March 17, 2016

How learning has changed in 25 years

Cliff Lansley

Over the past 25 years there have been three significant, inter-related trends in L&D and they now are coming together at the same time. One is the move from classroom based training to online training, one is the holistic, creative approach to learning and the other is the move from input based training to output based training.

The very reason why DPG was set up 25 years ago was because of the move from input based to output based training. At that time, the criticism from industry was that courses were not fit for purpose and too many people knew what to do but couldn’t actually do it. I was employed in higher education in the UK then and it was all about inputs. How many hours a learner was exposed to an educator/trainer and the staff/student ratio being as high as possible.

The shift over the next five years was for competence based programmes, such as NVQs. However, they neglected the core knowledge and understanding needed to underpin that knowledge. People weren’t being prepared for the range of scenarios that they would face in the real world.

So the pendulum started at one end, swung to application only and then 25 years later, it’s back in the middle.

The trend for a holistic, creative approach to learning combines the disciplines of education and training. This has been through a roller coaster ride from a battle between academic education and applied training. The academic side engaged in developing well rounded individuals, providing fertile learning environments where learning could take place. They argued that an educated person can apply their knowledge across a range of situations. The training purists at the other end of the continuum, especially those with a purely economic agenda, countered this with the claim that ‘academic’ meant ‘not of practical relevance’ and that it is the application of knowledge this is key.

In my view, the wise recognise the value in the full spectrum, illustrated by a simplified and extended Bloom’s Taxonomy, abbreviated as Kusap: knowledge, understanding, skill, application (simulation) and performance.

The move away from pure classroom based training started about 25 years ago. The realisation was that if you are going to sheep dip everyone through a three year course to become a manager or HR person, regardless of what they know, they are going to turn off. So modulised training came in – we started measuring what people were already competent at and what they weren’t competent at, so that we could then train them in the relevant chunks, in clearly defined modules. Rather than people being trained in a cohort, they could have individual plans.

The year 1989 heralded the advent of open learning, with multimedia materials such as videos and audios, as well as books. People could study in their own time, in a place of their choice and it took the burden off employers having to release employees for full time study. Plus it was cheaper because employees didn’t have to travel.

The myth was that it would take over and was going to be the end of training providers and universities. The reality was, however, that only about 10% of people wanted to learn this way. Self directed learning failed the first time round because what was neglected was the social element of learning, contact with other classmates, peer review and trial and error. That was all lost and so attrition rates were 70-80%.

Then came the Internet and the trend for online learning began. However, we still found that with Internet-based learning, especially when individuals have been sent to do it by their employer, fallout numbers were huge. Those courses without social engagement, that are too web-based, have the same attrition rates as open learning.

We need training that is blended, with lots of support, enabling people to meet up and support each other. You have to keep the human element. What is needed is a curriculum that balances knowledge and outcomes and leverages online learning to maximise flexibility, while keeping hold of the facilitative support of live groups with good peer and tutor support. Learners need choice and proactive support, rather than the excuse of support by saying ‘Your tutor is there, by email, if you need them’.

The social side of learning can’t be underestimated – learners having peer support and sounding boards for experimentation and feedback in a safe learning environment. It is a powerful driver that is a resistant force against the 100% online course revolution.

So, as with inputs based to outputs based learning, the pendulum has swung. Firstly it was total classroom based, then it swung to total web-based and the pendulum is just now swinging back to the middle.