The problem with the “next” generation of anything is that it is often confused with the “best” generation. The advent of television was widely heralded as the end of the classroom. Same with the Internet. How many times do we have to say, “Now I get it,” before we know we are at the sustainable end of an iterative process?
Online learning has been appropriately castigated for its over-hyped and under-developed debut. First-movers were often worst-movers, promoting thinly veiled detritus of the academic paradigm as end-game solutions for business. When it became clear that simply porting classrooms and courses onto the Web was not the next best thing, the online hype dissolved into a trough of disillusionment.
Some vendors that survived the meltdown now say they get it, and that their next generation of offerings really is the long-awaited holy grail of online learning.
But what makes a great solution? What makes a product truly excellent? In short, what is quality? How will we know it when we see it? If we are now enlightened enough to perceive beyond hype and search for true quality in online learning solutions, then the task before us is to climb what Gartner calls the “Slope of Enlightenment” until we attain the “Plateau of Productivity.”
Some principles may serve as a compass as we consider the appropriate application of technology to learning. First, learning is about the learner, not the provider. Best-generation solutions will always be simple, natural and life-supporting for the user, simultaneously addressing the demands of time and context. For the user, all learning is personalized. A quality, sustainable solution will address that reality.
Another metric for quality is the degree to which the solution leverages knowledge—both the knowledge the learner already has and the knowledge of fellow employees. Do knowledge workers drive their own solutions? Is the inherent knowledge in the enterprise acquired, encoded and available on the same platform with other learning objects?
A third measure is whether the solution is a business solution or an academic solution. There’s a big difference. In the university, a person who gets the answers, writes them down and takes them into an important test is called a “cheater,” and might be expelled. In the workplace, someone who gets needed information, writes it down in advance of an important business negotiation and uses it to succeed during that meeting is called “prepared,” and might be promoted.
In the education world, the objective is academic: Success is measured by seat time, completion and test scores. The learner is evaluated by the supplier, and the supplier (faculty member) defines the requirements for success. In the corporate world, the situation is reversed: The objective is strategic, and success is measured by performance—by individual and group achievement. The supplier of content is evaluated by the learner, and the learner (the knowledge worker) defines the requirements for success in the context of an immediate need.
A fourth measure of quality is the degree to which learning solutions flow from the business drivers of the company. Unlike many training programs, high-quality knowledge solutions can and should be a critical component of corporate strategy—a powerful tool for the achievement of C-level vision.
A fifth metric is the degree to which the solution addresses unpredictable circumstances. Just as the stabilizer wings on the hull of a cruise ship react immediately to oncoming waves that would rock the boat, the stabilizers in the learning environment can respond immediately to oncoming waves of change that can rock the organization. The quality of such a system is proportional to its flexibility—the degree to which changing requirements can be detected and solutions made available in real time. Such systems may include executive dashboards that integrate information and learning solutions to manage corporate knowledge resources and provide timely solutions to the oncoming waves of change.
In the very act of separating the useful from the traditional, we will discover true quality. And it is quality alone that is inherently sustainable.
Jonathon Levy is senior learning strategist at Monitor Group and former vice president for online learning solutions at Harvard Business School Publishing. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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