Is it the end of the world for learning technologists?

New Years Eve London 2011

Photo: Mike Campbell

Today (21 December) is – according to some misunderstood readings of one type of Mayan calendar – supposed to be the end of the world. If you’re alive to read this, you’ll know that’s nonsense.

In fact, it’s millennialist nonsense.

Millennialism is a religious term, first used by Zoroastrians, who saw history in thousand year periods, each of which ended in a cataclysm. The cycle would end when good at last triumphed evil at the end of the final millennium.

Learning technologies are a bit like that.

We go through cycles of believing that a particular technology will be the special one, the one to change everything. It will revolutionize learning at work. The old methods will fall away. Good will at last have triumphed over evil.

Our own cycles of millennialism are shorter – measured in single years, rather than thousands – although the last major surge did indeed occur at the time of the millennium. In 1999 Cisco CEO John Chambers opined that elearning would be so huge that its impact would make email seem like a rounding error. (Remember this is when email was considered a good thing.)

Things didn’t quite work out that way.

What happened instead was that the elearning of the time – crude, linear and unengaging by today’s standards – had its millennial moment, with soaring sales of simple learning management systems driven by C-suite level decision makers deciding that low costs, combined with the glittering promise of speed and geographical reach – the sheer, previously unimaginable scale of the whole thing – meant it was the way of the future. They bought. They were disappointed. Things turned out to be a little more complicated.

We’ve seen the same pattern repeated all too often since with specific technologies. Virtual worlds, for example, have their value, but they are not going to revolutionize workplace learning for most people.

So, what will transform learning at work? The answer is in the question, and it isn’t technology: it’s a better understanding of work and of learning, more interaction with leaders and managers, and a better grip of business issues; a clearer grasp of the science of the mind and how people really learn; an idea of when learning is the answer to a problem, and when it is not. There are no technological silver bullets in that list, just the long, steady, incremental journey towards L&D doing its job better.

The L&D profession is already on the right path – we don’t need the false promise of technological millennialism to succeed. And when have our successes, we should feel justified in celebrating what we ourselves – rather than any technologies – have created.

Let’s celebrate success. We just don’t need to party like it’s 1999.

Adapted from the preface to the November 2012 issue of Inside Learning Technologies Magazine.

Listen (3’42”):

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Work by Donald H Taylor licensed under a
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3 responses to “Is it the end of the world for learning technologists?

  1. Don, you’re right, technology is important, but, it isn’t everything. The profession deserves to take itself seriously and celebrate its own achievements rather than suggesting success is all down to technology!

  2. Hi Don, thanks for this. Last year (2012) saw the rise of the MOOC and the announcement by many that it will destroy Higher Education (in fact, all forms of formal education). The year before it was tablet computing and the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement, and before that was something else equally impressive but, as you say, we’re all still here working pretty much the same. It’s just the thought processes that are different.

    We have more tools to consider, we have more approaches to our learning materials or packages to take account of, we have ‘more’ in general to play with. Each ‘new’ thing (MOOC, BYOD, etc.) only acts to shake us up and (hopefully) get us thinking again. They won’t be the ‘end’ of education or the ‘end’ of anything … but we should consider them the start of a new approach, a new way of thinking, a new factor to incorporate in order to engage and enthuse ourselves in our work and our students in their studies.

    All the best, David

    • Paul Martindale @MartindalePaul

      “we’re all still here working pretty much the same”

      … to our/the teaching profession’s eternal shame?

      I’m a little confused when I still see the term ‘technologist’ added somewhere to describe the role of a teacher. I don’t see it after ‘doctor’ or ‘surgeon’ for example, yet I’d argue they are using technology with much greater effect than most in the teaching profession. It only takes a look at the transformation in operating theatres, in prosthetics, or some of the innovative uses of things like the Microsoft Kinect or 3D printers, to realise that teaching is being left behind. Outcomes are everything. Maybe it’s because we’re (teachers) not as outcome-orientated/reflective as we’d like to think we are? Medicine is a pretty brutal profession: mistakes cost lives, and improvements to practice save them. (I’d argue the same about teaching, but the results take a lot longer to make themselves apparent!) Maybe it’s just too difficult to convince the average teacher of the benefits of a particular approach/use for a particular piece of hardware/software, given the multitude of factors which contribute to a student’s learning? I think one of the questions we need to ask ourselves as teachers is why is it the profession which has been so slow to embrace change? I don’t think it’s down to the teachers themselves, as most I know are the most committed, talented group of people you could wish to meet. Is it leadership, and the value given to test results/Ofsted outcomes? Does it stifle change, rather than promote it? Do we give sufficient time to learning about learning, instead of the countless administrative tasks which can be welcome distractions for some. I don’t know. What I do know, is while we’re waiting for ‘technology’ to provide some sort of ‘magic bullet’, those who are focussing on developing learning, will simply use whatever tool has the most impact. Technology will transform learning and teaching, but only through focussing on learning and teaching… rather than the technology.

      ‘In 1999 Cisco CEO John Chambers opined that elearning would be so huge that its impact would make email seem like a rounding error.’

      I still think he’ll be proved right. Maybe we’re just not ready for it yet?

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