Allison Rossett—author, professor, consultant—talks to ASTD about the similarities and differences between higher ed and corporate e-learning, her growing intrigue with knowledge management and wikis, and the coming convergence of work and learning.
RE: As someone who works in both the higher ed and corporate realms, do you see similarities/differences in how they approach and deploy e-learning? If there are differences, what do you think is the driving force? Does one group seem more innovative?
AR: This is a tough question, not because I haven’t thought about it, but because it’s hard to generalize. Companies and universities aren’t any one thing. IBM and Wal-Mart are distinct; SDSU, University of Chicago and Maricopa Community College are different in purposes, audiences, and means.
Corporations and institutions of higher learning are, I believe, more similar than they are different. In most circumstances, both are attracted to e-learning to enhance quality. They are keen on reach, individualization, assessment, blends, knowledge bases, and online communities. And both are intrigued by--and perhaps a tad overly optimistic about--the potential for individuals to become more self-reliant about their learning and careers.
Companies and universities seek to use technology to add authenticity to learning experiences. Both entities are intense about problem-based learning, cases, and scenarios. Sales people across the globe can go online and test their mettle with prospects. Then they can watch how an expert sales rep would have handled the prospect. Accounting students can examine spread sheets, ponder implications, and write a report. Then they can compare their effort to experts’ efforts, using a checklist to understand why their reports are excellent. History students can use fabulous resources available from the Library of Congress. The possibilities are endless.
Another similarity is an ongoing struggle with instructors. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about an automotive company, the government, or a university, instructors and experts are moving in halting fashion to take advantage of technology. There are exceptions, of course, but many experts, on campus and in companies, cling to their content, hang on to the podium. A 2004 University of Pennsylvania study, interestingly dubbed The Thwarted Innovation, described e-learning in higher education this way, "…only higher education’s bureaucratic processes have proved more immutable to fundamental change. Even when they use e-learning products and devices, most faculty still teach as they were taught—that is, they stand in the front of a classroom providing lectures intended to supply the basic knowledge the students need."
Why is reform thwarted? Each professor is an island. Some have done and will do incredible things with technology; many will do just as they wish, which often means doing what they have done for decades.
Less so their administrators. As a recent Sloan Consortium study reported, university executives are positive about online education, and the bigger the institution, the more optimistic they are about the potential. Executives in corporations have often been first to e-learning, with purchases of e-learning course libraries and LMS. University administrators have written checks for Blackboard and WebCT.
Affecting universities and companies is the increasing agency of motivated individual students and employees. In Scotland, for example, engineers who grew impatient waiting for their organizations and government to fund access to Microsoft and Cisco certifications reached beyond their borders and met those needs on their own. This is happening on campuses too, where an exotic topic, language, or expert can be accessed online. More than 100 professionals are now studying online in instructional design and technology at SDSU. Teacher training, which on the surface appears place bound, is now available online from organizations like CalState TEACH and Teachscape. Learning enterprises on campuses and in companies are now confronted by online options that make location virtually irrelevant.
This brings me to some differences.
Most interesting is who gets to decide. While line organizations, learning units, and subject matter experts in companies will weigh in, in most cases, corporate executives will make decisions about the move to e-learning. In universities, the chain of command does not command. No administrator can mandate a shift to e-learning. They’ll encourage and cajole. That assures a posture towards e-learning that can be characterized as diverse.
Corporations are expected to be riveted by the bottom line. Because of that, they tout scale, repurposibility of assets, and differentiated staffing. Most universities, on the other hand, are less comfortable with the dollars and cents of e-learning. They eschew commercialism, focusing instead on experiences and outcomes for students and the generation of research (see David Noble’s positions). While keen on increased access, institutions of higher education tend to resist rethinking the contributions of professors, no matter the cost savings. Of course, there’s little cost saving to be savored during planning and development.
Corporations look to technology to change the business model. They ask: How can we keep employees on the job, not in the classroom? How can expertise be spread and updated? How can knowledge be infused into work? How can we sell classroom buildings and simultaneously strengthen human capital? Universities, on the other hand, are reticent about questioning their model. They are more likely to ask: How can we use technology to bring examples into the classroom? How can we add a threaded discussion to a class? How can we introduce a distant expert into a campus course? While many university leaders are aware of broad strategic possibilities, most keep the peace and embrace additive possibilities. Corporations are more willing to supplant current training and development efforts.
RE: I see on your website that you’re looking into KM. How do you define knowledge management? How can the training/e-learning function contribute to KM initiatives?
AR: KM is two things to me: stuff (knowledge bases chock full of information about products or recipes or spreadsheets) and stir (opportunities to communicate and work together via threaded discussions, listservs, wikis, and so forth.).
I subscribe to what I call a "big tent view of e-learning," in which e-learning is much more than learning modules pasted online, and extends to KM experiences and resources.
RE: Can you describe this "big tent" in more detail?
AR: First, there’s learning. Here individuals learn something by heart to which they can refer when they need it, unaided. An example is a sales person who can compare the company’s product to their competitor’s product—and with fluency and conviction.
Next, there is information support and coaching. While learning is directed at enhancing individual capacity, information support and coaching focuses on building an external resource into which the individual dips at the moment of need. For example, perhaps you don't want to rely on your memory or elect to invest in memorizing the information. Or, perhaps it's so critical that you don't dare make a false move. When these circumstances occur, the topics become candidates for online help systems, technology-based coaching, or a nifty online knowledge base or decision-suport tool.
