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Will digital learning be the new reality?

30 October 2015

Will digital learning be the new reality?

Digital or online learning has become a “buzzword” and a trend which most businesses have started to (try to) adopt. Digital learning appears to be “the perfect match” to our digital work life. However, we’ve asked ourselves: Is it really that simple? And if not, where is the catch?
A long time ago, universities began to take advantage of the potential and flexibility that digital learning offers (for example, through MOOCs short for massive open online courses), and the business world has enthusiastically joined the crowd. Learning and teaching have been moving away from the traditional classroom and into the digital and virtual world at an increasing pace and scale.

We have just finished a project, evaluating the needs and designing the business architecture for a digital learning platform for the public sector in Norway. In this paper, we wish to share some thoughts and insights about the development and potential of digital learning and knowledge sharing.

In our experience, the expression “digital learning” is often used synonymously for “eLearning courses”, however, we have applied a much broader definition here. By digital learning, we mean all types of digital learning objects and digitalized learning experience; which could be videos, simulations, digital books, virtual classrooms, and so on – including, of course, elearning courses.

Factors driving the digitalization of learning are: increased efficiency, focus on competence management, in addition to customisation at the individual level.

We can certainly agree that:

  • Time is a scarce resource. A five-day classroom course rarely fits our busy time schedules. Education is often not made a priority, especially when it is seen as irrelevant or just takes up too much of our time.
  • Traditional classroom teaching is expensive with regards to both time and money.
  • Most of us must manage an ever-increasing complexity of our work life, regarding technology, laws, regulations, processes and routines. This applies to the public sector in Norway, as well as in our workplace. The amount of information and the pace of change we must handle are greater than ever, and proficiency must be updated faster and more frequently.
  • Let’s not forget the ambition and need of the individual human being, to develop and strengthen his or her skills. Most of today’s employees expect their employer to facilitate and encourage skills development. This demand of “sustaining the individual learning curve” increases expectations on management for structured and managed competence development in companies, and many businesses have displayed this through its HR processes as well as competence and talent management strategy.

Always available

Digital technology gives us the possibility to tackle challenges in a new way. Digitalization has been (and continues to be) a catalyst for improvement within several areas, and has lately also had its entry into the area of teaching and competence development.

Through digital technology, learning can be divided into small, simple chunks, which can be consumed quickly and completely independent of time or place. It is flexible and adapts to the individual’s pace of learning. Commuting and travel time are no longer required. Thus, digital learning is highly time and cost effective. Learning for you and me suddenly becomes available everywhere around the clock – given we have access to a pc, smartphone or tablet and the internet.

Digital learning would seem to be a perfect match to our digital work day: the rapid pace in technological development and our continuous pursuit of the steep learning curve. It is flexible, adaptable, fresh and modern and provides us with 24/7 accessibility – when and where it suits me.

So….Why are we not replacing all traditional learning with the new digital version?

The dream to “make all business learning digital” is a bit like the dream of the paperless office (as the former CEO of Siemens AG, Heinrich von Pierer, put it) : “Just as unlikely as a paperless toilet!”

Just a small portion of learning happens through formal courses.

Research reveals that learning in businesses often happens through a “70-20-10”  mix of learning arenas:

  • 70 % of (successful) learning and competence development happens “on-the-job” : [Perhaps this is the reason why many businesses historically have operated with apprentice- and internships?)
  • 20 % og learning comes from colleagues who, for example, might be a mentor or leader. (Indeed, human-to-human exchange of experience is important!)
  • Only about 10 % of skills development happens through formal training/reading.

Concluding, a surprisingly small part of learning happens through formal training or in “controlled learning environments”. The largest part of learning, however, occurs through both people interaction and “learning by doing”.

We all have different ways of learning

Yet, people typically speak of formal training when discussing digital versus traditional training; however, this comprises only 10 % of what constitutes learning in a business. These 10 % often receive the highest attention in business strategies. It is also within formal learning that the biggest shift to digital learning has happened: classroom training has been transformed to eLearning, webinars or virtual classrooms.

Depending on the business culture of an organisation, eLearning, webinar and/or virtual classrooms can work just as well as (and perhaps even better) than traditional classroom teaching. Nevertheless, we do not suggest falling for the “naïve” belief that “digital learning is the solution to all our competence problems”, nor to underestimate the effect of learning when gathering employees together in workshops or working meetings.

Additionally, as learners, we are all quite different and have different methods of learning. Just because I myself learn best by reading things, doesn’t mean that my colleague’s brain works in the same way. In fact, she learns best by actively doing things. The same principle applies to digital learning, and it will probably not achieve the same results for all your employees.

