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ATD Blog

The Evolution of Learning Technologies


Wed Oct 03 2018

The Evolution of Learning Technologies

Innovative learning tools and workforce training share an exciting history that stretches back centuries. That history continues to be written as technologies evolve and talent development professionals apply them in ever more effective ways.

Before taking a look at some of these tools, it’s helpful to note a few important lessons learned from the past. Before there were technologies as we now know them, there were processes that redefined training.


Charles Allen’s “Show, Tell, Do, and Check” training method used in shipyards during World War I provided an efficient way to break down complex processes while leaving room for valuable feedback. His method focused on workers achieving success by first identifying what they already knew and building on that. It was labor-intensive training, but served as a precursor to our later ability to automate key steps in the assessment process.

During the 1950s, Donald Kirkpatrick introduced his Four Levels of Learning Evaluation, enabling L&D professionals to more accurately gauge the effectiveness of their training programs. Giving greater weight to return on training investment has expanded to include assessing the return on expectations and the satisfaction generated.

Bloom’s Taxonomy, the famous framework developed by Benjamin Bloom and his graduate students, has been updated and continues to be used to develop effective learning outcomes. The original version of Bloom’s Taxonomy outlines six levels of learning: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation.

The next few decades ushered in a new age of greater reliance on learning tools with a growing digital dimension. According to an analysis written by Sam S. Adkins, an emerging blend of knowledge transfer and learning transfer has as its catalyst new learning technology products. Here are seven technologies that allow L&D practitioners to continue designing programs that return high levels of learner satisfaction.

Learning Management Systems (LMS) emerged in the 1990s as feature-laden applications intended to provide a single, easily accessible platform for learning no matter where employees were located. Later, xAPI specifications evolved to gather data on training and activities experienced by learners both online and offline. The Department of Defense went on to require that LMS solutions used for military or civilian training purposes needed to support xAPI, or an earlier e-learning standard, SCORM. Such continual refinement of training standards is indicative of the robust nature of learning technology.


Adaptive Learning allowed training professionals to more accurately personalize learning for employees. Any opportunity to serve up specific instruction that will have the most value to the learner turns resource allocations into efficiency machines. Behind the algorithms of adaptive learning technology lies training information ready to be properly delivered to the right learner at the right time. In a time when employees already are predisposed to customizing their personal experiences (with a big boost from the familiar tech tools they use daily), adaptive learning ensures learners receive instruction that they not only need, but also are motivated to have.

Mobile Learning had a goal shared by both trainers and other technologies: to engage learners and facilitate instruction. What sets mobile learning apart is the ease with which learners are able to integrate training into their daily routine. Multiple devices to access training are available, and usually belong to the employees themselves. Content development for mobile is now backed by years of experience on the part of programmers and instructional designers. And with the connectivity issue no longer about "where can I get a signal" but rather "how fast will it be," mobile learning is poised for even greater growth in the future.

Virtual Training, especially in its earliest usage, often had different meanings to learners, training professionals, and presenters. Cindy Huggett, CPLP, defined it as "a highly interactive synchronous online instructor-led training class, with defined learning objectives, with participants who are individually connected from geographically dispersed locations, using a web-based classroom platform." As with many learning technologies that have evolved, virtual training moved from being a curiosity to establishing itself as a compelling framework for higher-level learning.

Virtual Reality (VR) instantly placed learners into a carefully designed environment that was useful for not only conveying information but also demonstrating its job application. It immerses learners in a simulated training experience distant from a job site, plant floor, or control panel that nevertheless appears lifelike. For precise training in areas such as medicine and engineering, this creates a safer, cost-effective alternative to actual hands-on training during the early stages of learning. VR gives L&D teams the opportunity to develop new content to meet a broad range of subject needs, from customer interaction to supply chain dynamics.

Augmented Reality (AR) illustrates what happens when existing learning technologies begin to morph into something greater. A recent example is how Microsoft’s HoloLens uses mixed reality to overlay critical information for meaningful training, allowing employees to visualize and manipulate components or production systems in real time. AR promises to increase the level of detail used in training scenarios while ultimately reducing the cost of training itself.


Artificial Intelligence (AI) now has a vitally important role in corporate training. Beneath e-learning, adaptive learning, data-driven analytics, and more, AI is hard at work with the goal of improving the learning process. David Blake, CEO and co-founder of Degreed, observed that “AI technologies are always accumulating data from which they can make better decisions and provide better interactions.” It’s a feedback loop that never sleeps, assessing the learning process as it unfolds, then using that information to improve training.

Learning technology has proved its worth in its many iterations. One thing is certain: The future of that technology is being written and revised each day.

To stay at the forefront of learning and development, continue transforming your own learning programs with course offerings from ATD.

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