Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: How to Choose and Manage Great Tech Partners

The digital transformation of learning: Social, informal, self-service, and enjoyable

Technology has long been used to improve how we learn, but today's digital advances, particularly with social media, have taken learning in powerful new -- and for some -- entirely unexpected directions.

The vast co-created commons of the internet have long been seen as a way for the connected and motivated to learn on their own. However, as digital has fundamentally changed how we find knowledge and share information with each other, it has also steadily shifted the landscape of learning itself: The typical person today is far more likely to reach for their mobile phone to learn something than find a relevant book or go to the library.

Call it the digitization of learning or just the realization of the the promise of the internet, it's become abundantly clear that freeform online repositories of knowledge such as YouTube and Wikipedia, as well as dozens of open, high quality digital learning platforms such as Coursera, Open Culture, or the Khan Academy have become leading new instruments for global learning.

It's also not an accident that each of these examples are rooted in mass collaboration and/or online community. In fact, the rise and continued growth of massively open online courses (MOOCs) over the last few years was perhaps the harbinger of a major change in traditional learning. Even many formal learning institutions have accepted the inevitable and begun to take up the supremely easy-to-use digital tools along with a mindset of democratization that has begun to infuse the world of education.

In the traditional world of corporate education -- employee orientation, onboarding, and skill building, for example -- passive learning was and still is the norm, consisting largely of sitting down and then consuming pre-packaged content in bulk that's presented formally by an educator.

The Digital Transformation of Learning: Community, Microlearning, Situated, On-Demand, Self-Service

Digital learning has consumerized

This is sharp contrast to the digital era, where knowledge is pervasive, instantly searchable, consumable on-demand, and kept continuously up-to-date by millions of daily global contributors to the online commons. This allows learning -- for better or worse, depending on the critic -- to be far more situational, on-demand, self-directed, infinitely customized, even outright enjoyable, depending on the user experience, all of which leads to more profound engagement of learners.

In addition, the rise of social networking technology has allowed people with similar learning interests to come together as a group to share knowledge on a subject -- and perhaps even more significantly -- to express their passion for an area of learning. This can create deeper, more intense, and more immersive educational experiences within a community of like-minded learners.

All of these trends in digital learning have had a dramatic impact on an important segment of the software industry used for corporate learning and development, the increasingly venerable -- and some would say outdated -- learning management system (LMS), which like so many aspects of the enterprise, has been profoundly challenged by the many innovations coming from the world of consumer technology.

The rise of community-centric learning

In my own work, I've seen in the last couple of years that talent development staff no longer push so hard for rote digital learning systems. Instead, it is now often seen in the industry literature -- such as this recent example from the Association for Talent Development -- to praise models for learning that are more interactive, community-based, peer-produced, and individually-guided. Learning from internal experts, group conversation, and through shared media such as photos and video is increasingly the norm, as corporate spending on formal learning correspondingly drops.

Given the need for continuous learning by workers in the fast-evolving digital economy, the LMS industry, by all estimates, will neverthless continue to grow as it too absorbs these lessons. In fact, these new forms of situated learning are leading to a third wave of learning management tools (the first two waves being the emergence of traditional LMS systems and then the standardization of them).

This third wave of digital learning, for want of a general consensus on a term, could be called social learning. That is, the use of digital platforms to bring together communities of interest within an organization -- and often indeed from anywhere -- to learn about a subject better through interaction with and insights from each other, though usually some relevant authoritative content still has a role in that process.

The resulting learning content, much of it created by more advanced learners for beginners, is much more experiential and rooted in the context of the work the organization does. Video has also become a major player in enabling what is known as 'microlearning', often via short clips that can be created and shared in learning communities, and then discussed. Consuming these videos on mobile devices on demand when needed is another notable trend.

The early numbers from social learning make interesting reading. Initial studies have shown that there's as much as a 75:1 return-on-investment (ROI) ratio for the approach compared to traditional web-based education. As a result of such insights, this year fully 73 percent of organizations are planning on increasing their investments in social learning.

To get a sense of the changes in the digital learning space, I reached out to a well-known expert in online education, Megan Torrance, founder of TorranceLearning, who said:

I see organizations making a move to a more ubiquitous, and at the same time democratized, learning environment. The information to do the job exists within or alongside the work itself, not tucked away in a byzantine course catalog many clicks away.

Contributions from peers, internal experts, external sources and leaders complement the formal instruction provided by the learning and development teams, and the organization's body of knowledge is constantly refreshed. Universal search tools surface learning objects from a variety of locations all in one place. Usage and ratings data are stored centrally -- not siloed in many separate tools -- and the employee has a comprehensive record of his or her own learning and insights.

The learning function in this new environment provides structure, foundational curricula and the tools by which the organization's conversation can take place. When change, or even crisis, happens, the organization already has the learning and social pathways by which to take fast action, communicate broadly, and gather important information for decision-making.

From this we can clearly see that learning is shifting to be integrated much more into the flow of work and situated as a capability within the modern digital workplace.

Digital learning is enabling a workforce revolution

The result of what appears to be a broad uptake in social learning should be a workplace education environment that is much more rewarding for workers and valuable to organizations, as they make it possible for workers to renew themselves with fresh skills and abilities that can be developed on-demand. This is already being seen in enterprise tools such as platforms like Successfactors with its general purpose informal learning features in SAP Jam, Appinium LearnTrac, or specific tools like Poka for manufacturing, which make learning far easier, video-based, more social, and more community-based.

With the social learning segment growth data so strong, and ROI evident, the only real barriers at this point to adopting new digital forms of education lies primarily with the limited evolution of learning and development models in the enterprise. Human resource departments have often been the last on the digital bandwagon, and/or at least effectively using the technologies themselves. That has led business units to adopt informal and social learning tools on their own, but it increasingly appears that the HR industry is now taking some of these trends to heart.

Laying a foundation for social learning

Enterprises looking to prepare for this new style of workforce education can take some preparatory steps:

  • Enable a social foundation. This is either an enterprise social network or online community platform that can be used for other functions, such as workforce collaboration, but for social learning as well. Since most organizations are doing this already, it creates a natural center of gravity for informal and community-based education.
  • Reduce friction in the learning process and digital tools. Make sure your social learning environment is mobile-ready, easy-to-use, easy to create content with, and that some basic encouragement is seeded for learners to gather around the topics they care most about. Effective search is critical as well to find what they need.
  • Create the seeds for participation and consumption of social learning. Community and informal learning platforms need some initial content to ensure there is enough usefulness from the outset to achieve effective adoption by the workforce. This requires an investment in content production (short training videos, articles, and blog posts that can trigger participation and co-creation).

Perhaps the single most valuable asset an organization has is its workforce. New forms of digital learning are making it possible to help workers stay relevant, build skills, and be retained by their organizations.

Social learning is a vital trend in the gig economy era for organizations that wish to maintain their institutional knowledge, be globally competitive, and sustainable. The bottom line is that with various data showing that up to 80 percent of all learning is informal, social learning now appears to be positioned as a major component of the future of workplace education. In other words, the digital learning organization will be the sustainable digital organization.

More from Dion Hinchcliffe

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