So… for the most part, we can probably replace traditional learning with digital learning when it comes to formal development of skills.

But… What about digital learning for the other 90 % ? Can we digitalise all learning that occurs as a result of human interaction and as a result of us doing our job?
Hardly. However, having said that, digital learning can be so much more than eLearning courses, and there is great potential that digital technology can support and prepare learning within these two scenarios as well.

Learning “through people” and “on the job” can probably not be digitalised, but facilitated and improved by using digital technology.

We have to understand the concept

We believe that successful use of digital learning begins with taking into account the importance of “on the job” learning and learning through colleagues to enhance co-workers’ skills development, and the 70-20-10 framework can help here. Only when one has understood this concept and its implications, we can start to focus on and define how employees can achieve better and greater learning on the job and through interaction between colleagues; and then, how digital technology can support your strategy, goals and actions.

Here are some examples:

  • Can digital learning play a role in “on-the-job” learning?
    In many professions, digital learning has already replaced a portion of traditional “on-the-job” learning. Consider, for example, a fly simulator or customised video games, so-called “serious games” , which are used for training military or medical students. Gamification  is one of the trends which have emerged these last years, where technology is used to engage people to learn through play or by using elements from video games in corporate training, in order to trigger our inner motivation. Imagine how many more opportunities are available if we just think outside the box…?
  • Can digital learning support the exchange of experience between colleagues?
    Yes. Imagine, for example, situations where colleagues are located in different geographical regions. Here, digital technology can be used to facilitate contact and interaction between colleagues. Imagine video conferencing, chat, digital whiteboards or other tools for interaction.

We hope that this blog post provokes as well as inspires, and we hope to receive your feedback, ideas and suggestions! Together we can rethink the future of learning.

Andrea Kümmerle works as a business consultant at Sopra Steria. She has many years of experience with project management, needs analysis, process development, training and competence management. During the past years, she has worked with learning platforms and authoring tools. Andrea is passionate about how digital technology can support learning and competence development in businesses in a good and effective way.

Vidar Degrum works as a business consultant at Sopra Steria. He has wide-ranging experience from both private and public sectors, both in operational service delivery as well as strategic consulting. He combines an economic education with practical experience from a wide range of roles within ICT; operations, management, project management, internal audit and consulting.

Stefano Ciccarelli is an experienced consultant and business architect with a broad background and experience from many areas at the crossroads between business and IT. He works with digital strategy, business architecture and IT governance.

[1] Zitat Heinrich von Pierer: «Ein papierloses Büro wird es genauso wenig geben, wie ein papierloses Klo!» freely translated to: “The paperless office is just as unlikely as a paperless toilet!”
[2] 70-20-10 model for learning
[3] Proverb about learning
[4] [no information given]

  1. Richard Liddington

    Whether "digital learning" is new, a trend or a buzzword is questionable. However, having worked in the development and implementation of technology based learning solutions (not just eLearning!) for nearly 10 years starting back in 2004, the successful implementation and adoption of these type of solutions is highly dependent upon the target audience and the materials being delivered. For example, delivery of mandatory / compliance training can be highly effective using eLearning as it can be pushed to learners automatically and tracked for completion. I agree wholeheartedly that we are all different and different learning styles suit different people with differing results. Interesting (old) article from Marc Prensky back in 2001 on digital natives vs. digital immigrants is well worth a read. Personally, I feel that where digital meets traditional is more blended learning - ensuring that each interaction, whether human or technology, adds value to the learners experience. And then, there's always measuring the ROI ... has the learning changed the behaviour of individual? Are you getting value for money for your investment? To truly measure the effectiveness, this needs to be built in and thought about from the outset.

    • Andrea Kümmerle

      Thank you very much for your comment, Richard. I agree with you that the concept of using technology to enhance learning might not be completely new, but in my opnion it has received quite an uplift the past years with for example the creation of Moocs, and academia putting a strong focus and efforts into making learning virtual and accessible around the globe 24/7. Personally, I am a fan of blended learning. Traditional learning, in my opinion, is not all bad and outdated. When it comes to learning from each other and exchanging experience, I still think the old fashioned "gathering people together in a room" achieves the best results. What I think businesses need, is a well-thought-out learning strategy that encompasses both technology- and human-led learning, where both complement each other and are applied consciously to where they fit best (e.g. depending on target groups, learning situation, learning goal etc). I would like to hear more of your experience with technology based learning solutions - what has worked and what has not? Do you have any good examples on building in ROI measurement from the outset? ROI is undoubtedly very important, without it, it is difficult to argue the business case for learning investments. In my experience, however, it is often quite a nut to crack. It's not always easy to isolate the effects of different learning initiatives and track those over time...

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