ELearning Market Update – May 2012

Yesterday once more or a radical future?

What does the future of elearning hold? An increase in blended learning? Resources not courses? An increase in social learning? Greater mobile delivery? Faster creation of content? Arguably these are all ideas that have been around for many years and which are simply being delivered through advances in technology. This month we look at how these advances might radically change our thinking about elearning. For example, in ten years will all elearning scripts be written by computer algorithms rather than instructional designers?

Yesterday once more?

In 1973 the Carpenters released ‘Yesterday Once More’, which became their biggest selling single. The song included the lines:

Those were such happy times
And not so long ago
How I wondered where they'd gone
But they're back again

In some ways these words could apply to elearning as old ideas take new shape with advances in technology. For example, in 2007 at Kineo we published an Insight Guide, updated in 2010, which argued that learning designers should:

  • “think resources, not courses”
  • "tell stories” and get staff to share stories using audio and video
  • Use “realistic goal based scenarios” with coaching and support
  • Support learners with “community and social networking features”

We would not lay claim to the originality of these ideas, any more than we would claim we first thought of mobile learning or rapid content development. These core ideas have been around for many years, but they have been given a new lease of life recently by developments in technology. For example, the idea of supporting learners through community and social networks has been considered good practice for many years. It was advances in social networking technology that allowed community based support to take many new and exciting forms such as:

  • Learner uploading of content, sharing, commenting and rating of content
  • Twitter-style personal learning networks

Back in 2007 when we wrote our insight paper, Facebook and Twitter were still in their infancy and the first iPhone was about to be launched. The subsequent developments in social networking and smartphones have enabled elearning to develop and to provide a richer range of learning experiences. However, it is also possible to argue that these developments are evolutionary and simply enabling old ideas to be made real through technology. Are there more radical changes ahead?

A radical future?

In the decade ahead, advances in science and technology may open up fundamental and radical changes. Let us look at just two areas.

The first is script writing. Whilst new authoring tools have reduced the cost and time involved in building elearning projects they have had little impact on the largest cost of elearning projects, namely the time of instructional designers in understanding, designing and writing content. This may be about to change.

Narrative Science is a Chicago based company that trains computers to write news stories. Their software already writes news stories automatically for companies such as Forbes. Their CTO Kristian Hammond predicts more than 90 per cent of all news will be written by computers in 15 years' time. Hammond led the Artificial Intelligence lab at the University of Chicago before moving to Northwestern University. At Northwestern he got students to develop systems that could transform data into stories. One of the prototypes, Stats Monkey, analysed data and created credible accounts of college baseball games. Excited by the potential, Narrative Science was formed and the company created algorithms, which already generate thousands of news stories primarily in sports and finance.

The writing engine has a number of steps: first it requires a lot of quality data; then it needs a structure or framework for the articles; finally, you can apply a tone of voice you would like the article to have.

Whilst there are still some limitations, we expect to see a huge growth in computer written stories and the algorithms will improve all the time. If it works for news, why not elearning? Could we see new product knowledge elearning being written directly by a computer following a framework or set of rules, or scenarios being automatically written by computers given key information. The latter would be very appropriate as Hammond was heavily influenced as an undergraduate by Roger Schank, who has been a prime advocate of scenario-based learning.

You can read a more detailed article about Narrative Science in Wired Magazine.

There are many other advances in technology that could be applied to elearning and performance support. For example, if you use Gmail, Google currently reads your mail and places appropriate adverts alongside your emails. Why not use this technology for performance support? Thus, if the content in your emails is about a new product or regulation, you could place alongside the email information and links to relevant short learning modules. You would not need to go to a separate site to find the learning as the computer will see what you are reading, listening to or writing and instantly push relevant learning to you.

We don’t have a crystal ball, but we believe that the future of elearning will go beyond implementing old ideas with new technology. The changes may be very radical and surprising.

If you've got a view on the future of elearning, let us know in our ELearning Professionals Group on LinkedIn.

By Steve Rayson