One of the learning technology trends that is simultaneously overhyped and underhyped is the move toward bottom-up learning.
No amount of buzzwords, such as “the wisdom of crowds” and “user-generated content,” can replace the hard work of developing educational materials. Wikipedia is a special case, and reference materials are a far cry from the instructional programs that corporate education departments produce and deliver on a daily basis.
On the other hand, new technologies are democratizing learning and putting it in the hands of every member of your organization. When it’s a balance between grassroots efforts and an overall learning strategy, bottom-up learning can become a key part of overall educational efforts.
Most educators, whether in a primary, secondary or corporate setting, take their cues from traditional approaches to education. Indeed, education has one of the richest histories of any field. Oxford University, for example, was founded in the 12th century, and has been running continuously since then. Oxford’s roots go back even further, all the way to the scholastic traditions of the ancient Greeks.
This traditional approach to education should be familiar to all: Students come to be taught by older, more experienced professionals who are authorized or certified to convey their expert knowledge — largely by lecturing. For the most part, this approach to education has been copied and pasted wholesale into the corporate learning model — hence, famed educational institutions such as McDonald’s Hamburger University and General Electric’s Crotonville campus.
At my own alma mater, Harvard Business School, famed for its use of the interactive case study method of teaching, classes follow a set curriculum of cases that have been prepared and certified by Harvard Business School Publishing.
Yet, just as many traditional business models have been challenged by disruptive innovations from below, traditional education approaches are facing a similar challenge. Just as open source software represents both a threat and an opportunity for established high-tech companies, open source education will have a major impact on corporate learning strategies.
In a MacArthur Foundation report titled “The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age,” Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg point out that there is a major shift from top-down to bottom-up in learning. They wrote:
“Participatory learning begins from the premise that new technologies are changing how people of all ages learn, play, socialize, exercise judgment, and engage in civic life. Learning environments — peers, family, and social institutions (such as schools, community centers, libraries, museums, even the playground, and so on) — are changing as well. The concept of participatory learning is very different from ‘IT’ (instructional technology). IT is usually a toolkit application that is predetermined and even institutionalized with little, if any, user discretion, choice, or leverage. IT tends to be top-down, designer-determined, administratively driven, commercially fashioned. In participatory learning, outcomes are typically customizable by the participants. Since the current generation of college student has no memory of the historical moment before the advent of the Internet, we are suggesting that participatory learning as a practice is no longer exotic or new but a commonplace way of socializing and learning. For many, it seems entirely unremarkable.”
In the past decade alone, we’ve seen how the bottom-up approach of Wikipedia has mostly supplanted the traditional role of institutions such as Encyclopaedia Britannica. While Wikipedia’s open approach does leave it vulnerable to abuse, it is now widely accepted as an authoritative source of information — especially by the members of the millennial generation. Indeed, the notion that an individual student can challenge, edit or even replace the content provided by older, more experienced experts is not viewed as a bug to be eliminated, but a feature to be celebrated.
This spirit of openness and self-sufficiency manifests itself in a number of ways. At the simplest level, educators can make their courses and materials free and open to all. This has been the approach of the OpenCourseWare program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which makes materials for almost every undergraduate and graduate course available to anyone in the world, free of charge. In the eight years since MIT’s
OpenCourseWare has been running, more than 50 million visitors from all over the world have been to the Web site. That number may even include a number of employees from your organization. This kind of open source education can play an important role in a corporate learning strategy, especially if an organization values technical skills, although among the most popular courses offered are “Problems of Philosophy” and “Introduction to Marketing.”
Josh Kaufman takes bottom-up education a step further with his Personal MBA movement. The movement’s manifesto is a testament to bottom-up self-sufficiency: “MBA programs don’t have a monopoly on advanced business knowledge: You can teach yourself everything you need to know to succeed in life and at work. The Personal MBA features the very best business books available, based on thousands of hours of research. So skip B-school and the $100,000 loan: You can get a world-class business education simply by reading these books.” More than 1,000 people have joined Kaufman’s Personal MBA Community and many more visit his blog each month.
While OpenCourseWare relies on traditional teaching methods, such as lectures and textbooks, delivered via the Internet, the Personal MBA movement does away with these methods altogether, arguing instead that reading great business books and discussing them with peers can provide an equivalent educational experience. While this may be an oversimplification, the Personal MBA approach is extremely resource efficient. There are no expensive course materials to develop or purchase. Those who enroll are given a list of books that can be ordered with the click of a mouse.
Both OpenCourseWare and The Personal MBA focus on new methods to deliver existing education materials. There is also an entirely different set of bottom-up learning experiments that focus instead on developing new materials.
Flat World Knowledge takes textbooks and makes them available online for free. Educators and students can access these textbooks at no charge and then pay extra for premium services such as printed versions and audiobooks. Teachers can even modify the textbooks for the purposes of their course — although they may not share those modifications with others. This model comes at an attractive price, though it is still in its infancy. Thus far, Flat World Knowledge offers fewer than 30 textbooks.
