E-Learning = Innovation = Science

Have you ever been to a conference where the presenter asks the audience, “Who’s implemented a mobile learning strategy?”, and only 2 or 3 people raise their hand?

Forgive me: it’s a rhetorical question. I know you have. Because everyone has.

Of course the question might not revolve around mobile learning, but rather gamification, or enterprise social networking, or flipped classrooms, or whatever the hot topic may be.

While a lot of talk is bandied around about e-learning, it’s evident that relatively few of us are actually doing it.

The e-learning panel at AITD2014

To help bridge the gap, I was honoured to moderate a panel session at last month’s AITD National Conference. I was even more honoured to share the stage with Helen Blunden, Matthew Guyan, Anne Bartlett-Bragg and Simon Crook.

The session was entitled E-Learning: Transforming Talk into Action, and the panellists were hand-picked from multiple sectors to share their insights and expertise with us. And that they did.

Simon explained how his science students are using their iPads in class to enrich their learning experience: “Engage me or enrage me”; Matt described his use of Articulate Storyline to develop online courses in-house; Helen shared her experience in using Yammer to cultivate a collaborative culture in a conservative corporate environment; while Anne dove head-first into MOOCs and ruffled a few feathers along the way.

Regardless of the specific technology or pedagogy discussed by the panellists, the overarching advice provided by each one was to give it a go and see what happens.

In other words, e-learning is innovation.

Graph

Now I realise that many of my peers will balk at this assertion. After all, e-learning is decades old, and today’s L&D pro’s are tech savvy and digitally invested.

So let’s take the “e” out of “e-learning” already – I’ve argued that myself in the past. However I put it to you that a great many among us still haven’t put the “e” into e-learning, let alone take it out again.

For these people, e-learning represents making changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products. And when you think about it, e-learning is that for the rest of us too – it’s just we’re more comfortable with it; or, in fact, excited by it.

For all of us then, viewing e-learning through the lens of innovation offers us a crucial advantage: it reframes failure.

You see, innovators don’t think of failure as most people do. Rather than see it as something to be ashamed of, avoided at all costs, and certainly not to be aired in public, innovators embrace failure, they actively seek it out – and most importantly of all, they learn from it.

They appreciate the fact that if you never try, you never know. A failure isn’t an error or a mistake, but a beautiful piece of intelligence that informs your next move.

The trick of course is to ensure that when you fail, you do so quickly and cheaply. You don’t want to bring the roof crashing down upon you, so protect yourself by taking baby steps. Pilot your innovation and if it doesn’t quite work, modify it and try again; if it tanks miserably, cut your losses and abandon it; but if it does work, scale it up, keep an eye on it, continue to modify it where necessary, and enjoy your “overnight success”.

Scientist

And still I wish to take this line of thinking further. Beyond innovation, e-learning is science.

My definition of science is “systematic knowledge”. If you want to obtain deep, scientific insight, get systematic.

Scientists frame failure in much the same way as innovators do. Again, rather than seeing it as something to be ashamed of, they see it simply as a result. It’s not good or bad, right or wrong. It just is.

The advantage of viewing e-learning through the lens of science is embedded in its methodology. Classic experimental design is based on two hypotheses: the null hypothesis, in which the treatment has no effect; and the alternative hypothesis, in which the treatment has an effect. By running an experiment, the scientist will either accept or reject the null hypothesis.

For example, suppose a scientist in a soda company is charged with testing whether honey-flavoured cola will be popular. He might set up two sample groups drawn from the target market: one group tastes the regular cola, the other group tastes the honey-flavoured cola, and both rate their satisfaction. After crunching the numbers, the scientist may find no significant difference between the colas – so he accepts the null hypothesis. Or he may find that the honey-flavoured cola tastes significantly better (or worse!) than the regular cola – so he rejects the null hypothesis. Whether the null hypothesis is accepted or rejected, it’s a useful result. The concept of failure is redundant.

The parallel with e-learning is readily apparent. Consider the teacher who allows her students to bring their mobile devices into class; or the trainer who delivers part of her program online; or the manager who sets up a team site on SharePoint; or the L&D consultant who supports a group of employees through a MOOC. In each case, the null hypothesis is that her new method, idea or product has no effect – on what? that depends on the context – while the alternative is that is has. Either way, the result informs her next move.

A baby taking a step forward

So my advice to anyone who has never raised their hand at a conference is that you don’t need to don a white coat and safety goggles to transform talk into action. Rather, change your mindset and take a baby step forward.

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20 Comments on “E-Learning = Innovation = Science”


  1. Excellent analogy Ryan and well expressed. The fear of failure is such a block for many. Framing it as an hypothesis removes any negative connotations. I should use that concept with my students

  2. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Cheers Rebekah!

  3. ElizabethR Says:

    Great post Ryan. I particularly like your call for action – to get out there, try something. Embrace and learn from failure as a ‘beautiful piece of intelligence’. Well said.

  4. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Cheers Elizabeth!

  5. cegosasiapacific Says:

    Great post and what a refreshing insight! Not all can be successful the very first time. It’s time we understand that and see failure as something to learn from.

