The Kids Are Alright

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

I get so wrapped up in the world of e-learning, it’s sometimes easy to forget that much of the world still doesn’t know our industry exists.  Occasionally, I get a glimpse of something to remind me. 

Following a presentation I gave at a university in the United Kingdom, I was approached by a student who had been in the seminar.  She asked me if there was a market for training in the workplace.  I assumed she meant my particular brand of training: online, social, gamified stuff.  What I like to call “the edge things.”  But I had the question quite wrong; she was literally asking whether there is a market for training in the workplace?  She had no idea.  She was a third-year economics and business student at a top UK university, and she had no idea that our industry even existed.

I decided I needed to explore this idea a little further.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to go far. Sitting near me in the office is a talented intern, Quentin Marbacher, who is in the UK from France, doing a 10-week work experience stint.  When he first arrived he was just 17, in a new country, and in a real workplace for the first time.  Daunting as it may seem, he was ready and very able to work. As his intro to the world of e-learning, we took him along to the Learning Technologies conference in London.  I asked him to reflect back his experiences at the show and to tell us more about his opinion of our world.

BB:  Were you aware that training and development continues after you leave university and move into the workplace?

QM:  Until this year when I arrived in my undergraduate school, I didn’t know that training and development continues even when you are working for a company.  Actually, I don’t really know what the use of training in a company is, but I guess it can be for everything, like presenting a new product to the sales force or even teaching how to use a new machine for a unit of production.

BB:  When you hear the term “e-learning,” what do you think?

QM:  The first time I heard the word e-learning, I thought it would be a website where you would be able to learn and be the actor of your learning, but I was really disappointed when I realized that this e-learning was exactly the “next button robot” approach. In fact, during all this e-learning, I was hearing someone giving the course and sometimes I had to press the next button to be sure I wasn’t asleep yet!

BB:  From your previous experience of using e-learning at school and university, would you say your experience was positive or negative?


QM:  Actually, I had two main experiences of e-learning, and I think they were both negative—but I will explain why.  The first one was an e-learning course about the use of Microsoft Office, it was quite interesting because there were a lot of exercises in order to understand the courses, but the real issue was that it wasn’t engaging at all. In fact, I am someone really attracted by design and this website wasn’t appealing at all.

The second e-learning experience was much less interesting than the first one, but the website was well designed. Nevertheless, it wasn’t engaging either. I spent hours in front of my laptop, but it didn’t help me to succeed in the test. So, I think it was useless! In conclusion, both of my previous experiences of using e-learning were really negative.

BB:  When you aren’t in school, how do you learn about new things?

QM:  I mostly learn from the Internet. When a subject interests me, I try to found what other people say about it. But I also love to learn from the others. In fact, when there is a debate, I like to take the opposite side of my own opinion to learn new arguments from the others—and mostly in order to challenge my own opinion.

I contrasted these opinions with the findings of the recent McKinsey report, “Education to Employment:  Designing a System that Works.” According to the report’s data, 58 percent of companies globally believe that the education of their new-graduate hires has not prepared them adequately for the world of work.  Also, less than 50 percent of employers rate graduates as being competent when it comes to problem solving or written communications, both key attributes for knowledge workers. 

I find this second stat particularly disturbing because problem solving is one area in which young people seem to excel in their daily lives. You only have to look at the music industry to know that where constraints exist, young people all over the world can innovate (legally and illegally) to get what they want.  And between text and Facebook, there cannot have been a time in history when more young people practiced written communications on a day-to-day basis. 

So what gives?  Could we be failing to educate young people about the true nature of the world of work?  Or perhaps our education system is so instructivist that the whole concept of exploring something yourself seems almost foreign?  

I personally feel that education is overly completion-contingent; it focuses students on reaching a certain point, rather than a quest for self-improvement.  There is an assumption that at age 18 school ends and the real world begins.  But those ideas don’t tally with the need to be a lifelong learner.

I’m convinced that in order to succeed in the future workplace, it will be our wits (and not our processes) that create a competitive advantage.  We can’t go on making things faster, cheaper, higher quality—the returns are diminishing and the BRIC countries of this world are pretty darn good at this stuff.  In order to facilitate an approach in which our ability to problem solve is the differentiator, we’ll need a workforce that knows that learning is work and that work is learning.  I’m not certain that young people know this. They have the skills. They just don’t know we want them.

About the Author
Ben Betts is an entrepreneur, technologist, and social learning expert. He and his team at HT2 develop products and services for online learning. In his role as CEO of HT2, Ben developed the Curatr Social Learning platform and the open source learning record store Learning Locker. He has worked with Google, Accenture, KPMG, Pearson Education, Oxford University, Cambridge University, BP, Twitter, Nike, Barclays, Shell, Xerox, and many more. Ben writes and speaks about social and peer-to-peer learning around the world, and has made an appearance at TEDx. He completed a doctorate at the University of Warwick (UK), where he studied the application of social learning in the workplace. He also holds an MBA and is a Fellow of the Learning & Performance Institute.
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