At the opposite extreme, Curriki is a nonprofit that uses wiki collaboration technology to foster collaboration on course curricula. Curriki hosts nearly 17,000 curricula and lesson plans, including nearly 1,600 in the category of career and technical education. Contributors to these open source curricula range from educational institutions to corporate training departments to individual educators and consultants.
But while Curriki offers materials for trainers and educators, it faces the same issues as other crowdsourcing projects. In order for crowdsourcing to produce materials of equivalent quality to the traditional approach, there needs to be enough traffic and a strong enough community to polish the materials to a high level of quality. Indeed, many companies encounter this issue when they try to use wiki technology to create a company-pedia. While wiki collaboration is incredibly powerful, the “Field of Dreams” approach of “if you build it, they will come” can be disastrous. The majority of attempts to create a crowdsourced corporate Wikipedia fail, even at massive Fortune 500 companies.
Given the variety of models and approaches, the challenge of figuring out how to incorporate these new technologies into the organization’s learning strategy can seem daunting. Chief learning officers need to adopt an experimental mindset, pursuing a portfolio of initiatives and setting expectations that while some will succeed and some will fail, their overall strategy will produce improvements and deliver a positive ROI.
Here are a few guidelines that can help shape a bottom-up learning strategy:
1. Seek a broad array of sources for course materials. If the open source education movement has succeeded in anything, it has provided a wealth of content that corporate trainers and educators can tap into. Materials are available via OpenCourseWare, The Personal MBA, Flat World Knowledge and Curriki, but these are just the tip of the iceberg. Need to find a video clip to liven up your course? Go to YouTube. Want to find a presentation that can explain a specific topic? SlideShare offers thousands of presentations, complete with viewer ratings on every conceivable topic.
2. Customize materials for the intended audience. The availability of essentially unlimited amounts of content is a dual-edged sword. With so much source material available, students will drown in information overload unless learning departments curate the content appropriately. By organizing, contextualizing and customizing content from a variety of sources, instructors can provide a much more effective educational experience. If the goal is to maximize learning, why not outsource the grunt work of gathering data and other raw materials and focus instead on the value-add of converting that data into insight?
3. Bottom-up learning is particularly effective for rapidly evolving topics. Being selective as to where and when to implement bottom-up learning can be a key contributor to success. Bottom-up learning is particularly effective — and traditional course materials are particularly ineffective — when it comes to rapidly evolving topics.
This approach is particularly appropriate today as a result of the recent economic crisis. Houston-based RMC Vanguard Mortgage Corp. is an independent mortgage company serving customers in more than 25 states. Despite the turmoil that the credit crunch and economic recession caused in the mortgage industry, RMC has helped more than 6,000 families with their mortgage needs and has grown from 45 to 95 employees in the past two years. This combination of growth and a rapidly changing business environment make corporate training and education a key organizational priority.
“The mortgage industry is constantly evolving, with a lot of turnover, so it’s important that we have the ability to educate people quickly,” said Teo Mayes, RMC’s chief technology officer. “There have been so many changes in our industry in the last nine months, it’s tough to keep up. Loan officers are constantly in our underwriters’ offices asking, ‘Can I do this? How about this?’”
Mayes and his team use an open technology platform to integrate information ranging from Web links to official documents. Searchability allows loan officers to find what they need when they need it. This kind of training is crucial for RMC because the company has been adding new people who need to ramp up rapidly. The goal is to provide the necessary training while minimizing the time drain on experienced, productive employees.
“Our underwriters use the workspace to educate the loan officers,” Mayes said. “Any time something changes, they post the new information to the workspace. Now the watch word in the office is, ‘Did you check the workspace?’”
Mayes reported this approach saves each of the underwriters about 30 to 45 minutes per day, and it has saved significant amounts of time for the rest of the employees when it comes to finding documents, passwords and other information.
Delta Cavner, a professor at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri, found herself getting increasingly frustrated with the available textbooks for teaching courses on educational technology. Given the rapid pace of change, textbooks were essentially obsolete before they arrived. So Cavner and her students used collaborative tools to create their own textbook, drawing from the best materials across the Internet.
The open learning platform allowed her team to link to outside materials, embed videos and other multimedia files, and produce a customized educational experience. Not only would the textbook always be up to date, but writing their own textbook taught students more about the subject and actively engaged them in learning.
Just as in the software world, open source education is likely to increase in importance as a new generation enters the workplace. These millennials are accustomed to bottom-up learning and to exercising more control over their studies than previous generations.
The chief learning officer’s task is to find ways to harness this explosion of energy and content to provide the organization with a learning platform that delivers results. Looking beyond the hype and leveraging new technologies in well-designed courses will satisfy learners’ desire for participatory learning and deliver better ROI on educational investments.
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