May 2021
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TD Magazine

Pass It On

Friday, April 30, 2021

The eight generations of learning transfer have had significant influence on how instructional systems design has evolved.

To many instructional designers, the construct of learning transfer is most often relegated to the nice-to-know circular bin next to their workspace. They tell me, "Sure, it tells a story about the theoretical foundations of instructional design, but what has it done for me lately?"

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Well, lots actually.

The most operational definition of learning transfer for us instructional designers is to consider it as the process used to pass knowledge or skills from a source to a learner. It may be from one person to another or, as you will see later, from a digital source to a learner.

The eight generations of learning transfer provide a practical view of its progression and how it affects the practice of instructional design. Some define learning transfer as a learner scaffolding new learning on old learning, which to me doesn’t capture the depth of the process and its history in the practice of instructional design. All learning transfer is directly tied to the transfer of knowledge, skills, and abilities from a source to a learner. Scaffolding is an artifact of that process.

To put the importance of considering that in another context, learning transfer is to instructional design as battery technology is to the new generation of electrical vehicles now appearing on roads. Alessandro Volta invented the first battery in 1799, yet none of the latest quantum glass batteries would be nearing reality without that first defining moment. It’s the same for learning transfer in training and development.

We can confidently trace learning transfer back to the first appearance of intelligent life on this humble planet. Yet today, we are in the eighth generation of learning transfer, and it continues to be relevant.

Turning points

It would be accurate to say that we are presently integrating all the eight generations in our design work—and that is the point. As we have moved from simple, nonvocalized demonstration to today’s social media immediacy, the continuum of complexity—and demands on learners and instructional designers alike—is obvious and continuously becoming more complex. The real point of resonance in these generational turning points is that the receiving party is a learner. The fact that something other than another human being can initiate and propagate learning is as revolutionary as it is insightful.

That’s not news to most instructional designers, but some would have you think that isn’t the case. They will argue that a teacher is the only authentic source of knowledge and everything else is just poppycock. The role of teacher-led instruction is certainly never going to go away, but designers need to be looking at how learning transfer provides the foundation for making the argument that successive generations of learners are now moving from the fifth, sixth, and seventh generations of learning transfer to the eighth. And with that slow transition comes incredible opportunity.

Feature 2 Chart Alt Text

The Eight Generations of Learning Transfer

1st
Demonstration
Learning without word or visuals

2nd
Pictures and drawings
Learning with visuals

3rd
Written language
Learning with language

4th
Printing
Learning with permanent visuals and language

5th
Distance learning
Learning with learner and source separated

6th
Analog technology
Learning with analog radio, TV, and telephone

7th
Social sciences
Learning methodology supported by scientific research and practice

8th
Digital technology
Learning with computers and digital communications

The digital revolution

The migration of learning sourcing to nonhuman channels has been a historically swift process. The first real online course offerings began barely 30 years ago, while the printing press from the fourth generation of learning transfer was 400 years ago.

When Buckminster Fuller created the construct of knowledge doubling, he thought it would happen every century. After World War II, knowledge doubling increased to every 25 years, and recently IBM said it is likely to double every 12 hours. Even Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Marie Curie would find it impossible to keep up with this scale of data input. Something had to change, and the road map exists for designers to take a cue from the generations of learning transfer and design for digital—even in classroom settings.

Our eighth-generation learning world relies on digital data to stay current. Twitter, Facebook Messenger, TikTok, Instagram, and any of a thousand other apps allow for instant dispersion of information. When channeled into a learning environment and managed for accuracy, that data is worth its weight in Bitcoin. No longer do courses and programs need to rely on stale legacy data from 30 minutes ago. While not all content requires such a level of immediate data, all content can prosper with the optimization of digital learning transfer.

Examples of content that will thrive on this data are financial, legal, meteorological, astronomical, and anything driven by constantly changing information landscapes. A student taking a course on seafaring can enter a simulator in Baltimore, Maryland, and navigate the Suez Canal with both real-time weather and ship traffic data appearing on the screens. The new Microsoft Flight Simulator X has options for integrating current air traffic and weather data for real-time practice of piloting your Cessna Citation X+ to the Bahamas. Now, take that same opportunity and apply it to every course that has variable data scenarios. Learning in the eighth generation is about digital immediacy and accuracy.

Design implications

For instructional designers, the digital eighth generation can be a scary place to design curriculum. Classroom courses are difficult enough to design well, and now we have to navigate the digital tsunami and how to best channel it into usable chunks that best fit our content and population. Believe it or not, in some ways designing with digital is less complicated than designing for analog scenarios.

Courses that are set in stone and delivered in the classroom are always subject to the phenomenon I term as half-life. Or, how long is the information in a course accurate, and at what point does it become necessary to redesign a course with either new information and materials or even a new textbook? In digital, this is a considerably less-challenging issue. Half-life is now something that is only dependent on a designer’s data source and accuracy, both of which are also issues with legacy course design products—modifying them is expensive and resource intensive.

Let’s say I have been tasked with designing a course in the content area of emergency management. A large organization wants to offer courses in disaster response as it relates to chemical spills. It wants state-of-the-art scenarios that require learners to make decisions based on all the data available to them as a first responder. While I could design a nice course using stored data that is tailored to different planned scenarios, why not use real-time digital data from the National Weather Service, local police, and fire dispatchers?