  6. tanyalau Says:

    Love it Ryan. This has the flavour of my favourite strapline ever – Harold Jarche’s “life in perpetual beta”. One of the things I like about Harold’s line is that it ditches the term ‘failure’ (and all of its negative connotations) altogether. The conversation around failure IS changing slowly though – as it becomes increasingly tied to innovation in the form of ‘fast fail’. Still, I love the idea of ‘perpetual beta’, and all that it represents: continual experimentation, improvement, and the acknowledgement that perfection or completion is an impossible fallacy.

    The other thing I like about your post is the idea of looking at learning inititiaves as ‘science’ – evaluating outcomes and making adjustments in response. Good call – as often we don’t think beyond the ‘delivery’; the evaluation bit is definitely a massive opportunity for learning and improvement often missed.

    The only thing I didn’t quite get is your assertion that no-one is actually ‘doing’ elearning….is this really the case? (Clearly I’m one of those peers you refer to…balking at the assertion, not only that elearning is innovation, but that it’s not being done. I acknowledge that classroom is still dominant in many organisations though…is that what you mean?).

  7. Soozie Bea Says:

    :-D I was just about to use b-Learning for Blended Learning today, but thankfully stopped.

    Is lLearning Learning by Lecture?

    I don’t call using Twitter as sLearning or socLearning, or iLearning for Informal.

    We don’t say bLearning for using books.

    Now, it’s 1am and I needs some bSleeping – Sleeping using a Bed :-)

  8. Ryan Tracey Says:

    @ cegosasiapacific – Cheers!

    @ Tanya – Indeed, Harold’s “life in perpetual beta” is mindset changing. It represents everything you’ve described, and in so doing, lifts much of the weight off our shoulders.

    Thanks also for your comment about evaluation. IMHO this part of the process is woefully underdone in the corporate sector (and probably elsewhere too), but that could be because we think of it as one big “event” post “training”. Perhaps we need to embed micro-evaluations into the workflow?

    Please note that I do not assert that “no one” is doing e-learning; you and I are examples to the contrary. Rather “relatively few” of us are doing it. This is something I stand by as I see it time and time again through my interactions with my L&D peers. Even at a pure e-learning conference I attended recently, “e-learning” equated to online courses and not much else *in practice*.

    @ Soozie – LOL, I think you’d enjoy the A-Z Learning Game: http://wp.me/pf1R0-1pu – Seriously, though, I think the e prefix in e-learning is redundant… where the e is already embedded in the learning. I maintain that in many contexts it still isn’t, so the term “e-learning” remains a useful differentiator. I look forward to the day when it ceases to be!

  9. tanyalau Says:

    Soozie!! Hilarious! I read that this morning on the way to work and it was a nice start to the day ; ) I love bSleeping – I might just start using that and see if it catches on (you might wanna trademark that now before I start stealing and hawking it as my own:p)

    Ryan – thanks for clarifying. I take your point. when you’re doing it everyday as part of your role, I guess it’s easy to assume that it’s happening more than it is…and perhaps more is being ‘said’ about elearning than is being ‘done’ – and when it IS being ‘done’, it’s a very limited definition of elearning as online courses.

    I have no trouble believing that very little evaluation of learning interventions is being done, anywhere. Part of this I see as a failure to identify on relevant business measures (which admittedly for some things like soft skills and behaviours, can be a challenge)…and then the challenge of following up, collecting data etc after training.
    Micro-evaluations embedded in the workflow sounds like a very interesting and intriguing idea…I may just need to pick your brains on that one….! Certainly if we’re talking about informal embedded workplace learning and/or coaching/social, ‘evaluation’ may well be more like micro-self reflections or feedback on progress against performance objectives….interesting train of thought…

  10. belencasado Says:

    “In each case, the null hypothesis is that her new method, idea or product has no effect – on what?” This is the crux of the matter. Good article!

  11. akanksha Says:

    What a fantastic share! Innovation is certainly at the heart of impactful technology-aided learning. Here is a novel concept – a flipped classroom approach to corporate learning. This model has seen more success in the educational sector – but is now being recognized in the corporate as well.

  12. Ryan Tracey Says:

    @ belencasado – Cheers Belen!

    @ akanksha – Indeed, the flipped classroom is a good example of something that we should experiment with. I see powerful benefits to this approach.


  13. This is a very informative blog. I liked this.

  14. akanksha Says:

    Very informative article! We as developers need to innovate continually to make e-learning effective and impactful. Here are a few ways of including interactivity into e-courses to make them appeal better to the audiences – http://www.gc-solutions.net/blog/creating-interactivities-in-e-learning-10-ways-to-challenge-and-engage-your-learner/

  15. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Thanks for your support, Stephanie & akanksha.

  16. Vijayanand Says:

    Great post.It is very helpful.This blog shows the importance of E-Learning. Thanks Ryan

  17. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Thanks Vijayanand!

  18. Subrata Says:

    Great share, Ryan. This is pretty much what I’ve been trying to get across to many of my L&D colleagues, with mixed results so far. But you’ve hit the nail on the head – love this article.

  19. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Cheers Subrata.


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