Do you know what the opposite of Learning on Demand is? It’s how we’ve been designing education/training/learning up to this point—with no sign of change as far as I can tell. I call it “Learning on Command.”

Learning on Command begins with the rhetoric of calling people “learners,” as in “digital learners” or “mobile learners.” Calling someone a “learner” is like calling them a “human.”  

The philosophy behind Learning on Command is that we can turn someone into a learner by designing information that can deliver learning in a magic bubble, whether through informal or formal means. I was recently reading a post by a well-respected voice in our industry that discussed the irrelevance of generational discrimination and offered instead a different way to categorize learners. He had me until he started categorizing learners.

What makes you a learner? Is it because I’ve prepared something for you to learn? Does anything we do turn anybody in a learner? No!  

I don’t believe that I can stop the sea of semantic hopelessness surrounding the word “learners” –or our attribution of it to moments when people are learning. But to anybody who is reading this, know that until we stop calling people “learners” in relation to our interventions or our use of it as it relates to specific moments in time, we will never shake the Learning on Command mistake. 

Learning just happens by being a part of the world. Learning just is.

Case in point: In recent weeks, I started noticing a girl who goes to the same gymnastics club as my kids. The girl spends a lot of her time in her class alone, sitting off to the side while the other girls go through their routines. No one—not her coach, her friends, or her parents—intervenes. Two weeks ago I was in tears watching because I’ve been there, unfortunately. I’ve been in the same space, where I was learning all about how the world sees me by being left alone, to myself, without anyone taking notice. I can’t speak for the girl, but I’m fairly confident that she is learning A LOT. She’s not learning what we want our children to learn, but she is learning—and she’s learning without any intervention at all. She’s taking it all in, whether on a super-conscious or sub-conscious level. And it’s all feeding into her past, her present, and will certainly shape her future.  

From the perspective of the L&D community, given the moment and our very complex groupings of learners, this girl wouldn’t be considered a “learner” because we’re not involved putting some piece of information in front of her. There is no intervention. Okay, maybe we’d call her an informal learner, but isn’t that like saying she’s a human “human.” There may be formal or informal instruction, but learning is always informal. Even when we control the experience for ourselves to try and teach ourselves things, learning happens the same way in which our hearts beat. It’s not a controlled muscle. It’s involuntary. It just happens.

Learning on Demand doesn’t change the outcome of this story. But Learning on Demand rejects any notion of learning being tied to time, learning because somebody wants you to learn, or any notion that learning is anything but a fluid continuous experience implicit in the human condition. There are no “learners” in Learning on Demand. There are content consumers. There are no teachers. There are content contributors, subject matter experts, content administrators, and content itself. Everybody—and I mean everybody—regardless of situation or context switches roles in a moment’s notice.

Am I suggesting we get rid of a facilitated classroom? No. But what I am suggesting is that “students” in a classroom are “learners” not because they are in the classroom but because they’re human. In a classroom, they are content consumers. Whether or not they learn is up to them not the content creator.  

Of course, as designers we have some influence on learning. But by calling them “learners” inside the classroom, we fail to build a system in which they are learners outside classroom. Therefore, we fail to design the experience and the systems that tie the classroom to the human condition.

Learning on Demand is a system that supports the human condition rather than the learning condition. It’s a system that builds on the success of technology projects like wikipedia, predictive analytics, natural language reasoning engines, social media, business intelligence, and content-on-demand, among others. It’s a system that exists in pieces already in various industries and incarnations, but also the place where it ought to most important: learning and development, which knows nothing about it because we’re so fascinated with ourselves in being able to create “learners” from people.

The girl in the gymnastics class has a tough road ahead of her. The gymnastics class she’s a part of was designed the same way we design our education system. We have objectives, we have our methods for creating “learners,” we have special people for designing activities to generate the behaviors we expect. We unfortunately don’t recognize that learning is happening regardless of our objectives, activities, or designs. Learning is happening before the classroom, after the classroom, during the classroom—and it all feeds a single stream: I.

I don’t know how the girl’s story is going to end. But yesterday my wife made a small but significant shift in the system. After hearing me talk about everything this girl is learning (the shame, the loneliness, the idea that the world doesn’t judge equally), she went to talk to a coach who wasn’t specifically the girl’s coach. She told the coach that although the child wasn’t hers and that she had no place to say anything, she felt that the coach could make a difference in her life. She convinced the coach that the system was letting the girl down, and that it was up to the coach at that moment to fix it. The coach took this young lady under her wing for the day and got her to do things that were at once challenging but within the girl’s range of capabilities. I wasn’t there to see it, but I bet the girl learned something she didn’t think she’d learn.

We’re not learners. There are no learners. There are no digital learners. There are no mobile learners. We don’t call ourselves “beating hearts” when our hearts beat. It is part of the human condition to learn.  Learning is continuous; learning is fluid. We need to rethink the systems that feed our veracity for learning to support this notion.