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Back to the future: what's next after learning objects

By Michael Feldstein / August 2001

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The whole training industry is abuzz about learning objects—those byte-sized bits of brilliant brainpower that knowledge workers everywhere will soon be popping like candy (or so the vendors tell us). Learning objects promise to deliver just-in-time, just-enough practical lessons right to our own desks. Run into a problem you don't know how to deal with? Need a skill you don't have? No problem. Just summon up the proper learning objects and you will be taught exactly what you need to know when you need to know it. And you won't have to miss a day of work to get it, either. You'll have your own personal (albeit artificial) tutor right in your office.

Sounds good, doesn't it? Are learning objects the ultimate in adult education? Is this the end of the class as we know it? I think not.

Don't get me wrong: I really am a big fan of learning objects. When designed properly, they can provide something akin to customized education for each learner. And the challenges involved in designing them force instructional designers to keep a laser focus on what the learners actually need to know instead of on what management wants to tell them.

A Two-Way Street

But learning objects only allow for one-way transmission of knowledge-from instructor to learner. They are built on the premise that somebody high up on the corporate food chain knows more than the workers do. These days, organizations are slowly realizing that this premise is false. As business conditions change at an ever-accelerating pace, the front-line workers are increasingly the ones who see the changes coming and figure out how to deal with them first. The entire industry of knowledge management was born out of this realization, and it is growing fast. Yet at the very moment when organizations are realizing that they have to learn from their workers, training departments shutting down one major potential avenue for knowledge to flow upward by taking all social interaction out of their educational programs.

In the new world of learning objects, there is no space created for workers to speak—or to teach. There's no opportunity for somebody taking a course on, say, sales strategies to raise her hand and say, "This might have worked with last year's client base, but my current clients, who I see every day, will not go for this approach." Or "That's a great technique, but if we change it just a little bit, we can take advantage of that new trend we're all seeing in the market."

Bring Back the (Virtual) Classroom

This is why I believe old-fashioned instructor-facilitated classes will see a resurgence, albeit in an online environment. Classes are ideal opportunities for valuable knowledge to flow from as well as to the learners. How many other opportunities do you get to gather a group of people with front-line experience to discuss and learn how to deal with specific business problems? Classes are, almost by definition, natural communities of practice.

Furthermore, online classes—particularly if they have asynchronous elements—can still be just-in-time and just-enough the way learning objects can be if the learners have control over their enrollment. In fact, they can sometimes be better than learning objects in this regard. If a worker needs to know something that hasn't been written into a learning object yet, she's out of luck. But in a class environment, she can post a question and possibly get answers on the spot from one of her classmates. As an added bonus, this knowledge exchange is captured in the medium of the discussion board, instantly creating a new knowledge nugget that can be used by anyone in the organization.

Instructor-facilitated distance learning classes offer the potential of helping companies address both their e-learning and their knowledge management needs at the same time. But in order to do so, these classes must be designed with both of these goals in mind. It is not enough to put learners together in a classroom. The material itself must be designed to generate the kind of "creative abrasion" that happens when people with different experiences discuss ideas and strategies. There must be room for brainstorming, disagreement, and problem-solving. The instructor must see herself as a learner as well as a teacher. The course must be designed to generate solutions from the participants, not to spoon information.

Real-World Problems

There are many ways to create this kind of a course. One way is to bring in an academic expert and have the learners (who are also practitioners) brainstorm about how to apply those ideas. So, for example, you could bring in a business school professor who specializes in stock market theory and have a class full of brokers and portfolio managers brainstorm about ways to turn his ideas into practical financial products.

Another possibility is to focus on problem-based learning. Create case studies that reflect real problems currently being faced by your learners. It's fine to pick case studies for which the concepts being taught in the class will suggest good solutions, but the cases must be complex and current enough to prevent a single right answer. Let your learner/practitioners teach each other—and you. In fact, it could be a valuable exercise to create cases that focus on a current problem for which management does not have a solution. These sorts of simulations have been used for decades by the armed forces to think out new strategies.

The bottom line is that every interaction with a learner is a potential interaction with a teacher as well. Organizations that fail to solicit input from their learner/practitioners are effectively throwing away valuable knowledge. We need to keep that reality firmly in mind when we design our e-learning programs. And learning objects, by themselves, are not the answer to this particular challenge.


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