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ATD Blog

I'm Gonna Make You Think

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Fri Oct 05 2012

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Thank you to ASTD for inviting me to blog in October. I am proud to take over the controls from previous guest bloggers who have done an unbelievable job at sharing their ideas—and more important, getting me to think.

Part of what I want to do over the next month is introduce some concepts I have been working on through my book Learning on Demand: How the Evolution of Technology is Shaping the Future of Learning. My other goal here is provide an opportunity for people to be irreverent and shake the foundations of what we “practitioners” hold to be true, including my own beliefs.

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So, before we delve into it, let me say this: I learn more from people who challenge me and dialogue with me in mutual respect and conviction than I do any other way. Sometimes it’s a slow cook, other times I bow and say thank you for the perspective.

But you should know, I’m gonna make you work—I’m gonna make you think. I hear conference rhetoric thrown at me all the time, and I would simply encourage you to look past it and find what you believe and fight for it.

Not one to mince words, let’s get right to it.

At the core of my book is the notion that the web has a “will.” And that will is represented through five key principles:

  1. The web wants to be fed

  2. The web wants to understand what its being fed

  3. The web wants you to be personal

  4. The web wants to be viral

  5. The web wants us to communicate.

In my view, if you eliminate one of these elements from the web, it ceases to be what it is. As a medium, it thrives when these conditions are met by those who use it. Imagine the web if we stopped putting content on it? Imagine if the web couldn’t make sense of the information on it for you to use. How would you find things? What if the web was simply a marketplace? Would it grow and sustain itself? What if the web was one way information display and couldn’t be used to communicate?

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So the challenge I throw out there: If we are designing content for this medium (which many of us “instructional designers” do), are we building content in the way the web wants it? Or are we building content using the model we created when we were developing materials pre-web? Using HTML and posting something on the web does not make it appropriate for the medium itself—that’s just using technology and bending it to serve an archaic model of education.

You see, building a course then wrapping it up in whatever packaging standard you adhere to, such as SCORM, and throwing it into a system that distributes that course is working with a dumb web. (SCORM is simply that, btw...a packaging standard as it applies to course development.)

We’ve long ago said good bye to that web. The first thoughts of using computer technology in education was to design an electronic tutoring system or an electronic classroom—so to speak. In other words, the goal was to use technology to maintain status quo. Unfortunately, for the most part, we continue to do just that. We have in the L&D world used technology to maintain status quo. MOOCs might change the accessibility of educational content or its distribution model, but maintains the hierarchy within “learning as an event.” There is a teacher, there is a student—one teaches and one learns.

Here’s the thing: While we’ve been consumed with somehow maintaining the model using technology, a whole world outside of ourselves has moved to a much deeper integration with technology that makes what we do look silly. That integration isn’t trivial. If you have ever said to someone face to face “Hashtag fail” then you know we are in a period in which society is co-evolving with technology in a symbiotic way.

The technology that allows us to have a conversation with a Jello-mood-meter, the technology that somehow starts to distribute very personalized experiences of a generic website, that delivers adverts that seem customized for us is all based on the five principles that I call the web’s “will.” You can dismiss this point based on these interactions typically being some form of marketing, but marketing is all about consumer education. It’s all about getting a core message sunk into the brain in a way that motivates people. Marketing speaks to us and calls us into action. That doesn’t sound too bad does it, if we could make that happen with the content we develop, does it?

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You know, when the media giants first went to the web, they started with a subscription-based service. (I hear rumors of going back, btw.) Ask Time Warner how that went over time. It’s not that people were incompetent or that designers weren’t able to adjust their designs for the web. It’s that the model couldn’t sustain itself given the breadth of content available through other networks and the accessibility of that content. Think about that.

Think about whether our model can sustain itself given this co-evolution. Will our model prevail in the fight for real-estate on our phones? Heck, if we can’t make a case of why we should be taking up real-estate, or why our content doesn’t work in symbiosis with the other apps on our phone, then I fear we will drop more into irrelevance than ever.

Here’s the good news: We have the technology. We can rebuild.

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