A learning industry veteran and sought-after speaker, he’s been fascinated by the influence of technology in learning and the vast opportunity it presents since programming PDP11 computers in the early '80s.
And he’s keen to know what the learning and development (L&D) community think about their quickly evolving landscape too. So for the past three years he’s been running his Global Workplace Learning Trend Survey to track how things are changing year on year.
Don’s annual survey finds its way around the world via his social media networks. It poses the question "What will be hot in workplace learning and development in ?" and simply asks the reader to make up to three choices from a number of predictions. The latest survey, circulated between December 2015 and January 2016, attracted 728 voters from 52 countries.
In February, Don joined MCI Solutions over the interwebs to give a fascinating one-hour webinar to unpack and discuss the survey findings.
Here’s a breakdown of the results, and what Don thinks they mean for L&Ds.
What will be hot in 2016?
The top 3 survey responses were:
#1 - Collaborative and social learning internationally
#2 - Personalisation or adaptive delivery
#3 - Consulting more deeply in the business
Over the last three surveys, Don has noticed that the top three items - interestingly all methodologies – have hardly changed at all. They’ve been ‘hot’ for quite some time.
But things begin to change as we move down the list.
#4 - Mobile delivery - has been slowly sliding down the list over the three years. Does that mean that mobile delivery is becoming less important? Don thinks not and has a better explanation as to what’s going on based on Gartner's hype cycle (well more of a curve really).
“It all kicks off with a technology trigger,” Don explains. “Everyone gets very excited about the new thing and we quickly reach what's called the peak of inflated expectations.”
“Then reality kicks in and we slump down to the trough of disillusionment. Finally, as we work out how this technology can be applied practically in the workplace, we clamber up the slope of enlightenment until we reach the plateau of productivity, where we know how this technology can be used.”
Don thinks that’s what’s happened to mobile delivery, and other items that have been sliding down the list year on year. It’s gone through the trough and is making its way out.
"I remember people wanting to know about learning with mobile delivery at the Learning Technologies Conference in 2007, but I couldn't find any case studies of effective mobile delivery,” Don says. “Why? Because it was right at the peak of inflated expectations and people thought that shrinking PowerPoint slides onto a 1.5 inch square black and white screen was mobile delivery, which it isn't and it's hugely ineffective. Of course, we crashed into the trough of disillusionment. Now we've got it and it's happening.”
Video, which was towards the top of the 2014 survey, has fallen away more dramatically. For similar reasons to mobile, thinks Don. It’s become part of the day-to-day – people still want to know how to do it properly but it’s not hot and new anymore.
So if video and mobile are declining because L&Ds have got used to them, what’s new this year?
The bright and shiny new things
Don adds a few new items to the survey each year that he thinks will be popular. This year, Don added consulting more deeply with the business, micro learning, and wearable tech.
Wearable tech bombed.
“I was thinking everyone was going to jump onto the wearable tech bandwagon and people stuck it right down at number 15!” Don admits. “However, consulting more deeply with the business - which we haven't had at all before - leapt in at number three. Interestingly, in Australia it was number two. It goes to show there’s some very good forward thinking in Australia.” says Don.
Micro learning came in at number five on the survey. Not a huge surprise as it was added to the list by popular demand from the prior year’s voters.
But what is micro learning? A new label for bite-sized learning? Video? Performance support?
“I'm not sure that it is those things, “says Don. “I think it goes beyond bite-sized. It may be video. It may be something else. The key is continuity and spaced learning.
“For me the difference between micro learning and the learning objects we used to have 10 years ago is that the learning takes place as a coherent process, delivering small amounts of information in a structured way,” Don continues.
“There’s continuity and spaced learning so that people are learning from content that repeats something in a way that develops them.”
A good example of this is language app Duo Lingo. Users learn a foreign language in a structured way over time through learning snippets. They may only manage to study five to 10 minutes in a day, but they rapidly develop the skills. Don maintains a 90-second video about something is not micro learning, unless it's part of a bigger thing.
But why has there been this sudden surge in micro learning? Don thinks it’s mainly because you can target it really well and achieve a faster time to competency. Employees who have to learn a lot of information quickly can get there faster with micro learning. And spaced learning is more effective than simply forcing a lot of information on people.
But the interesting thing Don noticed about the micro learning votes was that they predominantly came from North America. Is this just good localised marketing?
“I think it's something else,” says Don. “The geographical spread matches the pattern we've seen in the past where a term is generated in the States and then spreads across the world because we pick up on it.”
Time will tell.
The rising stars
The rising star in Don’s latest survey was neuroscience or cognitive science – that is, how the brain works. It leapt up from 12 last time to number seven.
