands-on session, I witnessed a participant create an AR application on his mobile device within minutes! Other participants were experimenting using visual AI tools to generate custom images for training modules.

There were also numerous sessions on getting started creating VR training, most of which described hardware and software tools and showed a variety of examples. Although developing VR training is becoming easier than I previously thought, it’s still a bit of a stretch requiring more complex and expensive hardware tools like 360 cameras and pricey authoring software.  Interestingly, one related session provided a model and framework for evaluating VR. A key takeaway was that conventional evaluation models, based on levels of evaluation, are largely inadequate for evaluating these new immersive learning experiences. The presenter provided a framework that integrated a more experiential, learner-centered, and developmental evaluative approach.

Another session I attended focused on designing podcasts. An interesting point made by the presenter is that properly selected and well-designed digital audio content can be immersive. Apparently, podcasts grew in popularity during the pandemic and their production continues to rise. I was surprised at the number of training professionals incorporating this medium into their training programs in creative ways. For example, one participant I spoke with was developing a training podcast series on patient rights using a story-based approach.

In attending several sessions related to learning design, one recurrent theme I heard is learning professionals have tended to underplay the importance of emotions in learning and are increasingly recognizing it as a core element in learner engagement. For example, I attended a session by one of my all-time favorites, Dr. Michael Allen, President of Allen Interactions, who is often regarded as one of the grandfathers of eLearning design. His session was entitled “The Power of Empathy in Learning Design.” The crux of his message was “affective states of learners matter.” Dr. Allen elaborated on his 3-M design maxim which is to “make learning meaningful, memorable, and motivational.” He illustrated how empathic design is accomplished using examples and stories from successful projects where the needs, feelings and interests of learners are at the foreground of the design process.

Other well attended sessions focused on delivering virtual and hybrid synchronous training. One session I attended presented five prescriptive principles for addressing technical, design, and delivery challenges for facilitating hybrid virtual training for both on-site and online learners.

One slight shortcoming I noted in several sessions was related to learning design; presenters could have benefitted from a more solid grounding in learning theory and learning science. References to neuroscience and learning were unusually common, but often these had vague connections to actual learning strategies and evidence-based learning design principles. However, this is a minor issue given some of the excellent tips and strategies provided by presenters “to engage learners and ensure that learning sticks.”

One final highlight for me was an opportunity to interview several prominent learning leaders at this conference and discuss the emergence of learning experience design (LXD). These types of informal conversations were some of the most valuable learning moments providing new insights into my research and practices in eLearning design.

Final Words

Overall, Training magazine’s Training 2023 Conference & Expo provided a valuable opportunity for professionals in workplace learning and development to catch up on current industry trends and learning design practices. It’s important to recognize though that the conference program is heavily skewed toward a corporate training audience, and I suspect it may be overlooked by many in the higher education community. However, instructors and learning designers—especially those in continuing professional education and professional schools—could benefit from greater exposure to the challenges, strategies, and design practices used in the world of workplace learning. I encourage all learning professionals, unfamiliar with Training magazine, to at least sign up for a basic, free membership to the Training magazine Social Learning Network. Check out the resource-rich website with hundreds of recorded webinar sessions that you can access on demand for free. I’m certain you will find numerous topics relevant to your professional work in the field.

About the Author

Les Howles is an emeritus faculty associate, director, and senior consultant for learning technology and distance education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has more than 30 years of experience working in higher education, corporate training, government, health care and as an independent learning design consultant. His current area of interest is helping educators and instructional designers make the transition from conventional instructional design to “learning experience design” through evidence-based research, design thinking and creative use of digital learning technologies.

© Copyright is held by the owner/author(s). Publication rights licensed to ACM. 1535-394X/2023/05-3594551 $15.00


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