Tuesday, June 2, 2009

What is "Spot Learning?"

I first encountered the term "spot learning" in an article by Lisa Neal in her online eLearn Magazine. Attributed to Jonathan Levy, of Harvard B school fame, it was meant to refer to learning that happens at the point of need...the spot. I was drawn to the term, as it has occurred to me many times over the years that the point of need is where the learning must be available, whether the learning is embedded, separately available, or overlaid in the context of performance or achievement.

Hyperlinking is like thinking...

It is the very need for proximity that made hyperlinking such a powerful paradigm. In the late 1990's, I worked at IBM testing and developing some of the documentation for a product called "Linkway," an early PC context management tool similar to Hypercard that let you tie information together in much the same way that simple HTML lets you create associations. Linkway was fabulously ahead of it's time…and could well have served as the basis for many corporate e-learning implementations were it not for its limited distribution and marketing focused on the educational sector.

In the real world, hyperlinking is used to tie content together that the author wants to link...usually mirroring the content the author has available...not the content that is necessarily relevant to the learner. Authors, if they are thinking of the learner, must check their ego at the door and link to content of true relevance...or even better, leverage platforms that allow for contextual relevance. Different learners need different levels of support...and different kinds of links. Too often, authors use links rather to promote their own work. Contextual relevance engines could produce links in the context of the learner, so based on my knowledge and interests, I might see references to "Google Wave" in the context of user, developer, investor, or curious lurker.

The Trend toward Blended and Social Learning

In my current professional role, I'm very focused on identifying opportunities for embedding learning and supporting blended learning through the addition of technology to classroom learning (most of which is virtual classroom learning supported by technology). Increasingly, we see the learner as the conveyor of knowledge through the use of collaborative learning tools, such as SharePoint. In fact, our standard for designing competency development experiences for trainers is to engage the learner as a content collaborator so that no offering is ever fully a traditional trainer-led event. Instead, each "experience" is crafted in part by the participants; this leads to a much more rich and engaging learning paradigm...but that's the course model.

Spot learning is about "snippets" of learning. Just as code snippets can be used and re-used, spot learning can be invoked from the point of need and might be created by anyone. It can be used in the classroom, whether virtual or face-to-face, in e-learning, or as part of a self-exploration initiated by a web search.

In this blog, I'll try to focus on those ideas, competencies, and skills you need to be successful in building learning "spots."

So, "spot learning" is about the components that make up:
  • e-learning
  • blended learning
  • performance support
  • rich media messaging
  • edutainment

...and more.

The ir-Relevance of the Learning Function

"The business" has always come to the "Learning Function" with specific requests, but in this economy, we're seeing more people coming to the Learning Function for components of learning and not the overall learning solution. The problem is that sometimes the Learning Function cannot respond quickly enough to the business need. We in the Learning Function have quality standards and processes and maxims for evaluation that our business partners may not want and frankly, may not always need. Their learners are already motivated (one of the core tenants of Malcolm Knowles foundational work) by the need to succeed. They will learn, despite of our standards or lack thereof. Granted, some things need to be measured and tracked, but if the choice is between raising the competency in a timely manner and providing evaluation, laser tight designs, and tracking, it may well be better for "the business to produce quick and dirty solutions that work.

Pushing the baseline creation of learning closer to the SME and facilitating the creation of effective "learning spots" through tools has been the harbinger of product success for companies like Adobe, Articulate and well, Harbinger, whose products facilitate content creation with simplified tools--and in the hands of bad designers, they can produce really ugly learning. Still, they are growing in popularity because:

  • training budgets are shrinking
  • time-to-learner isn't acceptable for business partners
  • training and marketing are kissing cousins...so some business people already know messaging
  • oft-times, novices, given the opportunity, produce more engaging learning experiences than "professionals"

A New Model for the Old School

In the business world I see us evolving toward, the accumulation of learning snippets into a courses is done by learning professionals, whose core competency is not in the subject matter, but rather in the coordination of materials and resources to facilitate learning. In the real world, most learning snippets never see the "light of course."

Perhaps that's only because the various business groups don't always play nicely. We have several bodies of knowledge and areas of competency that are required in the construction of effective learning, and through collaboration, we should be able to create effective, engaging, instructionally-sound solutions:

  • subject-matter expertise
  • creative, engaging messaging
  • media creation
  • coordination of resources for learning
  • real-time facilitation

This calls for something like a production model, but only with more competency at each level.

The Role of the Learning Function

It is at the intersection of these competencies that effective learning is enabled. In my view, many businesses would do well to throw out their Learning Function and create a cross-functional model where business partners are responsible for disseminating knowledge throughout the organization and the Learning Function plays a consultative role. It wouldn't work in every corporate environ, but it already does in some.

Instead of producing all the learning, the Learning Function would focus on developing the infrastructure and competency for producing the learning. They would train SMEs and classroom trainers to produce effective "spot learning" content. Candidly, some of the most critical learning would be produced by the Learning Function in tightly-constructed, high-value learning products, but more of it will emerge from the trenches, crafted with basic understanding of how learning occurs…and maybe, by driving better understanding of how to construct effective spot learning, we will enable some of the most innovative, determined minds in our organizations to become both better producers and consumers of learning.