“Are people sticking the label of neuroscience onto things which have nothing to do with neuroscience?” asks Don. “Yes. But I do believe that there’s a solid understanding amongst L&D professionals that we can learn a lot about how the brain works and put that into practice to improve learning outcomes. Charles Jennings has been talking about this for a long time.”
The memory experiments of Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 19th Century are already familiar to most L&Ds.
Ebbinghaus proposed that if new information is delivered as a one-off exercise and not repeated, the ability to recall that information will decay over time. After about 30 days, you’ll have forgotten around 80 percent of what you learnt.
The fallen angels
And what about the trends that are falling from favour as we dive into 2016? They seem to be the things that L&Ds find hard to make work.
Games and gamification, synchronous online delivery (webinars), showing value and developing the learning and development function have all taken a tumble.
Don suggests two reasons for this. Synchronous delivery webinars have become like video and mobile, just business as usual. People want to know how to do it well but it's just not hot anymore.
But with the others, it’s more of a practical thing.
“Games and gamification shows promise but nobody's really been able to say how you do it consistently,” says Don. “I’m not saying you can't do that, but I think it's something which is too distantly removed from people's day-to-day experience. It’s something people are familiar with as an idea but can't see how they'd put it to use.”
As for showing value to the business, L&Ds know it’s important but it's also seen as difficult to do which may explain why it’s falling down the list. The same goes for developing the L&D function – it’s a nice-to-have when people are busy just trying to hit their targets.
“And that shows something really unfortunate about the whole state of learning and development at the moment.” Don warns.
And what trend do you think has fallen the furthest? It’s Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), but the stats show an interesting paradox.
According to data from Class Central, around 35 million people signed up for at least one MOOCs course in 2015 - about twice as many as the previous year. And online course provider Coursera added seven million students to its user base raising it to 17 million students.
So it looks like MOOCs have gone off the L&D radar, but they're ever present in learning. It seems they're being used in spite of L&D, rather than with L&D support.
So Why is L&D so cool on MOOCs now?
“I think it’s because we can't figure out how to get them to work in our current structure,” says Don. “It doesn't fit what we do, so we don't use them. Eventually though we're going to have to make them part of our whole program."
On the horizon
In addition to the provided hot trend suggestions to vote on, Don’s survey also asks what else should be added to the list - what's going to be hot in learning and development in 2016? Here's the word cloud of what people suggested.
Anything jump out?
“I'm supposed to know what's going on in learning technology and I didn't add virtual reality to my initial list,” Don muses. “To be fair, I did consider it but I left it off because I felt it wasn't strong enough. Clearly I'm going to have to add it next year. We'll see whether it ends up with wearable technology at the bottom of the list or whether it really is going to be hot.”
What can L&Ds expect in 2016?
“I think there’s going to be a shift in emphasis from technology to more about concepts and models,” says Don. What that means is less concern about virtual reality, mobile and video and more focus on personalisation and adaptive delivery, neuroscience and consulting with the business.
“If there's one thing that gives me heart from this survey, it’s the idea that neuroscience is on the up. We're concerned with how people learn better.” Says Don.
“The technology rising star is definitely micro learning, no question about it, and we know that mobile, video, webinars are totally bedding in,” he continues.
And are L&D budgets in line with these hot trends you may wonder.
“I doubt it. If you go back to the Gartner illustration, I think a lot of what we’re seeing is stuff jumping up the first part of that trend. Everyone’s talking about it,” says Don. “I think the money gets spent when it starts coming out of the trough and people start seeing where the value is. They can put their money against something which will impact the business.”
Don thinks that where the business doesn't want to invest in L&D, they’ll turn to MOOCs and they’re going to be a big trend in the future. Curation is moving from L&D to the business doing it themselves.
“I think if there's going to be a trend this year or next that we are going to be unhappy about,” says Don, “it’s the idea that if we don't do it, people will do it themselves.”
“Increasingly what L&Ds will do is share, enable people to have conversations and find the right content. If you're going outside to find great content elsewhere and bring it into the organisation, actually you're doing a great job. That's what the profession is about in the future.”
And remember the lack of focus on developing the L&D function? In showing value? In curation?
“For me this is the real Achilles heel of the whole thing,” warns Don. “We want to consult with the business, we want to know more about neuroscience, but we're less interested in developing the L&D function. How will we get the skills to do this if we're not developing ourselves?”
Things are changing. That means there's opportunity for L&Ds to develop, to have impact. The role of learning in the organisation will grow increasingly important and it's up to the L&Ds to make it happen.
For the full low down, watch the whole 1-hour webinar on the 2016 survey results.