Confucius said some very wise things. My favorite is “I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.” The bottom line: Just do it!
Chief Learning Officer magazine recently released its 2006 Business Intelligence Industry Report. For the “learning” enthusiast, this report could not have come at a better time. The findings, conclusions and opportunities reported strongly support the following pseudo-scientific conclusion: The light at the end of the tunnel has a train attached.
The good news is the industry recognizes this fact. And even more promising, the industry is starting to do something about it. While the report showed a continued reliance on classroom-based delivery methods, it also indicated that the industry is starting to shift away from classroom training to a greater reliance on asynchronous and synchronous e-learning. Perhaps equally interesting, this shift is driven more by the need to cater to a widely dispersed workforce than by budgetary factors.
A dispersed workforce is a critical new wrinkle in the increasingly global, “flattened” commercial marketplace. How do you balance the demands of distributed workforce performance (aka learning), fiscal responsibility (aka budget) and increased competitive velocity (aka winning)? Experiential learning (ExL) is the answer.
ExL is one of the most powerful learning “tools” with potentially the highest return on investment. Unfortunately, it never truly has achieved its potential as a commercially viable learning approach until now. Emerging ExL methods and tools can help you tackle the 3-D learning/budget/winning puzzle.
The ExL Roots are Deep
Let’s shift from Confucius to Albert Einstein: “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.” The bottom line: Just do it – better!
The practice of “teaching by pouring in” refers to a medieval belief that you could raise the knowledge level of an individual simply by drilling holes in the human head and, with a funnel, pouring information into the brain. While this might seem barbaric today, Einstein would argue that our modern methods of instruction haven’t evolved too far beyond the medieval times (from a conjectural perspective, of course).
As a field of practice, ExL is vast. ExL methodologies can be found in everything from wine tasting to workforce training and development, from Harvard’s case study MBA curriculum to IT-centric live labs. So what does it mean to you, and how can you use ExL to solve the learning/budget/winning puzzle? Let’s start with a definition.
Carl Rogers, the founding father of client-centered psychotherapy, distinguished two types of learning: cognitive (which he deemed “meaningless”) and experiential (which he deemed “significant”). The former corresponds to academic knowledge, and the latter refers to applied knowledge, such as learning about IT operating systems in order to fix an e-mail problem. The key to the distinction is that ExL addresses the learner’s needs and wants.
Rogers lists essential qualities of experiential learning: personal involvement, self-initiated, evaluated by the learner and pervasive effects on the learner. To him, ExL is equivalent to personal change and growth. Rogers feels all humans have a natural propensity to learn, that the role of the teacher is not to pedagogically instruct but to facilitate and stimulate the learner’s organic desire to grow.
As is often the case in professional dialogue, when experts use the term “experiential learning,” there may be several interpretations. Stephen Brookfield captured this quandary by segregating learning professionals into two ExL camps:
Along these same lines, Saul Alinsky elaborated on direct participation by describing the process by which general “happenings” become “experiences.” He concluded that happenings are very common, but experiences require work (aka direct participation). Further, Alinsky concluded, “Happenings become experiences when they are digested, reflected on and synthesized.”
Experiential “Learning Spaces”
Building on Rogers and Brookfield, David Kolb developed a powerful ExL learning model in his 1984 classic, “Experiential Learning.” Kolb’s model describes a four-step learning cycle: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. This model is a recurring cycle in which the learners continually push the envelope of their own experiences with the help of reflection and conceptualization. If you think about it, this is how you learned to walk.
What does this model tell you about workforce development in the 21st century? Fortunately, Kolb’s cycle is only the beginning. More recently, he has developed a four-quadrant grid that sits on top of the ExL cycle and describes various “learning spaces.” These spaces progress from creating (information gathering) to planning (analysis) to deciding (quantitative goal setting) and ultimately to acting (initiative and leadership).
You can influence your students’ learning outcomes by placing them into specific ExL spaces and mapping the correct interaction type to the desired learning space:
Learning spaces are a powerful model for integrating ExL into classroom and blended learning programs. You can go one step further, however, if you merge Kolb’s learning spaces with Brookfield’s direct participation. Now you have something exciting. Imagine the power of integrating ExL into each student’s daily life. Imagine embedded experiential learning (ExL2).
