Chairman's Corner

Chairman’s Corner: November 2013

November 12, 2013

E- Learning

by Mario Morino, Co-founder of VPP

Like many, I’ve been struck in recent years by the lightning advance of E-learning, especially in K-12 and higher education. Factoring in the hyped promises and overzealous predictions that often accompany these advances, my instincts still say that the evolving tools of E-learning could hold tremendous potential for the social sector as a whole—from helping to address our acute need for developing talent to improving program and service delivery.

So over the past year my colleague Katie Paris and I have been reaching out to experts in E-learning, including education thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists. It quickly became obvious that we needed to learn a lot more about the state of E-learning itself before we could attempt to figure out its potential for the social sector.

By early 2014, we plan to publish a detailed position paper about how E-learning could become a change agent for leaders and managers in all sectors. We’re currently vetting a preliminary version with experts who have graciously shared their experience and insights. We also plan to write a companion paper focused on how social sector leaders—especially those who seek to build great organizations based on a culture of performance and commitment to excellence—could apply E-learning for talent development and program improvement.

We’ll use this brief space to give you a sneak peek into what we’ve learned.

Takeaway #1: It’s Not Just for Education Anymore
First and foremost, we came away convinced of the potential E-learning offers well beyond K-12 and higher education. E-learning is one of a series of key technological advances that are rapidly altering the way we transfer and access knowledge in all aspects of life, and, in turn, how we learn and continuously adapt how we learn. Through this lens, a vivid picture emerges of the potential impact E-learning could have on how individuals, organizations, and networks operate and interact—individual-to-individual, individual and organization, and organization-to-organization.

Takeaway #2: Just-in-Time Learning is Just About Here
Over the next ten years, we will see the realization of “just-in-time learning” in a number of areas—being able to learn at the precise point of relevance, anytime, anywhere, rapidly accessed, inexpensively, and in a manner friendly to use.

Today you can look up a YouTube video on how to change a tire from your smartphone when you have a flat on the Interstate, for free, in seconds. You can find a recipe for a gluten-free version of the meal you were planning the moment you discover a dinner guest’s dietary limitations. These kinds of just-in-time resources, which can range from simple to highly complex, have huge implications for training and learning in the workplace and even for how the delivery of services itself may change.

When relevant content is quickly and cheaply available, we use it. Ease of use and speed tap latent demand, which leads to increased productivity. In the same way you look up a restaurant on Yelp or a movie on Fandango, imagine a case worker, nurse, teacher, police officer, or anyone else looking up a tailored resource for dealing with a specific issue at the moment of need, day or night.

Takeaway #3: Competency > Credit Hours
Over the next few years, we will see many more employers move away from an exclusive focus on “seat time” and credit hours for determining whether candidates are qualified for positions. Employers will give increasing weight to competency-based assessment and certification. As Inside Higher Ed reports, competency-based programs are “typically online and allow students to … earn credit by successfully completing assessments that prove their mastery in predetermined competencies or tasks.”

Companies like Microsoft or Google, which often assess new talent based on proficiencies rather than degrees, are showing what’s possible. As Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, mused, “Walk into Microsoft or Google with evidence that you’re a brilliant hacker, and the job interviewer is not going to fret if you lack a college transcript.” Meanwhile, other companies and government agencies have their own online universities to instill the institutional values and specific skills that their jobs require, whether handling a difficult customer at a Jiffy Lube service center (see “A Day in the Life of a Store Manager” simulation at Jiffy Lube University) or developing performance requirements for service acquisitions at Defense Acquisition University.

Imagine certifications tailored to specific competencies, values, and skillsets necessary for youth case managers or people working in child care centers. These certifications could help result in a workforce more supported, prepared, and equipped to meet the complicated and varied needs of the constituencies they serve.

Five Ways to Get Started
If these ideas have relevance for your mission, here are some ideas for experimenting with E-learning.

  1. Start Small, Stay Focused: As one thought leader put it, “Learn a little, try it and experience it, reflect on what you observed, and cement the learning for real-world application…. Focused E-learning in specific areas is likely to be a better solution for busy leaders who are both flying the plane and learning to fly at the same time.”
  2. Designate a “Learning Concierge”: Consider charging someone with a professional development and staff training background with the responsibility of becoming expert in videos, online courses, games, simulations, apps, and other online educational content relevant to the needs of your organization. The key is to develop an expertise not in the content itself but in how to navigate, search, and find relevant content to tailor for others in your organization. While the landscape of learning opportunities is becoming somewhat more navigable, award-winning social learning expert Jane Hart explains that the “learning concierge” provides “personal advice directly to workers on how they can address their own workplace learning and performance problems in the way that works best for them.”
  3. Use More Video: We can do a lot with video with smartphones, iPads, and other mobile devices. But consider investing in a decent video camera and webcam (learning guru Elliott Masie recommends this one), as well as developing video editing skills (Photoshop for Video, free video editing software, or other) for you and your staff. Use video not only for your communications, but also how you capture knowledge. Footage you shoot now—from webinars, trainings, Skype sessions, Adobe Connect working group sessions, etc.—can be used later to create videos that convey operational procedures, provide explanations, and serve as “how-to” guides. Get it now, even if you’re not sure how you will use it later.
  4. Realize the Power of Remixable Content: Once you are in the habit of capturing the knowledge you create, consider the power of remixing it with other rich content openly available on the Internet. Just as people use iTunes or Pandora to create their favorite playlists, we’ll see learners remix various course modules to create their favorite “learning lists.” With video editing capabilities on hand, you can create (and update), the highly customized content your organization needs to continuously improve staff skills and the services they deliver.
  5. Learn from the “Youngsters”: Bring students and young people into your workplace as technology guides and teachers. We’ve seen major advances in technology that when aggregated make for a different world. Just the advances over the past half decade in cloud computing, social media, search, video, smartphones, and tablets/iPads have fundamentally reshaped how we function. Younger Millennials possess creative, integrative mindsets that can help the rest of us see what’s possible. We have a young colleague who is teaching us new ways to build websites, a young digital graphics designer showing us new ways to visualize information, and even my kids are teaching this old dog new tricks. Hell, it’s gotten to the point that my own son refers to me, a guy who wrote software for a living, as a “digital dinosaur.”

While the media has widely reported how E-learning is bringing creative disruption to our education sector, that’s just the beginning. It will fundamentally change the way we deliver, process, and transfer knowledge across all sectors of our economy, far beyond the confines of the formal education field. We in the social sector would be wise to start asking sooner rather than later: How can E-learning help us learn and adapt? How can it help us better meet the needs of those we’ve dedicated our lives to serving?