A New Look at Learning Technology

Learning Techology treeLearning Technology is experiencing a bit of a renaissance, with new tools and techniques that leverage both fresh thinking in theory and pedagogy, and rapid advances in brain science’s understanding of memory and learning. A quick look into some of these new tools and techniques reveals some exciting learning affordances for organizations looking to increase performance of seasoned workers and reduce time to competence for new employees. In this case, an “affordance” of learning technology is the property of that technology that is useful to a learner or learning environment. These are ways to talk about how learning technology can impact learning outcomes.

Workflow learning/Performance Support

Any content that can be broken down into tasks will benefit from performance support, where learning is pushed as close to the workflow as possible. The goal is to put learning opportunities as close to the moment of Apply as possible, allowing performers to apply knowledge, solve problems, or adapt to changes without breaking the flow of work. There are some amazing Learning Technology tools/systems in the performance support space, tools that can create Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSS) for a variety of applications.

  • Panviva’s SupportPoint does not require a plug-in or application and it’s currently deployed at Bank of America.
  • Kryon System’s Leo is capable of supporting mainframe systems.
  • Epilogue System’s platform can create an EPSS for clients with a large investment in knowledge management or a large library of existing documents.
  • Assima’s Vimago Assist can provide data validation and error prevention with configurable business rules that monitor a performer’s inputs.

All of the leading players (3-4 more than the companies listed above) feature Content Management System-style write-once, publish-many authoring, making it easy to manage and update content in an EPSS. What’s remarkable is these systems can adapt to support not just task-based knowledge, but procedural knowledge like the EEO Complaint process prototype my team built for VA’s Office of Resolution Management (using Ontutitive’s Learning Guide Manager) or the Proposal Development Tool I’m currently designing for a client (using Panviva).

Spaced Reinforcement

Evidence continues to mount that spaced learning in combination with reinforcement increases retention rates in learners and speeds behavior change back on the job. Will Thalheimer has conducted extensive research in this space (dive into the details in his 2006 white paper Spaced Learning Over Time. Retrieved May 5, 2016, from http://www.worklearning.com/catalog/). Thalheimer’s meta research shows the key is keeping learners engaged with the content in the workflow beyond the learning event. That could be a simple as a QR code on a piece of medical equipment that links to a checklist for using or troubleshooting that piece of equipment (combining this technique with performance support). Or it can be a full system like Mindmarker, which is a spaced reinforcement tool that sends a series of carefully planned questions to a learner (via email or app) to keep them engaged with the content.

Another Learning Technology tool that leverages the concept of reinforcement is Axonify, though this system incorporates microlearning and gamification as additional elements to reduce friction and improve learning outcomes. Axonify is a comprehensive solution that has potential to reshape the fundamental approach a Learning and Development organization takes to designing and deploying learning across an enterprise.

Adding spaced reinforcement to a learning program can boost learning effectiveness metrics if you are tracking Kirkpatrick-style Level 3 evaluations. This would particularly be useful to a learning program focused on changing on-the-job behaviors such as new supervisor training, or the implementation of a new performance management process.

Mentoring/Coaching Programs

Coaching and mentoring are currently a trending topic in the industry. It’s not new, but xAPI-enabled Learning Technology can bring a new focus to tracking and measuring the impact of coaching interactions. One particular tool that stands out is TREK from Cognitive Advisors. This tool allows a designer to create learning paths (which can be competency-based) with a mix of formal, informal, and experiential learning activities. As the learning completes milestones along these paths, a coach can electronically provide targeted feedback. By leveraging spaced learning and reinforcement, this tool seems to be able to get both coaches and learners more engaged in the process of learning. Cognitive Advisors has published an excellent case study of this tool in practice. I know of several organizations currently wrestling with the idea of tracking technical competencies in a Talent Management System (TMS), but the answer may lie in creating a data link between a separate and flexible tool like this one and the TMS for record-keeping.

Agile Instructional Design

For our purposes today, I’m asserting that “Learning Technology” does not have to mean some sort of software tool. A broader definition can also mean new approaches to doing things. Torrance quote for new technology: "If we do not come up with a brilliant idea that might change things mid-project, we’re not fully engaged creatively." Specifically, I’m including Agile development practices here because there are some viable new methodologies that are gaining traction. This is about adapting Agile software development practices such as Scrum or Extreme Programming (XP), and there are some very interesting adaptations with which to experiment. Michael Allen’s SAM (Successive Approximation Method), Megan Torrance’s LLAMA (Lot Like Agile Methodology Approach), and Conrad Gottfredson’s EnABLE (part of the Five Moments of Learning Need framework) are new approaches to instructional design that work quite well to increase the speed of development and make the design more responsive to evolving requirements. As Megan Torrance says “If we do not come up with a brilliant idea that might change things mid-project, we’re not fully engaged creatively.” These approaches allow a team to incorporate that brilliant idea without throwing the project off track. They also take into account the not unfamiliar concept that a client organization may not be able to articulate their requirements, and provide a way to accommodate changing needs.

Properly executed, Agile approaches require out-of-the-box thinking from government acquisitions teams as Agile does not fit easily into a Firm-Fixed Price contract construct. But Agile software design continues to gain traction within government IT, and with it a greater understanding of how to write contracts that work with Agile. For instance, at the VA Acquisition Academy, I have seen an Agile Scrum Instructional Design team that was in place and producing learning products. So the technical know-how to create Agile-friendly contracts exists!

Experimenting With and Adopting New Learning Technology

The next piece of this puzzle for L&D teams is overcoming inertia along three different axes: from your team; from the client; and from the contracting shops. More on this piece in the next post. In the meantime, let me know what new technologies you are considering in the comments below.

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