My courses will have learners receiving a report of a possible chemical spill at a specific location. They will then have access to the latest weather data, including wind direction and speed, barometer, and humidity for that location. They will also receive data on hazmat and fire crews’ availability and expected dispatch and response times to the scene. Law enforcement data will include units available to secure the scene, regulate access, and enact any necessary evacuations.

Now the course has gone from a canned scenario to a virtual fact-based scenario with exactly the same information the learner would be receiving if the situation were, in fact, happening right now.

You are probably saying that digital learning technologies and approaches are not really linked to a generation of learning transfer, so why try to make the connection? The surprising answer is that defining and designating points of demarcation in learning transfer by significant points of transition provides the operational space to identify where instructional design can pace and stay current with the most recent advances in learning. There are still active learning moments in each of the eight generations of learning transfer, but we don’t have the luxury of being able to design in legacy approaches with new generations of learners. That is based on the TEP, or technological entry point, principle.

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Technological entry point

The best way to discuss the absolute requirement that learning stay current with learners is a construct I call a learner’s TEP. It is the point at which a technology has always been available to a learner and they can’t remember not being without it. For some learners, that means smartphones and social media; for others it is analog television.

That is important to note because learners using a known technology is different from a learner adjusting to a new technology. So, for our purposes, designing courses for high school students can include eighth-generation digital learning approaches in a way that is seamless to a learner. For learners who have a TEP in the fifth, sixth, or seventh generation, who are now moving to digital, I need to design in a more complicated approach that includes a way to ensure that the technology doesn’t become a hinderance to content mastery.

To think of it another way, each future generation of learning transfer will of necessity designate the previous generation of learners as legacy in terms of their TEP. While none of us can be sure what the ninth generation will bring, there is no doubt that it is just ahead of us. We may see learning transferred by a means other than visual or auditory and witness the end of classrooms as we now know them. Or we may see a new, totally unforeseen method of transferring learning, like some variation of Elon Musk’s Neuralink. The key for the instructional design community is to be ready and embrace whatever is next.

Recognizing TEP as a critical design consideration goes a long way toward building an instructional design philosophy that isn’t surprised by what comes next and merely defines the key elements of the new learning opportunities as they relate to implementation and mastery. We may find that school becomes a construct that reflects any learning that takes place and not our present designation of brick-and-mortar or online learning artifacts. The new practical definition of a school may be a wireless interface that bears no resemblance to a classroom or even a computer.

As we look at the generations of learning transfer, we must include the role of a learner’s TEP and then ensure that each trailing generation is able to catch up and keep up with the most efficient learning approaches.

The generations of learning transfer construct provides the groundwork for staying current while also honoring the past. If we have learned anything lately, it is that instructional design can never rest on any foundation for long. The world of design and learning transfer is constantly moving forward, and the only options for us are to either stay put or accept the roller coaster that lies just around the next bend.

Now what?

I challenge all instructional designers to think about what is next, prepare for it, and be ready to accept the fact that each generation is likely to have a new TEP. We can’t sit idly behind and design instruction that is out of sync with what may work best with each new generation of learners. We must be open to new ideas, technology, and even learning transfer that is not within our personal comfort level—either because of TEP or a reluctance to embrace something new.

As you design new courses, ask yourself:

  • What is the range of TEP in my learner population?

  • Does a mixed population of seventh- and eighth-generation TEP learners affect my implementation choices?
  • For implementation, have I considered all the most recent changes in digital learning transfer?

If you find a wide range of TEP in your learner population, determine the most common point of resonance or be prepared to include some form of remediation and mentoring in your course design plan. And always scan the digital horizon and determine what is working best in each implementation scenario within each population.

Learning transfer and each generation of changes to the process of designing curriculum provide keys for how to best design for the endless variables of population, content, and implementation options. Consideration of TEP and generational shifts in learning transfer presents an additional opportunity for clarity on how best to design. The most productive way to think about this as instructional designers is to accept that our world is always changing and that learners are always changing with it. Analyze, adapt, and design accordingly.

About the Author

Chuck Hodell has been writing, practicing, and teaching instructional systems design for many years. His books and articles have earned him the title of "The Man Who Wrote the Book on ISD." His bestselling four editions of ISD From the Ground Up and his SMEs From the Ground Up books are used internationally both in academic settings and in the practice of instructional design. He is also the author of many ATD Infolines, TD magazine articles, Best on ISD and is an ASTD Handbook contributor. He has appeared in ATD videos and participated in numerous online and ATD international conferences, including teaching preconference programs in ISD.
Hodell has designed thousands of training programs for the White House, major corporations, nonprofits, numerous apprenticeship programs as well as assisting clients in Egypt, Africa, Europe, and other locations around the world.
He presently serves as affiliate professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy and associate director and faculty of the Learning and Performance Technology master's program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Hodell served as deputy provost at the National Labor College and has held faculty positions at Antioch University and other institutions. He presently serves as the academic advisor for the Instructor Certification Program at the International Masonry Training and Education Foundation.
Hodell holds a PhD in language, literacy and culture from UMBC, a master’s degree in ISD from UMBC, and an undergraduate degree from Antioch University.

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