When you hear the word “learning,” what comes to mind? A small one-room schoolhouse with a teacher at the blackboard, a la “Little House on the Prairie”? A crowded, amphitheater style classroom with a tweed-clad professor holding court, a la “The Paper Chase”? A giant ballroom with massive movie screens and an energetic motivational speaker, microphone in hand, theme music blaring, a la Tony Robbins?
What all these visions have in common is a familiar, critical assumption — an assumption that is rapidly becoming as obsolete as petticoats and log cabins — that learning takes place face to face.
This is not to say that face-to-face learning is on its way out. In fact, face-to-face instruction continues to be the gold standard of learning. The U.S. Army doesn’t try to replace its drill instructors with DVDs and online tests when it converts raw 18-year-old recruits into elite soldiers. On the other hand, the U.S. Army does use its video game, “America’s Army,” as one of its most important outreach tools.
When the U.S. Army uses video games as a critical teaching tool, it is clear that virtual learning is here to stay. And while there will always be a place for traditional face-to-face instruction, virtual learning is going to play an increasingly important role in workforce learning and development.
As strange as this may sound, considering the youth of the Internet and virtual learning, virtual learning is itself going through revolutionary changes. The frontiers of virtual learning today would be unrecognizable to the cutting-edge practitioners of just 10 years ago. Three major trends — crowdsourcing, video and apps — are creating new modes of learning that education executives need to recognize and incorporate into their overall approach.
Crowdsourcing tools such as wikis allow bottom-up curriculum development and are ideal for surfacing key insights from the front lines. Video is the new preferred mechanism for learning — witness the growth and popularity of the Khan Academy, now supported by the Gates Foundation. And the “appification” of education, with learning delivered by smart phone and tablet, is expanding learning from classroom and desktop to everywhere. Each of these trends can fit into your organization’s learning strategy.
While the most well-known approach to crowdsourcing is the wiki, a group editable website exemplified by the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, crowdsourcing may be even more effective when targeted at a particular group.
For example, Curriki.org applies the Wikipedia approach to K-12 educational materials. Curriki is an open crowdsourcing environment, meaning that anyone can contribute. Since being spun off from a Sun Microsystems initiative in 2006, Curriki has collected more than 40,000 different learning modules, ranging from lesson plans to interactive quizzes. All of these materials are free and available to any educator who wants to use them.
Of course, as a corporate educator, crowdsourced educational materials may not always fit your needs, especially if you need to provide organization-specific training and courses rather than covering general topics. But instructional repositories such as Curriki can serve as a key source of raw materials that your team can modify and enhance. Why reinvent the wheel if you can crowdsource?
Crowdsourcing isn’t limited to open communities and nonprofits. Crowdsourcing is simply the delegation of work to a broad array of contributors; it does not need to be public or noncommercial, even though those are the most popular examples. Indeed, you may be applying crowdsourcing in your own organization already.
Every time a company posts a suggestion box, or more commonly these days, a suggestion e-mail inbox, that is a primitive form of crowdsourcing. Every time someone sends an e-mail to “all” asking for help with a specific matter, that is also crowdsourcing. Every time people stand around the water cooler talking about how to do their jobs, that is crowdsourcing.
What you want to do is to channel your team’s energy — which is currently going into these informal and transitory forms of crowdsourcing — into an organized and permanent knowledge repository. This will maximize the value you get from front-line learning.
For example, Teo Mayes, chief technology officer of RMC Vanguard Mortgage, needed a better way to crowdsource domain-specific information: mortgage regulations.
“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 Mayes. “There have been so many changes in our industry; it’s tough to keep up. Loan officers are constantly in our underwriters’ offices asking, ‘Can I do this? How about this?’”
Mayes turned to a wiki-based crowdsourcing solution that allowed RMC underwriters to work together to stay on top of regulatory changes. This included integrating links to outside information such as official documents, as well as wiki-style group editing of best practices and rules of thumb.
“Our underwriters use the wiki to educate the loan officers,” said Mayes. “Any time something changes, they post the new information to the wiki. Now the watchword in the office is, ‘Did you check the wiki?’”
Mayes reports that the wiki 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.
Learning via Video
Another major factor in virtual learning is the growth in video learning. A decade ago, video learning consisted of formal courses delivered via DVD. Production costs were high — after all, people were essentially scripting and shooting motion pictures — and distribution was difficult.
Fast-forward to today, and online video is ubiquitous. In fact, video traffic now makes up a majority of the Internet’s overall traffic, at least in terms of actual bits and bytes. A 10-year-old child can put a video on YouTube and generate millions of views, all for free.
The same revolution has occurred in production costs. All it takes is the built-in webcam on every laptop. All those with access to a $300 notebook or netbook can shoot their own instructional video and post it in less than 15 minutes. Soon they’ll be doing the same with the phones in their pockets.
In 2004, Salman Khan, an MIT and Harvard Business School grad, began tutoring his cousin in math. She did so well that Khan started tutoring her brothers as well. As word got out, he got more and more requests and started recording simple lessons and posting them on YouTube. All the while, Khan was working full-time at his finance job.
Khan’s simple videos kept getting more and more traffic. Today, the Khan Academy, a nonprofit supported by organizations such as the Gates Foundation, has posted more than 1,600 videos to its YouTube channel. These videos have been watched nearly 26 million times.
Every video was created by Khan, and the total cost of his setup is $280. And that’s after going pro. In the early days, he used a $20 piece of video capture software and Microsoft Paint, which comes free with every Windows PC.
As a chief learning officer, you probably aren’t aiming for 26 million video views. But what you can take away from Khan’s example is that it doesn’t take a lot of resources to build remarkable video learning assets. Every member of your organization has the tools to do what Khan did; what you need to do is to encourage experimentation and usage.
The Rise of Apps
A final trend that is shaking up virtual learning is the rapid “appification” of learning, as exemplified by the rise of educational games and materials for Apple’s iPod, iPhone and iPad. Like video, learning applications existed a decade ago, but the changes that have occurred since then make today’s learning apps practically a different species.
Ten years ago, learning applications took the form of shrink-wrapped software. If you wanted to install an application, you needed to have administrator access to your computer and you needed to spend at least 15 minutes inserting CD-ROMs and clicking on license agreements, after which you would have to reboot your computer before finally launching the introduction screen of the application and proceeding, manual in hand.
Today, installing an app from Apple’s App Store consists of clicking an install button and waiting 30 seconds while a new application installs and launches. Once launched, these apps are controlled via intuitive touch screen interfaces that even a child can learn without instruction. This order of magnitude reduction in hassle has made educational apps far more likely to be created, adopted and used. Today, Apple’s App Store contains more than 200,000 approved applications, many of them educational and aimed at students or teachers.
Apps matter because they provide a simple, compelling mobile package for delivering virtual learning. When your virtual learning app sits on your employees’ smart phones, they will have your course in their pocket wherever they go, ready to use whenever they have a spare moment — on the train, waiting in line or simply sitting on the couch.
Virtual learning has come a long way from packaged DVDs and shrink-wrapped software. Thanks to crowdsourcing, video learning and appification, today’s virtual learning solutions are more powerful than ever before. And in a flat world of telecommuting and virtual organizations, the need for virtual learning to replace face-to-face instruction is greater than ever.
These trends will not remain independent. One can easily imagine using crowdsourcing techniques to create video content for a mobile virtual learning app, to be delivered via smart phone or tablet. Just 10 years ago, such a concept would have struck you as science fiction. In 10 years, it may seem as outdated as a one-room schoolhouse.
Chris Yeh is vice president of marketing for PBworks, a provider of hosted collaboration solutions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.