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Confessions of an e-learning dropout

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Wed Oct 12 2005

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Confessions of an e-learning dropout-519667212ef70a5ad90b26d248741183172907b73c471758ab13544f5e5c3df1

Six months or so of focusing on a real (rather than a virtual) theme -- in this case, intercultural communication -- led me far away from the specific "culture of e-learning" shared by the participants of this blog, although my intercultural work inevitably involves online deployment. Coming back into the fold by posting a message on this blog is in itself an interesting cultural experience, a kind of re-entry shock.

Having spent so much time with a broadly international crowd of people who spend very little, if any, of theirs speculating about the future of technology for training has allowed me to take some distance and possibly see a few things with more focus. One of the things that strikes me is how linked e-learning culture is to certain trends in the U.S. economy, even though the implications are necessarily global. And if I mention "e-learning culture" it means that I can identify a group of people who share that culture (namely, us) in contrast to all the other groups of people that don't share it. Which introduces the somewhat embarrassing question of whether e-learning culture is really compatible with other cultures.

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Listening to Eliot Masie correctly telling me (through an audio feed) that memory sticks will allow all sorts of things that no one could have imagined made me realize why I seriously doubt that any of what he describes will ever make an impact on learning. I feel exactly the same way about games, simulations and all kinds of "ideal" and idealized content (and I've spent twenty years of my life designing, producing and publishing the stuff). It all makes sense but, when all is said and done, it just doesn't seem to take off, even though we can usually get it to work (and even prove that it can produce results).

One of the major reasons for failure is culture specific: Eliot's idea - and many others born out of technological innovation -- supposes learners are social monads, the thought of which is relatively easy to entertain in an individualist culture such as that of the U.S. but unimaginable elsewhere. And even in the U.S. it's easier to imagine than achieve, because even though our culture teaches us to think of ourselves as monads and our pragmatic sense tells us to try out any promising solution, we actually aren't monads: we are heavily linked to others through visible and invisible social networks (that, by the way, only vaguely parallel our technical networks). And those networks provide most of our models of behavior, whether we're aware of it or not.

Looking back at fifty years of technological innovation, what do I see? The only true revolutionary breakthrough in training technology is the flipchart! It changed things much more than we think (PowerPoint did as well, but in a totally different - and I would say regressive - direction). CBT/multimedia/eLearning has produced a niche market for products and services but bears less resemblance to a revolutionary development in training than it does to the hula-hoop (a great concept, a new and intriguing object, fun to have a go at, a winning topic of conversation, mildly frustrating to start using, possibly addictive in the short term but destined to have a short lifetime). What's great about the flipchart is that nobody noticed it or talked about it. It arrived stealthily and did its job, allowing us to create, store, distribute and display flexible information in original ways. It also provided a fascinating link to group dynamics, giving trainers a tool to change learners' perception of the learning environment and the goals associated with it (e.g. by having groups work in parallel and post their results on the wall). It was (and is) absolutely wonderful technology. And using it requires only minimal writing and drawing talents plus a bit of imagination on what to do with the pages. And best of all, no rival vendors telling you that their flipchart has more features than the one you just bought (and should feel guilty about). And no yearly upgrades!

So my suggestion is to do something similar with all our electronic technologies. Adopt and use them because we need them for storage and communication (independently of training) and then just have them around to help those who have something to teach others (formally or informally) get their messages across. Let's stop building, advertising and selling systems and technologies that will provide the solution. Where Plato banned poets from the Republic, I would ban the vendors. People will end up providing the solution if you let them just use the technology they spontaneously accept for other purposes. Down with the constraints of training-specific technology. And down with instructional design (yeah, Jay, I'm with you as usual).

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