Constructivists have long argued for a more learner-centred approach to learning and development. And although many would argue that workplace learning still focuses on command and control from the powers that be in an organisation, there is evidence that we are becoming more learner-centric. According to Towards Maturity Benchmark 2012: Bridging the Gap, there is now greater user-experience design in e-learning, more focus on the usability of learning tools and technologies, and 91 percent of L&D managers seeking to improve staff engagement to aid retention and motivation.

This comes at a time when the wider world has become decentralised. The Internet has given people more choice and opportunity than ever before for connecting with others, many of whom would previously have remained unknown or out of reach. What’s more, the Internet has given people access to information and knowledge that was hitherto more difficult—or more expensive—to acquire.

And so we find ourselves in a period of transition. In our personal lives, we have become accustomed to accessing information and connections within nano-seconds, and barriers to communication and information continue to tumble thanks to technology. But organisational structures and working practices are still lagging behind and internal silos abound, despite some progress towards a more learner-centric approach.  

The 2012 Towards Maturity Benchmark study revealed that 90 percent of learning and development professionals are looking to integrate learning into their company’s different functions, such as sales, customer service, and operations.  And it’s little wonder, given the speed of innovation and change that organisations now have to contend with.  In today’s world, information transfer, teaching new skills, and left hands talking to right hands can be the difference between success and failure. In short, we need to collaborate.

A collaborative approach

At a basic level, collaborative learning is a situation in which two or more people learn or attempt to learn something together. Increasing opportunities to work and learn collaboratively is one of the key ways we can help meet the many challenges we now face. Not just within L&D, but more broadly—in terms of our own performance and that of our organisation. Internally, it starts to break down silos and enables us to share knowledge and good practice too. So how does this work in reality?

The democratisation of learning

For too long we’ve relied on formal training, or a ”push” rather than ”pull” approach. But times are changing, and  the move towards learning online and access to more informal resources is already well underway. However, much of what exists to support online learning has its roots in the sluggish corporate models we’ve already discussed.

Enterprise learning management systems are designed specifically to handle the scale of data and information within large organisations. This is great if you’re a large organisation. But more often, the experience is not so great for all those learners within those organisations. Even less great for the tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses out there with little hope of accessing this type of solution.

Social learning

On the flip side of the enterprise coin, there is already a wealth of learning available online, much of it free. But the reality is that most social media sites are designed for just that—social interaction —chatting, sharing views, and so forth. It’s all those great things we love to do, but it’s not learning.

Actually finding what you need to learn online, can be difficult. An IDC whitepaper on the hidden costs of work, suggests the average employee spends around nine hours each week just searching for information they need to do their job. That is hardly productive. And even if they can find what they need, it can be difficult to establish the authority and provenance of that information.

Crowd sourcing

But in 2012, a blend of technology and a collaborative approach began to really change the face of learning. Crowd sourced learning projects were the flavour of 2012, particularly in the United States, with around $70 million committed by venture capitalists to just nine start-up projects, aimed at varying social and business sectors. These online sites, like Udemy and Skillshare, and U.K.-based mylearningworx, take the wisdom of the crowd, validate it, and share it with everyone in one easy to use place. There is real belief in the value of opening up the process of both learning and educating.

Other big names have also joined the fight. At the launch of Articulate’s Storyline, its community VP Tom Kuhlmann said he hoped the software ”would encourage the democratisation of e-learning.” He went on to explain: ”In the same way that anyone can now make videos and put them onto sites such as YouTube, anyone can now create elearning content using a tool like Storyline and make it available to others.” And these new crowd sourced learning sites are using cloud-based technology and simple authoring tools to put the production and broadcast of powerful online learning into the hands of the subject matter experts.

This takes the existing learner-centric approach and moves it up a level. The focus becomes not just about communities of learners, but expands to include communities of experts. This is actually quite an exciting idea–not least because learner communities so often turn out to be communities of those who know nothing and waste time following up their own red herrings. But now there will be groups of authors and subject matter experts creating huge amounts of better, cheaper content for every learning eventuality.>

It is interesting to think how this change of focus and new democracy will affect our current view of the battle. Consider, for instance, the 70/20/10 theory which suggests that learning typically takes place in a mix of approximately 70 percent on-the-job experience, 20 percent from feedback, and about 10 percent from formal learning. Even though there is not much evidence to back this concept up, it feels intuitively right to many practitioners.

Based on this theory, it would seem reasonable to move the focus away from formal instruction and learning in favour of freewheeling ideas, forums, and practice. However, converted democratic learning professionals would point out that the low 10 percent figure is probably  a result of the following sort of circumstances:

  • Most corporate online learning solutions are still not good or extensive enough, nor updated regularly enough, because we are collectively rubbish at enabling people to share their valuable knowledge, and
  • The cost of creating useful online learning is still much too high for most companies, which still see training as a cost centre, not a profit-making service.

But putting the means of the production of learning into the collective hands of the of subject matter experts changes all this. And it is a process happening now. For example, code designers now have codeacademy.com another U.S.-based democratic-style learning start-up that is bringing information to the masses. One of its initiatives called Code Year had 100,000 users sign up in 48 hours. And that number continues to grow at a rapid pace.

Breaking down barriers

To be sure, today’s technology is breaking down the barriers to creating online learning. There is a growing acceptance that production values no longer have to be Hollywood movie standard. Some uncut video captured in minutes on a smart phone is likely to be of as much use to learner as an overproduced film that takes days or weeks in the making.

Indeed, quick and dirty is becoming acceptable – the results and impact on performance are now more important than finesse and polish. This freer approach combined with tools such as the new Mozilla Popcorn Maker to create content, and crowd sourced platforms to publish it, means everyone can begin to unleash their author and share their expertise on any subject.

Vive la revolution! Let’s change learning together.