Embedded Experiential Learning (ExL2)
Consider this elegant, if not mind-numbing, elucidation from Jan L.A. van Snepscheut: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.” The bottom line: Just do it – now!
At the end of the second millennium, buzzwords such as “on-the-job training,” “role playing,” “coaching,” “just-in-time training” and maybe even something exotic such as “multi-sensory learning” sufficiently described the learning approach most enterprises offered to train their employees, partners and customers. Given the moderate external pressures typical of that era, these learning models were largely sufficient to keep a workforce well-educated and thus competitive in the marketplace.
Fast-forward to the 21st century: information overload. Consider the confluence of the following performance-critical yet time-draining factors such as the rising volume of job-related information and requirements and the acceleration of competitive velocity. Given this tornado of competing priorities, the age-old training models won’t cut it.
Fortunately, ExL2 is here to help. One of the greatest advantages of embedded ExL is that it delivers learning at the moment of need. It probably won’t surprise you to find that the average knowledge worker spends 15 percent of his or her time looking for information – and he or she finds it only half the time. If that information is critical to the job, the employee potentially will lose 30 percent of his or her productivity looking for it.
So what is the answer? Simple: Place critical information at employees’ fingertips, embed it into their daily workflow and make it memorable (aka experiential). This is the definition of embedded ExL. The following are some tips for creating a powerful ExL2 system:
So what does ExL2 look like in the real world? Here is one example: Transcensus has developed a patent-pending Scripted Human Operator (SHO) technology that embeds performance support into software applications. Think of it as a virtual instructor looking over the user’s shoulder and offering step-by-step guidance.
SHO technology delivers learning content at the moment of need directly inside software applications instead of in a browser, a simulation window or some other external training interface the actual software application is the training interface. The best part is that the user learns by performing real work inside a real software application not by playing around with a simulator. At the end of the lesson, the user has learned and completed work, the best of both worlds.
Interactive Scenarios – The Next Revolution of ExL
Interactive scenarios are the next revolution of experiential learning. These are virtual reality “serious games” that emulate live work environments and allow users to participate with intelligent avatars and live systems.
One key difference between an interactive scenario and a “lab” is that the latter exists in a vacuum. With labs, learners are asked to perform tasks or answer questions without regard for context or relevancy. Little thought is given to who might ask the question or which co-worker would request a particular task. This is not very realistic. In addition, even less thought is given to the business reasons behind each request.
Interactive scenarios, on the other hand, start with a story. Learners are given a real-life context for the exercise and guided through a virtual world filled with virtual people. This virtual world conveys to learners the skills they are learning have real-world implications and real-world applications. A question isn’t asked for its own sake, nor is technology deployed and configured for its own sake.
Good stories come from our own experiences. It is this experience that brings relevance and authenticity to the scenarios. For example, in Scenario 1, it might be your first day as Acme’s junior network administrator. You have just been promoted from the help desk. Your phone rings. The sales director in Chicago has some new employees who need your help. Over the next 20 scenarios, several virtual months will pass, and you will solve innumerable business, social and technological problems. Along the way, you will get a promotion, move to Chicago, make new friends and gain tremendous experience in Acme’s live server room.
Each journey into this virtual world starts in your office. From there, you might take a trip on the road (with your mobile PDA) or stay in the building and attend a meeting in the conference room. You might even want to meander into the break room or enjoy lunch at a local virtual restaurant. Within the virtual workspace, there are office tools and information items with which you can interact. Intelligent avatars will engage with you, using everyday office tools such as desktop phones, cell phones, e-mail and a pager.
Interactive scenarios are at the crossroads of learning, embedded performance support, virtual reality and gaming. It is very exciting to see this mix empowered for the sake of learning.
The Rest of the Story
Every great innovation passes through three distinct adoption phases: foundation, social lag and renaissance. ExL is at the cusp of a renaissance. Over the past 10 years, ExL has been experiencing its own social lag. It has failed to impress, but the industry finally is at a point of quantum convergence. Learning, budget and competitive velocity have united to empower ExL as the next great learning innovation of the 21st century. The bottom line: If you want to learn anything – just do it!
David James Clarke IV is the co-founder and primary innovator of Toolwire. He can be reached at email@example.com.