E-Learning for the BC Tech Industry: The Future of Learning - Negotiated Personalization                                                 An opinionated monthly column exploring the current use, future potential, and commercial value of e-learning in BCs high tech sector.

E-Learning: The Future of Learning - Negotiated Personalization

June 29th, 2001

By Paul Stacey

A local high tech company recently asked me to identify, evaluate, and recommend the best 100% on-line learning available in high priority technical areas like Java, XML, UML, and others. In the process of doing this work I had a bit of an epiphany for a different kind of learning.


I thought I'd take advantage of the summer and share my epiphany as a form of blue sky thinking.


Imagine, like me you are trying to find the best 100% online learning available in a particular area. First I established some criteria for evaluating what constitutes the "best".  Then I began to search for content using portals like:

Very quickly you will find that learning comes prepackaged, usually in the form of courses. In fact virtually all learning available in the marketplace is prepackaged in advance by some subject matter expert.


One of the interesting questions and evaluative criteria to ask in buying learning is "Who is the instructor?" or "Who is involved in creating and delivering this course?"


My guess is that most of you can list a few teachers who aided your journey through school or name five people who have taught you something worthwhile. Memorable learning is often associated with a dynamic teacher or subject matter expert.


Amazingly many vendors selling e-learning don't even identify who that subject matter expert is. Others, like Ninth House www.ninthhouse.com have made big name course developers a cornerstone of their approach.


If the optimal learning experience is a direct two-way interaction with a teacher or subject matter expert then everything else is second-best. Being an anonymous face in a 200 seat lecture hall is not a great learning experience. Taking an independent, self-paced, machine assessed, e-learning course is far from optimum.


Historically we have prepackaged knowledge and learning for efficiencies of scale. But is this the best form for e-learning?


Has prepackaged learning created learner passivity? Learners are told what they have to learn and we serve it up to them in learning paths, competency checklists, curricula, programs of study and so on. Cushing Anderson, analyst with IDC, recently asked: "Does e learning for the mass-market work if our culture has not moved to the point of being self-directed learners?"


To that I would add, "If the web enables personalization can't we leverage the web to get closer to the optimum learning experience?"


The epiphany for me was the realization that prepackaged learning in the form of courses or tutorials was only one way of satisfying high priority learning needs. E-learning does not have to adopt traditional form factors and I began to imagine a negotiated, personalized e-learning experience.


What if the learner could directly interact with a teacher or subject matter expert and negotiate the form factor, the time, the content and method of learning in real time?


What if learning was directly responsive to market demands and custom-designed to form fit the need instead of prepackaged in advance?


Imagine I need to learn Java. What if I could directly interact with the instructor/subject matter expert and negotiate a personalized learning experience.


We might discuss when I need the learning - maybe I need it right away, or spread over a series of evenings. We might discuss the duration - do I need 5 minutes worth of learning, 5 days, ...? We might discuss what the form factor for the learning experience will be - face to face, written document, a ThoughtShare BuzPak http://www.thoughtshare.com, over the phone, ...


We might discuss what I need to learn - maybe I need an overview of the whole programming language, maybe I just need to learn about Java Server Pages. We'd also negotiate price with urgency, form factor, instructor hours, etc. all being cost variables.


Certainly the instructor/subject matter expert will have key input into what the overall experience should be like. But their preconceived notions of how to package the learning will be tempered by the learner's needs.


The learning experience will be negotiated between learner and instructor. It will be a personalized experience based on a mutual analysis of needs, knowledge of the domain and the learner and subject matter experts learning/teachning styles.


The Hungry Minds University portal www.hungrymindsuniversity.com has some links to the kind of thing I have in mind with their Experts For Hire link off the main page. This link takes you to Exp.com www.exp.com or Keen.com www.keen.com. At these sites you can get advice, tutoring, counseling, personalized research, or just a quick answer to a question on your mind, by phone or by e-mail.


Currently these sites are focused on providing advice. But imagine if they offered more than that. Imagine negotiated, personalized, e-learning experiences!


Some of my friends like to reel me back down to earth when I talk about blue sky ideas like this but on this summer day I hear John Lennon singing in my head:


"You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."


Paul Stacey is the Director of Corporate Education and Training at the Technical University of British Columbia, a long time education professional in the high tech private sector, and an e-learner. Contact: Paul Stacey

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