Now add knowledge management. When information grows into a full-blown system that reaches out to capture, organize, and stir organizational brainpower, knowledge management (KM) is happening. KM is an attempt to maximize the "smarts" that exist within people and organizations. What does a great proposal look like? What makes it great? What do writers think about as they produce such proposals? What about the budget people? The customers? How can teams communicate as they produce compelling proposals?
Also add interaction and collaboration. Even though classroom instruction is often remembered for its interactive moments, technology too can be used to engage, stir, and foment. It can bring people together for many purposes, such as one-to-one development and coaching, online communities of practice, pre- and post-class listservs and threaded discussions, and individual engagement with complex simulations and examples.
Finally, the "big tent" includes guidance and tracking. Basically, new technology enables more and better guidance, assessment, tracking, and information. Systems can guide individuals towards critical skills and assets to meet their needs. Managers can enjoy a better view of employee skills and knowledge. Executives too can capture a view of organizational skills and needs.
In a nutshell, as you see in my big tent view, I think KM and e-learning are identified. A few years back, Jill Funderburg Donello and I developed a website that looks at that fertile nexus between training and knowledge management.
RE: Are there any trends (other than KM) that you’re paying particular attention to? Simulations? Analytics? Etc.?
AR: I’m intrigued with wikis today. While there are many definitions for wikis, let me give you the one I’ve come to, after using wikis in a new course. A wiki is an opportunity for collaborative content development of an online asset. Sure, you can do that with HTML, but what’s nifty with wikis is that you can do it on-the-fly, immediately, as a group, with little fuss and bother.
Let me provide an example. In February 2005, I taught an experimental one-unit course at San Diego State. The course was about the juncture between learning, technology, and business.
Obviously, there was no one right answer to be taught in this short course. The purpose of the course was to look at publishing, higher education, and government as examples, and to note changes because of the fertile possibilities emerging from learning, technology, and business. I was thus just as interested in our process as I was in their and our outcomes. Please visit the LearnBiz Wiki.
What you’ll see there is our class product. After some up-front work by grad students Thien Huynh and Karl Richter, we interviewed experts (for example, Kevin Oakes from SumTotal Systems, Bob Mosher from Microsoft, Sara Beers from Fidelity Investments, Tony O’Driscoll from IBM) and built online entries together. As I queried and typed, students all over the room were adding live links, tightening up my syntax, perfecting the entry. Over the course of the week, students, in pairs, focused on vertical markets and created their own contributions, enriched by further readings and conversations.
The wiki served as a structure for our discovery process, a guidance system for students, a container for our findings, and now, a budding asset for others who share interest in the topic.
And if anyone wants to comment on the topic or add to the online asset, it’s as easy as pie. You just sign in, read, and create. See the wiki for resources about wikis, and of course, about learning, technology, and business.
RE: Our readers have told us that they aren’t seeing much innovation—that the e-learning market seems in a lull. Do you see that happening? Have you seen any unusual applications recently to dispel that idea?
AR: Mobile. Mobile. Mobile. I’ve had my hesitations, but I’m beginning to see some glimmers that convince me of the tasty possibilities.
RE: In your opinion what’s the untapped potential of e-learning?
AR: The greatest potential I see is the convergence of learning and work, where we no longer fret about transfer of training because learning and work are one. Coast Guard officer Erica Mohr and I wrote about that in the February 2004 issue of T+D. Our piece is chock full of examples; here’s a snippet:
Dan Hardin, a commercial fishing vessel safety coordinator, also with the Coast Guard, saw an opportunity to use a PDA (personal digital assistant) to reduce the cognitive effort involved in completing inspections on fishing vessels. Prior to the PDA solution, boarding officers were required to attend a one-week course on the intricacies of enforcing hundreds of pages of federal regulations for fishing vessel safety. The complex laws applied to many boats and situations, and sometimes resulted in inconsistent or inaccurate choices by boarding officers.
Hardin built a PDA performance support tool to eliminate the task of memorizing how the laws applied to each distinct fishing vessel. His solution presents a series of questions about the vessel: length, number of personnel on board, type of vessel, type of engine, and so forth.
Based on answers to 16 questions, the PDA generates a customized checklist of safety requirements for firefighting, lifesaving, and bridge equipment appropriate to each vessel. As boarding officers click on each requirement shown in figure 2, the PDA displays detailed specifications. Officers then check off whether items are found to be satisfactory or in violation of federal law. Instead of laboring to determine whether the law requires this particular ship to carry one of three different types of life rafts, an inflatable buoyant apparatus, life float, or nothing at all, boarding officers, with PDAs in hand, now spend their energy on, for example, inspecting life rafts to ensure that they’re properly set up to release should the ship sink.
Note the convergence of convergence and mobile devices. People no longer leave work to go to training. The training/support comes to them or travels with them.
RE: What’s your vision for e-learning and training for the next five years?
AR: More convergence. More measurement. More widespread. More access.
RE: Finally, how do you learn and stay abreast of emerging trends?
AR: I’m fortunate. I have graduate students who come into my office and say, "Wikis. They are the answer." I say, "What’s the question?" That usually slows them down a bit. Eventually, they come back with a robust case and examples. Then I can take it, mess with it, and try to make it my own by applying it to something I think is important, such as the new short course I described earlier.
I am also blessed by clients who ask hard questions and then provide funds to look into those questions. One wants great examples of blends and what contributes to success and failure. Another wants a tool to support sales staff in performance analysis. Another asks if training will assure retention of knowledge workers. What does the literature say? What about best practice? In all these cases, I get to study, read, chew, measure, create and learn, as we endeavor to add value.